Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Tag: meritocracy (page 1 of 2)

What Do We Believe?

Many of us believe in justice, and we try and work for justice. But sometimes the “long arc of history” seems a very distant hope. For those of us who work to advance disability rights we see the tide of negative forces rising: cuts, hate crime, eugenics, prejudice and political leaders who have no shame in taking us backwards.

And it is not just disabled people who face intolerance and whose gifts are rejected. The immigrant, the asylum seeker or the refugees faces fear and hatred. People in poverty are increasingly treated as somehow less than human and are subject to political scapegoating. People of different faiths and different sexualities face suspicion and disrespect. Women and children faces ongoing disadvantage and economic systems that seem incapable of recognising true value.

We can see what’s wrong, but we’re not sure what’s right.

We live in confusing times and many of our assumptions about what true justice looks many need to be re-examined. Many of us feel tired and disappointed. The leadership offered by mainstream politicians seems inadequate to the challenges before us. We want a better way, a way more suited to the reality of things.

If we just take the United Kingdom as a case study the growing tide of injustice is obvious to many of us:

  • Disabled people face cuts in their income and services for no better reason than they lack political power. Changes to benefits are leading to illness and suicide. Institutionalisation is returning, with all the inevitable deaths, rapes, abuse and indignity.
  • The Government refuses to take its fair share of refugees escaping war and terror. It has created a “hostile environment” for asylum-seekers and seems unconcerned about sending people back to persecution and death. It rejects warnings about its human rights record from the United Nations and tries to minimise its international obligations.
  • People in poorer communities across the country are dying more than a decade earlier than their peers because of inequality, inadequate housing economic insecurity and air pollution.
  • Employment is high, but wages and job security is low. Government policy seems based on lies and prejudice; ordinary citizens are bullied in job centres and hit with sanctions for noncompliance. Carers and volunteers, mostly women, are treated as if all their hard work has no real value.
  • The state is centralised in London, while public policy is corrupted by private corporations. Democracy is limited to a 5 yearly choice between leaders who often seem totally distant from the communities they supposedly represent. Political debate is distorted by a media owned by billionaires or by a BBC that has been cowed into submission by political pressure.

The UK is certainly an extreme case. It is the most unequal country in Europe and is cursed with leaders who seem only to want to make things worse. But friends in other countries share some of our problems:

  • The USA must deal with the emergence of leaders like Donald Trump, who sees nothing shameful about reducing health coverage, a basic human right, abandoning efforts to protect the climate and the environment and declaring “America first”. Racism and xenophobia have been normalised as politicians pander to fear and economic anxiety.
  • In Europe right-wing parties are also encouraging hateful policies. Even in countries like Finland, racist parties are gaining support. At the same time countries like Greece are being crushed by economic policies that slash the incomes of ordinary people and mire the country in further debt.
  • Across the developing world large corporations are purchasing power, extracting resources and exploiting the local workforce. Old style imperial colonialism has been replaced with corporate colonialism.

Are these all different and distinct injustices or are they really same injustice, just looked at from different points of view?

Clearly there are important differences of details; however there is a strong case for seeing these problems as all stemming from the same kind of dangerous and bankrupt mindset.

Firstly many of these injustices are connected by a rhetoric of exclusion and scapegoating. Their message is that our problems are caused by them: the poor, the disabled and the foreigners. We need to keep them out, put them away or keep them down. And this message also contains an implicit threats: Don’t dare to stand alongside them. Stay inside the blessed circle. Trust us to look after you, or else…

When the powerful exploit prejudice in this way the result is never pretty. Rarely does it lead to unity amongst the oppressed. Too often it leads to infighting, fear and further scapegoating. In communities where there is severe economic decline and a lack of power then racism can raise its ugly head. When disabled people are attacked then some may choose to keep their distance from those who are seen as ‘too disabled’.

Malcolm X nailed it when he said:

If you aren’t careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.

So perhaps we can start with one obvious moral truth: everybody matters. Black lives matter, disabled people matter, foreigners matter, you and me matter. We all matter; we are all equally important.

It’s been said before, but it’s worth repeating: We are all equal.

The UK gives further wicked twist to this rhetoric of exclusion. Politicians now proudly say that we should live in a meritocracy, a world where the ‘best’ rule the rest.

It is hard to know whether to laugh or cry when politicians use this term, for it’s a term of satire invented by Michael Young (who also invented the Open University and many other good ideas). As long ago as 1958 Young argued that, if we’re not careful then society will divide into two classes, and that those in power will increasingly come to think that they are cleverer, and therefore better, than the rest of us and that have the right to rule over us. Today our ‘clever’ politicians make use of the term, but they don’t seem to have the read the book or understood the argument.

Our well-educated elite don’t seem to have noticed that term meritocracy means, going back to its Latin and Greek roots: ‘rule by the best’. But there was already an older term, which in its original Greek form, means exactly the same thing: aristocracy. I wonder what the public would think if they heard our Prime Minister declare that we need to live in an Aristocracy.

Meritocracy is opposed to democracy: rule by the best, not rule by the people. The modern elites really seem to believe that some people are better than other people and these ‘better people’ should be ‘awarded’ with more power, money and status. This is a great philosophy if you already have more power, money or status. It tells you that you deserve what you already have and that those who lack what you have, don’t deserve to get it. You kid yourself that you’re not only richer, but you are better too.

Of course the idea of meritocracy exploits and misuses one important truth: We may all be equal, but we are certainly all different.

Humans are wonderfully diverse. We are blessed with a great range different gifts and needs, which together make us utterly interdependent. We need each other. Human life, at its best enables people to use, share and develop these diverse gifts through different forms of community life.

Instead of enjoying the beautiful reality of our humanity the meritocrat imposes their own stupid ladder of values: the clever (as they define themselves) should be on top.

But meritocracy is a wonky ladder to nowhere. Instead of building lives of true meaning, citizenship and love, we are invited to clamber up on top of each other, to rise up to the ‘top’. Quite what we’re expected to do once we reach the ‘top’ is not exactly clear. Perhaps they really do think money, power of fame is the point of life.

Against this nonsense we must assert: We are all equal, We are all different and our many differences are good.

Of course, we have been here before, although it is astonishing that we seem to have forgotten all the lessons of twentieth-century history. Racism, eugenics, extreme inequality and colonialism all fed into its wars, revolutions, the racist and communist terror and the Holocaust.

Out of the ashes of the evils of the twentieth century arose two great social achievements. First, we asserted the fundamental importance of human rights in the UN Declaration and in subsequent conventions. Second, we built systems of social security, education and healthcare to protect people from poverty, insecurity and exploitation. It is telling that today both human rights and the welfare state are under threat.

Today the powerful claim that human rights are dangerous. They want the right to abandon the rules set down in international law. They also claim that we can no longer afford the welfare state. In particular immigrants and disabled people are just too ’costly’. This is all nonsense. Despite all its problems, the world has never been so wealthy. The problem is that we are wealthy, but insecure. As economic anxiety increases then we start to believe those who lie to us and tell us that some ‘outsider’ is threatening our security. How easily we accept the lie that it is the asylum seeker, not the tax evader, who threatens the welfare state.

It is disturbing to see how weak the welfare state has started to become. It grew quickly, offering jobs and services to so many. Then its growth slowed and managers emerged to ration, re-organise and achieve efficiencies. Now, as cuts strike even deeper, many employees of the welfare state (and it doesn’t matter whether they’re employed by the state or by civil society organisations) find that they cannot resist, cannot challenge, cannot become ‘political’ or they will find their own jobs under threat. The welfare state has become a passive victim, going almost willingly to its grave.

What is the cause of this collapse in moral values and commitment to social justice? What can we do about it?

It is easy to invoke big concepts: capitalism, neoliberalism, debt, exploitation. All of these ideas do tell us something true. But if we are not careful we end up feeding our fears. We create an image of monstrous evil that is too big, and too mysterious. We start to feel that there is something inhuman and inevitable about the forces ranged against us. It is important here to remember another lesson from the twentieth-century: never trust anyone who talks about the inevitable march of history, the thousand year reich or the internal contradictions of capitalism. Ideology just means taking one idea to its crazy extreme.

At one level the motives that feed these injustices are all too understandable, all too human the: excessive desire for wealth, power or fame. At another level we know that all these human forms of greed become enmeshed in political, economic and social structures that seem like they’re no longer controlled by human action: bureaucracy, political manipulation, financial markets or corporate exploitation.

But we cannot allow ourselves to given into despair.

Moral collapse demands moral action, and this action needs to start by focusing on problems that we can solve. The good news is that there is much that we can do. There are many ways to make the world a fairer, more decent and welcoming place and there are solutions to our problems around which others can rally. There is no reason to wallow in doom. We need to pick ourselves up, shake off the dust of disappointment and look around and honestly evaluate the reality of our situation.

For those of us who care about people with learning disabilities we have already been taught so much by thinkers and activists who have been sharing their wisdom over the past decades. Wolf Wolfensberger showed us how to protect people from stigma and the threats of being turned into some inhuman ‘other’. Beth Mount and John O’Brien helped us understand how dreams and aspirations can be converted into lives of meaning. Judith Snow and her friends Marsha Forest and Jack Pearpoint helped us see that everyone is gifted and that even our needs are gifts, creating the opportunities for human connectedness. We have a great legacy we must protect and pass on to others.

We have many potential allies. So many other groups of people face exclusion because of illness, disability or being seen as ‘too different’. We need to understand what these groups can teach us so we can help a world that is welcoming of difference for everyone. Many people around the world are learning the power of community action and cooperation. Varun Vidyarthi’s work in India shows us that starting with small groups of people, even with the most minimal financial resources, is no barrier to positive social change. John McKnight’s work on asset-based community development helps us restore a sense of balance and possibility to our local neighbourhoods. Today communities around the world are declaring their willingness to welcome the stranger, the immigrant, refugee or asylum seeker. In my home city, organisations like Assist Sheffield support and protect asylum seekers from the dangerous policies of the UK Government.

This is not an infallible recipe book for social justice, but we know enough already to be hopeful and confident that justice can advance. We can also develop ideas for new social and economic structures that will advance justice for everyone. For example we could campaign for:

  • Constitutional change to safeguard human rights, including our social and economic rights
  • Shifting power back to smaller communities and increasing direct democratic control in those communities
  • Universal provision of a basic income so that everyone’s income is secured without stigma
  • Radical change in housing policy to ensure that local housing is available to everyone and no one is forced out of their community
  • Significantly greater income equality, locally and globally, eradicating worldwide poverty

The task before us is real and pressing. Even if we are not sure how to change everything then some of the most practical demands of justice are still clear:

  • Stand up for those who are endangered or excluded
  • Build alliances and connections with other oppressed groups
  • Act like a citizen yourself, now, before it’s too late

There are many great communities out there trying to help make a difference, but we’ve recently launched Citizen Network as a global cooperative to share experiences, projects and to work together to advance the cause of justice and build a world where everybody matters. Why don’t you join us?

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.

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.

The Two Conflicting Forms of Neoliberalism

Neo-liberalism has – I think – two main contrary forms. Often the thinkers who are cited as neoliberals are philosophers like Nozick, who argued for the minimal state and who took as the primary problem to be solved the question: What is the just and fair settlement for any society? This line of thinking goes back, through Mill and Locke, all the way back to the Classical era. It is the same kind of problem that Plato, Aristotle and other genuine political philosophers, have been considering for over two and half thousand years.

Although I can understand why it has acquired the ‘neo’ prefix, I think it is better to see this kind of theory as a modern form of liberalism (in the English sense). It is an attempt to set out the grounds by which diverse people can live together, with justice and with freedom. It is certainly a faulty theory – like perhaps all political theories – but its faults are better understood in the light of what it is genuinely trying to do, rather than simply treating it as all part of the devil’s work. Almost all genuine liberals (of this kind) are forced to adjust their views to reflect the fact that markets do not ensure social justice. Almost all genuine liberals also tend to recognise that my freedom is limited, not just by direct political oppression, but also by my lack of essential resources.

The second form of neoliberalism is the kind of aristocratic prejudice that the ‘best’ should be richer and more powerful than the ‘worst’. Aristocracy means rule by the best and today this has been transmogrified into what is called meritocracy – which sounds like its opposite, but actually means precisely the same thing. What has changed is the nature of the aristocracy – back then it was landed nobles, now it is the children of Eton and Oxford.
The belief of the powerful that they are the best, and so deserve their power, has always been self-serving, and often laughably so. But since Darwin it has taken on a new and more virulent form. Herbert Spencer outlined the relationship between modern theories of race and genetics as follows:

“The law that each creature shall take the benefits and evils of its own nature, be those derived from ancestry or those due to self-produced modifications, has been the law under which life has evolved thus far; and it must continue to the law however much further life may evolve. Whatever qualification this natural course of action may now or hereafter undergo, are qualifications that cannot, without fatal results, essentially change it. Any arrangements which in a considerable degree prevent superiority from profiting by the rewards of superiority, or shield inferiority from the evils it entails – any arrangement which tends to make it as well to be inferior as to be superior; are arrangements diametrically opposed to the progress of organisation and the reaching of a higher life.”

from Herbert Spencer, The Data of Ethics

Spencer, and many other thinkers from that period, successfully connected human and animal nature (or rather a debased and partial account of animal nature) in order to legitimise the abandonment of most of the moral imperatives passed down from Christian (and before that Jewish) civilisation: concern for the welfare of all, the privileged status of the weakest, the need for humility and the imperative of self-control and temperance. All those things that might be seen to ‘redistribute’ resources and energy from the strong to the weak were converted from moral imperatives into corruptions, temptations and threats.

This way of seeing the world reached its peak under Hitler and has gone into hiding since the end of World War II. But it is this aristocratic conceit that underlies much of what now passes as neoliberalism. It is not liberal to encourage genetic engineering by encouraging the abortion of children with disabilities. It is not liberal to concentrate more power in the hands of politicians and corporations. It is not liberal to sanction, bully or coerce people who are out of work. These approaches are not liberal, they are meritocratic.

Distinguishing these two kinds of neoliberalism – the liberal form and the aristocratic form – is strategically important, even for those of us opposed to both forms. First because we cannot easily defeat both forms together – for they have different bases. Second because we miss the opportunity to divide these forces against each other.

Personally I think liberalism, as a defence of freedom, is not our worst enemy. What is an enemy is the kind of one-eyed right-wing economic liberalism that treats the right to property as if it were some kind of divine imperative. But much worse than this is the kind of elitism that believes that ordinary people don’t really need rights, that we’d much better off if disabled people did not exist and that it is acceptable to manipulate the press and media to stigmatise any group that might be helpfully scapegoated.

Meritocratic elitism (which can be found on both the Right and on the Left) should be our main enemy and it may be useful to demonstrate how illiberal and controlling are its advocates.

Why We Mustn’t Murder Beethoven (or Anyone Else)

One doctor asks another:

“About the termination of pregnancy – I want your opinion. The father was a syphilitic, the mother tuberculous, of the children born the first was blind, the second died, the third was deaf and dumb, the fourth was tuberculous. What would you have done?”

“I would have ended the next pregnancy.”

“Then you would have murdered Beethoven.”

Story from Maurice Baring

The power of this story is twofold. First the story reminds us that our genetic pedigree is a poor basis for predicting talent. The doctor thinks he knows the likely outcome of the pregnancy, but he does not. Life and nature is still, thankfully, too unpredictable for such doctors to be able to predict such things.
But much more importantly the story asks us to examine our values. What if this young Beethoven had not been the great composer, but had been a child with disabilities. The doctor would have been just as wrong to end the pregnancy. The real arrogance of the doctor was to presume to judge the value of a human life, in advance and without being able to appreciate that person’s own story.

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

Mountains, Pyramids and the Fate of Self-Directed Support

For me there is always something special about coming to Glasgow. Setting up Inclusion Glasgow in 1996 was certainly the most wonderful, exciting (if stressful) and ultimately rewarding experience of my working life. I still feel lucky – and a little proud – to have had the chance to do it, and I’m so thankful to those, like John Dalrymple, Julie Murray and Frances Brown, who helped make it possible.

This week I am here as a guest of the Social Care Ideas Factory – a great organisation – that seeks to build networks and innovations to promote social change. They are hosting a 3-day international conference on self-directed support, with the thought-provoking title – We Chose to Climb.

This is the first of four blogs that I committed myself to write in honour of their work and the work of all the participants at the conference.

The conference proposes the idea of climbing mountains as a stimulating metaphor for the task ahead – the twofold task: first, to help each one of us, individually, to make the most of our lives together, and second to develop new community-based approaches, to make self-directed support a reality. These are certainly mountains worth climbing.

And this image got me thinking. It reminded me of some my recent reading, it got me musing about my hopes for self-directed support in Scotland, but it also made me think about some of my fears, about what can happen to good ideas, when circumstances change.

Recently I have been reading about the ancient civilisations of the Fertile Crescent and Egypt, and of the birth of the Jewish faith. Mountains played a very important role in the experience of all these people. The mountain was a place where man could approach God, as Moses did at Horeb and at Sinai; and we find the same imagery in the Greek myths. Not only did the Greek gods live on top of Mount Olympus, Hesiod tells us that there was even a special god, Ether, who was present in the luminous fog, that hid the mountain tops. Mountains seem to symbolise both the presence, the greatness and the mystery of the divine.

In this light it is interesting that one of the most ancient structures was the Ziggurat – which seemed to serve as a kind of man-made alternative to the mountain. Not only does this bring the mountain down to size, it also tends to make access to God a matter of social and political organisation. Mountains are democratic – they will accept anyone prepared to climb them. Ziggurats, one suspects, were not open to all-comers.

Certainly the story of the Tower of Babel – Babylon – is the story of earthly hubris – man trying to reach God under his own power. It is also perhaps no accident that the downfall of the tower is the result of conflict and human diversity. The Egyptian pyramid took the ziggurat one step further. Instead of a platform by which the priest can meet God, the pyramid is a resting place for the dead Pharaoh-god. And the pyramid remains the classic symbol of political order, representing hierarchy and stability – it even adorns the US dollar bill.

The Jewish people of course rejected this deathly order. For them God could never be ‘brought down to earth’ in this way. For them the mountains of Sinai, Horeb and ultimately of Jerusalem itself, were symbols, not just of God’s transcendence, but also of our ultimate equality. We can all climb the mountain; no king, priest or leader can stand in our place.

Arguably, Jesus took this one step further. We are all lit by the divine light. Each of us can climb the mountain by ensuring that our light is held up high: “No one, when he has lit a lamp, puts it in a cellar or under a basket, but on a stand, that those who come in may see the light.” [Luke 11:33]

But what has all this symbolism and theology got to do with self-directed support in Scotland? Something I think.

The proper purpose of self-directed support – why we chose to climb – was to ensure that each person, even if they have an impairment, even if they need assistance – can lead a life of meaning and value. Self-directed support is an assertion of human equality and of our rich human potential.

Yet self-directed support is also an attempt to wrestle power from a deeply hierarchical and meritocratic system. Often the hierarchy seem to win. Here are a few examples of what I mean:

  1. Recently I have been doing some research into how idea that I first developed in Glasgow – Individual Service Funds – is being implemented in practice. Essentially an ISF is a simple innovation, it means that a service provider (and that term can be defined very broadly) acts as an intermediary for the person and helps them organise the support they need – flexibly and creatively. Yet, in practice, not only has take-up for this way of working been pitifully low (1% of all funding is spent in this way in England) it has also been bogged down in bureaucracy. For instance, many providers are contracted to work to a support plan that must be signed off by a social worker – the very opposite of the original concept.
  2. In addition, ideas like person-centred planning, which were originally brilliant innovations, that helped people to think creatively, have now been turned into mandated, mechanical processes – now everyone must now have their own person-centred plan. The original idea has been converted from a tool of personal liberation into yet another government controlled system. This does not stimulate creativity or empowerment; it merely enriches those who are in the business of planning, training or facilitating plans. A gift of great minds has been turned, by government, into something grubby.
  3. Standing further back, in England, self-directed support – or as it has now been renamed – personalisation, remains the official policy for ‘reforming’ adult social care. Yet, in the last four years adult social care has been cut by 30% with 500,000 fewer people now receiving care. So what does it mean to reform a system which is being cut like this? It is not encouraging.
  4. Lastly, we have seen personal health budgets (PHBs), proposed as a reform to transform the NHS. This seems such a promising idea. For example, anyone who has seen the poor state of mental health services, to pick just one area, must want to see self-directed support be extend into the NHS. Yet, with privatisation and means-testing growing, will the extension of PHBs not quickly lead to an acceleration in topping-up and other invidious practices? Soon the best piece of the UK’s welfare system – free and universal high quality healthcare – might be eroded into a quasi-insurance system where people are encouraged to take out additional insurance to guarantee faster access, better care or ‘for the good of all.’ This was certainly not the purpose of self-directed support.

This is how mountains are turned into pyramids. Ideas that were developed in the name of equality and of justice, can be uprooted and put to other uses. It seems so hard to fight City Hall.

Yet we should not despair.

While neoliberalism and austerity do appear to be winning, they are in truth, feeble foes. There is nothing inevitable about their success.

However, it will take new kinds of strategies to protect the mountain; and I think that events like tomorrow’s conference show us what is necessary if we are to climb mountains, rather than be crushed by pyramids.

  1. First of all, this event is about all of us – as equals – figuring out alternatives together. Our current problems exist because we’ve allowed power to become concentrated in the hands of too few. Together we have the wit and intelligence to challenge ourselves to take back that power. This means overcoming old barriers and distinctions – the divisions by which we are ruled – but we can do this.
  2. Second, self-directed support, even done imperfectly, still works. Its power and impact makes it very difficult for bureaucratic inertia to win the day. If we can continue to make practical progress, then, in a few years, it will seem outrageous that we allowed disabled people to sold and re-tendered like slaves; it will seem extraordinary that we did not support families and disabled people to be in control of their own support; and it will seem absurd that so much of the voluntary sector was tied down in red-tape, contracts and regulations.
  3. Finally, this event is in Scotland and Scotland has woken up to the fact that it is a democracy. It does not need to leave power where it is. Power can be reclaimed – in fact when the current elite so obviously lacks legitimacy in Scotland – taking back power is just a matter of time. I am sure a modern Scotland will begin to ask some very sharp questions about the kind of welfare state that is currently on offer and will start to move to something more in accordance with the principles of social justice.

Positive change is never inevitable; but the mountain will always overshadow the pyramid.

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.

Use and Abuse of Standards

To have standards or regulations imposed upon us means we all cannot succeed; some will make it and some will fail. It is by the nature of such measures that they must divide us into sheep and goats.

The only standards that we should really accept are those we willingly accept. Only the standards that we set for ourselves can keep pace with our own learning.

Of course society does need valid tests; but these should be as objective as possible. For instance, Charles Handy compared the UK’s driving test with its exam system:

  • The first test is objective, we take it when we are ready, and it tells us something useful – you really can drive – these kinds of tests are much harder for politicians to corrupt.
  • The second is a system of ranking, which we are herded through whether we are ready or not – and it has proved very easy to corrupt.

A driving test is a standard that we can measure ourselves by. Music exams have also remained robust – you take each Grade when you are ready to pass it.

But an exam system which seeks to grade us and which is also taken as measure of the success of the school or the area or the government becomes corrupt. Perhaps systems that try to test both the person and yet which are somehow taken as a measure of the system’s own successfulness seem prone to collapse under their own inner contradiction.

What Would Aristotle Make of Modern Britain?

Aristotle famously divided the forms of government into three:

  • Monarchy – rule by one
  • Aristocracy – rule by the best
  • Polity – rule by the many

Each in turn can be corrupted into:

  • Rule by a tyrant, who is concerned only with his own interests
  • Rule by oligarchs, an elite who protect their own interests
  • Rule by the mass or the mob, who look after the interests of the majority

In other words we can distinguish the structural forms of government, from their proper concern: which in all cases is a full and balanced concern for the whole community – over time – including respect for the past, as well as concern for the future.

How would Aristotle classify the modern welfare democracy of the UK today?

Structurally it is a mixed model: (1) a constitutional monarch (2) competing elites, taking turns to control a bureaucracy which is itself an elite, or transferring power to private businesses, where similar elite groups can be found (3) accountability every five years to the population through an election.

But what is the spirit of this trifold constitution? Is it properly concerned with the welfare of all and the communities well-being and continuity over time? Or is it only interested in promoting particular interests? Is it healthy or is it corrupt?

Aristotle was no fool. He would probably recognise that no society can ever manage to avoid some degree of corruption – people will just keep seeking to look after their own interests or the interests of their friends. But he would surely worry, looking at the UK today, that the direction of travel is unhealthy. The elites who run our society begin to look more and more like each other; and less and less like the rest of us. And their conception of what is good for society sounds more and more like what is good for them.

We Fell Asleep

We fell asleep.

We forgot that they don’t take care of us, we take care of each other.
We forgot that it’s the rich who need the poor, not the poor who need the rich.
We forgot that politicians work for us, we don’t work for them.

We forgot that government doesn’t innovate, people do.
We forgot that government doesn’t create wealth, people do.
We forgot that government doesn’t know best, people do.

We forgot about citizenship.
We forgot about families.
We forgot about community.

We confused good with big.
We confused achievement with wealth.
We confused love with control.

We forgot that the welfare state was made by us, that it belongs to us and it needs to work for us.

It’s time to wake up.

The Welfare State and Citizenship in Political Theory

We tend to assume that what we call the Left is broadly for the welfare state while what we call the Right is broadly against it. However the reality is more complex, in fact only a few extremist are exactly against the welfare state. Almost everyone is for the welfare state, but what they disagree about is what kind of welfare state is best.

From my perspective the kind of welfare state we want is one that supports robust and active citizenship – for all. I want to live in a society that welcomes all it’s different members into a real and vibrant community – not as cogs or components.

But do our political traditions seek a welfare state fit for citizens?

For example, within the conservative tradition, which tends to treat the continuity of state and society as the primary goal, while the welfare state may have been unwelcome to begin with it can also be treated as an inevitable accommodation with the forces of modernity. It turns out that the forces of terror, revolution and totalitarianism that were unleashed by the economic insecurities of the modern world are somewhat tamed by creating welfare provision. For example, Bismarck introduced many social reforms in Germany that were clearly motivated by this kind of conservative thinking.

Conservatives value established social institutions and they stress the reliance of the individual on the relationships and communities within which they develop. Conservative critics of the welfare state tend to focus on the need to maintain respect for non-state institutions or the structures of civil society. They often seek a welfare state that promotes family, faith or community. They often worry that notions of equality or citizenship are dangerous to the social order and if they use the term citizen at all it is largely as just another word for ‘subject.’

It is possible to defend the welfare state from within the conservative tradition, but it is likely that any such defence will focus on a welfare state that serves to underpin, without replacing, older social traditions, or which in some way renews those traditions. Such an approach has something to recommend it, but it will seem inadequate to those individuals or groups who are currently excluded from community and active citizenship.

Interestingly the socialist tradition shares some of the same assumptions as the conservative tradition. It deprecates individualism and it values the collective. However it starts with the assumption that social justice has been failed by the status quo. It proposes radical change in society, in order to promote equality. Typically it assumes that this change must be overseen and controlled by the state.

For socialists the welfare state is their own great achievement. The commitment to solve social problems by the means of state-directed activity is socialism in action. However socialists are currently in a slightly difficult position with regard to the justification and criticism of the welfare state. They become torn between seeking to defend or grow the current system or criticising the system in the light of their ultimate vision for social justice. Socialism is not a logically inconsistent, but it is interesting to note that socialist critiques of the welfare system (while they exist) have not yet led to significant social change.

There is a similar ambiguity about the socialist view of citizenship. While conservatives tend to reject citizenship, as a radical idea that subverts respect for proper authority, socialists tend to appropriate citizenship without valuing it. Citizenship becomes just a way of dignifying our shared status as cogs in the state-run machine.

Alternatively citizenship can be seen as at the root of cooperative action, mutuality and the trade unionism that was the initial life blood of socialism. For instance, the National Coalition of Independent Action in the UK, which represents small voluntary organisations has as its sub-title:

We’re not an arm of the state (or the private sector) – we have our own arms.

This seems to me true, but unfortunately it is a theme which barely registers within modern public policy and the media dominated debates of modern life.

The theory that currently dominates modern thought is liberalism, although this is liberalism is divided between Right and Left-liberalism. Right-liberals, like Nozick (sometimes confusingly called neo-liberals) focus on the precedence of civil and political rights, and treat the right to own property as having precedence over other socio-economic rights. They seek to maximise the space for freedom.
Left-liberals, like Rawls, tend to seek to advance the cause of social rights as one part of the full set of our proper rights and they focus on ensuring people have the means to enjoy freedom equally. Simplifying the matter, all liberals are interested in advancing human freedom, but they are divided as to whether they are interested in freedom from oppression or freedom for human development.

Liberals do sometimes use the term citizen, but primarily this is just code for an individual as bearer of rights and duties and as someone who is formally equal within the system of rules, safeguards and securities. We are citizens because we can call on the state to support our rights, although we are also expected to fulfil whatever duties are necessary to the fulfilment of those rights. For a liberal freedom come first, then rights and lastly duties.

[Liberals do often value equal opportunities and they sometimes propose that society be organised so that all citizens can make the best of their abilities within the system – we should all be equally free to climb as high as possible and to achieve as much as possible. This alerts us also to the meritocratic assumptions of liberals: all should be free, but all are not (really) equal.]

Another tradition, one that is closely linked to liberalism and is very influential in social sciences, social policy and contemporary political rhetoric is utilitarianism – the idea that social systems should be organised to maximise the overall level of welfare. Utilitarians don’t need to appeal to citizenship to justify the existence of the welfare state and, at least in principle, utilitarianism may be quite happy to sacrifice individual freedoms, rights and the notion of equality if there are more beneficial social outcomes available without them. Huxley’s Brave New World was a utilitarian dystopia where different ‘grades’ of human being are integrated into one harmonious whole.

Liberalism and utilitarianism can seem like opposing philosophies. Liberalism promotes freedom not the consequences of freedom; utilitarianism is interested in consequences and may sacrifice anything to the desired end. However these traditions of political thought are also twinned.

Liberalism and utilitarianism are both aristocratic forms of thinking. Each is offering a pattern by which rulers can manipulate the complex reality of society. Right-liberals often appeal to the interests of the elites that manage commerce; Left-liberals appeal to the interests of the elites that manage the public-sector. Everyone tries to exploit the kind of utilitarian arguments that can usefully appeal to the electorate.

Arguably what unties these traditions is a shared commitment to meritocracy – that the best of us, should rule rest of us, and for our own good. And aristocracy is just the ancient name for meritocracy – the “aristos” being the best.

Within this meritocratic framework the welfare state plays two roles. First it is an instrument by which power and influence can be exercised over society to the goals of political elites. Second it is an object of dispute in the on-going conflict between powerful political elites. In fact it would not be hard to argue that for the modern political elites the welfare state is more important as an object of political discourse than as an actual instrument of social change.

Such is the unreliability of the instrument and the rapid change in political fortunes that it is a rare politician who really expects to achieve meaningful social change through their temporary control of the instruments of welfare. It is more important to have a good story about the welfare state:

“We are for it – it needs to be made bigger – trust us to make the necessary changes.” 

“We are for it – but its too big or inefficient – trust us to manage it correctly.”

There is no assumption that perhaps people themselves could make their own decisions, at the level of the citizen or community. Where would be the political advantage in that?

Citizenship, real citizenship, is absent from contemporary debates and our analysis of the welfare state – because it doesn’t serve the interests of any of the political elites (Left or Right).

The idea of citizenship does not belong to any one political theory. If taken seriously it would temper the extreme and anti-democratic nature of all the main political theories. But unfortunately it is not in the interests of the powerful to imagine a world where their own power was limited by our citizenship.

Human Rights for Disabled People

“Far am I from denying in theory; full as far is my heart from withholding in practice… the real rights of men… If civil society be made for the advantage of man, all the advantages for which it is made become his right… Whatever each man can separately do, without trespassing upon others, he has a right to do for himself; and he has a right to a fair portion of all which society, with all its combinations of skill and force, can do in his favour.”

Edmund Burke from Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790)

There is a debate in political theory and in practical politics about the value of rights. There are at least two traditions opposed to taking rights seriously:

1. The radical statists – thinkers like Jeremy Bentham and Karl Marx didn’t like the way in which rights could be used to get in the way of whatever it was they thought was in the ‘true interests of society’. They saw rights as backward looking – protecting the interests of the few against their own enlightened concern for the many. The modern version of this is found in Fabianism and Neo-Liberalism.

2. The conservative tradition – thinkers like Edmund Burke were fearful of the unexpected damage that ideas like Human Rights might bring about in a society when they had not been tested by experience – looking over the Channel at the blood being spilled in the name of Human Rights one can have some sympathy with this point of view.

While both these sceptical traditions may have some merit it is also interesting to note that they almost cancel each other. Attacks on Human Rights seems largely to be a defence of privilege. For the radical statists the hidden assumption is that they (the new and emerging elite) know best how the rest of us should live. The conservative tradition is largely concerned to defend the privileges of the old and threatened elite. Both views are only useful to those who form part of the elite.

In reality rights are the vital lifeblood of civil society – and it is a mistake to try and separate them from piety, virtue or duty as some thinkers do. As Simone Weil notes duties are inextricably bound up with rights (even if duties are logically prior to rights – as I have argue elsewhere):

“A man considered in isolation, only has duties, amongst which are certain duties towards himself. Other men, seen from his point of view, only have rights….”

The big question is not ‘whether rights’ – the big question is ‘what rights’. This is a truth that Edmund Burke himself recognised. This is why the tradition of Human Rights is essential – even if it inevitably challenges existing patterns of civil rights. Human Rights are not a panacea, but they are a useful way of interrogating the existing pattern of rights – the actual laws, customs and systems of our society. As Burke recognised we need rights in order to distribute the “fair portion of all which society, with all its combinations of skill and force, can do in his favour” – this is never a simple matter and it is certainly subject to change.

A good example of this is the current debate on the application of human rights to the lives of disabled people. Our current law and systems are built on dreadful negative assumptions about disabled people. They provide for some cold charity and care, but they do not support people’s real Human Rights. They reflect two centuries of prejudice and oppression – so there is no reason to expect that the current patterns of civil rights are adequate protection for the real status of disabled people – as equal citizens.

We also know much more about how to combine “skill and force” to provide a “fair portion” for all citizens. For instance, we know that inclusion, citizenship and independent living create a better world for everyone. So we recognise – with even greater urgency – the moral case for the radical reform of our current welfare system – particularly the systems that impact on disabled people.

Human Rights are not enough, as Hannah Arendt noted when discussing the Eichman trial:

“For Israel the only unprecedented feature of the trial was that, for the first time (since the year 70, when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans), Jews were able to sit in judgement on crimes committed against their own people, that for the first time they did not need to appeal to others for protection and justice, or fall back upon the compromised phraseology of the rights of man – rights which, as no one knew better than they, were claimed only by people who were too weak to defend their “rights of Englishmen” and to enforce their own laws.”

It is time that the human rights of disabled people are turned into real civil rights – “the rights of Englishmen.”

Incentives Can be Badly Misused

The effect of high rewards or similar in creative jobs is thus very often to encourage people to misallocate their effort between tasks, to fixate on a given target, to take too much or to little risk, to have fore-shortened time horizons, to behave unethically in order to get what they want, and to experience debilitating levels of stress and anxiety. In short rather an accurate description of the culture of many parts of the current financial markets. 

Jesse Norman in The Big Society

The author is right – but he may have also added the whole of the political elite and their current efforts to ‘manage’ for public service improvement through over-complex contracts, cumbersome commissioning arrangements and fancy ‘social impact bonds’. The notion that somebody might just do their job properly because they loved it and wanted to do it well has entirely disappeared from contemporary policy-making.

The problem is profound. If you want to use incentives to achieve specific goals then you have to be really confident that you know what it is you really want. Within the context of one policy objective – reducing unemployment – it may seem natural to incentivise things that you think will meet that goal.

But reality is more complex than that.

In our own life we know that we have to balance many considerations and that no one thing is ‘the point’ of our activities. Often aiming at one thing has perverse consequences that we didn’t expect. If we can control our own circumstances then we adjust and regain balance. But if we are made to work to some overarching but primitive target we quickly find that balance is lost – and things fall apart.

The Disappearance of the Labour Party

The Labour Party made the inevitable compromise with the new society it had done so much to create: it ceased to exist.

Michael Young from The Rise of the Meritocracy

Michael Young was one of the central figures of the Labour Party after World War II and one of the greatest social innovators ever. His satire on the post-war settlement (The Rise of the Meritocracy was published in 1958) predicts much that has happened since. In his wicked satire the meritocrats are those who rule us – because they are bred, trained and prepared for that duty. But this is not a cold duty – for they of course must get the best treatment in order to ensure that they can put their full energy into looking after the rest of us. The rest of us – who are less meritorious – must await the benefits that flow from their wisdom (while of course working hard to take care of our meritocratic rulers).

Perhaps what Young did not expect was that people might miss the satire; today many now use the term ‘meritocracy’ to describe the kind of world that they want to live in.

It is perhaps an open question whether Young was right or wrong about the Labour Party. In some sense it clearly still exists – but who does it now represent?

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