The need for a
common income

By Thomas Decreus, Anna Rispoli, Leontien Allemeersch & Wouter Hillaert

This is a manifesto by the research project group Common Income. It makes a statement for sharing income as a collective good and labour is a collective activity – a ‘collabouration’. Its capitalism, who presents it as an individual act, defined by what you earn. As a result, income is seen as a private merit, as a public taboo. True solidarity, however, only is possible if we understand work and income as a ‘commons’. It is not the idea of replacing, but expanding the welfare state beyond its conditionalities. As it is organised by people themselves it differs from a universal basic income, and could create a form of collective autonomy and democracy.


What is labour? Obviously, labour is more than simply the activities we get paid for. When we put our children in bed, when we write a poem, when we cook, when we care, when we discuss or when we wash ourselves, we labour. Every activity which is in one way or another productive, can be considered as labour. In this sense, it is hard to think of an activity which is absolutely unproductive. Even sleeping is productive, or at least reproductive.


Yet few of our productive activities are validated in the form of payment. The distinction between paid labour and unpaid labour seems arbitrary: there is no strict relation with productivity. All persons who take care of their children every day are extremely productive, yet they are rarely paid and are even generally considered to be unproductive. An office manager whose numbers in a database nobody is interested in might receive a good wage. The point is not necessarily that the office manager should not get paid and the person taking care of the children should; what we want to address here is the apparent arbitrariness. There is no justifiable reason why one gets paid and the other does not.


Although strictly speaking, a reason cannot be given for this arbitrariness, an explanation can be given. Clearly within capitalism, only labour which adds to profit maximisation gets socially and financially valorised. Furthermore, in order to achieve profit maximisation, some labour needs to be underpaid or left unpaid since this is the very condition to be able to create profit. One of the main strategies to naturalise unpaid or underpaid labour are processes of racialisation and gendering.


Labour is always a form of collaboration - collabouration - something we do together, we necessarily depend on one another and which creates a common world. Of course, neoliberal management always tries to individualise workers, to isolate activity in order to make solidarity more difficult. Some scholars (like Pascal Gielen) explain this neoliberal strategy as being inspired by individual competition within the art world, but even the most individual artist can’t create an ‘art work’ or publish a book without the involvement and engagement of others in finalising it. Even in the most atomised positions, there is always contact, collabouration, commonucation, commoning.


The concept of commoning has been developed by American historian Peter Linebaugh to refer to those activities which create and reproduce commons. Commons should thus first and foremost be understood as a social practice in which resources are used and directly governed by a community of users. This is another way of saying, commons are not naturally given; they need to be produced and reproduced through social practices. One of the most important of those practices is labour. In fact, there is no form of commoning which cannot be considered as labour, just as there is no form of labour which is not commoning.


Observing this, we are confronted with a strange paradox. Although labour is always a form of commoning, income is always highly individualised. Labour is common; income is private. Think about how normal it is to talk publicly about jobs and how ‘abnormal’ it is to publicly reveal your income. There is a shame attached to income, as if one somehow feels it is a form of illegitimate privatisation, maybe even theft from the common.


The way in which income is distributed in our society leads inevitably to atomisation. If income is regarded as a result of merit, as something you actually deserve because of talent, hard work, intelligence or uniqueness, solidarity with others becomes more difficult. This process has been dramatically intensified under neoliberalism. The relation to the self and others is seen in terms of human capital, and as a result, income appears to be a valorisation of individual human capital. As this point of view is hegemonic, every redistribution can only be considered a form of charity. True solidarity is only possible when we start from the collective nature of both work and income. In other words, a common income is not a result of solidarity but a precondition for it. Solidarity becomes possible when income is redistributed, when we organise in order to redistribute income.


The post-war consensus on redistribution of welfare in most Western countries was crystalised in the form of welfare states. These welfare states contributed in a substantial way towards the commoning of income. By means of state sponsored insurance systems, income was commonised and redistributed to a large extent. We should by no means downplay the historical importance of this effort and defend what still remains of these structures. At the same time, the welfare state is a partial attempt to create forms of common income, unfinished and open to necessary improvements and radicalisation.


It is with some hesitation that we speak of the welfare state since the history of the welfare state is not the history of a state or state politics. The welfare state is the result of working class struggles, practices and experiments aimed at creating solidarity between members of the working classes. The first unemployment benefits were the result of creating funds among the working classes, quite similar to the creation of strike funds. Obviously, unions and working class parties played an important role here, forces which stood in opposition to the state as often as they collaborated with the state. In this sense, it is contestable to speak of the welfare state.


One of the main shortcomings of the contemporary welfare states is the specific conditionality on which the right to an income depends. This right is strongly connected with the willingness to take a job. One must have a paid job, or one must prove to be unable to have one. Under neoliberalism, this conditionality is increasingly used as a disciplinary tool. The welfare system stands in service of a generalised ‘workforce’, of an obligation to participate in the ‘labour market’.


Advocating for forms of common income can in no way be seen as standing in opposition to the welfare state and its merits. The idea of a common income should be regarded as an attempt to radicalise principles of the welfare state and take the welfare state back to its roots – namely the semi-autonomous practices in which incomes are collected, redistributed and shared. A common income should thus not replace still existing structures of the welfare state, but rather extend them, make them more just.


Attempts to create common income must try to break with neoliberal conditionality. Since everybody, somehow, participates in the realisation of commons, everybody should have a right to an income. This specific unconditionality of a common income stands in opposition to the conditionality of the privatised income. This should be regarded as the main difference between both types of income. However, we are aware of the fact that a complete unconditionality is hard to realise. Every commons creates conditions, rules and regulations among the commoners. Taking this into account, we must strive to reduce unnecessary or oppressive conditionalities and create types of conditionality which are as inclusive and emancipatory as possible.


Our plea for a common income should not be understood as a prioritisation of one type of common – namely, income – at the expense of other types of commons or commoning. In contrast to many defenders of Universal Basic Income (UBI), we do not see income as the most important way to create social emancipation. Reducing social emancipation to a matter of income is counterproductive since it does not create real collective independence and autonomy. People should also have (free) access to education, medical services, information, culture, transport, sports infrastructures, nature and food. But since we still live in a capitalist society in which money is crucial to function, income is of vital importance. Access to a common income can literally save lives.


We want to speak about a common income and not a basic income in order to stress the fact that we see a common income as something which is more or less horizontally shared and organised among people themselves, rather than imposed by a state. Furthermore, we are very well aware that some – maybe even most – advocates of UBI see an unconditional income as a better way to manage people, to make them more governable and, ultimately, as a tool to somehow halt the disintegrating tendencies within capitalism. In contrast, a common income is a way in which people themselves can create forms of collective autonomy, a way in which they can be less dependent on state structures and more auto-governable than governable. In essence, the creation of a common income should be seen as part of a radical-democratic project.


Although classical Athens can of course not be considered as a full, worthy democracy – since women and slaves were excluded from public deliberations – it nevertheless continues to serve as a paradigm for what a more direct democracy might look like. It is worthwhile to remember that those regarded as citizens were actually paid to attend public meetings. In other words, a common income was paid in order to participate in the common. In this sense, a direct historical link exists between a common income and democracy.


The modalities and conditionalities of the common income should be decided by the commoners. We consider it absolutely crucial that a common income not be used as a tool to discipline people. Obviously, it is extremely important to discuss the exact amount of income one can receive, how income will be redistributed and to whom. But such debate cannot be held in absence of the common it refers to. In that regard, it is important to emphasise that the common is always a situated common, operating within a particular context in which specific needs arise with regard to which type of income is needed. We reject any attempt to create universal blueprints.

How to translate these principles into a concrete pilot project? That is the objective of Common Income, a research project supported by Kunstenpunt. See:* → common income