Monday, 27 March 2017

Utopia for realists..and how we can get there

This well-argued account puts forward a blueprint for radical change, offering a real program for mobilisation and action.

The bold premise of Utopia for Realists is that by implementing the Universal Basic Income (UBI), cutting the working week to 15 hours and opening borders to migration that poverty can largely be eradicated.

Rutger Bergman builds his argument steadily, quoting for example of UBI from an experiment in the City of London in 2009, when 13 men living on the street were given £3,000 a year.

The result was not that they spent it all on alcohol and drugs but on accommodation. After 18 months, seven had a roof over their heads, with two about to move into apartments.

The men had joined classes and reconnected with families. What was more the experiment saved money, with the total cost working out at £50,000, rather than the £400, 000 per annum it was previously costing to keep them on the street.

The UBI case is strengthened with examples from Canada and the US where experiments were conducted in the 1970s, on giving out free money. One particularly intriguing case is how President Richard Nixon endeavoured to get UBI adopted in America, being thwarted finally in the Senate.

The central thrust of Bergman’s argument is that the evidence shows that when given a basic amount of money people act sensibly, they don’t stop working but do have more time for their families and education. Basically, that people are on the whole well intentioned, not lazy and always seeking to cheat the system.

The author goes on to argue for a shorter working week, bringing in the effects of automation in removing much paid work going forward.

The arguments are familiar for those who charted the economic developments of the 1970s. ~Then it looked like the shorter working week and earlier retirement was on the agenda.

Enter the neo-liberalism creed enacted under Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher which threw everything into reverse. Since that time people have worked longer for less, with requisite increases in levels of stress, mental illness and general unhappiness with life.

Bergman covers a lot of ground in what is a short book but his arguments are well put together and lucid. Too many economic accounts lose the reader in the detail, Bergman’s light touch keeps the reader engaged and up with some new exciting ideas.

Criticism of the book would centre on possibly trying at times to sew together too many ideas at one time, thereby sometimes losing the reader.

There is certainly a lot of ground covered from the inadequacies of Gross Domestic Product as a 21st century measure of international well-being to the effects of automation.

One of the many sobering statistics comes from an Oxford University study that suggests 54% of jobs in Europe are likely to be done by machines in the next 20 years. The figure is 47% for the US.

Bregman attacks what he calls “bullshit jobs.” These are jobs like HR managers, social media strategists and PR advisors who effectively create nothing and could be done without. Indeed, such work is often creating problems. Such jobs are compared unfavourably with valuable jobs like dustmen, farmers and teachers.

Bergman’s answer to the world’s problems is a massive redistribution of wealth, moving from the present grotesque inequalities that sees eight people owning as much of the world’s wealth as half of its population (3.5 billion). The means to achieve such redistribution will be implementation of UBI, a 15 hour working week and taxes on capital and not labour.

He also calls for an opening up of borders, arguing that if developed countries let in just 3% more immigrants that would provide a boost of US$305 billion for the world’s poor. The author notes with some irony how ever since the Berlin Wall came down in 1989; governments around the world have been putting up walls and barriers to stop people moving around.

The program offered by Bergman is a radical challenge to the left. He criticises the left for acquiescing in neo-liberalism, simply being prepared to manage the system better.

He claims the left has now been so beaten back that it only talks in negative terms about what it is against rather than what it is for.

The programme outlined in this book has much to recommend to the Jeremy Corbyn led Labour Party. Indeed, some of the ideas like UBI are already being considered as central planks of policy. Although, concepts like open borders, might take a bit more selling in the present febrile atmosphere.

Published by Bloomberg,  £16.99

No comments:

Post a Comment