Unconditional basic income and cryptocurrencies
A Deliveroo delivery driver on a street in East London, April 2019. (Credit: Alena.K/Bigstockphoto.com) (via: bit.ly)

As Basic Income activists, we all know why we support Unconditional/Universal Basic Income (UBI). I do it not only because I hope for a world with more personal freedom, fewer so-called ‘bullshit jobs’, and less repressive welfare systems, but also because I believe in the emancipatory effects it can have for women*.[1]

There are numerous reasons to hope that UBI will contribute to a rise in gender equality. They include the reduction of poverty for women*, who are generally more at risk of living in poverty – think of single mums. They also include more agency and independence to break free of dependent relationships – think of domestic violence, where the violator, usually male, is the breadwinner, or of women who are trapped in precarious employment with violent or abusive bosses. We like to call this type of agency over your own lives ‘the freedom to say no’.

More or less equality

On the other hand, UBI could just as well contribute to a decrease in gender equality. This is why:

The world of UBI activism and academia is a white, male – global north – dominated sphere. We should be extremely aware of this fact, as it will also affect the design of any future UBI implementation. ‘Whose basic needs are decided upon by whom?’ is only one question that I argue needs a closer look. In general, we need to start talking about participation and real inclusion of and cooperation with the people who should benefit greatly from UBI – for example, women*.

UBI in itself is not a magic tool to fight inequalities and discrimination

Secondly, UBI could contribute to and reinforce the non-recognition and unfair treatment of care work, in the way that it would give the people who are now already doing it – women*, of course – the opportunity to live off UBI instead of combining unpaid reproduction and paid work because of economic imperatives. It could easily undermine the fight for better care work conditions and payments by using the argument ‘they get a basic income, what do they need higher wages for now?’ to reject demands for wage rises. This would negate the choices a UBI promises, though.

Basic income eligibility

And lastly, ‘Who is eligible for UBI, and who isn’t?’ is a crucial question in all UBI discussions. People are discussing UBI for children – but not so much how its pay-out would deal with national boundaries and affect people without citizenship of the country they live in. And if we look at the example of care work again: wouldn’t the benefits of UBI for low-paid women* in the care industry of one country not just mean shifting that exploitation to another country? The outsourcing of care work is already happening, by the way, so there’s no reason to assume it wouldn’t happen more often with UBI.

Complementary currencies, and cryptocurrencies in particular, have the advantage that they can function outside of the dominant money system and don’t have to be funded by it

Depending on concrete proposals for design and funding, which are as numerous as the people speaking about UBI, these concerns are stronger or weaker. If, for example, we imagine a UBI funded by reductions of the social welfare state, it might lead to greater injustice and less choices because women* are generally more dependent on social welfare than men.

This makes clear that UBI in itself is not a magic tool to fight inequalities and discrimination. In order to fully enjoy the benefits we hope for, it will always need to be accompanied by a working social system, a reform of labour market policies in a way that is beneficial, especially for care workers and other areas of work predominantly done by (underpaid) women*, fairer immigration policies, etc. And it will have to be funded by redistribution rather than by cutting much needed services or by raising taxes (like VAT), which would disproportionately affect poor and marginalised people.[2]

Basic income and complementary currency

This said, we can now have a closer look at how this would look in a world which uses a complementary currency to UBI like Circles.[3]

Complementary currencies, and cryptocurrencies in particular, have the advantage that they can function outside of the dominant money system and don’t have to be funded by it. Like this, by their very nature, they already counter some of the concerns mentioned above. Let me outline how.

Circles, which will serve as my use case here, has an equal distribution of money or financial means built into its system – we call it predistribution – rather than attempting to redistribute money after it has been created and distributed, like a regular, fiat UBI would do.[4]

Circles is not restrictive in terms of borders and citizenship. It will of course start in certain localities where people agree to use Circles as their means of exchange, but it has the potential to become a global system. It is completely independent from nation-states and all the limitations and uncertainties a UBI has to deal with in the nation-state world – think of the Canadian pilot, where certain people were made promises of inclusion in a UBI pilot only to see their hopes destroyed when those promises were broken by a changing government. Thus, it doesn’t exclude migrants and won’t help shift exploitative labour care work to migrant women*. It will be exclusive in other ways though – access to smartphones is the most obvious – but we hope to find strategies to extend Circles coverage both in technical and social terms.

With a decentralised, democratic, and open-source system design, the Circles system has the inclusion and decision-making participation of its users at its core. The decentralisation it promises thus means we have a chance to take some decision-making power back from institutions which have great influence on our lives – ‘the patriarchy’ being only one of them, but we could of course also name nation-states and their institutions like central banks, as often done in the crypto case – if, and this if cannot be stressed enough, we do it in the right way and avoid reproducing traditional lines of social inequalities.

A decentralised money system like Circles offers users themselves the opportunity to decide what they want and what they find valuable – basically to decide what their basic needs are.

Furthermore, Circles is an open-source project and this offers the opportunity to take ownership of the system and work with it, i.e., by building ‘stuff on top of it’, which means using the base of what we are going to offer and adding to it to make it usable in the way that is needed, or even to take it and make a better version, or whatever. This doesn’t happen automatically. But we can try to make it possible.

Inclusive projects

Let me acknowledge that Circles cannot totally avoid exclusion. But it does offer alternatives which might be valuable exactly for such groups, if we manage to appropriate blockchain technology’s potential in the right way: wherever we implement it, we need a lot of outreach. We need to talk to people. We need to see how it works and adapt.

Circles is a learning process, and consciously so. We don’t know how it is going to look, we are trying out a new way to conceptualise and organise money, and therefore society. But we can try to think of as many potential traps as possible, and keep them in mind – so we don’t reproduce the social structures we are fighting against.

Lastly, I think it is clear that implementing even the most democratic and inclusive project doesn’t mean we can stop fighting for equal (gender) rights in the ‘other’ world at the same time. We need more social infrastructure supporting the needs of women* to set energy free for self-empowerment. And we need more diverse/women*/queer people in blockchain!


[1] The* represents the many gender identities that exist in this world, honouring the fact that two constructed genders (female and male) are not adequate to describe the life reality of many people. I would also like to note that I look at the aspect of emancipation from a gender equality perspective as a proxy – women* are an example of a group of people what might be affected by UBI decisions, but there are many more people and groups faced with social and financial exclusion or marginalisation, and the arguments in this text might apply to some of them as well.

[2] There are various ideas of how to fund a redistributive Basic Income, e.g., through taxes on wealth, financial transaction taxes, or raising corporate taxes, etc.

[3] Circles is a cryptocurrency UBI project and, as such, includes a set of open source tools to create a new ecosystem for value exchange, based on the concept of basic income and enabling us to build communities using trust networks. Read more: https://joincircles.net.

[4] Within the Circles system, money is exclusively created in the form of the Basic Income paid out to its users.

To get weekly updates from Dialogue of Civilisations Research Institute subscribe to our Newsletter

You may also be interested in:

How will UBI change our lives?
Inequality under globalisation
Meet in Mitte discussion on UBI
Kazakhstan: The transition has finally begun
The crisis of the old Western world order
Towards a new pan-Africanism? A brief introduction

The views and opinions expressed in this publication are those of the original author(s) and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views and opinions of the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute, its co-founders, or its staff members.