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COVID-19, The Black Death and Basic Income

Author: Bill Jordan

The coronavirus pandemic could cause the highest rates of peace-time fatalities in modern times. It may seem fanciful to compare it with the Black Death of 1348-50, when some 1.5 million out of a population of 4 million died in England; but the present pandemic may yet have similarly fundamental transformative effects on British society to those of that disaster.

Up to the onset of that great plague, England was a feudal society, much like those of France and the Holy Roman Empire. But the Black Death made labour – still predominantly peasants, with feudal duties to their aristocratic landlords – so scarce that they were able to claim their liberties as freeholders. When in 1381 the landowners tried to restore their power to control an increasingly mobile population, as well as to impose a poll tax, the peasants (led by John Ball and Watt Tyler) revolted, and forced the king to endorse their freedom.

Many historians have traced the English tradition of political liberty, which asserted itself at key moments in every subsequent century, to those events. Both individualism and property-ownership have been central to the rise of democracy and civil rights, which also inspired the American Revolution. We are justifiably proud of our defence of these principles against the threat of fascism in the Second World War, and against Soviet communism in the following four decades.

But these principles have been eroded in recent years, as globalisation transformed our economy, our labour market and our benefits system. Since the 1960s, when industrial employment in this country began its accelerating decline, inequality and poverty have been covered up by measures for subsidising earnings (first Family Income Supplements, then Tax Credits, now Universal Credit), all involving state coercion. Because the incentives to take low-paid, insecure and part-time employment were so lacking, sanctions and disqualifications were increasingly used by the authorities against claimants. Although European countries have deployed similar instruments, the UK has higher rates for these measures than any other country.

This may partly explain the street protests of 2011 and 2017. The working class has become divided between those reliant on income support and earnings subsidies, and those who resent paying for these through income taxation, yet feel insecure about their own jobs and earnings, and fear becoming part of the stigmatised mass of state dependants.

The impact of the coronavirus pandemic on this situation has been dramatic, as hundreds of thousands of workers are becoming ill or being laid off because their employers are shutting down their businesses. The slow and complex benefits system, especially the shaky new Universal Credit administration, cannot cope with the urgent need created by the emergency.

This explains the sudden upsurge in support for an unconditional Universal Basic Income (UBI) in Britain, Europe and North America. It also accounts for the appearance of 'Pause the System' demonstrates in full protective plastic suits outside Parliament, demanding UBI. And – most surprisingly – it explains the astonishing shift in President Donald Trump's response to the coronavirus pandemic, as his spokesman, Steve Minuchin, proposes a trillion-dollar pay-out to all American citizens, to be made within two weeks, now under consideration by Congress.

How the UBI differs from benefits like Universal Credit is that it can be instantly put into effect, because there are no complex and time-consuming means tests to be conducted, or other conditions to be negotiated. It is, as Minuchin's dramatic announcement in Washington put it, a recognition that citizens 'need cash now'.

But once everyone has experienced the simplicity, the absence of stigma, and the unifying national effects of such payments, will they want them to be stopped? Will they not been seen as an answer to the longer-term threats to living standards from automation and Artificial Intelligence? Suddenly the coronavirus situation makes the case for UBI more strongly than I have been able to in almost 50 years of advocacy for it.

Bill Jordan is Honorary Professor of Social Policy at the University of Plymouth.

The Centre for Welfare Reform is a member of UBI Lab Sheffield which is part of the UBI Lab Network which, alongside other allies, is advocating for an Emergency Universal Basic Income.


The publisher is the Centre for Welfare Reform.

COVID-19, The Black Death and Basic Income © Bill Jordan 2020.

All Rights Reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher except for the quotation of brief passages in reviews.