Interview with Enno Schmidt, co-initiator of the Swiss Citizens’ Initiative

Profil-0191-li-aInterview with Enno Schmidt, co-initiator  of the Swiss Citizens’ Initiative

Can you remember your first encounter with Basic Income?
My first was in Heidelberg in a discussion where a young architect demanded an unconditional income and my first reaction was: „hey, he just needs money, why doesn’t he ask for help for himself, instead of making some big society-critic-thing of it – you’ve got to fend for yourself, even as an artist.“ I had to do that too, and this pressure – this threshold, I always rather liked that. I thought – you don’t need to change society, just because your short of money – activate yourself and come up with solutions! Having to face the world as it is, and fight your corner has some merit.

My second encounter was at the „Future Fund Social Life“ under the roof of the trust of the GLS Bank in Bochum, where they gave a monthly sponsorship to people, without any strings or conditions attached. I played a part in this trust and one day they said: „Hey Enno, you’d need such a sponsorship, too“.
So I started receiving this unconditional monthly income and I was very suspicious – what is it for? Without condition, without „we want you to draw us this picture“? I wondered – are they buying ME? Is this some kind of sect? Or the mafia?

Suddenly there was a focus on me as a person. Am I working at the optimum capacity of my abilities? I felt that as a burning spotlight.

„Unconditional“ – people always think, nothing will happen. Nay! There isn’t a more intense focus on me as a human being, than getting something unconditionally. Nobody is taking responsibility, I have to leap into action, me! That is a starkly essential experience.

My third encounter was in Frankfurt when I heard Götz Werner in a talk about unconditional basic income and suddenly thought – that is so damn logical and right, also in connection with value added tax. Because it was not some souly, freaky stuff – there was someone who didn’t support it because HE needed the money.
What got me was the intellectual beauty of the idea, the freedom of thought. Not „oh, we want money from the rich“.
At this time I worked on a project looking at where different companies show aspects of qualifiable education in art and culture. The „Unternehmen Wirtschaft und Kunst – erweitert“, a company I had co-founded, had started with my sculpture „Baumkreuz“ along the death strip of the former German-German border. That’s what interests me, the substantial cross-over of Economy and Art in action. The original idea, something I initiate, I am absolutely in charge of, out of my own drive.
And then I got to know Daniel Häni from unternehmen mitte in Basel and he had the right mindset. About: What is art and entrepreneurship today and where do they overcross – how can we free the money? We want give it to people, SO they do with it WHAT THEY WANT. Daniel had formerly occupied large houses. In a serious way. He wanted to create cultural spaces and did it. Now this was a cultural sphere by freely given basic income.

How did the „Volksinitiative“ evolve?

Next to Daniel it was for me to act in Switzerland for this idea, because they have the tool of direct democracy, the citizens’ initiative and the public vote. We started 2006 with a website and a series of big events in „unternehmen mitte“ and performances in other locations in Switzerland, I started with films and than in 2007 with the big film – Grundeinkommen – ein Kulturimpuls (Basic Income – a culture impuls) wich we brought out in the autumn of 2008. Half a year later I was offered to move to Switzerland to continue my commitment for an unconditional basic income in Switzerland – so I moved there.

When we began our commitment we called it initiative basic income .The idea for a public vote was already included, a successful citizens’ initiative leads to a legally binding referendum. But there was no time schedule. We wanted to prepare the ground, make the idea tangible and publicisable. A citizens’ initiative? Maybe in 5 years? Or 10? But suddenly others joint, Daniel Straub and Christian Müller from Zürich, and said: NOW.

This is the main difference to Germany or what is happening elsewhere in the world, that we in Switzerland have this opportunity to influence politics directly. Elsewhere there are so many people who have done such good work for such a long time, and things move so slow. Here we have 4 or 10 people creating a state affair, just like that.
That’s what would be needed in Germany as well, and elsewhere, direct democracy!

One for all – Nico

Who would you say are the people who are supportive of the idea behind basic income?

People who have been thrown back on themselves already, at least once in their lives. Not those, who got their positions and their careers and are fussing about with self-importance. The people who have experienced their own self. Whether by a stroke of fate, a situation in life or even by reflection. Then the receivers of social benefits, people who have been to more depths than others. Also political people – of all parties, of all classes of society, everywhere in the world. There are supporters and opposers throughout all those areas.

Unconditional Basic Income means a focus on the human, not on the circumstances. That is a new focus, so that needs people who are able to think something new.
It awakens something that isn’t in external.

Who would you say are the greatest opposers, or the biggest hurdles?

Mostly people who feel they’ve got to lose to much. In Switzerland it’s economical associations, which haven’t understood it yet. Those who have the biggest stakes in that everything stays as it is, who do not trust that a step into the future could be a good thing – as well, as steps from the past to the present have been. They have forgotten that the normality of today are the utopias of yesterday.

In Switzerland – which are the arguments for and against Basic Income?

For Basic Income:

  • An experience of relaxation, that being chased, that the pressure is released. That room is created, in which you can look at your live, without being hounded by the need to secure your existence at any price and ceaselessly, that there is a freedom to BE THERE.
    Just functioning – that this is not all. Know WHY. Not only know HOW.
  • How harrowing it is – if you have a fall out – because of separation, because you’re a single parent, because of burnout – to get between the grindstones of social security systems, that you cannot breathe.
  • That something is needed to create a hiatus, that you are allowed to carry on existing, without debasement.


Against Basic Income:

  • Are those who oppose imagination, those who hold on to dogmata.
  • The belief that money is for nothing if it’s not an exchange for performance, that money has to always have a relation to a tangible output.
  • It is a break in a world view!
  • Trade-offs are a dead track. To those people it is a shock that there could be alternatives to a bartering system, that is against their most basic beliefs!
  • Also, the fear that people will do what they want and that they want to do nothing, that they are lazy, that there will be chaos, lack of reliability, that the economy will break down. People who don’t believe in humans. People who believe, things happen only unter pressure and external incentives.
  • And there are examples that this WON’T happen – have you heard of the project with the „hardcore“ homeless in London? For years psychologists and such tried all sorts of things, put them on courses, offer counselling, stuff like that – now they receive a really fat unconditional income – with the result that they are super responsible with the money, spent it on clothes, accommodation, built themselves a future, reunited with their families…

As long as humans are in paternalism they don’t get their act together, they don’t WANT to be part of the system.

How is your vision for Basic Income in the future – for Switzerland, and worldwide?

In Switzerland:
To get a good referendum result next year. I’d like the majority. But also more than 30% is a success.
So that, when we go into the next round, basic income is taken really serious in Switzerland. That the referendum will lift the issue onto a level where everyone gets that it is a future topic, that asks the right questions about work, money, globalisation, economy, education – how the world has changed and how we want to live in future.
If we got a majority of more than 50%, the government would probably leave it for 5 years, because they wouldn’t know how to touch it – and we would need a referendum for putting it into practice. When the majority says no, we give it some time, before we try again. It will have changed a lot of things by then.

In the world:
It is a topic that connects people, that connects countries, that is building a world community. It isn’t a national thing, nor a party politics thing. To see it as a global game is a very exciting perspective. I believe there will be steps in different countries very soon to introduce it.

The most important thing is: Unconditional Basic Income will come, no matter what we do. But woe betide we do nothing. It can also come automatically, it can come as an economy measure, it may marginalize and oppress people even more. If the difficulties are avoided which occur in all the opposition and the concerns and questions, it also bypasses the people and ignores the issues of the present.

What WE have to work for, is ensuring that UBI will have a humane focus. Not set up to save money – that it won’t be misused. Our work is to make sure that the idea is put into use for the good of humans.

What is your advice to countries who are just about to start a new Basic Income initiative from scratch?

To see that the idea behind basic income is something completely new.
It is not the old gig of justice and „take from the rich to feed the poor“. You can’t find comfort in old conventions. It is new. It focusses on the human being. Everything starts at the human being.
It is not AGAINST something. It is FOR something. It is aimed solely at the people, at the person, at every person.

I would say: „Don’t be detracted from it, because people are shocked by the idea. Do not try to skirt the hard facts.“

Class struggle doesn’t lead anywhere, Unconditional Basic Income loves the rich and the poor, the smart and the stupid, the good and the bad, it just needs to be high enough to live on.

Stay true to this idea , don’t make compromises. Take the others serious, and yourself. If you stay true to the idea, it is very strong.

In the implementation, in life, there will be and may be compromises. The reality in life consists of compromises. But not the idea. The idea is not redistribution, not less bureaucracy, not poverty reduction. The idea is very unspectacular, the right to life. For each. It’s not the exclusion of the rich or the poor. It has nothing to do with a status.

Don’t try to just get to the money. The journey in itself has got to be the reward. You can’t stick to your old patriarchal mentalities wanting to introduce basic income.

Basic Income is so awesome, because it shows how you tick. And I actually hope that we are a long way off getting down to distributing it – it is a new era of enlightening – let’s take our sweet time about it. Let yourselves be confronted with the idea. And the others. And yourself. As exciting as it is – now will never come again. Do not miss the moment and do not think it would be something for later, do not think it is about money. The money comes at the very end. It’s about a different view on the economy, on the people, on what is work and on biographies.
And ask yourself this question: What would YOU do, if your basic income was unconditional?

Have you planned anything for International Week?

No, because we are totally involved in our campaign for the referendum , and International Week is not our outlet at this time.

We do, however, work in close partnership with international partners – not just during one week, but on a permanent basis.

Important partners presently for us are the United States, where our Fünferli campaign has detonated – initiatives have started there, showing synergy effects. They have similar democratic utilities and primary instincts, the human rights in the American Constitution are a foundation for the Basic Income idea.
Also, in Silikon Valley, they know that they are developing technology that is killing jobs and they know that we need unconditional basic income.

Other partners include BIEN World, and – just recently – South Korea, where I have just been speaking to a local mayor who is installing a complimentary currency to fund something like basic income.
Those are a few examples of our work internationally .

So do you think International Week is important for Basic Income?

Yes, a worldwide movement shows us in Switzerland that it isn’t some local fad. That what we do here is set in a global framework. We are not going to have a Basic Income in Switzerland next year – and we are not solely working for Switzerland, we want a good outcome also for the worldwide movement.

The more you’ve got happening in other countries, the better for Switzerland – and vice versa. There are synergy effects when you get model projects, or news about possible pilots, like in the Netherlands or in Finland, or about a 70% majority for basic income in Catalonia.

There are 2 different levels – there are activists, who organise meetings and events and do information work – and then there are people who are at the controls and able to really initiate change.


interviewed on 1st Sep 2015 and translated from German by Manja Taylor