By Jamie Swift
During Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s 2018 election campaign, he promised to stay the course, funding the province’s Basic Income pilot project for its full three years.
It took a few short weeks for his government to kill the research project.
Why? Maybe Ford’s boss-friendly cronies had heard that Hamilton bank teller James Collura had told the boss, as country music balladeer Johnny Paycheck once sang, to “take this job and shove it.” Collura quit and registered for Basic Income.
One of Collura’s jobs was to cajole customers into adopting on-line banking. Trying to do workers like himself out of a job. His performance gauge? His “digital conversion rate,” explaining that “the better we performed, the less relevant we were.”
As calls for Basic Income echo ever more loudly in the public square, most of its boosters base their arguments on poverty reduction and job threats from robots. (The remaining workers in one Michigan factory where jobs had evaporated after robots made the scene took to calling themselves “meat robots.”) But we believe that Basic Income opens up crucial discussions of the meaning and value of work itself.
Take “care” jobs. Capitalism turns pretty well everything into a marketable commodity. So, the emotional and interpersonal need we have to care for one another is just something else to be bought and sold. Take, for instance, Personal Support Workers—mostly women, many newcomers to Canada—who struggled to help senior citizens being sickened and killed by COVID-19. Their jobs are, quite literally, shit jobs. They had been doing this work before the pandemic and would continue in its wake. Until, that, is, their bodies are used up by the care-for-profit machine.
This caring work is literally vital, obviously beneficial to all. Yet those who work at these jobs are at the low end of the job ladder, moving between two or even three workplaces, looking up at “results-driven strategic planners” sitting around in comfortable offices, secure in their benefit packages. (For us, any job with “strategic” in its title or description is a bullshit job that needs to be abolished.)
The demand for a guaranteed, livable income unconnected to any job requirement is part of a social justice movement fighting rampant poverty and injustice in a rich country like Canada. And a way to ponder a robotized future. It is, to be sure, all of that. But it is also a provocation to imagine a different way of working and living. It provokes the question: Is waged labour, work as commodity, in and of itself a Good Thing?
The American feminist scholar Kathi Weeks, author of The Problem with Work, considers the demand for Basic Income a provocation because it can cast a critical gaze on the status quo—the apparently common-sense way of doing things. From this perspective, Basic Income advocacy becomes a “provocation to freedom.”
“By ‘freedom’ I mean …the time and space for invention, an occasion to contemplate the shape of life beyond work.”
From this perspective, Basic Income is something more than a policy proposal. This provocation can question dominant assumptions. Care, for instance, as some sort of commodity. Basic Income offers a very different way of regarding care. It is, argues Weeks, “an imagination of a different future.”
How about a future where care is no longer bought and sold by firms whose priorities were exposed early on in the pandemic? Three of the outfits that dominate Ontario’s private-sector nursing homes (Sienna, Extendicare, and Chartwell) had disproportionately high numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths. They also, over the ten years leading up to the pandemic, had paid their shareholders over $1.5 billion in dividends.
Senator Kim Pate has emerged as a leading voice in support of Basic Income. The former head of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies spent decades working on behalf of some of the most marginalized and despised Canadians—incarcerated women, men, and youth. For Pate, Basic Income is about “taking care of people who take care of others.”
Sounds pretty straightforward. But it gets provocative when profit overshadows basic human needs.
Jamie Swift is the author of fourteen books, most recently “The Case For Basic income: Freedom, Security, Justice” with Elaine Power @ElainePower6 , Professor of Kinesiology & Health Studies at Queen’s university.