Beyond Work for Pay? Basic-Income Concepts in Global Debates on Automation, Poverty, and Unemployment (1920-2020)

Sep 30, 2022 - Oct 01, 2022

Conference at the German Historical Institute Washington | Conveners: Manuel Franzmann (Sociology, Kiel), Axel Jansen (GHI Washington), Alice O’Connor (History, University of California, Santa Barbara)

Political utopias have long envisioned a life without the need for paid work and free of economic struggle. At the same time, and over the past century especially, the idea of payments to citizens without work requirements has found more pragmatic purchase, gaining traction as a way of assuring human rights and well-being at times of high unemployment, structural change, and job-threatening automation. In the 1960s, it also became a centerpiece of social and economic justice movement politics, reaching a height of grassroots support in the Black freedom and welfare rights movements in the United States. By then, basic income proposals had drawn support from ideologically divergent groups of policy intellectuals as a centerpiece of a reformed or re-envisioned welfare state, laying the groundwork for government-staged basic income experiments in the 1970s, though not for basic income itself. Basic income gained renewed and sustained momentum after the global financial crisis of 2007-2008, as debates about the effects of technology and automation on the labor market have continued unabated among economists and in the European and North American public. Even before the Covid-19 pandemic and the unemployment caused by it, such debates have had some political consequences: Switzerland in a 2016 held a referendum on (and rejected) a proposal to provide an unconditional basic income (UBI) for citizens. During the 2019/20 presidential primaries in the US, Democratic candidate Andrew Yang claimed UBI as his signature policy proposal. In the US, a group of 43 mayors is pursuing the idea for their communities. In Korea, the province of Gyeonggi-do in 2019 has implemented a basic income for all of its 175,000 24-year-olds. Meanwhile, international organizations such as GiveDirectly (supported by Nobel-prize-laureate Abihjit Banerjee) since 2017 have run large-scale basic-income trials in African countries such as Kenya.

Against the backdrop of such interest in basic-income concepts, this conference provides an opportunity for historians as well as sociologists, economists, and social scientists in other fields to discuss the emergence and the history of basic-income concepts in the past century.

We invite proposals for papers on a wide range of topics, and especially encourage papers that draw on comparative and/or transnational analysis and that address one or more of the following themes:

  • The intellectual, political, and ideological genesis of the negative income tax and similar basic income concepts deemed to preserve the income-work-paradigm in North America, Western Europe, and eventually in other parts of the world beginning in the 1960s.
  • Basic income and the changing dynamics of “expert” policy-making, amidst the proliferation   of regional, national, and global governmental and NGO policy actors and the prominence of contested and often conflicting bodies of economic knowledge in policy debates.  
  • The gender, race, citizenship, generational, and broadly intersectional dimensions of basic income concepts and policy proposals, as reflected in social movement politics and in public debates.   
  • Basic income and the history of anti-poverty policy, within national frameworks and in the formulation of global development goals. 
  • The significance of basic-income concepts in larger cultural, societal, and political shifts that historians have associated with the 1970s and 80s, such as an emphasis on markets, limited government, and the privatization of welfare systems.
  • Automation, basic income, and the shifting political economy of the “full employment” welfare state.
  • The history and normative assumptions shaping basic income “experiments” since their first introduction in the late 1960s and 70s, in the U.S. and Canada and more recently in Finland, India, and Namibia. What is the history of these experiments, and how do their normative assumptions (and the assumptions of the media covering these experiments) preserve a commitment to income-work or abandon it in favor of other life concepts?
  • The shifting nomenclature of basic income and how framing it in terms such as “social dividend,” “basic minimum,” “guaranteed,” or “unconditional” income reflect efforts to reshape public conversation about the parameters of the social contract.

The conveners aim to publish contributions to this conference either as an edited book or as a special issue in a peer-reviewed journal.

The organizers will cover basic expenses for travel and accommodation. Please upload a brief CV and a proposal of no more than 750 words by February 15, 2022, to the GHI Washington’s online portal

Please contact Susanne Fabricius at fabricius@ghi-dc.org at the GHI Washington if you have problems with submitting your information online. Successful applicants will be notified in April 2022.

The conference is supported by the Blum Center on Poverty, Inequality, and Democracy at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the Collegium Philosophicum as well as the Universitätsstiftung at Universität Kiel.