The power to walk away: is basic income a bridge too far?

The Left has a longstanding preoccupation with unfree labour, and rightly so. The canonical view, expounded by Marx and many since, is that the freedom of workers under capitalism is illusory given that they must sell their labour power to an employer in order to survive. Workers may be free to refuse a particular job, but they can only do so if they have another job lined up or if they are willing to suffer the dire consequences of ‘voluntary’ unemployment.

This fundamental unfreedom is shared by all those who lack the capital to exit employment entirely. In the case of privileged, often high-skilled workers, it is masked by generous employment contracts and wages, ample benefits, stable and supportive working conditions, job-related social insurance entitlements, etc. For the growing ranks of vulnerable and precarious workers this unfreedom manifests itself in having to accept jobs that pay poorly, offer little to no benefits, and come with unhealthy or dangerous working conditions. Once employed, they lack control over how the work is carried out and are subservient to the whims of management. The inability to escape those dead-end jobs for lack of a reasonable alternative, and having very limited power to resist domination in the workplace, is what characterises unfree labour today.

Artwork by Carys Boughton. All rights reserved.

The radical promise of basic income is to alleviate unfreedom in the workplace by decoupling the means of subsistence from the employment relationship. It is easy to grasp how basic income could improve the lives of especially vulnerable, low-wage workers. It could supplement poverty wages and provide a buffer for those rotating from one low paid job to another. It would reduce the stress and vulnerability to exploitation associated with low income security. However, for Leftist advocates of basic income as an instrument of freedom, basic income is about more than making workers’ lives a little more bearable. It’s about giving people the keys to their own cages, and introducing a radical change in the power relationship between workers and employers.

Under a basic income regime, the argument goes, workers gain the ‘power to say no’ to bad work. It is meant to give them the freedom to exit a poor job that is denied them under current arrangements. As such, basic income hopes to improve the fallback position of each individual worker and allows them to credibly threaten to leave a job if negotiations with employers don’t result in improved conditions. Employers anticipating workers may exercise their exit option are expected to offer better conditions, effectively offering workers more freedom in their jobs. The pinnacle of a basic income’s emancipatory potential is reached when it offers workers the freedom to leave the labour market altogether, if that is what they want.

This story of hope has understandably gathered considerable steam amongst those appalled by the adversities faced by many workers in the modern labour market. But can basic income as a tool for exit live up its radical promise? We’re sceptical, as we see three distinct but related problems with basic income that may prevent it from becoming an instrument of worker freedom.

The risks of walking away

First, we must be realistic about when a worker would follow through on leaving their job. A basic income might provide a short-term bridge between jobs, but how long could it keep a worker afloat if they end up jobless for longer? The answer, which is crucial to a worker’s decision-making, depends of course on the size of the basic income. The higher the basic income the more impact it will have on precarious workers, and the more workers might consider exercising the exit option. But the most feasible proposals under consideration in Europe and elsewhere suggest a level of basic income that would seem insufficient to allow most workers to leave a job without having a replacement lined up.

On top of that, jobs often come with other benefits that aren’t replicated by basic income – access to health care or pensions, for instance. Granted, many precarious jobs have progressively dismantled access to worker benefits. But even in these cases leaving one job in search of better employment elsewhere may come with costs, such as the loss of support networks when moving for work. The risk of losing these network benefits, such as unpaid child care provided by family members or neighbours, may make precarious workers think twice about exercising their exit option. Under such circumstances, a basic income will increase the quality of life of someone trapped in a precarious job. But it may do very little in terms of escaping precarious work itself, and thus will have no impact on that worker’s freedom.

The second problem relates to the realities of finding a better job, especially for those currently trapped in precarious labour. After all, meaningful freedom is presumably dependent on having a real choice. There is little point in exercising one’s exit option if the result is ending up in an equally bad job or, worse, trapped in involuntary unemployment. While basic income advocates are right that some people would be happy to leave the labour market altogether and basic income supports that choice, the vast majority of workers today in fact want to find better employment. Ending up in unemployment, even supported by a basic income, does not offer the increased freedom they are looking for.

So what are the chances that precarious workers with a basic income will find better jobs, ideally in the same location so as to not lose their network benefits? Structural constraints on the labour market today suggest precarious workers may be able to move horizontally but the prospects for mobility towards a better job are often minimal. And if the predictions of many basic income advocates about massive technological unemployment due to increased automation prove to be true, precarious workers will face worse constraints. Basic income may be part of a solution against a background of increased automation, but that doesn’t mean it increases the freedom of workers. After all, even under a basic income regime, being involuntarily replaced by a machine is not the same as gaining the freedom to work or not to work!

The third problem has to do with the response of employers to workers who, emboldened by a basic income, threaten to leave a job. The basic income story suggests that employers will respond to workers threatening to leave their jobs by offering better wages, conditions, and so on. But why would they do this, especially if automation is offering a cheaper alternative? Here precarious workers face a double constraint. Each precarious worker threatening to exit not only can be easily replaced by other workers desperately looking for a job but also possibly by a machine.

To make matters worse, employers know fully well the sort of constraints precarious workers face. They would largely consider precarious workers with a basic income signalling their willingness to exit as a ‘hollow threat’. It’s unclear why employers would accommodate costly demands of workers threatening to exit with their basic income – at least when it comes to the precarious workers who are most unfree and who are the main concern of basic income advocates. On the contrary, the worry is that basic income might operate as a kind of ‘unemployment subsidy’, and counterintuitively make it easier for employers to get rid of troublesome workers and to replace them with either workers more desperate for a job or job-killing technology.

In short, we share with basic income advocates a strong sense that precarious workers are being exploited and dominated, and that resolute measures to address these conditions are urgently needed. We also see great potential in the basic income project for many reasons, including its capacity to improve the lives of many vulnerable and disadvantaged workers. But we do think the argument that basic income offers workers – especially precarious workers – radically increased freedom by strengthening their ‘power to say no’ is often overblown. Much more work needs to be done to understand the ways in which realistic forms of basic income affects power inequalities in the labour market.

This debate was financially supported by a grant from Humanity United.

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