Have you thought of a world where nobody would have to be concerned about paying for their basic needs? The unconditional basic income (UBI) project, which will be submitted to a vote in Switzerland next month, addresses this controversial issue that has been the “talk of the country” for quite some time. And last week, hundreds of academics, executives, trade union representatives and the general public gathered in Zurich to discuss the UBI in connection to new technologies, disruptive work and a shrinking middle class, both in the developed and developing worlds. While attending for Horyou blog, I was very interested to see how the basic income discussion would fit with the concept of Spotlight, the global social currency created by Horyou. And I discovered that there are many people studying and working hard for more income equality all over the world.

Yanis Varoufakis - Photo by Jonas Rohloff/Neopolis Network
Yanis Varoufakis – Photo by Jonas Rohloff/Neopolis Network

Named “The Future of Work”, the conference discussed alternatives for the current crisis of capitalism, marked by income stagnation, deflationary process and decreasing interest rates on a global scale. Renowned specialists such as Yanis Varoufakis, former Greek Minister of Finance, and Robert Reich, former US Labour Secretary under Bill Clinton, were among the speakers.

First to speak was Robert Johnson, executive director of the Institute of New Economic Thinking, for whom the root cause of our society’s challenges is a mix of political pessimism, technological disruption and a political system whereby economic growth is powered and consumed by the wealthy few. “We are living under fear of social unrest caused by the increasingly precarious conditions for workers”, he said.

Robert Johnson - Photo by Jonas Rohloff/Neopolis Network
Robert Johnson – Photo by Jonas Rohloff/Neopolis Network

One of the signs of this precarity is the rise of sharing economy platforms like Uber and their impact on working conditions. A panel called Disruptive Work presented cases of companies like Uber and Zipcar, whereby members are proposed flexible conditions while not enjoying the same rights and income they would be in a “traditional” industry. “My father had one job in his life, I had six in mine, and my daughter will have six simultaneously”, said Robin Chase, co-founder of the car sharing platform Zipcar. She is optimistic about the new working model – according to her, 85% of people are not happy with their current jobs and the so-called “peer inc” companies can tap exponential learning and lead people to interesting jobs instead of automated ones.

A system where a basic income would guarantee people’s survival would give everyone freedom to chose a meaningful job without having to work hard to make ends meet. For the critics of the project, it would lead to a situation where many people would be discouraged to work at all. Some experiments made in Africa, India and Germany, however, show the opposite. Michael Faye, co-founder of the non profit GiveDirectly, shared his experience with cash transfers in extreme poor villages in Africa. “The only social group who stopped working were children”, he said. “There is no evidence that they become lazy and spend the money on drugs and alcohol. In fact, people go back to school and start working for the community”. The same phenomenon happened with the Mein Grundeinkommen experiment in Germany – from the 36 people who benefitted from a cash transfer which guaranteed their survival, only one spent it on luxuries. “Most people changed jobs and started spending more time with their children”, says the executive Amira Yahia.

Robert Reich, who worked as a US Labour Secretary and now is a professor at UCLA, is one of the biggest supporters of the project. “Even the Silicon Valley is starting to be interested in the basic income project. Companies are concerned about people not being able to afford the products that they manufacture, as the middle class is shrinking”, he said. In his opinion, a basic income would create an aggregated demand that would address such issues as inequality and social insecurity. “The central question is not economic but ethical. Who is the government working for, and who has the influence and power? How do we use the abundance and distribute the gains produced by society?”, he asked. Reich is not convinced about the effectiveness of a basic income, but believes it is “inevitable” to create a system which promotes the circulation of income.

Robert Reich - Photo by Jonas Rohloff/Neopolis Network
Robert Reich – Photo by Jonas Rohloff/Neopolis Network

The closing speech was Yanis Varoufakis’. Famous for his controversial statements about capitalism and the financial system, he stated that the social democracy tradition is dead and that capitalism has been agonizing since 2008. “The new system transfers the value of production towards the financial sector that remains insolvent. This created a deflationary process and today, half the global economy is on negative interest rates”. Varoufakis went on to explain that the working class can no longer ensure itself through social insurance, as youngsters find it very difficult to find full time jobs, and wages are stagnating. “This is aggravated by the fact that low wage routine jobs would be rapidly replaced by artificial intelligence”.

The basic income, according to him, is a necessary tool to stabilize society. “The struggle is ethical as we need to overturn the dominant paradigm of capitalism. The basic income is a dividend for the collective production market, it is about giving money to the underserving, to the rich, the surfers, people who are collectively producing wealth”, he advocated. At the same time, a redistribution of wealth would benefit central banks as well by working as a counter deflationary tool, and promote the creation of value at work, as people would have the right to turn down a job they don’t feel connected to. “We need to create a system which aggregates capital and creates a stream for everyone. It’s a trust fund for all our children”, he concluded.

Written by Vivian Soares

Special thanks to Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute and Neopolis Network for all the support and pictures.

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