As the coronavirus crisis precipitates the most rapid and far-reaching economic interventions in British history, Andrew Rigby argues that providing Universal Basic Income is now fundamental to human security.

I read in Sunday’s paper (22 March 2020) that military planners have been called in to help with food supplies during the coronavirus pandemic. Certainly the wartime metaphor is rife at the moment, with Emmanuel Macron declaring, “We are at war”, whilst the mayor of Codogno – a town in Lombardy – asserted, “It’s a war. But we have every possibility of winning. Unlike with our grandfathers who went physically into battle for our freedom, we are being required to show responsibility – responsibility and calm.” The analogy is not completely misplaced – like war the current pandemic represents a threat to well-being and something about which we might justifiably be afraid.

Grand strategy: defending the state’s interest internationally and domestically

Wars can be defined as organised armed conflict between states. They are typically pursued as part of a state’s grand strategy to defend or advance its ‘national security interests‘ in the international arena. Way back in the 16th century Machiavelli emphasised that the national security concerns of any state have at least two main dimensions – protecting the national interest in the international arena and preserving public order within the domestic sphere. He advised:

… rulers should have two main worries: one is internal and concerns his subjects; the other is external, and concerns foreign powers. Against the latter good troops and reliable allies are an effective defence … But with regards to one’s subjects … one’s only fear must be that they may be plotting secretly. A ruler will effectively protect himself from this danger if he avoids incurring hatred and contempt, and keeps people satisfied with him.

Machiavelli was writing his treatise in the 1500s, a period when mass poverty began to be seen as a potential source of social unrest and thereby a dangerous threat to the status quo. As a consequence initiatives were taken to provide the poor with enough work to keep them from starvation and thereby avert popular revolt whilst also reinforcing the work ethic. From this perspective we can see that welfare strategies have been a key means of defending the state and the established order from social unrest as well as an expression of humanitarian concern for the plight of the dispossessed and marginalised.

The end of neo-liberal orthodoxy at home?

The most recent manifestation of this approach to defending the established order has been quite unprecedented in recent British history. On 20 March the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, said the government would pay grants covering up to 80% of the salary of millions of workers across Britain if companies kept them on their payroll, thereby keeping them in jobs as the economic fallout from the coronavirus outbreak escalates. The extraordinary payments will be worth up to a maximum of £2,500 per month, just above the median income. The announcement came just days after the government announced a business bailout package worth £350bn to help firms cope with the lockdown of large parts of the British economy as the disease spreads. Quite a turnaround coming from a party of government that has been to the forefront of countries pushing a neo-liberal economic and political austerity agenda, as evidenced by increasingly precarious terms of employment, increasing levels of social and economic insecurity and unprecedented levels of inequality!

But no sooner had the Chancellor made his announcement than people, including parliamentarians and my self-employed son-in-law, were complaining that measures such as subsidising payrolls would not help the growing five-million-strong cohort of self-employed workers. Over 170 MPs and peers from across the parliamentary spectrum have urged the government to introduce a universal basic income (UBI) to “give everyone the financial support they need to provide for themselves and their families” during the coronavirus pandemic. They maintain that their proposal for the government to pay every adult a flat, unconditional sum of money each week for the duration of the crisis is a “practical, not ideological” proposal, arguing that “ensuring personal economic security must be second only to safeguarding people’s health” in the outbreak, and that other approaches, such as subsidising payroll, fall short. Labour leadership candidate Rebecca Long-Bailey has called for the introduction of such a scheme, and said it should be set at the level of a living wage for the duration of the crisis.

Universal basic income- a proposal whose time has come?

In his 2017 book Utopia for realists and how we can get there Rutger Bregman presents a powerful argument for the introduction of a universal basic income – offering every citizen a regular payment sufficient to meet basic needs without means testing or requiring them to work for it. He is not alone in his advocacy of such an initiative. It has backers across the political spectrum and the history of the idea can be traced back to the 16th century when the traveller in Thomas More’s Utopia observes that the provision of a means of livelihood to all would reduce the incidence of theft and thereby promote social cohesion. A century later, in 1649, the leading figure of the English Diggers, Gerrard Winstanley (1609 – 1676), gave voice to another theme that has informed advocates of UBI – the belief that we are all responsible for each other, a common humanity. Underpinning both these themes (the promotion of social cohesion and the pursuit of the common good) was the felt need to address poverty and social exclusion in societies riven by inequality.

I have had a long-term interest in utopian thought and practice, and a year or so ago I wrote a longer piece for Rethinking Security (RS) on the significance of UBI as an approach to promoting human security. My main aim was to encourage those interested in alternative approaches to security not to lose sight of the importance of the human dimensions of security whilst responding to the imperatives of critiquing the state security posturing of our government. Not for one moment would I have imagined that in March 2020 a significant grouping of cross-party parliamentarians would be urging the government to implement a basic income scheme.

New circumstances, new paradigms

In The structure of scientific revolutions Thomas Kuhn presented an episodic model of scientific development, a process whereby the periods of conceptual continuity that characterised ‘normal science’ were disrupted by periods of ‘revolutionary science’ when the recognition of anomalies within existing bodies of accepted knowledge led to new paradigms, characterised by new questions being asked and new maps created to direct research. Faced with the unprecedented challenge to our collective well-being posed by the coronavirus pandemic, the British government has had to face the fact that the existing social welfare system within the UK was not fit for purpose. Accordingly, it has taken an unprecedented new policy direction in an effort to avoid the social and political consequences of an economy that is basically closing down.

As and when this pandemic goes into remission, I hope that those who shape the UK’s national security policy will recognise the folly of pouring money into enhancing the state’s capacity to wage lethal violence. They might turn their attention instead to developing grand strategies based on our common humanity and the primacy of the ecological crisis, of which the rapid spread of new epidemic diseases is but one symptom.

The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.

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