original title: Universal Basic Income, the Community Wage and Local Economies

Subversive Compliance

© Keith Rankin

published in Greenweb 8(4):14-15, May 1998.


Since the proposal to replace the Unemployment Benefit with a "Community Wage" was mooted in last year's budget, and especially since the announcement by Employment Minister Peter McCardle that the Community Wage will be introduced in October, the Left has treated the proposal with cynicism and threats of non-compliance.

I suggest a different tack. A bit of lateral thinking can usually lead to an alternative strategy; a strategy that I will call "subversive compliance". Both the Community Wage "workfare" scheme and the Code of Social Responsibility offer practical potential to be used in ways not intended by their makers; ways that can assist to legitimise lifestyles which are antithetical to market forces.

It should be noted that the Community Wage already means different things to its supporters. To McCardle the creation of a community work option seems more important than the "compulsion" aspect of the scheme. Of course he has had to adopt the "Wisconsin Works" type of language - eg calling unemployed people "jobseekers" - to help secure support for his proposal. That hardly makes him a rabid right wing ideologue.

The first question I want to ask is "How does the Community Wage help or hinder the realisation of a Universal Basic Income?" For the purposes of this article, we can think of a UBI as being an adult social dividend of $150 per week, funded by a flat rate of income tax of 42 percent. This unconditional income would not replace all existing benefits; rather the first $150 of existing benefit income would be considered to be a social dividend rather than an income transfer.

The Community Wage requires certain beneficiaries - so far that only includes unemployed single people and one person of an unemployed couple - to give up to 20 hours of their time to non-market work. The present requirement is that such beneficiaries seek fulltime market employment; that is, the present expectation is a commitment of 40 hours of a person's or a family's time to the market economy. The Community Wage idea requires no commitment at all to the market economy.

The Community Wage can thus be interpreted as legitimating an alternative lifestyle. It requires only a half-time commitment to what is now understood as the "voluntary sector". The voluntary sector is of course a very important, if undervalued, part of the national and local economy.

The downside of the Community Wage is that it will change the character of the voluntary sector, making it into a "quasi-voluntary" sector. But even this downside has its own potential silver lining. While a quasi-voluntary sector remains firmly outside of the market economy, it has the potential to bring the non-market economy (as distinct from the black market economy) out from under the shadows. It is an opportunity for our society to learn to value non-market work.

In the UBI debate, the Community Wage equates to the concept of "participation income". A participation income is generally regarded as a shift in social policy towards a UBI, and therefore deserving of support from organisations such as the Basic Income European Network and the UK Citizens Income Research Group.

The fact that the Community Wage was not formally conceived as a participation income does not mean that it cannot be received by our communities as one. The Community Wage has the potential to legitimate a lifestyle in which involves transforming the 40 hours we sell to the market into a combination of leisure and non-market work. That would be a major advance from the twentieth century obsession with the labour market; the institution which both Labour and Conservative Parties expect to govern our lives. The Community Wage could spell the end of the prevailing market work ethic.

In legitimating a non-market lifestyle, the Community Wage has the potential to decriminalise the kinds of choices many people make today; choices which are regarded by many conservatives as a form of fraud. Those choices include choosing to live in provincial locations where there are few jobs but many houses. And they include choosing to appear different - whether though an unusual dress sense, body-piercing or tattoos - as a means of rejecting the market ethic. The labour market is by far the strongest force for conformity in our society. These are valid forms of protest against the hegemony of labour force participation.

The Community Wage can do more than legitimate non-market work. By making the unemployed into community employees, it also makes it possible for them to become community employers.

Community employment, by its very nature, is immune to international market forces. Thus it can be the cornerstone upon which we rebuild our local economies, and indeed which we make it possible for New Zealanders to choose to not live in Auckland. I see it as a key part of the Green challenge to set up community employment networks; networks that function as community cooperatives which employ local people to produce valuable goods and services for local communities.

By all means let the traditional left-wing parties oppose compulsory workfare. Greens, on the other hand, might be better to seek to make a difference through subversive compliance. Let's make the Community Wage into a form of participation income that has some of the characteristics of a Universal Basic Income. And let's do what we can to use the community wage fund to create local employment cooperatives; organisations, set apart from the global market economy, that enable otherwise unemployed people to become community-sector employers.


© 1998   Keith Rankin

Rankin File