June 5, 2023 - 1:10pm

Are we on our way to universal basic income? A pilot scheme has been announced in two English locations, in which 30 people will be paid a lump sum of £1600 a month without conditions for two years, and observed for the effect this has on their lives. This follows a slow but steady groundswell of calls for such a measure — calls that have accelerated since “furlough” effectively trialled something similar during lockdown. 

But while UBI may serve as a pragmatic response to increasing inequality, we should be alert to what such a measure implies: that the majority of citizens are now passive, consumption-only participants in the economic order. And once this is acknowledged openly, expect it to have knock-on effects in the political sphere as well.

One side-effect of industrialisation across the West was the widening of political participation. In England, a key group pushing for change was the 19th-century Chartists, who called for the working-class franchise along with other reforms to rebalance the political order. The threat of unrest, combined with the sheer practical necessity of having a relatively cooperative industrial workforce, ensured that many Chartist demands were eventually attained. In other words: the working class got their voices heard, and formally acknowledged via the vote, because they were needed

Today we are looking at the end of that era. The share of British GDP that comes from industry has shrunk from 30% in 1970 to around 10% today, largely replaced by services. There is no longer enough industry to keep an industrial proletariat employed. And even if manufacturing did get “re-shored”, much of it would likely be automated. 

So, too, will many of the service roles that replaced industrial work, thanks to rapid developments in AI. As the futurist Yuval Noah Harari argues, new technologies will replace most jobs, producing a new “useless class” of people whose work is simply no longer needed. Others warn that the looming age of automation will accelerate inequality: in effect, a mass of the indigent and unemployable, offset by a small class of fabulously wealthy tech plutocrats. 

It is not a recipe for political stability. One solution, Harari suggests, might simply be to keep this “useless class” fed with handouts and occupied with drugs and computer games. In more polite progressive terms, this means UBI: a solution to the inequalities now increasingly apparent in post-industrial society, opening the scope for people to pursue individual fulfilment as they see fit. Perhaps echoing the pragmatic willingness of 19th-century British elites to reform institutions in line with the changing political calculus, it’s often the tech super-rich who are UBI’s keenest advocates.

Harari notes that this presents a deep challenge to our belief in the dignity of all human life. This is true. It also presents a deep challenge to the political order we have come to think of as settled. Had the industrial working class simply been passive recipients of handouts and consumers of entertainment, it’s difficult to see what leverage the Chartists might have had for demanding the vote — or what reason elites might have had for granting it. 

By the same token, should the base of net contributors to the Exchequer shrink to a handful of plutocrats, it’s reasonable to expect that in practice, even if not in theory, the political views of those net contributors will weigh considerably more heavily than your average PlayStation-addicted UBI recipient. If your tax base comprises, say, 100 oligarchs, then the departure of even one makes a big dent in the coffers — a threat that can be used to shape policy a long way upstream of official politics.

On current inequality trends, then, it’s more than possible that universal basic income will become a reality. If it does, I predict that current electoral rituals will be maintained — but will steadily lose leverage. (This has, in fact, arguably been under way for some decades.) No doubt, over time, other means will be found for the masses to register their views. Or perhaps, like the 59% of American youth who would rather give up the franchise than their access to TikTok, people simply won’t care. 

Either way, in a UBI state we can expect the industrial-era democratic settlement to persist largely as a toothless ritual, while real political power withdraws into the hands of the new lords and princes.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.