Economist Guy Standing says basic income 'an ethical demand for justice'

By Roderick Benns

Publisher of Leaders and Legacies, a social purpose news site 

The combination of people in short-term and contract jobs and those in other precarious work and living situations, has grown into a massive new class of people. Named ‘the Precariat’ by renowned economist Guy Standing, he says it is the only class of people in the history of the world that wants to eliminate itself.

Speaking in Toronto earlier this year to support his latest book, Precariat Charter: From Denizens to Citizens, Standing told an energized crowd that he estimates the Precariat class is approaching 40 percent in Canada.

Standing observes that precariousness is becoming the new normal after years of neo-liberal policies that have broken down the old order. (Neo-liberalism emphasizes privatization, deregulation, and globalization — the so-called right wing policies that promote a laissez-faire atmosphere for economic development.)

“The Precariat is becoming stronger every day. It is a radical class,” he tells those assembled, “because it is the only one that wants to abolish itself. That makes it very dangerous.”

Standing believes the Precariat could create new volatility within the social fabric because these people have no real voice. This could lead to the kind of zealotry that can see the quick rise of extremist political parties.

The Precariat is desired by global capitalism, says Standing, because the “systematic dismantling of social solidarity” benefits capitalists immensely.

The economist says the Precariat itself is characterized by three dimensions.

  1. The Precariat has to rely only on money wages instead of non-wage benefits, rights-based benefits, or community benefits.
  2. The Precariat is losing civil, political, and economic rights. Citizens are becoming denizens – nothing more than inhabitants of space.
  3. People within the Precariat have no sense of occupational identity or narrative. They are the first, mass class in history whose level of education is above the level of labour they are expected to perform.

To get the Precariat reengaged in society, he proposes a new framework – a charter of 29 actions that should be taken in order to give the Precariat and frailer members of society better access to basic rights.

One of the foremost among these 29 points is that people should receive a basic income, which could be topped up through earned incomes. Seen as an ethical justification, Standing also sees it as a “social dividend derived from our forebears’ investments and hard work.”

A basic income guarantee and other ‘charter’ rights can only be manifested through the “struggle for representation,” says Standing.

“It’s needed more across nations – the voices (of the Precariat) are needed within government. And that’s only beginning here,” he says, referring to both Western Europe and Canada and the U.S.

Standing says a basic income guarantee is an “ethical demand for justice, even ahead of poverty.”

“We must set up capital funds for the redistribution of basic income. It’s so important that youth – which has such great energy – mobilize and fight” for this.

Standing says the 18-month pilot that he was involved with in India, in which thousands of men, women and children were provided with unconditional monthly cash payments, saw improvement in their lives across the board. He says people wanted to work more, not less, once poverty was taken off the table. While acknowledging there will always be a small percentage who won’t work, Standing says that overall it’s “an insult to the human condition” to believe that most people won’t stay active once they realize a scarcity mentality is no longer necessary.

During his talk in Toronto, the economist was asked by an audience member how to get more involved in advocating for the rights-based issues he spells out in his latest book, including a basic income. Standing pointed out that the Basic Income Canada Network is very active and would welcome more Canadians’ engagement.

“I have spoken in many parts of Canada and I can feel the energy around this issue here,” he says.

More on Guy Standing

Guy Standing is Professor of Development Studies at School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and a founder and co-President of the Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN), an NGO promoting basic income as a right. He has held chairs at the Universities of Bath and Monash (Australia) and was previously Director of the Socio-Economic Security Program of the International Labour Organization.