Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Tag: power

On the Mountain – Roles or Relationships

Today the theme of second day of We Chose to Climb was clear and strong – not power – but relationships. The event itself was full of wonderful content – stimulating and moving – and again and again the presenters made the same point: what makes a positive difference is the reality of the relationship between two people.

And, after all – as Nick Andrews said: Who is helping who?

  • If I am Nadia’s personal assistant, am I helping her to get about and to communicate, or is she helping me to learn more and to earn a living?
  • If I am a social worker trying to establish a fair individual budget for Nadia, am I helping her or is she giving me an important paid job and the opportunity to develop?
  • If I am a senior manager organising disability services, am I helping her or is she giving me the means to have status and influence?

The answer is obvious – both are true – we help each other.

But actually that is not the critical question. The critical question is: Do we each behave as if we know that both are true?

I am afraid I have used this quote before – it is one of those observations I find so powerful:

He [Rebbe Shmelke] said: “The rich need the poor more than the poor need the rich. Unfortunately, neither is conscious of it.”

That is, interdependence is the only human reality. But if we don’t see our relationships as interdependent then we run the risk of creating a sense of worthless dependence on the one side and prideful disrespect on the other.

Of course good practitioners and professionals avoid this trap – everyday – they work with proper humility and respect – they understand the value of the other human being – in any circumstance.

What I think Self-Directed Support offers us is the opportunity to be more explicit about the true nature of that relationship. It does not aim to give the people who need assistance undue power over those who support them; instead it is as an effort to ensure that, when you need assistance, then you know that you are entitled to receive it and direct it. Receiving assistance should not feel like getting a charitable gift where the assistance is defined and controlled by someone else.

Rights are not at war with relationships – rights can restore us to proper relationship.

Self-directed support might be said to rebalance power relationships. Or perhaps better, self-directed support gives us the chance to build new forms of power together – in a relationship of equality.

But this is only the first step.

It is the human quality of that relationship that matters.

Sarah Taylor cited Martin Buber, one of the key thinkers of the twentieth century, who proposed that we can distinguish two radically different ways of relating ourselves to others:

The world is twofold for man in accordance with his twofold attitude.
The attitude of man is twofold in accordance with the two basic words he can speak.
The basic words are not single words but word pairs.
One basic world is the word pair I-Thou.
The other basic word is the word pair I-It; but this basic word is not changed when He or She takes the place of It.
Thus the I of man is also twofold.
For the I of the basic word I-Thou is different from that in the basic word I-It.

What Buber argues, in his classic I and Thou, is that there is all the difference in the world between seeing another person as just an object (may be a clever, active or pleasant object) and seeing them as a true person. For Buber this is connected to a theology that sees an element of God in everyone. But, even the non-religious, might recognise that, when we really connect with another person, we must be open to the power – the light – that burns within them.

This may seem a long way from the day-to-day realities of self-directed support, social work or personal assistance. But, up on the mountain, is this not the critical factor:

  • Can we rely on each other?
  • Do we trust each other?
  • Can we listen to each other?
  • Will we look after each other?

As Jamie Andrew explained to us this morning – the mountain can be beautiful, but it can also be a very dangerous place. You can die on the mountain. So – we need each other. But our pre-defined roles and expectations, our processes and our regulations, may simply not hack it on the mountain.

The only true security lies in our relationship with each other.

Coming Down the Pyramid or How to Give up Power

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Measurements

There was a man of Cheng who was going to buy himself shoes. First he measured his foot; then he put the measurements away. When he got to the market he discovered that he had left them behind. After he found the shoes he wanted, he went home to fetch the measurements; but the marketplace was closed when he returned, and he never got his shoes. Someone asked him: “Why didn’t you use your own foot?” “I trusted the measurements more than my foot,” he replied.

Han Fei Tzu

This Chinese story reminds me of how often we find ourselves measuring things that don’t need to be measured. Instead of giving people choice and control we measure their satisfaction or their outcomes. So we exercise a subtle act of power – invalidating their choice and validating our own right to determine what we count as valuable.

Measuring has always been political. It was considered sacrilegious to carry out a census, precisely because such a census (which could then be used to levy taxes) was a way of giving power to the measurer – in this case the king.

Today we are more relaxed about measurement. We measure ourselves, take surveys, monitor our health and subject ourselves to a battery of bureaucratic measurements and assessments. But do we know why? Have we subjected ourselves to the measuring state in the hope that it will thereby take care of us?

As genetic controls increase such measurements will take on a new dimension – they will start to determine our credit scores, our suitability as a parent, the cost of our insurance. We may start to feel much less relaxed about giving up so much information about ourselves.

Telling Truth and Fighting Slander

…for slander is a most grievous thing: in it the wrongdoers are two, and the person who suffers wrong is one. The slanderer does a wrong in that he speaks against one who is not present, the other in that he is persuaded of the thing before he gets certain knowledge of it, and he who is not present when the words are spoken suffers wrong in the matter thus – both because he has been slandered by the one and because he has been believed to be bad by the other. 

Herodotus

One of the earliest childhood rhymes we learn is:

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. 

But as we know this only part of the truth. Sometimes sticks and stones may hurt much less than the words that we use to hurt others.

Kant observed that lying, telling untruths was wrong not just because we hurt another person, but also because it is an attack on the possibility of truth for all of us. Each lie blinds us, both the lier himself, the person he lies to and everyone then drawn into an understanding that has been viciously twisted.

Slander is even worse because it mixes lying with malice and, as we know, there is no guarantee that a lie will be discovered.

The lies of the powerful write our history and drive the greatest crimes. Joseph Goebbel’s assertion that you simply need to repeat the lie enough for it to be believed is all too credible.

How do we react to the power of the lie and the evil of slander?

It is difficult to judge. St James wisely observes:

But the human tongue can be tamed by no man. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

We know he’s right and the temptation to gossip, blame and deceive ourselves as much as others can be overwhelming. We must begin by learning self-discipline in this regard.

But is there not also a danger that waiting simply for justice to arise, staying quiet, is also rooted less in a sense of justice and more in a lack of courage?

I was in Adelaide for the last two weeks and outside my bedroom window was a great piece of graffiti:

Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will always save me

Words too must be used in the cause of justice, truth and love. Finding the right words is difficult, finding the right time to speak even more so.

As I look back at my own life so far I think I have learned one thing: speak truth to power. It is often those who are most powerful who need to hear the truth, and often those around them will do everything to disguise the truth from them. Five truthful words to a politician may be more effective than five thousand words to a civil servant. And the five thousand words to civil servants may suck the life out of you.

When you find (as I have done) that you are repeatedly banging your head against a wall – just stop –  then find another way.

Christ instructed us:

Be as innocent as doves, but as wise as serpents

Sometimes the silence of listening, waiting and understanding must be matched by an ability to say the right thing, at the right time to the right person.

The Poor Cannot Afford the Generosity of the Powerful

Then did all the grants and the subsidies, the benefits and the bargain offers pass over these poverty-stricken peasants when Ingolfur Angerson’s ideals came to fruition? What is one to say? It so happens that it signifies little though a penniless crofter be offered a grant from the Treasury towards the cost of tractors and modern ploughs. Or a forty years’ loan to build a concrete house with double walls, water on tap, lino and electric light. Or a bonus on his deposits. Or a prize for cultivating a large expanse of land. Or a princely manure-cistern for the droppings from one or one and a half cows. The fact is that it is utterly pointless to make anyone a generous offer unless he is a rich man; rich men are the only people who can accept a generous offer. To be poor is simply the peculiar human condition of not being able to take advantage of a generous offer. The essence of being a poor peasant is the inability to avail oneself of the gifts which politicians offer or promise and to be left at the mercy of ideals which only make the rich richer and the poor poorer.

From Independent People by Halldor Laxness

In this excellent book by the Icelandic Noble Prize Winner we are told the story of one man, Bjartur, a sheep farmer and crofter, who fights for his independence. All through the book he refuses charity and he refuses to get enmeshed in debt. He is suspicious of his betters and all their grand ideas to improve his life.

But finally things go too well. The First World War drives up the price of mutton and the growing cooperative movement in Iceland sweeps away the merchants and seems to offer cheap loans and grants – all to bring benefits to the farmer. So Bjartur relents, he takes a loan, he builds a house and – when the economy changes – he loses everything.

Laxness reflects on this terrible paradox – only the rich can afford to take risk accepting all these kind offers – partly because only the rich are insured against the problems that arise when things fall apart.

Today we see the same phenomenon. We are now living an age of austerity where the recent economic bubble has burst. But the price of that bubble cannot be paid by the banks – for they are too important to fail. The price cannot paid by home owners or the middle-classes – despite the fact that over-inflation in house values was at the root of the economic crisis – for their votes are too important to politicians for them to be allowed to suffer.

So who must suffer? It turns out that the poor and people with disabilities – while not responsible for the crisis – must pay the price for it.

Cultivate Yourself First

The sage of old cultivated himself before he attempted to help others. If you yourself are not cultivated, what help could you possibly be for others? Do you know how virtue is lost and how mere knowledge arises? True virtue can be destroyed by fame, and mere knowledge is often reached by conflict. Fame is something that can be used to beat down others and knowledge is used to attack others. Both are instruments of evil and the sage has no need of either.

Confucius quoted in the Tao Te Ching

Confucius is talking to an enthusiastic do-gooder who wishes to tutor a tyrannical prince. The whole discussion is very interesting. Each time the young man suggests that he has found the right way to influence power then Confucius explains how the strategy will fail.

To seek to do good, through the agency of another person, is an exciting dream and it is hard not to indulge it. We may think we know exactly who the football manager should pick for his team or we may think we know exactly what the Prime Minister should do for the best. But it is a kind of cheating – instead of trying take on that role – with all of its responsibilities we wish simply to act as puppeteer: do this, do it my way.

However I am not sure how Confucius would respond to the logic of democratic politics and the need for debate and policy. Equality and citizenship allows, in fact should encourage, debate and mutual tutoring because these things are proper to the function of the citizen. This kind of influence is not a dream it is a responsibility – but there can be no short-cut through the agency of the powerful.

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