The need for a common income

This is, in 16 points, why we started Common Income: a research project in Flanders about the possibility to share income between (not only) artists and cultural workers.

1. What is labour? Obviously, labour is more than simply the activities we get paid for. When we put our children in bed, when we write a poem, when we cook, when we care, when we discuss or when we wash ourselves, we labour. Every activity which is in one way or another productive, can be considered as labour. In this sense, it is hard to think of an activity which is absolutely unproductive. Even sleeping is productive, or at least reproductive.  

2. Yet, few of our productive activities are validated in the form of payment. The distinction between paid labour and unpaid labour seems arbitrary, there is no strict relation with productivity. All persons who take care of their children every day are extremely productive, yet they are rarely paid and are even generally considered to be unproductive. An office manager whose numbers in a database nobody is interested in might receive a good wage. The point is not necessarily that the office manager should not get paid and that the person taking care of the children should, what we want to address here is the apparent arbitrariness. There is no justifiable reason why one gets paid and the other does not.

Labour is always a form of collaboration, of ‘collabouration’. It is something which we do together, in which we necessarily depend on one another and which creates a common world.

3. Although strictly speaking a reason cannot be given for this arbitrariness, an explanation can be given. Clearly within capitalism, only labour which adds to profit maximization gets socially and financially valorised. Furthermore, in order to achieve profit maximization, some labour needs to be underpaid or left unpaid, since this is the very condition to be able to create profit. One of the main strategies to naturalize unpaid or underpaid labour are processes of racialisation and gendering. 

4. Labour is always a form of collaboration, of collabouration. It is something which we do together, in which we necessarily depend on one another and which creates a common world. Of course, neoliberal management always tries to individualize workers, to isolate activity in order to make solidarity more difficult. Some scholars (like Pascal Gielen) explain this neoliberal strategy as being inspired by individual competition within the art world, but even the most individual artist can’t create an ‘art work’ or publish a book without the involvement and engagement of others in finalising it. Even in the most atomized positions, there is always contact, collabouration, commonucation, commoning. 

5. The concept of commoning has been developed by American historian Peter Linebaugh to refer to those activities which create and reproduce commons. Commons should thus first and foremost be understood as a social practice in which resources are used and directly governed by a community of users. This is another way of saying that commons are not naturally given, they need to be produced and reproduced through social practices and one of the most important of those practices is labour. In fact, there is no form of commoning which cannot be considered as labour, just as there is not a form of labour which is not some kind of commoning.

6. Starting from this observation, we are confronted with a strange paradox. Although labour is always a form of commoning, an income is always highly individualized. Labour is common, income is private. Just think about how normal it is to talk publicly about your job and how ‘abnormal’ it is to publicly reveal your income. There is a kind of shame attached to income, as if one somehow feels it is a form of illegitimate privatisation, maybe even theft from the common.  

A common income is not a result of solidarity but a precondition for it. Solidarity becomes possible when income is redistributed, when we organize in order to redistribute income.

7. The way in which income is distributed in our society, leads inevitably to atomization. If income is regarded as a result of merit, as something you actually deserve because of your talent, hard work, intelligence or uniqueness, solidarity with others becomes more difficult. This process has been dramatically intensified under neoliberalism. The relation to the self and others is seen in terms of human capital and, as a result, income appears to be a valorization of individual human capital. As this point of view is hegemonic, every redistribution can only be considered as a form of charity. True solidarity is only possible when we start from the collective nature of both work and income. In other words, a common income is not a result of solidarity but a precondition for it. Solidarity becomes possible when income is redistributed, when we organize in order to redistribute income.

8. The post-war consensus on redistribution of welfare in most Western countries was crystalized in the form of welfare states. These welfare states contributed in a substantial way towards the commoning of income. By means of state sponsored insurance systems income was commonized and redistributed to a large extent. We should by no means downplay the historical importance of this effort and defend what still remains of these structures. At the same time, the welfare state should be considered as a partial attempt to create forms of common income, an unfinished project open to necessary improvements and radicalisation

9. It is with some hesitation that we speak of the welfare state, since the history of the welfare state is not the history of a state or state politics. The welfare state is the result of working class struggles, practices and experiments aimed at creating solidarity between members of the working classes. The first unemployment benefits were the result of creating funds among the working classes, quite similar to the creation of strike funds. Obviously, unions and working class parties played an important role here, forces which stood in opposition to the state as often as they collaborated with the state. In this sense, it is contestable to speak of the welfare state.

10. One of the main shortcomings of the contemporary welfare states is the specific conditionality on which the right to an income depends. The right to an income is strongly connected with the willingness to take a job. One must thus have a paid job, or one must prove to be unable to have such a job. Under neoliberalism, this conditionality is increasingly used as a disciplinary tool. The welfare system stands in service of a generalized ‘workforce’, of an obligation to participate in the so-called labour market.

A common income should thus not replace still existing structures of the welfare state, but rather extend them, make them more just.

11. Advocating for forms of common income can in no way be seen as standing in opposition towards the welfare state and its merits. The idea of a common income should be regarded as an attempt to radicalize the principles of the welfare state and to take the welfare state back to its roots – namely the semi-autonomous practices in which incomes are collected, redistributed and shared. A common income should thus not replace still existing structures of the welfare state, but rather extend them, make them more just.

12. Attempts to create forms of common income, must try to break with neoliberal conditionality. Since everybody, in one way or another, participates in the realization of commons, everybody should have a right to an income. This specific unconditionality of a common income stands in opposition to the conditionality of the privatized income. In fact, this should be regarded as the main difference between both types of income. However, we are also aware of the fact that a complete unconditionality is hard to realize. Every common creates conditions, rules and regulations among the commoners. Taking this into account, we must strive to reduce unnecessary or oppressive conditionalities and create types of conditionality which are as inclusive and emancipatory as possible.

13. Our plea for a common income should not be understood as a priorization of one type of common – namely, income – at the expense of other types of commons or commoning. In contrast to many defenders of Universal Basic Income (UBI), we do not see income as the most important way in order to create social emancipation. Reducing social emancipation to a matter of income is counterproductive since it does not create real collective independence and autonomy. People should not only have access to an income; they should also have (free) access to education, medical services, information, culture, transport, sports infrastructures, nature and food. Nevertheless, since we still live in a capitalist society in which money is crucial to function, income is of vital importance. Access to a common income can literally save lives.

14. We want to speak about a common income and not a basic income in order to stress the fact that we see a common income as something which is more or less horizontally shared and organised among people themselves, rather than imposed by a state. Furthermore, we are very well aware that some – maybe even most – advocates of UBI see an unconditional income as a better way to manage people, to make them more governable and, ultimately, as a tool to somehow halt the disintegrating tendencies within capitalism. In contrast, a common income is a way in which people themselves can create forms of collective autonomy, a way in which they can be less dependent on state structures and more auto-governable than governable. In essence, the creation of a common income should be seen as part of a radical-democratic project.

It is extremely important to discuss the exact amount of income one can receive, how income will be redistributed and to whom.

15. Although classical Athens can of course not be considered as a full, worthy democracy – since women and slaves were excluded from public deliberations – it nevertheless continues to serve as a paradigm for what a more direct democracy might look like. It is worthwhile to remember that those regarded as citizens were actually paid to attend public meetings. In other words, a common income was paid in order to participate in the common. In this sense, a direct historical link exists between a common income and democracy.

16. The modalities and conditionalities of the common income should, to the extent possible, be decided upon by the commoners. We consider it to be absolutely crucial that a common income cannot be used as a tool to discipline people, yet this implies that the modalities of that very income cannot be decided upon in a void, in absence of the common it refers to. Obviously, it is extremely important to discuss the exact amount of income one can receive, how income will be redistributed and to whom. But such debate cannot be held in absence of the common it refers to. In that regard, it is important to emphasize that the common is always a situated common, operating within a particular context in which specific needs arise with regard to which type of income is needed. We reject any attempt to create universal blueprints.

How these principles can be translated into a concrete proposal and a realistic pilot project, is the objective of our further research, aiming for results in 2022-2023. If you want to stay informed about our research by a two-monthly newsletter, please subscribe here.

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