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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Spain’s UBI Is A Wake-Up Call For Americans

Spain just passed a permanent universal basic income. So can we.

On the first night of Semana Santa, the Holy Week, Spanish citizens got their first bit of good news since the nationwide quarantine went into effect on March 14. No, the Lord hadn’t decided to end this most perfidious of His modern plagues, and no, the country’s hundreds of thousands of laid-off workers hadn’t somehow gotten their jobs back—but if you tuned in to TV channel La Sexta’s broadcast on Sunday night, you still witnessed something miraculous.

The miracle in question was the announcement of an ingreso mínimal vital, or universal basic income (UBI). In other words, it’s a monthly payment from the government to all Spaniards, which would ensure they could continue to eat and have a place to live regardless of their employment status. As Minister of Economics Nadia Calviño explained, the new policy was designed to ensure that “nobody is left out or left behind, starting with the workers.” This isn’t just a COVID-19 coping mechanism, either, as Spain’s UBI is expected to become a permanent part of the social fabric.

Officials are still sorting out many of the details. There’s no concrete start date yet, though Calviño has said that the Spanish government aims to roll out the new program “as soon as possible.” It’s also unclear what the monthly sum will be, and how it will be determined. Calviño hinted that some families might receive more or less “depending on their circumstances,” which sounds like some sort of means-testing. It’s a massive undertaking, to say the least, and many wrinkles remained to be ironed. But make no mistake: This is a huge fucking deal.

Spain has been battered by the COVID-19 pandemic worse than any other country in Europe (with the possible exception of Italy), and its death toll now exceeds 11,000. Not only has Spain closed its borders with the outside world, it’s even banned travel between provinces in an effort to slow the spread of the virus. A curfew has been in place for weeks, and the police are enforcing it with vigor. Life has ground to a complete halt from Barcelona to Bilbao.

This is a nightmare scenario by any conceivable definition, and one that the United States will soon be facing itself. However, while U.S. politicians pit states against each other to bid on dwindling supplies of basic medical equipment and encourage vulnerable citizens to go stand in line to vote during the worst pandemic of the past century, Spain is taking a novel approach to disaster management: What if we tried to make it easier for our people to stay alive?

Electoral logo of the PSOE, the ruling Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party.

Under Socialist prime minister Pedro Sánchez, Spain has already nationalized the country’s private hospitals (it’s worth mentioning the Spanish universal healthcare system had earned the World Economic Forum’s top ranking even before this move). Despite strong opposition from right-wing parties like Vox and Partido Popular (PP)—the latter was founded by former ministers of Francisco Franco’s fascist dictatorship—Sánchez has successfully fought to create a “social shield” to help protect ordinary Spaniards. Just days after the lockdown started, his government announced a relief package aimed at helping working families, which included reducing social security payments for the self-employed and allowing people with dependents to take off as much time as they need to provide care. Equaling 20 percent of Spain’s GDP, Sánchez billed it as “the greatest mobilization of resources in the country’s entire democratic history.” And all that was before his administration got around to a UBI.

If you’re an American—or someone unlucky enough to be stuck in the United States right now—headlines like these have a bit of a surreal quality. Universal healthcare alone is supposed to be “pie in the sky,” at least according to the Democratic Party establishment (who, were they plucked from Washington and deposited in Madrid, would make a more agreeable coalition partner for the far-right PP than Sánchez’s PSOE). And while former presidential candidate Andrew Yang might have introduced the concept of UBI to the American public, his often-less-than-serious campaign failed to make inroads with voters who didn’t adhere to Yang’s peculiar brand of benevolent technolibertarianism. His subsequent PR stunts, like giving away $500,000 to a random New York town that has yet to be named, have only cemented the impression among “serious audiences” that UBI is the stuff of science fiction.

And yet it’s happening. In real life. In a Western democracy that you, dear reader, may have visited once upon a time when moving freely from place to place was a thing that (some) humans could still do. So many things that were supposed to be impossible, like breaking the insurance industry’s stranglehold on the healthcare system or lavishing ordinary citizens with the kinds of benefits usually reserved for banks or hedge funds, are now revealed to be eminently achievable—assuming a country has the political will.

It’s clear that neither of the major parties in the United States have that will. We expect this from Republicans, of course. The GOP is composed of crooks all the way down, from the president pitching unproven miracle cures made by a company in which he has “a financial interest” to the unelected senator making millions off insider trading during a pandemic to the wealthy donor putting thousands of lives at risk to show how much God loves America. But by now, we probably shouldn’t be surprised that the Democrats have shown themselves to be similarly scruple-free. In state after state, centrist Democrats have urged voters to head to the polls to vote for an alleged rapist who proudly boasts that “no one’s standard of living would change” under his administration. It doesn’t seem to bother Biden’s backers that “getting out the vote” during a pandemic contributes to spikes in infection rates and fatalities. For the Democratic establishment, the important thing is (and always has been) to maintain some semblance of the status quo.

But this is not what we need right now.

Americans—at least the ones who aren’t personally invested in the maintenance of petty fiefdoms in politics, media, and the corporate world—understand that profoundly fucked-up times call for solutions that seemed “radical” in the recent past. That’s why strikes at companies like Amazon and Whole Foods are becoming a weekly occurrence, while militant labor agitation is growing among everyone from gig economy workers to graduate instructors to engineers at General Electric. A nationwide general strike now looks like a real possibility in the near future. This newfound restlessness, more than any of the insulting and insufficient measures proposed by an impotent Congress, is our best hope for salvation.

Right now, we’re experiencing a collective thirst for revenge. Not only is this understandable, it’s justified. When we hear Wall Street overlords casually suggest that sacrificing the lives of tens of thousands of workers would be a reasonable price to pay for keeping stock prices up; when we pay thousands of dollars to powerful institutions for services that are never delivered and when we ask for a refund we get a dance video from the boss, but no check; when we see the casino industry getting billions upon billions of dollars in taxpayer bailout money, even as they refuse to open up their thousands of empty hotel rooms to our fellow human beings who are forced to sleep in parking lots during a fucking pandemic—are we not supposed to Google “how to build a guillotine?” 

Sometimes the sheer unrelenting torrent of shit flowing toward us feels like too much to handle. Many of us were barely hanging on—in both a financial and spiritual sense—even before the coronavirus hit. Looking around at the ghostworld we now inhabit, and the seemingly bleak prospects for our futures, it’s tempting to crawl into the nearest hole and pray for oblivion.

There’s an alternative, though, and that’s to become more furious than you’ve ever been in your entire life. One way forward is to channel some of that anger into supporting Bernie Sanders’ platform however you can—even though he’s dropped out, his policies are still the ones we urgently need right now, and there are many down-ballot candidates who support his vision and need your help.

But also, just give yourself permission to be mad. Feel the rage in every last one of your cells. Take a minute and scream your fucking lungs out. Curse the names of Donald Trump and Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi and Jared Kushner and Jeff Bezos and Hillary Clinton and Lloyd Blankfein and Richard Burr and Alyssa Milano and Thomas Friedman and Neera Tanden and Mike Bloomberg and Dianne Feinstein and every other callous piece of shit who would happily sacrifice you and everyone you care about if it meant their net worth would increase by a few percentage points. The only measurable difference between one team and the other is that the Democrats would claim the Republicans forced them to do it. 

Be angry at these people. They are despicable monsters who sold their souls long ago. More importantly, be angry at the systems they support and defend. For-profit healthcare, precarious employment, exploitative housing markets, threadbare social safety nets…none of those are accidents. These systems were constructed with careful, deliberate effort over the course of decades. Hideous policy was stacked on top of hideous policy until they formed a demonic Jenga tower of such monstrous enormity that it blocked out not only the sun but the sky itself. 

As the Spanish have shown us, that tower can be toppled. But it won’t fall of its own accord—we’re going to need to fight for it. This might be uncomfortable for a lot of us. For the last 40 years, we’ve been told that if we just kept our mouths shut and worked hard, everything would be fine. If we only studied a little more, spent a few more hours on self-improvement, sacrificed a little more free time, we too could make it. This has always been a lie. 

The people who control our lives—our politicians, bosses, landlords, lenders, and so on—are under the impression that they can push us far as they like. They can refuse to pay us for the work we’ve done, even if that means we’ll starve. They can suspend mortgage payments for wealthy homeowners but not rent payments for people living paycheck to paycheck. They can repeatedly give away trillions of dollars to the financial sector, while expecting working families to subsist on a one-time offering of crumbs. They think they can keep fucking us over and over again without fear of repercussions. They’re wrong. 

It’s time we showed them, through both speech and action, that we won’t be pushed another goddamn inch. As Frederick Douglass once said, “Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both.”

For all the Spanish government’s many flaws, it seems to have grasped an important truth: It exists to serve the people of Spain, and to make their lives better in tangible ways. It arrived at this conclusion not by accident, but because the people made it clear that a half-assed response to the greatest crisis of our age would not go well for those in charge. 

It’s time for Americans to send their ruling class the same message.

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