Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Month: May 2016

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.

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