8 June 2020
Ian Duncan Smith, the well-known architect of Universal Credit, said “Don’t bring in universal basic income during pandemic as it would be a ‘disincentive to work” (Independent, March 19th 2020). What world doe s this man live in? Well, to be fair he might be right in a way. Having enough money every week to cover the basic needs of life for yourself and your family might well remove the motivation to get up every morning to drag yourself to a miserable, badly paid, unappreciated and often useless job which serves only to make money for some rich business owner, but this doesn’t mean that once the danger of starvation and homelessness has been removed people would stop working altogether. Far from it. It depends on how you define ‘work’. It doesn’t take a lot of thought to realise that most of the things that keep us alive and functioning are done voluntarily anyway. Caring for our children, cooking meals, shopping, cleaning, putting out the rubbish, maintaining our gadgets and machines, answering emails, mowing the lawn, visiting grandma and so on are the things we do when we get home from ‘work’.
There are the actual voluntary jobs in addition to this daily labour – hundreds and thousands of them. In the last two weeks alone 670,000 people have volunteered to join a scheme to support the NHS. Charity volunteers, church workers, blood donors, political activists, and even life- risking emergency services such as the Royal National Lifeboat Institute, Blood bikers and Mountain Rescue. No one is forced or paid to do these things. This doesn’t include the thousands of people who provide ‘more than 35 hrs a week’ care to disabled and ill people on a pittance called ‘Carer’s Allowance’. According to IDS they are people who cannot therefore ‘work’.
Retired people continue to work for free. The government estimates that 63% of all grandparents with grandchildren under 16 voluntarily help out with childcare, allowing their adult children to go to work to make ends meet. They also lend their experience and skills to thousands of clubs, societies, and voluntary organisations through joining the committees and governing bodies necessary for such not-for-profit enterprises to function.
There are the many faith communities who are currently offering voluntary services which keep people alive through the provision of food e.g. The Trussell Trust and the Sikh Community with their food banks and free meals for homeless people. In fact, the faith communities are a form of additional social care for many, including, obviously, attending to people’s spiritual needs.
Then there are the students – children, young people and adults who ‘work’ to learn something valuable, not just for themselves, but to make them more competent, knowledgeable and skilled participants in the life of the community. School students do many hours of homework even after spending hours studying in classrooms and libraries. At the other end of life, the success of U3A, the University of the Third Age, is one example showing that an inner desire to keep learning new things never stops, even when it no longer is necessary for earning a living. Likewise, the explosion of free tutorials on You Tube from practitioners of every skill under the sun shows that teaching is also a natural desire – possibly as great a need as learning.
And what of paid work? 16.5% of the working population, a staggering 5.3 million people (2019) chose to work in public services such as schools, hospitals, the Fire Service, Police and Ambulance Drivers, social services, local Government, the civil service, the environment agency and so many more. This figure rises every year. Apart from a few well- paid managers, most staff in these jobs do it because of the reward of feeling useful and necessary and not just for the poor salaries or low status such work usually brings. Most people work shifts, unpaid overtime, and go well beyond the call of duty to try and answer the needs they see around them. This definition of work is more like that of the famous poet Kahlil Gibran “Work is love made visible”. It is unknown how many more people would choose to do this sort of work were it better rewarded and made available to a wider number of people through subsidised training and the increased nationalisation of services such as transport or utilities. My guess is many.
Then there are the artists, poets, writers, dancers, musicians and craftspeople whose hearts beat to the inner drive of their own creativity. A lucky few are paid to practice their art, especially performers and designers, but again, most do it because they need to in order to stay sane. The intense competition from globalisation and mechanisation make it impossible for most to earn their living through their own creativity. Their passions may be relegated to ‘hobby’ status but these are people who fill the lives of others with colour, thought, beauty, imagination, emotional expression, intellectual stimulation, entertainment and fun. It is hard to imagine how bleak life would be without their contribution to our everyday lives, or how undeveloped and ‘sick’ we would all be if we did not have a chance to engage with this part of our own minds.
And what of the healers, the listeners, the arms around you, the shoulders to cry upon? Is this not work? This current Coronavirus crisis with its enforced isolation is already making people yearn for a hug, a kiss, even a handshake from someone who cares for us. The invisible ties that bind keep us going, make life worth living, yet we barely have a language to describe it.
As a disabled person who was told that I would never ‘work’- indeed as a part of a whole subsection of society who were deemed unable to make a contribution to the ‘Economy’- who were told we were in fact no more than drains upon the economy – I have railed against this dismissal of our value all my life. Most disabled people I know work very hard at many of the things above without much recognition and certainly without any status or reward.
The fact is that the word ‘Economy’ means the system whereby some people exploit others in order to make money, to keep that money and to use that money to make more money. They have distorted the meaning of work to mean a sort of servitude, and denounced all real work to be a distraction from their overall purpose. In the UK the richest 10% of households hold 44% of all wealth. The poorest 50%, by contrast, own just 9% (Office of National Statistics 2016). Every year they own more and we own less (see www.equalitytrust.org.uk). The 1% globally have accumulated so much of the wealth we create that they could choose to right many of the wrongs of the world and still be rich. But they don’t.
They are not going to give it back voluntarily, that is for sure. Their invented justifications for owning half the world have literally ‘gone to their heads’. Yet, in such a crisis as we now find ourselves, many people are seeing that continually subsidising business (the 1%) instead of individual people is going to lead to both people falling through the net, and a future of debt, unemployment and insecurity for most of us. The hope that capitalism will ‘bounce back’ is only hoping that we will avoid a quick death by returning to the pursuit of our slow death through propping up a system which is unsustainable. Instead, a simple bank transfer of a monthly income to every adult, and an allowance for every child, would change everything. Abject poverty would end overnight. Of course it isn’t all we need to do, but it would give so many ordinary people the chance to think, and so many hungry kids a meal every day.
The fear that we would stop working is unfounded and doesn’t bear any reflection of how we are as people. We would start to change the sort of work we do, and for whom we do it. In an age where we have an underlying crisis of overproduction leading potentially to a catastrophic change in our climate we would have the chance to think about what constitutes real work. We could create more jobs which are satisfying, purposeful and aimed towards a co-operative and sustainable future. We need to raise the voice of demand for this until we raise the roof holding us all down. Let’s do it!