That’s what has happened to Scott Santens, the first person in the world to crowdfund a basic income. (He donates everything he gets over $1,000 per month to other basic income advocates.) He hasn’t stopped working — he was a freelance writer before and a freelance writer after — but he is able to pick and choose his projects now. He sees himself in a lifelong process of UBI advocacy, and puts more of his work out there for free on a Creative Commons license. Secure and free of money panic, he’s more willing to give.
“I think you’ll see a shift towards a gift economy,” Santens said when I asked how a UBI-driven society might play out in the future. “We can expect to see a lot more volunteering, a lot more unpaid work. It’s more couchsurfing.com, less Airbnb, you know? Just give things to each other.”
Santens hadn’t been to Burning Man, which is currently the 21st century’s best known example of a gift economy. But as a veteran of the oft-misunderstood desert event, where coffee and ice are the only two things on sale, I could confirm: Once you experience the gift economy, it’s hard to forget. Tell people to be radically self-reliant in the desert for a week, and they go overboard with generosity to strangers. Gifts take endless forms, such as (to pick a random example from 14 years ago) the camp that brought tanks of liquid nitrogen and freezers full of cream in order to dispense ice cream for all.
This is true wealth, in a world where everyone has enough: Being creatively generous, going out of your way to earn as much delight and respect from as many of your neighbors as possible. This, not a Scrooge McDuck swimming pool of money, is what philanthropist billionaires from Andrew Carnegie to Bill Gates have had the luxury to seek all along. This also perhaps explains some of the stranger showboating behavior of billionaires who go to Burning Man, such as Elon Musk. And this, given the solid footing of UBI, will be a game the other 99 percent are able to play too.
The revenge of bullshit jobs
Is this 22nd century utopia inevitable? Of course not. We’re still human, and humans will find any way to ruin a good thing. Bregman says he’s grown disillusioned since writing Utopia for Realists, partly thanks to the number of people he met on a book tour who were convinced, regardless of the data showing UBI experiments work, that it will never work.
The trouble with convictions like that: They create our reality. If we’re not open to new information, if we don’t accept the idea that UBI could work, we will fail to update our concept of what “work” really means. In other words, we’ll continue to let corporations make a lot of (digital) paper-pushing busywork for us.
“We shouldn’t underestimate capitalism’s extraordinary ability to come up with new bullshit jobs,” Bregman says. Bullshit jobs was a term coined by the London School of Economics’ David Graeber, who wrote a 2013 paper on the topic and received a flood of confessions from people who felt their work was pointless. Two years later, a survey of 849 UK adults found that 37 percent said their work was “not a meaningful contribution to the world.”
What happens if that number just keeps rising, along with the fear of unemployment that herds us into bullshit jobs just to keep food on the table? What if 75 percent or even 90 percent of us are essentially on corporate workfare? Will we all be sitting in cubicles watching algorithms making decisions on our screens, hoping desperately to catch an error in the code, focusing a lifetime’s worth of mental energy on making the boss think we’re useful?
“Maybe at some point in the dystopian future we’re all pretending to be working,” Bregman says, “but really we’re drowning.”
That’s what makes the shift to UBI so essential — and why the shift in our attitude needs to come with. Bregman, for his part, has written his follow-up Humankind to try to convince us, with yet another mountain of data, that humans are intrinsically good and kind, and therefore should be trusted with free money. But perhaps you will look back and see that our greatest teacher was the coronavirus pandemic itself. Perhaps it will not only lead to a basic income for all; perhaps it will remain in our memories as a reminder that we are, in the final analysis, a society that genuinely cares for everyone. And will go to extraordinary lengths to prove it.
Yours in hopeful quarantine,
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