• 'Free Money: The Case for Basic Income'. (SBS)Source: SBS
A new documentary delves into the history and future of universal basic income, a concept currently being tested around the world.
By
Jim Poe

29 Nov 2018 - 1:49 PM  UPDATED 29 Nov 2018 - 1:50 PM

“If I don’t work, I don’t eat.” It’s a reality we take for granted. Yet when spelt out plainly, as it is here by American automation expert Marshall Brain, it seems mad. The things that keep us alive – food, shelter, healthcare – are things we continually struggle and compete for in our capitalist society.

Increasingly aware of the “deep flaws of capitalism,” as San Francisco-based environmentalist Peter Barnes puts it, 10 years after the onset of the global financial crisis, we’re still feeling the shockwaves. Wages have stagnated for years; affordable housing is a joke; income inequality is worse than it’s been in a century.

According to Oxfam, 82% of the wealth created last year ended up in the hands of 1% of the population. The bottom half – 3.7 billion people – got nothing at all. Meanwhile, headlines tell us 1 in 5 Australian children are food insecure and 1 in 200 people in the UK are homeless.

It’s easy to understand the anger that’s spurred the rise of mass movements like Occupy Wall Street, and why a majority of young people now reject capitalism.

So what to do about inequality? For an increasing number of thinkers and policymakers, the solution is very simple: give money to everyone. Expressed in a basic income – often called UBI, unconditional or universal basic income – every member of society would receive an annual “salary” and would be free to do with it as they wished.

Is that even possible? It’s very possible; perhaps even easy. A substantial basic income could be implemented in any given society – or according to some visionaries, even globally – if the wealthiest companies and individuals were taxed reasonably.

It’s breathtaking when you think about it: the wealth to end poverty forever exists right now. We just need to redistribute it. What’s stopping us?

New documentary, Free Money: The Case for Basic Income, explores this question. It details the history and potential future of UBI, presenting it as the best embodiment of the idea that no one should starve.

Despite what some might call the utopian nature of its proposals, Free Money keeps itself grounded. You don’t have to go looking in fantasy fiction or in our archaic past to find examples of societies that share wealth more equally.

The film follows contemporary experiments of basic income in places from Alaska to Germany to Namibia. It features interviews with a range of experts including Brain and Barnes, famed economist Emmanuel Saez and German entrepreneur Martin Bohmeyer, who crowdfunds basic income to prove its merits.

Free Money is impressive for the way it explicitly refers to the class war. It includes footage of socialist US politician Bernie Sanders railing against the 1% and interviews with Walmart workers who are on the frontline of the struggle against wage slavery. It even gives us an eye-opening clip of Martin Luther King Jr. arguing for “a guaranteed annual income” to help alleviate extreme racial disparity in the US.

Basic income will free people from toiling to survive; give workers more dignity and collective power, especially as our automated future approaches; and dramatically increase cash flow to local communities, inspiring radical experiments in everything from the arts to political organising.

Balanced against this are clips of neoliberal capitalist stalwarts like Milton Friedman and Warren Buffet expounding the benefits of basic income, suggesting that the concept by itself is not some paragon of anti-capitalism, and that there are a range of views on how beneficial it would be.

Leftist critics argue that as currently conceived, basic income is far more regressive than progressive, and will further entrench neoliberal austerity and thus be terrible for workers and the poor. Since UBI is being tested in Finland, and seriously considered by Justin Trudeau’s liberal government in Canada and by Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow Labour government in the UK, these political questions are fairly pressing.

Free Money is unabashed in making the case for UBI. Its subjects largely share the conviction that basic income will free people from toiling to survive; give workers more dignity and collective power, especially as our automated future approaches; and dramatically increase cash flow to local communities, inspiring radical experiments in everything from the arts to political organising.

While the film does acknowledge the opposing view that basic income could remove the incentive for work and make people lazy, it makes a passionate argument in favour of the concept. The first thing it shows us is a stirring clip from Star Trek: The Next Generation in which Captain Picard explains the beauty of life in the 24th century: “People are no longer obsessed with the accumulation of things. We’ve eliminated hunger, want, the need for possessions.”

It would be hard to come away from Free Money without being more resolved that redistributing wealth is one of the most obvious and just solutions to the drastic social crises we’re now facing. Exactly how we go about this is up for debate. But if you’re new to questioning the unfairness of capitalism or considering your place in the class war, Free Money is a good place to begin the conversation.

 

Free Money: The Case for Basic Income airs 29 November at 8:30pm on SBS VICELAND.