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Basic income debates seem directed towards a genderless, universal citizen, ignoring the potential to challenge the resiliently gendered division of paid and unpaid labour, writes Sarah Ashwin.

Advances in artificial intelligence (AI) have sparked renewed fears regarding the future of work. One widely discussed solution to this perceived problem is a universal basic income (UBI), provoking debates about the justice, efficiency and political feasibility of such an entitlement, whether such an income should be conditional, and how to ensure that it mitigates rather than exacerbates gender  as well as other inequalities. Leaving aside the question of whether AI will destroy more jobs than it creates, it is important to consider the future of work within the context of the broader struggle over the kind of political and economic settlement that will replace the neo-liberal consensus that has held sway since the 1980s. This model is currently in crisis, having entered what Abby Innes terms its ‘Brezhnevite’ phase of terminal decay, a notable symptom of which is the wave of right-wing nationalism sweeping the globe. If UBI policies are ever implemented they will likely form part of a wider settlement and encompass other transformations such as a green new deal. Since women’s interests are so often confined to the sidelines in such transformations, it is crucial to ensure that UBI proposals are developed using a gender lens.

Two prominent recent basic income proposals illustrate the frequent lack of such a perspective. Thomas Piketty’s Capital and Ideology offers an ambitious new analysis of the drivers of economic development, concluding with a section suggesting ‘elements for a participatory socialism’ – that is, his proposed route beyond the current crisis. In common with radical programmes of the twentieth century (for example, in revolutionary Russia and Germany in 1968), gender inequality and its implications for emancipatory politics are neglected in this analysis. Thus, Piketty’s discussion of the basic income and its potential contribution to securing a more just society does not examine the implications for the gender distribution of unpaid caring and household labour. Indeed, it does not mention gender at all. His basic income appears directed towards a genderless, universal citizen.

Meanwhile, Daniel Susskind’s detailed analysis of the consequences of A World Without Work argues that basic income should be conditional. Susskind displays more interest in gender than Piketty. He acknowledges, for example, that caring and household labour is largely performed on an unpaid basis, predominantly by women, with the combined value of cooking, childcare, laundry and other household chores performed in the UK annually estimated to be approximately £800 billion. Susskind stresses that such work, though crucial to society, is currently undervalued and that a conditional basic income (CBI) would provide “an opportunity to repair this mismatch.” But given that he devotes a whole book to analysing the issue, it is interesting that Susskind does not mention the potential of a basic income to challenge the gendered structures that leave women with the lion’s share of the currently unpaid burden of reproductive labour.

Nevertheless, Susskind’s idea of a conditional basic income does at least potentially address a key question that many analyses of the basic income ignore, that is, as Nancy Folbre asks, does the putative ‘Malibu surfer’ of UBI debates get the same income as the care-worn housewife? (Susskind’s implied answer is that the surfer would have to do some voluntary work as a condition of receiving income). Another solution is provided by Almaz Zelleke who argues that one way of compensating caring labour within the framework of a basic income would be to give it to children as well as adults, as occurs with the cash transfers from the Alaska Permanent Fund. This would provide additional income to those who provide childcare. This does not address all issues, such as the fact that disabled adults and children will likely require a higher level of income. Nevertheless, it highlights the kind of thinking required.

Yet, as is the case with Susskind, discussions of the UBI rarely engage with the potential of such income to challenge the resiliently gendered division of paid and unpaid labour. An exception is Kathy Week’s book The Problem of Work, a feminist analysis of ‘postwork imaginaries,’ which considers the potential of basic incomes to ‘de-centre’ paid work, as well as to disrupt the division of reproductive and productive work and its associated gendered strictures. That is, a basic income offers an opportunity to de-gender breadwinning, domestic labour and care giving by allowing individuals to organise paid work around their lives rather than vice versa. As Weeks stresses, however, such potential can only be realised if feminist perspectives are included in basic income debates.

Such a gendered approach is important for two reasons. First, as Nancy Fraser argues, the current crisis is multi-dimensional: it encompasses ecological, social and economic issues, including skyrocketing inequality. An often-overlooked element is the crisis of care resulting from a shift away from the male breadwinner model which relied on the unpaid caring labour of women. The rise in female employment has brought women vital gains such as economic independence and opportunities for personal development, but since there has been neither a gender redistribution of caring labour nor a socialisation of care work, it has created a ‘care gap’ that manifests itself in rising stress, as well as divisions between those who can afford to pay for care and those who cannot. As noted above, designed in the right way a basic income could begin to address this.

Second, in the current period of crisis gender politics are frequently ‘weaponised’ by right-wing nationalists who construct feminists as alien ‘others’ with interests antithetical to those of the ‘people,’ as if women were not part of that mythical body of homogenous citizens.  Such arguments have found resonance against a background of rising inequality and economic insecurity in which men in dominant ethnic groups fear a loss of status both within the labour market and in the domestic sphere where the challenge to male breadwinning threatens their primacy. Such politics has resulted in attempts to roll back women’s advances in particular through attacks on their reproductive rights. This highlights the need for any new settlement to develop gender solidarity by emphasising the potential gains for both men and women in eschewing constraining gender strictures. Again, a basic income could help to forge such solidarity, as part of a ‘gender new deal.’

Fear is currently trumping hope across much of the world.  It will not be easy to secure a change in political direction. The first step is to provide a positive and compelling vision of the future. It is therefore essential to develop the intellectual basis for a new settlement to address the pressing economic, ecological and social challenges of our troubled era. Debates about the basic income form part of that groundwork and must be informed by a gender perspective.

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Note: The post gives the views of its authors, not the position USAPP– American Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.

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About the author

Sarah Ashwin – LSE Department of Management
Sarah Ashwin is professor of comparative employment relations in LSE’s department of management. She is currently researching the governance of global supply chains in the garment industry. The stakeholder report can be found here. Her previous research includes projects on workers’ responses to economic reform in Russia, and gendered power relations in Russia. Professor Ashwin is a member of the editorial board of Gender & Society and on the advisory board of the British Journal of Industrial Relations.