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Towards a writer's utopia?

by Adam Lowe

Recently, I was invited to a literary 'sandpit' event. Various writers and professionals from the literary sphere got together to discuss the workings of our literary ecology, how we make a living from our writing (or the things attached to it, such as publishing, literary festivals and workshops) and, interestingly enough, what a universal basic income (UBI) might mean for writers. It was this last issue which is the topic for consideration today.

A universal basic income is a system designed to replace or supplement existing welfare systems. It's not means-tested and can be funded either through taxation or through redistributing money currently spent elsewhere on costly means-tested benefits systems. How the system is implemented varies based on the values of the state implementing it, however the key factor is that both the rich and the poor get the same amount (hence 'universal') and that it should be an amount sufficient to cover enough of a person's everyday living costs that it's worthwhile. Proponents have, for instance, proposed about £500-1000 per person which can be spent however a person wants each month. Results overseas have seen reductions in mental health problems and improvement in overall wellbeing, including greater academic achievement and a reduction in crime. By being paid whether you work or not, it also eliminates the 'poverty trap' of current welfare systems (where it can be more beneficial not to seek low-paying work with few hours because taking up such employment sees a partial or total reduction in benefits).

For writers of colour, this is an especially relevant topic. I see it as no coincidence that the disparity between the number of wealthy white male writers (who can afford to take their time on their projects) not only in publication but also in the spotlight, and the number of writers of colour (who often find themselves grafting as workshop leaders, 'performers' and commissionees), is so great.

Ever since I made my first application for funding for a literature project, I thought to myself, Wouldn't it be interesting if, instead of authors having to chase commissions and grants often to merely subsist, a universal basic income provided our daily needs to free us up to pursue only those projects we really wanted to do? Would artists produce less or more? Would more people become artists? Would we see more projects created and consumed at a grassroots level, and would these projects be more fleet-of-foot and experimental?

Greater minds than I have put forward conving arguments that, under a system of universal basic income, people won't (as the cynical among us fear) become more idle. Rather, people would be freed from drudgery to pursue their hobbies and passions, to volunteer for better causes, and to focus on education and personal development. Rather than creating jobs for the sake of it, jobs that could be automated would, and experts would still be able to top up their UBI by doing in-demand activities that offer them an even better quality of life. UBI could be considered 'venture capital' for citizens - which would be especially enticing for writers (and artists across the board).

This could, as a recent article in The Guardian argues, be combined with a 'job guarantee (JG) or employer of last resort (ELR)' scheme as a holistic approach to unemployment and a failing welfare state. JG or ELR is state-backed employment which hires from the bottom up (rather than traditional employment, which usually skims from the top and leaves those at the bottom vulnerable to increasingly insecure or underpaid work in the private sector). Under such a scheme, members of a community would be hired to undertake necessary work in their local area as part of a guarantee to provide work for those who want it - a system which works in combination with the welfare state overseas, and primarily benefits women. So, for example, if there's a litter problem, locals could opt to do this for a fair and living wage, paid for by the state. It would be optional, and independent of any UBI (which, by definition, needs to be provided to everyone regardless of circumstances). People could undertake this work regardless of skills or qualifications, in contrast to the usual system in private and public employment.

UBI excites me - especially with the prospect of a JG which would allow people to earn additional income on top of the money provided as a UBI. Often, I've sat with other writers, and we've discussed the 'commissions treadmill' - where the need to put food on the table diverts us from the writing we actually want to do, consuming our time with commissions we don't care about, doing things that we'd rather not be doing but feel we have to. A UBI would free us up to write regularly, and to take on fewer projects that ultimately end up as distractions from our writing goals. My bet is that our arts ecology would flourish and be much more affecting if we only did that which we really, really wanted to, rather than what we feel we ought to.

Would artists make art of their own without a reliance on grants? I think so. I've seen lots of grassroots arts initiatives where local people do things despite a lack of funding, simply because they want to do them, and I think many of those intiatives would be stronger and have a greater impact if the participants weren't held back by a lack of money for everyday existence. Maybe if writers had money of their own, they'd be putting on plays, touring the country and trialling new and exciting things without the months (or years) of applications, continual evaluations and thwarted fundraising attempts needed to do so. Smaller projects can stay smaller, because writers can self-fund their activities. Projects that need to be big can still be big.

There's an important role for grants and awards, and I firmly believe in their value, but not every project needs to carry six funders' logos. I think there will always be a need for investment and giving - but the current climate encourages us to scale everything up, regardless of need, because that's the only way to fund even smaller activities. But I think some of the smaller projects writers want to do, especially those that require speed, would be more nimble and more efficient if they didn't have to become a vast project with reams of red tape just to get off the ground. We might see more small-scale experimentation, and greater participation by those traditionally excluded from the arts, with grants and awards stepping in to support projects that reach or require a certain critical mass.

Of course, a UBI might also see more people becoming writers in general, which may impact the literary ecology in a similar way to the explosion of self-publishing - putting the tools in the hands of more people. That's not a bad thing, I think, and will strengthen, as the rise of self-publishing has, the importance of high-quality curation and editorial support that is offered by traditional and small presses. Presses like Peepal Tree have become more vital now that there are even more books published every year - with writers turning to those publishers they trust to signpost the work that suits their needs in an increasingly fragmented book market.

With more people able to write, we'll see new technologies and new trends emerge. Some of these may fizzle out and others will, after an initial boom and plenty of hype, become more or less stable, like the ebook market currently has. One thing's probably likely, though: I'll hear fewer exhausted writers complaining about not having the time or energy to write what they want to write. And for me, that makes UBI a necessary step towards a writer's utopia.

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