WHAT are the problems to which basic income is a solution? In Scotland, we’re at the start of an answer to that question, as the Scottish Government announces financial support for feasibility studies in four council areas – Fife, Edinburgh, Glasgow and North Ayrshire.

Will we be getting visits from supermoguls like Richard Branson, Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg, who have recently spoken up in favour of the policy? I’m sure they’ll be welcomed to the Kingdom of Fife – but I’m not sure they’d be here for the same reason.

Maybe it’s not a surprise that basic income (a subsistence payment made to each citizen, as of right, no strings attached) is attractive to some in the global business elites. We all know about the increasing rivers of cash that flow to their coffers in the network age.

Indeed, Facebook is the classic operation here – profiting mightily from all our free interactive labour on its platforms, which provides ever more info for advertisers and their pitches.

So as angry populist movements on both the right and left rise and explode, the elites can see the pitchforks glint in the distance – and are getting their response in quick. Is this tokenistic redistribution, before the revolution kicks off?

Maybe. Their rhetoric is certainly emollient, even attractive. “We should explore ideas like universal basic income to give everyone a cushion to try new things,” Zuckerberg said at Harvard this May. “And yes, giving everyone the freedom to pursue purpose isn’t free. People like me should pay for it”. (As long as all the “free pursuits” can happen on his software, which is free to gradually establish its global monopoly, Zuck seems to be happy.)

Scottish experimenters in basic income understand that technological upheaval is part of their case. Coming automations will permanently remove about 30 to 40 per cent of existing human jobs over the next few decades.

Many will face what the sociologist Richard Sennett once called “the spectre of uselessness”. So we’ll have to redirect some of the profits generated by these human-replacing technologies towards the under- or unemployed humans themselves.

We’ll have to do this by means of policies that until now have seemed near-utopian. A shorter working-week – maybe as low as 25 hours – that forces us to share out the jobs left over from robotisation and artificial intelligence. And a basic income that allows us that “cushion to try new things”, as Zuckerberg puts it, given paid work will not be the dominant “purpose” of our lives.

I’ve been reading about these ideas since my late teens. Indeed, it was from an edition of the classic Scottish political magazine Radical Scotland that I first heard about them, in an article about the French thinker Andre Gorz. But the question was always this: who – on these benighted islands, at least – would be able to kick these experiments off? What level of regime change would be needed?

Thirty years on, and here we are – with two regimes (one installed, one aspiring) willing to try at least the basic income part. As Jamie Cooke of the Royal Society for the Arts in Scotland – a key player in triggering and shaping these experiments – told me, the Scottish interest comes mostly from a horror at the punitive nature of welfare coming from Westminster, particularly Universal Credit.

We’ve had our fight about universalism – remember Johann Lamont’s “something for nothing society”? The means-testers lost. Basic income extends further what Alex Salmond used to call the “social wage” – that is, high-quality public provision assisting people’s living standards.

However, even after recent constitutional reforms, Holyrood only controls 15 per cent of total welfare spend. Cooke says there’s no room within these powers to conduct nationwide experiments in basic income. But the political point of doing local experiments for the current administration is three-fold.

Firstly, it further distinguishes the Scottish progressive consensus on welfare from the current Westminster version. Secondly, this kind of experimentation is best conducted before independence.

The danger is that, in the need to stabilise the functions of an early state, the old methods just get locked in. Any indy administration will be better prepared if it’s practically explored some alternative options.

A third political point might be that it matches what the Corbynites have already suggested, with the Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell on the record last year saying they could “win the argument [on basic income] … it could simplify the welfare system, but in addition it could tackle issues around poverty”.

Buried in those words are hints of a big problem for basic income – which is that it really, really depends what version you’re rolling out. In the hands of right-wingers and libertarians, “simplifying the welfare system” could become an opportunity to slash away at a range of existing benefits and allowances (as it has been in the hands of US conservative thinkers like Milton Friedman and Charles Murray).

In the working papers behind the coming Scottish experiments, the contributors are very careful to point out that this shouldn’t affect measures like disability allowance or housing benefit.

Also, the possibility of employers using basic income to reduce wages is only a threat if minimum or living wage regulations are not rigorously enforced. If they are, then basic income drives basic wages upwards, by giving workers an option to choose better-paid employment.

And what about the idea of the affluent minority getting the same benefit as those who need it more? Cooke suggests that given taxes would have to be raised on the wealthier to partly pay for it, the benefit to them from basic income could be neutral.

But basic income advocates have a whole range of novel ideas to fund the policy (other than fixing our current malfunctioning tax regime). In his recent book Out of The Wreckage, George Monbiot suggested it could be paid for by the operations of a sovereign wealth fund, built up from a new range of land taxes.

The core idea behind basic income is that 21st-century people are generating so much “common wealth”, as a result of their daily input into information-driven and service capitalism, that some of that surplus should be returned to them.

Yet we may have to toy around with the imagery of basic income itself. “Basic” hardly resonates with an aspirational society. And “income” ties it down to the old labour-market framework we need to be easing ourselves out of.

Along the way, in descriptions of this policy, we seem to have lost the word “citizen” – which to me resonates more with the idea that this resource is due to us by right. Calling it instead “citizens investment” or “citizen equity” may capture what Cooke calls the “opportunity” dimension of basic income. If we clear our eyes and choose to manage our technological abundance and efficiency better, by investing in every complex and multitudinous human, what kind of lives might we want to live? What opportunities could we seize?

Academics often say that basic income is aimed at the “precariat” – a generation of workers who have “gigs” than careers, due to the highly flexible nature of networked labour. Basic income would put a floor under this structural instability.

But could this precariat also become, as I wrote in my 2004 book The Play Ethic, a “soulitariat”? Could they use the collective support of basic income to compose a richer life of diverse “purposes”, where care and creativity are as equally esteemed as work and wage-labour? Can we devise a system that primarily supports life before death?

We’re good at managing things in Scotland – and from what I can gather, the basic income experimenters will manage, measure and verify things very well.

But I hope we also taste a wee bit of utopia in Fife, Edinburgh, Glasgow and North Ayrshire too.