The Unconditional Basic Income as a Postpatriarchal Project
„The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.“ (2 Thess 3,10). This biblical saying has deeply influenced Western minds until the present day. Sure, as there are other precepts that one can quote in order not to leave jobless humans hungry, Western societies have created what we now call „charity“ or „welfare“ or „social security systems“. However, all these institutional arrangements to prevent poverty are marked by a certain attitude of condescension of the “strong” towards the “weak”. In traditional charity an expectation resonates that those who “do not work but nevertheless eat” should feel guilty - and grateful to their benefactors who “unfortunately have to do double work in order to care for the lazy ones.”
What did the sender of the second letter to the Thessalonians mean by writing that “the one who is unwilling to work shall not eat”? He or she, as far as we can infer from the context, wanted to exhort a young Christian community not to abandon the rules of their normal daily life awaiting the imminent second coming of Jesus Christ. So, the following would be a plausible translation of the apostle’s simple exhortation that has, over the centuries, been frozen as a moral dogma: “Keep on taking care of yourselves and each other, otherwise you will not be able to survive!”
What is work?
If you ask anybody about his work today he or she will normally specify a profession: “I work as a teacher, a hairdresser, a manager…”. Certain women – and very few men - of a certain age will hesitate first and then tell you something of the kind: “I do not really work, I am a housewife and mother. However, I try to keep in touch with the world of work and to contribute to my family’s income giving some tutoring lessons.” Many elderly people will say that they do not work any more as they are retired, though they are certainly involved in volunteering. So, in our Western societies at least, the notion “work” seems to be strongly linked to the classical “workplace” or “employment”: to work in this modern context means to earn money by fulfilling certain tasks that usually are a functional part of an enterprise or an institution. So, the notion of “work” here is neither defined by its benefit for the human (co-)existence nor by the energy that is spent, but simply through the money that is earned.
Paul, in his supposedly unambiguous phrase, did not talk about money. What he had in mind was the well-being and future of the addressed community: “Keep on taking care of yourselves and each other, otherwise you will not be able to survive!” - In fact, our modern societies as well would not be able to survive only through paid jobs. Much research has proven that more than half of the activities that are necessary for the survival and wellbeing of a given society are not paid. There is, for example, no “monetary incentive” for most mothers to care for their children, nevertheless they usually do what is necessary. Families normally do not earn money for growing vegetables in home gardens, but home gardens – the Russian “datchas” for example - have often allowed people to survive the frequent crises of what is officially called “the free market”. On the other side there is plenty of paid work that seems to be rather useless: the production of weapons, the creation of more and more luxury goods that compete for the attention of few affluent buyers, the accumulation of wealth through opaque financial products etc. However, most people still have a certain feeling that work should make sense. So, why shouldn’t we redefine work from this starting point? What hinders us from putting an end to the seemingly self-evident, yet never in history realized coupling of money and work?
In fact, while there is always plenty of useful and necessary work to be done, the number of paid jobs nowadays, is steadily decreasing. In our present world a few super-rich people that profit from streamlined production and a detached world of finance face a great majority of jobless, low paid people and working-poor. And the gap is growing. The modern mechanism of “money for work” that in fact has never been realized in the strict sense has now totally ceased to provide global wellbeing. While money as such still seems to be a useful tool to organize the exchange of goods and services, the actual mechanisms of its distribution have clearly failed.
Rethinking the economy
The best thing to do in this deadlock is to rethink the entire economy. Namely, we must look back to the original meaning that is “rule of the household” (gr. Oikos/house, household; Nomos/law, rule, principle) and proceed from there. What is crucial in the economy is the fulfillment of human needs. So, what we humans do, our “work”, should provide food, shelter, clothing, education, joy, rest, meaning, comfort etc. for ourselves and for our seven billion fellow humans with whom each of us lives together in the beautiful finite generous habitat we call “earth”. Every day we are nourished by the earth that gives us air, water, plants, animals and precious raw materials which we can use to fulfill our needs. And every day we are nourished by our fellow humans who grow food, build houses, streets, bridges, water pipes and many other useful things, cook meals, educate newcomers, give shelter, sew clothes, print money, manage bank accounts, care for elderly, differently abled and ill people and so on. To work means to nourish what nourishes me: the world and my fellow humans. Contrary to a common view there is evidence that nearly all humans are prepared to work in this sense, not because there are “monetary incentives”, but simply because it makes sense to lead a good life together.
In order to re-enable people to nourish what nourishes them the idea of an unconditional basic income was born. This idea combines the conviction that money, as a common medium of exchange, is useful in principle with the insight that the concept of “money for work” has failed in the patriarchal-capitalist era. The idea of the unconditional basic income accepts the fact that nobody is able to live without money today. However, just as money has become so indispensable it must be redistributed so that people are empowered to do freely what makes sense and nourishes their togetherness in the common habitat world. Money does not follow any law of nature, but is a human invention. So, realizing that it does not serve our needs any more, that it promotes useless production and neglects necessary activities, as responsible members of the human species we simply have to reorganize it.
The unconditional basic income as a postpatriarchal project
Introducing the unconditional basic income means to allocate a certain amount of money to each member of a given society – men and women alike, children as well, but less – with which he or she can live in dignity. It does not mean to abolish paid work but sets us free to decide whether we want to do paid work and, if so, which work and under which conditions. No one will be forced to do any senseless, destructive or mind-numbing work any more for fear of his or her existence. So, this new kind of income will give us the breathing space we need to find out which kind of work makes sense and which doesn’t, which kind of work corresponds to each individual’s personal skills and desires, whether or not we choose to raise children, who will care for them and so on. So, it is a base from which the members of a given society can start to rethink their definitions of work, well-being, wealth, future etc.
The unconditional basic income as such, however, does not solve all problems at once as it is still up to us humans to determine collectively the quality of our coexistence. The problem, for example, that the work of housewives and mothers has, for centuries, not been regarded and appreciated as “work”, but has been hidden behind ideological concepts such as “maternal love” or “female nature” will not be solved directly as the unconditional basic income is no “wage for housewives”. However, freed from the dependence of so called “breadwinners” women – and some househusbands - will be empowered to negotiate the conditions under which they are willing to bear children and do their traditional caring work – or not.
unconditional basic income does not provide a readymade solution to the
imbalance of genders that has grown over the centuries. Rather it is a postpatriarchal
project in a strict sense as it does not present a magic bullet but counts on
the freedom and ability of women and men to reshape the world of humans by
renegotiating from the ground up their respective positions, tasks and desires.
Wattwil, march 2012
Thank you, Melissa!
Dr. theol. Ina Praetorius ¦ Kirchenrain 10 ¦ CH-9630 Wattwil ¦ Tel +41 71 988 88 30 ¦