Why feminists need to take up a basic income in their fight for women’s liberation: An interview with Carole Pateman

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The newly-elected conservative government in Ontario recently decided to prematurely halt the province’s basic-income pilot project. Advocates and analysts in fields ranging from health, to poverty reduction, to women’s equality have condemned this decision, saying:

“[Premier Doug Ford] knew that the evidence from the basic income pilot would show that it actually — surprise surprise — creates a healthier society when there are less people impoverished. He knew that the evidence would surely show that when we take the worry of poverty off people’s shoulders they become more involved in their communities, form better associations, do a better job raising their families, and have better mental health.”

The project, which provided the lowest-income people in three Ontario cities with a no strings attached monthly payment, was supposed to run for another two years. The pilot program was meant to test if increasing the minimum income available to people (while decreasing the bureaucracy associated with accessing it) is a viable alternative to the current social assistance regime. It was also meant to explore whether a basic income — set at a rate higher than the current welfare rate — has the potential to improve the lives of people living in poverty.

Meanwhile, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ July 2018 report on wealth concentration in Canada indicates that just 87 people in Canada have more wealth than 12 million Canadians. That means that 32.5 per cent of Canadians combined own less than 87 individual people.  

Feminists have long argued that redistribution of wealth is a condition for women’s equality. For years, Canadian women’s groups have incorporated demands for a guaranteed livable income into our campaigns for the abolition of all forms of male violence against women, including prostitution. It is unsurprising that a regressive, right wing government would object to a progressive, potentially transformative policy like basic income.

Dr. Carole Pateman is a political philosopher and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Political Science at UCLA and honorary professor at Cardiff University. Dr. Pateman is the author of several significant works shedding light on the foundations of inequality including The Sexual Contract (1988) and Contract and Domination (2007). She is the co-editor of Basic Income Worldwide: Horizons of Reform (2012).

Jacqueline Gullion is a Canadian feminist. She worked in Canada against male violence for 15 years as an unpaid activist with Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter, and now lives in Belgium, learning Dutch & French with refugees, organizing a community garden and a feminist affinity group, and working in the IT sector.

In the following interview they discuss how a basic income that provides a decent standard of living can increase democratic participation.


Jacqueline Gullion: From your point of view, what are the chief characteristics of a basic income?

Carole Pateman: The way I look at it, a basic income is a regular sum of money, paid by government to individuals — not to households or couples — that is sufficient. And this is absolutely crucial: the actual level of the income must be sufficient for someone to live what I call “a modest but decent standard of life.” With a basic income, you’re not going to be rich, but you’re not going to be mired in poverty either.

JG: Who, specifically, would be entitled to a basic income?

CP: It is meant to be universal. It should be for every resident. There should also be some kind of allowance for children. [The issue of how to administer it] is an area that’s open to discussion, but my thinking is that a basic income should be universal.

JG: Can you describe how you came to understand basic income as in the interests of the advancement of women and a more democratic society?

CP: One of the first things that attracted me to basic income is that, if the income was set at a sufficient level, it would not just relieve poverty, but it would be the end of poverty. For women it is actually very important because women’s income tends to be less than men’s. I mean if you think about a few decades ago [in the global North], it was not seen as altogether seemly for married women to be employed. They were reliant on their husband’s income, and his generosity (or not) for their own standard of living. Now, women’s wages still tend to be less than men’s, so we still don’t have a situation where women and men have equally high standards of living.

With something like a basic income, women could be assured of a reasonable standard of living in the same way men are. Finally, we’d really start talking about equal citizenship.

JG: That certainly supports the argument of why it would be better for individuals to be entitled to the basic income rather than a household to have a set amount.

CP: You know what happens historically when money goes to the household? Men tend to spend it on things other than the necessities of life for their wives and children. One good thing about family allowances in Britain is that they were always paid to the mother, so there was a really good chance that the children benefited.

JG: Could you say a bit more about the ways in which a basic income enables women (or anyone) to participate fully as a citizen in a democracy?

CP: A certain level of subsistence is required if you’re going to have the time and energy and possibility of getting the knowledge required to participate fully in your society. If all your time and energy goes toward trying to make enough money to keep body and soul together, or to providing for a family, then you are going to have to make pretty heroic efforts to actually participate.

If you are actually interested in having a democratic citizenry — that is where citizens have the opportunity, in some way or another, to govern themselves and not just be governed by others — then there has to be a material basis for it.

JG: Yes, for women, we would have the liberty to escape dangerous situations, to avoid being stuck living with dangerous men, and to be able to care for our children.

CP: Yes. I think these kinds of considerations are extremely important when we’re talking about basic income. It is a way for people to maintain their own standard of living, but it also enables them (if they have a particularly nasty, perhaps dangerous job, for example), to know that if they leave that job, they’re not going to starve. If there is a basic income available that enables them to live at least decently they can say “no” to those kinds of jobs. This is why a basic income is a major step forward. It’s not a panacea, but it is a necessary part of any policy for democratizing societies further than ours are now.

JG: In the anti-violence movement in Canada, women are integrating Guaranteed Livable Income campaigns into women’s liberation campaigns, for example against male violence against women, which includes the campaign for the abolition of prostitution.

CP: It’s very interesting and exciting that basic income is being taken up by feminist demands for equality. Because [basic income ensures] you have the means to escape from dangerous circumstances, like if you’re going into prostitution because it offers more money than other things you can do. Having a basic income available, I think, is crucial to enabling people to live as they would like to live and not as they have to because of the circumstances in which they find themselves.

JG: I would like to ask you a little bit more about your point of view on the contribution that feminists can or should make to the theorizing of basic income.

CP: I think feminists have got quite a large role to play. It seems there is much more interest in basic income now. Certainly in the earlier days the feminist side was almost completely overlooked. There was so little discussion, if any at all, on what this would mean for women. And yet, as far back as 1792, Mary Wollstonecraft was pointing out women’s economic disadvantages and the ramifications they had for women’s status as citizens, as mothers, wives, and workers (though that term would be be a bit anachronistic).

I think some who argue for basic income want to abolish the rest of the social provisions. I don’t follow that argument at all. I think we probably need to keep much of the existing provisions for Social Security, housing, medical, and education. A basic income should be part of the overall plan for having a body of citizens who don’t have to live in poverty or spend all their time struggling to make a living. It is extraordinary that here we are in 2018, living in extraordinarily rich countries, and there are so many still struggling with poverty. It is bizarre. Actually, it’s very distressing.

JG: Let’s consider some of the criticisms of basic income. Certainly the classic that I know of is the fiscal and moral conservatives saying that if everyone is entitled to an income, it will encourage laziness and people will refuse to work.

CP: Yes this is a classic: “If people can get something for nothing, everybody will immediately stop working, and spend their time drinking and taking drugs or whatever.”  There is actually very little evidence at all to support that. Most of the empirical evidence that I’ve come across suggests that people will use their income to improve their lives and to better themselves. They won’t stop working. They might want a better job or something like that, but no, the majority will not stop working. That is empirically quite a misplaced objection.

JG: Another is that if we implement a basic income, we might be able to eliminate all other social programs. I think I agree with you and probably we would still need health care, pension programs, education, but we may be able to eradicate some bureaucracy.

CP: Yes. There are some people on the right who say, “Give people a lump sum of however many dollars per year, and sort of let them get on with it… Let them find their own private health care, their own education etc.” But that’s not the sort of thing that I am suggesting. I think of basic income as part of a wider policy for the welfare state, for want of a better word.

Such a program would be supporting fellow citizens in their endeavors, not making it difficult for them to do everything or forcing everyone to privately arrange everything for themselves.

I mean if you get a few people who do want to just sit and do nothing, what does it matter if, in such rich countries [as Canada, UK, USA], a few people want to just sit in front of the television all day — that’s their loss, really. Let’s not worry too much about it.

JG: I think one of the things that’s important for us to keep in mind is that we’re talking about either social reform through small adjustments, or we’re talking about social transformation.

One argument that you made in your 2004 article, “Democratizing Citizenship: Some Advantages of a Basic Income,” was that if we set ourselves the goal of only fighting for what seems politically feasible, we may lose sight of the political reasons why we’re fighting for it. I appreciate that you argue for having a clear vision of the reasons why we aim for a basic income.

CP: For any policy, there would be a number of reasons why one would advocate it, but it does make quite a difference which reasons you are arguing for or arguing from.

If you are just interested in relieving poverty, well fine, a [small income supplement for the poor] could help some people. But if we are really serious about making democratic changes, then we have to be more serious about the level at which such an income would be set. If the level were set so people could have a decent but modest standard of life, it would likely help people start thinking differently about things that they were doing, what might be achieved, and what could be changed.

JG: I noticed in 2017 that some billionaires — like Richard Branson, Elon Musk, and Mark Zuckerberg — started talking about basic income. Billionaires are not normally the allies of progressive social change. Their arguments for a basic income are, more or less, that robotics and computers will take over a lot of the jobs that people currently do. Mark Zuckerberg said, “Now it’s our time to define a new social contract for our generation. So we should explore ideas like universal basic income to give everyone a cushion to try new things.” What do you make of these billionaire capitalists promoting basic income?

CP: Well the notion that we could be faced with a lot of unemployed people is not very new. I mean, the robots are a newer angle, but the actual level of unemployment has been pretty high, globally, for quite some time. This has focused people’s attention on policy like basic income, because what are you going to do with all these unemployed people [who could] get restless?? I think this is where the billionaires come in: a basic income could be a way of ensuring, they hope, some kind of social order. And to be fair, maybe they actually think people should have an adequate standard of living. But I think that whether it’s through technological change of one sort or another (including robots), it could be true that, as the years go by, there will be fewer and fewer actual jobs for people. There will be a select few who’ve got the skills and qualifications to work in a highly automated environment. But for the general public, what are they going to do? How will they be employed?

Overall, I don’t think basic income is being discussed as much as it could be. I don’t know how many people have actually even heard of it. So, in some ways, I rather welcome famous people picking up the idea. Even if they’re not arguing for it quite the way I would, at least they bring the public attention.

JG: Thank you very much for making the time for this conversation. I’d like to conclude by saying congratulations again on the 30 year anniversary of The Sexual Contract, a very important feminist book of political theory that I first encountered as a volunteer rape crisis worker in Vancouver, Canada.  

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