Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Year: 2012 (page 1 of 4)

But, What Can We Do?

The Englishman does not like rows. It is almost impossible to get him to disturb himself, unless you are fool enough to make him both afraid and angry…

To understand the point at which the English patience breaks, we have only, I think, to remind ourselves what is the phrase most often heard in the English home. And that is: “Leave it alone!” “Tommy, leave the cat alone.” Leave your little sister alone, can’t you.” “Oh leave the boy alone; he’ll grow out of it.” “Leave the young people alone to fight their own battles.” And then: “Curse these government departments, why can’t they leave us alone?” And so, with rising irritation, as the Englishman looks at the world: “Here, you, leave those wretched Jews alone.” “Leave the Poles alone, I tell you.” And finally, in quite unmistakeable tones: “Now then, you blue-pencilled bastard, you bloody well leave ME alone, or I’ll knock your bleeding block off.”

The Englishman will interfere in the world, he will have his fingers in every trade pie, he will collect countries as he collects junk, but he cannot bear to see things chivvied about, and he will not tolerate being chivvied himself… We who are the least racial of all nations, who care least about folk-customs, are the most attached to tradition and old laws. Don’t chivvy things. I know only one constant exception to the rule against chivvying. The English people have always, incessantly and unmercifully, chivvied their governments: and for a very good reason. A government must be either servant or master. If you do not chivvy it, it may chivvy you.

Dorothy L Sayers from The Mysterious English (1940) in Unpopular Opinions 

[Note – The blue pencil was the censor’s pencil – so for “blue-pencilled” read your own favourite extreme swear word.]

Dorothy L Sayers is well known for writing the Peter Wimsey detective stories; she is much less well known for being an excellent Christian theologian, feminist and translator. Her writings are always sharply realistic and radical (in its primary sense) while also being imaginative and rich. Some of you may not forgive her for her old-fashioned English prejudices, but, as this is from a wartime speech, perhaps most of you will.

This passage stayed in my mind because of the idea that we must chivvy government unless we want to be chivvied ourselves. I wanted to use this idea to help me think about what we can actually do to challenge the outrageously unfair cuts and income reductions being targeted at disabled people.

I have argued previously that the most extreme attack on disabled people in living memory is being disguised by the language of austerity. The reason that the cuts target disabled people is political, not economic, and it is rooted in the failure of the current democratic system to protect minority groups. I have also argued that the success of this intentional government strategy has been made possible because so many groups have become complicit with it (even if they privately disagree with it). Civil servants in the DWP, social workers, local authorities, voluntary organisations, charities and even some disability advocacy groups are all drawn into the business of implementing or (as some see it) ‘mitigating’ the impact of a fundamentally unjust policy.

The lesson of history is that we rarely forgive those who try to justify their actions by claiming they were joining in with something wicked in order to make it a little less bad.

But, what can we do?

As Sayers observation reminds us, the answer has to be political – and this can’t just be left to normal opposition politics. We must use every means available to chivvy our own government, and we certainly should not stop simply because they have managed to get unjust laws passed.

The Labour Party has, so far, been muted in defending the rights of disabled people – but it has now agreed to hold an opposition day debate early in 2013 to discuss the government’s failure to assess the combined impact of its policies on disabled people. So perhaps we are seeing some new signs of moral life. Or perhaps the Labour Party is finally beginning to believe there may be some votes to be found in defending the rights of disabled people. Whatever the reason, it is vital that we do whatever we can to make the cause of disabled people politically attractive. This means presenting politicians with what they value: statistics and stories – particularly when the latter comes with attractive photo opportunities.

So, Strategy One must be to make our case in terms that can be used by supportive politicians. This does not just have to be the Labour Party. Nationalist parties, the Liberal Democrats and even the more thoughtful members of the Conservative Party need the ammunition by which to fight the necessary political battles.

The media have also been very disappointing in their coverage of the assault on disability rights. Coverage has been negligible and confused. Even serious journalists like John Humphrys have been fooled into taking the idea that the government’s welfare reforms are serious attempts at reform. Few seem to follow the logic of the government’s declared fiscal intentions. You cannot reduce poverty, reduce inequality or improve incentives for the poorest by cutting the benefit bill. The answer lies in radically redesigning the whole tax and benefit system. The coverage of social care has been even more extraordinarily complacent. In 2010 the government declared it was ‘protecting social care’, while putting in place a budget that ensured social care will be cut by 33% in real terms by 2015. Already over £4 billion has been cut from services for children and adults with the highest needs. Yet no journalist seems to have thought that this act of deception was a story worth telling.

I have now completed a major report on the cuts, and how they target disabled people. I produced this report on behalf of the Campaign for a Fair Society because I believe we need to support campaigns like this, ones that offer a positive alternative to current injustice.

The main findings are in this info-graphic:

But again, there are signs that the times may be changing. There are now growing numbers of media stories about the impact of the cuts on disabled people. The nonsensical claim that our economic woes can be solved by taking money from the poorest, to pay off debts created by the better off, is also starting to appear even more absurd as the economic crisis continues.

So, Strategy Two must be to help journalists to find the stories that will engage newspaper readers and television watchers. Statistics and human stories are likely to matter most. But we also need to support and encourage any spokespeople from the disability movement who can effectively connect to ordinary people’s concerns and to help people see through the lies and statistical manipulations the are being used to justify these cuts. The Spartacus community and their many friends are already showing us how effectively this can be done, even on very limited resources.

However this touches on one of the most profoundly difficult issues that the disability movement will need to address: who are its leaders? The problem of collusion is here acute, because many organisations have found themselves so dependent on government funding that they dare not speak out against what is happening. Moreover, many organisations, who might appear to be independent of government, are really satellite organisations – effectively owned and controlled by government. Some of these organisations, big charities, quangos and sub-contracted consultancy organisations, present themselves as speaking for disabled people, older people, social care, or whomever. But they have been been utterly quiescent.

It may be useful to picture this problem in more old fashioned terms. The king always has noblemen and courtiers, who jealously guard their access to the king and who try to act as the conduit by which messages from outside reach the king. No courtier worth his salt would allow a common peasant to gain access to the king and to present his case directly. Moreover, in fairy stories, the sign of a good and just king has always been that he would not allow himself to be blinded by the encircling courtiers who compete for his attention but would always speak directly with his people.

Perhaps we should remember this and try to ensure that we are not short-changed by government funded spokespersons. Sometimes it is best to say ‘I will speak for myself.’

So, Strategy Three might be to make collusion with government more expensive and less attractive. For instance, organisations who have failed to adequately represent the interests of those they should be protecting could be named and shamed. A boycott could be organised of any organisation that declared itself to be representing disabled people, but which did not meet a reasonable standard for honesty and forthrightness. In other words, we should not put up with quangos and charities that don’t chivvy.

Another approach that we could explore is direct action. Getting large numbers on the streets certainly may help – but is unlikely to be decisive. (Reductions in disability income also make it harder and harder for people to be able to take this kind of direct action.) Perhaps the key is to focus on areas where the madness of the government’s strategy is easiest to expose.

So, Strategy Four would be to find forms of action that underline the absurdity of a policy which tries to solve a problem of household and government debit by robbing the very people who have no money. It occurs to me that one approach might be to focus on something like social care charging – or what it really is – the disability tax. As it currently stands disabled people could refuse to pay this tax and CEOs of charities supporting people who pay it could also refuse and could take personal responsibility for this. If CEOs and disabled people were to be sent to prison for non-payment we would certainly have the best possible new story:

Government jails people (at £40,000 per head) for refusing to pay a grossly unfair tax (far more unfair than even the poll tax) and one that costs almost as much to collect as it actually raises. 

Historically the refusal to pay an unjust tax has often been an effective form of civil resistance. But perhaps there are better forms of direct action and perhaps, if we are lucky, the public will finally wake up to what is being done in its name without such extreme methods.

To end, I want to return to my wartime theme and two important, but relatively unknown, events. Few people seem to know that the Holocaust began with attacks on disabled people. In fact the first gas chambers were designed for disabled people. Only after murdering over 100,000 disabled people inside institutions were these gas chambers packed up and sent East to the concentration camps, to be used on the Jews. It was strange and disturbing to notice that, when a short documentary on eugenics was presented during the BBC 2012 Olympics, no mention was made of these facts.

Most people also do not know that Denmark, despite being occupied by Germany, managed to protect almost all its own Jewish population, and also the Jews that had fled there from elsewhere. The Danes can be very proud that they did not collude, they resisted. When the Germans finally imposed martial law in order to murder Jews living in Denmark there was widespread action to hide and protect people, with Danish fishermen taking many to protection in Sweden. Even living under martial law, Danish civil servants harried their German counterparts to ensure that captured Jews were sent to the Theresienstadt. In the end only 51 were killed.

This may seem an extreme way of presenting our options, but this is our choice. We will either collude, and go quietly along with government, deciding that our own jobs, homes and families are more important than them, disabled people. Not realising that the them are us. Or we resist. We find the courage to stand-up for others, even when they are do not seem the same as us. There is no middle ground which isn’t collusion.

So, Strategy Five might be to find some form of campaigning which would enable many more people to express their revulsion at what is being carried out in their name. To do this we need to reach out beyond our own networks and groups and to get into streets, markets and homes. Perhaps it would be worth using an old fashioned method like a national petition which we could get hundreds of thousands to sign. Developing such a petition would even be a good mechanism for distinguishing the groups that were prepared to resist from the groups that were happy to collude.

This all needs more thought, but here’s my first draft for a national petition:

We call on the government to reverse the Welfare Reform Act, to increase social care funding in line with funding for the NHS, to end the disability tax (so-called social care charging) and to redesign the welfare system so that its fair for everyone.

I am sure someone else can do better than this – but I do think its time to clarify what we are fighting against and what we want in its place. We cannot chivvy government without some powerful and clear messages – and messages that could have political impact.

We also cannot make this work without real people in local communities being able to organise and lead practical campaigning. But here the disability movement does have strength. For example, in Doncaster (the seat of Ed Milliband) the are at least two active, utterly independent and powerful groups: Active Independence and the Personalisation Forum Group. If groups like these could join together in a national network around some shared messages then the impact could be very powerful.

Why Austerity is a Lie (updated)

[I updated this blog in November 2013 with more recent data and graphs.]

I find the repeated use of the word austerity very annoying. It implies that what is happening in the UK today is unfortunate – but somewhat accidental – like an act of God. But what we face is not austerity, it is a targeted assault on the rights of disabled people and people in poverty. The targeting takes at least 3 forms:

First the primary economic problem has been created by debt. But not everybody’s debt is equal. It is the debt of the home owner that is the most powerful cause of the economic crisis in the UK. And this debt is the logical counter-part to the enormous economic bubble in house prices that has made some people very wealthy, put others in deep housing debt and left others outside the house ownership system altogether. As the economist Lester Thurow pointed out many years ago – inflation is always a form of theft. The problems we face are rooted in inequalities of wealth and the irrationalities of greed which nobody wants to talk about.

This graphic shows the impact of reducing the base rate of interest down to 0.5 – an extraordinary annual subsidy to the better off:

Second the government’s response to this problem has primarily been to avoid letting the economic house price bubble burst. The worst political outcome is perceived to be that those people in housing debt should have to pay what they owe and that those inflated house prices should tumble. Hence these debtors are subsidised by pumping money into the banks that have made these bad loans and by trying to sustain an incredibly low interest rate – one that is killing the value of savings. The government hopes to pay for this subsidy to home owners and financiers by cutting back on public expenditure elsewhere. We are responding to a problem caused by inequality by increasing the level of inequality.

Here is the housing bubble – a 360% increase in house prices in just 11 years:

However, thirdly, the government faces the further risk that those important swing voters (most of whom are home owners) will also react negatively to seeing ‘popular’ welfare services cut. Hence the services that must be targeted for cutting are those that are just for the poor and disabled people. These are the unpopular, unknown or stigmatised public services – benefits, social care and vital community services for women and families. So, those who did not cause our problems must pay for their solution.

I have recently done another analysis of this:

  • 42% of all cuts fall on the 20% of the population who are poor
  • 27% of all cuts fall on the 8% of the population who have a disability
  • 17% of all cuts fall on the 2% of the population with severe disabilities

This calculation does not even take account of inflation or the impact of increased taxes, like VAT and social care charges, that also target the poorest.

The cuts are represented in the following graph:

 

 

You do not need a good understanding of economics to see the madness and injustice of this approach. Inevitably, saving money by targeting the poorest with more taxes and by reducing their incomes is not going to work – they have very little money to steal – and ultimately this policy will only lead to other expensive social problems. But long-term logic is a luxury for politicians who are just desperate to win the next election – at any cost.

Another way of identifying the real meaning of our current situation is to remember the marketing maxim – if your product has a weakness then pretend that it is a strength and positively promote it. So we have the rhetoric of the ‘squeezed middle’ and the ‘welfare lifestyle’. Politicians invert reality and distort truth in order to fabricate reality into a more electorally satisfactory form. Or, as Joseph Goebbels supposedly put it: If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. [Interestingly this quote is probably not authentic; and it certainly seems implausible that Goebbels would reveal his own strategy – nevertheless his strategy was certainly effective – for a time.]

Of course, if austerity were just some kind of accidental or shared social problem – not a politically designed strategy that targets the most vulnerable – then our response would also be very different. If we were simply making up for some accidental shortfall in the public purse then we could either (a) increase those taxes that fell equally on everyone (e.g. income tax) or (b) reduce the cost of public services by asking everyone to take a small pay cut. It is interesting to notice that the groups that benefit from this targeting strategy are not only the better off – they also include many who are in the middle and who are being encouraged to blame the poor for poverty.

One of the challenges for those of us in the Campaign for a Fair Society is to try and get people to understand that the unfairness of these cuts lies not so much in their severity but more in the way that they target those with the least ability to defend themselves. It is for this reason I think we should all refuse to use a word like austerity. We must not allow language to be used to distort reality – we must underline the choices that are being made by our political leaders. Even if this means that people will also have to accept that many of the problems we face are very much of our own making.

So instead of cuts, austerity, the recession or other misleading terms – remember – what we face is the targeting of disabled people, the targeting of the poor, and the purposeful creation of greater inequality.

You can read more on how cuts target disabled people in our latest report – A Fair Society?

Complicity and the Cuts

I know a wise old Buddhist monk who, in a speech to his fellow countrymen, once said he’d love to know why someone who boasts that he is the cleverest, the strongest, the bravest or the most gifted man on earth is thought ridiculous and embarrassing, whereas if, instead of ‘I’; he says, ‘we are the most intelligent, the strongest, the bravest and the most gifted people on earth’ his fellow countryman applaud enthusiastically and call him a patriot.

E H Gombrich from A Little History of the World

Our own vanity, our own desire to be on the inside of the club, is one of the most dangerous human tendencies. It turns out that we will sell our souls very cheaply, as long as we feel we are inside the in-group.

There often seems to be a difference between doing evil and standing back and letting someone else do evil – one is the sin of commission, the other the sin of omission. But both are sins, and the difference between these two kinds of sin can be very fine indeed. In fact, sometimes, not to resist evil is to join in with evil – to be complicit.

For example, currently in the UK, we are seeing the most significant direct attack on the rights and conditions of the poor and of disabled people. By 2015 spending on services for disabled children and adults will have been cut by 33% and the government hopes to cut benefits by £22 billion – about 20% of the current spending on benefits.

You can read more about this in our report – A Fair Society? how the cuts target disabled people.

This is in a country that is already the third most unequal developed country in the world. This is a policy which is far more extreme and far more negative than anything for which Margaret Thatcher is blamed.

Yet, many of the organisations that one would expect to stand up to government, to point out the error of its ways, are silent. A Labour politician justified their own muted response to the cuts by observing that none of the big charities had really come out against the cuts – and the MP is right. Where are the big charities and advocacy organisations and why have they not stood up to government, carried out the necessary research and organised effective PR?

It is impossible to know for certain why so many organisations are so quiet. There are many possible reasons:

  • Some may be focusing on getting themselves ready for the storm – cutting posts, saving money.
  • Some may be worried that they will lose lucrative central government funding if they become too challenging.
  • Some may feel that they must be nice to government in order to negotiate with it – to get on the inside track and to reduce any harm it intends.
  • Some may seek the honour of peerages, knighthoods, awards and all the other trappings of status that are so keenly distributed by our leaders.

Perhaps some do not even understand how bad things are, and how much worse they are going to be. In 2010 the Campaign for a Fair Society published data showing that social care would be severely cut. Not only was this not picked up by the media, it was not even picked up by many in the mainstream of the disability movement. Many seemed to accept the false claim that social care had been ‘protected’ simply because this is what the government had said.

For more information on the statistical manipulations behind all this read this article in the Guardian.

Personally I have been particularly upset by how the organisations that are supposedly in the ‘vanguard’ of reforming social care – e.g. Think Local Act Personal (TLAP), In Control and Helen Sanderson Associates – barely mention the issue of cuts or the injustice of current government policy. For example, In Control’s website talks about:

With significant resource constraints and demographic growth, there are major challenges ahead.

“Significant resource constraint” hardly does justice to severe cuts that target disabled people. You cannot advocate the increased empowerment of disabled people through personalisation, while ignoring a 33% cut in social care funding.

There is one other very worrying reason why some organisations may be silent; and that is that some in the voluntary sector may even be seeking to benefit from these cuts, from the increased poverty and from the erosion of public services. This may seem an extreme statement – but it is interesting to look at the recent letter which was sent by leaders of the voluntary sector to government:

You can read their letter here.

The letter pleads that the voluntary sector be given the opportunity to take over public services and in addition it says:

Thirdly, as the Government’s welfare reforms take effect, we know that some of the most vulnerable people in our country will be affected – including children. Our sector will be at the frontline – helping individuals and families prepare for and manage change.

So, instead of arguing against the injustice of these reforms, the voluntary sector offers to pick up the pieces – on the government’s behalf – to help people “prepare for and manage change” – the change of having your income severely cut. This is a dreadful state of affairs. It’s as if, frightened of being steamrollered or forgotten, these groups have now chosen to join the powerful and to abandon the weak:

It is this kind of complicity that makes so many of us frightened for the future. It reveals the true nature of our current social situation. It seems we are no longer a society that believes in equality, citizenship or mutual support. We are a society where the powerful trample on those beneath them. For those of us in between – neither powerful nor weak, neither rich nor poor – then this is the time for making critical moral choices.

We must become complicit or we must resist – there is no room left to claim that this has got nothing to do with us – that it is someone else’s problem.

One strategy, one that has been used in the past, is to make complicity more expensive for those who lack moral fortitude. For instance, it may be possible to name, shame or boycott organisations that are becoming directly or indirectly complicit with government. These policies may seem extreme or divisive – but the risk of inaction is that fewer and fewer individuals and organisations will be left who have not succumbed.

The more of us who are caught up in the implementation of these dreadful policies then the more likely it is that they will succeed.

Thankfully the National Coalition of Independent Action has collected together the signatures of many other organisations who do not accept the approach set out in the ‘voluntary sector’s letter’ to government. If you are interested in supporting this approach you can contact NCIA:

Open Letter from NCIA

Christian Love (Agape)

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.”

Where is the newness to which Jesus refers? It lies in the fact that he is not content with repeating what had already been requested in the Old Testament and which we also read in the other Gospels: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”

In the ancient precept the standard criterion was based on man (“as yourself”), whereas in the precept to which John refers, Jesus presents his own Person as the reason for and norm of our love: “as I have loved you.”

It is in this way that love becomes truly Christian: both in the sense that it must be directed to all without distinction, and above all since it must be carried through to its extreme consequences, having no other bounds than being boundless.

Those words of Jesus, “As I have loved you” simultaneously invite and disturb us; they are a Christological goal that can appear unattainable, but at the same time they are an incentive that does not allow us to ensconce ourselves in what we have been able to achieve. It does not allow us to be content with what we are but spurs us to keep advancing towards this goal.

Benedict XVI from The Apostles

The absurdity, the impossibility and the boundlessness of this Christian conception of love (agape) is disturbing.

We want something more sensible.

But what we want and what we need are two different things.

One aspect of this absurdity is the way in which love drives confronts the injustices that many civilisations simply take for granted. Slavery, apartheid, racism, discrimination and all forms of exploitation are quite natural. Power seeks to extend itself – how else could it be power. The self seeks to look after itself – how could it do otherwise.

Yet love does challenge injustice – love denies that these natural inequalities must simply be accepted – love is always seeking for a new Jerusalem, even amidst the ruins, confusions and complexities of the present.

Can We Be Enchanted by God?

Why did not the Risen One reveal himself to his enemies in his full glory in order to show that it is God who is victorious? Why did he only manifest himself to his disciples? Jesus’ answer is mysterious and profound. The lords says: “If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.”

This means that the Risen One must be seen, must also be perceived by the heart, in a way that God may take up his abode within us. The Lord does not appear as a thing. He desires to enter our lives, and therefore his manifestation is a manifestation that implies and presupposes an open heart. Only in this way do we see the Risen One.

Benedict XVI from The Apostles

The natural question for any sceptic is ‘Why does God not reveal himself?’ It is a clear and logical question – put another way ‘Why all the mystery?’

Part of the answer can be found simply by imagining what such a revelation would mean. At some level it would simply be the end of everything we know, nothing would be the same. Our freedom, our will, our personality, everything we think has value would fade to nothing. Whatever the absence of God means it certainly allows for a certain kind of being which his presence would end.

Part of that being, as Pope Benedict suggests, is being open to having God be present within us. The very opposite of his being present before us. This is a different kind of submission, not cowed or awed, but enchanted by God.

There is Humility in Us

We do not have to acquire humility. There is humility in us – only we humiliate ourselves before false gods.

 Simone Weil from Gravity and Grace

How well this point is put. We worship what we lower ourselves to obtain:

  • Money – doing a job we dislike, but which pays well.
  • Power – pandering to our political bosses, even when they ask us to do things that are dishonest.
  • Fame – drinking in the successes and failures of celebrities, even when we know its all empty.

We are creatures who pride ourselves on our autonomy, our creativity and our many gifts. We resent the thought that all those gifts are simply gifts from God and that they can only be respected by being returned to God in service.

What’s Wrong with Welfare Dependency?

Discussions about dependency and welfare dependency are full of illogicality and moral confusion.

Within the political system the term ‘welfare dependency’ has become code for a bad thing which is damaging the social fabric and the moral character of the poor. Everyone seems to be against welfare dependency. But what is wrong with dependency?

A dependency – in this context – is a need for help, from another person. Its opposite would be independence. But is dependency bad and independence good? Obviously not. If we do not need each other then we do not belong. If we could live without love, support, education and assistance we would be living in a bubble. As Aristotle puts it:

But he who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be a beast or a god. He is no part of a state.  (Politics 1.2)

So need for others – dependency in this first sense – is not bad, it is good.

Of course there are many ways in which we can get help. It is not the needing of help that is the problem, it is the threat of powerlessness, slavery or abuse which can make dependency risky.

Some dependencies are secured by love. Children need parents, and their shared love acts to keep that need safe. Loving parents protect, nurture and support their child to develop. Although, as we know, even something as beautiful and as important as family love can become damaged or twisted.

Some dependencies are secured by justice. Our rights, private property and the law, act to ensure that we are not taken advantage of in our dealings with others. Civil society is full of institutions that, at their best, enable us to get what we need, without being harmed or abused.

However injustice, inequality and poverty always seem to develop in every society. It is poverty that creates the most toxic dependencies. If I cannot secure what I need then I become dependent on others in a way that seems to guarantee abuse – begging, slavery, exploitation and oppression.

It is for this reason that modern societies have developed welfare systems. Their purpose is to create systems of mutual assistance that enable people to avoid toxic dependency on others and to replace it with a healthy welfare dependency. Welfare systems create healthy dependencies when:

  • People are enabled to get enough to meet their needs – not too little, not too much
  • People get what they need as a matter of right – not by charity
  • People are treated with dignity and respect at every stage – not stigmatised or treated as less worthy

The problem with welfare in the UK, therefore, is not that it creates dependency. Dependency is good and inevitable. The problem is that the system is badly designed. It is certainly less toxic than a system with no welfare provision – which creates abject poverty and corrosive dependencies and beggary. But it is more toxic than an effective system of universal, guaranteed income security – ideally provided through an integrated tax and benefit system with no visible stigma.

If we are to avoid further savage attacks on the poor – in the name of reduced welfare dependency – we need to move to a universal system to which we would then all feel connected.

Our Gifts Are Just Loans

The Pharisees were people who relied on their own strength to be virtuous.

Humility consists in knowing that in what we call ‘I’ there is no source of energy by which we can rise.

Everything without exception which is of value in me comes from somewhere other than myself, not as a gift but as a loan which must be ceaselessly renewed. Everything without exception which is in me is absolutely valueless; and, among the gifts which have come to me from elsewhere, everything which I appropriate becomes valueless immediately I do so.

Simone Weil from Gravity and Grace

Weil is always profound and challenging. Here she is challenging the very notion that the self – in any respect – can even take its own qualities for granted. When I say ‘this is me’ or ‘this is mine’ I kill the very thing I try to hold on to.

This thought has both political and spiritual consequences.

If I accept that what I might take to me mine was in fact given to me, then I realise I can only use it by also giving it away. I cannot hold on to anything and I cannot look within me to find more. Everything comes to me from outside, and it can only be properly valued when we give it back again.

This is also relevant to our social thinking. Some people claim that I am entitled to keep what I earn, what I own or what I am given. But of course I am entitled to nothing; we are given everything: our characters, our opportunities, our energies, our judgement. To claim, for instance, that I am entitled to more than some one else because I am cleverer than them is – from this perspective – perverse. We wrongly try to claim ownership of our intelligence as if that wasn’t in fact also a gift, and then we also want the further gift of more money and power than someone else.

This is what Weil means – by appropriating our gifts we make them valueless – they are just loans and they die if we do not give them back.

This thought is also found in the Georgian, Shota Rustaveli’s words:

What you’ve given away is yours.

Telling Truth and Fighting Slander

…for slander is a most grievous thing: in it the wrongdoers are two, and the person who suffers wrong is one. The slanderer does a wrong in that he speaks against one who is not present, the other in that he is persuaded of the thing before he gets certain knowledge of it, and he who is not present when the words are spoken suffers wrong in the matter thus – both because he has been slandered by the one and because he has been believed to be bad by the other. 

Herodotus

One of the earliest childhood rhymes we learn is:

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. 

But as we know this only part of the truth. Sometimes sticks and stones may hurt much less than the words that we use to hurt others.

Kant observed that lying, telling untruths was wrong not just because we hurt another person, but also because it is an attack on the possibility of truth for all of us. Each lie blinds us, both the lier himself, the person he lies to and everyone then drawn into an understanding that has been viciously twisted.

Slander is even worse because it mixes lying with malice and, as we know, there is no guarantee that a lie will be discovered.

The lies of the powerful write our history and drive the greatest crimes. Joseph Goebbel’s assertion that you simply need to repeat the lie enough for it to be believed is all too credible.

How do we react to the power of the lie and the evil of slander?

It is difficult to judge. St James wisely observes:

But the human tongue can be tamed by no man. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

We know he’s right and the temptation to gossip, blame and deceive ourselves as much as others can be overwhelming. We must begin by learning self-discipline in this regard.

But is there not also a danger that waiting simply for justice to arise, staying quiet, is also rooted less in a sense of justice and more in a lack of courage?

I was in Adelaide for the last two weeks and outside my bedroom window was a great piece of graffiti:

Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will always save me

Words too must be used in the cause of justice, truth and love. Finding the right words is difficult, finding the right time to speak even more so.

As I look back at my own life so far I think I have learned one thing: speak truth to power. It is often those who are most powerful who need to hear the truth, and often those around them will do everything to disguise the truth from them. Five truthful words to a politician may be more effective than five thousand words to a civil servant. And the five thousand words to civil servants may suck the life out of you.

When you find (as I have done) that you are repeatedly banging your head against a wall – just stop –  then find another way.

Christ instructed us:

Be as innocent as doves, but as wise as serpents

Sometimes the silence of listening, waiting and understanding must be matched by an ability to say the right thing, at the right time to the right person.

The Star Within Us

When it’s Christmas we’re all of us magi.
At the grocers’ all slipping and pushing.
Where a tin of halvah, coffee-flavoured,
is the cause of a human assault wave
by a crowd heavy laden with parcels:
each one his own king, his own camel.

Nylon bags, carrier bags, paper cones,
caps and neckties all twisted up sideways.
Reek of vodka and resin and cod,
orange mandarins, cinnamon, apples.
Floods of faces, no sign of pathway
toward Bethlehem, shut off by blizzard.

And the bearers of moderate gifts
leap on buses and jam all the doorways,
disappear into courtyards that gape,
though they know that there’s nothing inside there:
not a beast, not a crib, nor yet her,
round whose head gleams a nimbus of gold.

Emptiness. But the mere thought of that
brings forth lights as if out of nowhere.
Herod reigns but the stronger he is,
the more sure, the more certain the wonder.
In the constancy of this relation
is the basic mechanics of Christmas.

That’s what they celebrate everywhere,
for its coming push tables together.
No demand for a star for a while,
but a sort of good will touched with grace
can be seen in all men from afar,
and the shepherds have kindled their fires.

Snow is falling: not smoking but sounding
chimney pots on the roof, every face like a stain.
Herod drinks. Every wife hides her child.
He who comes is a mystery: features
are not known beforehand, men’s hearts may
not be quick to distinguish the stranger.

But when drafts through the doorway disperse
the thick mist of the hours of darkness
and a shape in a shawl stands revealed,
both a newborn and Spirit that’s Holy
in your self you discover; you stare
skyward, and it’s right there:
                                               a star.

December 24, 1971 by Joseph Brodsky from A Part of Speech


Internal Institutions

The individual and groupings of people, have to learn that they cannot reform society in reality, nor deal with others as reasonable people, unless the individual has learned to locate and allow for the various patterns of coercive institutions, formal and also informal, which rule him. No matter what his reason says, he will always relapse into obedience to the coercive agency while its pattern is within him.

Idries Shah from The Caravan of Dreams

Idries Shah is an interesting Islamic scholar whose book I found in a second-hand book store recently. This passage stood out for me partly because of his interesting and unusual use of the word institution.

I tend to use the term ‘institution’ in one of two senses. I talk about institutions in a wholly negative sense when I refer to those campuses, asylums and hospitals that began as efforts to segregate the poor and needy and then accelerated during the period of eugenic panic when the objective was to remove people from humanity by effective sterilisation or murder.

However the word institution also has a second, much more positive sense, meaning any kind of human or social creation that has been established and which has stood the test of time. For example, the monarchy is an institution; Bolton Wanderers is an institution.

So what does Idries Shah mean by the patterns of coercive institutions which we find within us? What relevance has this to the challenge of reforming society?

One pattern, that we find in many revolutionaries, is the double-edged belief that power is all about unjust rulership. The revolutionary identifies the ruler as unjust, and may manage to overthrow that ruler; but they then end up living out exactly the same pattern of injustice. Is it that the revolutionary secretly knows no other way to rule than by cruelty and injustice? The dominant pattern which inspired his revolt ends up ruling him and dictating his actions.

Do we see an institutional pattern in those who seek to reform systems of welfare. They may believe the system is unjust, patronising and disempowering. So they seek to shift power – reorganising funding, organising new supports, reforming structures. But all the time their actions seem to suggest that people themselves are not really capable of solving any problems for themselves. We have to do it all for them; they are not good enough or strong enough. The battle to defeat paternalism can quickly become very patronising.

Idries Shah is not suggesting reform is impossible, nor that these patterns can be eradicated. Rather it seems to me that he is suggesting that these are temptations that we need to watch for and overcome. Revolutionaries must ask themselves how they will avoid replacing the tyrant with greater tyranny. Welfare reformers must ask themselves how they will avoid replacing one type of control with another.

The Difference Between Prison and Institutions

Yes, because in prison at least you know where you stand. You have a sentence – till the whistle blows. Of course, they can always tack on another sentence, but they don’t have to, and in principle you know that sooner or later they’re going to let you out, right? Whereas in a mental institution you’re totally dependent on the will of the doctors…

Joseph Brodsky in conversation with Solomon Volkov

In the UK we remain totally complacent about the basic abuse of people’s human rights by the excessive use of institutions and hospitals. We seem immune to the fact that there is no evidence that these institutions work and only too much evidence that they fail: encouraging abuse, suicide, depression and increasing problems for their inmates.

I recently came across an honest assessment of the true problem from R D Laing:

It is not easy. What do we do when we don’t know what to do? I want that guy out of sight, out sound, out of mind… The situation keeps cropping up in our society, when no matter how liked, esteemed or loved, some people become insufferable to others. No one they know wants to live with them. They are not breaking the law, but they arouse in those around them such urgent feelings of pity, worry, fear, disgust, anger, exasperation, concern, that something has to be done. A social worker or psychiatrist is ‘brought in’.

This is honest, but also frightening. Is this really the best we can do?

My own experience is that there is much we can do to avoid the path to institutionalisation and much we can do to help people escape institutions. But the forces that keep these institutional arrangements in place are immense. A recent study showed that ‘out of area institutional placements’ were costing the NHS £175,000 per head. This is money that is being invested in abuse and wasted lives.

It is not the economics of rational commissioning that keep institutions going – it is the fear and anxiety that Laing describes. Professionals, families, sometimes even the individual themselves, all lose faith in the possibility of any sensible solution. The existing community care support offerings are woefully inadequate and for many people they quickly breakdown:

  • Day centres that lead nowhere and which are often boring and fruitless
  • Care homes that force people to live in groups they don’t choose
  • Domiciliary care that works to its own rules and its own time tables

In other words we force people to fit into systems that work to their own institutional logic, and then we blame the person for failing to fit in. When these ‘community care’ solutions fail we then send the person even further away to an institution that will fail even more dramatically – at greater expense – but at a ‘safer’ distance. The very fact that we spend so much money is perhaps partly a salve to the conscience: look we care – see how money we are prepared to spend!

Brodsky (who was forced to live in both prison and the institution for refusing to accept the justice of the USSR) rightly observes that with the institution there is no time limit to this madness – in the institution imprisonment can be endless.

The question then arises: Why could we not start by actually working with the individual, their family and their community, to provide what really does work? Instead of abandoning them we could work with them to find solutions that strengthen them and those that care about them.

Those of us who have worked in this way know that it works. What will it take to encourage the system to defend human rights and develop personalised support?

Action is the Pointer of the Balance

Action is the pointer of the balance. We must not touch the pointer but the weight.
Exactly the same rule applies to opinions.
If we fail to observe it there is either confusion or suffering.

Simone Weil from Gravity and Grace

This thought may seem hard to grasp, but I think its really important.

Weil understands that our actions or our opinions are the fruit of our will and our understanding.

If people do things that we think are wrong, or express views that we think are mistaken, then we can try to change those things directly:

  • We can ignore them, move our attention elsewhere, or
  • We can disadvantage them, make things more difficult for them, or
  • We can punish people, inflict pain upon them, or
  • We can create laws which threaten punishment

To put the matter like this is not to imply that any of these options is inherently wrong – systems of law and codes of behaviour are necessary frameworks for human beings. But all of these measures are acting on the action – they don’t touch the heart of the matter.

The same is even more obviously true with opinion. You can make it wrong, immoral or politically incorrect for me to say what I think; but you have not changed what I think. Moreover you risk twisting my unsayable thought into something worse. My unpalatable opinion may then become the means by which I confuse myself or the means by which I could lose faith in you.

My opinions, at least my honestly expressed opinions, are the fruit of my understanding. This is not just a matter of knowledge. My understanding is the picture I have the world in all its fullness. It is changed by logic, by knowledge and by the human will itself – that is by our heart’s awareness of things.

If we want to change someone else’s opinion then we must change their understanding; and if we are to do this then we must engage honestly in debate. We cannot expect to take the field by storm. We may find in fact that we must change – that we have something to learn – that our heart too has been misplaced.

Genuine change is inner change – and nobody should be in a position to dictate that change.

It is for this reason that I have always found the notion of ‘values training’, in all its forms, somewhat suspect. It is all too easy for it to slip into a kind of subtle bullying or an attempt to teach people a different language, a new kind of cynicism.

I remember spending several says running values training for leaders within Lennox Castle Hospital, a dreadful institution north of Glasgow. We offered people all sorts of ways of rethinking what they were doing; we tried to show them the way in which prejudice was generated, the injustice of institutionalisation and the many opportunities for positive community lives for people with intellectual disabilities in the community.

On the face of it the training was a success.

But some months later I returned to ‘The Castle’ to begin the process of helping people escape back to the community by means of the organisation I’d set up called Inclusion Glasgow. And so I met again many of the ward managers and staff that I’d met at the values training events.

Nothing in practice was different, except that now the staff were inoculated against the change. They knew the language and they had worked out how to rationalise what they were doing now inside the institution in a ‘new language’. Too often this is what happens when we only operate at the level of language and apparent values.

Partly this problem was made greater because the values training was completely disconnected with any real opportunities to live those values – to work differently and to see the fruit of that work. This is part of what makes for genuine and inner change.

As the great Dr Bill Schwab said: the treatment for attitude is experience

We must avoid trying to change attitudes by only attending to the surface of things. The weight is in the heart and the proper means to touch the heart is only with truth and love.

Life is a Gift

The Wise Men will unlearn your name.
Above your head no star will flame.
One weary sound will be the same –
the hoarse roar of the gale.
The shadows fall from your tired eyes
as your loan bedside candle dies,
for here the calendar breeds nights
till stores of candles fail.

What prompts the melancholy key?
A long familiar melody.
It sounds again. So let it be.
Let it sound from this night.
Let it sound in my hour of death –
as gratefulness of eyes and lips
for that which sometimes makes us lift
our gaze to the far sky.

You glare in silence at the wall.
Your stocking gapes: no gifts at all.
It’s clear you are now too old
to trust in good Saint Nick;
that it’s too late for miracles.
– But suddenly, lifting your eyes
to heaven’s light, you realise:
your life is a sheer gift.

1 January 1965 by Joseph Brodsky

I love this poem. I am sure most of us have felt the way he describes.

The epiphany at the end of the poem is tough. He realises that life is a gift, not just despite the pain, misery, fear and loneliness – but because of it. The gift of ‘sheer life’ is distinct from the many joys of life – and it is a gift we can lose sight of when we are full up with things – when we are happy, busy and in company.

When we reach ’empty’ – we may finally realise that there is something else – something that should be filled – sheer life itself.

God does not give us the right to exist – life is sheer gift.

What will we do with this knowledge?

The Absurdity of Injustice

Everywhere the man who alters things begins by liking things. And the real explanation of this success of the optimistic reformer, of this failure of the pessimistic reformer, is, after all, an explanation of sufficient simplicity. It is because the optimist can look at wrong not only with indignation, but with a startled indignation. When the pessimist looks at any infamy, it is to him, after all, only a repetition of the infamy of existence. The Court of Chancery is indefensible – like mankind. The Inquisition is abominable – like the universe. But the optimist sees injustice as something discordant and unexpected, and it stings him into action. The pessimist can be enraged at wrong; but only the optimist can be surprised at it.

G K Chesterton from All Things Considered

I love this thought from the ever insightful Chesterton and it rings a real bell.

I often meet people who agree that the current system is unfair: it’s unfair that disabled people don’t have effective rights to self-directed support; it’s unfair that only the rich can influence their child’s education; it’s unfair that the poorest pay the highest taxes; it’s unfair that too many people are placed in institutional and damaging settings if they are too old, unwell, angry or confused.

We spend nearly half of our GDP on welfare – handing this money over to Whitehall – and in return we get a system which satisfies almost nobody and which is designed in flagrant contradiction to the Declaration of Human Rights. We expect it to deliver safety and support for those with the greatest need, but instead we see it harming those in greatest need.

Yet very few people seem to feel that anything can be done about this injustice – it feels inevitable – part of the inherent wrongness of reality – as Chesterton puts it “the infamy of existence”.

But what strikes me at least is how absurd the current system is. Its not just wrong, it’s crazy:

  • We tax most those who can afford it least, increasing inequality and inefficiency
  • We fund expensive professional support, but won’t ensure people can meet their basic needs 
  • We subsidise incarceration and institutionalisation, but undermine communities and families
  • We target cuts on those who can least bear them

We need to wake up to the absurdity of the current welfare system.

This does not mean we don’t need a welfare system (even a bad system is better than no system). But we should start to confidently define the features of decent and fair system. And, as Chesterton also observes, this will be one that values all those things that are good: citizenship, family, community, expertise and justice. The challenge is to build a system that respects and supports all those good things – rather than undermining them.

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