Many advocates of a basic income – an amount of money paid to all members of society, rich and poor – claim that their idea is neither left nor right. It is not always clear how we have to understand this. Today, there are political movements who do not want to call themselves left or right – the Spanish Podemos for example – though their proposals are clearly leftwing.

And for sure, there is a difference between the right and the left. The idea of a basic income is indeed being promoted by leftwing as well as rightwing forces, though it remains problematic.

In this article I want to argue that in fact, a basic income cannot be a leftwing idea.


Individualizing instead of collective solidarity

The fundamental difference between the existing social protection in most West-European countries and a basic income, is the fact that the former is based on collective – horizontal – solidarity, whereas the latter is based on an individualistic – vertical – approach. With social protection, all members of society show solidarity with all other members. Those who are ill receive benefits from those who are not ill. Those who have no children, pay contributions for those who have children. And those who work pay the pensions of the elderly. Sometimes, this basic idea seems to be forgotten, so self-evident our collective insurances have become.

With a basic income, all members of society receive a basic ‘backpack’ from government and all backpacks contain exactly the same amount. This is already rather unfair, because some people – disabled or chronically ill people e.g. – will need more than young people in good health.

It is a first reason why the basic income cannot be a leftwing idea. ‘From each according to means, to each according to needs’ still is a very valid slogan. All people are different, the reason why we have equal rights. But to treat different/unequal people differently, only leads to more inequality. Different/unequal people have to be treated differently if we want more equality, and this is precisely what social protection does and basic income does not.

Liberalism has given us more individual freedom, in the same way as a basic income does. But the left has always completed this freedom with more equality. It looks more to society as a whole, than to individuals. The left has always promoted a collective solidarity and worked at society-building. This is why the idea of private insurances is so difficult to accept. The basic income idea totally ignores this collective dimension and makes people directly dependent on the State.

Participation and democracy

A second reason is to be found in the participatory approach the left has always cherished. Citizens should participate in decision-making, a fundamentally democratic demand that has always been defended though not always put into practice.

Now, in any West-European countries, social protection is based on such a participatory model. Employers and workers manage the funds – they have contributed – and government cannot arbitrarily intervene to cut benefits for instance. This participation totally disappears with a basic income. It is the government, and government alone, that decides what is possible and what is not. And one does not need too much imagination to see what will happen the moment a fiscal balance has to be restored. No democracy or participation in such cases. While social protection is slowly being dismantled, the basic income idea totally ignores this fundamental demand from the left.

Labour and capital

Thirdly, and very importantly, one has to be aware of the fact that social protection has never been anti-capitalist. But it did modify significantly the relationship between labour and capital. If the ILO (International Labour Organization) claims that ‘labour is not a commodity’, it is because the worker is no longer an individual faced with an individual employer. We have trade unions who bargain collectively and defend workers’ rights. No wonder neoliberalism wants to do away with this mechanism. The left has always defended these modified labour relations, however limited they sometimes were. Again, the basic income idea ignores this fact.

Sometimes the advocates of a basic income naively claim that social protection will be a complement to the basic income. But how to find enough funds for two expensive systems remains unclear. The solution most often given is that civil servants can become redundant, since they are all supposed to be monitoring the behaviour of citizens, or subsidies will be diminished, as if the whole social and cultural sector would not suffer from it. Civil servants and civil society organizations play a very important social role.

A gigantic transfer of funds

At any rate, with the disappearance of social contributions and a reduction of wages, the basic income is a very huge gift to employers.

If one is aware of the fact that in these past thirty years, enormous transfers of resources – income and assets – have taken place, from government to the private sector, it is difficult to understand why, once again, the private sector should benefit that much. Reducing wage costs it is called, but who will pay the bill?

The basic income idea is a solution oriented towards individuals, it ignores the participatory approach of social protection, reversing the modified labour relations: these principles have been introduced by neoliberalism and it is strange to see that some leftwing people defend them.

Finally, it also remains strange why such an expensive solutions should be chosen, while the eradication of poverty – with a minimum income – can be realized with far less money.

It is obvious that in the West-European countries with a developed system of social protection (social insurances, social assistance, public services and labour law), a serious reform has to be undertaken. Today’s economy and society have changed compared with fifty years ago. It is by refusing to start this discussion that the door is wide open for neoliberal ideas that, strange enough, are adopted by parts of the left.

It seems to be a fact that most people have interiorized the ‘values’ of neoliberalism, although we still expect that progressive people do scrutinize the values that are promoted by mainstream media. True, at first sight, the basic income idea is very attractive. But putting a end to collective solidarity and to a participatory model, as well as making another gigantic transfer of funds to employers, can never be a good strategy for the left. Preparing the future cannot be done without looking back at the past. And looking at labour conditions in third world countries today, should make clear that  no progress is ever for once and for all.

We live at an important moment of time. The current dominant economic model is not sustainable if we want to preserve life on earth. The system has to change. Technological progress will also lead to important changes on the labour market. We have to discuss these changes and prepare a better future for everyone.

The class conflict never has been as clear as today, though our past analysis are not sufficient to examine the important societal changes that took place. Sticking to the old principles is as short-sighted as blindly assuming the neoliberal principles.

The future does not look very rosy. There is work to be done for all those who think that some basic principles of social protection systems, based on social and economic rights, are still relevant. A  lot has to be improved and reformed, but neoliberalism is no alternative. It already caused enough havoc.