State of the Arts – a guest post about Basic Income

Victoria Ward
Victoria Ward

The following post is my first guest post. It was written by my brother Matthew Ward. Matthew is an accountant, historian, economist and was once the CEO of a multi-million dollar retail chain and is now retired. He advocates on behalf of Basic Income.

Art for art’s sake

Let’s get this out of the way first in the interest of full disclosure: I am not an artist of any kind nor do I play one on the internet. My interests are vastly more mundane, although I do know artists and have what I consider a fine appreciation of their efforts. I believe art, in all its glorious forms, is a fundamental part of the human condition and an indispensable foundation of any thinking civilization. Art matters.

But art – and artists – are under assault in our modern world of neoliberal economics, where everything is a commodity and at the decidedly unsensory mercy of the market price mechanism. Art is bought and sold like so much pipe in the hardware store, pipe with no practical use except that someone might find it appealing. Markets were never designed for art, nor should art be constrained by their vicious and uncaring nature. In this way art suffers the same fate of so many other indispensable features of a vibrant society, other trivials like food, clothing and shelter, things that are common and essential to all humans but denied them except by way of purchase, at a price, with money, from markets.

The very essence of art is the creative process, a process driven by imagination, imagination being the sole building block of innovation. Art is a proxy for the very human drive to create which underlies two thousand centuries of human development. Humans imagine, and then they create. In this way all things are possible, in this way all things produced by humans came into being. And in this way markets are choking the life out of the process, in this way creativity is punished.

It’s a fool who believes however that the market system is going anywhere soon, or that capitalism will disappear next Tuesday. We will surely innovate our way out of this mess but it is the very definition of pointless to hold your breath until we do. It isn’t going to leave of its own volition and that is that. What’s needed is a bridge to get us from here to there, an intermediary step, a starting point, an incremental advance along the road to the future in the same fashion all our ancestors stepped gingerly yet deliberately to get us to here, today, and now. I believe that step is the idea of a Universal Basic Income.

Me and Rothko in the Tate's Rothko room, a respite from the shrill enthusiasm of tourists
Rothko at the Tate Modern several years ago where the little sister began contemplating artists & their economic lives.

The idea of a Basic Income – a monthly stipend due to all citizens just for being citizens – is not new as it has drifted around the periphery of radical thought for some time, promoted by cranks and dreamers whose time never seemed to come. But in the wake of 2008 and the collapse of our trust in the only world we ever knew all things seemed possible, and thinking about the lives we live suddenly awoke from its placated consumer slumber. Suddenly, cranks and dreamers didn’t seem so cranky and dreamy. Suddenly, we were wondering, “is this the only way it has to be?” No, no it’s not the only way it has to be. From the twisted wreckage of global financial collapse, austerity, rampaging inequality, corrupt politics, and brutal retail regimes it suddenly does seem that all things may indeed be possible again – if only because they have to.

But still, there is just something naggy about the idea that humans don’t have to work to be free, that wage slavery is not somehow ennobling, that it is not heroic to waste a human life in a crippling cubicle in order to save it. The idea of a Basic Income, that there would be a transfer of cash from one vast part of the economy sufficient to ensure no human is without food, clothing, or shelter (for no reason other than that humans absolutely require food, clothing, and shelter), just seems a little wonky still. Why is that? I don’t know. But if we could just surmount that protestant work ethic nagginess (a gift from Martin Luther in the 16th century that just keeps on giving), we in the 21st century would be free to understand that in our advanced digital age there is less and less reason to hew to the old Lutheran saw and allow our technology to do the work for us. After all, it’s not like it isn’t doing the work for people already, it’s just that those people comprise a scant 1% or less of the population and it seems pretty clear they have had no trouble shaking off their work guilt – and getting paid large for their freedom and prescience. They are the yacht encrusted few who know full well it can be done – because they are doing it.

There used to be an old lottery commercial that asked “What would you do with a million?” The folks in marketing that crafted that line knew full well what the answer would be, uttered as a tired sigh from the throngs of beaten down cubicle serfs collapsed in exhaustion in front of their TV’s after a brutal day at the office or retail hell. Why, they would quit their jobs of course! Because their jobs suck, and their lives suck, and each and every one knew absolutely they had better things to do with their one single life on earth. And they desperately wanted to do those things.

Art is a proxy for that wishful dream, a proxy for humans set free to create and to innovate. Give an artist enough to pay the basic costs of staying alive and an artist will create, not because artists are special, but because they are human. Humans want to dream, imagine, explore, and innovate. Many humans freed to do that will dream, imagine, explore, and innovate en masse. And many humans linked together in a network of human fitness will create a better world and not just dream about it from their wretched cubicles. A Basic Income for all is the bridge to that world, an idea whose time has come.

Martin Luther, tear down this wall and let our people go!

by Matthew Ward

3 thoughts on “State of the Arts – a guest post about Basic Income”

  1. Where there’s no top, there’s no bottom; where the accumulation wealth has no apex, the nadir of poverty is equal only to what a human body can withstand without either succumbing or being forced to revolt.

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