The notion of a universal basic income (UBI)—an income up to the poverty line granted to every member of a community regardless of means, age, family status or capacity to work—is an old one, going back hundreds of years in Western traditions, and even further than that, of course, in global traditions. While thinkers across the political spectrum—from Bertrand Russell to Milton Friedman—have suggested UBI in one form or another, the idea has gained newfound popularity since 2010, particularly as a response to the challenges posed to full employment by the advent of workplace automation.
With the devastation of arts industries caused by the coronavirus response, the notion of implementing a UBI has become even more important. In the UK, the Musicians’ Union has called on finance chief Rishi Sundak to implement a UBI, because while a £1.57 billion pound bailout has been pledged to arts industries, most of this funding is going to institutions and venues, not individuals. The Union is concerned that without a UBI, the visual and performing arts will become the purview of those from well-to-do families—a luxury that people of humble means can never afford.
Philanthropic and state led efforts to support the arts have often focused on institutional spaces such as museums, university programs and art and cultural education in schools. While these are important, much of our creative work is undertaken by individuals and small groups of people. The social changes wrought by capitalism and our technologically mediated ways of life have changed the production of art, music and culture from something accessible to and enjoyed by everyone to a commodity for paid consumption, gate-kept by the powerful and produced by a privileged few.
On its own, a universal basic income cannot change this situation. What it can do is give more people the time and space to create. When everyone receives enough money for their basic needs to be met, individuals can choose to spend some of their time on matters other than work, basic self and family care, and rest—matters like learning, appreciating and making art and culture. In the introduction to its paper advocating UBI, “Creative Citizen, Creative State,” the Royal Society for the Arts’ director Anthony Painter said,
The ‘creativity test’ — where welfare institutions underpin the abilities of individuals and communities to turn their ideas into positive economic and social impact — is more difficult to assess. However, it is clear that the current system saps creativity through complexity, intrusion, and perverse incentives.
Whether it’s painting, playing music, poetry or computer programming, creative work requires time and space—the oft-cited “room of one’s own” cited by renowned author Virginia Woolf. To a wealthy person, the amount of money involved in a UBI disbursement might be negligible. To a person living in poverty, it can mean the difference between working 60 hours a week and 40, or the difference between living in overcrowded circumstances and having the space to undertake creative work.
Time off from work and space to create are not the only barriers to greater equity in the arts. A great deal of time that we spend outside of work is spent caring for ourselves and our families. With more security in our homes and more opportunities for rest, we get the chance to improve our physical and mental health and to form stronger and more secure attachments to our families and loved ones. A feeling of security and psychological health—and secure networks of community and support—promote brain development in children and aid in the healing of trauma in people of all ages. While health and security are, of course, worthwhile aims in themselves, they have been also correlated with a flourishing of creative expression.
There is a dialectical tension in how the arts are viewed in capitalist, colonialist, white-centric society. In the same breath, they’re seen as a waste of time and as a pursuit that is only meaningful if it is undertaken to make a profit. “Keep your day job,” naysayers warn. Universal basic income could help mitigate some of the risks associated with time dedicated to learning creative skills and producing creative work. By changing the social relationship between work and survival, UBI could give confidence to creators dedicating the time to their craft, and it could help societies realize that all work is subject, to a greater or lesser degree, to the same sort of precarity and conditionality that is associated with the arts.
Beckett has a famous quote about failing better. That’s a refrain for the dedicated artist whose talent and cultural sensitivity and identity could, with perseverance, privilege and luck, epitomize the “magic” that could launch them to success or fame, or, more importantly, significance and meaning that could reach a great number of people. But the refrain holds for people who might never work at that scale. Art and music and culture were once accessible to everyone and the product of everyone - stories told, songs written and sung, dolls carved and walls painted for the enjoyment of their makers and the small number of people that might hear about them. If we take the terror away from the work of survival, maybe creativity itself will be liberated, and the hyper focus on success that capitalism epitomizes will lose its power,
There are two different versions of UBI. The right-wing version is doing away with means tested social welfare systems and replacing them with a basic income. This is regressive, as it leaves many people, particularly folks who are economically marginalized due to race, gender, disability or other axes of marginalization, worse off. The progressive version implements UBI alongside social welfare systems—even strengthening these systems by expanding public housing, bringing in well-funded universal health care, and implementing equity policies to address oppressive social systems such as white supremacy and patriarchy. If we want a world where art and culture are for everyone and where life making—not profit making—is at the core of our economy this is the form of UBI we should support.