Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

George MacDonald on Heaven and Plurality

George MacDonald (1824-1905) was a Christian who wrote novels, poetry, sermons and fairy tales. He was an inspiration to C.S. Lewis, W.H. Auden and G.K. Chesterton and one of the fathers of the literature of fantasy. Here are a few of his thought-provoking words:

We all know something nobody else knows

Everyone of us is something that the other is not, and therefore knows something – it may be without knowing that he knows it – which no one else know: and… it is everyone’s business, as on of the kingdom of light and inheritor in it all, to give his portion to the rest.

George MacDonald, The Inheritance

Conformity is a sign of decline

All wickedness tends to destroy individuality and declining natures assimilate as they sink.

George MacDonald, Alec Forbes, Volume III, Chapter 26

Persecution is born from the fear we cannot defend our faith

Clara’s words appeared to me quite irrelevant… but what to answer here I did not know. I almost began to dislike her; for it is often incapacity for defending the faith they love which turns men into persecutors.

George MacDonald, Wilfred Cumbermede, Chapter 18

The usefulness of the moral law

Of what use then is the law? To lead us to Christ, the Truth – to waken in our minds a sense of what our deepest nature, the presence, namely of God in us, require – to let us know, in part by failure, that the purest efforts of will of which we are capable cannot lift us up even to abstaining from wrong to our neighbour.

George MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons, Love Thine Enemy

To not forgive is spiritual murder

It may be infinitely less evil to murder a man than to refuse to forgive him. The former may be the act of a moment of passion: the latter is the heart’s choice. It is spiritual murder, the worst, to hate, to brood over the feeling, that in our microcosm, kills the image, the idea of the hated.

George MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons, It Shall Not be Forgiven

The desirable immortality

To some minds the argument for immortality drawn from the apparently universal shrinking from annihilation is the one thing to be longed for, with all the might of longing which is the mainspring of human action. In a word, it is not immortality the human heart cries out after, but that immortal, eternal thought whose life is life, whose wisdom is wisdom… Dissociate immortality from the living Immortality, and it is not a thing to be desired.

George MacDonald, Wilfred Cumbermede, Chapter 58

What is Heaven?

The Great Divorce by C S Lewis is a wonderful thought piece on the subject of what will happen after death. Lewis delights in taking worries or philosophical problems and turning them on their heads.

The first problem is our tendency to imagine heaven as somehow less real than ordinary life, all ghostly and spiritual. But, as Lewis shows us, this cannot be right; heaven cannot be less real than earthly reality – it must be more real. So, when the narrator arrives in heaven, on a day’s bus trip from Hell, he finds he can barely walk, for the grass is too sharp for his feet.

The second problem is that, particularly today, we struggle to see how God can allow Hell to exist. But, as Lewis suggests, Hell can exist because God cannot force us to love. It is Hell that is ghostly and insubstantial, because people are free to choose not to love, and it is that failure that condemns them to their own Hell. So, after visiting Heaven most of the visitors return to Hell, not because they are not welcome, but because they cannot give themselves to love.

This of course connects to this brilliant little Hasidic story:

A rabbi asked his students how they could tell when the dawn had come and morning prayers could be said. One student responded by saying, “When you can see the sheep on the hill.” Another suggested that one can tell that the dawn has come when a person is able to distinguish between a fig tree and a grapevine. “No,” said the wise one. “It is dawn when you can look into the faces of human beings and you have enough light within you to recognize them as your sisters and brothers.”

The painting is by friend, the artist David Beatson.

What Welcome Means

welcome means
it seems
when you come
we’ll see you well
see you safe at last
see you’re made
welcome

Social Care Car Crash

This week I have been working in the USA, but it’s been hard to get people to understand how severe the cuts to social care (children and adults) have been in England. But here’s my best shot at a metaphor:

A family is crossing a busy road. The traffic lights is red, the family crosses, but a car ploughs into the whole family – children, parents and grandparents are scattered across the road, bleeding, broken and dying. The car stops and a drunken driver leans out of the car window and shouts, “Don’t worry I’ll go and get help.” But when the car arrives at the hospital it smashes straight into the side of the ambulance.

Today (in terms of numbers served) adult social care has been cut by 50%. Cuts to children social care have also been vicious. This is because central government has cut funding to local government by about 60% or more, and these cuts are deepening every year. Since 2010, we’ve been told:

  1. It’s okay we can take money out of the NHS (healthcare) to subsidise these cuts – but funding for the NHS has not been increased to make that possible (and its a crazy way to solve the problem anyway).
  2. Don’t worry we’ll eventually come up with a plan for funding social care differently – but the only plan we’ve seen was to make older people pay more money for it and this was quickly shelved when the public got to hear about it.

As an Englishman there are many deeply upsetting and shameful aspects to what is happening in my country:

None of this necessary or fair. Social care has always been a small, but important, part of government expenditure (about 1-2% of GDP). It is low cost and relatively efficient. It is a preventive service which, when it’s working well, reduces the money spent on healthcare or on forms of institutionalisation.

The UK Government’s policy has also been severely condemned by the United Nations as a breach of human rights, and yet it continues unabated today. Even worse, this policy is just one part of the Hostile Environment created for people and families with disabilities: cuts to income security and housing combined with the growth of mean-spirited systems of assessment, control and sanctions are driving up rates of suicide and depression.

There is still no sense of national scandal and no sense of accountability on the part of our rulers. Grass roots organisations like Disabled People Against the Cuts (DPAC) have tried to force this issue onto the agenda but there is still no effective national campaign that combines the many powerful groups and organisations involved directly or indirectly with social care.

It doesn’t need to be this way

If the leaders of opposition parties, trade unions, major charities and local government could open their eyes, listen to people and work together then this policy could easily be reversed and a new direction set.

I would ask everyone who works in the social care sector, but especially those who are likely to retire with a good pension one day, to think about this problem and ask yourself:

What do you want to be remembered for when you’ve gone?

You survived the car crash

Or

You helped turn this problem round

Socialist Response to Austerity?

Austerity has been severe and unjustified and it has targeted the poorest people and the poorest places. It has also targeted local government. For instance, Barnsley saw its funding fall by 31% in 5 years, and these cuts have continued.

Austerity must be rejected, fought against and overturned.

But what do you do in practice if you are victim of austerity – like local government – and you are expected to pass on the pain to local people?

Often the only feasible response to this challenge has been to cut costs and to cut services, starting with anything that does not seem essential. Preventative work is the first thing to be sacrificed; this means the long-term impact of austerity will be to make local government less efficient: Instead of solving problems cheaply upstream more money must be spent on more expensive services downstream. Cost pressures increase on care homes, hospitals and prisons as local government can no longer help people to stay home or to stay out of trouble.

This is not just a financial challenge, for strong Labour authorities, like Barnsley austerity is also a philosophical challenge. For many years socialism has been identified with increased spending on public services, and so, making cuts to public services feels like a betrayal. However a recent report, published by the Centre for Welfare Reform, Heading Upstream, reveals that Barnsley has found a very different way, a socialist way, of responding to austerity.

This is not exactly a new idea.

The welfare state was not created out of nothing in 1945: much of it had already been developed by local authorities, trade unions and cooperatives in the preceding decades. Ordinary people, often working with local government, had developed a range of locally organised self-help solutions, including hospitals, cooperatives and local community services, to help people live better lives.

Socialism is not limited to government spending; at a deeper level it is a determination that we help each other and that good help means helping people to be citizens, to live with freedom and respect, to make their own unique contribution to the life of the community.

Socialism is about people, not money.

The Barnsley alternative

This is something that local councillors and officers in Barnsley understood before austerity began. For instance, Barnsley had been a leader in the personalisation of social care services since 2005. Now 97% of those eligible use a personal budget to manage their adult social care. Barnsley also pioneered the Future Jobs Fund, where support for people out of work was organised locally and in partnership with local business. Even the DWP was forced to recognise that this project had been far more efficient than its own failing centralised Work Programme.

More recently Barnsley began a more wide-ranging shift in its culture and organisation. As their Chief Executive, Diana Terris explained:

What is required is a cultural shift, from a paternalistic ‘What can I do for you?’ to a partnership and an exploration of ‘What can you do?’

From 2013 Barnsley has seen a wide-ranging organisational changes which have touched everyone from councillors to front-line workers. Critically Barnsley realised that the necessary changes could not be made from within the Town Hall. The Council has embraced the many smaller communities that people really feel a part of and it has changed its governance structures to push planning and spending down towards the level of the local ward.

This strategy has also been combined with a significant focus on citizenship and community volunteering. Spending on local developments must at least be matched by what people bring themselves. For instance, the Council contributed £10,000 to a £74,000 project at Milefield Community Farm; the rest of the funding came from local people, local businesses and other public services. As Leader of Barnsley Council, Councillor Sir Steve Houghton CBE put it:

…we’re tapping into something out there that’s been around for a long time. People are proud of their villages and their towns and communities. People are prepared to do more, if they are given the chance. So now that is what we are trying to do, and the response so far has been absolutely incredible.

Critically Barnsley have put their Councillors on the frontline of these changes. Many decisions are now made in partnership with local people, in local Ward Alliance meetings. Local councillors are more focused on the direct impact of local spending on their own patch and empowered to hold people to account. Councillors work in partnership with the community development team to keep building local capacity.

This not the vapid Big Society. This is an intentional partnership between the state and local people to make Barnsley a better, stronger and fairer place. Local leaders are very aware of the underlying structural inequalities which persist. For instance the report calculates that the centralisation of power, costs Barnsley about £0.75 billion per year, about 40% of all local public spending, and equivalent to more than £3,000 for every citizen of Barnsley. What is more Barnsley Council only controls 11% of local public spending.

But we can also calculate the enormous positive contribution already made by citizens as carers, which is £435 million. Further, we can also estimate the latent capacity of citizens at £1.3 billon. In other words citizens can contribute directly just as much  as public services combined.

Civic socialism

This raises important questions for future Labour Party policy:

  1. Will we continue to confuse social justice with public services or will we really help people transform their own lives? Public services are vital, but they are not enough, and they do not deliver all that matters in a human life.
  2. Will we continue to centralise power and money in London or will really shift power to local communities? We do want public ownership, but we don’t want to suck power away from people or from their communities.
  3. Will we treat people as recipients of services or will we start to see people as citizens with rights, responsibilities and the capacity to contribute? Our ultimate purpose must be to support people as active citizens, contributing, growing and connecting.

Austerity is the enemy – but it is not the whole enemy. Complacency, paternalism, elitism and injustice are also part of the enemy, and if we cannot begin to challenge these then I suspect that spirit of austerity will eat away at our shared lives like a cancer.

Just down the road from Barnsley, in Sheffield, some of us are now gathering to explore what this means for us. Surely we can imagine a new kind of local democracy – where local people have control over their own communities and where people are at the heart of making their collective lives better.

Globally Citizen Network is asking the same question: may be now is the time for us to put aside our differences and work together build a better world?

Who can hold us back?

Perhaps only ourselves.

How Relevant is the Communist Manifesto?

The Communist Manifesto, written by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, was first published in 1848 – that is 170 years ago. Today we may think of Communism as either irrelevant or as a dangerous evil; for it is firmly associated, above all else, with the Russian Revolution of 1917 and subsequently with the Terror unleashed by Lenin and magnified by Stalin, and the murder or starvation of millions. The relatively recent collapse of the Soviet bloc and the increased use of private property and enterprise in communist China has generally been seen, in the West, as confirming that we’ve seen the end of Communism.

However I think it is largely forgotten that in the 1940s Communist parties were widespread and popular across most of Europe, and many of the assumptions of Communism were shared, not just by Socialists, but even by some Conservatives. There was then a widespread recognition that the State must play a constructive role in ensuring social and economic justice and in planning the development of society along progressive and a more equal footing.

Today it feels like we’re in the midst of a new phase of history. Inequality has re-emerged, particularly in the English speaking world, and the 2007 financial crisis has helped to reawaken a more critical approach to economics. The populist movements in the USA and the UK remind us that powerful economic elites (whom Marx and Engels called the bourgeoisie) often need to exploit fear, find scapegoats and increase division and hatred. The post-War assumptions: that things will just keep getting better; that all we need is more and more growth; that the modern welfare state can be trusted to redistribute resources fairly and we can trust the powerful to look after the rest of us – all these assumptions look faulty today.

At the same time the growing strength of the Labour Party in England, now with leaders who promise to return to Socialist principles, and the increasing assault on those leaders by the ruling elites and the media, remind us of earlier times and older battles.

So, amidst all this fear, hope and uncertainty I thought it would be interesting to re-read the Communist Manifesto and see what it might have to teach us today.

The Manifesto’s policy proposals

I think it is best if we start in the middle, for the central purpose of Communism is defined quite late in the Manifesto:

“…the theory of the Communists may be summed up in one single sentence: Abolition of private property.”

However this bold and simple claim is revised later on when Marx and Engels offer a series of practical policy proposals which, as they say, will need to be adapted to local times and circumstances:

  1. Abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes.
  2. A heavy progressive or graduated income tax.
  3. Abolition of all right of inheritance.
  4. Confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels.
  5. Centralisation of credit in the hands of the State, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly.
  6. Centralisation of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the State.
  7. Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the State; the bringing into cultivation of wastelands, and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan.
  8. Equal liability of all to labour. Establishment of industrial armies, especially for agriculture.
  9. Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of the distinction between town and country, by a more equable distribution of the population over the country.
  10. Free education for all children in public schools. Abolition of children’s factory labour in its present form. Combination of education with industrial production etc. etc.

Now, clearly, many of these proposal are not a reality – 170 years later. But these proposals do not feel entirely irrelevant nor wholly unachieved. For example, item 10 has largely been achieved, at least in most industrial societies. Moreover the creation of the NHS (although interestingly healthcare is never mentioned in the Manifesto) and many other public services would seem to have extended beyond the limited demands of the Manifesto. Outside the US and the UK, communications, utilities and parts of the banking system are often nationalised.

In other respects the situation is more mixed. Taxation is certainly significant, possibly heavy, but it is not progressive, it is regressive. In fact, in the UK the poorest 10% pay the most tax as a percentage of their income (10% higher than any other group). In other areas, like inheritance tax, progress has been modest. Broadly speaking you could argue that the state has taken on a very significant economic role, but that it does not take on the role of distributing resources fairly. Instead it tends to redistribute resources in ways that are politically advantageous to the ruling party, often focusing on swing voters in the middle.

Interestingly, the most utopian elements of the Communist Manifesto are also perhaps mirrored by objectives of the Green Party: improving the soil, changing the way people live in towns and in the country and transforming agriculture. Even the idea of industrial and agricultural armies may not so far from modern efforts to reimagine national service as a form of active citizenship.

So, have we achieved communism? Well if we were to look only at the policies then I think the answer might be about 33%, but we’re certainly a lot more communist than we were in 1848. Some of the aspirations of the Manifesto still feel right and relevant; however perhaps one of the things we have learned from the past 170 years is the state, even a democratic state, is not always guaranteed to protect the interests of the weakest. Marx’s description of the bourgeois state don’t seem out of place today:

The executive of the modern State is but a committee for organising the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.

The Manifesto’s view of history

However the Communist Manifesto is not really a set of policy proposals and we can see this if we examine its very interesting structure:

  1. Bourgeois and Proletarians – this first section, and the longest, explains the Communist view that history is made by an inevitable process of class conflict which has now been revealed by scientific analysis (by Marx and Engels).
  2. Proletarians and Communists – this section explains that Communists are those aware of the force of history and who link themselves to the best elements of the Proletariat, those who will be the vanguard of history.
  3. Socialist and Communist Literature – this section basically criticises various forms of inadequate socialism, the kinds of socialist who don’t understand their place in history.
  4. Position of the Communists in Relation to the Various Existing Opposition Parties – a tiny section, with a very long title, which sets out which parties the Communists are backing in several countries, but which ends with this ringing statement:

The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.

WORKING MEN OF ALL COUNTRIES UNITE!

So, this is not a vision of an ideal future, it is rather a train ticket on the railway of economic and social development. The key to understanding this strategy is found in the comparison that Engels, makes in his Preface to the 1888 English Edition of the Manifesto:

I consider myself bound to say that the fundamental proposition, which forms its nucleus, belongs to Marx. That proposition is: that in every historical epoch, the prevailing mode of economic production and exchange, and the social organisation necessarily following from it, form the basis upon which is built up, and from along which can be explained, the political and intellectual history of that epoch; that consequently the whole history of mankind (since the dissolution of primitive tribal society, holding land in common ownership) has been a history of class struggles, contests between exploiting and exploited, ruling and oppressed classes; that the history of these class struggles forms a series of evolutions in which nowadays, a stage has been reached where the exploited and oppressed class – the proletariat – cannot obtain its emancipation from the sway of the exploiting and ruling class – the bourgeoisie – without, at the same time, and once and for all, emancipating society at large from all exploitation, oppression, class distinction and class struggles.

This proposition which, in my opinion, is destined to do for history what Darwin’s theory has done for biology…

Communism is not so much a policy as it is a prediction – of the eventual victory of the proletariat – based on a scientific theory of history (which like the theory of evolution) has been hitherto hidden.  Communists can do no more than act as agents on behalf of the inevitable process of history. Their job is to back the winners – not to define the nature of the victory.

In a sense this is a low risk strategy, allowing Communism to adapt to changing circumstances, without ever really defining what it is about. And, as there is no necessary timescale for a Communist revolution, then you can still be a Communist today – you can still patiently await the inevitable revolution.

However, as Simone Weil rather brilliantly puts it:

The great mistake of the Marxists and of the whole nineteenth century was to think by walking straight ahead one would rise into the air.

Moreover, if I have understood this historical argument correctly, then it seems to me we are living through a period in which the central claim of Communism has been put under a lot of strain. Marx and Engels seem to assume that the tendency of Capitalism to become increasingly monopolistic means that increasingly fewer people will be bourgeois and more people will become proletariat – so the divide will become sharper and more unequal. Victory is inevitable, because the Capitalist position is unsustainable; it implodes and so the proletariat can take control.

However modern society seems to have evolved differently. The super-rich have given up a little, so that the moderately wealthy can enjoy some more, and together they divide the poor into different groups, leaving the very poorest even more exploited, and isolated from those who are somewhat better off. Divide and rule, always a successful strategy, seems like its working very well for the powerful and wealthy. They have succeeded in getting people to fight amongst themselves, to be suspicious of the poor and protective of the small gains they’ve made.

The Manifesto criticises those who defend a more moderate kind of Bourgeois Socialism:

A part of the bourgeoisie is desirous of redressing social grievances, in order to assure the continued existence of bourgeois society.

But moderate, Bourgeois Socialism seems now be the order of the day. The Communist revolution did not happen and there seems no sign of it happening. Instead, you could argue, the bourgeoisie worked out how to compromise with some of the proletariat. They offer some jam today, while others become scapegoats and are exploited – not just by Capitalism – but even by the state. The modern state is democratic, but it has not prevented

…the exploitation of the many by the few.

The Manifesto’s strategy relies on the reader’s faith that history will follow the preordained path. But once that faith starts to decline it is not clear what the Communism offers, for it does not offer a clear standard by which to evaluate and improve the present. Being on the right side of history only really works if history really is moving clearly in one direction.

Marx and Engels were surely right to point to the economic dimension of politics and to the capacity of people to organise themselves to defend their interests. They were also accurate to notice the revolutionary and destabilising features of the modern era:

Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence of all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face, with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

However they overstate the inevitability of progressive change and the perhaps they underestimate our need to reinstall the sacred, the relational and the communal. We are perhaps not ready to accept what Marx and Engels describe as the “real conditions of life”.

Style and substance

Perhaps the most striking feature of the Manifesto is its style. It shifts between a kind of scientific objectivity, dripping in jargon, to sweeping moralistic poetry while seeking every opportunity to put the boot into anyone who might disagree with them. Only the Communists themselves, and the precious vanguard of the proletariat are safe from vicious attack. One can sense that lively democratic debate and differences of opinion are not things they value.

Anger burns through its pages, even today: scornful, superior, bitter and even triumphant. But love is hard to find. The one positive definition of the purpose of the revolution that gives us some sense of its positive vision is this:

In place of old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.

For all the truth of its observations and the justice of that anger there is an obvious self-contradiction at its heart. It claims material factors determine everything, yet it itself is the declaration of an idea.  As Nadezhda Mandelstam says:

These rulers of our who claim that the prime mover of history is the economic basis have shown by the whole of their own practice that the real stuff of history is ideas. It is ideas that shape the minds of whole generations, winning adherents, imposing themselves on consciousness, creating new forms of government and society, rising triumphantly – and then slowly dying away and disappearing.

Perhaps the Communist Manifesto is really a vivid poem of hatred towards all of those who exploit their power to harm the weak. It adopts a scientific style, because this gives it a tactical advantage, but really it is at its strongest when it exposes the hypocrisy and horrors of Capitalist exploitation. It helps us believe that a better future is possible, not because its efforts to predict that future are believable, but because it taps into a moral reality that is more real than Communist theory itself.

Where on Earth is Our Welfare State?

Politicians
Who don’t come from here
Fight for our votes
Before heading off there
To London
To fight with each other
To be Ministers (well a few)
To tell their civil servants
Who’ve certainly never been here
How to make things better here
To pay their friends in business
(Who they’ll go and work for… when their time is up)
(And who certainly don’t pay their taxes here)
To go and deliver services here
To make their profits here
But not to spend it here
And to ensure
All our problems still remain here
So they can keep their jobs, their pensions and their houses
There, wherever that is,
Certainly not here

While all the time
What we really need
Here
Is a welfare state that is based
Here
Run from
Here
Where local people
Solve local problems
Where local doctors
And local nurses
Run our NHS
Here
Where local teachers
And local families
Run our schools
Here
Where citizens
Run their own communities here

What will it take?
To get our power back
Here
To get our belief back
Here
Here, where we belong

Welfare State as Wicked Stepmother

I suppose one dream of the welfare state is that the welfare state is like a Fairy Godmother, kind and wise, although perhaps living far away, and someone, who when called upon, can turn pumpkins into carriages and mice into stallions.

Increasingly that dream of the welfare state is dying and in its place is the nightmare of the Wicked Stepmother. She has her favourite daughters, those she cossets and spoils, while she curses those who are weakest, breaking their backs with unfair burdens, locking them away from opportunity and blaming for them for her own faults.

Mother is dead and the nanny state is long gone.

Of course the Fairy Godmother is preferable to the Wicked Stepmother, but unfortunately she’s just a dream. We cannot choose between these two options. Instead we must wake from the dream and find a way of creating a citizen’s welfare state, where we work for ourselves, take care of each other, and discipline ourselves to protect the weakest from exploitation, stigma and shame

Top 10 Tory Injustices: the price of austerity

Tomorrow I hope to speak at a demonstration in Sheffield against the privatisation of the NHS – although the extremely cold weather may be against us. So I thought I’d put my thoughts online, just in case.

One of the challenges of the last 8 years, since the Conservative coalition began in 2010, is that so many things have been going wrong at the same time, and so it’s extremely hard to keep up with all the many different and growing injustices. The government justifies the unjustifiable by calling it austerity, in reality it is just injustice. So here’s my top ten Tory injustices:

At No. 10 – Increasing poverty

We are told that work is the best way out of poverty – but this a lie. 13.5 million people live in poverty and most are in working families. And we ignore how real poverty is. Currently 6 million people live on £50 a week after tax – that’s £7 a day – to meet all their life costs. The UK is now one of the most unequal developed countries in the world.

No. 9 – Severe cuts to social care

The deepest cuts in Government funding were the savage cuts to local government. Predictably this has created severe cuts to social care – the support we offer children in need, the frail and disabled people. The cuts mean that the numbers receiving social care for adults has been cut by about 50%. Cuts for children’s social care are happening while we put increasing numbers of children in care because of family crisis, abuse and violence.

No. 8 – Appalling treatment of asylum seekers and refugees

The UK has one of the worst international records for welcoming refugees and asylum seekers and if you do arrive in the UK you will be placed in what the Government proudly calls a “Hostile Environment” forced to live in poverty, with diminished rights, while many women and children are forced into prison-like immigration centres.

No. 7 – Targeting cuts on disabled people

Since 2010 the group of people who have been targeted the most is disabled people. They’ve faced cuts from every direction – cuts in social care, cuts in benefits and cuts in housing, particularly through the bedroom tax. The government refuses to look at the overall impact of these cuts, but we’ve calculated that people with the most severe disabilities have been targeted for cuts 6 times more severely than the average person.

No. 6 – A vicious benefit system that causes suicide

The benefits system has been made more cruel and heartless. There have been more than 7 million sanctions, for reasons which include attending your Grandmother’s funeral instead of going to the Job Centre. The new Work Capability Assessment is associated with increased stress, mental illness and suicide. The Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health reported that these assessments had already caused hundreds of suicides and the numbers continue to grow as these policies remain unchanged.

No. 5 – Failed housing policy

Growing numbers are homeless, rough sleeping has doubled since the Tories took charge, with people now regularly dying on our streets. Those who have a home often cannot afford to heat it – with about 10 million people in fuel poverty. One million homes have damp, further worsening people’s health problems. People cannot afford to buy a house, but are forced to rent from private landlords instead, at a cost greater than a mortgage.

No. 4 – Malnutrition and the rise of the food-bank

Today, in a country with no famine, no plague nor war, there are now more than 2,000 food-banks – in 2009 there were 29. Did you ever imagine you’d be living in the land of food-banks? Extreme poverty and the vicious benefit system is now managing to create malnutrition. The numbers of people in hospital because of malnutrition has tripled since 2009.

No. 3 – The UK’s human rights record

The UK, originally one of the pioneers of the idea of human rights has now been condemned by 3 separate international committees, established by the United Nations, to help make countries accountable for their international obligations. We have been condemned because – unlike almost every other country in the world – after the financial crisis, where others tried to protect those most in need – the UK targeted these them for cuts. The fact that these reports have barely been reported by the media tells its own sad story.

No. 2 – Increasing death rates

What is the result of all this. It’s not just an abuse of human rights, it means that many of us are now dying sooner than we should. The UK Government is literally killing its own citizens. The British Medical Journal reported that death rates have started to rise – for the first time since World War II – we are not living longer, we’re dying sooner. And there is no natural explanation for this – this is the result of Government policy.

And finally, at No. 1 – Privatising the NHS

About 15% of the NHS is now privatised and the rate of privatisation is growing, with the private sector winning 70% of new contracts. Hand in hand with this are growing measures to decrease eligibility for services, extend waiting lists and reduce the personal, local and community dimensions of healthcare. NHS leaders seem inspired by the USA’s healthcare system – the worst system in the developed world and are abandoning the principles that have made the NHS the best healthcare system in the world.

In many ways it may seem surprising to put the privatisation of the NHS at the top of the list. Many of the other attacks on the welfare state are more severe and cause more direct harm to ordinary people.
But the NHS is the bedrock of our welfare state and it represents the kind of society we want – it’s fair, it’s free, it’s for everyone.

Most importantly, it’s not The NHS – it’s Our NHS.

If we lose the NHS. If it will become Their NHS – the NHS controlled by the rich or an NHS only for the poor – then we will have given up centre-piece of social justice in our country.

We must rally round the NHS. We must make it our El Alamein

We must not only protect it from privatisation but we must also start to turn the tables and begin the fight to restore the principles of justice and equality in our country.

Why Inequality Drives Me Crazy

I wrote this blog for The Equality Trust and as a contribution to the international Day of Action on 25th January 2018.

Philosophers know that when you start talking about equality you can quickly get in a muddle. The truth is that we’re all different AND we’re all equal. In fact we’re all wonderfully different and without those differences our world would be a stale and deathly place. But we’re also fundamentally equal – which means we all matter, we all share the same fundamental value, each and everyone of us. In one sense equality means recognising that every single person, with all their differences, contributes to making the world a beautiful place.

Difference and equality feel like they are in conflict because we confuse equality with sameness; we focus on some particular variable aspect of our humanity and then we are tempted into promoting our self-worth by treating that difference as the most important measure of our self. Kids want to be the tallest, adults want to be the richest and football teams want to have most points at the end of the season.

We like to win – however meaningless the game.

And, of course, as soon as someone starts to win then someone else must inevitably lose. As the great Billy Bragg sings:

Just because you’re better than me

Doesn’t mean I’m lazy

Just because you’re going forwards

Doesn’t mean I’m going backwards…

This is the reason that Dante made Pride the First Deadly Sin. If you really believe you are better than other people then you are not only kidding yourself but you will often start to harm other people. You may be tempted to fix the rules of the game so that you’ll keep winning; you may encourage others to believe that they don’t count, that they’ve got nothing to offer and that you are entitled to your supposed superiority.

Game-fixing and toxic inequality is particularly rife when it comes to the distribution of the three great social forces: money, power and fame. The more a society fixates on any of these values then the more vicious that society will become and the more likely that inequality in that variable will increase.

Inequality begets inequality.

Inequality in money is the most obvious example.

If there’s a lot of inequality in money then those with lots of money gain many things – not just extra power and resources, but also the delusion that they are better than other people – combined with a gnawing anxiety that those advantages could be taken away from them. The greater the inequality the greater the sense you have have much to lose and the greater the temptation to fix the game to perpetuate your advantage. So the rich increasingly believe they deserve what they have and they organise society to protect and increase their advantage; to buy influence they buy or bribe the powerful.

Injustice begets injustice.

Sadly the natural result of this toxic inequality is not that people eventually wake up, get over themselves and start to share things more fairly. Inequality distorts the values of everyone.

For those in the middle it is much easier to blame the poor for society’s problems than to challenge the rich. Even worse, most of the poor themselves accept this distorted vision; they rarely reject the values that are imposed upon them, they rarely organise and fight back. Blatant nonsense about benefit scrounging, fraud by disabled people, the costs of immigration or the European Union can be found as much amongst the oppressed as amongst those who oppress them.

To simplify, in the form of a Haiku, it seems that the normal pattern is:

The rich blame the poor

The middle apes the rich and

The poor blame themselves

But there is hope.

Organisations like The Equality Trust hold out a torch and help us see what a self-destructive trap income inequality has become. We can start to see how income inequality has been exploited and inflated to the disadvantage of society as a whole. We can start to identify the disciplines that are required for people to live as equal citizens, welcoming difference, not seeking to exploit or abuse others.

It is clear today that even a relatively modest correction in income inequality would lift millions out of poverty and deprivation. Plato recommended that the richest should get no more than 5 times what the poorest get. As a beginning, this ratio would transform society and radically improve our society.

It’s also exciting to see the emergence of organisations like Acorn – local people self-organising to protect their social rights, hold landlords to account and fight poverty – or Citizen Network – an international community to promote equal citizenship for all. It is possible to reimagine our world and we can organise to make that vision real.

It is time to think start thinking straight and time to challenge the unacceptable acceptance of inequality. In the words of the Gang of Four:

To hell with poverty!

Interview on Universal Credit

I was recently interviewed by occupy.com about Universal Credit. Here’s my perspective on the next unfolding disaster of Tory (non) welfare reform.

Universal Credit (UC) is being criticised as a “one size fits all” scheme which doesn’t work. To what extent do you think this is true?

Universal Credit is an example of the worst kind of policy: a bad idea, badly implemented. It is a bad idea because it wrongly assumes that the best response to growing poverty, job insecurity and low pay is to continue to reduce the value of benefits, whilst making those benefits less secure. It is inevitably difficult to implement because it involves integrating information about benefits with information about salaries and other income without integrating the relevant Government departments: DWP and HMRC. All governments have a terrible record in developing computer systems, but developing a system to bridge two different Government Departments is begging for failure.

With monthly payments in arrears, an official waiting period of six weeks for a first payment (although 24% of claimants have reported waiting 10 or more weeks), and many claimants experiencing or set to experience a huge drop in income, Universal Credit can plunge those without savings or a safety net into dangerous levels of poverty and debt. Food banks in areas where UC has already been rolled out have reported a dramatic spike in user numbers. How do you feel about the announcement at Conservative Party conference that the government will issue advance payments to those who end up in crisis because of UC, but ask them to pay back the amount out of future UC payments?

The Government is in denial about the reality of severe deprivation in the UK. Any delays in income will push many people who are already living in poverty and debt into extreme distress. It is a sign of how far our standards of decency have declined that, having previously stripped DWP officers of the ability to use their discretion to provide benefits, that discretion is now being returned to them, but only to give out loans. It is also an indictment of modern Britain, where public and private indebtedness is rife, that the solution to every problem is to create more debt.

To what extent do you think Universal Credit is encouraging, and will encourage, people into “in-work poverty”?

In-work poverty is already normal and in fact the changing nature of our economy means that almost all families are now reliant on some form of social security to sustain their income. Universal Credit is designed to increase the expectation that families should work for low wages, for minimum hours and on temporary or zero-hours contracts. The long-term aim of Universal Credit is to create millions of compliant workers, whose income and source of income will vary from week to week, depending on the state of the local economy. This class of workers will not have to keep the state constantly updated about the state of their home, their family life, income and any other activities.

Can you talk a little about the impact of the Universal Credit roll-out on child support?

It perhaps seems extraordinary that, with 1 in 3 children in the UK already living in poverty, the Government’s key welfare reform will only make things worse. However this is to be expected given that this policy follows a series of changes that have reduced benefits for families, including families with disabled children. In a country with a birth rate which is too low to maintain its population, but which is also opposed to immigration, this anti-family policy may seem paradoxical. However the Government’s key supporters are the wealthy and the elderly; the future of the country does not seem to be their primary concern.

What about its impact on housing and homelessness?

Universal Credit extends further the UK’s flawed approach to housing by treating housing as merely an additional household cost. It ignores the fact that housing is a distinct and absolute social right. It ignores the reality of the unequal distribution of land and property, which is the fundamental injustice that underpins homelessness and the high cost of rented housing. It ignores the realities of family and community life. Instead housing become just one additional element within the calculation of entitlement. The shift to Universal Credit will worsen homelessness, particularly as many people will not be able to cope with being locked into a client relationship with the state; they will opt out and try to cope without support. The new direct payment arrangements will also encourage others not to pay their rent as their income is reduced; they will then get into arrears and become homeless.

Do you think the government will bow to pressure to halt the roll-out of Universal Credit?

It is hard to judge what the Government will do as the pressure on Universal Credit increases. Since 2010 the Government has been very ‘successful’ in making regular cuts in the overall level of benefits, combined with highly targeted cuts on benefits for disabled people (called ESA and PIP). Initially the Labour Party did not hold the Government to account for these changes; but this has started to change since the election of Jeremy Corbyn. The 2017 election results will also make the current Government more nervous.

However the Conservative leadership has no alternative intellectual position, other than to offer more of the same. There used to be a tradition of thought within the Conservative Party which valued society, community and the family and which was very cautious about treating people as if they were only economic units and which did not want to interfere unduly in the lives of ordinary people. Sadly, this more humane version of Conservatism seems to have died.

The Kingdom of Heaven and Universal Credit

Certainly Not Matthew 20:1-16

Here is something Jesus did NOT say:

For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.

About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.

He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’

‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.

He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’

When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’

The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and the foreman gave them nothing; and the owner told them ‘I hope you enjoyed working in the vineyard; this was useful work experience for you. The Government will still pay you your benefits – this is called Workfare.’

The foreman then paid out the fraction of a denarius owed to those who had came at nine, noon and three; and the owner said, ‘Fortunately the Government will make up the difference in your salary – this is called Universal Credit.’

The foreman then paid a denarius to those who were hired first; and the owner said ‘Now I realise that this is not enough to live on, but I did not have to grow my vineyard here – this is called Capitalism.’

When they received it, they began to grumble, but not against the landowner; it was much easier to blame each other or the immigrants.

So the last will be last, the first will also be last, but the owner and his friends in the Government will always put themselves first.

Welfare and the Common Good

My friend Virginia Moffatt recently edited a collection of essays called Reclaiming the Common Good which explores the way that society, in so many ways, seems to have lost its way. My essay explores some of the original thinking behind the welfare state and what we might do to return to the ideas that originally inspired it. The book launch was in Bloomsbury on 20th September 2017. Virginia asked several of the authors some questions, and here are my answers.

How would you define ‘welfare’? Why is it that we are currently living in a country where those in greatest need are being denied help?

A Finnish friend of mine, Katja Valkama, who was doing research on social policy in the UK asked me: “Why do people say all these negative things about ‘welfare’? In Finland welfare just means well-being.”

Exactly.

The term ‘welfare state’, was coined by Archbishop William Temple, and it was certainly meant to capture the idea that we needed to ensure that our social arrangements – underpinned by law, democracy and the power of the state – worked to guarantee everybody’s welfare – everybody’s well-being.

And the five main pillars of the welfare state still do so today:

  1. Health – The NHS provides us with universal healthcare
  2. Education – Public schools provide us with free education up to 18
  3. Income Security – Pensions and benefits provide some income security
  4. Housing – Housing benefits and social housing provide some protection from homelessness
  5. Disability Support – Local government provides some rather limited social care to people with disabilities and older people who are frail and need assistance

As my ordering suggest – some systems work much better than others and interestingly the ones we value most are:

  • The most universal ones, with no means-testing
  • The ones we forget are part of the welfare state

The word welfare – and its associated stigma – seems to attach itself most closely to social security and to any systems that seem to be just for the poor. This is despite the fact that the biggest benefit – accounting for about 50% of all benefits – is the state pension – a universal benefit. We have somehow allowed welfare and the welfare state to become stigmatised; this is despite the fact that the largest parts of the welfare state remain popular and so have been relatively protected from recent cuts.

On the other hand, the reason why the cuts of austerity have fallen so heavily on disabled people is that they are a group that is particularly dependent on the less universal elements of the welfare state: housing, care and benefits. These are politically easy things to cut because most people think they have no stake in them.

It is particularly important to recognise that our current problems are not so new. Things have been moving in this direction for several decades. For instance if we compare our situation today to the 1970s three things stand out:

  1. The poor have been made poorer, by a mixture of economic change and the lower value of benefits
  2. The rich have become a lot richer, but they do pay a little more in taxes
  3. Most people are in the middle and they are about the same – their wages have dropped, but the difference has been made up by benefits (disguised as tax credits, pensions, housing benefit etc.)

Austerity has recently made things much worse the poorest. But the system has been getting worse and worse for over 40 years. Over time its main function has shifted so as to subsidise the incomes of the middle-classes. But this has been managed in a way that enables them to psychologically distance themselves from those stigmatised groups that they see as beneath them. This is today’s double injustice: we steal from the poor, but heap blame and stigma on their shoulders at the same time.

What would you say to those who argue that the welfare state is no longer necessary in modern Britain?

It’s really important to realise that the development of the welfare state is correlated – above everything else – with the growing insecurity of the modern world. Our productivity or average wealth is irrelevant: people can starve or be forced into prostitution, homelessness or suicide even if society as a whole gets wealthier.

Average wealth is irrelevant, it is equality and income security – not economic growth that is most important.

In fact our amazing productivity has only been achieved by sacrificing (often not willingly) basic economic securities:

  1. First we lost the security of the land and millions were forced to come to the towns for work, and they then became dependent on ’employment’ and those who did not fit into this system were forced into the workhouse.
  2. Second craftsmen and labourers lost the security of their roles as machines produced more for less.
  3. Third we discovered, through the Great Depression, and many other bubbles, slumps and downturns, that even a job was no security. We can now manufacture droughts and famines through bad planning, economic anxiety and panic.

We discovered that the modern industrial world is no protection from growing inequality and radical insecurity – what Simone Weil calls rootlessness. These injustices then inspired revolutionary hopes and fascist reactions. This unleashed war, revolution, terror, eugenics and the Holocaust.

The welfare state – which had its seeds in Bismarck’s Germany – was always a way of replacing the basic securities that people desperately need in a world that had lost the older securities of land, church and community.

Nothing about the current state of the economy makes the welfare state less necessary. Income insecurity is even more extreme today than before the War. Our incomes are far more dependent on Government-run systems and subsidies. We simply take for granted the enormous benefits that come from the welfare state and the security – even its current inadequate form – that it provides for all of us.

We’ve gone to sleep and we’ve forgotten all that we’ve come to rely on.

The organisation you run is called the Centre for Welfare Reform. Can you give us some of your thoughts how the welfare state could be reformed for the good of all?

I do wonder whether it was a good idea to name the Centre as the Centre for Welfare Reform. The term ‘welfare reform’ is now so toxic and so closely associated with the changes introduced by the Coalition Government that it is quite confusing. However, I think that a civilised society will always want to ensure that it is organised in the best way it can be to ensure the welfare of all its members; so I think welfare reform – true welfare reform – actually improving how we take care of each other – will remain an important project – even if we’re not sure what to call it any more.

For me the central challenge of improving the welfare state was set out by the philosopher Jeremy Waldron:

Above all, I think the idea of citizenship should remain at the centre of modern political debates about social and economic arrangements. The concept of a citizen is that of a person who can hold their head high and participate fully and with dignity in the life of their society. (Liberal Rights, p. 308)

What this requires is up for debate, but I think we can mark out the two extremes that we must avoid – the Scylla (rocks) and Charybdis (whirlpool) of welfare reform between which we must steer:

  1. We must avoid the assumption that the state is some rational and benign entity who can be trusted to simply meet our needs and solve social problems on it own. This way of thinking is fundamentally undemocratic and it treats citizen as non-citizens – as passive, dependent and lacking in responsibility. The last 40 years, and particularly the last 7 years, have clearly demonstrated that the state cannot be left alone with this task of taking care of us.
  2. We must also avoid the assumption that we have no need for the welfare state, that we can all manage alone, or in our families. Citizens are not lone wolves, consumers or producers; they are people who need to live together and need to work together to build a meaningful and mutually rewarding world.

What this means is that we must look for welfare reforms that are going to encourage us to be the best that we can be both singly and together. We need to create a world where everyone is included, everyone is an equal, everyone is treated as a full and valued citizen.

So, what might some positive reforms look like?

Briefly I would suggest the following:

  1. The basic idea of the NHS remains sound – what we will want to do is bring it closer to our communities. Professionals sometimes forgot their core purpose – to teach, assist and enable.
  2. Schools needs to be freed from the tyranny of regulation and the phoney idea that they can prepare people for work. Education should be more inclusive and focus on building our capacity to be citizens.
  3. Income security needs to be radically reformed, and at its centre needs to be the idea of a basic income – a secure income that is enough for each of us to live a life of dignity.
  4. Housing needs to become a right and a fundamental responsibility of local communities must be to ensure everyone can live in their own community and not be forced out by increased housing costs. Citizens should belong where they live – and they should not be forced out of their communities by ‘market forces’. I believe a Land Value Tax, which ensure property owners support non-property owners will be the core reform required.
  5. Social care – or disability support – needs to be established as a universal, non-meanest-tested right for all of us. This is entirely possible and affordable.

Underpinning all of this – I believe – will have to be a resurgence of genuine democratic behaviour and of constitutional reform. People need to be free in order to be citizens, so that they can challenge, engage and collaborate in order to build the society we need. We will need new constitutional arrangements to establish, monitor and protect our human rights, and we will need a renewed civil society – with social organisations that are willing to speak out and stand up for justice.

I suspect that, along with secure social rights, established at a national level, we will need to pay much more attention to the local. Meaningful citizen action and community life can only becomes possible if some powers are decentralised and so people can focus on change at a personal, family and community level.

Of course much of this will seem a dream. But the post-war welfare state also seemed like a dream. I suspect it is only dreaming that will save us from years of further moral and social decline.

Australia’s Pride, England’s Shame

How Australia is taking the lead in disability rights and social care

I have just returned from 3 weeks in Australia where I have been working with disability advocates, families and support organisations. The question we were exploring is how can we best support our own active citizenship and the citizenship of others. I was also able to be part of the launch of Citizen Network Australia in Perth and it was fantastic to hear people’s enthusiasm about building a global movement for citizenship for everyone – for a world where everyone matters.

The trip was also a chance to reflect again on the development of NDIS. Australia’s National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) is without doubt the most exciting, most ambitious and most perilous attempt to reform disability support and to bring it in line with human rights and the principles of independent living. All around the world, we have a stake in this reform, because no other country has been brave enough to introduce such an important reform.

Critically NDIS aims to do three vitally important things:

  1. Properly fund the support needs of all people with disabilities (including many people with mental health problems) under pension age.
  2. Remove all means-testing so that every Australian has the security of knowing that the system will be there for them, no matter their income.
  3. Ensure all funding is individualised and under the control of the person or their representative, so that people can get support that makes sense and enable them to be a full and active citizen.

This is brilliant – if Australia achieves this it will have moved itself from the back of the pack in disability rights to become a true world leader.

This is in stark contrast to my home country, England. Similar reforms in England, which began with the Independent Living Fund (ILF), Direct Payments and then Personal Budgets all promised much in terms of increasing people’s level of control over their own support. However these achievements pale into insignificance alongside the vicious means-testing and the severe cuts that began in 2009. There are 700,000 fewer people now getting support than in 2009, a drop of about 40% – and these problems are only getting worse. The United Nations has severely criticised the UK for its failure to respect the human rights of its own citizens, and their criticisms are entirely justified. Social care in England remains a ‘Poor Law’ service – a poor service, for the poor, that keeps you poor.

We have still not learnt that genuine and positive reform is possible; but it begins by bringing together people with disabilities – all disabilities – families and support organisations to campaign and to explain – not so much to Government – but to the general public – why a right to disability support (what England calls social care) is a fundamental human right. I continue to work with the Socialist Health Association to encourage the Labour Party to develop a more positive and ambitious vision. I am extremely grateful to the Australian disability movement for showing us the way ahead – we just need to follow them.

However there are some major challenges ahead. Having a plan is one thing; putting that plan into action is something entirely different.

I was in Australia when the details of NDIS were first announced and I met with the design team – the civil servants charged with defining how NDIS was to be delivered. My analysis, which I went on to publish (with my usual tact and diplomacy) was that the design of the system was very poor indeed. There remains a severe danger that the system will become enmeshed in centralised bureaucratic controls that undermine the basic human rights that NDIS aims to respect.

Moreover, many of my friends in Australia are the people who called for these reforms and who continue to work to innovate and improve the system so that disabled people and families are put in charge of their own lives. They are now on a rollercoaster of emotions as they see enormous progress in some areas, matched by the development of systems that seem damaging or just plain peculiar. You can read a moving story from one woman’s perspective here.

It would be tempting to say “I told you so.” But I don’t think that’s the appropriate response, and my last visit to Australia has left me much more encouraged than down-hearted.

First of all Australia is living up to its promise to properly fund NDIS and this is no small achievement. Second, while many of the detailed systems do seem crazy, they can all be resisted and reformed. In fact even more encouraging than the progress around NDIS is the continuing sense of passion and determination amongst Australian advocates and disability leaders. They know that they can achieve so much more and they know that they can – despite all the obstacles – make the system accountable. Disability advocates have been able to achieve more change and have created more transparency than in any other countries that I am familiar with, including: England, Scotland, Finland, New Zealand and the USA.

What is more, I see increasing signs of collaboration between different kinds of disability advocates around the issue of genuine choice and control. For example, Vicserv has pulled together a wide-ranging alliance of disability leaders to explore how to define good practice in self-directed support. Likewise the Self Direction Collaboration Network brings together a range of brilliant advocates, leaders and facilitators for shared work on turning the dreams of NDIS into practical reality.

The challenge may be to simply to hold one’s nerve and to holdfast to the original intentions of the NDIS. The current system is changing and evolving in such a fast, complex and unpredictable way that it is easy to be mesmerised by it. When it does crazy things that don’t make sense then its natural to be disappointed and angry. But it is possible to fight-back and often it is possible to work around the problem.

I was struck by how the innovative organisations that I worked with in Western Australia, like Avivo and My Place, were also having to remind themselves that they’d already spent decades working around the rigidities of poorly designed systems. The capacity to respond creatively to bureaucratic rigidity hasn’t disappeared simply because the funding body has changed from the State to the Federal government.

It is important to remember that important changes and innovations do take time and that NDIS involves at least two distinct innovations, both of which are at different stage of their evolution. Innovations evolve over time and go through distinct stages as they (and if they) evolve. Partly NDIS is introducing a model for calculating need, and ensuring everyone gets a suitable package of support. This is priority for the system, and this is moving into the stage of mainstream implementation – Stage 3.

A graph showing how innovations develop

Where NDIS is on the innovation curve

But NDIS also promises flexible funding that people can control and here progress is at much more primitive stage – at best early Stage 2. This may seem disappointing, but it’s important to recognise the reality of how these kinds of changes take. Individualised funding began in the 1960s (in California) and the first UK models began in the 1970s. When I first came to Australia and talked about individualised funding in 1999 everyone looked at me like I was crazy. When I next came back in 2008 I found handfuls of people and families who had got self-managed supports, but they had been told not to tell anyone – they were ‘State secrets’ – in theory not allowed, and if you talked about it you might have it taken off you. Today the idea of personalised support and self-management has been normalised – although the reality is a long way behind. This is how progress happens.

I left Australia, not only encouraged, but also thinking that there is much more we could do to work together globally. The battles in Australia are the same battles that we’re facing in other parts of the world. In each country, where people have been inspired by the desire for citizenship, equality and inclusion, then people and families have been able to find a way through to create better support solutions. Countries can learn from each other, advocates can help each other, we can share the lessons we learn to speed up the process of change. For instance, we might be able to use Citizen Network as a global alliance; we can start to share examples of the very best practice to feed our courage and strengthen our confidence.

We launched Citizen Network in November 2016 and already there are 10 countries who with national coordinators and hundreds of people and groups have joined as members. It is still early days, but we have all the reason in the world to work together for a better world, where everyone matters, where everyone can become a full citizen. Why don’t you join us?

Equality – The Kind That Really Matters

or why status is not a zero-sum game

This essay jumps headfirst into a complex debate which deserves a more careful set of introductory comments. However, I am pressed for time, and so I merely want to offer a few philosophical thoughts in response to some of the practical work that I’ve been involved in over the past few months.

The limits of reasonable income inequality

One of the most important political philosophers at the end of the twentieth century was John Rawls. He asserts:

All social values – liberty and opportunity, income and wealth, and the bases of self-respect – are to be distributed equally unless an unequal distribution of any, or all, of these values is to everyone’s advantage. (A Theory of Justice p. 62)

In principle Rawls offers us what appears to be a highly egalitarian starting point for social justice. However, in practice, the publication of his A Theory of Justice, his ground-breaking work in political theory, coincided with the end of a moderately egalitarian period in the political development of English speaking countries. Since the 1970s income inequality has grown significantly in the UK, USA, Canada and Australia and governments of all colours have abandoned any serious effort to promote income equality as a social goal. I am not blaming John Rawls for the collapse of egalitarianism and the rise of neoliberalism – but it is a curious coincidence.

The principle that Rawls is most famous for advancing, a principle that arises logically from the assertion above, is the maximin principle: Social arrangements should be so organised that the position of the worst off (the min) should be as high as possible (the max) and that if a certain level of inequality makes such an improvement possible then – only to that limited extent – such inequalities would be justified.

As someone who studied Rawls in the 1980s I remember this as a convincing theoretical position. How could I as an egalitarian resist a level of inequality that improved the position of the worst off? However looking back today I wonder what real effort we made to distinguish Rawls’ position from the idea of trickle-down economics: Let the rich make as much money as possible in the hope that the poorest would benefit – for a ‘rising tide lifts all boats.’

It turns out, if we examine the data of the last 40 years – as I did recently – this is a forlorn hope. It is very clear that growing inequality has not improved the position of the poorest, nor even overall economic growth. In fact, in the UK at least, as inequality increased so have the incomes of the poorest fallen. What is worse, because it is clearly intentional, is that the political system further reduced the incomes of the poorest by policy changes that were highly regressive. In fact we’ve stolen from the poor three times: First by allowing greater economic inequality; second by redistributing money away from the poor by political policy; third by pouring scorn and stigma on the heads of the poor through shameful political rhetoric.

Rawls’ argument was equivalent to saying: Poison sometimes improves our health and so we should sometimes be willing take poison. For, in fact, all medicines are also poisons – what is critical is to take exactly the right amount of the poison if you want the beneficial impact. However instead of taking care to find the correct dose of inequality we’ve been swallowing inequality by the bottle and declaring our overdose success.

Meanwhile, if someone did identify the sweet spot for a legitimate level of inequality, then I guess I missed the news.

Instead of careful efforts to limit and control inequality in the interests of poor we’ve seen trickle-down economics rise unchallenged as the economic philosophy of our time. Instead of attempts to quantify the minimum level of inequality necessary to lift the incomes of the poorest we’ve seen a number of other more dangerous arguments and assumptions rush to fill the vacuum in Rawls’ argument.

For instance, some argue that the economy needs a free labour market to efficiently allocate resources to promote the skills necessary for the economy: If we need to pay an extra £10,000 to get the right doctor, an extra £100,000 to get the right CEO or an extra £1,000,000 to get the right football player, then we must do so.

This kind of free market argument seems quite persuasive, if we don’t think too hard. After all this seems precisely the kind of reason why Rawls might allow us to release the hounds of inequality from their leash: To incentivise better performance and recruit people for essential skills – whether they be medical, commercial or athletic. But a moment’s thought must make us wonder whether we’re confusing the good of the worst-off with the good of a particular community:

  • If we need more doctors, don’t recruit doctors from Africa or Asia (where they are needed even more) to come to Europe (where we have plenty already and could certainly train more).
  • If your company needs a better CEO then train one, don’t bribe someone to leave their current job by simply offering them more money than they get now.
  • If you are a fan then you may be happy that the wealth of your team allows you to poach the best players from other teams. But none of this adds to the quality of football.

Incentives may offer a different kind of argument: There is surely a case for rewarding people for good work and discouraging people from doing bad work. But very low levels of inequality leave plenty of room for incentives. Good work is surely what we want everyone to do as a norm and inequality makes it harder to reward good work when everyone is working well.

In fact I think the case could be made that what is more important than positive incentives is the possibility of failure. Failure is what makes all forms of progress possible. Systems that makes failure impossible or too expensive are systems that do not develop and improve. The failure of state socialism in Russia was not an excess of equality, it was an excess of security, where rigid economic structures didn’t adapt to changing circumstances. (One of the arguments for basic income, which I support, is that it would make economic failure, and therefore improvement, much less risky.)

Another weak argument for inequality, but one that is heavily relied upon by advocates of inequality, is that economic goods (let’s call this wealth) are not created in a zero-sum game. If you are not familiar with the idea of a zero-sum game let me try and explain what this means:

Chess is a zero-sum game. I can win and you lose, you can win and I lose or we can draw. We can’t both win. Some things in life are much more like chess: winners are matched by losers. Zero-sum games can only redistribute a finite (fixed) amount of resources. Land is finite and hence the distribution of land is a zero-sum game.

Not everything is a zero-sum game. For instance, education is not a zero-sum game (unless you’re doing it very badly). Everybody can learn, and if I develop some ability at Latin, I do not reduce your ability to understand Latin or anything else.

Whether economics is a zero-sum game is a critical question, but also quite complex. When we look at the economy from some perspectives then it can seem a zero-sum game. For instance, the UK’s recent Coalition Government increased VAT, increased income tax thresholds and cut benefits. The combined impact of these changes was to reduce the incomes of the poorest 10% (6.5 million people) by 9% and to increase the incomes of those on middle-incomes. Government redistribution like this is, in the short-term at least, a zero-sum game.

Not all economic change is like this. If people begin to find new ways to organise things then this may increase the overall amount of wealth. Better farming techniques can improve productivity overall. Industrialisation and technology can increase the availability of useful products. These changes are much more like educational changes, new ideas and technologies change how we do things to make more possible.

However, sadly, these transformational changes, that certainly do accelerate economic production, are also associated with the greater levels of social injustice, uprootedness and insecurity. Often they led to riots, rebellions and revolutions. So, while such economic growth can potentially benefit the many, it usually seems to benefit the few, especially in the short-run. We are discovering the same today as global businesses and technologies demolish old ways of working, accelerate inequality and reward socially irresponsible behaviour.

I think this means that economics is not quite a zero-sum game; but neither are most economic goods infinite. Distribution remains a critical issue, especially for obviously finite goods like land and access to basic resources (like water, food, clothing and healthcare). It is also clear that we should be constrained by our respect for the planet as well as the needs of each other.

The evidence that economic inequality is good for us and is justified by its impact on the poor is very poor. In fact we don’t seem in much of a hurry to gather evidence on this matter at all; perhaps we are simply in awe of the power of money and don’t know how to put the dogs of inequality back on the leash. When money can buy public policy and research, as it does today in the UK, there may be few incentives to be honest about the limitations of inequality. Perhaps also, the glaring failure of socialist states like the USSR, has rather blinded us to the obvious success of democratic welfare states, like Denmark, at finding a much better balance of equality and productivity.

The importance of status

One other thing that strikes me, looking back on Rawls, is that most of the discussion about equality has tended to be highly materialistic. Perhaps we should have looked rather harder at what Rawls called the “bases of self-respect” for surely the respect in which we are held, particularly our status as an equal, is of much more importance to an egalitarian than the particular bag of money we happen to be holding.

In fact neoliberals often deploy a version of this argument when they propose that egalitarians are simply promoting the vice of envy: There is nothing wrong with inequality; inequality is helpful and essential; you are simply envious of the better-off and your envy is wrong in itself and damaging in its impact. You’ll drag everyone and everything downwards in your quest for equality.

Now, I think it is rather easy to show that income inequality (perhaps beyond some modest level) is harmful. It is also possible to show that income inequality is controllable – if you want to control it. However I do think there is something to the argument that income is not everything and that there is something worrying about a society fixated on achieving income equality as if that were the most important goal.

True equality does not meant I have exactly the same amount of money in my bank account as my neighbour: It is to live with my neighbour as an equal – for us to value and respect each other as equals.

Moreover the reason that this kind of equality is important is not that my neighbour and I are equal: We are not the same and we do not want to be the same; we are different from each other, along an infinite array of dimensions.

What we seek is an equality of status, of respect; perhaps we could almost say that we seek spiritual, not material, equality. Moreover there is a name for this kind of equality and that name is citizenship. For at least two and half thousand years, and possibly longer, some humans have sought to live together in a community of equals.

One famed example is ancient Athens, the home of democracy, where Pericles once said:

We regard wealth as being something to be properly used, rather than as something to boast about. As for poverty, no one need be ashamed to admit it: the real shame is in not taking practical measures to escape from it. Here each individual is interested not only in his own affairs but in the affairs of the polis (community) as well: even those who are generally occupied with their own business are extremely well-informed on general politics (community life) – this is a peculiarity of ours: we do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics (the community) is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has no business here at all… (cited by Thucydides)

What mattered in Athens was to be a citizen, and as such you had equal status with other citizens. Of course, Athenian citizenship excluded slaves, women and foreigners, but it still offers an important example of a different approach to equality. Moreover, in many ways it was much more egalitarian in its actual organisation and spirit than is a modern democracy. Athenian citizens had much more influence over and involvement in the life of their community than we do today.

And is this kind of equality not a more fundamental kind of equality? We do not want people to be uniform; we do not want lives to be standardised; we should surely not care too much about differences in roles, resources or relationships. Surely, what we want is a world where everyone can flourish, in all their diversity, and where everyone is treated with respect – as an equal.

If you accept this argument then you might think that it gives some support to the neoliberal position: Stop worrying about inequality; stop envying the rich.

However, this is wrong. It is in fact precisely because status equality, not income equality, is the goal of a just society that we actually need to take income equality much more seriously.

At this point I’d like to quote an argument from C. S. Lewis. But we moved house last year and most of my books are still in the garage; so I will try and make his argument from memory. The reason we should take great care to limit the visible and obvious differences between us, like differences in wealth, is not that we are all equal, but that we are all different. It is because of our much deeper and wilder diversity that should ensure that we clothe ourselves as equals. The disciplines of equality exist to help diverse people live in a spirit of equality.

This may seem a paradox, but it is not. We are beings who are each unique and diverse, but who are also each of equal moral worth. In living together we must find a way to appreciate each other’s uniqueness and yet respect each other as equals. We can do this by choosing to live as citizens; that is we can choose to live in a society that honours our shared status as equal citizens. In so far as we discover that certain kinds of artificial differences (like income) can become excessive, that they can threaten our ability to treat each other as equals, then we should restrict or tame those differences. Excessive income inequality does threaten our ability to see each other equals, particularly by stoking the pride and greed of those with the most; but also by encouraging a sense of worthlessness in those with the least. Income inequality is corrosive of most of our virtues and it makes it much harder to live in a spirit of equality.

Status is certainly not a zero-sum game. Societies can exist with very low levels of status; in fact the twin concepts of meritocracy and aristocracy offer us a vision for society where the highest status goes to the ‘best’ and the lowest become the ‘worst’ – the scapegoat, scrounger or outcast. Meritocracies produce very low levels of status overall by using a narrow and highly rationed account of social value. Almost everyone’s a loser in a meritocracy.

Citizenship maximises the distribution of status by equalising that status – everyone can share in it. Moreover society can not only adopt equal citizenship as its goal; it can go further and also seek to welcome others into citizenship. If male Athenians had welcomed women as equals, allowed foreigners to become citizens or abandoned slavery then it would have advanced equal status for all. There would have been no loss of equal-status for male citizens. (I accept that this would have made the category of citizen less ‘special’ within Athens – but this kind of enhanced status is actually a form of meritocracy and is not essential to the kind of true and equal citizenship which I am arguing for). To feel you are an equal and to see others as equals is a real form of non-hierarchical status and it is the best form of self-respect – because it takes nothing away from anyone else.

It is this is inclusive account of citizenship what some of us have been exploring as we develop Citizen Network: How to build a world where everyone is a citizen, where everyone is equal and everyone is different.

How to find justice

So, if we return to Rawls, then I think my argument is that Rawls has made a fundamental error. He forgot that a just society does not start by redistributing resources in order to advance the bases of self-esteem. Instead it begins by commiting itself wholeheartedly to equality, and it does so by establishing equal and universal citizenship as the basic role which everyone can occupy.

Rawls tried to get to equality ‘by going round the houses’ – by focusing on economic goods first – and I think this is connected to another mistake that Rawls makes:

There is no reason to assume our sense of justice can be adequately characterised by familiar common sense precepts, or derived from the more obvious learning principles. A correct account of moral capacities will certainly involve principles and theoretical constructions which go much beyond the norms cited in everyday life; it may eventually require fairly sophisticated mathematics as well. (Rawls, A Theory of Justice, p. 47)

The fundamental problem here is that Rawls is seeking a formula for justice which must be applied to society from the outside. He is not offering us an attractive conception of justice, one towards which we can turn, around which we can rally and one which enables us to build a just society together. Instead Rawls is offering a complex and ambiguous template for ghostly civil servants or philosopher-kings to interpret on our behalf.

If we are not motivated towards justice by a shared conception of justice then no operating principle, however sophisticated will save us: For who is to interpret and implement such a principle? If we do not choose to live as citizens, and if we do not act to build a world for citizens, then we choose to live in a world where inequality is guaranteed.

If we are motivated towards justice then what matters is identifying it, living by it and disciplining ourselves according to its needs. Our fundamental principle must be that we are citizens, we are all equals and that we must welcome others into this world of citizenship.

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