A basic income glimmer of hope

Posted on November 19, 2016


As we head toward what looks likely to be a rather austere festive period at a time of great political uncertainty arguments in South Africa about a minimum wage continue to rage. And the fact that some decision will be made by government this Sunday (November 20) about such a minimum, will not stop the debate.

But it is a debate that concerns only the apparently diminishing numbers of people in work and not the growing ranks of men and women with no hope of jobs.

Even leading South African capitalists such as Johann Rupert recognise this as a serious problem. In a recent interview he noted: “We’re in for some bad and dangerous times.” Because, he pointed out, not only is the wage and welfare gap increasing, but so too are the “ranks of the unemployable”.

And these are people who are not unemployable because they lack skills. Many of them have skills, but skills that are rapidly becoming redundant in the labour market as the march of automation gathers pace. Yet most socially liberal commentators tend still to support the notion promoted by mainstream economists, that the technological revolution will, somehow, miraculously, open up new avenues for work.

Focussing on the past, they quote the move from simple — often collective — peasant economies to the advance to capitalism that provided factory and service jobs to former subsistence farmers and others. One form of work gave way to another that was, sometimes better, sometimes worse, but at least a job. Reskilling, training and retraining was all that was needed.

But in recent years there has there been a wider appreciation that the new era does not require people with new or different skills; that most work can now be done by machines. And that the machines can — and do — make other machines.

And the machines, like the rest of the economic and productive processes, are in the hands of a quite small, and generally very rich, minority. As the technological future unfolds, they only have to employ a core of specialists to “work” in the classic sense.

But humanity will not be liberated by this development because, under the present system, those who have only their labour to sell, cannot survive without work. And one current estimate is that every automated process, on average, puts 60 people out of work.

Nothing new in that notion. As far back as 1949, the ‘father of cybenetics”, Nortbert Wiener, warned about this in very precise terms. Others also did so in a more general way as far back as 1848.

Belatedly, it seems that the message is finally getting through in some quarters. In Finland and Holland, for example, there is now talk at official level, of the need to introduce a “universal basic wage”. And Britain’s largest trade union, Unite, has also started agitating for a “universal basic income” as part of a wider system of social security.

What this means, as Unite’s assistant general secretary, Steve Turner, noted, is to provide “a decent income for those locked out of work”. This has echoes of the “poor house”dumping grounds of Europe’s industrial revolution, a situation up with which workers eventually will not put.

But at least, in a small way, there is growing recognition of the real crisis looming. The issue began to be addressed in South Africa last month by the human rights campaigning group, the Black Sash. At a seminar in Johannesburg evidence was led that showed clearly how social assistance is of benefit to society as a whole.

So far, few in authority seem to be listening, so there is obviously a long way to go. But at least there is a glimmer of hope.