A Social Movement for Basic Income

Bill Jordan describes how the idea of basic income inspired a pre-War social movement and wonders whether the same might emerge today.

Author: Bill Jordan

How might Basic Income schemes eventually be adopted by governments of developed democracies? This topic has not been much discussed in the literature of the proposal; rather it is implicitly assumed that key politicians will be persuaded by the arguments of intellectuals like Philippe Van Parijs, Claus Offe and Guy Standing. 

The idea of a popular social movement, mobilised around Basic Income, has not been seriously canvassed since the Claimants’ Unions of the 1970s.Yet there was such a movement in the 1930s, here in the UK, and it was almost forgotten – until the publication of Mark Drakeford’s book, Social Movements and their Supporters: The Green Shirts in England (1997). Based on interviews with a few elderly survivors of that mobilisation and their campaigning literature, it documents this remarkable political phenomenon, and raises the possibility of a future such movement (in parallel, perhaps, with ones like Occupy in 2011), to press for the adoption of the proposal.

The story started with a series of books and articles by an engineer, Major C.H. Douglas, who conceived his scheme, Social Credit, towards the end of the First World War. As he began to find a following in the 1920s, a charismatic youth leader, John Hargrave, was building an alternative scout movement with the pseudo-medieval name The Kindred of the Kibbo Kift. Overnight, Hargrave was converted to Douglas’s proposal, and announced that the Kibbo Kift would henceforth campaign for Social Credit. In a wood in the Home Counties, the Green Shirts were born.

Two factors favoured the formation of this kind of social movement at the time. It was an age in which populist mobilisations adopted quasi-military features – Hitler’s Nazis in Germany, Mussolini’s Brown Shirts in Italy and Mosley’s Black Shirts in Britain were all specifically fascist, but there were smaller movements of the left and right. In this respect, Hargrave reflected the political culture of the age.

Second, the economic dislocations that followed the First World War demanded new policies to address both unemployment and poverty, and new explanations of their pervasiveness. Douglas’s analysis explained these in terms of a gap between the incomes (profits, interest and wages) distributed through production, and the costs associated with that activity. Social Credit was proposed as a sum, to be issued to every citizen by the state, to fill this gap.

In his General Theory of Employment Interest and Money (1936), J.M. Keynes mentioned Douglas as an underconsumptionist economic theorist, but added, with typical condescension, that he was ‘a Private, surely, rather than a Major, in that honourable company’.

Douglas’s arguments were technical, and his writing style was convoluted and frequently obscure, but he attracted disciples across the British Empire. Indeed, there are still Social Credit parties in New Zealand and Canada, and one held power in the province of Alberta for several years.

Hargrave’s strategy was explicitly militant, and the Green Shirts marched with provocative bravado, occasionally getting into scuffles with their fascist rivals. He called their journal Attack!, challenging the failed policies of the mainstream political parties, and seeking recruits among trades unionists as well as middle-class citizens.

This history may turn out to be relevant for the present, as political events unfold on either side of the Atlantic. As President of the United States, Donald J. Trump still refers to his supporters as ‘The Movement’, and he did indeed mobilise an unlikely alliance of the working-class dispossessed in rustbelt states and middle-class traditionalists who felt threatened by immigration and minority rights. His electoral triumph has boosted support for European politicians such as Marine Le Pen in France and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands; they and their counterparts in other European states were meeting in Koblenz the very day that Trump took office.

It is not obvious that the traditional political parties can face down the threat posed by these movements in Europe, any more than the Democrats and mainstream Republicans could defeat Trump in the USA. Certainly Trump’s presidency has sparked widespread and well-supported protests, both at home and abroad, but as yet these lack a clear focus and programme. In the long run, a coherent set of alternatives to ‘populism’ (a bland term indeed for such a sinister phenomenon) needs to be linked to a mass political movement.

In my view, the Basic Income proposal could and should be central to such a movement, along with environmental protection, gender equality and internationalism – all the principles that Trump’s movement rejects. Above all, this movement should oppose the authoritarianism that is so obvious in his bombastic self-presentation and in his attitude to all his opponents.

In particular, the Basic Income approach addresses the issue on which developed democracies had already been drifting towards a form of authoritarianism for several decades. It rescinds the state’s power to enforce low-paid work on those who receive means-tested benefits – increasingly to impose sanctions on people who resist such employment, reducing their household incomes below subsistence levels. It was these policies which provoked the formation of the Claimants’ Unions in the 1970s, in which I took part (Paupers: The Making of the New Claiming Class, 1973). As I predicted then, they divided the working class, creating an ever-growing ‘Precariat’ (Standing, 2011), with neither autonomy nor security.

This authoritarianism has come to be part of the taken-for-granted fabric of public administration; coercion exercised on poor people ceased to be an issue in mainstream politics. Trump simply extends this to other minority groups, threatening all of them in the name of a mythical national interest; he also blames foreign deviousness for a perceived decline in US global dominance.

In all this, the echoes of the 1930s can be clearly heard. But in today’s case, both Conservative (Christian Democrat) and Labour (Social Democrat) parties are historically weak in all the developed democracies, and unlikely to be able to inspire social movements to counter these new political phenomena. This is why new movements are urgently needed.

What the Green Shirts demonstrated was that the idea of a universal Basic Income could supply the basis for an anti-authoritarian mobilisation. It represents the best response to real economic distress as well as to Trumpism.

The publisher is the Centre for Welfare Reform.

A Social Movement for Basic Income © Bill Jordan 2017.

All Rights Reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher except for the quotation of brief passages in reviews.

Article | 31.01.17

Basic Income, tax and benefits, Article

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