Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Tag: individualism

Is a Pro-Community Welfare State Possible?

In the space of a few days I’ve been lucky enough to be part of two workshops where we explored the question of how to narrow the gap between public services (the official welfare state) and the community. Each event was inspiring, with stories of exciting innovations that demonstrate the power of community action and the ability of the state, sometimes with a little help, to act as an agent for positive social change. There is a clear appetite for a new settlement, a new kind of pro-community welfare state, one which works in harmony with its citizens, not against them.

Now I know that for many fellow campaigners against the UK’s austerity policies even to discuss these ideas is to move dangerously close to the Big Society Bullshit that has been used as a screen by Government to disguise more than six years of cuts, stigma and increasing inequality. Some believe that the old welfare state was just fine, and that we must go back to the 1945 system; others recognise that all was not perfect, but think that any criticism of the old system, at this time, just provides dangerous ammunition for the new barbarians.

I certainly have some sympathy with both positions. The old welfare system had many virtues which we have lost sight of, including a much greater faith in the ability of officials in the welfare system to make sensible decisions, at a local level. Much of this freedom and flexibility has disappeared as Whitehall has taken over the ‘management’ of the welfare state. I also recognise that the Coalition Government did a brilliant job of covering its tracks. For every vicious cut they imposed there was some wacky new programme (usually funded by the Cabinet Office) that was used to grab headlines and scatter glitter over gaping wounds. We live in a cynical age.

But I don’t think we can hold back from considering some of the fundamental flaws in how the welfare state has evolved over the past few decades. It is particularly important to consider some of the deeper factors, which are much harder to see, but which not only damage the welfare state but also enable the Big Society Bullshit to gain credibility.

The best lies are wrapped around a small nugget of truth, and repeated lies cannot be defeated unless you can share some deeper, stronger and more hopeful truth.

To begin with I think it’s important to remember why we need the welfare state. The welfare state is a compensatory mechanisms that helps us deal with two kinds of inequality: inequality of wealth (income and assets) and inequality of need (disability, illness and age). The more equal a society is in wealth then the less you need systems of benefits, taxes and social housing to rebalance things. However, even if wealth were equal you would still need to deal with the fact that some people will also need further help which they cannot get on their own.

Now it is important to note that this second problem is also linked to how willing people are to do what is right without payment. Inequality of need is no problem in a community that naturally organises itself to meet those extra needs; however in a society where doctors, nurses and social workers want to be paid, and to be paid well, for using expert skills then inequality of need will also require additional welfare systems to ensure these important additional needs are also met.

So the purpose of the welfare state is to compensate, not just for inequality, but also for the insecurity that comes from knowing that you might have needs, and that nobody will be willing to help you meet them without payment.

Now, in the way of a thought experiment, let us imagine that you are the ruler of a community that already has a welfare state; and now imagine that (for some strange reason) you want to destroy the welfare system, but in a way that people won’t notice. Here are some strategies you could use:

  1. Forget about the importance of inequality, spend less on making the poor less poor, but spend more on services instead. In this way public spending will remain high, but inequality will grow. This is what the UK has done, spending about 50% less on poverty now than it did in 1977. In this way, fundamental needs will grow but the system will appear unable to help them. This helps to undermine the whole system.
  2. Encourage inequality within public services themselves. The Chief Executive of the NHS is paid about £200,000 – 50 times more than the poorest 10% of UK citizens who live on about £4,000 per year. Charity chiefs can earn similar amounts (e.g. £175,000 for the CEO of Mencap). In this way the public and charitable sectors can create the inequality that they are supposed to be there to solve.
  3. Make the poor poorer through hidden taxes. For instance the poorest 10% pay 50% of their income in taxes, meaning that their real income is closer to £2,000 per year (about £40 per week). In this way the poor are tricked into paying the salaries of those who should be helping them.
  4. Then create extra taxes, just for those people who have higher needs. This is called means-testing or charging, and it means that if you have a disability you will only get support if you are very poor or if you are prepared to pay the high ‘disability taxes’ imposed by the adult social care system. For this reason many people opt out of the welfare state and start to believe that that the system only exists for ‘them’ (the poorest, the most unworthy). At the same time the poor have to make themselves even poorer just in order to get vital services.
  5. Associate the welfare state with stigma, control and a sense of unworthiness; in this way people will not want to support it, use it or value it. Spending public money on campaigns which suggest people on benefits might be “benefit thieves” has been a highly successful means of spreading fear and mistrust through the general public. Today people believe benefit fraud is rife, whereas it is actually statistically insignificant.
  6. Pretend that public services are inadequate and will be better managed by private sector companies. This has the double benefit of reducing people’s sense of control and faith in the system, while adding to the inherent inequality of public services (frontline workers salaries are pushed down, profits are sucked out, yet senior public officials can now earn more as ‘commissioners’ rather than providers).
  7. Talk about the need for communities to take back control, for citizens to be empowered and then dismantle any of the remaining systems of support. And here we are today – Big Society Bullshit.

Some of you this may think that this is an unduly critical view of public policy over the past 40 years or so; others may think this is simply a restatement of what many others have been arguing for some time – “It’s the workings of capitalism; it’s the ideology of neoliberalism.”

So I’ll end by considering the question of motivation. Who wants to destroy the welfare state and why?

I asked you to consider how you would destroy the welfare state from within. But personally I find it difficult to believe that most of the politicians and the civil servants responsible for the welfare state have really been trying to destroy the welfare state. (But I may be being naive). In my experience (most of) our rulers want to do the right thing, but they do not understand the systems they control and act in order to gain short-term political advantage. Rationality and wisdom is harder to attain in a position of power.

Nor do I think that, for most of this period, greed and corruption by commercial companies has been the biggest factor in the destruction of the welfare state (although I think things have now changed, and it is certainly a significant factor today).

However I do think that shallow thinking has played its part; but I think that state socialism has been nearly as damaging as the kind of narrow economic liberalism that has now been relabelled as ‘neoliberalism’. It we think of people as merely animals, seeking selfish material benefit, then our thinking about the demands of justice and the organisation of society will be utterly inadequate.

So what are the real driving forces that continue to undermine the welfare state? Here are five poisons that I believe are eating away at the welfare state from within. I do not think they are the only corrosive factors at work, but I think they are important internal factors which should be given more attention as we try to think our way out of our current problems:

1. Centralisation – The more that decisions are taken centrally then the fewer the people involved in those decision, the easier corruption and the easier it is for powerful groups to get advantage over less powerful groups. Elites speak to elites, and after dinner comes the contracts, or the increased salaries for senior staff.

2. Meritocracy – The more hierarchical and the less democratic a society then the easier it is for its rulers to believe that they deserve their power, the money (that they award themselves) and their many other privileges. Meritocracy has always been the ideology of aristocracies – ‘we rule because we are the best’. The fact that the best are now the likes of Donald Trump, rather than the landed gentry, is merely a matter of detail.

3. Inequality – The welfare state exists because of inequality, but progressively it has treated inequality as an unavoidable fact, not as a problem that it was designed to tackle. Inequality make the poorest, not just poor, but weak and demoralised. Inequality makes the rich complacent and heartless. Today the welfare state not only fails to respond to poverty, it makes the problem worse by creating new kinds inequalities within public services themselves.

4. Insecurity – The ongoing dilemma for the welfare state, one that can be witnessed in the writings of Beveridge, Marshall and its other early designers, is the fear that the welfare state will give people too much security and encourage laziness or undue dependence. For this reason income security (unlike health security) has always been viciously means-tested. Strangely, as economic insecurity continues to grow in our increasingly global and technological economy, the state now works to increase this sense of insecurity through damaging changes to the benefits system. This toxic insecurity means that if people are unable to find paid work they are then punished if they volunteer or act like a citizen. The need to keep the poorest under control and feeling insecure eats away at the legitimacy of the system and further enables paternalism or bullying.

5. Individualism – The welfare state has been built around a highly individualised conception of the citizen. Family, friendship and community disappear in its gaze; instead bureaucratically defined solutions are offered to mere individuals. There is no role for collaboration, solidarity or cooperation in the modern welfare state, because all of those things move the centre of power towards community and treat the person as a citizen, not as a unit. Atomised we are weak – and that is how the system seems to want us.

The irony is that creating a good welfare state, or at least a much better welfare state, is quite possible. There is nothing inevitable about the ongoing decline of the welfare state. But in order to reverse the current decline we will need to think much harder about the real and underlying problems built into the current system itself.

Some of these problems cannot be solved by ‘policy’ (encouraging our rulers to have better ideas). The solutions we really need are constitutional, they require rethinking the fundamental structures of our democracy and our society. Unless we are prepared to do that thinking and begin advocating for more fundamental changes the legacy we were handed by our grandparents and great-grandparents will wither and die on our watch.

What is Neoliberalism Good For?

It would be fair to say that the world of politics seems to be dominated by an ideology that we in the UK call liberalism and which argues for the primacy of freedom and the pursuit of individual happiness. This is an influential theory; but one that is full of paradoxes and perversities.

The most obvious is that we can’t even agree what to call it.

On the other side of the Atlantic liberalism means, roughly, what we would call Left-wing.

On this side of the Atlantic we use the term either to describe the thoughts of the centrist political party we now call the Liberal Democrats, or the entirely different theoretical tradition championed by sections of the Conservative Party – which is also sometimes called Thatcherism.

How confusing!

Many on the Left now call it neoliberalism – although I’ve never been able to distinguish ‘new liberalism’ from ‘old liberalism’. Perhaps neoliberalism is just code for the version of completely batty extreme Right-wing liberalism that nobody could believe in.

Usually, if someone is talking about neoliberalism they refer to Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia. But when I studied this very interesting book I got the sense that the author himself didn’t really believe his own theory. The whole thing is an elegant reductio ad absurdam of his own position. It seemed to be designed half in jest; moreover a few years later he outlined a very different theory in The Examined Life.

Even those radical Republicans who use liberal arguments are only half serious. Take for instance the Republican satirist, P J O’Rourke, who summarises his position thus:

The other secret to balancing the budget is to remember that all tax revenue is the result of holding a gun to somebody’s head. Not paying taxes is against the law. If you don’t pay your taxes, you’ll be fined. If you don’t pay the fine you’ll be jailed. If you try to escape from jail, you’ll be shot. Thus, I – in my role as citizen and voter – am going to shoot you – in your role as taxpayer and ripe suck – if you do not pay your share of the national tab. Therefore, every time the government spends money on anything, you have to ask yourself, “Would I kill my kindly, gray haired mother for this?” In the case of defence spending, the argument is simple: “Come on Ma, everybody’s in this together. If those Canadian hordes come down over the border, we’ll all be dead meat. Pony up.” In the case of helping cripples, orphans and blind people, the argument is almost as persuasive: “Mother, I know you don’t know these people from Adam, but we’ve got five thousand years of Judeo-Christian-Muslim-Buddhist-Hindu-Confucian-animist-jungle-God morality going here. Fork over the dough.” But day care doesn’t fly: ”You’re paying the next-door neighbour’s baby-sitter, or its curtains for you, Mom.” 

P J O’Rourke, Parliament of Whores, p.100

In other words, neoliberalism is secondary to “Judeo-Christian-Muslim-Buddhist-Hindu-Confucian-animist-jungle-God morality” which is another way of saying that there are much more important and truthful ideas than liberalism.

The point is that even many of the extreme advocates of neoliberalism don’t really pretend to take their own theory that seriously. Nobody but a lunatic would think that just pursuing your own selfish goals is a sensible way to think about your own purpose or about the well-being of society.

So if neoliberals don’t believe in neoliberalism, who does?

I think the paradoxical answer is that only the opponents of neoliberalism really believe in neoliberalism – but they believe in it negatively. It serves the same rhetorical purpose on the Left as a term like communist does on the Right. It is also socially helpful; if you are of the Left then you are united by your opposition to neoliberalism. It is not so much a straw man as a straw enemy.

Now I need to be careful here.

I am not suggesting that there are not plenty of greedy or self-interested people in the world. There are plenty. There are also corporate bodies that behave in ways that are motivated by avarice and which are profoundly damaging to our society.

Greed is real and greed is not good. Corruption is very real.

And I know that there are a few people who believe in the ravings of Ayn Rand or the musings of Robert Nozick. Although I don’t think these people are the ones we really have to worry about.

In my view neoliberalism has never been a coherent or attractive theory. What it is, is a bag of rhetorical devices that can be deployed to protect the interests of powerful elites. It offers rhetorical tropes – phrases and concepts – which if unexamined – lend depth to the self-serving policies of the powerful. But these devices not really rooted in liberalism – instead they take genuine moral concepts but twist them into narrow concepts in order serve their own selfish ends:

  • Our desire for freedom is whittled down to consumerism
  • Citizenship loses its meaning and is reduced to vain individualism
  • Virtue is emptied of real content and just becomes responsibility – looking after your own
  • Community becomes a market, and a particularly uninteresting kind of market
  • Government becomes the state, not something we do together, just an external device to keep us all in order

The rhetorical device works because it is starts with in something valuable. But the valuable concepts are not the concepts of liberalism. Something good is being suggested; yet by the time we find out what the liberal means by freedom, citizenship or virtue we are left with something toxic.

In practice the rhetoric of liberalism is useful to those who use it because it encourages people to leave well alone:

  • Why would you want to rule yourselves? Leave that to us.
  • Why would you want a community or public goods? Private goods are good enough for you.
  • Don’t worry about freedom. Why not go shopping instead?
  • Don’t worry about virtue. Just pay your taxes; we’ll do the rest.

Don’t worry leave it to us, leave it to the market, leave it to our contractors – we know just the man for the job.

Neoliberalism is not neutral – it turns out there are a whole class of people who get the job of running the minimal state, the markets and the corporations.

Perhaps I should join in the attack on neoliberalism. I have certainly had lots of good people telling me that I am foolish for not understanding its power or the threat that it presents. Perhaps it is naive of me to think that I shouldn’t have to attack a stupid theory – one in which no one but a fool would believe.

But I can’t believe attacking straw enemies is good for us. It seems to me that we run the risk of giving life to a monster – wasting our energy fighting something which does not really exist. And gross enemies sometimes get in the way of really examining what we are fighting for.

Meanwhile we fail to notice the way in which power and control is centralised in the hands of political and commercial elites – not because they believe in neoliberalism – but because they are greedy and arrogant – and because we have let them get away with it.

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