A republican call for a basic income

Republicanism offers a persuasive guide to the political shaping of markets. A basic income could be the foundation of a democratic republican economy that frees all citizens from the commodification of labour.

There is no such thing as “the market economy”. Markets come in many varieties and their character is a matter of political choice. Saying that a market is politically shaped is simply to state the obvious, namely that any economic market is first political and then economic. A politics-free market does not exist in the real world outside of standard economics text-books or, paradoxically perhaps, in the prevarication of politicians who deny its political component precisely for political reasons. 

So, if markets are irreducibly political, we need to ask what values should guide their political construction. The Democratic Wealth series has given much attention to ‘republicanism’ as a philosophical tradition which might serve as a source of guidance (see, for example, these contributions from Alex Gourevitch, José Luis Martí and Philip Pettit).

But which republicanism?

Republicanism is often spoken of as if it were a homogenous tradition of political philosophy and thought. In fact, we would identify three kinds of republicanism:

-       historical democratic republicanism

-       historical oligarchic republicanism

-       academic neorepublicanism.[1]

In the Greek and Roman traditions, the names of Ephialtes, Pericles, Protagoras and Democritus are associated with the democratic-plebeian strand, while the anti-democratic or oligarchic version is headed by Aristotle and Cicero. These variants also appear in the modern world. The democratic form aspires to the universalisation of republican freedom which, true to the etymological roots of “republic” in res publica, the public (from Old Latin poplicus, pertaining to the people) interest automatically entails the inclusion of all the people. The antidemocratic type, just as it has always done in one form or another, effectively excludes propertyless people from civil and political life, leaving the monopoly of power in the hands of an ever-shrinking circle of rich owners. In their different ways, Marsiglio de Padua, Machiavelli, John Locke, Rousseau, Kant, Adam Smith, Jefferson, Madison and Marx are all names associated with the modern republican renaissance.

The democratic republican tradition goes back to Athens after 461 BCE with the triumph of a revolutionary democratic programme led by the poor (free men) of the polis. This programme can be summed up in three main points:

1) land redistribution

2) suppression of debt slavery

3) universal suffrage as well as sufficient remuneration (misthon) for those holding public office.

For a time, this Greek democracy also conceded equal freedom of speech in the agora to women and slaves. Democracy, demokratia, meant government by the demos, the common people.

In contrast, the oligarchic and hence antidemocratic republican tradition refused, for different reasons, to universalise property. Both democratic and antidemocratic forms saw “property” (the means of existence) as being necessary for freedom, but antidemocrats excluded non-proprietors from citizenship, while democrats asserted that the republic had to introduce measures that ensured that all citizens were materially independent.

Finally, the third type of republicanism is what we could call modern academic neorepublicanism – represented inter alia by Quentin Skinner, J. G. A. Pocock and, perhaps especially, Philip Pettit. Pettit’s work (see his contribution to the Democratic Wealth series) has been influential in making known to a wider public the basic aspects of republicanism. However, it tends to blur the relationship between property and republican freedom, and between property and democracy, focusing instead on absence of domination and arbitrary interference by other individuals and groups, including the State. Herein lies a crucial difference from historical republicanism, for which the basic source of vulnerability and arbitrary interference is the absence of material independence conferred by property. If the essentially material nature of the historic role of property and the capacity of property owners to dominate are overlooked, then the notion of “domination” is watered down and, most importantly, stripped of its institutional nature. 

The role of Basic Income 

Republican authors as different as Aristotle and Robespierre or Cicero and Kant, share at least two convictions:

1) Any person who does not have the “right of existence” guaranteed because of a lack of property is not a citizen in his or her own right – sui iuris – but lives at the mercy of others. This person is not capable of cultivating or even exercising civic virtue because this dependence on another party subjects him or her to an alien regime – alieni iuris – thus making of him or her, to all intents and purposes, an “alien”.

2) Republican freedom can extend to many (the plebeian democracy advocated by democratic republicans) or few (the plutocratic form of the oligarchic republicans), but it is always based on property and the material independence deriving from that. This freedom cannot be sustained if property ownership is so unequal and so polarised in its distribution that only a handful of individuals is in a position to challenge the republic. This elite would successfully overcome any opposition from the citizenry so as to impose its own conception of the public good. 

It is clear that for a democratic republican market to function, the problem of unequally distributed property must be overcome. Basic Income is one measure that could help meet this difficulty. As a guaranteed, unconditional, regular payment to every citizen – ideally above the poverty threshold – Basic Income could become a foundation for an economic policy seeking to guarantee the material existence of the entire population. (See this article, which explores the practical application of a citizen’s income in Alaska. However, in our view, this is not an ideal example as we favour Basic Income based on tax reform which would represent distribution of wealth from the very rich to the other members of the society, which is not the case with Alaska.) Basic Income is a political measure that would have many political (not to mention social, cultural and ethical) ramifications. We shall focus here on two points: (1) the bargaining power of the working class and (2) the decommodification of labour.

In capitalist economies, people who do not own land or the means of production must sell their labour power on the job market to the proprietor of land or of other means of production – otherwise known as the employer. This situation has been described as the commodification of labour power. Some workers may have their means of subsistence covered outside the market, thanks to some or other mechanism of social provision. In this case, their labour power is decommodified. We might therefore speak of different degrees of commodification (or decommodification) of labour power. Basic Income would have a substantial effect on this as long as it provides at least the quantity that would permit “the freedom not to be employed”.[2]

Moreover, Basic Income would enhance bargaining power for workers vis-à-vis employers.[3] With the security guaranteed by a Basic Income, no worker would be obliged to accept a job however bad the conditions might be. If today’s disgruntled workers take negotiations to breaking point, they do so knowing full well that proprietors can replace them by machines or by other unemployed workers who fill the ranks of the so-called industrial reserve army. They enter negotiations knowing that their subsistence directly and almost exclusively depends on the salary paid by the individuals on the other side of the table. The labour relationship under capitalism is extremely asymmetrical, and much more so in the present economic crisis. The protection afforded by a regularly paid Basic Income would enable many workers to reject undesirable situations convincingly and effectively. It would represent, in the case of a strike, a kind of unconditional and inexhaustible resistance fund. The resulting balance of power would allow workers to consider engaging in alternative forms of work that would permit them to aspire to higher levels of personal fulfilment.

In an alternative democratic republic, power must rest with the people. It is in the public (republican) interest to guarantee and protect institutional mechanisms that seek to ensure a well-balanced society in which economic, political and social democracy is enjoyed by everyone. Basic Income is one such mechanism. More and more social movements and political parties are now understanding that a Basic Income could help to combat some of the most socially pernicious effects of the crisis and stimulate the economy from the base. Now, with the second anniversary of 15-M (15 May democracy movement in Spain), which in 2011 brought hundreds of thousands of people out on to the streets of many Catalan and Spanish cities, the demonstrations are being repeated and six citizens’ claims have been made. One of them is Basic Income. Looking to the future, a commitment to a Basic Income could eventually become an important component of a political – republican – shaping of markets that would guarantee the means of existence of the whole population.

This piece is part of the Democratic Wealth series, hosted by OurKingdom in partnership with Politics in Spires.


[1] See Antoni Domènech and Daniel Raventós, Basic Income Studies, Volume 2, Issue 2, ISSN, January 2008, online at http://www.degruyter.com/view/j/bis.2008.2.2/bis.2008.2.2.1090/bis.2008.2.2.1090.xml. See too Daniel Raventós, 2007, Basic Income: The Material Conditions of Freedom, London: Pluto Press, Chapter 3.

[2] Carol Pateman. “Democratizing Citizenship: Some Advantages of a Basic Income”, in B. Ackerman, A. Alstott and P. Van Parijs (eds.), Redesigning Distribution (London-New York, Verso, 2006).

[3] Erik Olin Wright, “Basic Income as a Socialist Project”, Basic Income Studies, No. 1, 2006. 

About the authors

Julie Wark is the author of Manifiesto de derechos humanos  (The Human Rights Manifesto – Ediciones Barataria, 2011) and is an advisory board member of the international political review Sin Permiso.

Daniel Raventós is the author of Basic Income: The Material Conditions of Freedom He is on the editorial board of the international political review Sin Permiso.