Safety nets and long-term stability

Start the Week on Radio 4 on Monday Feb 22nd was largely about the future of work. Alec Ross has just published The Industries of the Future, examining how forty-one countries are adapting to the changing nature of work and economy, influenced as they are by developments in robotics/ automation, big data, information sharing, the commercialisation of genomics, along with the growth in digital currencies and markets.

Paul Mason’s arguments are more familiar, since his book Postcapitalism: A guide to the Future has been out a bit longer.  He claims that the capitalist model is inherently broken and that identity based on work (by which, of course, he means paid work, although he is not clear about that) is in decline.

I thought Mason might mention the need for basic securities to be provided, even mention basic income, since he has been cautiously in favour of it in several articles and in the book. But it was Ross who asserted, at the start and the end of the programme, that we must invest in safety net provision for all. He didn’t single out basic income, but it would be the simplest way to start. It’s not going to be a panacea and it won’t address all our challenges, but it can put a basic floor of security under people, which will allow us to adapt creatively to changes, in diverse ways and with justice and democracy. Moreover, it will support those activists and pioneers who are actively working in pioneering ways right now, often with little to support them financially.

Of course, if we are to put safety nets in place, we are going to need strong, democratic states, which will ensure that big companies pay their fair due of taxes that can be invested in security and stability.

However, the power of the nation-state has declined, and companies such as Google or Apple have the status of mini-states, as rents flow to them from those who use the technologies they control. Many people are currently angry with their nation- states, because they recognise how powerless states are in relation to big corporations.  Moreover, in most cases, states are not consciously and publicly aligned with their people, but rather seek to serve big business.

Organised labour in its traditional form of trades unions is unable to grapple with the changes that are already here and that are coming. With increased precarity in paid work, labour can no longer bargain its way to better wages, pensions or working conditions. The balance of power is all with employers. Past forms of powerful labour are not going to grow again and we must recognise that even when trades unions were strong, they were often not democratic or inclusive, excluding many women, all those who wanted to work shorter ‘part-time’ hours on the job, as well as the self-employed.

One of the things basic income does is to re-balance the power relations somewhat. It provides a ready-made exit option for workers, or a strike fund, if they want to organsise collectively via trades unions.

States need to actively align themselves with all of their people. Trades unions need to start supporting the introduction of basic income, as a first step towards rebalancing power in the paid workplace.

The biggest safety-net is long-term stability. It’s to be distinguished from the stability politicians and many aspiring TDs are talking about in this current election campaign in Ireland; they refer to a stable government that will not fall after a few months, and which will continue to maintain a stability in the power status-quo, which is actually a power imbalance.


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Supporting farmers and farming with basic income

I’ve been working on a new page for the Basic Income Ireland website, about farmers and farming, and how a basic income could support intelligent farming and the people who are engaged in it, in the future. It is written for an Irish context although many of the points also have a more general application.

Here is what I have come up with so far. It incorporates feedback from four farmers of diverse backgrounds in Ireland. I’d love to hear what readers of this blog think.

Issues for farmers and farming

  1. Farming is a business, with many possible models of operating, including: family farms, large-scale farms owned by consortiums, worker-owned cooperatives, privately owned small-scale growing, and membership-based Community Supported Farms (generally known as CSAs). The trend in national and EU farming policy is to support agribusiness and associated large-scale intensive farming (see Food Harvest 2020  and Food Wise 2025). However, the state should be concerned to create a business environment where all types of farms and farming technologies can survive and prosper.
  2. Intensive, large-scale farming increases carbon emissions, is too intensive to be good for animal welfare, and is focussed on export of farm produce, to the detriment of self-reliance in food.
  3. Only about 7% of the Irish population is involved in farming. The most ecology- and animal-friendly way to increase food security is to have more people involved in a diversity of less intense ways of farming and growing and exploring new ecologically sound farming technologies.
  4. Farm incomes fluctuate, due to the cyclical nature of farming, especially on small farms. Prices received for produce also fluctuate. Some farmers have to buy animal feed, whose price also varies wildly. Farmers traditionally relied on bank overdrafts to smooth out the ups and downs but it is currently almost impossible to get overdraft facilities.
  5. Low-income (under €15k annually) farmers who have dependents can apply for Farm Assist. But this is a means-tested payment, which demands unproductive administrative time and which, like all means-tested payments, disadvantages those whose cases are marginal or not clear-cut.
  6. The farming population on traditional farms is ageing and there is a dearth of young people coming into this type of farming.
  7. Many older farmers work alone on their farms and experience isolation and loneliness.
  8. At the same time, many young people want to get into farming, especially organic farming and other ways of growing, using newer and more ecologically sound technologies. Many people are concerned with food sovereignty and security for the future and see food growing as a worthwhile and intellectually challenging occupation.
  9. Newcomers trying to start a farming business find it extremely difficult to get finance as lenders consider them a risky proposition.
  10. Land prices are high, and land difficult to acquire, especially in small parcels, which newcomers often seek. Direct payments to the farming sector via CAP drive up land prices.
  11. While farming is primarily rural, there is a need to support urban and suburban growing, community gardens, allotments, horticulture, etc
  12. The status of farmers is low among many sectors of the population. Many people see farming (especially on small farms) as an unrewarding occupation. Added to this, many landless city dwellers resent subsidies paid to parts of the farming sector.
  13. Many farmers are operating without subsidies, either from a principled objection to them, or because they do not qualify. Cash-flow difficulties are especially severe for them.
  14. There is a pressing need for reform of CAP subsidies. The current round of CAP reform disadvantages smaller marginal farms. Current reforms are working against the diversity and bigger farming population that is required for an intelligent food future.

How Basic Income could help

Basic income

  1. Gives all business models of farming a chance to develop, including middle-sized and family farms, CSAs and cooperatives.
  2. Enables partnerships, which could alleviate the loneliness currently experienced by many farmers.
  3. Smooths out cash-flow problems for farmers, especially those operating without CAP payments.
  4. Supports urban and suburban farming, along with rural farming.
  5. Helps more people to get into farming and growing and to define themselves as farmers or growers.
  6. Allows older farmers to retire or step back from a farm business (they always have their basic income) and supports younger people to get into the occupation, possibly in partnership with an older farmer.
  7. Gives income to everyone in farming households, not just the head of household. Then, people have genuine choice about whether to engage in the farm business or not. Everyone involved has their own independent income (children’s BI is paid to the parent or guardian)
  8. Supports those pioneering new ecologically sound and low-carbon farming technologies capable of adapting to the variations in weather caused by global warming. These new technologies are also able to bring into production land that is currently considered marginal. All of this adds to food security.
  9. Has the capacity to decrease rural depopulation where it is a problem. It helps those who are attached to their locality to create a satisfying life and community in their home place (this might or might not be in farming, but it would create a social and economic system within which farmers and farming could thrive)
  10. Gives choice to farm employees, in common with all other employees.
  11. Support those who are pioneering intelligent, low-carbon and resilient forms of agriculture and food practices.
  12. Could help increase the percentage of the population involved in food growing. Greater involvement in food production always has big social and environmental benefits
  13. Could pave the way to the eventual elimination of CAP subsidies (and the CAP money could be diverted to funding basic income).

BI does not

  • Sort out land prices or make land available
  • Address all problems of rural life, such as transport and isolation
  • Automatically ensure public interest in intelligent agricultural practices and food security and sovereignty. Also required is a cultural and educational drive to encourage more people to participate in farming, growing and food preparation.
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Championing the self-employed with basic income

Michael Taft wrote an excellent blog piece recently on why the trades unions and the left should champion the self-employed. He was rightly careful to stress that the self-employed people he has in mind are those who want to be self-employed, and not those forced into bogus self-employment by unscrupulous employers.

Any progressive state programme to support self-employed people will  ensure that they get support when they have no paid work, when they are ill, when they want to take time out from work for a holiday or to study or to care for others. A universal basic income would be the most straightforward and administratively simple ways to provide the financial stability and achieve the outcomes Michael Taft mentions for self-employed people and small businesses.

Basic income would be a boost to existing small businesses run by the self-employed and families. It would also free people to try out business ideas, and the businesses would be viable as long as they made some small profit. In case of business difficulties the people involved would have their basic income to fall back on. Basic income would also allow social entrepreneurs, who are not motivated by profit, to thrive. It would be a particularly good support for cooperative and partnership ventures. This system, by providing basic financial security for self-employed people and all involved in a business, would help small businesses and self-employment to grow and thrive.

In the very recently published survey report, The Future of Ireland, 44% of respondents said that financial security was one of the key ingredients for happiness. Basic income achieves basic financial security for all and in addition it puts a floor of support beneath those who want to try out ideas for self-employment or small businesses.

Any state that is serious about supporting a diversity of self-employment should introduce a basic income. We could afford to do this in Ireland at this time, pegged to existing social welfare rates, without changing our tax and revenue system. Read more at and Social Justice Ireland pages on basic income.

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Changes in the way we work are vital if we are to create strong sustainability and justice.

What is work? This question has preoccupied me for some time and this post examines what work is and points to some of the problems with the ways work is organised in modern societies. Changes in the way we work are vital if we are to create strong sustainability and justice. A basic income can support the changes we need.

Work includes personal, family, community and civil society projects. Work, in its universal sense, means anything you have a commitment to making happen, personally as well as professionally; it is the job you accept from yourself and/or from others. Unpaid work includes care for self and other people, developing financial intelligence and looking after our finances, all kinds of learning, civic participation, developing an appreciation of ethical issues, growing and preparing food, participating in local and national politics, resting and renewing one’s energy. This understanding of work involves all the actions necessary for projects, commitments and ambitions that are important to us, paid or unpaid.

Many forms of work – paid and unpaid– are essential to the flourishing of individuals, society and economics. Paid work is an important resource in society. Jobs and other forms of paid work have a strong part to play in a balanced future of sustainable prosperity.  But there is a lot of other work to be done also, which attracts no pay.

There are at least four forms of work: paid work, as an employee or self-employed person, work for others (care and social support), work for the collective good and self-care, including rest, relaxation and play. Each type of work needs to receive its due importance and allocation of time.

Work for others and work for the collective good can of course be done for pay, but a huge amount of it is also done for no pay. Work for the collective good was called ‘leisure’ or schole by the ancient Greeks, and was about participation in the polis or society. Of course, citizens in Ancient Greece did not engage in labour, or work for pay; this was done by slaves and women, ignoring the importance of essential work of household, food growing and preparation, etc

Shunning an expansive view of work, modern societies have very restricted ideas about it; the dominant understanding of work in modern societies has shrunk to the idea that the only ‘real’ or valid work is paid work or labour. Many people recognise the contribution that unpaid work makes to economy, society and individuals, but the dominant thinking about work allows politicians to go unchallenged when they talk about ‘getting Ireland back to work’, as if people were not working all the time in their communities, homes and families.

Unpaid work makes huge contributions to economy and society yet people who do unpaid work are not included in the present pension and sick-pay systems. Economic inactivity is defined as not working (for pay) or actively seeking paid work. Social welfare payments are called ‘Jobseekers’ Allowance’, implying that one is entitled to support only if one defines oneself as a jobseeker. Basic security as a right of citizenship or residence is ignored.

Paid workers are considered to contribute by producing goods and services that others buy, no matter how useless, even harmful, those goods and services may be. The payment of tax on earned income is also regarded as contribution. But income tax, while important, is a limited form of contribution. Many people in high-status, demanding jobs make little contribution to the caring and participative work that builds societies, having neither the time nor inclination to do so.

Paid work and jobs have gained such importance and taken over so much of our sense of what work is, because, for most of us, they are the only way to get income. Very few people can survive outside the employment system and this dependence on paid work encourages us to see paid work as separate from ‘life’, expressed in the term work-life balance. Language thus separates individuals ‘real lives’ from the paid work they do. And yet, paid work is closely linked with the recognition people receive from society.  In fact, for many, life is their jobs or paid work. So if they lose that paid work, they consider that they are not living in any meaningful sense of the word.

This separation of paid work and the rest of life can also have the effect of separating us from the consequences of the paid work. Paid work is not our ‘real life’ but most of us have no choice about doing it because it is the only way we can get an income. So we can’t afford (literally) to think about the harm the work might be doing to other people or to the earth. All kinds of work have moral, political, social and emotional consequences but when it comes to jobs and paid work, we are rarely encouraged to think about those consequences.

Paid work at its best can provide a lot of the things that many of us want, such as money, a sense of self-worth and contribution, training, skills development, social interaction and workplace friendships. It helps us to develop our talents and aptitudes and provides a sense of identity. However, the paid work available to most people is not the best is could be and does not generate much that is useful for workers apart from money.  Moreover, jobs are not created in order to help us develop our talents or give us a sense of identity. Furthermore, jobs are not the only way to gain a sense of self-worth, to make a contribution, to develop skills, interact socially, or to structure one’s time.

Work (paid and unpaid) is one of the chief ways we engage with the world. The way our working lives are organised affects hugely how we engage with our own development, and with our families, households, communities and the state. If we want to be able to organise ourselves to create ecologically stable and socially just futures, we need a different overall approach to work, one that values and supports all kinds of useful paid and unpaid work, that releases talents and energies and that actively shuns work that it harmful. A basic income could facilitate this change of approach.

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The role of community economies in low-carbon, democratic and inclusive futures

If we are to move towards low-carbon, democratic and inclusive futures, we need, among other things, thriving local-community economies.

What does a community economy look like? It has a great number of people working, whether paid or unpaid, close to where they live. There are small independent businesses, including farms, shops, workshops and art-cultural enterprises. A good percentage of these businesses are pioneering a value-driven business-model. They run as cooperatives or subscribe to cooperative ideals in their organisational structures, while also aiming to do work of direct benefit to society and to minimise waste and ecological harm. Affordability for buyers and customers is also a key principle for them. Many of them will at the same time make a modest income for their workers.

A lot of enterprises in community economies are concerned with growing, preparing and selling food. Trades like baking, cheesemaking, brewing, butchering, preserving, seed-saving are experiencing a resurgence. The community-supported model is gaining ground, where people come together and pay upfront an annual fee, which then entitles them to a certain amount of vegetables, bread, beer, meat, or other food produce. This community-supported business model works a bit like a club, where the members and the farmers or producers share the financial risks with each other and supply employment for some of the people involved. Derrybeg Farm, where I am a member, is an example.

Other enterprises are focussed on repairing, recycling or upcycling. Yet others are concerned with producing beautiful and useful craft goods from scratch. Community TV and radio play an important role in the community economy. Co-housing cooperatives can also be an important element and are becoming more widespread.  Digital fabrication or 3D printing of customised items is also a growing feature.

Self-help activities are an essential part of a community economy. They include tidy towns groups, transition town groups, street theatre, freecycling, seed-swapping, skills-sharing, tool libraries, discussion forums, guided walks, community gardens, men’s sheds, playgroups, retirement groups, repair workshops and many other activities we may not have yet dreamed about. When these activities are thriving, they bring footfall to the streets and customers to the small businesses.

Where a community economy is thriving, there are spaces to meet, public and private, some free, and all affordable, and a place becomes interesting, friendly, safe and lively. Footfall on the streets of towns and villages brings customers and participants. Money circulates within the locality instead of leaking out to shareholders of big corporations. There may even be a thriving local currency.

Each community economy will have a different flavour, depending on its locality. But all will have certain common characteristics: able to respond to challenges, self-organising to a large extent, inclusive and participative. Most residents will be part of some kind of local network, and the different networks will liaise with each other. This means that there are thick social connections among the people of a locality, which leads to increased personal and household resilience.

People all over Ireland are pioneering community economies and communicating with and learning from each other and from people worldwide who have similar aims. In Ireland, one can see much of this activity concentrated in the village of Cloughjordan in Co Tipperary, pioneered by members of the eco-village there. Elsewhere, community economies are more dispersed and therefore not so visible. Everywhere, community economies are extremely fragile because many of the pioneers who spearhead them are in very precarious financial situations, living on low and uncertain incomes and often struggling to make ends meet.

Our social welfare system with its poverty traps and means-testing does not help these pioneers, nor does a state-finance scheme for entrepreneurs, which is aimed at ‘high-value’ projects with export potential.  The pioneers are social entrepreneurs focussed on their locality and bio-region, not on export. Most often, in order to get off the ground, they need micro-finance. That’s not to say that the pioneers are not very globally aware and networked. They draw on knowledge generated in community-economy enterprises all over the world and share what they know freely with each other and among projects.


A diversity of work – paid and unpaid – in the local and community economies is essential in the cultivation of higher degrees of personal, community and national resilience today. A key aim of political economy should be the enabling of community economies, which in turn support high levels of human wellbeing, low energy and resource use, healthy ecosystems and greater levels of democratic participation.

Communities can do a great deal for themselves, given time and organisational skills. Importantly, however, the state, which represents the community at large, needs to enable, support and protect them. There are some wider policies that only a state or union of states (such as the EU) can put into effect.  The most immediately doable and beneficial to community economies would be a universal basic income and land-value site taxes. I will write about these in blog posts to follow.

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Test blog post

My new blog will reflect on all things to do with enough is plenty. I’ll look at basic income, land value taxes and will reflect on the things I’m learning about money systems and currencies.

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