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How Do You Decapitate a King?



In this piece originally written for the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA), head of RSA Scotland Jamie Cooke makes a case for basic income. The CSPP and the RSA are planning a new initiative on Inequality and Poverty. More information will be made available after the General Election.

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Basic income is a radical concept - it shouldn’t be anything else. As Anthony Painter has pointed out, much of our policy discourse is rooted in attempts at marginal change and, sadly, characterised by failure. We approach large, long standing challenges with small responses, repeated ad nauseum despite lack of impact, and then are surprised to see we haven’t solved the problem. Basic income can’t be another small response – it should be radical, it should be world changing and it should be effective.

I was lucky enough to be in Barcelona last week to speak at a conference organised at IBEI exploring automation, technological change and basic income. In amongst some fascinating discussions with researchers, academics and activists from across the world, one quote really stood out for me, which reinforced the need for us to celebrate the radical nature of basic income.  The organiser of the conference had met with a Spanish politician to discuss basic income, and was asked “how do you decapitate a King?” 

At first glance this seems a controversial comment to make in a monarchical state.  However, he was questioning the ability of individuals to overthrow the power at the top of a system – in the analogy a King, in reality the prevailing economic structures.  Power lies with the system, whether that be political, economic or social, and it can seem impossible to imagine how we can change that from a gradualist perspective, let alone from a radical one, when the odds are stacked against us.

Yet what struck me is that the change is now inevitable – the question is what will replace it.  The King is going to be decapitated, but what will fill that space – another king, anarchy, evolution?  It certainly is a challenge that we as advocates for basic income need to consider and explore if we are to convincingly paint a picture of the world we want to see.  The changing nature of work, the introduction of new technologies, the breakdown of the post-war social contract…the world is changing at a furious pace.  Yet our structures remain rooted in a different world, one of dreams of full employment, of jobs for life, of societal homogeneity.  This change is a challenge, it can be scary, it can offer threat – yet it also offers us a chance to be radical, to imagine a new world.

When I first engaged with the discussion around basic income, I was sceptical that we could change the world – it wouldn’t be possible to get governments and elites on board.  Heck, I still am sceptical to an extent, given the massive barriers in place for us to overcome.  Yet at the same time I have become ever more convinced by the opportunity that currently presents itself.

On the 2nd June I will be speaking at TEDx Glasgow, an event with the theme of ‘Lead or Follow’ (NB: information on this event can be found on the TEDxGlasgow webpage).  This, to me, is a perfect topic.  I will be arguing that this choice is precisely the one that we are faced with.  Do we wait for the world to change, and hope that we can catch up?  Do we watch other countries to see what works, and hope that we can follow their examples and learn from their successes at a quick enough pace to stay in the game?  Do we hope that our importance in a world which has passed will guarantee our relevance in a world that is being created?

Or do we lead?

We have a chance to create a new concept of society, which finally acknowledges the intrinsic value of each citizen, not for their economic activity but for their existence and their creative potential.  The economic certainties which have surrounded us in Western democracies face a fundamental challenge, and we have a chance to both change and redeem them.  At the RSA we have talked about the Inclusive Economy, one which all citizens can both contribute to and benefit from – yet the prevailing economic presumptions have worked against that.  As the system struggles under its own contradictions, space opens up to create a new approach, an inclusive approach, which can bring society on board and create an economy for all.

Basic Income is our starting point.  It is the foundation stone of a new social contract to take us forward in the 21st Century.  It can’t operate alone – that new contract must be illuminated through an evolved understanding of the role of taxation as an expression of our place within society; of a new approach to ownership of land and property; to a refreshed concept of how we approach political and civic engagement, bringing disconnected communities back into the conversations at the heart of our democracy.

The reality is that we can decapitate kings – the question is what comes afterwards.  As we stand on the cusp of significant social and economic evolution, we have the opportunity to decide whether we are going to wait to see what happens, or whether we are going to create the future we want to see.  I know which of those paths I would prefer to take.

Jamie Cooke is Head of RSA Scotland.  You can contact him at jamie.cooke@rsa.org.uk to discuss any of these ideas further, and can follow him on Twitter @JamieACooke

Originally published on the RSA webpage on 1/06/2017.

       
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