Guy Standing: “We have let the right wing take over freedom”

Guy Standing (United Kingdom, 74 years old) is part of a new trend of economists that is forcing left-wing formations to abandon laziness and seek new answers. Creator of a concept that is already common currency, the “precariat”, and staunch defender of the need for an unconditional basic income for all citizens, Standing has advised the Generalitat of Catalonia and will contribute to the political project it is preparing the Vice President of the Government Yolanda Díaz. Tomorrow he will be at Es Baluard Museu, in Palma de Mallorca, to talk about The Precariat: The Dangerous (and Promising) New Class.

Ask. What is the precariat?

Response. We can define it in three dimensions or spaces. It consists of millions of people who have unstable and insecure jobs. Most of them have a much higher level of education than the work they do. And they have to do a lot of tasks that don’t count as job performance, that don’t get recognized. They cannot give their lives an occupational narrative. They don’t really know what they are. One month they work in a bar, the next they clean floors, or even work as journalists. The second dimension: their real wages are in decline. And they don’t have pensions, sick leave or paid vacations, like the old proletariat. And the third dimension, for me the most important: if you are part of the precariat, you lose citizenship rights. Civil, cultural, values ​​of belonging to a specific community.

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P. And social rights.

R. And social rights, exactly. Because social rights are universal subsidies that governments link to specific objectives, specific behaviors and specific social conditions. If you only grant these aids to poor people, as soon as one tries to get out of poverty, he loses them. And it happens to become the poverty trap. People work more, lose those social benefits and get little else in return.

P. He has been highly critical of the governments’ response to the economic challenge of the pandemic.

R. Most of the policies carried out by European governments were profoundly wrong. The ERTES, for example, were basically a subsidy for large companies. They were regressive, in the sense that they were aimed above all at those with higher incomes, and only later at the precariat. The latter, to a large extent, did not receive anything, because he did not have a permanent job. They were thrown out on the street, period. I think that the ERTES system increased inequality. And there were high levels of fraud. Companies pretended that their employees were not working, but were at home. And the employees, with their computers, continued to work.

P. Have we learned the lesson?

R. I am very enthusiastic about the idea that the Vice President of the Spanish Government Yolanda Díaz has launched a commission of inquiry on the precariat. I’ve been asked to collaborate, and I think it’s a great opportunity. Today the level of insecurity of a growing part of the precariat, of anger, is unsustainable. They are young, highly educated, many women. And they affirm, after the pandemic, that they do not want to return to what was before. They want a new kind of progressive politics. You will know better. In Spain, there was a time when the traditional political mold was broken. But what came after were bad politicians and bad measures. I don’t think this is the end of this story. There are new environmental and social movements, a growing and angrier precariat. All of this will put pressure on governments to think differently. The current coalition government, in theory, is on the left, but I don’t think it is in practice. You need to be more open to new ideas.

P. But that anger can also translate into support for populist forces, left or right.

R. I divide the precariat into three groups. The first is formed by those who have been expelled from the working classes. They do not have a high level of education. They are fundamentally men. And they listen to the populist voices of the extreme right, such as Trump, Johnson or, in Spain, VOX. That group was the largest after the 2008 crisis. It is no longer. They are getting older. In the middle you have what I call the nostalgics. They feel like they don’t have a home. Immigrants, refugees, disabled, minorities… This group keeps its head down. They don’t vote for populists because they simply don’t vote. The third group is the young, who were promised a future by their parents. They went to college, passed their exams and all that went with it. And they have no future. And they know it. They are in debt, furious. But they do not want to vote for populism, neither left nor right. At first, because it seems stupid. The second, because it terrifies them. They are the group that has grown the most in all countries, Spain included. We have reached a point where politicians are forced to think differently. Some will turn to populism, others will stir up prejudice… but the youngest, especially women, are beginning to forge a new vocabulary. That is why I am quite optimistic.

P. What does this universal basic income that you defend consist of?

R. I never talk about universal basic income. I’m talking about basic income. Because in the case of recently arrived immigrants, for example, they should wait a while before acquiring that right. Although that does not mean that they do not receive other aid. It is a right for which each individual, man or woman, receives a modest amount each month. Unconditional. It is not linked to any economic level nor does it require a specific behavior. In cash or in some other way. Everyone uses it as they want. The amount will depend on the capacity of each Government to increase the funds destined for this objective. It is an economic right. An example of common justice. The justification for basic income is, above all, ethical. It does not imply the suppression of other types of aid or subsidies.

P. Why ethics?

R. Helps increase your freedom. Especially the women’s. It allows them to say no to an abusive relationship, or an exploitative boss, or a stifling bureaucracy. It allows you to make decisions, and that is what freedom consists of. And finally, a basic income, no matter how small, offers people the indispensable feeling of security. Because insecurity, as psychologists have explained to us, reduces our IQ. It is unfair for the State to subject a person who suffers from chronic insecurity to the same criteria as you or me.

P. What should guarantee that rent?

R. It should guarantee food, housing and a basic standard of living. And from there, go up. In countries dependent on a globalized economy, such as Spain or the United Kingdom, where salaries will continue to fall in the near future, due to this globalization and the automation of jobs. We must find a new way to provide citizens with basic security. The results of pilot programs carried out in several countries and cities, including one in Barcelona, ​​show that people who achieve this basic security work more, not less. Normally the bourgeois critics of the proposal claim that people stop trying. Is not true. They have more confidence, more energy. They try to acquire new skills.

P. And even dare to change jobs.

R. They even change jobs, because they are no longer afraid. Create a new type of entrepreneur. I was very impressed by the results of a survey in Spain. I asked people what they would do if they had a basic income. Many said they would increase their educational level. Or they would do more volunteering. Or more self-employment. This release of stress is today a vital necessity, because stress has become a pandemic in itself.

P. But in the end, doesn’t it end up being an uncontrolled subsidy, like the ones you criticize?

R. No, because it is not the same. A basic income is a modest weekly payment that you must learn to use. And what we’ve found in the pilots is that, initially, people don’t use that money well. But little by little they learn to do it. They save. They change their behavior. If it was one payment, all of us would probably waste it. This is what is called the weakness of the will. In the case of basic income, it is a better approximation, because you generate a modest reform and an economic right.

P. You advocate a change of approach with taxes. It’s possible?

R. It is not only possible, it is essential. Think, for example, of the tax on high carbon emissions. We need to tax those emissions to reduce fossil energy consumption. But the problem with such a tax is that it takes a high percentage of a poor person’s income. It must be made politically popular, and for that it should be noted that all this collection is the dividend of common goods, destined for a growing fund that will feed basic income. The larger that fund, the higher the income.

P. And you’ll get that message back from the commons.

R. Citizens can understand this concept, that of common goods. They can be water, air or land, but not only. Also the enjoyment of patent or intellectual property rights achieved thanks to a significant contribution of public aid. It is a way for progressive politicians to reformulate their agenda and stop using old, Marxist language that no longer connects with the new generations.

P. Is there a problem in the message on the left?

R. Talk of state ownership, or state intervention, leads people to think of authoritarian governments, like Putin’s. They associate them with centralized and rigid control of the economy. One of the problems we have had on the left has been that we have allowed the right to appropriate the discourse of freedom. It was the way to present ourselves as defenders of a paternalistic State. The message of the commons and the necessary redistribution of its dividends is understood by everyone.

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