Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Tag: de Tocqueville

Coming Down the Pyramid or How to Give up Power

Today I was part of the We Chose to Climb event, created by the Social Care Ideas Factory. It was a stimulating affair, and I really enjoyed being there – seeing familiar faces, catching up and meeting new people. I was also greatly encouraged by the presentations and the thinking I heard expressed. There is still a long way to go to make self-directed support a reality in Scotland – but there is a maturity and reality to the approach in Scotland which I found very encouraging.

The day was too full to do justice to everything I heard, but the image I was left with was that of Alison Petch: It may difficult to climb the pyramid; but it is even more difficult to climb down.

Added to this was Charlie Barker-Gavigan’s observation that more people died coming down the Matterhorn than going up it. Descending from a position of power is a dangerous business.

All of this tallies with a well-known historical fact: the risk of a revolution tends to increase, not decrease, when regimes start to show weakness and try to reform themselves. Alexis de Tocqueville, the great French political theorist put it this way:

“Revolutions are not always brought about by a gradual decline from bad to worse. Nations that have endured patiently and almost unconsciously the most overwhelming oppression, often burst into rebellion against the yoke the moment it begins to grow lighter. The regime which is destroyed by a revolution is almost always an improvement on its immediate predecessor, and experience teaches that the most critical moment for bad governments is the one which witnesses their first steps toward reform.”

So – indeed – nothing seems more dangerous than to give up power.

Yet, self-directed support does seem to depend on some kind of giving up of power. It is only real if there is some shift in authority – if people can make more decisions and exercise more freedom in their own life.

However, I think we must careful here. We must be careful in our thinking about power: power is not like a cake, which we can buy from the baker, and divide at our own choosing. Making power is not a zero-sum game – it is not a matter of winners and losers or the distribution a finite object.

Hannah Arendt, in her wonderful essay, On Violence, distinguishes true power from the violence that we often confuse with power:

“Violence can destroy power; it is utterly incapable of creating it.”

For Arendt, power is made when we come together as free people and commit ourselves to create a world of collaborative action – in other words, true power is the expression of citizenship and community. We make power together and the sign of a decent society is that it is overflowing with power.

We become confused because sometimes the powerful can deploy violence, and this can lead ultimately to the corruption of power into terror or tyranny. But in a sense, such a world is a world without power – power has been replaced by violence.

What we can learn from this is that, we can make our descent down the pyramid safer if we start to release our capacity for the creation of new kinds of power – the powers that are released when we come together to create new and better ways of being together as equals.

Connected to this was an observation by Susan Eriksson, who was commenting on the slippery nature of the power shift in self-directed support in Finland. Susan noted that, while there were new and positive changes for people, it was also clear that professionals also used self-directed support as a way to reassert their role and to develop new accounts of their professional purpose.

Now this may sound rather suspect; but I actually think it is essential, if we are to achieve the shift to self-directed support. If we want people to descend the pyramid then we must try and make it safe for them to do so. This means working together to help that group to find new roles and develop more productive forms of power relationship.

Commissioners – for example – need to be welcomed into a new a more collaborative definition of their role.

At its worst this process can be corrupted and no real change takes place – but at its best – as my friend Suzie Fothergill sings: we will find that there is room for all of us in this world.

The Limits of Centralisation

Centralisation imparts without difficulty an admirable regularity to the routine of business… in short it excels in prevention, but not in action. Its forces desert it when society is to be profoundly moved, or accelerated in its course; and if once the cooperation of private citizens is necessary to the furtherance of its measures, the secret of its impotence is disclosed…

These are not conditions upon which the alliance of the human will is to be obtained; it must be free in its gait and responsible for its acts, or (such is the constitution of man) the citizen had rather remain a passive spectator than a dependent actor in schemes with which he is unacquainted.

Alexis de Tocqueville from Democracy in America

I love ‘free in its gait and responsible for its acts’. Politicians tell us they want our participation, our citizenship and our contribution. But one feels that they only want us to get involved on their terms – not when we’re ready – but when they’re ready.

Citizenship must be rooted in local experiences of active engagement. We cannot be expected to spring into action only when our masters decide they are ready for us.

The fact that the UK is the most centralised welfare state in the world should give us all cause for concern.

Education, Democracy and America

In America, on the contrary, it may be said that the township was organised before the county, the county before the state, the state before the union… …The law enters into a thousand social wants that even now very inadequately felt in France.

 But it is the mandates relating to public education that the original character of American civilisation is at once placed in the clearest light. “Whereas,” says the law, “Satan, the enemy of mankind, finds his strongest weapons in the ignorance of men, and whereas it is important that the wisdom of our fathers shall not remain buried in their tombs, and whereas the education of children is one of the prime concerns of the state, with the aid of the lord…” Here follows clauses establishing schools in every township and obliging the inhabitants, under pain of heavy fines, to support them. Schools of a superior kind were founded in the same manner in the more populous districts. The municipal authorities were bound to enforce the sending of children to school by their parents; they were empowered to inflict fines upon all who refused compliance; and in the cases of continued resistance, society assumed the place of the parent, took possession of the child, and deprived the father of those natural rights which he used to so bad a purpose. The reader will undoubtedly have remarked the preamble these enactments: in America religion is the road to knowledge, and the observance of divine laws leads man to civil freedom. 

Alexis de Tocqueville from Democracy in America (1835)

de Tocqueville notices some very interesting features of the early American social and political system.

There is first the genuinely ‘federal’ character of early American political organisation. Authority is seen to lie in citizens, then towns, counties and then it moves upwards to the state and the union.

Yet he also observes that, at that time, American society was not individualistic nor anti-social. To de Tocqueville it was extraordinarily social:  the desire to do good and to attend to “social wants” is everywhere.

The paradox is that ambitious social concern combined with a federal and legalistic society lends itself quite naturally to demanding a state that can increasingly interfere with individual liberty. By the standards of the time, America was certainly a nanny socialist state. Perhaps its current liberalism is a reaction against this early enthusiasm.

However, some resolution to this paradox is found in the role played by religion in early American life. While tolerating diversity of religious practice, American society seems bound together in a shared moral concern for each other that is religious rather than liberal. However this is counter-balanced by a distinctively protestant concern for the liberty of the individual soul. The notion that any citizen can be sacrificed for the sake of the collective would be profoundly problematic for such a protestant country.

Today we are more sanguine about sacrificing the individual for the collective. Mechanisation, atomisation and the erosion of moral and religious feeling all encourages a sense that we are just all part of some vast machinery of need and production and that our role is simply to play our part and to try and squeeze out for ourselves whatever share of the social product we can manage.

If we are not careful citizenship stops being the foundation stone for a just society – instead it simply becomes a way of flattering us into accepting our role as mere subjects of the state.

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