Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Tag: Marshall

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.

Beyond Rights – Citizenship in the Welfare State

The [new 1834] Poor Law treated the claims of the poor, not as an integral part of the rights of the citizen, but as an alternative to them – as claims which could be met only if the claimants ceased to be citizens in any true sense of the world.

T H Marshall in Citizenship and Social Class 

Marshall, and other advocates of citizenship in the welfare state, often focus their arguments on a justification of our socio-economic rights. They are right to propose that it is very helpful to see ourselves as holding such rights; rightly they refuse to treat the welfare system as a privilege – granted by the wealthy or the powerful.

Welfare systems which are not founded on rights are easily corrupted and will not be sustainable over time.

We can see the difference this makes in practice. In the UK when socio-economic rights are treated as universal (e.g. health and pensions) they seem to gain more support and are better protected from cuts. However when socio-economic rights are poorly defined and targeted, when they are treated as privileges that apply to just a few (e.g. benefits and social care) then they are easily undermined and reduced. Hence social care in England is being cut by over 30% between 2010 and 2015 – an unprecedented cut in welfare spending – but hardly noticed by the media or by the general public.

As the welfare state becomes increasing subject to means-testing, targeting and conditionality the whole edifice will become unstable. In particular some groups will be increasingly perceived as outside the pale of citizenship. People with disabilities, the poor, people with mental health problems, recent immigrants and exiles and many other groups are becoming strangers in their own land.

T H Marshall is of course not to blame for this corruption of the welfare state. But may be it was a mistake to define citizenship too narrowly. Rights are important, but being a citizen is about much more than being a right-holder. We can identify several other dimensions to citizenship:

  1. Citizens are contributors to the public good
  2. Citizens have many rights and duties, independent of their relationship to the state
  3. Citizens are equal
  4. Citizens are not paupers
  5. Citizens are free
  6. Citizens build community together
  7. Citizens rule themselves, though genuinely democratic institutions

1. The virtue of contribution

Positive obligations, like the need to pay our taxes, are more likely to go unrecognised if there is no stress on the virtue of contribution as an aspect of citizenship.

2. The limits of public expenditure

Taxation and public expenditure are not the only means for fulfilling our obligations. It is unhelpful to focus only on the role of the state in adjusting incomes or in providing services. We have other rights and other duties.

Citizens are free and yet bound by a web of obligations to themselves, family, friends, neighbours and the institutions of civil society – as well as their obligation to the state. It is important not to treat our rights (including our socio-economic rights) as merely a function of our willingness to pay taxes. It is critical to the ecology of community to understand the proper role of public expenditure and also to understand how other forms of contribution can develop in harmony with our obligation to pay our taxes.

For example, most support for children and adults who need assistance to grow, flourish and live good lives comes from families. When a parent takes care of their own child they are doing something which is important on very many levels. It is hard to see that there is any benefit in encouraging the parent to stop taking care of their child, go to work, just to earn enough money to pay for someone else to take care of their child.

3. The need for equality

Citizenship demands equality, not absolute equality (which is in fact hostile to citizenship), but a reasonable level of income equality. The focus of utilitarian and liberal theory has been to sacrifice equality to productivity. Even those who argue for equality can fall back on broadly utilitarian arguments which, while not false, somewhat miss their target. While it may be true that inequality is costly even for the wealthy it is somewhat peculiar to appeal to plain self-interest to justify greater equality.

Plato in the Laws [V, 744] suggests that the poorest must be guaranteed a minimum and that the richest must have no more than four times that minimum. For, as all champions of citizenship, like Rousseau, note:

…by equality, we should understand, not that the degrees of power and riches are to be absolutely identical for everybody; but that power shall never be great enough for violence, and shall always be exercised by virtue of rank and law; and that, in respect of riches, no citizen shall ever be wealthy enough to buy another, and none poor enough to be forced to sell himself.

Rousseau, The Social Contract.

The requirement for relative equality for citizens is based upon the justified belief that high levels of relative inequality distort human relationships and make it harder for people to see each other as equals or to treat each other as equals. It is not so much income equality in itself that is important, rather it is the risk of damaging self-esteem, while inflating pride.

4. Limiting poverty

It is not just relative income equality that is required by citizenship. Citizenship also demands an absolute ban on poverty, in the sense that poverty means a state of need which overtakes the individual’s capacity to function as a free and independent citizen.

I neither say nor maintain that kings should be called rich any more than the common folk who go through the streets on foot, for sufficiency equals wealth, and covetousness equals poverty.

(Guillaume de Lorris) & Jean de Muin, The Romance of Rose

Citizenship helps us here in two ways. First it provides another important reason for protecting socio-economic rights, but in a different way. The imperative to end poverty requires that an absolute minimum be set which guarantees the possibility for free and active contribution. Such freedom from poverty becomes the condition which frees us for practical citizenship – not slavery.

As Aristotle says: You could no more make a city out of paupers than out of slaves

Furthermore the question of what constitutes poverty and what, therefore, constitutes the level of income and support necessary to overcome poverty, becomes central to the design of the welfare state.

In the UK at least the design of the welfare state fails to address either poverty or inequality. Public policy-makers have become very relaxed about excessive wealth, and have convinced themselves that excessive wealth fuels productivity – despite all the evidence to the contrary. Moreover poverty is defined relatively, and so is treated as an absolute fact, which can only be mitigated, but not ended. This is an error.

5. The exercise of freedom

Citizens don’t just have rights and responsibilities, they also have freedoms. Citizenship should be a creative engagement with other citizens; and through this engagement new forms of community life evolve. Unfortunately this fact is not recognised in the design of most welfare systems.

While the existence of the welfare state is often defended by means of the rights of citizens it seems like the design of the welfare state is dictated by the needs and interests of the powerful. Often it seems like a new form of aristocratic rule has evolved within the welfare state itself.

The most extreme example of this can be found in the treatment of people with disabilities. Many people find that their lives are dictated by the welfare state: where people live, who people live with, what people do with their time, what people own and earn – everything is fixed by the state. Other groups may have some more freedom, but they still find their experience of the welfare state stigmatising and damaging: receiving benefit payments, negotiating confused bureaucracies and entering crisis before any assistance is received. Even more, universal services, like education, are highly centralised and standardised – not defined by a partnership of teachers and families – but by the political elite.

People with disabilities have led the way in demonstrating that this pattern of state-controlled welfare is unnecessary and inconsistent with citizenship. The battle to convert social work services into reasonable entitlements, under the control of individuals or families, has been being fought since the 1960s and has led to significant improvement in people’s life experiences.

In public policy there is still a resistance to seeing the exercise of freedom as an aspect of citizenship. These ideas are associated with neo-liberalism or the invasion of the market into the public sphere. But for those interesting in defending the welfare state this seems a risky strategy. It should be the defenders of citizenship who seek to extend freedom to citizens, even when this requires increased accountability and flexibility from the welfare state itself.

6. The role of civil society

Another curious lacuna in our thinking about welfare is the limited role given to civil society. And by civil society here I mean all the institutions and forms of community activity that exist in between the family and the state.

There has lately of course been a great focus on privatisation – an increased role being given to commercial bodies to provide welfare services – and this does involve a partial recognition of the role of civil society. But the language and focus of privatisation has again been rooted in liberal and utilitarian models of public policy.

Again advocates of citizenship can again find themselves in a confused and constrained rhetorical space. They may be critical of state welfare, but then they are also fearful of how state welfare slips into being a new partnership between the state and large commercial companies. There is a sense that the elite of state employees are now making common cause with the elite  of commerce. Often these people turn out to be friends, people who went to the same schools and universities and who also know each other socially.

It seems to me that we need to restore for ourselves greater respect for civil society as a distinct space – what some people call ‘the commons’ – the area we all own, together.

On a recent trip to Athens I was struck by the discovery that the ancient agora was marked off from private property by a series of sacred markers. The purpose of these markers was to forbid private ownership and protect the limits of the agora. Also, it was interesting to note that the place of political assembly was not in the agora, but on a hill over-looking the agora. Within the agora people did deals, taught, prayed, sold things – it was a permissive and flexible space – with plenty of commercial elements. But it was a purely public space.

Without such spaces – agoras – we cannot exercise our citizenship. It would be interesting to explore the consequences of a more spatial approach to public policy and citizenship.

7. The role of government

The other striking feature of the the citizen in the welfare state today is how undemocratic the system has become. Three things are striking:

  • The modern welfare state tends to be centralised, and – at least in the UK – has become increasingly centralised over time.
  • The welfare state is subject to bureaucratic and regulatory control – it is not accountable through democratic, market or communal processes.
  • The party political system is increasingly distorting the proper functions of the welfare state for narrow electoral reasons and to pander to key electoral groups.

In other words we are not citizens, in charge of our own government, we are consumers of welfare services designed and delivered by political elites.

This was precisely the end that G K Chesterton foresaw in his keen intellectual battles with the great Fabian George Bernard Shaw. While Shaw argued that the state, and its elites, were the inevitable guardians and managers of the welfare state Chesterton argued that this would leave ordinary citizens disempowered, without rights and property:

It is characteristic of his [G B Shaw] school, of his age. The morality he represents is above all the morality of negations. Just as it says you must not drink wine at all as the only solution to a few people drinking too much; just as it would say you must not touch meat or smoke tobacco at all.

Let us always remember, therefore, that when Mr Shaw says he can persuade all men to give up the sentiment of Private Property, it is in exactly the same hopeful spirit that he says he will get all of you to give up meat, tobacco, beer, and vast number of other things.

G K Chesterton, Do We Agree? 

Chesterton’s point is all the more powerful today, when the UK stands as the country with the greatest level of debt per head. We don’t own property, we are burdened by debt – one of the oldest routes to slavery.

Finally

Of course we may prefer slavery, debt, consumerism and passivity, instead of citizenship. Citizenship may seem like hard work. But we will find that, without citizenship, the welfare state we come to rely on will become increasingly less reliable.

Modest Reasons for Hope

Citizenship is a status bestowed on those who are full members of a community. All who possess the status are equal with respect to the rights and duties with which the status is endowed. There is no universal principle that determines what those rights and duties shall be, but societies in which citizenship is a developing institution create an image of an ideal citizenship against which achievement can be measured and towards which aspiration can be directed. The urge forward along the path thus plotted is an urge towards a fuller measure of equality, an enrichment of the stuff of which the status is made and an increase in the number of those on whom the status is bestowed.

T H Marshall in Citizenship and Social Class

T H Marshall was one of the most important social theorists of the twentieth century. He argued powerfully that the development of the welfare state should be seen as the next logical step in the advancement of citizenship for all. After people had claimed their political rights, in the form of universal suffrage and other civil rights, it was right and inevitable that social rights would be extended to a greater number of people. Ultimately this would drive forward, develop and broaden the extent of citizenship.

Today all of this may seem a pipe dream.

Citizenship is not a resonant idea in modern politics – when it is used it is for ulterior motives – not out of any respect for the idea itself. In 1950 Marshall could look forward to further progress as “democratic socialism” demonstrated its virtues by meeting needs and extending social rights. Today “democratic socialism” seems tarnished and is unlikely to return, at least in that form.

Instead theory is dominated by various of liberalism and by practice is dominated by competing elites and powerful commercial interests. Social rights, especially in the UK, are being radically reduced and being redefined as privileges in the process. For example social care for people with disabilities will have been cut by 33% between 2010 and 2015.

So is there hope?

Progress is not inevitable. Elites can maintain their grip on power for centuries. It is foolish to simply expect a process of positive evolution to bring about a greater commitment to citizenship. In fact, if history teaches us anything both social rights and citizenship require people to demand and, if necessary, fight for them.

Citizenship cannot be gifted by the powerful to the weak.

Nevertheless there are a number of factors that might give us some encouragement.

First, it is noticeable that people don’t tend to stay passive. As the state centralises or commodifies more of its functions then it inevitably will leavs people exploring what it can do within the space that this process creates. This is not, what is called “Big Society”. Peer or community groups arise primarily out of a sense of injustice and dissatisfaction (not because they want to please the Prime Minister). They may thereby seek to create practical community-based solutions to problems; they may federate and organise and they may also put pressure on government.

For example, it is interesting to note that in the UK, while the established non-government organisations and big charities have been largely silent on the severe impact of government policy (perhaps because they themselves are so dependent on public funding or desire closer relationships with political elites) new disability groups are emerging and seeking to find new ways of working together. It is far too early to call this a success, but when leaders don’t lead, new leaders tend to emerge.

Second, there is a fundamental and growing social and economic problem which will continue to dog the political system – its inability to generate the kind of deeper solutions that foster citizenship, sustainability and broader forms of enriching productivity. Elites can promote ‘bread and circuses’ but they cannot build civilisations. Moreover, if our basic technical competence continues to grow (it takes fewer and fewer people simply to do the basic things necessary for us to live) then more and more people will become hungry for something better than consumerism and debt.

Third, there continue to be important points of moral leadership in civil society which offer a different vision of things. In the past religious leaders have often played a critical role in pushing society forward. Moreover the increasingly international nature of modern society may be helpful. It is fascinating to see what a powerful document the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights is. If its principles were taken seriously then much of the current welfare settlement would look very different.

Finally there is perhaps the hope that some of our leaders themselves will begin to sense the vanity of ruling without citizenship. As Hannah Arendt often observes, to rule over others is inhuman, it puts you outside the equalising space in which you can be recognised as an equal yourself and where you can act without force. Perhaps there will arise some sense that the job of the leader is to enable citizenship, that this would not only be more productive for the whole of society, it would also be so more personally fulfilling for leaders themselves.

In the famous funeral oratory of Pericles we get the sense that leaders don’t have to apsire to tyranny or elitism. They can take pride in equality, citizenship and a community that makes that possible:

Let me say that our system of government does not copy the institutions of our neighbours. It is more the case of our being a model to others, than of our imitating anyone else. Our constitution is called a democracy because power is in the hands not of a minority but of the whole people. When it is a question of settling private disputes, everyone is equal before the law; when it is a question of putting one person before another in positions of public responsibility, what counts is not membership of a particular class, but the actual ability which the man possesses. No one, so long as he has it in him to be of service to the state, is kept in political obscurity because of poverty. And just as our political life is free and open, so is our day-to-day life in our relations with each other. We do not get into a state with our next-door neighbour if he enjoys himself in his own way, nor do we give him the kind of black looks which, though they do no real harm, still do hurt people’s feelings. We are free and tolerant in our private lives; but in public affairs we keep to the law. This is because it commands our deepest respect.

Pericles, cited by Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian Wars

Whatever our leaders do we must become the kind of citizens who do not need the best kind of leaders in order to thrive. But may, just may be, some of our leaders will wake up to discover that deceit, manipulation and control – in the service of nothing but power and money – is hardly worth waking up for. May be some of our leaders may begin to recognise the deeper hunger – in all of us – for lives of meaning and equal respect.

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