Old utopian ideal revived on Swiss streets

The committee presented its initiative to the public in April 2012 Keystone

It is arguably one of the most unusual political ideas launched in decades and campaigners for an unconditional basic income for all say they have already collected enough signatures to force a vote on their utopian proposal.

This content was published on June 13, 2013 - 11:00

“Bloody nonsense,” mutters a middle-aged man as he rushes to the entrance of the Basel railway station at the end of May. A young activist with a clipboard has just invited him to sign an initiative launched by a group of people without the support of a major political organisation.

The campaigners say it is time for a broad public debate about the value of work in society and the widening gap between rich and poor – and more specifically to grant every legal resident in Switzerland contributions of CHF2,500 ($2,597) a month outright. The aim is to give everyone the right to self-determination and to live a life with less pressure, according to a promotional leaflet.

Although this passerby is by far not the only to react negatively – and loudly - he is in a minority on this chilly Saturday morning.

Only a few moments later, the same young campaigner gets involved in what seems to be an epic and lively debate with a retired teacher about the value of work, the perceived need for pressure on the young generation to get a job and training.

The grey-haired citizen won’t put his name down for the initiative. “It might be a good idea, but I can’t imagine it is practicable,” he concludes.

However, the enthusiasm of the young campaigner seems unstoppable. He is part of a five-strong team of political activists who seem to enjoy open discussions.

They can even pay off: A 22-year-old man in army uniform, after initial scepticism, eventually signs up. He is on weekend leave and weighs up arguments for and against the initiative, moving his head slowly from right to left and back. Then he makes up his mind, meting out praise and criticism equally.

“It is good to have a discussion about the idea,” he says, adding that the campaigner should steer clear of the idea of welfare payments and handouts as it was scaring off potential supporters.

Hard core

The promoters of the initiative have idealistic motives which could potentially break a taboo in a society which is largely defined by work and money.

Mark Balsiger, political scientist and public relations expert, says the campaign caught his attention primarily when it was launched.

He is surprised to learn how many signatures the campaigners managed to collect despite doubts whether the personalities listed as official “friends” of the initiative are prominent enough to mobilise citizens outside a narrow circle of people with humanist ideals.

Nevertheless, Balsiger says their activities on the street have a sympathetic touch and their websites look professional, making up for the presumably small budget available.

Watching direct democracy at work, his assumption is confirmed. Most of campaigners seem to be enthusiastic volunteers, young and old.

“There is a core of about 40 of us and some 200 others who have helped out,” says Pola Rapatt of Generation Basic Income. Set up last autumn, the group has given the campaign a second wind, adding a more playful note, organising competitions among the activists from different cities.


Political expert Michael Hermann for his part describes the initiative as an attempt to “question certainties at a political and philosophical level”.

He sees only a limited potential for such a difficult issue “to provoke a scandal” unlike previous initiatives, including proposals aimed at scrapping the Swiss army, locking up paedophile criminals for life, or radical environmental moves.

What’s more, the issue of an unconditional income is also discussed in other countries, notably in neighbouring Germany.

“The main purpose of the initiative appears to be a broad discussion. Therefore campaigning is perhaps the most important stage,” says Hermann. It is perfectly legitimate, but it risks killing off the political issue for a long time.

A ballot box success does not seem in sight, according to Hermann.

Basic income

Signatures are being collected for the introduction of an unconditional basic income for every legal resident in Switzerland. It would allow the population to “lead a life fit for human beings and to take part in public matters”. 

The original idea dates back to the Middle Ages with English humanist and social philosopher Thomas More. It was further developed through the centuries.

20th century French social philosopher André Gorz was an enthusiastic supporter of a guaranteed citizen’s income.

Attempts to introduce an unconditional income were launched in several countries, including Brazil, Cuba, Mongolia, and - at a limited scale – in Namibia and Germany.

Efforts are underway in the 27-nation EU and individual European countries. The movement for an unconditional income in Switzerland was stepped up 2006. The initiative was launched in April 12 and will be present in October.

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Later the same day in the capital, Bern: The temperature is as chilly as it was in Basel. Still, it doesn’t stop a middle-aged woman from grabbing a clipboard and spontaneously joining the campaigners.

Some of the street activists, however, seem a bit tired by now. But no reason for them to stop. They want to carry on for a few more hours.

“It is irritating how few people here want to be drawn into a discussion. They go: ‘Yes, yes, great idea’ and they sign - or don’t sign - and walk away,” says Dani Häni, a leading promoter of the unconditional basic income.

As if to contradict the statement, a woman in her 40s approaches the collection point outside Bern’s railway station.

She signs without hesitation. She happens to be an expert on social sciences and explains that she likes to have a debate, because the current social policy is marked by mistrust as she says.


The initiative has found very few friends among the business community and economists so far, apart from a few notable exceptions.

In an 11-page paper published last October, the Swiss Business Federation warns that the Swiss economy would lose its competitive edge if it were to be adopted.

The lobby group rejects a proposed increase of the Value Added Tax to fund the scheme and dismisses assertions that the country’s social security system could be slimmed down, if an unconditional basic income were introduced.

Opponents say the scheme would cost nearly CHF140 billion ($146 billion) per year to be financed through a consumer tax of more than 50 per cent.

“As simple and plausible as the idea might be – it is too good to be true,” the paper concludes. “It is unfortunately just an expensive utopian idea which undermines our prosperity.”

Minimum wage

Separate political efforts have been on the political agenda in Switezrland over the past few years.

A proposal by leftwing parties and trade unions for the nationwide introduction of a minimum wage won enough support from citizens and will go before parliament soon. A nationwide vote could take place next year at the earliest.

A ballot is likely to take place later this year on a proposal to cap top manager salaries at a 12:1 ratio compared with the lowest wage in the same company.

Earlier this year, Swiss voters caused a ballot box upset approving a proposal to increase shareholders’ rights to curb manager salaries.

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No incentive

Rudolf Strahm, former price ombudsman, says that the idea of an unconditional basic income is fascinating at a first glance, but “it is a sobering thought the state should entertain pensioners for life”.

The former Social Democratic parliamentarian says he appreciates the idealistic image of humanity promoted by the campaigners. The concept of the initiative and the social issues behind it should be taken seriously, he says.

“But the response hasn’t been thought through to the end,” he affirms. 

Strahm is an ardent promoter of the Switzerland’s dual system of vocational education and training. He fears young people would lose any incentive to get a job. Work would inevitably lose its value, idolising creativity and social networks at the expense of the country’s social security insurance scheme.

He criticises the promoters for their “adventurous cost calculations” and warns of the impact of an unconditional income in a global world with open borders.

“Utopias and visions don’t have to provide an answer to every technical question. But an utopia has to address at least basic issues and face reality.”

Better world

The promoters of the initiative are not deaf to the criticism. But a prominent activist, retired government spokesman Oswald Sigg, is convinced that it is worth fighting for an fairer society and income distribution, even if it might seem impossible to win a majority of votes.

“”Switzerland is the only country in the world where you can have a vote about an utopian idea,” he says.

The promoters had collected more than 110,000 signatures by the end of May. They have another four months to complete their campaign.

There is still work to do, as another discussion with a passerby in Basel shows.

A young man steadfastly refuses to support the initiative. He obviously mistakes the unconditional income with the minimum wage campaign. The activist gives up and hands him a leaflet.

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