Sooner rather than later, a robot is going to be able to do part or all of what you do for a living. In response to this and other pressures, the Canadian province of Ontario is gearing up to launch a basic income trial this summer. For a limited period of time, and in three regions across the province, the government will be giving people a living wage, for free and with no strings attached, and seeing how the hell it goes, eh?
It's not the first time that Canadians have flirted with the idea. In the 1970s, the Manitoba government experimented with a basic income in the town of Dauphin. As a result, poverty was virtually eradicated and high school completion rates went up.
The time seems is ripe for a fresh debate about basic income
Across the country, 42 percent of the workforce is at high risk of being automated out of a job, according to a recent report from the Brookfield Institute, a Toronto think tank. The time seems is ripe for a fresh debate about basic income, and Canada's 150th anniversary isn't just a time to reflect on the country's past—it's an opportunity to look towards the future.
What would Canada's 300th anniversary be like if the whole country implemented a basic income tomorrow?
Aspects of a basic income will benefit future generations just as it did people in Dauphin decades ago, according to University of Manitoba professor Evelyn Forget, who has extensively studied the Dauphin experiment and others around the world.
"You're going to reduce the poverty rate, and it's going to give people more control over their lives," Forget said. "They can invest in intellectual capital, they can get job training, and they can make longer-term decisions instead of focusing on how they're going to feed the kids. Today, unlike in the '70s, most people finish high school, but we may see higher completion rates in other kinds of education and training."
It's extremely important to note is that a basic income won't necessarily result in one outcome or another on its own. There are external factors—including legislation governing how automation will be implemented—that will determine things like how many jobs are available, or if there is a job market to speak of.
As for how a basic income would function alongside increasing workplace automation, there are two paths before us. In the first, the current labour market is preserved by artificially slowing the introduction of robots into the workforce with a tax. This also preserves how companies capture profit in a labour market, and protracts the usefulness of the threat of replacement by a robot if workers ask for too much.
As capitalist industry has already done over the last century of automation, new jobs will be created, but they won't necessarily be better jobs. Basically, our unending march of misery toward the heat death of the universe will continue apace as long as the state continues to prop up capitalism, but with robots manufacturing our running shoes instead of people.
A basic income in this case would simply act like a social safety net, not unlike those that exist today, but supercharged. If you want to be an author, you won't have to spend your nine-to-five working as a barista at a coffee shop. You could pick up some shifts a couple days a week for some extra cash on top of your basic income, and spend the rest of your time writing. Or not. If you're a full-time caregiver, you will finally be paid for all of the necessary work that you do.
"What a basic income does is force us to question the basic coercion of what work asks of us, and the place of work in our lives," said Forget. "You're going to see people choose to work because it's an important part of their lives, and for the people for whom this isn't true, they might focus on all the kinds of unpaid work that gives people a lot of personal satisfaction but doesn't necessarily pay well."
This wouldn't be all that bad. However, basic income here is essentially a method of ensuring that labour is reproduced within a job market not totally unlike today's, but with just a bit less work (maybe). Things will probably be a lot like they are now, and god, wouldn't that just be so, so deathly boring?
The second path is more radical, and involves leaning into automation.
Let the robots do the work, and let society enjoy the benefits of their unceasing productivity
"I don't think we should try and impede the rate of technological progress," said Sean Mullin, executive director of the Brookfield Institute, based at Ryerson University. "If you look at history, technological innovation has been the source of productivity gains. Labour productivity is the single most important contributor to rising standards of living."
So, proponents of this second, more radical path would say, "Hell yeah, automate those jobs. In fact, automate every job, or as many as possible." Let the robots do the work, and let society enjoy the benefits of their unceasing productivity and the wealth it generates, in the form of a basic income. This is the basic thinking behind the idea of "fully automated luxury communism," which argues that robots, collectively owned by the state, can take care of most of our basic needs while humans hang out and do whatever we feel like.
This would be a fundamentally different world than the one we live in today, and an idea of what it might look like doesn't really exist outside of fiction. Some portrayals, like Kurt Vonnegut's Player Piano, envision groups of people stripped of their personal dignity without the need to work, leading to a dystopia. Others, like Star Trek, see humanity using its newfound collective wealth and free time to, well, work. But it's not the kind of rote, dreary labour that exists under capitalism. There is little dignity in that, in fact.
In Star Trek's future, humanity, freed of capitalist work thanks to the advent of machines called replicators, in fact chooses to work towards uniting the universe in peace and harmony. And what's more noble, exciting, and challenging than that?
"People look at work as a way to define themselves and a way to organize their lives, and I don't think that's going to change dramatically," Forget said.
Both of the aforementioned visions of the future are possible, but one is more likely than the other. Both of them are going to take effort—there will be laws, debates, and votes—but we are now on the path towards more robots, but also more work, and more of those same old neoliberal blues. Still, a basic income would ameliorate some of the fallout from automating jobs out of existence. To arrive at this future, most of us simply have to do nothing.
To get to the second future—one in which robots work for all of us instead of just a privileged few—we are all going to have to fight, and fight hard, because it directly threatens the profits of any corporation that extracts profit from human labour. They're not going to like that, and neither are the politicians who either support them ideologically, or benefit financially.
But the future isn't theirs. It's ours, if we want to take it.
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