UBI, REGENERATION AND THE ARTS
Imagine for a moment that a Universal Basic Income (UBI) has been introduced. It has been set just above poverty level. In other words, you can afford a roof over your head and you can eat nutritious food with a modest degree of variety. In fact your stipend might even be a little more generous than this, so that you can (for example) afford a television or an internet connexion or both.
Now consider the villages of rural France. Many are grievously depopulated, mostly because there is no work. No work = no money. Nor is the work about to come back. Until well after the Second World War, all the farms in the corner of France where I live were worked with horses and oxen. The first tractor didn't arrive in my commune (the secular equivalent of a parish) until 1948. Over the next couple of decades, mechanization took over. Now: well, yes, we have Eastern Europeans during the melon-picking season, and up the road in Chinon they employ casual labour for grape picking; but the vast majority of the work of sowing, tending and harvesting that once employed hundreds of people (and their horses and their oxen and the keepers of these beasts) is now done by a few men with a selection of huge and extremely expensive machines from Claas, New Holland, Massey Ferguson and the like.
As a result, about one third of the houses in the village where I live are occupied all year 'round; one third are second homes; and one third are for sale or falling down or both. There's not much to say about the ones that are occupied all year 'round, except that they're not very expensive and taxes are low. The other two thirds are however quite interesting in the context of UBI. Let's start with the ones that are for sale or falling down or both.
In a couple of short stories on this site I've mentioned “homesteading” in passing: the idea of regenerating more or less tumbledown houses. In what follows I'll continue to stick with my own village, because it's the one I know best, but there are plenty more within a radius of (say) 40 miles or 70 km. Many are even more heavily depopulated, so that instead of under 1000 inhabitants, some are under 100.
Now, repairing and refitting a house takes time and money. I have already addressed the point that there's very little money about, because there's very little work. If you have UBI, though, you may not have much money, but you'll have some; and, if you want it, you'll have plenty of time. To a very considerable extent, it should therefore be possible to gain “sweat equity” in return for regenerating a house; which is, of course, part of regenerating a village. This could work either literally as equity – part or whole ownership of the house – or as an offset against rent. Surprisingly many buildings come into the possession of the commune, often as a result of default of taxes but also through intestacy and deliberate bequests. This gives local government a lot of power to improve the villagers' lot.
You could also grow quite a lot of your own food: the potager (vegetable garden) is still commonplace in rural France, and while a pig may exceed the ambitions of many, chickens need not. To be sure it would be difficult or impossible to live by what amounted to subsistence farming, and there would be the usual problems of gluts and crop failures; but given that whatever you grew would be a bonus on top of your UBI, this really shouldn't be a problem. The money you saved could likewise be applied to restoring a house.
You'd need it, too, because UBI alone would probably not give you enough money to regenerate a house. But as well as growing your own food and the aforementioned offset against rent, there is the possibility of grants or low-cost (even zero-cost) loans: it is after all in the interests of the commune and the country that villages do not fall into rack and ruin. Another possibility is (very) part time paid work. One day a week behind the counter in the local Co-Op shop could be, as the old Cornish saying has it, “a nice little lift in Father's quarry.” In season there's fruit-picking. In fact there's casual agricultural and other labour all year 'round, and wages might actually rise because fewer people would be driven by financial desperation to (for example) egg packing or the frozen pizza factory. On top of all this, there is small private enterprise: repairing bicycles, selling goose eggs or cherries. There's even artistic endeavour: selling the occasional painting, passing the hat around at a concert in the bar.
This is where the middle third of the houses may also come in, the ones that are occupied only part time. Gardens need to be tended; the houses themselves need to be cleaned; windows washed. Sure, they're all pretty menial tasks (except perhaps the gardening), but once again, it's not a question of being driven by need to constant drudgery day in and day out: it's a bonus on top of your UBI. Also, of course, the second homes can be quite heavily taxed: if you can't afford fairly high taxes it is hard to see how you can afford a second home. If this means that some second home owners decide that they can no longer afford (they'd probably use the word “justify”) their second home, then fine: the house comes back into the meaningful housing stock of the village, thereby attracting full-time inhabitants and regenerating the village still further.
In such a regenerated village there would be far less incentive to move in search of work – Norman Tebbitt's notorious “get on your bike” – and much more of an incentive to try to bring the work to the village. A more stable population would have a much better chance of getting to know one another and thereby establishing a genuine community. This doesn't necessarily involve being constantly in and out of one another's houses, though it can be if that's what some people want. There's room too for the elderly semi-recluse, for the teenagers to hang out together because nobody understands them (did anyone ever understand teenagers? Not if you ask the teenagers), the Head Girl types who like organizing everyone into community activities. Not everyone is going to get on with everyone else, but the same applies to people in general as to perpetually misunderstood teenagers: life has always been like that.
There are similar villages and towns in many countries: as I say, I choose my own village in France, where I have lived for a decade and a half, simply because I know it best. For that matter there are run-down areas of cities, where it is not agricultural work that has evaporated, but industrial: above all, factory jobs. Each place – village, town, city ward or precinct – would require different approaches in detail, often with more financial and logistical input than would be required for a small village; but the same ideas apply of cheaply regenerating dwelling-houses and building communities. It is also worth reflecting that the market cannot and will not begin to approach such ideas. This is a political decision: it is time for politics to reclaim the ground that it has, since the days of Reagan and Thatcher, ceded to private corporations.
A minor and unexpected side benefit of village regeneration (though less so of urban regeneration) would be greatly reduced opportunities for terrorism. It might be entirely feasible to set up a bomb factory and even a small-scale terrorist training camp in a large, isolated farmhouse, but even if no-one tumbled to what they were doing (as they very probably would in a village), village targets would not attract the coverage that would be generated by an attack in a big city: there are rarely enough people in one place. Decentralization brings unexpected benefits.
The perpetual question about UBI is, of course, how to pay for it. Astonishingly many people seem to think that their jobs are indispensable, so they will be paying for everyone else to live a life of idleness. Most of them are quite simply wrong: they too will be automated out of a job sooner or later. Assuming, of course, that they are not already retired themselves, with a shaky grasp of modern economics. This tends to be especially true of the most vocal opponents of UBI, who may often have worked in essentially parasitic and unsustainable industries such as advertising and investment banking.
At the moment, we have the perverse situation that companies are taxed for taking on employees, but given tax breaks for buying robots. Sooner or later, directly or indirectly, there will have to be a tax on robots. The alternative is for more and more money to be concentrated in the hands of the robot owners, even as the products made by the robots grow less and less necessary because durability has to be discouraged in order to provide “employment” for the robots, which are capable of making huge numbers of things very cheaply whether there is any real demand for them or not, as a part of ever-increasing “economic growth”. After all, demand can always be created by advertising; but equally, perpetual growth on a finite planet is by definition impossible.
This in turn leads us into questions of sustainability and zero growth (in rich societies) and indeed of whether advertising should be taxed, as it is clearly not a common good, and whether there should be a Tobin tax on financial transactions; but these are arguments for another day.
There is however one more argument that I will adduce. It is that countless people have more or less of an artistic impulse. Some have several. My own impulses lean towards photography and writing, as this site clearly demonstrates. A couple of decades ago, I could earn quite good money from these activities, as well as giving pleasure to those who enjoyed what I wrote. There were always those who didn't, of course, but they were of little consequence as long as there were those who did. Since then, the rise of the internet and the spectacular decline of (paying) printed media – many of the magazines for which I used to write have simply disappeared, from lack of subscribers and advertisers – has meant that a continuing indulgence of these impulses is made possible by a combination of an old age pension (a form of UBI, albeit available only to the elderly) and living economically in a village. The internet is not “free”, after all. It is merely that the advertising tail now wags the editorial dog. This was increasingly true even 20 years ago, when advertising departments in magazine publishing houses had a malign influence on editorial content but were too stupid, arrogant, craven or cynical to realize it. Now, (to change species) those particular pigeons have come home to roost in a particularly malevolent manner. Or perhaps the dogs are defecating on their own doorsteps.
You may or may not consider me a good photographer or writer, but this is not the point. UBI would free a lot more people to pursue their artistic impulses. This would include young people as well as those who, to put it kindly, may suffer from hardening of the categories. By the law of averages, this would almost certainly entail a significant increase in the amount of good or merely enjoyable art in the world; and most art, enjoyable or not, has a very small environmental footprint. This is especially true of most kinds of performance art. This is, perhaps, the greatest hope for a zero-growth or at least low-growth economy.
Sure, it might be harder to find the art in question, buried as much of it might be in the huge morass that is the internet; and a lot would depend on pure luck, or fashion, or the unfathomable ways of internet search engine spiders. But there could also be a renaissance of local art, in the shape of exhibitions, concerts and plays. With luck, the audit of time might bring the best of it to the fore, so that in a hundred years everyone with any degree of curiosity or interest in a particular art (including politics) would know the names of people who are completely unknown today, but who had been proved by the passage of time to be at least minor geniuses.
To finish, though, I'll put a sting in the tail, choosing photography as my prime example. Countless amateurs dream of becoming professionals, or at the very least, of being unshackled from the drudgery of their day jobs so that they could devote more time to their art. Or even Art. Distressingly many are simply deluding themselves. Success is a complex cocktail of talent, hard work and sheer luck. Often, the luck in question consists of being in the right place at the right time. This in turn will often mean a sufficiently consuming passion for one's art (or Art) that a great deal else is subordinated to it. I may be wrong, but I very strongly suspect that many do not have enough passion. They think they have; they boast that they have; but in the final analysis, they might well turn out to be like a certain kind of dog that strains at the leash, barking and growling and seemingly desperate for a fight. Then, if you slip the leash, its bombast is revealed for what it is: it whines, whimpers, cowers and backs away.
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