Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Tag: community

Tilting at Windmills or Radical Hope

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

The reality of post-industrial decline

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

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

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

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

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

Competing identities, complex injustices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why local identities matter

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

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

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

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

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

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

Colonising England

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anyway.

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

Until you think about it.

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

What’s more nobody just gives us money.

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

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

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

Radical hope

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

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

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

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

Together we can create a world that works for everyone.

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

Why not join us at Citizen Network?

Addendum

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

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

Strangers in Alien Lands

This poem was written as a contribution to Sheffield’s Poetry-athon on 20th February 2017, a celebration of the contribution of migrants to our communities. You can read all the poems contributed here.

Let’s imagine our world,
Stopped still, without movement:
We all stay where we’ve come from;
No stranger turns up unexpected,
And we’re all trapped at home.

No Abel goes wandering with his herds,
King Cain reigns, planted in the ground.
And yes, some comfort can be found
In the same old gruel,
In the plain dishes of our youth.

Perhaps the Tower of Babel tempts us,
Ever rising skyward,
Still anchored in one place.
Here progress might be measured
By the backs upon which we climb.

Abraham will never leave,
Issac never marry
And Jacob never run away.
Our stories would run dry,
Our histories die out.

A world without movement ceases.
Hollow harmonies fall quiet.
Our world needs the traveller
To bring us something new,
To make our place a home.

We were all pushed out from Eden
To try and find a place on Earth:
To move, to build and welcome,
Strangers all, in alien lands.
For home comes only from the heart.

Living in the Ghetto

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

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

We are at a moment of change.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But look at England today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why can’t we do better than this?

What can’t we dream bigger than this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is this progress inevitable?

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

Is this progress a pipe dream?

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

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

Can Socialism Reinvent Itself for the 21st Century?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why We Are Launching Citizen Network

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So how can we respond to the challenges ahead?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What will it do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Join Us

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

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

We’re Getting Older – Don’t Panic, Don’t Panic!!

Some days seem to have a curious symmetry to them, and this week I have had one of those days. It began in the heart of the Whitehall and it ended in a community radio station in East London; but the theme at the heart of the day was constant: what does it mean that we are now living longer?

The first discussion was a roundtable with some of the leading academics and experts in health and social care. (If you are wondering why I was there then you are not alone; I don’t know either, but I was certainly happy to have been invited.) It was chaired by the excellent Professor Martin Knapp of the London School of Economics and we were being asked to think about the implications of ageing on health and social care.

I was asked to say a few words about the impact of longer lives on our ability: “to provide and procure care” although, as I tried to argue, I think this is entirely the wrong way to frame the question. The real question is “how do we support each other as we live longer.”

What I tried to communicate was that there is no evidence that our growing health, and our longer lifespans, will create any crisis. These facts should be a source of celebration. Yet, there is almost no social change, even social progress, which cannot be turned into a crisis if it’s handled in the wrong way.

In my presentation I used data from a report by The Centre for Welfare Reform that we will be publishing in a few months. I had carried out an analysis of of disability, healthcare, social care and community capacity in Barnsley, where:

  • 2% of the population were in very bad health
  • 7% were in bad health
  • 13% had a disability (this group will overlap with the first two to some extent)

Barnsley spent £60 million on social care, however this figure is dwarfed by the care that the citizens of Barnsley provide to each other without pay.

If Barnsley had to pay for the support that is already being provided free, by carers (the official jargon for family and friends) then it would have to spend about £600 million. In other words the support provided by families is about 10 times greater than the support paid for by the community via taxation.

Furthermore, we can go on to estimate how much time and energy is potentially available to the town – what we could call its ‘community capacity’. You can do this by looking at how many people live in Barnsley (about 250,000) and then taking away all the time spent on being a child, time lost to paid work, time in education, time spent caring and time used for ordinary amounts of rest and leisure. This leaves you with an estimate for how much ‘community capacity’ is available. For Barnsley that is equivalent 65,000 whole time equivalent people, with an economic value of over £1 billion.

There is an army of community capacity potentially available to any community (unless its working too hard) and this capacity is probably over 20 times greater than what is spent on social care.

We are society with immense financial wealth, in addition we already have all the human capacity necessary to provide the care and support that we need to look after each other. We will all go through the shared human experiences of sickness, age, disability and death; but we certainly have the resources necessary to ensure that we can all do this in ways that ensure our dignity and mutual respect.

If we focused on our immense community capacity available then there would be no sense of crisis. However community capacity is undermined by a series of negative factors that are driven by Government policy and by the interests of the powerful:

  1. Cuts to social care – Local government funding from central Government has fallen by more than 30% in 6 years and is projected to fall further. Central Government funding used to provide 75% of local government finance. Cuts to social care have been deep and we have seen the number of people supported fall by well over 30% in the same period. I assume that local Government has had to cut its most efficient and low cost supports first, leaving it with a growing percentage of its budget invested in expensive and institutional provision, which is harder to cut. I do not see how the obligations of the Care Act 2014 can be balanced with the desperate situation of local government.
  2. Means-testing of social care – The extreme means-testing of social care does what all means-testing does – it reduces social solidarity and encourages people to divest themselves of their own wealth if they are at any risk of needing social care. This further undermines community capacity and faith in the community’s capacity to support people to get the necessary additional finances they need when illness or disability develops.
  3. Inequality and poor productivity – The UK is the most unequal country in Europe with low productivity and high employment rates. Or to put this another way, more people are having to work longer hours to maintain even a very modest income. For instance, increasingly both partners in a typical family need to work to maintain a modest income, leaving less time for caring or for citizen action. Economic inefficiency and extreme inequality both have the impact of minimising available time for citizen action and community capacity.
  4. Workfare and the collapse of the voluntary sector – There are two powerful but inane dogmas that dominate public policy in the UK: (1) the only useful activity you can do is earn a salary and so pay taxes and (2) the best people to find people work or volunteering opportunities are the DWP or their private-sector agents. Clearly these ridiculous assumptions undermine our ability to tap into people’s real gifts and skills.

So it seems we are in the process of turning what is an opportunity for a longer richer lives into a severe social crisis. We lock a higher proportion of our increasingly limited financial resources into professionalised and institutional care; so we will then be only able to offer support to fewer numbers of people who will be in severe crisis. Alongside institutional care, micro-institutionalisation and the misuse of technology to ‘keep people safe’ will probably grow. At the same time fewer families will feel that they can afford to take care of their own relatives and will so demand ‘care’ from a system that will not be able to offer them support until they reach breaking point. The ongoing pressure to allow euthanasia is consistent with this crazy system problem.

The sad thing is that, while there are so many clever and well intentioned people in the central and local government, it just seems impossible to shift discussion away from the minor problem of ‘funding social care’ to the major opportunity of ‘supporting community capacity.’ It is cynical to think that this is only because a crisis is much more useful to the political elites, but Mencken’s often quoted proposition does sometimes feel so true:

“The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.”

Perhaps, but I hope this is not true, the powerful do not want to recognise that releasing community capacity is about freedom and empowerment. The real solutions we need – those generated by people, families and communities – all require freedom and creativity in order to exist. The great innovations we are seeing from organisations like PFG Doncaster, WomenCentre, IBK Initiatives, Best Buddies UK, and so many more, are all rooted in an awareness that we are free citizens who can choose to act to benefit ourselves and our community.

Capacity is rooted in the actions of free citizens, working together in community. Such capacity cannot be bought, it cannot be bossed, it can only be enabled, supported and liberated.

Despite my fears it was encouraging that so many in the discussion did share my sense of disquiet at the danger of accepting inequality and an on-going public service crisis as the inevitable background to policy-making. But one could still feel the gravitational pull in our discussion of these hobgoblin problems: the fear of increased costs, the fear of increased rationing and fear about what will happen to us at the end of our lives.

After this discussion I was lucky enough to be invited to East London Radio, to be interviewed by Mervyn Eastman. Mervyn Eastman is an inspiring leader and social worker who has established the Change Agents Coop with the wonderful Cheryl Barrott. The Centre for Welfare Reform has recently joined the Coop as an organisational member.

Together we discussed how the idea of citizenship must become central to our thinking about ageing. Citizenship, everyday citizenship, is the foundation for building a good life for ourselves and building good communities together. We explored how old age was not a problem; but a society that insists on treating it as a problem will certainly end up creating one.

What made this radio interview especially sweet was that I was able to indulge my love of music. A rather sad admission on my part is that I have always dreamed about what I would choose if I was ever invited on Desert Island Discs or on Radio 3’s Private Passions. For East London Radio I picked:

  • Communication Breakdown by Led Zeppelin
  • The Nightwatch by King Crimson
  • Anyway by The Roches
  • A Survivor from Warsaw by Arnold Schoenberg

As I left the studio, to head home to Sheffield, I found myself in the community cafe and bookshop that was also the home of the community radio station. On the shelves were some fantastic European novels I’d not heard of and so I indulged myself by buying 4 books to take home.

So my day ended with this sense of contrast. On the one hand, in the bowels of Whitehall, intelligent people were struggling, against the grain, to stop the system turning old age into a new social problem. Meanwhile, on the streets of East London, ordinary people were busy building, sharing and supporting one another to lead richer, better lives.

As ever Christ’s words help. The Vulgate puts it as “sufficit diei malitia sua” which could be loosely translated it as: Start by tackling today’s injustices.

If Government really wants to help us ensure that we can take good care of each other in the future then there are four pressing problems it could tackle now:

  1. Protect social care funding
  2. End social care means-testing
  3. Radically reduce income inequality
  4. End the stigma and control of the DWP’s benefit systems

Do those 4 things and human capacity will flourish and many of tomorrow’s problems will never arise.

There is a Revolution Going On

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 was the message of Jean Vanier as he received the Templeton Prize – at St Martins in the Fields on Monday evening. His acceptance speech was powerful and direct.
For me it was a blessing to feel the blast of his optimism. As he said, in 1945 we had Hiroshima and the uncovering of Auschwitz; and of course we don’t have to look too hard to see further ugliness. But surely he is right to claim that something of importance did happen then – a new chapter did open. Not only did we begin to recognise the importance of human rights but also – slowly, all too slowly – we began the liberation of all those ‘others’ who had been trapped in institutions, deemed unworthy, by a society that had lost its moral compass.
This is a particular blessing only a few days after a UK General Election when the worst government in 75 years – a Government that has targeted disabled people for cuts and chosen to impoverish the poor – has been returned to power. Vanier captures exactly the fundamental flaw in the thinking and behaviour of the powerful – they behave as if the point of life is to climb higher and higher, to even clamber up upon the backs of the weak. But where are they going? What will they find when they get there? They will be empty and alone.
What must we do about our leaders, who are lost? Well – to begin with he suggests – we must pray for them.
A powerful message for me at least – for I know my own pride is such that I’d like nothing better than to enumerate their many failings. But he is right. They are lost. They know not what they do. Their cleverness is ultimately at their own expense – however many years in power they gain, however big the pile of money they amass. There is no joy in it. There is no beauty in it.
Despite our current problems I do not believe the current attack upon the human rights, the welfare state and justice will succeed. We have come too far to turn back to the hell that we’ve left behind. There are still signs of hope, amidst the darkness.
I have been particularly inspired by how many people have come together to support Learning Disability Alliance England since its creation in the Autumn of 2014. In just a few months we’ve united hundreds of people and organisations in a movement to stick up for the rights of people with learning disabilities. And this movement has been led by people with learning disabilities – friends like Karen Flood, Simon Cramp and Gary Bourlet have called upon different people to unite and work together. They have welcomed the respectful support of families, professionals and other allies. They’ve shown how much can be achieved when we come together in community.
This was so striking when we ran the Citizen Jury event to mark the political parties. It is true that the Conservative Party refused to attend (given their record this is not too surprising); but the others who attended, including Labour’s disability spokesperson Kate Green, engaged in an intense and respectful debate with people with learning disabilities and their families about the details of policy.
An old friend of mine, Virginia Moffatt (now at Ekklesia) reminded me that back in 1992 when she’d suggested that there be a hustings for people with learning disabilities in Southwark (where we both worked) that she had been faced with blank incomprehension. Today we are capable of having real and important debates with senior politicians. The election result may not have gone the way LDA England would have liked – but life is not always about winning and getting what you want. This development still marks another important step towards full citizenship for people with learning disabilities.
I am also encouraged by an event just a few days away – the wonderful punk rock band PKN – a band made up of people with learning disabilities – will be representing Finland at the Eurovision Song Contest. [Please cast your vote!] Again people with learning disabilities are refusing to be held back by other people’s ideas about what they can and cannot do. I have also just learned that Gavin Harding, a leading self-advocate with learning disabilities, has just become Mayor of Selby.
For me Vanier has already had a tremendous impact on my own thinking. In his commentary on the Gospel of St John Vanier writes:

Frequently it is only when those who are powerful experience failure, sickness, weakness or loneliness that they discover they are not self-sufficient and all-powerful, and that they need God and others. Out of their weakness and poverty they can then cry out to God and discover God in a new way as the God of love and tenderness, full of compassion and goodness.

I must say that for myself it has been a transformation to be in L’Arche. When I founded l’Arche it was to “be good” and to “do good” to people with disabilities. I had no idea how these people were going to do good to me! A bishop once told me: “You in L’Arche are responsible for a Copernican revolution: up until now we used to say that we should do good to the poor. You are saying that poor are doing good to you!” The people we are healing are in fact healing us, even if they do not realise it. They call us to love and awaken within us what is most precious: compassion.

Trying to ‘do good’ can quickly be a trap – it becomes about us, our pride, our glory, our achievements – and we can quickly tire and turn to blaming others. When we’re tempted in this way, we must see how empty all of this is. We all know we must die, and all our moments of power and glory are just vanities – that quickly pass away. What abides – is love.
Personally I am interested in exploring further what this Copernican revolution might look like for the welfare state as a whole. How can we live together in a way that accepts and honours mutual dependency? How can we invite contribution and challenge from those of whom society expects too little? How can we live in community? As Vanier says we need community, but real community is mucky, a little bit crazy and often quite annoying. But it is only this kind of community that can create the beauty, truth and the love we all need.
These kinds of questions demand that we reconsider many of our common assumptions about how best to organise society and the welfare state:
Income security – Does it make sense to impose the highest taxes on the poorest, and to load people with stigma or try and control them with sanctions and the patronising Work Programme?
Education – Why do we need to regulate teachers and schools as if Whitehall knows best? Why do we rank and exclude children who need more help to learn?
Health – Why do we heap unrealistic expectation on doctors and nurses? Why do we keep people in hospital when they would thrive better at home or in community?
Disability – Why do we force people to give up freedom just because they need some assistance? Why do we load special taxes on disabled people and the elderly?
Housing – Why are only some able to buy their own home? Why is it acceptable that some people can no longer be able to afford to live in their own communities because prices or rents have gone up?
The social problems we face today reflect the challenges Vanier describes. Justice means not just a fair set of rules and rights which individuals enable people to live decent lives; much more it means living together, valuing each other and creating a better world.
I will end with the Benediction (blessing) which was composed by Jean Vanier’s sister Therese and which ended the award ceremony:

May oppressed people and those who oppress them, free each other.
May those who are disabled and those who think they are not, help each other.
May those who need someone to listen, touch the hearts of those who are too busy.
May the homeless bring joy to those who open their doors reluctantly.
May the lonely heal those who think they are self-sufficient.
May the poor melt the hearts of the rich.
May seekers of truth give life to those who are satisfied that they have found it.
May the dying who do not wish to die be comforted by those who find it hard to live.
May the unloved be allowed to unlock the hearts of those who cannot love.
May prisoners find true freedom and liberate others from fear.
May those who sleep on the streets share their gentleness with those who cannot understand them.
May the hungry tear the veil from those who do not hunger after justice.
May those who live without hope, cleanse the hearts of their brothers and sisters who are afraid to live.
May the weak confound the strong and save them.
May violence be overcome with compassion.
May violence be absorbed by men and women of peace.
May violence succumb to those who are totally vulnerable, that we may be healed.

Amen

Diverse People Need Diverse Communities

Then he [Charles Martel] again: “Would man not be worse off
Below if he were not a social being?”
“Yes,” I replied, “and here I need no proof.”

“And how could that be so, if men on earth
Did not live diversely with diverse functions?
It cannot if your master [Aristotle] writes the truth.”

So he continued logically like this,
Then he concluded: “Now it follows that
The roots of your effects must be diverse:

So one is born a Solon, Xerxes one,
And one, Melchizedek, another he
Who, when he took to flying, lost his son.

Whirling nature, who puts her seal upon
The mortal wax, does her work well, but favours
One lodging no more than another one.

And so it comes about that Esau is
Estranged from Jacob in the womb, Quirinus, [Romulus]
Although base-born, is thought to come from Mars.

Those engendered would have to take the road
Taken by those who have engendered them,
Did not divine provision override.

Now that’s before your eyes which was behind,
And so that you may know how you delight me,
Here’s a corollary to wrap you round.

Face any nature with discordant fate,
And like a plant outside its proper climate
It cannot fail to yield a poor result.

And if the world down there only paid heed
To the foundations which are laid by nature,
And built on them, then people would be good.

But you’re perverting to religion such
As are born fitter to gird on the sword,
And fashion kings from men who ought to preach:

And so you wander off from the right road.”

Dante, Paradise VIII

I suspect Dante is not to everyone’s taste, but he is to mine, and this thought is one of his most important. At its heart is this simple but profound point – we are all made different. And this means that what we need to thrive – to make the most of natural talents and needs – is also going to vary.

However if we don’t recognise this simple truth then the dangers are great. For people will be mismatched in their work or their other roles.

Of course we cannot know, just by looking, what someones’s nature demands. The process of living is the process of finding out what does and does not work for us. But if we care about our own development, or the development of those we love, or the development of our fellow citizens, then we must care profoundly about the opportunities that society creates that allow people to explore for themselves what is the role for themselves.

But this requires two things – freedom and diverse communities.

I think this is a much healthier way of thinking about that rather dubious good – ‘social mobility’. Too often social mobility is defined in a class-bound and hierarchical way: how do we help people go upwards? (although defined in this silly way it must also logically mean: how do we help people go down?).

Dante offers us a different challenge: how do we build a society where everyone’s talents are recognised where there’s a positive role for everyone?

Securing the Good

The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life.

Jane Addams

Thanks to Henry Iles for sharing this lovely quote with me. Jane Addams founded Chicago’s Hull House, a place for low-income women to find social and educational opportunities. Addams also researched poverty and worked to win the vote for women. She was born in Illinois, 153 years ago.

What I like about this quote is its good common sense. We each are tempted to grasp what we can – to behave as if there is only so much good to go around – dive in and get our hands on a piece of the action. But much of what is valuable in life can only be achieved by a collective willingness to ensure that everyone gets what they need. In this way we can properly secure our needs – not because we’ve grabbed our little piece – but because we can all look out for each other and ensure that each has what they need, without fuss or nonsense “incorporated into our common life.”

It Is Not a Good Thing To Be a ‘Do-It-All.’

We often want to do everything ourselves, but that is a mark of false pride. Even what we owe to others belongs to ourselves, and that is part of our own lives. And when we calculate just how much we owe to others, it is not only un-Christian, but useless. What we are in ourselves, and what we owe to others makes us a complete whole.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The idea of independence is good but is often confused.

We value learning skills and we can often advance our independence by learning something that we didn’t know before. But this is an inevitably finite goal. I cannot learn everything – just because I am finite and human. And if I did know everything what would that mean?

It is not a good thing to be a ‘know-it-all.’

It is essential to our humanity that we need other people. To learn from them. To get their assistance. Of course this is essential to ourselves – to our well-being. Without love and assistance from others our lives would be empty. But it is also important because our needs create opportunities for others to contribute – needs give meaning to all our lives.

It is not a good thing to be a ‘do-it-all.’

What we value is having control over our lives – freedom. Even this is not an unconstrained freedom. Freedom is an expression of self within the context of our community – it is a form of creativity which requires a medium for expression – things which we can control, but also things which are outside our control, but which provide the fabric of self-expression.

As Bonhoeffer observes the goal of independence, understood in a shallow way – me doing everything for myself – is not only false it is a sin. As Bonhoeffer also sees the sin is a failure to acknowledge that what we owe others is part of ourselves – and to deny the reality of this debt is a kind of ingratitude.

Understood in a deep way – me being myself, expressing who I am, with support from others is true and is how we become a “complete whole.” It is also a way of valuing each other, it is at the heart of mutual respect and community life.

The Two Meanings of Institution

The word institution has at least two very different meanings.

It can mean something good.

It is something that we have established and which we may respect and value – a constitution, an organisation or even a habit – like forms of politeness. While such institutions may vary in their social purpose and moral impact they are essentially good. They are the means by which we connect, act together and sustain meaning within and between generations.

As Charles Williams puts it, “An Institution is the nurse of souls.”

Without institutions (in this positive sense) our community would be a desert. We would have to make everything anew and we would have no traditions or systems for handing on knowledge, experience and wisdom.

But there is a second kind of institution, whose essence is bad.
For the word is also used to describe the buildings or camps that were set up – often deep in the countryside – where many thousands of disabled people or people with mental health problems were incarcerated. These institutions were very bad (although they were often established with good intentions). They were places where abuse was often rife and where people struggled to find lives of meaning or respect.

As these large institutions closed and people moved back in to ‘community’ there were many improvements – but often the institution remained. The institution seemed to follow people back into the community. People found that they were still not free, still could not connect, still could not contribute.

It turns out institutions can be large, but they can also be very small. Institutions can be far away, but they can also be next door. Institutions can be very obvious, but they can also be hidden. Community care – as it was called – was successful to the degree that it supported people to be citizens, to really participate in community. Sadly, for many, de-instutionalisation has only only meant closing down a crumbling hospital on the edge of town and transporting people into special units and day centres.

The essential difference between the first and the second institution is that the second kind of institution is a system of control. The buildings, rules and systems corrode human freedom, spontaneity and love. They dictate to us who we must be. [This is true both for the controllers as well as the controlled – often the guards, wardens or nurses are also damaged by this toxic environment.]
These institutions prepackage destiny. They are systems, habits or mentalities that determine how we should live and they exert their malign influence in many different ways.
Death is the only true certainty (it seems that even taxes can be avoided by some). But the institution brings death-like certainty to human life by killing our capacities for newness, creation and purpose.

© 2017 Simon Duffy

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