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Opinion

‘A Universal Basic Income might not bring the utopia we imagine’

Universal Basic Income is often heralded as a way to improve the wellbeing of disadvantaged people. But Founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Big Issue, John Bird, worries UBI might actually push us closer to a 1984-type state.

In 1964 I could not finish 1984. I got about 100 pages in to the dystopic novel by George Orwell and I really thought that if this was the future, life was not worth living. I put the book down and have never looked at it since. Would I have had a better young manhood and maturity if I had finished it? Would I have been better prepared for the shenanigans of capitalism and the development of markets and consumerism and the vast increase in the world’s population that has taken place?

Or was 1984 a bit like The Shining or some such movie that frightens the shite out of you because you like to frighten the shite out of yourself ? I’ve certainly avoided horror movies, having been horrified aged 14 and unable to fathom why anyone would like to frighten themselves almost senseless.

But then it might have been that there were too many horrors in my life that were real, so I didn’t need a top-up, or to find artificial ways to manufacture fear. Give me Elvis Presley in GI Blues any time, or Phileas Fogg trying to get around the world in 80 days, via the imagination of Jules Verne. Or the film I have wanted to see but have never managed to, Around the World with Nothing On, all about you know what.

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Pain, suffering and fear were not my thing and never have been. Although I can get behind some TV detectives, so long as it’s not too gruesome and it doesn’t involve murdered children.

I am a viewing ‘softie’, therefore. And actually subscribe to the idea that knowing too many of the bestialities of the world does not bring you any nearer to solutions; so why would you line yourself up for knowing the terror of what is being done somewhere in the world at this moment, if you are powerless to influence a satisfactory conclusion.

But 1984 seems to have become popular again and is enjoying new reprints and new relevance and status. Another generation is reading it for the signs and indications that we have arrived in a dystopic world. And to some extent you could say that that is true. Certainly there is Big Brother, as expressed through digital culture and the state knowing so much more about you than you have ever wanted them to know. And the Covid emergency has brought us very close to a state that has a tab on all of us.

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But also there is the voluntary Big Brother as exemplified by social media. Largely a freely entered arrangement between a commercial business and us who surrender our secrecy for the ability to communicate to those we know and those we don’t. Where we become our own little newspaper and radio/TV show so that we can be connected. As a mild user of social media I have yet to jump in and announce to my audience what I am doing, eating, feeling. So no Facebook for me.

Are there other signs that 1984 has arrived or is arriving? Having got only into the foothills of the book I can’t really say. But there is one sense of 1984 that seems to me could be a kind of voluntarily putting yourself at risk of seeing Orwell’s book fulfilled. And that is Universal Basic Income (UBI), which seems very popular among many liberal and leftward minded friends of mine. Even The Big Issue declared last week that it has an interest in it.

Dare I say The Big Issue is full of opinions that are not mine, so don’t lose any sleep that I’m jumping ship. It’s not an official position. We are a magazine that carries opinions that are not always ours. And long may it be so.

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No, my worry – and no one has yet persuaded me differently – is the idea that if you get UBI you actually become an employee of the state. Everyone becomes not simply a beneficiary of the state like with the NHS, but someone who gets their wage from a political structure called government.

Now this argument may be riddled with holes and the Green Party is right in making it their official policy. But it smacks a bit of the bit of 1984 that I did actually read, where everyone is controlled by being tied to the government teat.

And as we seem not to be too clever in electing governments, electing people we would not share a pint with or bring home for Sunday lunch, then I worry. There are signs that a certain 1984-ism might not be such a bad, if cynical, way of viewing the increasing and sneaky way that we are being corralled into being functionaries of the state.

Of course if we got clever and learned the art of making governments that are not made up of the same sad crew of privileged Old Etonians, then we might look freshly at UBI. But even then, I would still have a worry that we are moving into a postwar dystopian novel when we should be moving into a freer and more diverse world. Maybe I should have finished the book after all, for its literary qualities.

John Bird is the founder and Editor in Chief of The Big Issue

@johnbirdswords

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach local your vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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