Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Year: 2016 (page 1 of 2)

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.” ↩︎

On The Desire For Citizenship

What connects
The child abandoned by his mother,
The mother beaten by her man,
The wounded soldier, and
The fleeing refugee?

Love,
Love certainly is needed.
But love alone,
Or love unguided,
May fail to hit the mark.

For we each need
To live a life
Of meaning, where hope can spring,
Where our presence takes on weight,
And where respect can be restored.

Perhaps
We long for citizenship
In heaven, or perhaps
Just along our street.
For the world may bear our absence,
But we know it could also be our home.

May we connect,
Like stars in constellations,
Offering guidance, and meaning in the dark.
May we weave a net for souls,
Haven or harbour, where love can work,
And reconnect us all.

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.

Heresies

I have been keeping a list of heresies for a while now. This is work in progress, but I just discovered how to create html tables so here I’m experimenting. Do let me know if you can improve the definition of any heresy of if you spot a missing heresy by emailing me.

 

Heresy Mistaken Belief Heretic(s)
Paganism That other Gods are real
Manicheanism The Creator God is evil, creation is to be overcome
Donatism The church must remain spiritually pure and exclude those who sin. Donatus
Modalism Father, Son and Spirit are all modes of one being
Arianism Jesus is a being less than the Father Arius
Nestorianism Jesus has a split identity with a distinct divine person within the human form Nestorius
Eutychianism Jesus is a new being, a hybrid between the divine and the human Eutyches
Monarchism (or Sabellianism) God is single
Pelagianism There is no need for grace; we can earn salvation Pelagius, Caelestius, Rufinus
Monophysitism Jesus and God are of one nature
Monotheletism Jesus was filled with the divine will
Montanism The end of the world is at hand Tertullian
Gnosticism Creation is evil, but there is an occult knowledge which will bring salvation
Marcionism The Old Testament is false, Judaism should be left behind, the God of the Old Testament is overcome Marcion
Doceticism Jesus was pure spirit
Syncretism Reconciling incompatible and foreign beliefs and stories with Christian truth
Patripassianism God the Father suffered along with God the Son.
Erastianism Church should be subservient to the state Erastus
Acacianism The Holy Ghost did not proceed from the Father and the Father is greater than the Son Acacius
Adoptionism Jesus is the double Son of God, by generation (or nature) but as human, by adoption and grace
Theopaschitism It is possible for the divine nature of the Son to suffer
Heresy of the Free Spirit Human perfection is the annihilation of one’s will and replacement by God’s will.
Irenism That doctrinal differences can be erased through peaceful merging of systems
Monarchianism God reveals himself in different ways through history
Hegelianism (and Marxism) God is revealed through historical process Hegel, Marx and Schelling
Chiliasm Christ’s Kingdom will be this-wordly
Pyrrhonism Nothing can be know – extreme scepticism Pyrrho et al.
Socinianism Rejection of Trinity and Christ’s divinity Socinus
Psilanthropism Jesus is only human
Unitarianism Opposed to the Trinity
Ebionitism The Jewish law has not been overcome, Jesus is in the line of prophets
Binitarianism Only two persons in the Godhead (Christ & Father)
Erastianism
Ecclesiacticism
Apolinarianism
Valentinism Form of Gnosticism, creation by the Demiurge (lower-creator God), Jesus came lead us back to true (higher) God Valentinus
Sethian Gnosticism Seth was the true son of Adam, lower God (Yaldoath) raped Eve and fathered Cain and Abel
Catharism Gnostic sect Bogomil
Hussitism
Jovinianism Extreme rejection of asceticism Jovinian
Waldensianism Reform movement, challenging church Valdes
Arminianism Calvinist group which did not believe ‘election’ was total
Collyridianism Mary treated as a deity and thrid person of Trinity
Antiochenism Christ’s humanity divided from the Divinity (cf. Nestorianism)
philo-Arian Denied the divinity of Christ
Panentheism The whole universe in which humans live is just one small part of the infinte reality of God Karl Christian Friedrich Krause
Cynicism We must live according to nature, not by artificial rules Diogenes, Crates
Stoicism Nature is normative and rational behaviour follows the proper course of nature Zeno, Chrysippus
Epicureanism Life is about living with as much pleasure, and as little pain, as possible Epicurus
Scepticism There is no certainty in any philosophical theory (and one should therefore withhold assent to all) Pyrrho

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.

Why Is It So Hard? It’s Time for Action

Last year I was lucky enough to attend a ceremony in London where Jean Vanier received the Templeton Prize. Vanier (the founder of L’Arche and many other great initiatives) said to the assembled audience:

“There is a revolution going on. We are beginning to realise that everyone, every human being is important. We are beginning to see that every human being is beautiful. At the heart of this revolution are not the powerful, the wealthy or intelligent. It is people with disabilities who are showing us what is important – love, community and the freedom to be ourselves.”

This is so true. Despite austerity, despite confused and damaging Government policies, despite a culture of consumerism and ongoing prejudice – people with learning disabilities and their families continue to show that they not only belong, but they can lead the way to a better, more civilised and respectful society.

John O’Brien and Beth Mount, in their brilliant book Pathfinders, describe how the leadership that only people and families can provide, is constantly undermined by systems that keep people poor, drain them of energy and limit their potential. Yet even still, the sun keeps breaking through, for instance, they cite research from Canada where families were asked about the impact of the child with a disability in their lives:

  • More than 70% said their family was stronger
  • Almost 90% said that a wonderful person had come into their lives
  • Almost 90% said they’d learned what was really important in life
  • Over 50% said that they now laugh more

My rather childish response on first reading this was to shout: “Suck on that Peter Singer!” [Peter Singer being the eugenic philosopher who wrote Should the Baby Live? The Problem of Handicapped Infants.]

But it can still seem so hard. It can still seem so unfair. There are so many odds stacked up against families. Money continues to pour into dreadful institutional services – demeaning and abusing people. The system continues to control people, to place barriers before them and burdens on their backs.

Why is it so hard? Why do so many of the systems that should be there to help people get in the way, often doing harm, rather than good?

One concept that many of my friends and colleagues use to describe this problem is Serviceland – they picture the strange systems and assumptions of professionals, managers, social workers as a peculiar world unto itself. A world divorced from community, a world where limited assumptions have become normal, a world where small problems become huge barriers to change.

But while I recognise the truth of this description I also worry that if we are not careful we can end up further burdening families by failing to challenge services and professionals to offer the right kind of support. It may not be normal, but it is still quite possible for professionals to:

  • Listen properly and offer good advice
  • Form meaningful and supportive relationships
  • Organise assistance which the person and family can direct
  • Reduce the burdens on people’s backs

In fact I know many people who are doing this and I know many people who welcome this kind of respectful and effective support. Service providers and professionals are not the enemy – even if they spend too much time listening to the system and too little to people and families.

The question is then how can we get better at offering good help and assistance?

The most important answer to this is to put the person and their family in the driving seat. Professionals can only lead the way in emergency situations and for very short periods – ultimately power must reside with the person.

New systems of control, like direct payments and personal budgets, have made a difference here. It is now possible for people to take control and organise the support they need. This is good – it is a valid option – but surely it cannot be the case that the only way people and families can get good support is to do everything themselves.

We know that some service providers are able to offer what I’m going to call Personalised Support:

  • They work with the person to help them get a good life that has true meaning
  • They listen to the person and put them in control, but don’t leave them without support
  • They help people pick and manage their own assistants, and don’t force them to be employers
  • They create systems that are tailored to the person and keep them safe
  • They respect and protect the person’s money, they know that they work for the person

I know that there are organisations and supporters working like this all over the world. I’ve met them in Scotland, England, Canada, the USA, Finland, Australia and New Zealand and I’m sure they are many more elsewhere. There are not enough, but these kinds of organisations do exist and we need to develop more of them.

It is for this reason that the Centre for Welfare Reform has decided to start actively supporting the kinds of change that will make a real difference to people and families. Not just for people with learning disabilities, but also for older people, children, people with physical and mental health problems and many more. It is time for us to start to learn from each other – to share best practice and to set our standards higher.

To begin this process we have launched an international survey to begin to map and measure good practice in Personalised Support around the world. This first survey is targeted at service providers – we want to find out who out there is trying to do this right and what they’ve achieved so far. We want to understand the problems people face – so we can begin to work together to move things forward.

If you are a service provider then please complete our survey.

[No longer active – survey is finished – report due soon]

If you know a good service provider or an organisation trying to change then please share the survey with them too.

We are already well into the 21st Century. We cannot keep waiting for change to begin. We must start acting according to our values and beliefs. If we say that people are full citizens, if we believe in inclusion and community, then we need to get organised and start to do the work.

Words are Like Maps

Words are like maps. Their meaning shifts as our we find our own position upon the map, as we identify the journey we’ve travelled and our plans for future travels. We may use the same map, but in radically different ways and with radically different meanings.

10 Things I Love About Finland

 I was lucky enough to be invited by my friends at KVPS to live and work in Tampere, Finland for the last 10 weeks. It has been a wonderful experience, made even better by the fact that I was able to go with my wife, Nicola. There were too many good experiences to try and fit into one blog. But as a kind of thank you (kiitos) I thought I’d share 10 things I love about Finland.

1. The people, the people, the people – The Finns are almost proud of their reputation as a rather reserved people. But we were treated with the greatest courtesy, warmth and kindness from beginning to end. So many interesting conversations and so kindly invited into people’s homes and given the chance to meet parents, friends and children. I wonder whether the Finns are perhaps exaggerating their own reserve so that the pleasure of their welcome is made even greater by the element of surprise.

2. Katja and Anssi’s cottage – It is an honour to be welcomed into the home of any Finn, but it was a special pleasure to spend my birthday in the country cottage of Anssi and Katja. We got to have a sauna in the snow, see the sunset through the trees and experience the calm and beauty of a Finnish winter night by a lake. Amazing and an experience neither of us will forget with beautiful people.

3. Snow and cold – When we arrived in Tampere it was -25 degrees. But the snow and ice were magical – twinkling like diamonds. At first the extreme cold is a shock – but then you get to enjoy it. The snow brings light and the cold leaves everything crisp and beautiful. Walking across a lake covered in a deep layer of ice is a very special experience. Soon we were regretting the thaws and hoping for more snow and colder temperatures.

4. Music – We were lucky enough to listen to some beautiful music in Helsinki and Tampere, but the high point was the KeMut Concert. This concert, in Finlandia Hall, brings together great musical performances by people with learning disabilities from across Finland. The event was topped off by a rousing performance by the famed Finnish punk band PKN – who have sadly decided to make this their final year. Catch them if you can.

5. Art & design – Finland is rightly famed for its design. There are so many beautiful objects – which seem to honour the strong Finnish sense of home. We were also very lucky to see some great art – including the stunning display of art by Anselm Kiefer. But perhaps the most amazing thing was to visit the Ateneum’s display of Finnish artists. At the end of the nineteenth century Finland produced a crop of great artists, in particular Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Hugo Simberg and Pekka Halonen. I am quite sure that if these artists were French, and had simpler names, they would be as well known as Manet, Monet and Degas.

6. Tampere Cathedral – Who knew that nestled in the back streets of Tampere is one of the most beautiful buildings in the world? From the outside Tampere Cathedral is like a miniature fairytale castle. But inside it opens into a building unlike any I have ever visited. Carvings, paintings, frescos combine in a strange kind of Finnish beauty. I had very few conversations about God in Finland, I’m not sure He’s someone people talk about a lot. But the Cathedral suggests that Finns understand very well the importance of respecting the realities of life and death, the threat of evil and the fragile hope of grace and salvation. I only hope I am brave enough next time (if there is a next time) to enquire a little further into Finnish theology.

7. Unknown Soldiers – This novel, by Väinö Linna, is incredibly powerful. Like War and Peace – but more War and War. However, although the novel is stunning in its brutal description of the realities of war, it becomes more a testament to the dogged determination of men who must survive as all their illusions are stripped away. By the end of the book you love so many of the characters, even those who are rather flawed. It is not a romantic story of heroism (although there is a kind of heroism). It’s about what lies beyond the shores of heroism.

8. The Moomins – I have loved Finland since I was a little boy when one of the first books I read to myself was Finn Family Moomintroll. It was so exciting to go and see the drawings by Tove Jansson at the Tampere at Museum and her frescos which are now on display at the Helsinki Art Museum. More and more I see the close harmony between her work and the values of Finland – especially the joy taken in the small and the beautiful.

9. Food & Beer – One of our family was very worried about our trip to Finland. They thought we’d be eating nothing but sausages and potatoes. How wrong they were. I am not sure I’ve ever had so much fish and salad, combined with tasty sauces, berries and a fantastic range of different breads. On the other hand a Finnish friend asked whether it was really true (as they’d seen on Morse and other detective programmes) that we British drank so much beer. I told her, no, that this was just a stereotype, but then spoiled my argument by talking on and on about beer. However I discovered that the Finns, while not great beer drinkers, are great beer makers. Not only the commercial beers Lapin Kulta and Sandels, but in particular the microbreweries that are popping up everywhere. The beer at the local Plevna was particularly impressive – although I’m sorry to say I didn’t quite managed to make it to tasting all their varieties.

10. Sauna – The importance of the sauna to Finland is hard to exaggerate. Finns love their saunas, although not everyone leaps out to roll in the snow or jump in an icy lake. For an Englishman there are two challenges: public nudity (although usually unisex nudity) and getting sweaty. I must say I really liked the sauna experience and eventually I was brave enough to go to the public saunas. It is relaxing – both physically and mentally – and must give the Finns some of their mysterious ‘sisu’ or determination.

Of course – 10 is not enough. There were many other good things and many things we missed doing. We didn’t get to hear Sibelius, visit Lapland, go cross country skiing, go ice dipping, visit the islands or enjoy the Finnish Summer. But there’s always next time…

So – kiitos Finland – we love you!

 

Questions about Disability Cuts

I was recently asked by the Almeida Theatre company to answer a few questions about myself and my point of view. I wasn’t sure what to do with what I had written to them, so thought I might publish the questions and my answer here out of interest.

1. Could you tell us a little about yourself and the job you do?

I am the Director of the Centre for Welfare Reform, which is an independent think tank, formed in 2009, to try and develop ideas and policies to strengthen and reform the welfare state. We believe everybody matters and work to help build a world which values human diversity and where we treat each other as equals. The Centre mostly relies on voluntary efforts from citizens to research and share good ideas or to examine policies and injustices. Personally I split my time between research, writing and helping people solve social and system problems.

2. Could you tell us (assuming we know nothing about it) how collective cuts are impacting the lives of disabled people and how they are being targeted by the government?

 When the Coalition Government came to power it announced a series of cuts across most areas Government, although largely protecting pensions, the NHS and education. These cuts were particularly severe in two areas: Benefits and local Government. What the Government did not say, but which anyone who understands the basics of Government finance would know, is that severe cuts to benefits and local government will directly impact disabled people:
  1. 60% of local government spending is for children and adults with disabilities – what is called social care – and local government was cut by 30% by the Coalition Government and is being cut again in the Conservative Government. More than half a million people no longer get adult social care – a cut of 30%.
  2. Once you exclude pensions, which the Government did, cuts to benefits means cuts in income to the poorest and particularly to disabled people. In fact only a small percentage of benefits is spent on the unemployed, most of the rest is for disabled people and carers. Disabled people have faced an array of cuts – the picture below perhaps shows it best.
  3. In addition the Government increased the rate of VAT and changed the rules on benefits so that they would lose value over time. Both these policies severely impact on those living in poverty. This policy has continued for the last 6 years, and the cuts get deeper each and every year.

3. Could you tell us a little of the difficulties that disabled people may face when using the job centre service? 

 I think you could break down the difficulties as follows:
  1. The current system is very complex and many people don’t even know that they are entitled to any benefits because of a disability.
  2. If people are aware that they might be entitled to support they need to get through a complex benefit system where entitlements vary because of a whole range of different factors: age, impairment, income, family status, previous employment status.
  3. If people are told they are not entitled to support or if the system just seems too off-putting then many people simply won’t claim money they are entitled to [approx £17 billion is never claimed].
  4. If people do claim then the process of assessment can be very negative and harmful.
  5. If people feel they have been treated unfairly its very difficult to appeal.
  6. Once people are deemed to be entitled to support they can then become part of a Work Programme which may sanction them. The Work Programme has so far given more sanctions than real jobs.
  7. Overall the whole process is depressing, stigmatising and underlines a sense of unworthiness.

4. What is ESA and how are disabled people affected by sanctions?

ESA is the benefit that you get if you are unemployed, disabled and without any other source of income. ESA stands for Employment and Support Allowance and it replaced another benefit called Incapacity Benefit. This benefit has been chiselled away over the past 6 years.
Disabled people confront sanctions in a number of different areas:
  1. Some people are not deemed to be disabled enough for ESA and may instead only get Job Seekers Allowance (JSA). If this is what they get then they must obey rules set by the DWP and the private contractors who run what are called the ‘Work Programme’.
  2. Some people are deemed as eligible for the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) but also must join what is called the Work Related Activity Group (WRAG). This also means being part of the Work Programme and being subject to sanctions.

5. What is the purpose of a benefit sanction?

 Benefit sanctions are meant to make people compliant with the DWP and its private contractors plans and objectives. They are punishments, taking away benefits, for failure to follow ‘the rules’. There are many examples of these punishments (against which you cannot easily appeal) being imposed for obviously stupid reasons.

6. Our play is about poverty and it’s affect on people. Could you explain how and why people on lower incomes are being targeted by the government?

 This is a big question. In brief I would say the reason that people on lower incomes are being targeted would be as follows:
  1. They are a politically weak group who do not always vote, who are not perceived as a swing voter group and who are (particularly now) no longer well represented by the Labour Party.
  2. Since the end of communism the rich and powerful no longer fear revolution and have persuaded the media and many in the public that growing levels of inequality are ‘economically necessary’.
  3. People on low incomes lack systems to organise and mobilise. Trade unions, working mens clubs, churches and other community groups have diminished in strength or don’t reach out to the poorest. In a sense poverty has been privatised.
  4. The systems that support folk in poverty are often detached from universal systems. e.g. a benefit like JSA is poorly understood and stigmatised. The majority of the population see themselves having no stake in the benefit system – it is for ‘others’. Even those needing benefits are divided from each other e.g. disabled people get different benefits to other people on low incomes.

7. Social and financial inequality is at the highest it’s ever been – why is this and what do you think it points to in the future?

 In addition to all the points above there is the problem that the world is changing in other unpredictable ways – climate change, technological change, growing debt (which is just a special kind of socially constructed inequality). Often we don’t know what we can change, what we can protect and what is worth fighting for. Since the development of the welfare state we have often entrusted what is important to government and to politicians and hoped that they would ‘do the right thing.’ Sometimes they have, often they haven’t.

Strangely I think that – after the development of the welfare state and after the cold war – we somehow managed to forget what we were fighting for during the turbulent twentieth century, which was: equality, rights and democracy. Now we seem to have gone to sleep and we expect some mysterious powerful elite to take care of us.

For me the question is whether or not we will wake up and start behaving like citizens: people who take our responsibilities to each other seriously.

If we do not then small problems, that are essentially easy to solve, will grow into cancerous problems that will overwhelm us. We are the key to our own future.

8. How has the bedroom tax affected the lives of people in this country either living with a disability or without?

The bedroom tax is just one other unjust attack on the incomes of the poorest. Its impact includes:
  1. Disabled people losing the space they need for carers or assistive flatmates
  2. People going into debt because they can no longer afford their rent
  3. People moved out of their home community because there is no suitable housing in their own
Essentially the bedroom tax symbolises our deep disregard for community – we can now be ‘priced out’ of our own place, our own history. Local government is not answerable to us – but to the money invested in our homes.

Czars, Commissioners or Just Us?

For readers outside the UK I must do some scene-setting. In 2011 the television documentary programme Panorama did an exposé on the crimes committed against people with learning disabilities at Winterbourne View, a private hospital in South Gloucestershire. This was the first time in a long while that people with learning disabilities had come the attention of the UK’s mainstream media.

In fact my own emotional response to the crimes at Winterbourne View may seem peculiar. I wasn’t shocked by the abuse scandal. I was glad that this long-running scandal had finally been revealed. Places like Winterbourne View have been around since the early 1990s and this kind of abuse is typical of what happens in those kinds of systems. In fact, when carrying out some research in South West England, I met several families whose children had been at Winterbourne View and they said that it was the ‘least bad place’ that their children had been forced to live.

I am sure that most professionals working in the system know that these things have been happening and have been happening for a long time. Certainly my own work has been inspired by a strong desire to get rid of such institutions and to ensure people are treated as citizens instead.

The physical and mental torture imposed on people at Winterbourne View isn’t even the worst of the crimes committed against people with learning disabilities. Far too many people die, either because of abuse, poor healthcare, over-medication or negligence. The fact that there are now some powerful advocacy groups putting pressure on the Government over these issues is one of the few bright spots in an otherwise bleak scene. The UK Government is getting away with cuts in support, cuts in housing, cuts in income and cuts in employment for people with learning disabilities. But at least it is not quite getting away with funding services where we know people are likely to be tortured and where they may even die.

The irony is that, of all the political problems faced by people with learning disabilities today, this is about the only one that has not caused been by our current extreme right-wing Government.*

These attacks on the lives of people with learning disabilities typify institutional service provision. Long-stay institutions, with their regimes of power and control, encourage criminal and immoral behaviour. Treat people as if they do not belong, treat people as if they are not worthy, are not fully human, then this will be the almost inevitable result. [Not quite inevitable, for nobody is ‘forced’ to act badly; but put people in the wrong environment and the temptations to act badly will grow quickly.]

I have written about this at length in my book The Unmaking of Man.

The first large scale institution to close in England was Darenth Park Hospital in 1988. The last to close, Orchard Hill, was closed in 2010. The Centre has published a number of reports describing these places and the experiences of people and staff.

In international terms England closed its institutions early. However there were many problems that we did not manage to resolve during this process and much of the early momentum towards inclusion ended once the hospitals were closed. Today’s scandals reflect important limits to this early progress:

  • Limited public understanding – Hospital closures were inspired by family advocacy, but largely led by professionals (who were often inspired by Wolf Wolfensberger’s theory of ‘normalisation’). As the process of closure began it also became largely a professional matter – campaigning diminished and the public started to think of deinstitutionalisation as some kind of weird Thatcherite plot. Public understanding of, and commitment to, genuine inclusion has remained weak.
  • Institutional community services – The typical model for post-institutional care has been group home plus day centre. Most people leaving institutions were simply forced into this new (milder) institutional environment. We made the classic mistake of thinking that the institution was the building and we failed to see that we were rebuilding institutions within our communities. Many organisations that had once campaigned and advocated for people’s rights became major service providers.
  • New extreme institutions – Unsurprisingly some people from the old institutions could not ‘fit’ inside the new community institutions. So a profitable business developed as entrepreneurs (often ex-nurses) set up private care homes and hospitals to house those whom this early form deinstitutionalisation had failed. This process had begun by the early 1990s, and these business picked up new ‘clients’ whenever local community services failed to provide the right support. The NHS set also up what it called Assessment and Treatment Units (ATUs) to try and limit this problem, but often these services simply replicated the same problem.
  • Crisis-driven eligibility – While many private and charitable businesses boomed during the period of ‘community care’ there was an on-going failure to address the fundamental issues of rights, power and control that shape the future. Families still face the same fundamentally unfair choice with which they were confronted during the institutional era: either ‘carry on taking care of your child by yourself’ or ‘hand over your child to us’. That is, we have continued to offer families responsibility, with minimal support or to have provided services over which families have had little control.

It is these combined factors that have led to the creation of places like Winterbourne View. When carrying out the research described in Returning Home and Getting There a clear pattern emerged to describe how people ended up in abusive environments costing an average of £175,000 per year:

  1. A family struggles with minimal support and then something happens which brings them to a point of crisis.
  2. At the point of crisis their son or daughter is offered a place in some kind of ‘community institution’ (usually a group home).
  3. The young person hates it; they feel a mixture of anger, sadness or fear and they start doing things to hurt themselves or hurt others.
  4. The young person is deemed to have ‘challenging behaviour’ and is then moved to a more ‘managed environment’ further away from home.
  5. The young person hates that too and so a cycle begins which leads to increasingly professionalised, expensive and institutional services.

So we end up where we are in England today. Not only do we have 3,500 people forced to live in private hospitals and ATUs, we also have about 8,000 people living ‘out of area’ and many thousands more in prison.

And none of this is necessary.

I know this is not necessary, not from theory, but from practical experience. In 1996 I set up a new type of service provider, Inclusion Glasgow. This organisation ended up working with some of the most challenging people leaving the institutions in Scotland. Together with my friends and colleagues we developed a very different kind of deinstitutionalisation process where we provided personalised support:

  • Individual service design – Everybody is treated as a citizen with the right to a home of their own, living with people they choose and living a life that makes sense to them.
  • Empowerment – Power and control is shared with the person and their family to make sure that decisions are made quickly, appropriately and as close to the person as possible.
  • Personal assistance – People get support from the right person for them – recruited by them, employed for them – but with support and employment coming from the organisation.
  • Individualised policies – Rules and ways of working are designed with and around the person to keep them and everyone else safe.
  • Individual Service Fund – People have a personal budget which is protected and can be used to support flexible and creative service design.

Basically our approach was – treat everyone like a unique individual and support people to be full citizens with all the rights of citizenship. This is an approach that works. We went on to help establish two more organisations to carry out this work: Partners for Inclusion and C-Change for Inclusion. We also worked with a network of other smaller and inclusion-focused organisations in Scotland.

But while this process worked it did not really spread very far.

Personally my work from 2000 onwards focused on taking some of the lessons from Inclusion Glasgow into the development of systems of self-directed support. I wanted to help social workers work in the same way that we had – to empower citizens and families and to design support that was flexible and community-focused. First I took the model I’d developed to North Lanarkshire and then I took it to In Control in 2003.

Perhaps negligently, I trusted that the Inclusion Glasgow approach would flourish naturally in the new world of self-directed support. I was clearly wrong.

Reflecting on all of this now some things strike me as worth more attention.

Change requires not just better systems, but real leadership. There has been no significant ‘market’ pressure for real innovation by services. Organisations have been allowed to continue with old forms of practice because commissioners know no better and families have not been encouraged to demand better from service providers. Instead families have simply been encouraged to take over all responsibility – becoming employers, accountants, brokers and innovators – all for free.

The early successes of self-directed support all relied upon the willingness of some families to take this difficult path. It is testament to the power of love and family that so many have succeeded. But why should this be necessary? Why cannot services learn to work with families as true partners?

The other thing that strikes me is our peculiar image of leadership.

From 2001 we had a Learning Disability Czar. Does anyone else not think that this is the strangest choice of language? Why would we think this a useful image of leadership – to be the head of the failed Russian Empire? For me the idea of Czar suggests a range of problems:

  • An enormous faith and power invested in one – democratically unaccountable – individual.
  • The corrupting role of patronage – funding being directed wherever the Czar feels it should be best spent.
  • A culture of submissiveness, solicitation and supplication that inevitably arises around any charmed central figure.

I cannot see why anyone would think this would help. Instead I think the creation of the Czar during the New Labour era helped to put us all to sleep. We learned that obedience and compliance would be rewarded with extra funding. We stopped seeking fundamental legal change, instead we expected wisdom to come down from Central Government. But what in our experience might lead people with learning disabilities and their allies to believe that Government is the font of all wisdom?

In a recent report emerging from the Winterbourne View crisis it is suggested that the answer to our problems might be to appoint a Learning Disability Commissioner. I don’t know about you but the word ‘Commissioner’ always reminds me of Commissioner Gordon in Batman. May be this is preferable to a Czar; but as we already have an enormous ‘care policeman’ in the form of CQC I don’t quite understand how another policeman will help us. Perhaps we do need Batman – but unfortunately I am not sure he is going to swing to our assistance. However a commissioner is certainly more in tune with the austerity era – no money, but perhaps some additional power to bully people.

As with all efforts to centralise power and control, the fundamental flaw in these dreams of Czars, Commissioners or any other such ‘magical leadership’ figures is the notion that transferring power and control away from people, families or communities and towards the new king-pin figure, will improve things. We naively assume that just by creating this king-pin role then it will inevitably be filled by the ideal figure of our dreams. But in reality these characters often make things worse.

In our efforts to improve things for real we must accept that there will be no Batman, no Commissioner and no Czar to solve our problems. Perhaps we need to take responsibility ourselves – in whatever role we find ourselves.

In particular service providers, social workers, advocates and charities need to think about how they can take responsibility for offering people and families much better support. Nothing stops us from offering people personalised support – the power to change things is in our hands. We know – at least many of us do – how to do this better. It’s time to get on with the job at hand.

For myself I’m thinking hard about how the lessons from Inclusion Glasgow and from other forms of personalised support could be shared more effectively in the future. I’m thinking about how families could be given a much better deal in future. I’m thinking about how we might develop the momentum to return to a focus on inclusion and citizenship – not failing services or institutional systems.

* I say ‘extreme’ not only because it’s true, but because our media seems to be branding the current Labour leader as an ‘extreme’ left winger. This seems very peculiar, as his policies seem rather moderate to me, so I use the term simply to try and balance out the impact of media slurs. I encourage any of you so minded to do likewise.

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