Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Category: Essays (page 1 of 5)

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.

Why Welfare Reform is Wicked

The term welfare reform might naturally suggest improvements in welfare systems. However the term is usually, although not always, used by those who have a negative view of the welfare state and who propose policies to reduce the level of welfare provision. A cynic might argue that the word ‘reform’ has been chosen precisely because it disguises their real intentions and implies an improvement that doesn’t exist. However, critics of the welfare state do believe that cuts to the welfare state are an improvement, by the light of their own theory.

One of the areas upon which critics of the welfare state have placed a great deal of emphasis is the fact that providing income security might reduce our incentive to do paid work, and that this may be damaging to society as a whole or to an individual, who might actually benefit from working. However, plausible as this may sound, it should be noted that countries with high levels of income security, like Denmark, also tend to have low levels of unemployment.

It is also worth noting that the term ‘welfare’ is also ambiguous. The welfare state is best understood as combining a system of income security with systems of education, healthcare, housing and disability support. However often the term ‘welfare’ is associated simply with income security or benefit payments. This may be because income security systems are designed in ways which seem more exclusive and less universal than other systems. For example, in the UK most people benefit from free education, but don’t tend to consider this as part of the welfare system, while fewer people rely on benefits. Moreover, some benefits, say pensions, are universal and people receiving pensions don’t think of themselves as being ‘on benefits.’

So, although the best definition of welfare reform might be as an improvement in welfare systems it seems that the actual definition in practice is very different. Welfare reform in practice involves reducing income security for targeted groups, who are treated as in some way different or less important than the ‘ordinary citizen’ who is encouraged to see their own welfare entitlements as being of a very different kind.

The idea of welfare reform is not only confusing, but so are the actual means used to make the cuts and other changes. Overall I think it is possible to identify 7 different kinds of welfare reform, although in practice some or all of these policies may be mixed together in different ways in different policies:

  1. Direct cuts in income
  2. Increased means-testing by income
  3. Increased means-testing by other factors
  4. Reduced rate of growth in benefits
  5. Reduced eligibility
  6. Increased disadvantage
  7. Increased control for the sake of control

Here are some examples from recent changes in the UK of how welfare reform operates in practice and how it uses these different policies.

A recent example of a direct cut in income is contained in the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016 which cuts income for new ESA (Employment and Support Allowance) claimants in the work-related activity group from £103 to £73 per week. This is a major cut in income, however it has been introduced for new claimants, which means existing claimants do not experience the cut and new claimants won’t realise they’ve been ‘cut.’ This is a typical strategy for introducing cuts which aims to reduce likely resistance.

Sometimes cuts are made by increasing the level of means-testing, or in other words, by demanding that people are poor enough to be eligible. For instance the Welfare Reform Act 2012 introduced a year’s time limit for contributory ESA (a non-means-tested benefit) after which people would have to be means-tested for ESA. Note that means-testing has been introduced at both ends of the scale, for instance, people on higher incomes can no longer receive Child Benefit.

Often the word means-testing is used only to refer to reducing a benefit as income increased, however there are other factors which can be taken into account in order to reduce eligibility, for example, savings, housing or your family situation. For instance, an important cut, which targeted disabled people, was the introduction of the bedroom tax. This was another element of the Welfare Reform Act 2012, which reduced people’s Housing Benefit if the system decided they had a spare bedroom.

Since 2010 many benefit cuts have been introduced by means of reducing the rate of growth in benefits, by changing indexation or by freezing any increase for a fixed number of years. This seems like a highly technical change, but it actually is the most important change in terms of the overall level of spending. If benefits do not grow with the economy or with average wages then relative poverty will increase and people will feel poorer. Also, if basic living costs increase above the average rate, then people will also be absolutely poorer. This has happened in the UK as housing and heating costs have risen above the general rate of inflation.

The fifth important change is in the eligibility of any benefit. Since 2010 there have been very many changes which ensure that people will no longer be classed as eligible for a particular benefit. Some changes are obvious, more are quite subtle and complex. An obvious change was the closing down of the Independent Living Fund in England, which ended the ability of disabled people to get funds to support their ability to live independently from central government. Changes to ESA and to PIP (Personal Independence Payment) have been connected closely to the use of new assessment regimes, which involve new tests for how disabled someone is and the privatisation of those tests to private agencies who may have less reason to be more humane in their handling of such assessments.

Another important strategy for reducing benefits is to reduce demand, that is to to discourage people applying for benefits that they are entitled to. There are a number of ways in which current approaches to welfare reform seem to rely on this strategy. The negative stigma associated with benefits is already significant, however politicians and government departments have encouraged further stigma and this may be encouraging people to avoid the system altogether. Furthermore, the increased use of sanctions and so-called ‘conditionality’ programmes, like the Work Programme, which demand regular attendance at benefit offices or training centres, can also serve to make the indirect cost of benefits seem too great.

Finally, some kinds of welfare reform seem to be designed simply to exercise control over people who need benefits. For instance the Work Programme, which is supposedly designed to help people get work, has had a poor record helping disabled people into work, and ia itself very expensive. It may be that it’s true purpose is to exercise control over people and to ensure that they have reduced freedom. Similarly the new system of Universal Credit seems an expensive solution for providing income security, but it requires very close monitoring of the weekly activities of people on low incomes. It may be that this kind of social control of people on low incomes is also one of the objectives of welfare reform.

The paradoxical point we’ve reached in the evolution of the welfare state is that those who are bent on destroying the welfare state claim that they want to save it. Their use of the term ‘welfare reform’ has been combined with a range of strategies that have been highly effective:

  1. Seize the centre ground – They claim that they are reforming the welfare state and this claim, while hard to justify, goes largely unchallenged.
  2. Narrow the definition of welfare – They encourage people to think of welfare as something that applies to ‘other people’ not to themselves
  3. Pander to our worst instincts – We’ve accepted lies about benefit fraud and the laziness of people in poverty which are used to fuel prejudice and injustice.
  4. Confuse people with technical mumbo-jumbo – New policies are dressed up in a complex web of meaningless or deceitful acronyms which disguise the true impact of any change.
  5. Act with haste on many different fronts – So much has been done so quickly that people don’t know what to look at next and as they try to fight the next injustice they must accept the last one as a battle lost.
  6. Scorn all criticism – Anyone, whether they be a vicar, a disabled person, an academic or the leader of the Labour Party, who dares to suggest that any of this is wrong is treated as a fool.

The UK is currently in the midst of another General Election, called because Theresa May wants to cash in her ‘Brexit means Brexit’ winnings. Unlike the 2015 General Election it is some comfort to see that the Labour Party is now clearly opposed to austerity and to this kind of wicked ‘welfare reform.’

The political odds stacked against the Labour Party are horrendous; but I do not see how we can begin to hope for something better unless we’re prepared to be honest about what’s wrong.
Welfare reform has been a wicked failure and we need to somehow find the right language and alternative policies which can reveal, challenge and reverse its impacts.

What Do We Believe?

Many of us believe in justice, and we try and work for justice. But sometimes the “long arc of history” seems a very distant hope. For those of us who work to advance disability rights we see the tide of negative forces rising: cuts, hate crime, eugenics, prejudice and political leaders who have no shame in taking us backwards.

And it is not just disabled people who face intolerance and whose gifts are rejected. The immigrant, the asylum seeker or the refugees faces fear and hatred. People in poverty are increasingly treated as somehow less than human and are subject to political scapegoating. People of different faiths and different sexualities face suspicion and disrespect. Women and children faces ongoing disadvantage and economic systems that seem incapable of recognising true value.

We can see what’s wrong, but we’re not sure what’s right.

We live in confusing times and many of our assumptions about what true justice looks many need to be re-examined. Many of us feel tired and disappointed. The leadership offered by mainstream politicians seems inadequate to the challenges before us. We want a better way, a way more suited to the reality of things.

If we just take the United Kingdom as a case study the growing tide of injustice is obvious to many of us:

  • Disabled people face cuts in their income and services for no better reason than they lack political power. Changes to benefits are leading to illness and suicide. Institutionalisation is returning, with all the inevitable deaths, rapes, abuse and indignity.
  • The Government refuses to take its fair share of refugees escaping war and terror. It has created a “hostile environment” for asylum-seekers and seems unconcerned about sending people back to persecution and death. It rejects warnings about its human rights record from the United Nations and tries to minimise its international obligations.
  • People in poorer communities across the country are dying more than a decade earlier than their peers because of inequality, inadequate housing economic insecurity and air pollution.
  • Employment is high, but wages and job security is low. Government policy seems based on lies and prejudice; ordinary citizens are bullied in job centres and hit with sanctions for noncompliance. Carers and volunteers, mostly women, are treated as if all their hard work has no real value.
  • The state is centralised in London, while public policy is corrupted by private corporations. Democracy is limited to a 5 yearly choice between leaders who often seem totally distant from the communities they supposedly represent. Political debate is distorted by a media owned by billionaires or by a BBC that has been cowed into submission by political pressure.

The UK is certainly an extreme case. It is the most unequal country in Europe and is cursed with leaders who seem only to want to make things worse. But friends in other countries share some of our problems:

  • The USA must deal with the emergence of leaders like Donald Trump, who sees nothing shameful about reducing health coverage, a basic human right, abandoning efforts to protect the climate and the environment and declaring “America first”. Racism and xenophobia have been normalised as politicians pander to fear and economic anxiety.
  • In Europe right-wing parties are also encouraging hateful policies. Even in countries like Finland, racist parties are gaining support. At the same time countries like Greece are being crushed by economic policies that slash the incomes of ordinary people and mire the country in further debt.
  • Across the developing world large corporations are purchasing power, extracting resources and exploiting the local workforce. Old style imperial colonialism has been replaced with corporate colonialism.

Are these all different and distinct injustices or are they really same injustice, just looked at from different points of view?

Clearly there are important differences of details; however there is a strong case for seeing these problems as all stemming from the same kind of dangerous and bankrupt mindset.

Firstly many of these injustices are connected by a rhetoric of exclusion and scapegoating. Their message is that our problems are caused by them: the poor, the disabled and the foreigners. We need to keep them out, put them away or keep them down. And this message also contains an implicit threats: Don’t dare to stand alongside them. Stay inside the blessed circle. Trust us to look after you, or else…

When the powerful exploit prejudice in this way the result is never pretty. Rarely does it lead to unity amongst the oppressed. Too often it leads to infighting, fear and further scapegoating. In communities where there is severe economic decline and a lack of power then racism can raise its ugly head. When disabled people are attacked then some may choose to keep their distance from those who are seen as ‘too disabled’.

Malcolm X nailed it when he said:

If you aren’t careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.

So perhaps we can start with one obvious moral truth: everybody matters. Black lives matter, disabled people matter, foreigners matter, you and me matter. We all matter; we are all equally important.

It’s been said before, but it’s worth repeating: We are all equal.

The UK gives further wicked twist to this rhetoric of exclusion. Politicians now proudly say that we should live in a meritocracy, a world where the ‘best’ rule the rest.

It is hard to know whether to laugh or cry when politicians use this term, for it’s a term of satire invented by Michael Young (who also invented the Open University and many other good ideas). As long ago as 1958 Young argued that, if we’re not careful then society will divide into two classes, and that those in power will increasingly come to think that they are cleverer, and therefore better, than the rest of us and that have the right to rule over us. Today our ‘clever’ politicians make use of the term, but they don’t seem to have the read the book or understood the argument.

Our well-educated elite don’t seem to have noticed that term meritocracy means, going back to its Latin and Greek roots: ‘rule by the best’. But there was already an older term, which in its original Greek form, means exactly the same thing: aristocracy. I wonder what the public would think if they heard our Prime Minister declare that we need to live in an Aristocracy.

Meritocracy is opposed to democracy: rule by the best, not rule by the people. The modern elites really seem to believe that some people are better than other people and these ‘better people’ should be ‘awarded’ with more power, money and status. This is a great philosophy if you already have more power, money or status. It tells you that you deserve what you already have and that those who lack what you have, don’t deserve to get it. You kid yourself that you’re not only richer, but you are better too.

Of course the idea of meritocracy exploits and misuses one important truth: We may all be equal, but we are certainly all different.

Humans are wonderfully diverse. We are blessed with a great range different gifts and needs, which together make us utterly interdependent. We need each other. Human life, at its best enables people to use, share and develop these diverse gifts through different forms of community life.

Instead of enjoying the beautiful reality of our humanity the meritocrat imposes their own stupid ladder of values: the clever (as they define themselves) should be on top.

But meritocracy is a wonky ladder to nowhere. Instead of building lives of true meaning, citizenship and love, we are invited to clamber up on top of each other, to rise up to the ‘top’. Quite what we’re expected to do once we reach the ‘top’ is not exactly clear. Perhaps they really do think money, power of fame is the point of life.

Against this nonsense we must assert: We are all equal, We are all different and our many differences are good.

Of course, we have been here before, although it is astonishing that we seem to have forgotten all the lessons of twentieth-century history. Racism, eugenics, extreme inequality and colonialism all fed into its wars, revolutions, the racist and communist terror and the Holocaust.

Out of the ashes of the evils of the twentieth century arose two great social achievements. First, we asserted the fundamental importance of human rights in the UN Declaration and in subsequent conventions. Second, we built systems of social security, education and healthcare to protect people from poverty, insecurity and exploitation. It is telling that today both human rights and the welfare state are under threat.

Today the powerful claim that human rights are dangerous. They want the right to abandon the rules set down in international law. They also claim that we can no longer afford the welfare state. In particular immigrants and disabled people are just too ’costly’. This is all nonsense. Despite all its problems, the world has never been so wealthy. The problem is that we are wealthy, but insecure. As economic anxiety increases then we start to believe those who lie to us and tell us that some ‘outsider’ is threatening our security. How easily we accept the lie that it is the asylum seeker, not the tax evader, who threatens the welfare state.

It is disturbing to see how weak the welfare state has started to become. It grew quickly, offering jobs and services to so many. Then its growth slowed and managers emerged to ration, re-organise and achieve efficiencies. Now, as cuts strike even deeper, many employees of the welfare state (and it doesn’t matter whether they’re employed by the state or by civil society organisations) find that they cannot resist, cannot challenge, cannot become ‘political’ or they will find their own jobs under threat. The welfare state has become a passive victim, going almost willingly to its grave.

What is the cause of this collapse in moral values and commitment to social justice? What can we do about it?

It is easy to invoke big concepts: capitalism, neoliberalism, debt, exploitation. All of these ideas do tell us something true. But if we are not careful we end up feeding our fears. We create an image of monstrous evil that is too big, and too mysterious. We start to feel that there is something inhuman and inevitable about the forces ranged against us. It is important here to remember another lesson from the twentieth-century: never trust anyone who talks about the inevitable march of history, the thousand year reich or the internal contradictions of capitalism. Ideology just means taking one idea to its crazy extreme.

At one level the motives that feed these injustices are all too understandable, all too human the: excessive desire for wealth, power or fame. At another level we know that all these human forms of greed become enmeshed in political, economic and social structures that seem like they’re no longer controlled by human action: bureaucracy, political manipulation, financial markets or corporate exploitation.

But we cannot allow ourselves to given into despair.

Moral collapse demands moral action, and this action needs to start by focusing on problems that we can solve. The good news is that there is much that we can do. There are many ways to make the world a fairer, more decent and welcoming place and there are solutions to our problems around which others can rally. There is no reason to wallow in doom. We need to pick ourselves up, shake off the dust of disappointment and look around and honestly evaluate the reality of our situation.

For those of us who care about people with learning disabilities we have already been taught so much by thinkers and activists who have been sharing their wisdom over the past decades. Wolf Wolfensberger showed us how to protect people from stigma and the threats of being turned into some inhuman ‘other’. Beth Mount and John O’Brien helped us understand how dreams and aspirations can be converted into lives of meaning. Judith Snow and her friends Marsha Forest and Jack Pearpoint helped us see that everyone is gifted and that even our needs are gifts, creating the opportunities for human connectedness. We have a great legacy we must protect and pass on to others.

We have many potential allies. So many other groups of people face exclusion because of illness, disability or being seen as ‘too different’. We need to understand what these groups can teach us so we can help a world that is welcoming of difference for everyone. Many people around the world are learning the power of community action and cooperation. Varun Vidyarthi’s work in India shows us that starting with small groups of people, even with the most minimal financial resources, is no barrier to positive social change. John McKnight’s work on asset-based community development helps us restore a sense of balance and possibility to our local neighbourhoods. Today communities around the world are declaring their willingness to welcome the stranger, the immigrant, refugee or asylum seeker. In my home city, organisations like Assist Sheffield support and protect asylum seekers from the dangerous policies of the UK Government.

This is not an infallible recipe book for social justice, but we know enough already to be hopeful and confident that justice can advance. We can also develop ideas for new social and economic structures that will advance justice for everyone. For example we could campaign for:

  • Constitutional change to safeguard human rights, including our social and economic rights
  • Shifting power back to smaller communities and increasing direct democratic control in those communities
  • Universal provision of a basic income so that everyone’s income is secured without stigma
  • Radical change in housing policy to ensure that local housing is available to everyone and no one is forced out of their community
  • Significantly greater income equality, locally and globally, eradicating worldwide poverty

The task before us is real and pressing. Even if we are not sure how to change everything then some of the most practical demands of justice are still clear:

  • Stand up for those who are endangered or excluded
  • Build alliances and connections with other oppressed groups
  • Act like a citizen yourself, now, before it’s too late

There are many great communities out there trying to help make a difference, but we’ve recently launched Citizen Network as a global cooperative to share experiences, projects and to work together to advance the cause of justice and build a world where everybody matters. Why don’t you join us?

Tilting at Windmills or Radical Hope

I was very lucky recently to get the chance to participate in an event organised by the University of Leeds and Hope Not Hate entitled: A Future for Post Industrial Communities? It provided much food for thought.

The reality of post-industrial decline

The central focus of the two days of presentation and discussion was the fate of all those many towns and villages across the North and the Midlands where heavy industry or mining had once been dominant: Bolton, Barnsley, the Black Country, County Durham and many other places, including the City of Sheffield, where I live. The people from these places established our industrial heritage, built our national wealth and fought for the social rights that established the welfare state, giving us the legacy of social justice that we are now so busily frittering away.

Many of the academics noted that in these places, typically Labour-voting communities, the vote for Brexit was high and the vote for UKIP had risen. It was noted that in these places, as the primary industry had declined, it had been replaced with very little. Today people survived by working really hard, but with no job security, multiple jobs and low pay. Today the UK is the most unequal country in Europe, and these communities were on the wrong end of that inequality.

It was also noted that that these communities lacked power. The UK is the most centralised welfare state in the world and these places have minimal democratic control over their communities and minimal representation in London. They have been abandoned by mainstream politics. Moreover the social structures, the meeting places, the pubs, churches, working men’s clubs and leisure facilities had all declined. People have few opportunities to meet, organise or advocate for themselves; poverty has been privatised. The opportunity to speak out, make change or even rebel has been diminished to the point that these communities present no threat to the status quo.

The consequence of these multiple injustices are severe and include the fact that people living in these places will tend to die many years earlier than the people living in places that have power and money. But it was more encouraging to hear that in other places, say Germany, industrial change has not led to this kind injustice. Communities can be supported to develop and to get back on their feet. There is nothing inevitable about decline; but Britain seems to be leading the way in heartlessness and inequality.

It was also noted that racists can take advantage of these injustices. Many felt that the Brexit decision was influenced by those who were frightened by immigration. Many feared that the problems of racism and race hate, which are bad enough already, could now get much worse.

Competing identities, complex injustices

It struck me how, when these multiple injustices pile up, one on top of another, it can become very difficult to work out which fight you are having and which injustice comes first. If we are not careful we end up tilting at windmills – nobly taking up arms against the wrong thing in the wrong way.

Just to be clear. It is clear that Hope Not Hate are not guilty of making this mistake. Their agenda is clear and important: to combat the rise of racism and to advance appreciation of our multi-cultural communities. They have already demonstrated that it is possible to defeat racism by using community organising strategies in local communities. It’s good to have a clear mission, a clear target and a clear strategy. They are an organisation worthy of support.

My fear is more for myself, and for others who like me, who want to see greater social justice, but who may not be quite so sure where to put our energies. As ex-MP Professor John Denham noted: we need to distinguish underlying causes and symptoms; we need to get the cart before the horse.

My own assumption is that racism is largely a symptom of other problems: it’s a cart pulled by the horse of social injustice. There are racists, and they can exploit the negative political and economic circumstances harming people in these places. But these places are not naturally racist, nor is racism the primary cause of their problems. Or at least, people in these places suffer from injustices which have some rather different root causes. In my own talk I stressed the powerlessness that had created the circumstances where injustice went unchallenged.

But this whole discussion can create a whirlwind of different perceptions. In particular discussions over the two days revealed wildly different assumptions about which of our identities are most relevant to our understanding of what is really going on. Our identities really matters; but these identities are also complex, disputed, sometimes useful and but often dangerous.

If we think about ourselves and we think about our beliefs, passions and prejudices then we can see how complex this whole business can become.

Race is clearly an important identity that plays a powerful role in people’s imagination. Racism is real and it feeds off this category of race. But race is a very peculiar identity. The racial categories that dominate modern politics were invented by racists largely for the purpose of justifying imperialism. Race is a possibly a fiction; but somehow we seem stuck with it.

And do we value our racial identity? I certainly don’t consciously value being white; I am not proud of being white and I wouldn’t ever want to organise my life around that identity. I cannot even bring myself to tick the ‘white’ box on forms seeking our racial profile. I’d rather live in a world where everyone is ‘other’ and not be parcelled up by such a useless concept.

But, if I was subject to vile racial abuse, I’d certainly want to organise around my racial identity in order to protect myself, my family and my friends. It’s no comfort to be told that your racial identity is an imperialistic confection when someone’s kicking you to death. These categories become important as a matter of self-defence because other people have made them vitally important. The same is true for disabled people, viciously under attack by the current Conservative Government. Not to use the concept of disability when your enemies are using it against you is a mistake.

Over the course of these two days I found my head whirling with all these competing categories. Victims and perpetrators seemed to change places and people were forced to wear or to shed the groups identities that clearly matter to some people, and some theory, but may not matter to people themselves:

  • White working class men are seen by some as a threat
  • White working class men are seen by others as victims
  • But do white working class men really exist?
  • Whose interests does this identity serve?
  • Probably not the people shoehorned into it.

There were many other fractured groups. Some academics stressed the changes in the world of work, the end of industry and to the loss of valued work roles. Others noted the unfair distribution of job roles and the way in which women were missing from so many of the histories of these places. I was left wondering whether we were sometimes mourning a model of industry that was deeply disempowering and patriarchal. Can we do no better than choose between giant top-down heavy industries or the precariat working in the fluid service service sector? Aren’t there better ways of cooperating and of being productive than working for some anonymous corporation?

Why local identities matter

Perhaps all of our identities are a bit like this – artificial and exploitable. In fact some argued that one of the identities that really does matter to me – my membership of various geographically defined communities is in danger of being exploited by those who pretend that we solve structural problems like inequality simply through creative community action. I have a great deal of sympathy with this critique of the Big Society Bullshit.

However, at a personal level, I must say that I don’t think my Northernness, my being citizen of Sheffield or my living in Nether Edge is quite as peculiar, or as artificial, as my ‘Whiteness’. The reason why I think such identities do matter, and are worth defending, is that as a citizen part of my role is to look out for the place where I am. Not because my place is better than your place, but because it’s my place. I am a Bolton Wanderers’ fan, because its my team, not because I think it’s the best team. We need people to care about our places (and particularly the people in those places) in the same way that football teams need fans. Without identities like these we lose attachment, passion and commitment to our people and our places. Without identities like these then these places and their people will simply cease to exist as valued places.

Of course this does not mean we should be so attached to any of these places that we lose our sense of proportion. I don’t want Barnsley to be treated better than any other place, I just want it to be treated fairly. As a matter of fact Barnsley doesn’t get its fair share of public spending: It is missing £0.84 billion of its fair share of public spending (50% of it actual spending). This is wrong and this is something we can change.

Justice demands that I can stand back from all these identities – but not for ever. For justice also demands that we use our identities to advance the cause of justice. The challenge is to know when to use our identities and how.

I was particularly struck by how suspicious many were to the idea that small local communities – not just Barnsley, but the small townships, villages, parishes and neighbourhoods from which its made – did not need or should not be granted more power or control over their own destinies. While many are prepared, at an intellectual level, to accept that the UK is a hyper-centralised state, I do not think there is a strong sense that this is a serious problem for social justice, in its own right. I am not sure why this it, so this is only supposal:

  1. Perhaps we are frightened that those of us who live in these places are simply not to be trusted with deciding important issues for ourselves. Perhaps we are thought to be too racist or too sexist. (In this sense, for many, the Brexit decision will have confirmed their prejudices about us.)
  2. Perhaps we are wedded to the dream that social justice requires that every decision be made by the Prime Minister or her minions. The idea that a fair welfare system is identical with one giant nationalised industry seems hard to shake off.
  3. Perhaps many of us enjoy a cosmopolitan lifestyle, moving between differences places, and expecting that these places will be looked after by other people or by the state. No place is our place, they are always some body else’s responsibility.

Colonising England

Another idea, offered by the brilliant Reverend Al Barrett, is that some of this refusal to take the local seriously is that we are still in an Imperial day dream: Britain is still united, Britain is still Great, our mission is noble, but sometimes the natives just get a bit restless. I was also reminded also of an insight by my friend Cheryl Barrott: Northerners have never really recovered from the Norman invasion.

This may seem fanciful, but the way in which we’ve responded to industrial change does seem like a form of colonialism – even strip-mining. I was particularly touched by the story from two ex-miners from Durham, where I grew up. They explained that, as the mines were closed, Durham’s pit villages were classified from A to D. Villages that rated D were to be abandoned – left to rot – but people still live in these D-villages today.

I was shocked by this and after the conference I told my mum about it. But it she knew all about it. She remembered that the policy was put in place after I’d gone off to university. However she was volunteering for Samaritans at that time and so she talked to lots of folk who were living in D-villages. Their sense of despair was obvious.

It also struck me almost all my friends from Durham chose to leave the area after university. My mate Antony is one of the few honourable exceptions. There was no meaningful plan to build community, economic security or new forms of economic development to the communities of County Durham.

The same colonial attitude can be witnessed inside some of those industrial cities that have supposedly ‘benefited’ from more investment. Recently the BBC and its money moved to Salford; but little positive changed for the people of Salford. Instead they saw the quality of their own housing deteriorate, just as shiny new office buildings rose up around them.

Some of the natives are left behind as the money train moves out. Some of the natives are forced out as the money train moves in. What is clear is that the natives lack control of their own homes, their land, their work and their destinies. They must simply adapt to the law of the master.

It was particularly striking in this regard to hear from Labour MP Hilary Benn. It was a shame that he only had enough time to give his speech, so he missed the chance to listen to the detailed testimonies that explained how so many communities had deteriorated – despite 3 consecutive Labour Governments. I often feel sorry for MPs. One of the side-effects of the massive concentration of power in Westminster is that the MPs are far too busy to actually find out what is going on. It may be unfair, but it seemed to me that the one social injustice that really got Hilary Benn riled was why it took him so long to travel between his constituency in Leeds and his home down South.

Anyway.

The main focus of Benn’s speech was to remind us of the importance of investment. Communities couldn’t thrive without investment. And if we, the people of the country, can’t afford to invest in our own country, then we would need to seek foreign investment in order to make good things happen.
This seems reasonable, doesn’t it?

Until you think about it.

How can it be the case that a country of over 60 million people, with a long history, good education and at least the trappings of a democratic system, needs someone else to give them money in order to make anything good happen?

What’s more nobody just gives us money.

Instead they buy our industries, our towns, our resources and our people.

What’s the difference between foreign investment and colonial exploitation? The only difference seems to be that we choose to be exploited. The UK’s economic policy seems to be to make ourselves the most exploitable country in Europe: this is why our salaries are so low; this is why our job security is so low; this is why our benefits are so low and this is why our productivity is low. We offer other people high volume, low cost labour. We are the modern equivalent of the American South: the masters milk the profits, the rest of us do the work.

Perhaps, when someone says investment we should always ask: What have we sold-off now?

Radical hope

This whole approach to economics makes no sense. It locates human and economic value in money and in things – but not in people. Yet we know that people can thrive in any environment, if they have control, the ability to adapt, to create and build afresh. Technology and knowledge have never been so accessible. We don’t need to turn ourselves into somebody’s else’s slave class in order to survive.
It may be a long journey back to a proper sense of our own value. We may be tilting at windmills for decades, but we start with one radical assumption:

We, the people living in these places, are good people who have the right to shape the destinies of our own communities together.

We don’t need paternalism or meritocracy. We just need a fair share of our common resources and the means to shape them to our own advantage, to create a better and more welcoming world for everyone.

The Centre for Welfare Reform has over 80 Fellows all of whom have real experience in creating the kinds of solutions that combine justice and citizenship. Our radical hope is that we can finally abandon meritocracy and its wonky ladder to nowhere. We can start to build a world around the truth that everyone matters, everyone has value and everyone has a role to play.

Together we can create a world that works for everyone.

We also recently launched an international cooperative to connect up efforts like these around the world.

Why not join us at Citizen Network?

Addendum

I voted Remain. I am a Northerner and a European. I value my friends and colleagues in Europe and am saddened by Brexit. However some of the arguments against Brexit are a bit peculiar. For instance, Hilary Benn said that we will all be demanding visa rules that enable the NHS to recruit more doctors from abroad. Maybe we will.

But I would encourage Mr Benn and others to read Sir Nigel Crisp’s excellent book on global health economics: Turning the World Upside Down. As Crisp argues, there is something very strange about a technically advanced Western nation failing to train enough doctors and instead using its wealth to pay doctors to come to the UK from their native land. We should be exporting our technology and expertise to developing countries – not inviting their experts to come and work here. Perhaps he should ask the NHS and the BMA to re-examine their restrictive employment and training strategies instead.

Inequality is Inefficient

Over the past few decades inequality in the UK has grown considerably, by whatever measure you choose. After World War II, at the birth of the welfare state, inequality was at a very low level. Over time we’ve come to accept very high levels of inequality. In just a generation it has doubled.

And the UK is an extreme case. It is now the most unequal country in Europe. A land that prided itself on its sense of fair play seems to have readily abandoned the notion of a fair distribution of resources. It would be fascinating, in a rather disturbing way, to explore why the UK has been so particularly negligent of equality.

Often the explanations offered for inequality are economic. However it is particularly important to recognise that inequality is political, not economic. It is a social and political choice to accept or encourage high levels of inequality. Society can choose to control inequality – if it wants to. However the political nature of inequality is often wilfully ignored and inequality is often presented as being merely a matter of economics, as if economics was some natural and uncontrollable force, quite distinct from human decision-making.

Inequality is neither inevitable nor necessary; but this truth has been perhaps obscured by a rather different debate. Often the debate about inequality is confused with the debate about the role of the state in the economy: the conflict between dirigisme and the free market.

Now it is certainly true that some advocates of equality do believe that it is only possible to create equality if the state takes absolute control of the economy. Opposing them are advocates of extreme economic liberty who argue that any economic control is bad, taxes are theft and that the inevitable inequality that arises from free economic activity is utterly justified. In fact both sides share the same false view that there is no way to reconcile equality and freedom; instead they both believe we are forced to choose: so the Left choose equality, while the Right choose freedom.

But this is crazy. We need both freedom and equality. Even in economic terms we need a significant degree of freedom and of equality simply in order to make our economic system work:

  • Without freedom economies don’t develop: investment, risk, failure, success, learning and innovation all depend on our freedom to spend our time and money on things we value, even when others don’t.
  • Without equality economies don’t grow: fewer and fewer people have the resources necessary to purchase, consume or invest. An economy with only one consumer or only one producer is dead.

Even more importantly freedom and equality are not just economic variables. In life we need to be free, free to define a life of meaning for ourselves; and we also need to be an equal, valued as an equal member of the community. We reconcile freedom and equality by creating decent communities where we work together to create a better world for everyone.

One aspect of any decent community is that its members work hard to create the necessary conditions to achieve both freedom and equality. And, there are many ways to do this, ways that can combine a significant degree of economic freedom with a reasonable level of economic equality:

  • Create shared goods that are not distributed by the market, for example ensure everyone has access to high quality healthcare rather than making people pay for it.
  • Redistribute income, increase benefits to increase the incomes of the poorest, and increase taxes to reduce the incomes of the richest. Currently the net cost of benefits (benefits after tax) is very low indeed, hence the UK’s high level of inequality.
  • Exercise self-discipline when rewarding people for their work; keep the ratio between the best paid and the worst paid as low as possible. For example, Plato recommended a ratio of 1:5, but in the UK welfare state the best paid civil servants earn 50 times the average income of the poorest 6 million people.
  • Disdain greed and excessive wealth and encourage values that focus on other dimensions of human life. For example, Pericles, the great Athenian leader, suggested their society was best because it did not value people for their wealth, it measured people by their contribution to community life.

However interest in these disciplines is very low in the UK today. Redistribution is now treated with suspicion and excessive rewards for the rich are treated as the inevitable price to be paid for economic progress. There are many arguments of detail here and much evidence that can be provided to challenge the arguments for injustice and inequality. However I want to add just one argument, an argument from economics itself. I’m sure it’s an argument that someone else has made before, but I cannot remember seeing it, so I thought I’d try and outline it here.

Before I begin I’d like to distinguish my argument from two other important and valid arguments:

  1. Inequality is harmful – This argument has been made most effectively by Wilkinson and Pickett, and in great detail. In essence they have correlated economic equality with many other things that we find valuable and discovered that there is strong link between equality and many aspects of a decent society (better health, lower stress, less crime etc.). They show that inequality is bad for everyone – even the rich.
  2. Inequality is sub-optimal – This argument is often made by utilitarians and it rests on an observable truth. When you get something you want you feel some benefit; but the more you get the less you feel any increase in the benefit you get. Our desires are increasingly sated. Given this truth then the best distribution of any limited set of resources will be the most equal one. Inequality reduces the total level of happiness.

But the argument I want to offer is slightly different to these. I want to argue that inequality is also very inefficient.

At its simplest my argument is as follows. If I have a limited amount of money and I want to get the maximum amount of work done then paying people equally will maximise the amount of work that gets done. However, if I choose to pay some people much more than others then I will have to reduce the total amount of work I pay for.

This may seem obvious, but it’s perhaps worth underlining the point. Currently the false belief is that inequality is economically necessary – here I want to propose that inequality is inherently inefficient – in economic terms.

Imagine the distribution of salaries as a polygon. An equal distribution would be a rectangle, with salaries on the y axis and the volume of time purchased on the x axis. If some people have a higher salary then the polygon will be equivalent to a rectangle, with a right-handed triangle on top. Total spend is therefore equal to the volume of the shape.

Now if you assume that you have a fixed amount of money to pay for people’s time then the most efficient shape will be the rectangle. The more unequal the distribution then the higher the peak of the triangle and the shorter the width – in other words the less time you can buy.

In fact, if we make certain simplifying assumptions we can even calculate the level of inefficiency of increased inequality. If we describe the relationship between the base salary and the top salary as a ratio we find that efficiency is measured by the following formula:

e = 2 ÷ (R + 1) where R is ratio of base salary to highest salary

  • 1:1 means absolute equality and this has an efficiency of 100%
  • the 1:5 ratio was recommended by Plato this has an efficiency of 33%
  • public sector salaries are at a 1:15 ratio and have an efficiency of 12.5%
  • the ratio between the poorest 6 million citizens and the top civil servants is 1:50, which means that the welfare state has an efficiency of 4%

Now this exaggerates the size of the inefficiency. In practice the upward slope will be a long convex curves. Lots of people are on low salaries, fewer are on high salaries. However the basic truth remains, the higher the ratio the greater the level of waste.

Of course critics of equality will argue that we need inequality to buy the best. But this is a double fallacy. Of course, once you’ve allowed inequality to run amok, then you surely will have to spend more on some people to get them to work for you. But this is simply a side-effect of broken self-discipline: the Premier league may spend more to buy more of the better players – but it is not creating better football – it is merely skewing the distribution of better football away from one country and towards another. In other words inequality in incomes merely leads to inequality in skill distribution. This is not a good thing.

The second fallacy is that it assumes you have to pay people more to get them to do more complex or challenging work. This is clearly nonsense. Primarily people choose to do such work because it is intrinsically interesting, suits their talents and brings with it many other rewards. The things you should really have to pay people extra money to do are those things that are dirty, smelly and tiring (the things that in the real world people are paid less to do). If inequality has any real purpose it should be to compensate people for doing intrinsically unrewarding work.

The reality is that inequality suits those with the power to dictate the distribution. It is not the poor who set the salaries of the rich. Power – economic and political – is at the root of inequality. And power will be necessary to challenge and reverse it. The reason why inequality was low after World War II was that the poor had a lot of power and the rich knew it. Today the rich know the poor are weak and they exploit that fact.

Rebalancing things will take more than vapid debates about the state versus the market. It is not the market which is the real threat to equality, it is our low opinion of ourselves. If we choose to measure ourselves in terms of money then the state will not protect us, it will just adapt itself to our own low standards. We should instead choose to see ourselves as citizens who are worthy of equality – not because we are all worth the same money, but because money measures nothing of value. We should seek economic equality, not to pull anyone down, but to pull everyone up, to a higher level, to the status of an equal citizen.

Equality and the Market

 I like and loathe Twitter; it draws you into debates with all sorts of interesting people and challenges you to make your point as sharply as possible. But it is also frustrating when something seems really obvious, but you can’t convert its truth into 140 characters. There is also a danger that you will be pulled into making ad hominem attacks on people’s character – attacking someone for their failure to understand you – rather than focusing on being clear and truthful.

One recent enjoyable, but also rather difficult, conversation was on the topic of inequality and the market. The challenge began with a video from Mark Littlewood of the IEA who made what I think is actually a fair point: charities who are against poverty should avoid treating inequality as the primary cause of poverty. Western charities can quite often score easy points in this way; yet the actual causes of poverty in a specific country may be influenced by any or all of the following factors:

  • The state’s failure to uphold the rule of law, including property rights
  • Inadequate physical and social infrastructure to enable exchange and cooperation
  • Exploitation by corporations, stealing resources and underpaying people
  • The failure to invest in talents, skills of local people
  • Dependency on Western charitable institutions that don’t create local capacity
  • Too much state control, incompetence or corruption
  • Trade regimes that protect Western farmers or others from competition

This rather random list already reveals that it is a significant mistake to think of poverty as merely a matter of redistribution. It is not. Poverty is also a function of our productivity, of our ability to get stuff done, and this is influenced by many different factors.

This list also reveals how important the role of the state is, even before we come to any question of redistribution. The state, in partnership with the institutions of civil society, is the institution that protects rights, develops and protects vital infrastructure, protects people from exploitation, negotiates trade deals and ensures that markets can function. It is a foolish liberal who underestimates the critical role of the state in protecting the economic institutions they cherish so much.

However in my Twitter debate three false claims also emerged:

  1. Taxes (and benefits) do not thing to reduce poverty,
  2. Poverty is only tackled by the Market, and
  3. The state is essentially unproductive.

These three interconnected claims perhaps mark the point at which liberalism tips into the extremes of neoliberalism). Each claim is untrue, and dangerously so.

Let’s take them in reverse order:

There is no doubt that the 20th century advocates of state socialism were far too confident of the state’s ability to do too many things very well. There are limits to what the state’s can do well. But there are many things that we need the state to do and which are essentially productive. The state and its institutions (e.g. the creation of a valid currency) have been essential to social and economic development. This is demonstrated by examining the causes of poverty outlined above: economic development relies on effective state action. The state and the rule of law it guarantees are fundamental to most forms of human productivity in complex human societies.

At its core neoliberalism seems to be a form of idolatry – the worship of false idols. The market, which is essentially a useful tool (and like all tools limited) has been converted into a false god The Market. Markets make poor gods for many reasons, but primarily because they don’t exist. A market is a space, not a thing; it is a vacuum; it is a space within which human beings trade stuff. Trading stuff is also useful preparation for doing other stuff, like making, healing, building, growing and creating. The market does not do any of those things – people do – but the market helps people by because people can use trade to get the useful things they need from others. Markets can help people be productive, but they are not productive in themselves.

Worshipping Markets is a a bit like worshipping banks. We forget about human effort and ingenuity, we forget about the amazing natural processes that create things, instead we worship the middle-men, the priests and temples of liberal economics.

What is more we forget that, even at their best, markets are rather inadequate and imperfect institutions. We may all rather disagree about the extent and nature of those imperfections, just as we tend to disagree about what perfect means. But some of these ‘market failures’ are pretty obvious. I’ll just give two examples.

First, markets are very bad at organising a sensible and fair distribution of healthcare; because when it comes to healthcare humans are rather irrational. The fundamental problem is that we want to live, and we will pay almost anything to someone who promises to extend our lives, even to the point of impoverishing ourselves. So a free market in healthcare leads to lots of exploitation. That’s why the US system is twice as costly, but no better, than the UK system. Doctors are richer, healthcare companies make more money, but there is no real benefit for US citizens.

Second, markets inevitably increase levels of inequality because the winners increasingly dictate the outcomes to the losers. Anyone who has played Monopoly understands why monopolies are a bad thing. If you start to lose, you’ll probably keep on losing. That’s why we need tax and benefits; that’s why the state cannot avoid being drawn into trying to regulate or control the market for incomes.

Famously, in the 1970s, John Rawls argued that a limited degree of inequality might be justified if it gave people a better incentive to strive in ways that benefited the worst-off. Today this argument has been turned on its head. Some now seem to believe that any degree of inequality is justified because some inequality could provide better incentives. This is bad logic and bad ethics.

Poverty is a function of a failure in both productivity and justice. We need both to flourish in order to end it.

Figuring out what degree of inequality is acceptable and what practical mechanism are necessary to reduce inequality is also one of those practical things that we need the state to do. And this takes us back to the initial worry about extreme inequality. The fact that a small number of people control a great share of our wealth is worrying because it seems those people increasingly define what the state does. The election of Donald Trump as President of the USA reflects a further decline in the quality of our democracies and the growing influence of the wealthy oligarchs who may well believe that their own extreme wealth is good for everyone.

Well they would, wouldn’t they?

Living in the Ghetto

I was recently invited to speak to a room of commissioners for services for people with learning disabilities in England. This is a pretty rare event for me these days and so I was keen to make the most of the opportunity.

I called my talk ‘Who Put Out the Fire?’ and I wanted to talk about why there no longer seems to be any significant passion or momentum for inclusion or for further deinstitutionalisation. I do not mean that nobody is doing good work. As ever, there are brilliant people doing wonderful things across our communities. But overall the passion that used to exist to bring about positive change has evaporated. In fact, in some places, we see things going into reverse.

We are at a moment of change.

Progress is not inevitable and we should not be naÏve. Things are beginning to roll backwards and, unless we change our behaviour, things will get much worse. Eugenics is already back on the agenda, in the form of genetic screening for Down Syndrome, ongoing practice in neonatal care and abortion laws that abandon limits in the case of disability. These practices go hand-in-hand with the meritocratic beliefs of our elites – people who think that the ‘clever’ (themselves, by their own definition) deserve the ‘best’. Putting powerful technology in the hands of people who think that they are better than other people never ends well.

And the institution is back. Not only are thousands still incarcerated in private hospitals (at great expense) but also authorities are now being tempted by that old dreadful excuse for bad practice: economies of scale.

Some of this can be explained by austerity. Politicians and managers have always been tempted by the idea that ‘congregate care’ must be cheaper and that they have a public duty to manage costs and be ‘reasonable’. This is understandable when local authority funding has already been cut by 30-40% and is being further cut today. Local commissioners are only following the lead of national politicians when they shift the burden of the banking failure onto disabled people and families.

However, more controversially, I think that some of the responsibility for today’s failure of leadership lies with Valuing People. I do not mean that the Valuing People policy or its leaders were bad – quite the opposite – but I do think the whole process has led us up a creek and today everybody seems to have forgotten how to paddle. Genuine, community-based leadership, is missing in action.

In the 1960s and 1970s many leaders emerged, inspired by Wolf Wolfensberger’s ideas, shocked at the state of our institutions or simply keen to ensure their sons and daughters were able to get a better deal. These leaders challenged the norm and created new alternatives. Many of the organisations (like Mencap) which we take for granted today earned their leadership status through this process of challenge and creation. Later on other organisations, like the Campaign for Mental Handicap (which became Values Into Action) took on the role of challenging Government and of advocating for human rights and inclusion.

But Valuing People encouraged people to put their faith in two dangerous myths. First, that Government did care, and would continue to care, about the fate of people with learning difficulties. It didn’t, it doesn’t and it won’t. Second, positive change comes from Government and from the leaders it selects.

By this I don’t mean that Government is bad or hostile to the interests of people with learning difficulties. It isn’t. But Government is always late to the party. The job of a civil servant is to keep everybody happy, not to lead radical change. The job of a politician is to respond to democratic pressure, not to stand up for powerless minorities. Entrusting leadership to politicians and civil servants is to abandon leadership.

It seems to me that Valuing People killed the real drive to inclusion; just as Putting People First killed the drive to self-directed support. Killed with kindness, killed with money, killed by assuming an intellectual authority it could never possibly live up to.

This seems counter-intuitive. Too many good things, too much useful funding and too many opportunities are associated with Valuing People to believe that it was bad for us.

But look at England today.

Where is the self-advocacy movement? In tatters. Today the Government is about to take away the last piece of funding for the National Forum and for the National Valuing Families Forum. If this goes then can we look back on over 30 years of self-advocacy development and congratulate ourselves on our achievements? No. Self-advocacy is patchy, under-funded and lacks any agreed form of leadership.

What about service development and innovation? For some reason we now expect government and commissioners to lead innovation; but our systems of commissioning have effectively killed off innovation and creativity. Some people and families have escaped the system, using direct payments; but most of the money remains invested in the care home system (which is now protected from the impact of personal budgets).

Today the whole sector seems incapable of defending itself or of uniting with others to fight for justice. For example, there is no effective campaign to defend social care. Many of the leading organisations seem too dependent on Government funding and unwilling to speak out or get organised.

If you look upwards for rationality and for inspired leadership you’ll be a long time waiting.
The positive changes that began in the 1970s were led by people and professionals, starting from where they were then. Focused on what they could do with the resources they had to hand. They did not expect everything to be done for them. They got organising, supporting and campaigning. That’s how things really change.

Perhaps one thing that they also had back then was a strong sense that the current system was unacceptable. They looked at the institution – those systems of absolute exclusion – and they declared that it was absolutely wrong – and they then worked hard to build an alternative.

In practice that alternative is the world er have now: group homes, day centres, respite services and care services. This is a significant improvement over the old system. This is the system that is today’s ‘normal’. This is the system we are struggling to improve and which is now beginning to slip backwards into something worse.

Why can’t we do better than this?

What can’t we dream bigger than this?

People with learning difficulties are agents of social change. They can bring communities together, they can break down the barriers of pride and illusion that leave us dislocated and alone. They can offer the rest of us a different sense of the purpose of life and insight into the joy of living.

People with learning difficulties are just different. But we are all different… get over it.

Diversity is a good thing and to be welcomed. True equality is not found in sameness, conformity or compliance. Equality means treating each person as if they belong, as if their gifts have meaning and value. Equality demands we treat each other as citizens – working together to create communities that welcome and nurture our gifts.

If you believe this then this belief has real life consequences.

One of these consequences is that we must start to acknowledge that the community care system, that was developed during the period of deinstitutionalisation, is totally inadequate. It is a system of ghettos, small segregated communities, cut off from community life and communicating to people on both sides of its walls that people with learning difficulties don’t really belong in our communities.

Ghettos are not evil. Community care ghettos are not the same as the long-stay institutions that they replaced. Ghettos can even be fun and interesting. Ghettos can even convert themselves into places of community and inclusion. (It would be a mistake to confuse ghettos with institutions and it would be a mistake to ‘close’ ghettos using the same kind of process that were used to close the institutions.)

The architects of new and inclusive communities will be people themselves. But they will need help from families; and they will need help from the professionals who want to be true partners. And they will need help from fellow citizens who want to live in the kind of community that can welcome each of its members.

Is this progress inevitable?

No. Today it’s being undermined by powerful social, economic and political forces that are being left unchallenged.

Is this progress a pipe dream?

No. It is happening now, in small pockets. There are people and places that are showing us the way forward. Rising to this challenge takes work, it takes time and it takes creativity. But it’s worth it.

What I am trying to do is reframe the challenge that lies before us. We must stop treating the current community care system as if it provides an acceptable norm. It does not. We have to be honest about the limitations of what we’ve achieved. There will be no increased hope, passion and wider social movement unless there is both a compelling vision for inclusion and a growing sense that the ghettos we’ve created are unacceptable.

Can Socialism Reinvent Itself for the 21st Century?

I am a proud member of the Socialist Health Association. I feel strongly that decent healthcare is a basic human right and that nobody should be deprived of it because of poverty, nor should the wealthy be able to buy their way to longer or healthier lives. If this is socialism then I’m a big fan.

Recently, the Socialist Health Association decided to review its fundamental principles, and as a philosopher by training, I thought I’d try and help clarify what socialism, at the beginning of the 21st Century, really means. However this turns out to be a rather difficult task.

It is certainly clear that socialists are against greed, exploitation, inequality, capitalism (possibly) and injustice (certainly). But what are socialists for?

One clue might be found in the social- part of the word socialism. Socialists believe in society, and more specifically I think socialists believe that society should come before the individual, that individualism puts the cart before the horse. 1 Certainly, the Socialist Health Association’s first principle as it currently stands, reflect this:

“The claims of the individual should be subordinate to social codes that have collective well-being for their aim, irrespective of the extent to which this frustrates individual greed.”

Now, as a piece of English, this is somewhat dry, abstract and rather confusing.

First, there is the strange notion of “claims”. This is quite a peculiar word. What am I claiming and to whom? Why is anyone interested in my claims anyway?

Second, there is the notion of sub-ordination. In what sense are my claims meant to be subordinate? Must my desires, plans or projects be directed towards “collective well-being”? This seems totalitarian in its ambition.

Or, on the other hand, are my claims legitimate as long as they don’t directly contradict the “social code” which has (somehow) been identified as for the greater good? Perhaps I can claim the right to drink alcohol, but I must only do so to the extent allowed by the state. This is perhaps nanny-state socialism, a little more tolerant than the totalitarian version.

All of this seems to be far too strong and quite alien to my reasons for supporting the NHS and social justice. I don’t want to be slotted (tightly or loosely) into some social code for collective well-being. I want to live in a decent society where we treat each other as equals. I don’t want to tell people how to live; I just don’t want to be advantaged at the expense of others, or to see others so advantaged. I really like the fact that the NHS is organised to limit how someone can jump the queue to get a better or faster treatment than someone else with similar needs, but less money. It’s fair.

The third problem with this way of defining socialism is that we are often confused about which “collective” matters. We can be part of many collectives: the family, the tribe, the class, the nation or humanity as a whole. Sadly, it has not been too hard for the wicked to corrupt the ‘social’ inside socialism into one ideal group that should be valued above all others. There is more than a theoretical link between socialism and national socialism and the twentieth century has seen millions sacrificed on the competing altars of these deathly versions of socialism.

But it is possible to imagine a better kind of socialism and one clue can be found if we go back, beyond the word society, to its Latin root socius or friend.

Friendship has nothing to do with state power and control. C S Lewis was not alone in observing that, at its core, the relationship of friend-to-friend is not a relationship of dependence, assistance or charitable action. Friends get along, even love each other, but not ‘in order’ that they can help each other. Helping gets in the way of friendship, and this is why friends hate to be in debt to each other. An undue level of do-goodery and interference in the lives of others is also irritating and unhelpful. It is certainly not friendly.

The challenge for socialism, at a practical level, is to convert our commitment to justice and our proper sense of responsibility for each other into a way of living that is ethical and sustainable. People who live only for others are not much better than people who live wholly for themselves. Citizens understand that they have obligations to themselves and to other people.

In practice most socialists are not trying to create totalitarian states or nanny states and they are quite aware that all human being are equally important. Today, much of the moral imperative of socialism has been converted into support for the welfare state and for the social contract it seems to imply: I must be prepared to pay my taxes, and in return – and as an equal member of society – I become entitled to some rights, such as being able to get free healthcare.

Now this welfare-state-socialism seems relatively benign, however it still has some peculiarities. For instance, notice that in this example of day-to-day socialism, the agent of good is now no longer acting from any moral principle. The doctor is not treating you because she’s a good person; instead she is (very) well paid to treat you. It is not the doctor who helps you, it is the anonymous welfare state, it is the system. So, interestingly, in order to operationalise itself socialism, appears to have moved away from the notion of friendship or mutuality. If we are not careful, the whole thing starts to feel entirely mechanical or transactional. I do this in order to get that. But then what is the difference between this kind of welfare-state-socialism and the kind of left-leaning liberalism that sees the welfare state as form of national insurance: we all put something in (according to our means) and we all get something out (according to our needs).

What seems to be missing is any deeper sense of our responsibility to our community, or even a sense of our unique individual value. Society has been converted from human-sized communities into a vast state-run charity. This may be a charity from which we all benefit, but as Arendt says, “charity is not solidarity.” In the face of this monolithic system we each become one part donor and one part recipient, one part tax payer, one part service user. The uniqueness and value of ourself and of our community disappears from view.

Welfare-state socialism is much better than totalitarian or many-state totalitarianism and much better than heartless forms of liberalism and individuals. But does it not feel we’ve sacrificed too much? Is there not a better way of defining socialism for the 21st century?

The fact that the meaning of socialism can be corrupted is no reason to abandon it, nor to abandon the concerns that it was developed to address. The underlying reasons for socialism are as real today as they were yesterday. Economic forces and greed do not control themselves; even the minimal democratic control of the state which we ‘enjoy’ today is no guarantee of justice, particularly when power and influence seems so easy to purchase. It remains essential that we examine what is really to the benefit of society, and not to treat society as if it were merely equivalent to a mass of self-interest.

However, if socialism is going to thrive we must find a better version of socialism.

For me the best starting point is the idea of citizenship. To be a citizen is to be much more than taxpayer, much more than a voter and much more than a right-holder or recipient. Citizens make community; their actions, innovations and creativity are the source of social value. They may be prepared, in extremis, to die for their community – but actually, more often, they get to live for their community.

The model of citizenship I use has seven elements, and I think each could be explored to develop a reinvigorated and healthier sense of what socialism might mean:

  1. Purpose – Citizens have a sense of purpose which is encouraged and supported; today’s dreams are tomorrow’s solutions.
  2. Freedom – Citizens are free, free to do their own thing, free to work with others, free to do the unexpected.
  3. Money – Citizens have enough, they abhor poverty and they don’t like excessive inequality (Plato’s suggested 1:5 income ratio for poor to rich would be much better than today’s tasteless and destructive excess.)
  4. Home – Citizens have homes, roots, neighbours and a sense of belonging. They are part of the community and they construct that community.
  5. Help – Citizens help each other, need each other, and know there is no shame in getting some assistance. However, what citizens don’t tolerate is sacrificing their freedom in order to get that assistance.
  6. Life – Citizens live life to the full, they work (and they know paid work is only one kind of work) they rest and they play. Citizens seek balance and know that you can only get out of life what you put into it.
  7. Love – Citizens need love, cherish love and respect love. Family, friendship and loving partnerships are all aspects of life that citizens nurture and protect.

Defining 21st Century Socialism seems a worthwhile project. The key I think is to leave behind the paternalism of the welfare-state-socialism and to rediscover the spirit of citizenship and community which actually built the welfare state in the first place. This does not mean abandoning the welfare state; it means reinvigorating and redesigning the welfare state. We must build the welfare state again, but this time not bury its builders and architects beneath its edifice.

  1. This point has a long pedigree; Aristotle, for instance offers us an early version of socialism “…even if the good of the community coincides with that of the individual, it is clearly a greater and more perfect thing to achieve and preserve that of a community; for while it is desirable to secure what is good in the case of an individual, to do so in the case of a people or a state is something finer and more sublime.” ↩︎

Why We Are Launching Citizen Network

Hütia te rito o te harakeke, kei hea te kömako e kö? 
Kï mai ki a au, ‘He aha te mea nui i te ao?’ Māku e kï atu, ‘He tāngata, he tāngata, he tāngata’. 

If the heart of the flax is pulled out, where will the kömako sing? 
If you ask me what is most important in this world, I will reply, ‘It’s people, it’s people, it’s people.’Maori Proverb*

Last Thursday, in Auckland, at the international conference on self-direction, brilliantly hosted by Manawanui In Charge, we launched Citizen Network. I think this might be the most important initiative that I’ve been a part of and I want to explain here why we’ve come together to create Citizen Network, and why we hope you will join us.

The idea of Citizen Network began at the Vancouver Conference on self-direction in 2015. We wanted to find a way to connect up all the positive initiatives, around the world, that advance citizenship for people with disabilities, and for the many others who face oppression, stigma and exclusion.

Many of us have spent a good part of our lives working on important system changes (like closing institutions, creating community supports or developing systems of self-directed support) and we want to build on all of this. We want to get better at recognising and supporting positive innovation and be more effective at advocating for these changes within our societies.

However we also feel that these system changes are not enough. Even the best system can be corrupted when we lose sight of the deeper values that inspire our work and our own integrity in helping change to happen.

We need to understand what we are really trying to achieve and why it is important. So we have focused not just on self-direction, but on the broader goal of citizenship for all.

For while it would be simpler to have a narrow focus, on systems of self-direction (important as these are) we feel that this will fail to address the real challenges that we face. Even more importantly, we would fail to tap into the hunger for justice and for true citizenship that had originally inspired deinstitutionalisation and the creation of positive innovations, like systems of self-direction.

It is the values that inspire and fuel our appetite for making change happen. We believe people are ready for a more ambitious and hopeful vision of the future.

Now is a good time to stand back and think about the bigger picture. Now is a good time to break down the barriers, silos and categories that so easily divide us. Now is a good time to go deeper and seek the true source of our values. For so many of us want to live in a world where

  • difference is not just accepted, but rather it is cherished and celebrated,
  • where we don’t just treat people as if they were equal, we know that they really are equal, and
  • where everyone can be a true citizen, living a life of meaning, supported with love.

There is no better time to express these hopes and to try and act from them. The election of Donald Trump, Brexit, politicians pandering to hatred and vicious austerity policies (especially in the UK) are all signs that the old ways of thinking are not working.

We cannot be satisfied by just focusing on changing systems when the world as a whole is going backwards towards increased social injustice. We must see our lives and our work in the light of this bigger picture – no matter how challenging that may feel.

So how can we respond to the challenges ahead?

Of course it is important for all of us to play our part in the ordinary political processes in our communities, to get involved and to support those advocating justice and citizenship for all. But even if we win the occasional victory in this way this won’t help us if we do not also understand the cause of our current problems. Winning power is only helpful if we know what to do with that power.

Those of us who have been fighting to close institutions, to advance disability rights, to promote self-direction and community lives, have a special responsibility to share what we’ve learned with others. We have two generations of learning about what it takes to support real citizenship. We must share that and try to reshape the assumptions of the political landscape around it.

For instance, we could make common cause with those who face others kinds of exclusion from citizenship. The migrant, refugee or asylum seeker, fleeing terror or just trying to build a better life, faces hatred and exclusion, just as have many disabled people. Can we not work with those communities and learn from them about what they are doing to achieve true citizenship? Can we not help them stand up against xenophobia and racism?

Also, if we do advocate inclusion into community, then surely we must also pay attention to the real state of those communities. We do not want to include people in communities that are rife with poverty, insecurity, inadequate welfare systems or where there are no decent democratic structures. Citizenship is a problem for all of us; we are increasingly living in an elitist society where the only source of value is a paid job. This is bad for all of us, and in our changing economy it is hard to see how this is even sustainable. Inclusion is not enough. It must be inclusion, with justice, that we seek.

Perhaps, at a deeper level, this is also about the kind of people we want to be. Do we think the worship of money, status and power will lead anywhere good? Lives of meaning and love, lives of citizenship, are possible for all of us. But we must leave behind the shallow values and insecurities that feed our fears and tempt us to blame other people for our problems.

We must be citizens, true citizens, thinking and acting with integrity and with a concern for other people and the natural world. We must value citizenship – and explain its value to others. We must act like citizens – cooperating and taking responsibility for the communities in which we live.

We must grow and safeguard the heart of the flax – the communities that nurture and sustain us.

This, at least, is our crazy dream; and this is what led us to form Citizen Network.

You can find out more by visiting the Citizen Network website. You can join for free, and groups or organisations who want to become part of a community committed to the values of citizenship will be listed on our world map.

It is early days, there is much to do and we are bound to make some mistakes. But we have already established networks in Australia, Scotland and England and we hope to have several other countries join us shortly.

What will it do?

Well to begin with I think the focus will be on innovation and advocacy.

There is much we can do already. There are great people out there doing brilliant work. We need to learn from each other. So Citizen Network will act as an international cooperative of people and organisations who are willing to learn and share with each other – share and share alike. We hope to end the pointless competition which so often closes down innovation. Instead we will focus on how we can help make positive change happen together. Events, webinars and practical projects are likely to be early first steps.

There is also much to challenge. Sometimes we need to change systems, change laws, combat injustice. Often this is too hard for one person or one organisation. But through cooperative international action we may have the ability to exercise more influence on behalf of justice. For instance international surveys can help us better understand where progress is, and isn’t, being made.

And of course self-direction and individualised funding will still be a very big part of things – it is still our strongest suit. I very much hope we can build on the great work started in Vancouver and continued in Auckland. Perhaps we can set a new date for an international gathering.

It’s early days, but I know that others will join us. There is a hunger for a more positive vision for society and we can play a part in helping to define and share that vision.

When times are hard and when so many seem to have forgotten the meaning of citizenship and justice then we must stand up and we must reach out to each other. We must not join in with those lost in hatred, nor can we stand by, expecting someone else to solve our problem.

Perhaps the triple call of the Maori proverb is to remind us that

People are valuable – there’s no place for rejection and exclusion

People are special – each of us can live a life of love and meaning

People are powerful – together we have what it takes to build a better world

Citizen Network may not be able to solve all the worlds problems; but together we can create a world where we recognise that everyone is different, everyone is equal and everyone matters.

Join Us

* By visiting Auckland library I discovered that the kömako is most probably the bellbird and the metaphor of the flax is related to the fact that new life comes from the heart of the flax bush; to pull out the heart of the bush is to leave the bush sterile and incapable of bring forth new generations.

Is a Pro-Community Welfare State Possible?

In the space of a few days I’ve been lucky enough to be part of two workshops where we explored the question of how to narrow the gap between public services (the official welfare state) and the community. Each event was inspiring, with stories of exciting innovations that demonstrate the power of community action and the ability of the state, sometimes with a little help, to act as an agent for positive social change. There is a clear appetite for a new settlement, a new kind of pro-community welfare state, one which works in harmony with its citizens, not against them.

Now I know that for many fellow campaigners against the UK’s austerity policies even to discuss these ideas is to move dangerously close to the Big Society Bullshit that has been used as a screen by Government to disguise more than six years of cuts, stigma and increasing inequality. Some believe that the old welfare state was just fine, and that we must go back to the 1945 system; others recognise that all was not perfect, but think that any criticism of the old system, at this time, just provides dangerous ammunition for the new barbarians.

I certainly have some sympathy with both positions. The old welfare system had many virtues which we have lost sight of, including a much greater faith in the ability of officials in the welfare system to make sensible decisions, at a local level. Much of this freedom and flexibility has disappeared as Whitehall has taken over the ‘management’ of the welfare state. I also recognise that the Coalition Government did a brilliant job of covering its tracks. For every vicious cut they imposed there was some wacky new programme (usually funded by the Cabinet Office) that was used to grab headlines and scatter glitter over gaping wounds. We live in a cynical age.

But I don’t think we can hold back from considering some of the fundamental flaws in how the welfare state has evolved over the past few decades. It is particularly important to consider some of the deeper factors, which are much harder to see, but which not only damage the welfare state but also enable the Big Society Bullshit to gain credibility.

The best lies are wrapped around a small nugget of truth, and repeated lies cannot be defeated unless you can share some deeper, stronger and more hopeful truth.

To begin with I think it’s important to remember why we need the welfare state. The welfare state is a compensatory mechanisms that helps us deal with two kinds of inequality: inequality of wealth (income and assets) and inequality of need (disability, illness and age). The more equal a society is in wealth then the less you need systems of benefits, taxes and social housing to rebalance things. However, even if wealth were equal you would still need to deal with the fact that some people will also need further help which they cannot get on their own.

Now it is important to note that this second problem is also linked to how willing people are to do what is right without payment. Inequality of need is no problem in a community that naturally organises itself to meet those extra needs; however in a society where doctors, nurses and social workers want to be paid, and to be paid well, for using expert skills then inequality of need will also require additional welfare systems to ensure these important additional needs are also met.

So the purpose of the welfare state is to compensate, not just for inequality, but also for the insecurity that comes from knowing that you might have needs, and that nobody will be willing to help you meet them without payment.

Now, in the way of a thought experiment, let us imagine that you are the ruler of a community that already has a welfare state; and now imagine that (for some strange reason) you want to destroy the welfare system, but in a way that people won’t notice. Here are some strategies you could use:

  1. Forget about the importance of inequality, spend less on making the poor less poor, but spend more on services instead. In this way public spending will remain high, but inequality will grow. This is what the UK has done, spending about 50% less on poverty now than it did in 1977. In this way, fundamental needs will grow but the system will appear unable to help them. This helps to undermine the whole system.
  2. Encourage inequality within public services themselves. The Chief Executive of the NHS is paid about £200,000 – 50 times more than the poorest 10% of UK citizens who live on about £4,000 per year. Charity chiefs can earn similar amounts (e.g. £175,000 for the CEO of Mencap). In this way the public and charitable sectors can create the inequality that they are supposed to be there to solve.
  3. Make the poor poorer through hidden taxes. For instance the poorest 10% pay 50% of their income in taxes, meaning that their real income is closer to £2,000 per year (about £40 per week). In this way the poor are tricked into paying the salaries of those who should be helping them.
  4. Then create extra taxes, just for those people who have higher needs. This is called means-testing or charging, and it means that if you have a disability you will only get support if you are very poor or if you are prepared to pay the high ‘disability taxes’ imposed by the adult social care system. For this reason many people opt out of the welfare state and start to believe that that the system only exists for ‘them’ (the poorest, the most unworthy). At the same time the poor have to make themselves even poorer just in order to get vital services.
  5. Associate the welfare state with stigma, control and a sense of unworthiness; in this way people will not want to support it, use it or value it. Spending public money on campaigns which suggest people on benefits might be “benefit thieves” has been a highly successful means of spreading fear and mistrust through the general public. Today people believe benefit fraud is rife, whereas it is actually statistically insignificant.
  6. Pretend that public services are inadequate and will be better managed by private sector companies. This has the double benefit of reducing people’s sense of control and faith in the system, while adding to the inherent inequality of public services (frontline workers salaries are pushed down, profits are sucked out, yet senior public officials can now earn more as ‘commissioners’ rather than providers).
  7. Talk about the need for communities to take back control, for citizens to be empowered and then dismantle any of the remaining systems of support. And here we are today – Big Society Bullshit.

Some of you this may think that this is an unduly critical view of public policy over the past 40 years or so; others may think this is simply a restatement of what many others have been arguing for some time – “It’s the workings of capitalism; it’s the ideology of neoliberalism.”

So I’ll end by considering the question of motivation. Who wants to destroy the welfare state and why?

I asked you to consider how you would destroy the welfare state from within. But personally I find it difficult to believe that most of the politicians and the civil servants responsible for the welfare state have really been trying to destroy the welfare state. (But I may be being naive). In my experience (most of) our rulers want to do the right thing, but they do not understand the systems they control and act in order to gain short-term political advantage. Rationality and wisdom is harder to attain in a position of power.

Nor do I think that, for most of this period, greed and corruption by commercial companies has been the biggest factor in the destruction of the welfare state (although I think things have now changed, and it is certainly a significant factor today).

However I do think that shallow thinking has played its part; but I think that state socialism has been nearly as damaging as the kind of narrow economic liberalism that has now been relabelled as ‘neoliberalism’. It we think of people as merely animals, seeking selfish material benefit, then our thinking about the demands of justice and the organisation of society will be utterly inadequate.

So what are the real driving forces that continue to undermine the welfare state? Here are five poisons that I believe are eating away at the welfare state from within. I do not think they are the only corrosive factors at work, but I think they are important internal factors which should be given more attention as we try to think our way out of our current problems:

1. Centralisation – The more that decisions are taken centrally then the fewer the people involved in those decision, the easier corruption and the easier it is for powerful groups to get advantage over less powerful groups. Elites speak to elites, and after dinner comes the contracts, or the increased salaries for senior staff.

2. Meritocracy – The more hierarchical and the less democratic a society then the easier it is for its rulers to believe that they deserve their power, the money (that they award themselves) and their many other privileges. Meritocracy has always been the ideology of aristocracies – ‘we rule because we are the best’. The fact that the best are now the likes of Donald Trump, rather than the landed gentry, is merely a matter of detail.

3. Inequality – The welfare state exists because of inequality, but progressively it has treated inequality as an unavoidable fact, not as a problem that it was designed to tackle. Inequality make the poorest, not just poor, but weak and demoralised. Inequality makes the rich complacent and heartless. Today the welfare state not only fails to respond to poverty, it makes the problem worse by creating new kinds inequalities within public services themselves.

4. Insecurity – The ongoing dilemma for the welfare state, one that can be witnessed in the writings of Beveridge, Marshall and its other early designers, is the fear that the welfare state will give people too much security and encourage laziness or undue dependence. For this reason income security (unlike health security) has always been viciously means-tested. Strangely, as economic insecurity continues to grow in our increasingly global and technological economy, the state now works to increase this sense of insecurity through damaging changes to the benefits system. This toxic insecurity means that if people are unable to find paid work they are then punished if they volunteer or act like a citizen. The need to keep the poorest under control and feeling insecure eats away at the legitimacy of the system and further enables paternalism or bullying.

5. Individualism – The welfare state has been built around a highly individualised conception of the citizen. Family, friendship and community disappear in its gaze; instead bureaucratically defined solutions are offered to mere individuals. There is no role for collaboration, solidarity or cooperation in the modern welfare state, because all of those things move the centre of power towards community and treat the person as a citizen, not as a unit. Atomised we are weak – and that is how the system seems to want us.

The irony is that creating a good welfare state, or at least a much better welfare state, is quite possible. There is nothing inevitable about the ongoing decline of the welfare state. But in order to reverse the current decline we will need to think much harder about the real and underlying problems built into the current system itself.

Some of these problems cannot be solved by ‘policy’ (encouraging our rulers to have better ideas). The solutions we really need are constitutional, they require rethinking the fundamental structures of our democracy and our society. Unless we are prepared to do that thinking and begin advocating for more fundamental changes the legacy we were handed by our grandparents and great-grandparents will wither and die on our watch.

Why Socrates Would Vote for Corbyn

I was reading Plato’s Gorgias recently and I was struck by how close this two and half thousand year old discussion was to the debate currently going on within the Labour Party. In brief, I think it is clear that Socrates would have been a Corbynista – for he advocated the need for a commitment to the principles of justice and he rejected the pragmatic need to flatter or pander to the electorate.

For those of you who have not read Gorgias I heartily recommend it. It is certainly rather funny.

It is a debate between Socrates and some of the leading teachers of rhetoric (the art of oratory) of his day. Socrates mercilessly attacks each of them and demonstrates that as the central function of oratory is to persuade others to an action which is independent of the justice of that action then the person persuaded (or the demos) has been corrupted.

The humour comes from the nearly visible eye-rolling and wry smiles you can imagine on the rhetoricians’  faces as they think to themselves that – for all the truth of Socrates’ critique – everything he says is unrealistic. People want to be flattered. We want politicians to lie to us. Justice feels far too much like hard work. Power is more important than principle.

And of course the wicked twist in this tail is that they were right. The Athenians killed Socrates for his truthfulness and his refusal to flatter them.

Today we hear that Jeremy Corbyn is unelectable, unpersuasive and unrealistic. He’s too principled. Far better that we accept someone to lead Labour who can ‘reach out’ to the middle and win those critical swing votes.

Is this the vapid choice that lies before us – between honest failure and the victory of the charlatan?

Well here are three reasons why I’ll back Socrates and Corbyn over the current alternative:

Truth has its own victory. We behave as if the trick to justice is to get ‘our man’ (or woman) into power. But in the process, not only do we place an unreasonable responsibility on such a candidate, we also forget that true power comes through community. As Socrates observes, the tyrant inevitably loses that which is the very best thing – friendship. The desire to gain and to keep hold of ‘power’ by tricking people into believing in you is actually the desire to take on the lonely job of manipulating others to do your will.

We commonly confuse – as Hannah Arendt observed – power and force. Control of government only gives you force; real power comes through the collective action which can also shift the will and the understanding without coercion. Offering someone control of your democratic organisation, in the hope that they can then seize power over the country, but in the name of your part, is not the meaning of democracy.

Democracy is more important than Party. Simone Weil persuasively argues we’d all be better off without the Party Machine. This is another (connected) unrealistic idea. But, even if we do not achieve that utopia, surely we must all recognise that democracy in its current form is an inevitable process of victory and defeat and that ‘our’ party cannot be right all the time. The paradox is that this also means that we should want politicians to disagree, to hold out for principles and avoid the race to the middle. It is only through this kind of democratic process that we can expect to develop and improve our society.

The fact is that we are suffering under the most extreme Right-wing Government in the developed world precisely because Labour’s long-term strategy has been to occupy the ground that is as close as possible the Tories. It is a strange form of competition to drive you to imitate your competition. In the end the result of this strategy has been to create no effective counterweight to the Rightward swing that began under Thatcher and has reached such extremes under Cameron. Debate has been stifled, interesting alternative policies are not considered and a stifling elitist consensus prevails.

In fact one of Socrates’ most powerful arguments is that these experts in rhetoric cannot even name someone whose rhetoric has left Athens in a better state than he found it. Even the greatest of Athenians found themselves attacked or exiled after their periods of leadership. As Socrates says, a true leader would not have made the people more vicious, more eager to blame and less interested in true justice. What then the legacy of the New Labour as we enter year 6 of an austerity programme condemned by the United Nations for rejecting human rights?

Argument trumps rhetoric. Modern politics has abandoned any respect for evidence, logic and the wisdom of practice. We wish to be saved from our fears and anxieties and we rush to those who promise us safety. In the end we are disappointed and in fact we knew we’d be disappointed, because we’d listened to promises that we knew lacked substance. The salesman sells and we buy, because all we are offered are competing sales pitches. We do not really believe all the rhetoric – we have just come to accept that the only choice available is to choose the best salesman, the best spin doctor.

Corbyn’s refusal to look the part, to sell himself, to use rhetoric and bombast – that’s what I love about him. I’m sure that on many matters of detail I’d disagree with him. But so what? What appeals to me is that he is offering – both within and without the Labour Party – the chance for meaningful debate.

Socrates may also have been unrealistic and there is certainly no apolitical path to justice. What I’m looking for is someone who wants to open debate – not someone with all the answers. What I’m looking for is someone who remembers that justice is never safe in the hands of the rich and powerful. What I’m looking for is someone who knows I don’t need a hero or even a leader; I just need someone who remembers that it’s ordinary people – the demos – who are the foundation of a just society.

And one last point. You may not have heard of Gorgias, but you’ve probably heard of Socrates. His ideas and his thinking survived his murder by his enemies.

Gangster Economics

Economics emerged as a moral science, an attempt to understand how to advance justice and the wellbeing of all. The word comes from the combination of two important Greek words:

  • Oikos – which means family, family property or the family house
  • Nomos – which means law, order or justice

Today economics is treated as merely a social science, and as with all social sciences, the assumption that there is a moral order and that justice is a fundamental reality has faded. This is very much to the disadvantage of the science. Without moral imagination economics becomes lost in its own self-made world of artificial principles and models. It tries to predict rather than to guide us towards what is right. It becomes a servant of the powerful and of economic power in particular, rather than an advocate for economic justice.

It is striking that one of the founders of economics, Adam Smith, was a moral philosopher and that, his original vision was certainly very moral. For instance, Smith wrote:

“This disposition to admire, and to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean conditions… is the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments.”

Smith is responsible for helping to found the most powerful and well known of economic theories, economic liberalism; and while there have been some other important innovations in thinking and practice over the years, this approach – which stresses the importance of individual free choice in promoting good outcomes – has been resilient. Most economic theory is merely a footnote to liberalism.

It is a sad irony that the ideas of a man who often stressed the rights and freedoms of the poorest is now often cited to support the policies that harm them. In the UK, Government’s of both Left and Right, have turned justice on its head and acted as if we exist to serve the market, not the other way around. Advocates of justice often use the term liberalism, or its variant, neoliberalism to define the nature of their moral error.

This marks a decline in the meaning of the world liberalism that is also bitterly ironic. Originally being liberal meant to be free or to be lavishly generous. There is nothing liberal about the meritocratic, mean-spirited elites who rule our country today.

In fact I think that when we criticise the current Conservative Government, or the previous Coalition or New Labour Governments, as ‘liberal’ or ‘neoliberal’ we are in danger of flattering them. There is nothing liberal in their policies – in either sense. They do not enable more people to be free and independent, they do not encourage generous giving or secure welfare. They are illiberal, reducing freedom and increasing inequality and poverty.

How then should we characterise their economic policies if they should not be called liberal? I’ve been thinking about this for a while and I think I’ve come up with the right name. We are living through an era of Gangster Economics, where the purpose of economic policy is to reinforce the power and wealth of a small group by exploiting the poorest and bribing the powerful.

Think how gangsterism works. First you must exploit the poorest, using fear and violence, while ensuring that no powerful forces of resistance can arise from within the exploited communities. Compare this to a range of current Government policies:

  • Benefit cuts, sanctions and workfare brutalise the poorest
  • Regressive tax increases (poorest 10% now pay 50% of their income in taxes) milk them
  • Legal aid, trade union rights and the right of charities to protest have all been weakened
  • Asylum seekers, immigrants, disabled people and the poorest are stigmatised and insulted

The second phase of gangsterism is to protect the gangster’s field of operation, to ensure that nobody will come to the aid of the poorest. In 1920s America this was achieved by bribing the police, the mayor and by threatening jurors. In the UK today such bribery and pandering takes a somewhat subtler forms.

  • Tax and benefit policy is designed to benefit swing voters, to keep the elite in power
  • Honours and contracts are distributed to political donors, charities and commercial interests
  • The commercial media is courted, the independent media is undermined

For instance, during the Coalition Government taxes and benefits were both changed so that the poorest 10% were hit more harshly than any other decile. Their income, which was already only £40 per week after tax, was reduced by a staggering by 9%. At the same time the incomes of some middle income groups were even increased. If the Government’s objective had really been to reduce the deficit then logically it should have targeted the well-off and middle income groups. If you’re looking for money, don’t go to the poor. This policy reveal that current economic policy is an exercise in power – not in accounting.

The third stage of gangsterism is to get the whole economy dependent upon some substance over which you have monopolistic control and from which you can then cream enormous profit. Twentieth century gangsters used alcohol and then, when that was legalised, drugs. In Gangster Economics the drug on which we’ve all been hooked is debt.

  • Government has allowed banks to create more money, by creating debt.
  • Banks then profit from this new power by taking a slice of their Government granted monopoly
  • Politicians then discover the joy of the housing boom, as interest rates drop house prices grow, along with all the associated debt.
  • Home owners are happy (a ‘popular’ policy in the UK and US with high levels of home ownership) because their house is ‘worth more’ and they vote for the Government.
  • Banks are happy because they can cream off yet more money from higher levels of debt.
  • Banks then discover that they can manufacture new forms of debt, junk bonds, CDOs, synthetics from which they can cream further profits.

I would like to say that, eventually this all came crashing down; but it hasn’t. After a small wobble, the world economy is still doing its crazy debt-ridden dance. The Government keeps it going with Quantitive Easing and, now, 0.25% interest rates. Banks are the drug pushers, government is their backer and protector.

Historically debt has always been the means necessary to create slavery. Debt keeps us obedient and makes us run for protection to the government. Government reassures us and tells us that they will solve the problem, a problem they say that was the fault of the poor, the disabled and the immigrants. It beggars belief that we believe them, but believe them we do.

It is encouraging to see organisations like Positive Money emerge to challenge this nonsense, for social justice will require more than a restored welfare state, it will require new forms of economic policy. I think this will happen, eventually; the current system is just too crazy to survive and, as Adam Smith also said:

“Avarice and injustice are always short-sighted”

Confusopoly: Lessons for Social Change

I came across, thanks to Samantha Connor, a beautiful new word the other day – confusopoly.

After some searching around the internet I think I found the source of the word to be Scott Adams, the comic genius behind Dilbert. He defines confusopoly as “a group of companies with similar products who intentionally confuse customers instead of competing on price.”

Well we can all recognise the truth of that. Who has not been confused by the complex and mobile pricing structures used to disguise a crude choice between a handful suppliers of utilities, phone lines or TV services? We all know we are being bamboozled; we often accept it as a feature of modern life.

I may not have given this enough thought, but it seems to me that confusopolies must thrive when:

  • We have little choice but to accept one of the available options – e.g. we need to heat the house
  • There is little, other than price, to distinguish the actual choice in front of us – e.g. iOS or Android
  • There are few real competitors – e.g. BT, SKY or Virgin Media

Oligopolists would not risk a strategy of confusopoly if they though most people would just walk away, choose on the basis of some different criteria to price, or choose someone offering a simpler and clearer alternative price plan.

I’ve always found the behaviour of firms in competitive situations interesting to watch. Do you remember when cash machines were new? (I’m showing my age now). Originally you could only use your cash card at your own bank. Then banks started to club together to create greater advantage for their customers. Eventually the system became a kind of duopoly, where about half of all banks would take your card. At this point the Government intervened (from memory) and insisted banks agreed to accept all cards – without charging us for the privilege.

This was a case study in how diversity becomes duopoly – but how duopolies must be forced over the line into more useful forms of monopoly. There was no commercial advantage to the banks in organising a monopoly – it was just better for us, the customers.

The reality seems to me that free commercial enterprise is basically helpful, innovative and creative – but always in danger of becoming damaging, exploitative or absurd. I find it strange when some people think commerce is bad. I find it equally strange that some people think democracy shouldn’t try to discipline commerce into being better than it naturally would be.

I love a beautiful garden. I don’t make the plants grow. But it wouldn’t be much of a garden without weeding, pruning and some overall design.

The tension between commerce and democratic control is inevitable and we should not be persuaded by liberals or by Stalinists from wanting both free commercial activity and strong democratic discipline.

However, when Sam Jenkinson used the term, she was referring to Australia’s disability support system and I found the term also being cited by Australia’s Productivity Commission in its design of the National Disability Insurance Scheme to replace the previous complex system. So perhaps it is not just commerce that creates confusopoly.

Reflecting on my own field of endeavour I can see that systems can become unnecessarily complex for a number of reasons:

  1. We may create an innovation from within a largely static system. For example, Direct Payments were a good innovation, but they created greater complexity because they left the old social care system untouched. One system became two systems.
  2. Alternatively we may create an innovation which can only be fully integrated into the system over time. For example, Personal Budgets were progressively rolled out, but many systems protected older forms of practice either by excluding Personal Budgets from their domain or by corrupting the definition of Personal Budgets to include inflexible options.
  3. Or we can force an innovation to adapt to an unreasonable obstacle. For example, integrated Individual Budgets died when parts of the bureaucracy, like the civil servants running the ‘Supporting People’ programme successfully defended their own funding stream from integration into one coherent model.
In fact we can see that here bureaucracy mirrors commerce. Bureaucrats do not always prefer what is rational, clear or to the advantage of the citizen. Their first concern (as with business) is to safeguard their own roles, their own funding streams and their own patterns of thought and behaviour.
Bureaucracy is not bad, bureaucracy is necessary; but it is perhaps no more likely to choose to do the right thing than is commerce. This is what I take from my own experience. Just as you cannot give a good idea to commerce and expect all to be well, so with bureaucracy. Discipline and integrity are required and some of this will need to come through democratic processes that can exert pressure on both bureaucracy and commerce.
The lesson for advocates of social justice and true welfare reform is that to have a good idea is not enough. Giving good ideas away is not enough. We must also attend to the process of change itself and in particular to the public and political processes that create some of the necessary discipline for coherent change.

From Cameron to May – Thoughts on the Invisibility of Justice

As we change our Prime Minister I’m wondering what we’ve learned about the battle for justice in the last six years. While I doubt we can expect a significant shift in policy, we must certainly take a fresh look at our strategies and amend them for a new period. The new boss, even if she’s the same as the old boss, can always disown previous policies, while continuing them under a new name.

First we have to accept that, for 6 years, Cameron got away with it, and we failed to stop him. We’ve had 6 years of the most vicious cuts, including direct attacks on disabled people, immigrants and on those in poverty. There is no need here for me to repeat his crimes. The United Nations has already successfully outlined his attack on human rights. Yet none of this ever became a political issue.

It was not Cameron’s injustice that was his downfall, it was his foolish gambling and vanity that brought things crashing down. Extraordinarily – our new Prime Minister has even praised his approach to social justice – Good Grief!

It seems injustice is invisible and his crimes have gone unnoticed.

We can of course blame our rulers. But I suspect that most politicians will say, “Well if this issue is such an important one surely it would have come up more. The electorate seems to care more about immigration and Europe than it does about social justice and equality. You’ve got to be realistic. You can only get elected by paying attention to what the electorate actually cares about.”

In fact one of my family, who I love dearly, is a Conservative and has worked closely with that Party in the past. After I explained to her the impact and unfairness of Austerity she said, “I know, it’s sad, but that’s politics, Simon.” And I know she’s right, this is our country’s politics – blind to injustice.

Austerity was purposefully designed to hurt those with no political voice and in ways that are very hard to see:

  • An array of welfare cuts were marketed as ‘reforms’, despite the deep harm they caused
  • Benefits were attacked by a series of salami slices, with cuts hidden inside complex technical changes
  • The skiver rhetoric played well politically and was used repeatedly on both sides of the House
  • There was no resistance to the attacks on local government, and hence on social care
  • Tax-benefit changes actually benefited middle-income groups
  • Interest rate policy created enormous and regressive benefits for the better off

In fact, for most people, Austerity was not Austerity. Most people do not even know what the term ‘Austerity’ means and never experienced any Austerity. What they did experience was a short sharp shock as the fragility of our debt-laden economy was briefly revealed in 2008. The political consequence of this was not that we started to question our crazy financial and economic system. Instead most went running to any politician who promised to clear up the mess and to safeguard our mortgages.

After this Austerity has just been a smash and grab raid on the incomes and rights of the voiceless. It hasn’t touched most people and it isn’t visible to most people.

But why has mainstream media failed to report on these issues?

Well of course, some of this could be considered corruption. Rupert Murdoch’s world view clearly frames the editorial policy of much of the mainstream media. Meanwhile the BBC seems to have turned itself into Pravda. Even The Guardian has been disappointing (despite some excellent individual journalists).

This may also be partly the result of economics. If the people who buy you, or advertise with you, do not want to think about social justice then why are you obliged to offer them something they do not want. Statistics, stories of hardship, analyses of policy impact – none of this is news, none of this is very interesting or entertaining.

You might be on the road to Hell, but if you go slowly enough it will never make the headlines.

The one honourable exception here, in my opinion, has been the Daily Mirror. Only The Mirror has been willing to call a spade a spade on welfare reform and on the cuts. Perhaps this is because it’s readers are much more likely to recognise the reality of the cuts, the sanctions and the everyday heartlessness of Government policy.

But it is not just economics and corruption that has led the media astray. The abject failure of Labour under Balls and Milliband was also critical. I am sure that many in the media assumed that, if Labour didn’t seem to think cuts, inequality and growing poverty was important, then it probably wasn’t important. Labour’s symbolic role has always been to stand up for social justice; when it doesn’t then the media draws the logical conclusion – nothing too much is wrong.

Assuming that they would continue to get the votes of the downtrodden, Labour marketed themselves to swing voters and pandered to their fear that Labour might prove irresponsible and put at risk their mortgages. In the process they lost votes to the SNP, UKIP and Greens, while convincing hardly anyone to come in their direction (they merely picked up some votes from disenchanted Liberal Democrat voters). Given the gift of the most extreme Right-wing Government in over 75 years Labour’s strategy was to merely legitimise the Coalition’s policies, by offering milder versions of those same policies. Poison is still poison, even when it’s watered down.

There is one more reason why I think we have been struggling to defend justice. Too often we are defending an unlovable version of social justice. When the Government attacks justice it does so by attacking ‘welfare’ and it is true that what people often experience as ‘welfare’ is rather hard to love:

  • Bureaucratic and impersonal systems
  • Incompetent and unaccountable services
  • Disempowerment and rightlessness

The welfare state has been deformed by its centralised and paternalistic starting point. We are all its beneficiaries, but those who come in regular contact with it often experience it as an alien force. It does not feel part of the community and it does not treat us as citizens or as its co-creators. What Hannah Arendt says of ‘charity’ could equally well be said of the post-war welfare state:

“But charity is not solidarity; it usually helps only isolated individuals, with no overall plan; and that is why, in the end, it is not productive. Charity divides a people into those who give and those who receive.”

I can probably keep this finger of blame moving. But in the end it will come back to point at me. What have I done? What could I have done differently? Are we just doomed to injustice? Is the rise of greed and inequality just another phase of our history? Must we turn fatalist or Marxist, and merely await inevitable doom or inevitable paradise?

I don’t think so and there are perhaps a few crumbs of comfort to feed on.

Unite the Union recently created Community chapters, in order to recruit into the trade union, people who were not workers, but who wanted to campaign for their communities. This seems to be a crucial development. It is an example of a trade union thinking beyond the immediate and short-term interests of one group of workers and reaching out to include families, neighbours and allies for justice.

The attempted coup within the Labour Party is, on the surface, a disaster. But in a funny way it’s much better that this all happens now. From my perspective what we are watching is an effort to restore democratic control of the Labour Party to its members. To those who think Blair’s New Labour strategy was a high point for the Labour Party then this will seem like madness; but for those like me who think New Labour is part of the problem, then this process is inevitable. I think it is inconceivable that Labour’s new members or the trade unions will fall for another version of New Labour.

In this respect the Labour Party and the Conservatives are very different. The internal politics of the Conservative Party is always about victory first; for they can divide the spoils afterwards. The rich and powerful know that, whoever is leading the party, they will always get a hearing, if they have the money to pay for it. Nothing is sacrosanct, everything can be purchased.

The same is not true for Labour. Like Odysseus’s crew, they must tie their leader to the ship’s mast, so that he or she does not jump overboard to be drowned by the Swing-Voter Sirens. Policies should emerge from the Party, because the Party represents the people and their experience of life. If the Party has not been persuaded in advance then why should it trust it’s leaders to make the right decisions once they get into power.

I can see why some might want their leader to be free of such a restriction. It is clearly more convenient not to have to worry about what Labour Party members think or want. But such leaders ask too much of us. To have reached the top of the slippery poll is certainly a remarkable trick; but it is no guarantee of integrity or a regard for justice. As G K Chesterton said:

“You can never have a revolution in order to establish a democracy. You must have a democracy in order to have a revolution.”

The third crumb of comfort is that we are just beginning to see how the welfare state can be reformed to become a local and citizen-friendly welfare state. Last week I was listening to people in Barnsley explain how they are connecting the Council to real community action. Councillors are becoming community champions, and instead of ‘deploying services’ into their communities they are co-creating sustainable solutions within their communities.

If the welfare state can become loveable then it can be defended. This is not easy, and it is not going to be quick, but it is not impossible.

These reflections help me refine my own understanding of my own path and the path of the Centre for Welfare Reform. Sharing and publishing social innovations or accounts injustice may be fine, but we must increasingly seek to engage directly with the groups and organisations who really care about justice and whose destinies will ultimately be bound up in any positive reforms.

I think the Centre must start to think of the audience, which it must serve with integrity, as:

  • Trade union members and other collective bodies
  • Members of progressive political parties, and this must particularly include the Labour Party
  • Local community groups and umbrella organisations that connect people and communities

I suspect that justice cannot be made directly visible, but the institutions of justice can be seen and these can made more loveable. Simone Weil claimed that only a few things can be loved absolutely: truth, beauty and justice. But when it came to her own country, as its leaders prepared to rebuild France after the war:

“…give French people something to love; and, in the first place, to give them France to love; to conceive the reality corresponding to the name of France in such a way that as she actually is, in her very truth, she can be loved with the whole heart.”

Let us try and imagine what might make our country (whatever shape that ends up being), our communities and our institutions worth loving. Perhaps then we can make justice somehow more visible and more defensible.

Image from Darren Cullen

The Two Conflicting Forms of Neoliberalism

Neo-liberalism has – I think – two main contrary forms. Often the thinkers who are cited as neoliberals are philosophers like Nozick, who argued for the minimal state and who took as the primary problem to be solved the question: What is the just and fair settlement for any society? This line of thinking goes back, through Mill and Locke, all the way back to the Classical era. It is the same kind of problem that Plato, Aristotle and other genuine political philosophers, have been considering for over two and half thousand years.

Although I can understand why it has acquired the ‘neo’ prefix, I think it is better to see this kind of theory as a modern form of liberalism (in the English sense). It is an attempt to set out the grounds by which diverse people can live together, with justice and with freedom. It is certainly a faulty theory – like perhaps all political theories – but its faults are better understood in the light of what it is genuinely trying to do, rather than simply treating it as all part of the devil’s work. Almost all genuine liberals (of this kind) are forced to adjust their views to reflect the fact that markets do not ensure social justice. Almost all genuine liberals also tend to recognise that my freedom is limited, not just by direct political oppression, but also by my lack of essential resources.

The second form of neoliberalism is the kind of aristocratic prejudice that the ‘best’ should be richer and more powerful than the ‘worst’. Aristocracy means rule by the best and today this has been transmogrified into what is called meritocracy – which sounds like its opposite, but actually means precisely the same thing. What has changed is the nature of the aristocracy – back then it was landed nobles, now it is the children of Eton and Oxford.
The belief of the powerful that they are the best, and so deserve their power, has always been self-serving, and often laughably so. But since Darwin it has taken on a new and more virulent form. Herbert Spencer outlined the relationship between modern theories of race and genetics as follows:

“The law that each creature shall take the benefits and evils of its own nature, be those derived from ancestry or those due to self-produced modifications, has been the law under which life has evolved thus far; and it must continue to the law however much further life may evolve. Whatever qualification this natural course of action may now or hereafter undergo, are qualifications that cannot, without fatal results, essentially change it. Any arrangements which in a considerable degree prevent superiority from profiting by the rewards of superiority, or shield inferiority from the evils it entails – any arrangement which tends to make it as well to be inferior as to be superior; are arrangements diametrically opposed to the progress of organisation and the reaching of a higher life.”

from Herbert Spencer, The Data of Ethics

Spencer, and many other thinkers from that period, successfully connected human and animal nature (or rather a debased and partial account of animal nature) in order to legitimise the abandonment of most of the moral imperatives passed down from Christian (and before that Jewish) civilisation: concern for the welfare of all, the privileged status of the weakest, the need for humility and the imperative of self-control and temperance. All those things that might be seen to ‘redistribute’ resources and energy from the strong to the weak were converted from moral imperatives into corruptions, temptations and threats.

This way of seeing the world reached its peak under Hitler and has gone into hiding since the end of World War II. But it is this aristocratic conceit that underlies much of what now passes as neoliberalism. It is not liberal to encourage genetic engineering by encouraging the abortion of children with disabilities. It is not liberal to concentrate more power in the hands of politicians and corporations. It is not liberal to sanction, bully or coerce people who are out of work. These approaches are not liberal, they are meritocratic.

Distinguishing these two kinds of neoliberalism – the liberal form and the aristocratic form – is strategically important, even for those of us opposed to both forms. First because we cannot easily defeat both forms together – for they have different bases. Second because we miss the opportunity to divide these forces against each other.

Personally I think liberalism, as a defence of freedom, is not our worst enemy. What is an enemy is the kind of one-eyed right-wing economic liberalism that treats the right to property as if it were some kind of divine imperative. But much worse than this is the kind of elitism that believes that ordinary people don’t really need rights, that we’d much better off if disabled people did not exist and that it is acceptable to manipulate the press and media to stigmatise any group that might be helpfully scapegoated.

Meritocratic elitism (which can be found on both the Right and on the Left) should be our main enemy and it may be useful to demonstrate how illiberal and controlling are its advocates.

Older posts

© 2017 Simon Duffy

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑