The topic of automation is no longer a fringe political or academic issue – and what often follows is a discussion on Universal Basic Income, or UBI. Put simply, UBI is an amount of money offered without condition to every citizen in society, no matter their circumstance.

Its advocates say that with the oncoming wave of algorithms and automation, jobs as we know them will cease to be, and, naturally, something else will need to be in place to account for what the wage is for today. Even Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell raised Universal Basic Income last week, when he insisted that the public can be won over to its merits. Labour leadership challenger Owen Smith, meanwhile, has just said it could never be implemented.

Image: an automated Ocado factory
Image: an automated Ocado factory

But there are serious questions ahead. If it is indeed as inevitable as the march of technology itself, then there will need to be a set of guiding principles in place, because if viewed apolitically, there’s every chance that a policy frequently dismissed as utopian could be introduced to dismantle social welfare systems at a rate never before seen.

Future-gazers throughout the 20th century believed that by now, technology would have liberated us to the degree we’re enjoying more leisure time than ever before. It’s not difficult to find that stance from a pretty wide range of sources – economists like Keynes to kitschy cartoons like the Jetsons, think tank reports and the now-defunct World’s Fair all agreed that technology alone would be making life much more comfortable.

But the reality has been the opposite. Many of us are working longer hours and in greater precarity – and consumer-convenience apps like Uber create large pools of labourers with uncertain futures. Next, we are told, is factories with ever decreasing workers, and a seismic shift in the way worldwide logistics are run – trucking convoys without drivers and delivery-by-drone.

With this new network of automated systems in place, there are some easy to digest arguments for UBI. A guaranteed living income could lead people towards a dignified existence where they were free to share and choose the dwindling supply of jobs, for extra income or for personal interest. Overnight, the flexibility that short-term work is supposed to offer could actually deliver.

What’s missing from the picture is how this radical new system could be wielded as a weapon.

Alex Williams is co-author of Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work. On the cover of this book, in bold type, are three clear demands: for full automation, for universal basic income, and for the future itself.

“We are eager to emphasise that Universal Basic Income is definitely not a panacea,” Williams tells Techworld. “For many years UBI was not on any serious policy agenda, so its advocates very much emphasised: ‘let’s promote UBI as many different ways as possible, and we don’t care necessarily if that’s left-wing or right-wing, we just want to get it on the agenda.

“That’s explicable at a point where UBI is not being seriously entertained by anybody who could possibly implement it. In the last year that’s significant changed. It’s being debated on Newsnight, everybody knows at least vaguely what it means.

“It would be possible for a relatively enlightened right-wing administration to steal the thunder, say ‘we’re implementing UBI’, and have a policy that’s not anything anybody who wants a progressive UBI would be interested in – but could potentially kill off the idea for a generation amongst the left.

“The way we’re describing it now is it’s not so much a policy goal as it is a field of political battle.”

Two of the architects of neoliberal thought are the economists Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, and they both thought favourably of a guaranteed citizen’s income. Whether you agree or not with the ascendency of their beliefs or not, their anti-state, anti-social welfare views are the dominating ideology of the day – so it might seem surprising that they could get behind such a radical measure.

Even recently, the fact that these economists also liked UBI has been interpreted by some of its loudest evangelists as evidence that the measure would transcend the left and the right of politics. But Friedman and Hayek arrive at the proposal from a very different place. Rather than a social necessity to soften the blow of Industry 4.0 and beyond, they viewed it as a means to trim what they would call red-tape or the bureaucracy of the state, and in other words, that means social welfare: nationally-owned assets, public healthcare, free education, and so on.

The transference of wealth from the bottom-rung of society is something that has occurred the world over, usually under the banner of austerity. Recently and more closely to home, its effects can be seen most clearly in countries like Greece, Spain, and Ireland, but in the UK too.

A badly-implemented basic income could easily provide the means to continue this work.

“The right-wing proposal would be the one where you use UBI as a way to transition to a kind of voucher system, but where the voucher happens to be money,” Williams says. “You no longer have a publicly run health service, you’re paying everybody UBI, you use that to buy services, and if you’re wealthier you can buy more services. It’s the dream for these neoliberal or libertarian proponents. And this is something I think should be resisted at all costs.

“You can call it UBI but that’s certainly not something I would want to see realised. I think this is one of the issues of the moment. There are still lots of people talking about UBI as if it’s a singular thing. It’s a bit like saying ‘welfare’ – you can have more or less extensive welfare systems, you can have more or less coercive welfare systems. A lot of the devil is in the detail.”

It doesn’t take a particularly creative imagination to picture a cynical future where the terms of agreement for UBI are retroactively changed. With other social welfare systems weakened, the same old talking points could be used to attack UBI itself: there is no more money, or one group of people is suddenly undeserving.

So, what could be done to ensure UBI is implemented in a progressive way and then safeguarded?

“I think to get a serious and interesting UBI that’s set at a kind of actual income level you could live on requires some external driver, the most fundamental of which is a government that’s taking the impact of automation seriously,” Williams says.

“You could have UBI set up in different ways, some which I think would be much less progressive than others, and this is why it’s not just a question about automation that reflects on the economy, it’s also a question of if it’s possible to build up a political force that’s going to be able to act as a constituency for this kind of policy.

“That doesn’t exist at the moment. There are some inklings it’s emerging, but it doesn’t necessarily exist at the moment.”

Of course, the first question most people will ask is how such a thing could be funded.

Kate Bell is the head of economic and social affairs department at the TUC, which has no official policy on UBI at present, but she says that there are some questions that need to be asked for any proposal.

“The first is whether it is necessary,” Bell says. “We’d always say that any social security reform also has to accompany a strategy for decent jobs and pay, and can’t be seen as an alternative to it. The debate risks being in danger of moving away from that strategy and saying we’re inevitably going to have a low-job future. Our priority is decent, well-paid jobs, basically, rather than social security as a means for shifting risk onto employees or the state as opposed to companies.

“It’s important to put it in context and say that is still the priority.

“A key question is how it will be funded, and whether that’s sustainable: what level it would be set out and how that’s going to be sustained – what happens over time? You can see the value of Jobseekers Allowance has eroded massively over time when you compare that to average wages.”

A basic income, Bell explains, is not a technical question – but a distributional question, and is largely about the level of political support that you can get for it.

She asks: “How do you ensure people have enough for a decent standard of living? How do you build political support for that, and a sustainable mechanism of funding that goes beyond a basic income – it’s not a question that the basic income on its own can answer.”

And Bell also suggests it’s not much of a leap to imagine a situation similar to how Universal Credit worked out – a system that provides income support to privately employed individuals because private industry is simply not paying enough to live on.  

“Our government’s Universal Credit system is intended to deal with a more flexible economy flexible economy, or that was one of the key arguments for it. It should enable you to move up and down in work – three hours one week or seven hours another. What’s ended up accompanying it is a requirement from the government, that if you’re working below a certain number of hours there will be a conditionality, so government will ask you to work more.

“I think with Universal Basic Income, people need to think about how you make political arguments that mean the features of it seem attractive and that unconditionality actually remains in place.”

And, of course, there are decisions to be made in deciding how to fund it. All of these questions and doubtless many more need to be answered.

According to Williams, UBI could be constitutionally enshrined in some way, or mechanisms could be implemented to link it to other economic indicators, putting it beyond immediate control. And at base, UBI would require a large enough mass of people who are ready to mobile to defend it.

“Anybody who sees UBI as an apolitical panacea that’s a technical measure to solve numerous social and economic issues, I don’t think that’s true,” Williams says. “There’s no way around the politics of it, and the fact that some forms of it are going to require political backing to make sure they are maintained.”

However, he does believe UBI is an inevitability.

“But also, I think if you’re in a situation where there’s widespread automation, one of the economic reasons to adopt the UBI as policy is, to put it very simply, you can’t have an economy that’s run by robots and algorithms and still expect people to be able to buy the products those robots and algorithms make.”