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Citizen Money as a Bold Social Utopia

"Spring has returned. The earth is like a child that knows poems." (Rainer Maria Rilke) Citizen money would guarantee a reasonable life for all. Citizen money challenges our social and cultural assumption and uncouples work and income. A basic income for all would replace the idiotic guaranteed income for the rich.
In his Weimar speech, the sociologist and author Wolfgang Engler pleaded for a basic income that grants a dignified life beyond paid employment to every citizen.
By Wolfgang Engler
[This address published 3/19/2010 is translated from the German on the Internet,  link to www.otz.de.]

... The first global crisis of modern capitalism, the "Great Depression"... was a learning process with a deadly ending.

To make the world better and more human, individuals must change and improve themselves. That thesis provokes the antithesis that change of individuals breaks down in the system or the whole that prevents true humanity. As a conclusion, the whole must be crushed with force. Before individuals can really change or improve, the social world must be changed in a revolutionary way.

The difference of our time and Brecht's time in 1930 is enormous. The revolutionary perspective has gone by the boards. A collective subject willing and able to turn the world upside down is nowhere to be seen.

Who among us who regards our world as unjust and needy of change seriously believes in the rebellion of the working class as a solution of the problem? We may consider the whole as false and localize the error in the system. The misery could be ended through resolute actions of the masses. But how can this succeed? A peaceful revolution of conditions according to the model of the popular uprisings in Eastern-Central Europe in the years 1989/90 is now brewing according to all appearances.

The second global financial and economic crisis that we witness does not produce any revolutionary situation or rebellion of numerous minorities. This reflects the system's capacity for reform and the cleverness of its elites.

At the same time the crisis in which this system has fallen clearly speaks for and not against change. To not reward those who caused the crisis, we must be on the lookout for alternatives that are below the revolutionary threshold and yet do not end in half-hearted reforms or system cosmetics. Instead of alternatives to capitalism, alternatives in capitalism are on the agenda.

Radicals and militant spirits may find this problematization of our situation as stale or an expression of overly tame thinking too ready to make concessions. For them, capitalism is the rogue of world history and as such unteachable. The motto of this "steadfast" criticism is everything or nothing - either shattering the false whole or creeping incrementalism.

When there was still a utopia in the first third of the nineteenth century, selfishness or absolute egoism appeared as the royal way of a socially pacified humanity. The deregulation of market forces promised wealth in the long term.

Something different happened. The social gulf widened instead of closing little by little. Crass irreconcilable opposites ruled the social scene. The misery of the proletariat was nameless. Societies ruled by raw capitalism drifted toward the abyss. The only question to be answered was who would be overpowered and massacred.

Measured by this starting position, the following history of capitalism in our part of the world can only be described as a history of its civilization


Embittered social struggles waged together with periodic learning processes brought about this change. As a result, the social contrasts were moderated. Paid work stripped off its naked proletariat character and gradually gave way to a "middle class form of wage-earning."

The mass of workers and employees participated in economic progress in the form of real disproportional income gains. In the last third of the nineteenth century, a new form of property - social property - appeared. Collective solidarity systems ensured the working majority against the force of circumstances blind to fate, old age, work accidents and unemployment.

Bound to paid work, these solidarity systems went beyond the immediate work process and enabled workers to breathe. The brutal economic society from the early time of modern capitalism blossomed to a society with a dominant capitalist production method. People especially those at the lower end of the social pecking order still lived withy capitalism, not simply and completely in capitalism.

Civilizing "relations" began in the workshop and then spread further and further. The average paid worker of our days shares more than the generic name with his unhappy predecessors from childhood days.


That the social distinctions between these two paid worker types is less striking now than a few decades ago sends us back to the starting point of this reflection to the basic social question of our epoch: continuation or withdrawal of the civilizing of capitalist wealth production.

Regrettably the evidence for a de-civilizing of working- and living conditions of dependent employees is immense. The social status of the unemployed falls rapidly. Everything is exacted to the person without regular work - miserable jobs, starvation wages, restricted freedom of movement and disclosure of private circumstances: any work is better than no work! Available at any time, he tackles normal working conditions together with precarious employees.

The masters of work applaud the economic-political control of unemployed life and are glad about the growing general uncertainty. All the political parties that governed Germany since the early 1980s worked sometimes secretly and sometimes openly in the project of withdrawing civilizing achievements. I will spare you a detailed list of these "painful reforms."

My main interest is the reversal of this heart-rending development, the question whether the capital relation instead of dictating its will on the whole society can be obligated to far-reaching social obedience. Is there a civilization project whose time has come that fits in this logic?

Social property has provoked spirited discussion, passionate support and brusque criticism. Social property is a fruit of economic crisis and political struggles of the late nineteenth century. Paid work provides a stage on which workers present themselves as citizens and a group on which they can stand as persons. The continental-European societies of the twentieth century knit a finely-meshed net of social- and welfare-state measures against incalculable personal risks of market transactions out of an initially porous web. The emancipation of the worker to a citizen outfitted with the right to have rights seemed irreversible.

Global capitalism created new risks. The worldwide competition over the cheapest conditions of exploitation and high profits started a location-competition that threatens to wash away or hollow out the national foundations of the social consensus. Paid work also becomes a question of fate for millions. The theater becomes rotten; the ground is cracked. The social consensus needs a revival, new impulses and a concrete utopia.

The project of a basic income, citizen money, could produce the necessary rejuvenation of the social state. The demand of an unconditional right to life and livelihood "fits" the logic of social property. Technical-technological progress and the consequences of planetary competition encircle "good" work that supports one's life. Capital is more agile than living labor. Without outward barriers, capital exploits this advantage and cancels the old compromise. We can go elsewhere!

The restoration of "equal weapons" between laborers and masters of work is a command of social justice and presses to acknowledgment of the primacy of love over earning a living. Emancipating the worker to be a citizen goes beyond the solution of the social question in the past. Emancipating the citizen (and the person) to be a worker is the demand of the present.

Access to classical social property was and is bound to work. Whoever suffers a work accident, becomes ill or loses his job receives public support enabling him or her to bridge over these "time-outs." The allocation occurs in the expectation that the recipients will immediately continue earning a living that is only interrupted. Polarized in the same sense as work, "earned retirement" is earned in the sense that it looks back on an unbroken working life.

Except for persons with serious physical or mental handicaps, readiness to do work at any time is the condition sine qua non of gainful existence. The social property of the future uncouples the existential guarantees from work and transfers them to their subject, the person or individual. That is the whole difference.

Everyone would come into the world with social property and extensive social rights and receive them irrespective of the fact whether he does work or not, much or little, continuously or episodically.

Formerly basic income or citizen money only set new themes on the social state agenda. It actually breaks with the customary praxis of public risk protection and the work-dependence of social freedoms by ensuring individuals against the "exactions" of work. That makes the matter controversial.

I'd like to put this conflict to rest for now. To take up, evaluate and dissolve as far as possible the basic objections against citizen money would fill whole books and go beyond the limits of a lecture. Given the lack of alternatives in political discourse, the new unheard-of and radical nature of the idea will be emphasized here.

Citizen money, understood as a right to reasonable life even without paid work, aims at our social and cultural assumptions and narratives. Citizen money offers a new image of man that overcomes the conventional equation of work and activity and usefulness and human dignity. It expands the catalogue of civil- and human rights with the alternative of working or not working and forces the masters of work to offer financially and/or functionally attractive work. Citizen money defines the material ground of life, the social ground through which no one may crash. Citizen money assists the demand for a general minimum wage and insures that this minimum wage be above the work-free basic income. Work would then be rewarding again in every case.


Citizen money is a bold social utopia that goes beyond any comparable capitalist production method. Because it can set the conditions of its realization, citizen money sketches a concrete utopia. To realize this initiative, one need "only" purify the current social- and labor legislation from all those oppressions, adjustments and humiliations naturalized with the German Hartz laws [German welfare "reform" that combined income support and unemployment benefits while drastically reducing the duration of benefits]. This could happen immediately, even tomorrow.

This has not yet happened. The governing and even the majority of the governed steadfastly refuse to storm the fortresses of the paid work society and its citadels, the work pressure to carry away stone after stone. This work pressure is partly governmentally decreed and partly internalized. The utopian potential exists without a revolutionary subject. The next step falters here and the project threatens to be stifled. Winning the majorities in a society like ours is a challenge whose realization is still in the future.

Utopias miss their goal when they paint the future society in all details. As a rule, these details are hidden from the present and extend to tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. The morning hardly dawns and they are outdated. Robust utopias are practiced in modesty and present principled solutions for the problems of their time.

Citizen money does not prescribe to people of future generations how they should live and fill the new possibilities of freedom. The cultural consequences of a right to reasonable life without paid work are on another page that cannot be opened here.

Utopias make possible the viability of the world. One throws an anchor in the future and from this imagined position or the bird's eye view looks to the present, the here and now, the wheat and the chaff. Developments pointing to what are desirable and necessary first become visible when desire becomes the father of thought and endeavor. One can still be deceived and follow delusions.

This is better than no perspective or fixation of thought on the crude present, on the moment. The economy is not an end-in-itself. The purpose of the exercise is social welfare and individual well-being on the foundation of personal freedom.

Without legal and political freedoms, their social-economic core shrivels. Then bread and games threaten to be the price of bondage. But the opposite is also true. Undermining the existential guarantees soon takes its toll on civil freedoms...

The adversaries of extensive freedoms have long taken positions and violated the line of social-economic resistance of modern democracy in more than one place. The sharpest battle now rages. We citizens can only do this ourselves: resist these adversaries and refortify the rhythms of the economy and society.


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