Guy Standing: About societies where every man, woman and child have an unconditional basic income

Strelka Magazine met the economist and learned why the precariat is happy when billionaires get nightmares and why humanity needs an unconditional basic income.

Photo by Alexander Karnyukhin

Guy Standing is a British economist who has described the new class called the “precariat” (a mix of the terms “precarious” and “proletariat”). This class stands on the next-to-last step, right before the homeless and the poorest. In early November Guy Standing held a lecture at the “NOW. Constructing Contemporaneity” festival.

– Your book, “The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class” was published in 2011. What changes did the precariat go through in these past five years?

– Since I wrote the book it has been translated into 19 languages, gone through four reissues, and has been quoted in thousands of publications. During this period I presented in 400 places in 37 countries and every day I get emails from people saying that they found themselves in the book, that they are the precariat but didn’t even know it before.

Society’s consciousness has developed. Back in 2011 the precariat in different corners of the world was disconnected and did not feel ideological unity. Five years later people have slowly stopped considering themselves failures and victims because they understand that millions of people like them find themselves in a similar position. The class is gaining power and getting bigger. And the most important thing is that this is necessary in the age of global capitalism and with the changing nature of the labor process. People are regaining confidence and have stopped feeling self-pity. They want to get included in public processes. For quite a long time the precariat, particularly the educated, used to say: “We don’t want to have anything to do with politics”. In the past five years we’ve had the Arab spring, the Indignados uprising in Spain (sp. indignados – indignant: Spanish social movement in 2011) and other precariat uprisings started to emerge. Their actions show that people don’t want to stay away any more: they are ready to take responsibility and re-engage in practical politics.

Guy Standing and commission chair David Lewis with SA president Nelson Mandela / source:

– You said that there is an educated part of the precariat. So there is also an uneducated part? How do you divide this class?

My second book, “A Precariat Charter: From Denizens to Citizens,” came out in 2014. There I basically divided the precariat into three groups.

The first group is “atavists”. They don’t have a lot of education. The atavists constantly look backwards and think: “My parents, they had status, security and I don’t have anything! This is terrible!”. It’s an echo from the past: they feel regret and want the present to be just like the past. Often it is that group that supports neo-fascist populists, authoritarian politicians, religious organizations. Specifically, Donald Trump this year during the presidential race in the USA, Marine Le Pen last year in France. These are symbols of appealing to this part of the precariat, saying “Your insecurity is due to migrants, refugees, Muslims, women, the disabled, Roma”. Atavists appeal to this sort of argument and play on the fears of society. I call the leaders that are forming this radical agenda and influencing the first group of the precariat dangerous clowns, hiding a terrifying prospect of authoritarian populism. In Russia, as I’ve noticed, this debate is present. A position of non-resistance towards the actions and rhetoric of the government is widely popular here.

«Their parents, their teachers and even politicians say: “If you go to university, you will have a great future”»

I call the second part of the precariat “nostalgics”. It consists of migrants, refugees, the minorities – those who feel like they don’t have a home. These people don’t have a present, a “now”; they are fearful, they feel powerless, insecure and are therefore exposed to a certain mutism, so they keep their heads down. At least until the pressure becomes too much. And then they explode and cause uprisings.

The third group of the precariat is “progressives” – my target audience. This is the group that I’m usually addressing. They have no sense of future. Their parents, their teachers and even politicians say: “If you go to university, you will have a great future”. That’s why progressives go to universities thinking that they bought a lottery ticket. But they learn that its cost increases more and more each year and the probability of winning gets lower. After graduating they have no idea what to do next; they see themselves as having no future except debt and disillusion with political strategies. Progressives are not going to support neo-fascist populists, but they also don’t have the tendency to doing nothing. Instead, they will try to form a new “politics of paradise” (a politics against global capitalism, whose goal is to rearrange world capital and force developed countries to invest into developing ones – editor’s note). In my book “The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class” I gave a detailed description of what the politics of paradise is. In the next book, “A Precariat Charter: From Denizens to Citizens” I invited readers to think: “What matters to you? If you’re in the precariat, what do you really want?”. As a result, I found that the precariat is moving from the phase of an unconscious situation in 2010-2011 to a growing consciousness and political re-engagement.

– We began our conversation with what the precariat was like in the past and what stage it is in now. What will happen to it in the future: what do you imagine it will be like in five years?

– This year I have been invited as a speaker not only by the organizations representing the precariat’s interests. I was invited to speak to the Bilderberg Group (unofficial conference led by influential businessmen and politicians – editor’s note). That is an elite group: powerful prime-ministers, ministers of finance, plutocrats. They meet in secret. I didn’t understand why they wanted me to speak to them, because politically I’m on the left, which is the opposite of what their position is. I’ve also been invited to The World Economic Forum in Davos, which was quite strange as well. However, the reason for such attention lies in the fact that they don’t want an unstable international economy. And some populists in the government are endangering the international economy. And what I find interesting is that some of them start to realize that they’ve been too greedy and they want too much for themselves.

«I support an unconditional basic income and I can already hear from the precariat in Italy, Britain, Japan or New York: “We must go in this direction! We can go in that direction! We can do that!”»

I began my third book, “The Corruption of Capitalism,” with a true story about these people. Two billionaires live in different parts of the world. The first one is in Monaco; he wakes up every night having the same nightmare. He sees a revolt and everyone’s coming, charging to kill him. And the businessman wakes up sweating and says: “And they’re right, they’re right, because it’s unfair!”. That’s his nightmare. And on the other side, there’s a billionaire from Seattle. He’s been having nightmares about the French revolution, where the peasants with their pitchforks are coming charging at him. He wakes up thinking that the peasants’ actions would also be justified. So it turns out that in different parts of the world the rich are starting to be scared of the poor. And the precariat wants billionaires to be even more scared, for them to have even more nightmares. It gives a push to new uprisings in different countries.

I think by 2020 this will result in new political parties representing the precariat appearing in all sorts of ways. The old politics and the old political parties: socialists, social democrats, communists – they are irrelevant to the 21st century. But the problem is that when we get rid of them, we will get a political vacuum, which nature opposes. So, the vacuum has to be filled with new progressive politics. For example, in Spain, Denmark, France or Italy we can already see new political groups; these represent the politics of the enlightenment: equality, liberty, solidarity. It’s a gentle politics, which advocates the idea of reducing the disgusting inequalities of income. Its representatives say that society doesn’t need a bunch of oligarchs above the majority running everything and earning a thousand times more. A healthy society can’t live like this for a long time and sooner or later the corruption mechanisms will ruin the integrity of the society and its sense of liberation. And that’s when enlightenment will come back to people. I support an unconditional basic income and I can already hear from the precariat in Italy, Britain, Japan or New York: “We must go in this direction! We can go in that direction! We can do that!”. They understand the situation and instead of feeling defeated by the elite, they are striving to win. By 2020 the precariat will become an organized class with a loud voice.

Guy Standing with family at Otjivero, Namibia / source:

– Which global movements already give us hope that the precariat will gain power?

–  Podemos in Spain (left political party – editor’s note) is a precariat movement. It’s rejecting the old state socialism and is now nearly the official opposition to the Spanish government. In Italy it’s  Movimento 5 Stelle, the Five Star Movement which I discuss a lot in this book; it’s a sort of breaking with the old. This party has contradictions, but it represents the mobilization of the precariat. Denmark has a new alternative political movement, Alternativat, where the precariat gets more than 10% of support in the opinion polls. All that is already happening in the world.

– Speaking of the growth of consciousness: does it only apply to the precariat or other classes as well?

– The consciousness of all classes is growing, but it differs in the perception of time and the main source of the problem. What is the difference between the precariat and the proletariat? For the proletariat, the old enemy was the factory boss, capital – direct. They think: “We are insecure because the factory owner can do whatever”. The precariat sees the cause of insecurity inside the class in the government’s actions, new laws and other administrative institutions.

On the other hand, the education system is also one of the institutions contributing to the insecurity of the precariat. Education should be a means of enlightenment, a means of defining ourselves as citizens, right? Instead, because it’s been commercialized and privatized, education has turned into a profit making structure, which only cares about gaining as much income as possible. The education system suppresses personal history, culture, philosophy and dictates its own values. The precariat appreciates its connection to tertiary education and history and civic values at the same time. So, its enemy in this respect is the commercial education system.

The precariat also cares for the space that surrounds it, as it is the first class to be affected by the loss. The elite and salariat (hired employees with stable salary – editor’s note) have dachas and they can afford expensive holidays in the mountains or at the sea. They aren’t bothered by the subjects of global warming or the disappearance of certain species of animals and plants. Here’s an example: in the next ten years fish stocks will only be available to the privileged. All the fish that is quite cheap now will only be for the very rich, because it will be depleted. The precariat understands this problem and, therefore, includes environmental problems into its agenda. In the meantime, the salariat doesn’t care that much about the depletion of resources as it can buy anything it wants.

– Then how can the proletariat evolve? How can the government secure it?

– We should move towards having societies where every man, woman and child have an unconditional basic income. Everybody has a right to basic security and the government can provide it. Thus, an unconditional basic income will speed the development of a healthy society, reduce the level of civil insecurity, contribute to the development of liberty and it will become the symbol of social equality. One can’t feel free whilst being afraid. With unconditional basic income people won’t stop working but will live without fear.

Guy Standing at launch of BIEN, 1986 / source:

I worked in Russia at the beginning of the 1990s and I remember the fall of the Soviet Union. The tragedy was certainly in the fact that because of the fall of the stable model, even though it was a bad one, society practically went into shock. Often people weren’t paid for their work, inflation started, people’s savings got wiped out. The statistics of that time show an average life expectancy for men falling from 64 to 58. I think it kind of looks like a form of genocide. It happened because in that difficult and conflictual period no one thought of personal and civic security. We’ve had situations like this not only in Russia but also in the USA, Great Britain, France, even Germany and Japan. The precariat is always in an insecure state, incomes are volatile and changeable, people take loans and suffer from psychological diseases. On the one hand, it’s a vivid example of the insecurity of society as a whole. On the other, the problem mostly concerns the precariat, as it is always the first class to get affected by unstable situations. That’s why I support a basic income. However, you shouldn’t claim such ideas are utopian: they can be implemented if we start right now.

Author: Alexandra Sivtsova
Translation: Olga Baltsatu