Book Review: Guy Standing’s Basic Income and How We Can Make it Happen

Jamie Swift

In 2011, before Trump, Orban and Brexit, the former International Labour Organization economist Guy Standing wrote a book in which he warned of the rise of a growing class “prone to listen to ugly voices.” Moreover, those strident voices could well erect an influential political platform. Standing argued that the neo-liberal project had, like Dr. Frankenstein, contrived an “incipient political monster” and that urgent action was needed before that creature came to life.[1]

A co-founder of the Basic Income Earth Network, the energetic Englishman called that book The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class. His 2017 book offers an incisive, well-informed – and sometimes impassioned -- probe of basic income. For Standing, basic income is at once a policy and an urgent social movement, an essential part of the urgent action required to stem the tides of right wing populism.

This volume owes an intellectual debt to Tom Paine’s Agrarian Justice and the idea of a social dividend that is “not charity but a right.” Using this principle, Standing cuts his way through the brittle thickets of social policy that so often entangle discussions of basic income. Along the way, he measure puts forward a wide-ranging definition of basic income as much more than an anti-poverty measure. It is “…a social dividend paid from the collective wealth of society created and maintained by our ancestors and as a shared return on the commons and natural resources that belong to all. This reasoning supports basic income as social justice rather than as a response to poverty per se…”[2] p27

It’s clear that Standing approaches basic income as part of the left libertarian tradition. Other leading basic income supporters share this perspective, notably Philippe Van Parijs and Yannick Vanderborght, whose 2017 book’s opening chapter describes basic income as “an instrument of freedom.”[3] Standing provides a comprehensive outline of the freedom-enhancing character of what he calls “republican freedom.” Freedom to refuse a bad job or leave an abusive relationship. Freedom to undertake care work and creative work.

“The freedom to be lazy once in a while,”[4]  echoing the libertarian Marxist Paul Lafargue’s famous revolutionary tract “The Right to be Lazy.”

Standing contrasts this libertarian position to neo-liberal notions of freedom and BASIC INCOME (the conventional reference in most every basic income analysis of this type is Milton Friedman), providing a useful counterpoint to left critics whose rejection of basic income equates it in a kneejerk fashion with neoliberalism.

“Support for or opposition to a policy should not be based on whether someone one does not like supports or opposes it.” 114

Yet Standing sometimes succumbs to the hegemony of neo-liberal libertarianism, arguing that “a crude Darwinian ethos…underpins all forms of libertarianism.” And that libertarianism does not account for the freedom of the weak and the vulnerable. p 57 It is testimony to the power of that hegemony that even as sophisticated thinker as Standing slips into this  assumption.

That aside, he offers a sharp distinction between work and labour, one that would surely pleased both Lafargue and Bertrand Russell, who wrote “In Praise of Idleness.” Standing mentions both and is forthright – and even acerbic – in taking on “the preaching of dour labourists” who continue to hold up full employment as a public policy gold standard. 177 For him, labour is a commodity like any other offered on the market. Whereas work, voluntarily undertaken, is something else again. A basic income would offer vital security for the unwillingly semi-employed precarious workers whose growing ranks so alarmed Standing in 2011.

His libertarian approach is a welcome egalitarian antidote to the failure of so much social democratic imagination that seems unable to extricate itself from a world where jobs are an end in themselves. Standing points to the reality of so much employment, so familiar to so many forced to subordinate themselves to bosses. Most, he explains – as if explanation were needed – are “boring, stultifying, demeaning, isolating or even dangerous.”

In a world where savage inequalities continue to grow, where is the pressure to reverse corrosive trends? There are, certainly, determined efforts to defend the common good in many northern welfare states. These are particularly important in the Anglosphere where neoliberalism and individualism are particularly well-entrenched. But how would a basic income detract from such struggles. Why, asks an advocate who has been promoting basic income since the neo-liberal era was starting to erode social protections, “should basic income be a distraction from other progressive policies, rather than giving them necessary substance?” 115

Yet Standing’s book is more than a litany of cogent arguments in favour of a basic income. He draws, as the subtitle suggests, on his years of promoting the idea,  sketching a pragmatic, detailed roadmap of the way forward.

In this respect, Standing’s book undertakes the same task that Van Parijs and Vanderborght address in their own 2017 volume. Although Standing is not as thorough in tracing the intellectual roots of basic income as his  Basic Income Earth Network colleagues, his description of the standard objections to basic income and suggestions for countering them are sharper and livelier.

The authors of both books are aware that basic income is a popular policy piñata for both left and right wing critics. Standing is well equipped to counter politicians from New Zealand to Iceland who have described basic income as “barking mad” and “completely ridiculous.”  On the left, one metaphorically-challenged Canadian publication has referred to basic income as “progressive cloak and neoliberal dagger.”

Milton Friedman famously observed that "only a crisis, real or perceived, produces real change. When a crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around."

Real change has often sprung from ideas whose time has come. Ideas commonplace today that were once scorned as utopian: An end to slavery. Votes for men without property. Votes for women. Shorter workdays. Universal health care. Guy Standing’s book presents a convincing case that basic income is an idea with a splendid heritage.

Jamie Swift is an award-winning Canadian journalist, author and activist, & member of the Kingston Action Group for Basic Income.


[1] Standing, Guy  The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class Bloomsbury, London 2011, p. 1

[2] Standing, Guy Basic Income: And How We Can Make It Happen, (Pelican, London 2017) p. 27

[3] Van Parijs and Vanderborght, Basic Income: A Radical Proposal for a Free Society and a Sane Economy, (Harvard University Press, Cambridge 2017) pp. 4-28

[4] Standing, Basic Income p. 60