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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