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On July 9, 2004, the Basic Income Network was founded in Berlin. I was one of the founders. The foundation was not a spontaneous act. We prepared it. I had asked Katja Kipping, then a member of the state parliament for the LEFT party (DIE LINKE), and Birgit Zenker, then federal chairwoman of the KAB, the Catholic Workers’ Movement, if they wanted to join. Two K groups, I thought, balance each other out, so that in the end it is their ethical impulse that counts and neither the GDR smell nor the patriarchal mustiness of Catholicism. I found them both sympathetic and reliable; politics never goes well without that, but the founding was also an act of desperation. Already 18 years before, in 1986, the then “Basic Income European Network” called BIEN was founded (later “Earth” became “European”), I was there as a youngster, was even allowed to give one of the plenary lectures, because I was somehow considered a German protagonist of the debate. In the years after that I wanted to found a German group of BIEN, as it was done in other countries. But nobody was interested.
Then, to the misfortune of poorer Germans and German culture, and fortunately for the idea of basic income, Red-Green passed the “Agenda 2010” and introduced Hartz4. Finally, socio-political awareness awoke in Germany, media contributions exploded compared to before and now the German foundation succeeded. On the day of the foundation, a hot July day, the Bundesrat passed the laws that had passed the Bundestag a week before, on the streets people protested against it, we were no longer just an academic matter.
In the beginning I was part of the coordinating comitee (“Sprecherkreis”), but then the following year I went to University of California at Berkeley as a visiting scholar, the distance made coordination harder, but also the mood in the Sprecherkreis suddenly became toxic, party politics moved in, it was a long time ago, so I resigned, without Grimm, but my way of keeping the “K “s together, bridging the gap between basic income advocates from different traditions of thought, was not in demand for a while. Later, this seems to have changed in the network, I follow it closely, but I am no longer active, even in the Scientific Advisory Board I am rather a phantom. Nevertheless, the topic of basic income does not let me go, of course. Since the end of 2018, I have been leading the scientific coordination and monitoring of the Zukunftslabor Schleswig-Holstein (www.ZLabSH.de), which is centrally concerned with basic income as one, perhaps even the most important sociopolitical reform idea for the future of the welfare state. The Network Council has therefore asked me, I assume out of a mixture of nostalgia and hope for the future, to respond to two questions, which I am now happy to do.
The 1st question
How do you assess the development of the basic income debate in Germany since the founding of Netzwerk Grundeinkommen in 2004?
Three years after the foundation of BIEN in 1986 came the German Unification and in the 1990s the German discussion on basic income had disappeared from the public. That this changed from 2003/4 “owes” itself above all to the red-green wrong decision for Hartz4, which decimated the SPD and made the Greens for many years the appendage of the powerful. Without the reference Hartz4, i.e. the backlash to the welfare principle instead of the historically required further development of social policy in the direction of decommodification, i.e. basic right to existence even without labor market participation, the basic income debate in Germany would have been different since then. Götz Werner, an important protagonist in the debate since then, would never have been able to place his criticism of Hartz4 as an “open penal system” in such an understandable and drastic way without Hartz4. And if you take a look at the initiative “Mein Grundeinkommen” (www.mein-grundeinkommen.de), not insignificantly promoted by Götz Werner, for example the impressive reportage book about the winners of their lottery (“Was würdest du tun?”, 2019), you will read depressing examples of the pressure Hartz4 has hurled into society and driven more and more people into the precariat.
Despite growing social interest in a basic income – all surveys indicate a slight to clear majority of respondents in Germany in favor of a basic income – the elites are having a hell of a time. Two examples: In 2006, I wrote an essay with Katja Kipping and Bodo Ramelow in favor of basic income (“Are we here at ‘Make a wish?’. Theses for a new welfare state”). But since Bodo became prime minister of Thuringia, he no longer talks about it. Unlike his predecessor Dieter Althaus, by the way, who confused the CDU by proposing a basic income as a (albeit quite low) “solidarity citizen’s income.” A proposal that I, together with Wolfgang Strengmann-Kuhn and Bruno Kaltenborn, calculated (and modified) for its financial feasibility on behalf of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation. Althaus left politics and Ramelow left the idea. The second example: In January 2013, Arfst Wagner, then a member of the Bundestag for the Green Party, invited me to a basic income reception at the Parliamentary Society in Berlin. I had the honor of saying a few words to introduce the event. Katja Kipping was also there, and individual members of parliament from almost all the parliamentary groups, but no celebrities, no board members. The elites are keeping a low profile. Even Robert Habeck, who still spoke out in favor of the basic income when he was a minister in Schleswig-Holstein, has since his elevation to Green Party chairman spoken only of “guaranteed security,” a basic income in light format. Without the will of the elites, the will of the people is of no use. The elites keep the system on course, even if it is wrong.
And the 2nd question
What do you think is necessary to promote the debate in Germany about basic income and the introduction of basic income?
It needs an alliance of elites and people, of opinion leaders and the population, so that basic income has a chance. The fight for a basic income can and must be waged in many different places: in schools and universities, in old and new media, in political parties and NGOs, in families and circles of friends, and of course in science. By temperament, I am more of a scientist, a truth seeker, and that is how I approach basic income. Of course, I always have doubts about whether it could really be financed if it is not too meagerly endowed, whether migrants should receive it right away or only after some time, how it could best be organized in the first place, and so on. Good answers are needed to these doubts. The elites need good arguments, and so do citizens who are not just ideological or fundamentally oppositional. If I’m honest: if I were the Minister of Social Affairs tomorrow or the day after, I wouldn’t have a blueprint for basic income that was reasonably well-calculated and that seemed acceptable from left to conservative. This is where the Future Lab will help, I’m sure. We’ll know more next year, and maybe we’ll see a surprise in terms of its introduction. The glass is at least half full.
Prof. Dr. Michael Opielka is Scientific Director and Managing Director of the ISÖ – Institute for Social Ecology in Siegburg and Professor of Social Policy at the Ernst Abbe University of Applied Sciences in Jena, Department of Social Work.
Here you can find the slightly edited article on the site of the German Basic Income Network: