Today Swiss people are voting in a referendum that will determine whether to include a universal basic income in the federal constitution. The constitutional amendment proposes the institution of a basic income to be given for life to the whole population unconditionally, that is, without any specific requirement like income assessment or job status. The basic income should be set at a level that guarantees human dignity and meaningful participation in public life.
Whatever the outcome of the referendum, it is a major achievement that the discussion has gone so far in a country like Switzerland that is at the centre of global capitalism.
It is also time however to reflect more critically about the wave of interest basic income has spurred around the world. We need to avoid the misuse of basic income as a tool to dismantle the welfare state in the global North, and legitimise the advance of austerity and free market capitalism. In the global South, the danger is that previous pilots have set basic income at very low levels, reinforcing double standards about what a decent livelihood should be for Southern citizens vis-a-vis people in the North. Here too, the danger is that a low payment that does not cover the basics would be used as a way to avoid building strong states that deliver decent public services to their citizens.
These risks are real. We need more engagement from the left, to make sure that we push for a basic income that complements a strong welfare state. This also means that we can’t uncritically endorse any move towards basic income just on the basis that “it is good for the movement”. Let’s keep our critical minds switched on, and contribute constructively to make sure that basic income works for people, and not against them.
The original vision of the concept stresses the need for a safety net that guarantees a decent living to all. Pushing for a modest cash check as a substitute for welfare provisions and labour rights would work in the opposite direction.