Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Tag: revolution

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

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.

Internal Institutions

The individual and groupings of people, have to learn that they cannot reform society in reality, nor deal with others as reasonable people, unless the individual has learned to locate and allow for the various patterns of coercive institutions, formal and also informal, which rule him. No matter what his reason says, he will always relapse into obedience to the coercive agency while its pattern is within him.

Idries Shah from The Caravan of Dreams

Idries Shah is an interesting Islamic scholar whose book I found in a second-hand book store recently. This passage stood out for me partly because of his interesting and unusual use of the word institution.

I tend to use the term ‘institution’ in one of two senses. I talk about institutions in a wholly negative sense when I refer to those campuses, asylums and hospitals that began as efforts to segregate the poor and needy and then accelerated during the period of eugenic panic when the objective was to remove people from humanity by effective sterilisation or murder.

However the word institution also has a second, much more positive sense, meaning any kind of human or social creation that has been established and which has stood the test of time. For example, the monarchy is an institution; Bolton Wanderers is an institution.

So what does Idries Shah mean by the patterns of coercive institutions which we find within us? What relevance has this to the challenge of reforming society?

One pattern, that we find in many revolutionaries, is the double-edged belief that power is all about unjust rulership. The revolutionary identifies the ruler as unjust, and may manage to overthrow that ruler; but they then end up living out exactly the same pattern of injustice. Is it that the revolutionary secretly knows no other way to rule than by cruelty and injustice? The dominant pattern which inspired his revolt ends up ruling him and dictating his actions.

Do we see an institutional pattern in those who seek to reform systems of welfare. They may believe the system is unjust, patronising and disempowering. So they seek to shift power – reorganising funding, organising new supports, reforming structures. But all the time their actions seem to suggest that people themselves are not really capable of solving any problems for themselves. We have to do it all for them; they are not good enough or strong enough. The battle to defeat paternalism can quickly become very patronising.

Idries Shah is not suggesting reform is impossible, nor that these patterns can be eradicated. Rather it seems to me that he is suggesting that these are temptations that we need to watch for and overcome. Revolutionaries must ask themselves how they will avoid replacing the tyrant with greater tyranny. Welfare reformers must ask themselves how they will avoid replacing one type of control with another.

You Can’t Overcome Ethics

In what sense do we repudiate ethics and morality? In the sense that it is preached by the bourgeoise, who derived ethics from God’s commandments. […] We repudiate all morality derived from non-human and non-class concepts. […] We say that our morality is entirely subordinated to the interests of the class struggle of the proletariat. Our morality is derived from the interests of the class struggle of the proletariat […] for the Communist, morality lies entirely in this compact, united discipline and conscious mass struggle against all exploiters. We do not believe in an eternal morality, and we expose all the fables about morality.

Lenin

And the perfect response to this powerful and emotional nonsense is given by Shostakovich:

Don’t believe humanists, citizens, don’t believe prophets, don’t believe luminaries – they’ll fool you for a penny. Do your own work, don’t hurt people, try to help them. Don’t try to save humanity all at once, try saving one person first. It’s a lot harder. To help one person without harming another is very difficult. It’s unbelievably difficult. That’s where the temptation to save all of humanity comes from. And then, inevitably, along the way, you discover that all humanity’s happiness hinges on the destruction of a few hundred million people, that’s all. A trifle. Nothing but nonsense in the world, Nikolai Vasilyevich Gogol once said. It’s that nonsense I try to depict.

From Testimony

Lenin follows the logic of Marxism. The underlying logic of all Marx’s writings is a powerful moral revulsion at crime, injustice and oppression. But he allows himself to be lost in imagined historical forces, necessities and mass movements. In the end his moral vision is fatally corrupted and becomes a tool for the worst of dictators, for the worst elements in all of us.

We must never lose a sense of our own individual moral responsibility – if we do we stop being human.

Equality

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that, whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organising its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness….

The Declaration of Independence

These words are so familiar that their radical nature now scarcely registers. Moreover, even those of us who like America and Americans, tend to become cynical when we put these words alongside the kind of heartlessness that seems to pervade social policy in the USA. It looks like the right to pursue your own happiness has ended up trumped all those other of inalienable rights.

But, if we are interested in how to bring about a better world, a fairer world, then cynicism takes us nowhere. Two things at least should inspire us:

The call to recognise our fundamental equality as human beings is so powerful that it resounds through the centuries. It rings true even amidst slave owners and it creates demands on all of us even when we are failing to live up to those demands or are confused about what equality means.

The recognition of this equality has also inspired some of the most profound acts of creation and social justice. Radical innovation is not always successful or good – most revolutions are profoundly damaging and wicked. However the existence of this American Revolution – at least partially inspired by justice – demonstrates that human beings can build anew, with at least some success.

Perhaps one further lesson of the Declaration is the power of reason – thinking, writing and reflecting – to help both galvanise and organise human behaviour. In particular the Declaration is both the recognition of an ideal and an acknowledgement of the human weaknesses that will undermine that ideal. Rights, duties and all the underlying structures of government that support them exist because we cannot be trusted, on our own, to do the right thing. We need reason to help us understand our own weaknesses by looking honestly at human behaviour, our history and the lessons it can teach.

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