Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Tag: social justice (page 1 of 2)

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.

Clever Clever Tories

Recently I was asked on Twitter what was the best rebuttal for the Government’s policy of setting a Benefit Cap; this was shortly after watching a Labour leadership candidate back the Benefit Cap when challenged directly by a BBC journalist.

Clever, clever Tories.

If anyone doubts the cleverness of those in power then consider this:

The Government has devastated the income of the poorest, not by the Benefit Cap, but by a whole series of technical changes to how benefits are claimed and calculated. The poorest 10% of families lost 9% of their post-tax income in the last 5 years – down from a mere £100 per week. Yet the policy which the BBC uses as a litmus test for welfare reform is the Benefit Cap – a policy which applies to very few people (0.1% of families) most of whom live in London and where benefits are simply being used to subsidise excessive rents and therefore actually fund landlords.

Clever, clever Tories

There is no doubt indeed that we are dealing with some very intelligent and cunning people.

This Government’s policy can usefully be divided between:

  • Real policy – which is hard to see but which largely functions to impoverish the poor and to pander to the wallets of middle-earners and the truly wealthy.
  • Apparent policy – which is easy to see and which panders to social prejudices, the need for simplification demanded by journalists and which puts social justice on the back foot.

Of course one of the advantages of Government is that you can instruct your civil service to do most of the work of designing and defending these disgraceful policies. It is hard to compete with the billions invested in defending injustice.

However, perhaps we should think like Sir Frances Drake, when faced by the Spanish Armada: small and sprightly ships, connected by strategy, but attacking from different directions may be what we need.

Keeping Money Fresh – The Ideas of Malcolm Henry

Nothing that could be got from the heart of the earth could have been put to better purposes than the silver the king’s miners got for him. There were people in the country who, when it came into their hands, degraded it by locking it up in a chest, and then it grew diseased and was called mammon, and bred all sorts of quarrels; but when first it left the king’s hands it never made any but friends, and the air of the world kept it clean. 

From the Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald

I’ve just watched a brilliant film my Malcolm Henry on the creation of money and the case it creates for a basic (or citizen’s) income.

http://youtu.be/gue9Q6wgdjQ

I won’t summarise the argument he makes, other than to say that – like MacDonald – he distinguishes two kinds of money (a) the money in circulation in the productive economy which the air of the world keeps clean and (b) the money in savings or gambling which has become diseased. Henry then argues that we are locked into a toxic relationship with the latter; while a system of taxation for savings plus citizen’s income restores a healthy pattern of productive recirculation.

I do not know exactly whether this is the perfect solution to our problems; but it sounds compelling and intriguing to me. I will think more on this – and buy his book.

But it does strike me that in order to shift our thinking about social justice and to achieve a saner and fairer world we will need a new kind of economics. Henry seems to be doing exactly the right thing – offering us a way of picturing our situation which is true to our real challenges:

We are wealthy, but income is distributed unfairly; we are productive, but locked in debt.

It is worth remembering that the welfare state was partly the child of Beveridge – who designed some of its basic institutions – but it was also partly the child of Keynes – whose economic theory provided government with the confidence to act as the agent of growth. Today, while Beveridge and Keynes both have much to teach us, we re also suffering from the some of the limitations implicit in their models. In particular the Keynes-Beveridge welfare state tried to offer security of income through security of employment – but this model looks out-dated today.

Security is necessary, but the security we need must come from each other and not be linked to working as an ’employee’. Eventually we will find that freedom and security can be reconciled in a new economic framework.

So a big thank you to Malcolm Henry – a great innovator in the new economics we need!

Spending is a Poor Proxy for Justice

The welfare state needs defending – but we also need to rediscover what it is really for.

Since its creation the major focus has been on its size – should we spend more on it or less on it. But this is the wrong question.

Public expenditure is a poor proxy for public good. Public services are a poor proxy for the advance of human rights. Advancing state power is not the same as advancing citizenship. Paying one’s taxes is important, but it is only one important duty for citizens.

For example, I can increase spending on healthcare and pay the cleaners more – and so reduce inequality, or I can spend more on doctors – and increase inequality. I can spend less on healthcare, but also reduce income inequality overall, which will thereby increase health and well-being.

In other words, it’s not spending on its own that matters, it’s what you actually do with the money.

Welfare systems can promote welfare, but the relationship between welfare and the welfare state is complex. It depends on the design of the welfare system.

Sometimes welfare systems make things worse. For example, it is well known that the Western mental health systems are correlated with poorer mental health. Mental health systems either damage mental health or merely cope with mental health problems created by society. There is little evidence that mental health services really improve our mental health.

If we value the welfare state we should pay much more attention to how it really works – not naively accept the ideas promoted by policy-makers or special interest groups.

The idea of welfare reform has now been captured by those who are merely dismantling it. However our challenge is that while trying to defeat them we must still examine – what kind of welfare state we really want. If we want justice then welfare reform – not cuts and attacks on the poor – real reform is going to be essential.

Cause, Effect and Human Freedom

Behind the man with the knife is the man who sold him the knife, the man who did not give him a job, the man who decided that his school did not need funding, the man who closed down the branch plant where he could have worked, the man who decided to reduce benefit levels so that a black economy grew, all the way back to the woman who only noticed ‘those inner cities’ some six years after the summer of 1981, and the people who voted to keep her in office… Those who perpetrated the social violence that was done to the lives of young men starting some 20 years ago are the prime suspects for most of the murders in Britain.

Danny Dorling from Criminal Obsessions

At the level of immediate political rhetoric Dorling’s point is strong and hard to contest. The relationship between crime and social inequality is strong and income inequality and other forms of social injustice are shaped by our political leaders.

As a statement of cause and effect of course there are too many other factors involved to bring anyone, other than the man with the knife, to trial. And the man with the knife was free not to use it. To believe otherwise is to perpetuate the disrespectful view that our leaders take of us – we’re all too stupid to be trusted with freedoms and resources. We must leave power to the powerful.

We must somehow find a way of exploring two dimensions of our society. On the one hand we must acknowledge the existence of social conditions that are ‘better for us’ – which promote better behaviour, well-being and moral development. [Noting of course that we don’t all share the same view about what ‘better’ means or how ‘better’ should be distributed.] We must therefore work to bring about a fairer society, a decent society, which reduces the risk of such criminality.

On the other hand we must not collapse our discussions of politics into a simplistic cause and effect narrative, nor forget that we can always be the difference.

So, alongside Dorling’s narrative one might imagine all the opportunities missed:

  • The small business man who refused to sell knives.
  • The entrepreneur who focused on helping recruit from that community.
  • The community leader who helped develop new educational opportunities.
  • The cooperative buy-out that saved the failing business.
  • The social policy expert who led the charge for a decent minimum income.
  • The politician who helped reform the welfare system without reducing rights.
  • The society that stayed true to its ideal.

Dorling is right, but the charges won’t stick, because we’re all involved and we’re all complicit. But that also means we can all help change things. We are not the creatures of the politicians who should be there to serve us.

Justice Requires Liberty

At the time the French conceived a desire for political liberty, they were imbued with a number of notions on the subject of government which were not only difficult to reconcile with liberty, but were almost hostile to it.

In their ideal society there was no aristocracy but that of public functionaries, no authority but the government, sole and all-powerful, director of the state, tutor of individuals. They did not wish to depart from this system in the search for liberty; they tried to conciliate the two.

From Alexis de Tocqueville in The Ancien Regime

The French revolutionaries sought liberty, but gave up control of almost everything to the state. A few democratic controls came – and then passed away – but what really replaced the dictatorship of the monarchy was the dictatorship of the state functionary – not true democracy as an Athenian would understand it. What liberty existed was made private, what power existed was lost to central control.

The same could also be said today of our search for justice. Are we trying to live together in a fair society where each of us shares in the responsibility of ensuring the welfare of all? Or, are we really handing complete responsibility for the achievement of social justice to the state?

Even if it were possible for the state to fulfil its responsibilities properly – and the current governance of the UK provides strong evidence that it cannot be so trusted – is state control of welfare actually reconcilable with the nature of justice?

Justice should include liberty. Our right to live a life that makes sense and is rooted in our own desires, gifts and capacities requires the exercise of personal freedom. The state cannot live our life for us. Nor can it successfully bring up our children, take care of our family, plan for our future or ensure we have good homes. It is not redundant, we need the state, and we need the welfare state. But its competence is limited. There is much that only we can do; and we must be free and enabled to do what is proper responsibility.

Why Austerity is a Lie (updated)

[I updated this blog in November 2013 with more recent data and graphs.]

I find the repeated use of the word austerity very annoying. It implies that what is happening in the UK today is unfortunate – but somewhat accidental – like an act of God. But what we face is not austerity, it is a targeted assault on the rights of disabled people and people in poverty. The targeting takes at least 3 forms:

First the primary economic problem has been created by debt. But not everybody’s debt is equal. It is the debt of the home owner that is the most powerful cause of the economic crisis in the UK. And this debt is the logical counter-part to the enormous economic bubble in house prices that has made some people very wealthy, put others in deep housing debt and left others outside the house ownership system altogether. As the economist Lester Thurow pointed out many years ago – inflation is always a form of theft. The problems we face are rooted in inequalities of wealth and the irrationalities of greed which nobody wants to talk about.

This graphic shows the impact of reducing the base rate of interest down to 0.5 – an extraordinary annual subsidy to the better off:

Second the government’s response to this problem has primarily been to avoid letting the economic house price bubble burst. The worst political outcome is perceived to be that those people in housing debt should have to pay what they owe and that those inflated house prices should tumble. Hence these debtors are subsidised by pumping money into the banks that have made these bad loans and by trying to sustain an incredibly low interest rate – one that is killing the value of savings. The government hopes to pay for this subsidy to home owners and financiers by cutting back on public expenditure elsewhere. We are responding to a problem caused by inequality by increasing the level of inequality.

Here is the housing bubble – a 360% increase in house prices in just 11 years:

However, thirdly, the government faces the further risk that those important swing voters (most of whom are home owners) will also react negatively to seeing ‘popular’ welfare services cut. Hence the services that must be targeted for cutting are those that are just for the poor and disabled people. These are the unpopular, unknown or stigmatised public services – benefits, social care and vital community services for women and families. So, those who did not cause our problems must pay for their solution.

I have recently done another analysis of this:

  • 42% of all cuts fall on the 20% of the population who are poor
  • 27% of all cuts fall on the 8% of the population who have a disability
  • 17% of all cuts fall on the 2% of the population with severe disabilities

This calculation does not even take account of inflation or the impact of increased taxes, like VAT and social care charges, that also target the poorest.

The cuts are represented in the following graph:

 

 

You do not need a good understanding of economics to see the madness and injustice of this approach. Inevitably, saving money by targeting the poorest with more taxes and by reducing their incomes is not going to work – they have very little money to steal – and ultimately this policy will only lead to other expensive social problems. But long-term logic is a luxury for politicians who are just desperate to win the next election – at any cost.

Another way of identifying the real meaning of our current situation is to remember the marketing maxim – if your product has a weakness then pretend that it is a strength and positively promote it. So we have the rhetoric of the ‘squeezed middle’ and the ‘welfare lifestyle’. Politicians invert reality and distort truth in order to fabricate reality into a more electorally satisfactory form. Or, as Joseph Goebbels supposedly put it: If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. [Interestingly this quote is probably not authentic; and it certainly seems implausible that Goebbels would reveal his own strategy – nevertheless his strategy was certainly effective – for a time.]

Of course, if austerity were just some kind of accidental or shared social problem – not a politically designed strategy that targets the most vulnerable – then our response would also be very different. If we were simply making up for some accidental shortfall in the public purse then we could either (a) increase those taxes that fell equally on everyone (e.g. income tax) or (b) reduce the cost of public services by asking everyone to take a small pay cut. It is interesting to notice that the groups that benefit from this targeting strategy are not only the better off – they also include many who are in the middle and who are being encouraged to blame the poor for poverty.

One of the challenges for those of us in the Campaign for a Fair Society is to try and get people to understand that the unfairness of these cuts lies not so much in their severity but more in the way that they target those with the least ability to defend themselves. It is for this reason I think we should all refuse to use a word like austerity. We must not allow language to be used to distort reality – we must underline the choices that are being made by our political leaders. Even if this means that people will also have to accept that many of the problems we face are very much of our own making.

So instead of cuts, austerity, the recession or other misleading terms – remember – what we face is the targeting of disabled people, the targeting of the poor, and the purposeful creation of greater inequality.

You can read more on how cuts target disabled people in our latest report – A Fair Society?

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.

Freedom – It Should Include Everything

I used to think that freedom was freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of conscience. But freedom needs to include all of the lives of all of the people. Freedom is the right to sow what you want. It’s the right to make boots of shoes, it’s the right to bake bread from the grain you’ve sown and to sell it or not to sell it as you choose. The same goes for a locksmith or steelworker or an artist – freedom is the right to live and work as you wish and not as you’re ordered to. But these days there’s no freedom for anyone – whether you write books, whether you sow grain or whether you make boots.

From Everything Flows by Vasily Grossman

Grossman reflects on the way in which the Soviet regime extinguished every aspect of human freedom and his thoughts are still relevant today.

Political theorists divide freedom between the liberal freedoms – press, speech, conscience and socio-economic freedoms – living, work, craft. And much of the Left-Right conflict during the twentieth-century has focused on the supposed conflict or tension between these two kinds of freedoms and, in particular, the disputed status of ‘the right to property’ (or ‘property as theft’).

Of course our freedoms may compete; one good thing may always be in some tension with another good thing. But, as Grossman observes, our freedoms should hang together. The poet may value his freedom of speech, but the craftsman also needs his freedom to work – and to do the work that suits his talents. What made the Soviet regime so dreadful was that – in the name of freedom – all freedoms were destroyed. Economic freedoms were not salvaged by the state – they too were undermined.

But I think we have drawn the wrong lesson from these facts. In the West we may think that – to some degree – all our liberal freedoms are in tact and that even, thanks to the welfare state, we have now mastered and distributed socio-economic freedoms. But, really, we have made the same compromise as the Soviet state.

You can certainly eat – but only by giving up your freedom. We are impelled to work and to work on the terms set by our master. Either – you are employed and so must do as you are told – or – you are unemployed and must ‘not do’, you must stay inactive in order to get the crumbs that pass as ‘income security’.

And are our political freedoms any better? We can write what we want – but who will read us? We can protest – but who will hear us? The organisation of politics, the press and society is now so rigidly centralised that Stalin himself would be impressed. Our freedom is dwarfed by a society that lacks the spaces that would make our freedom meaningful.

True freedom, freedom for the whole person is a very rare and precious thing.

We might return to Grossman’s observation:

“freedom is the right to live and work as you wish and not as you’re ordered to”

So, we might ask ourselves, why – when we are rich beyond the dreams of any earlier generation – are we not free? What stops us having a reasonable degree of economic security and freedom?

Fair Incomes and Welfare Reform

One of the simplest ways of understanding what is wrong with the current welfare system and why current efforts to reform it will continue to fail is to consider this question:

Do we want to ensure that nobody has to endure absolute poverty?

There may be a few extremists who will say no to this – they are happy to see their fellow citizens die in poverty, but their views should be discounted. Almost everybody from Right to Left actually agrees that we do not want to live in a society where anyone would be left without support.

So does that mean we have a guaranteed minimum income?

Well we do, and we don’t.

Our current benefit system – for all its craziness, complexity and poor design – does attempt to provide a minimum income – through the Income Support system. We will (almost) always get something if the system’s rules say that we are entitled, but these rules are designed so that this are right is conditional upon our poverty. This is how poverty traps work:

You can get x, but only if you are poor enough.

The current welfare system is an incoherent compromise and it reflects a point of indecision in the body politic. We don’t want poverty; but we don’t want to guarantee the end of poverty. We feel uneasy: Can we afford it? Do we trust each others to make the necessary contributions? Do we trust ourselves not to abuse the system? And so we continue with a crazy system that gives millions a pitiful income and at the price of robbing them of the natural incentives to contribute, earn, save and grow their own families. In a way we are all caught in a collective poverty trap – unwilling to trust each other, unable to move forward together – we guarantee social insecurity, fear and the waste of human talent.

But we can spring the poverty trap by moving away from conditional rights and towards universal rights. If instead of making a minimum income conditional upon poverty we make it unconditional – universal.

It is as if each citizen were to say to each other:

Let us each pay a fair amount in taxes, and guarantee to each other a fair minimum income; using this we can each of us build our own life and make the best use of our own talents.

In practice we could make this shift by (a) merging tax and benefits into one system and (b) creating a guaranteed minimum income for all which then acts as the threshold at which we begin to pay taxes.

I describe these ideas in more detail in a joint policy paper with The Centre for Welfare Reform and the University of Birmingham:

Fair Income Policy Paper

I am not the first to make these arguments. In fact societies have, from ancient times, constantly attempted to achieve the right balance between income security and personal freedom. The system of Jubilees, part of the Jewish tradition of social justice, had exactly this function. No one could be cast into the slavery of poverty for ever – there was always the potential for redemption and the chance to build afresh because land that was lost through differences in trade, luck or talent would be returned to the family every fifty years.

The current UK government has at least realised that the current benefit system does penalise the poor through high taxes (dressed up as benefit reduction rates) but unfortunately it is unwilling to take the next logical step and to create a universal system of income security. Instead it is attempting to devise a complex new tax regime for those on the edge of the benefit system – which will leave some people better off and some people worse off. Given that we already live in the third most unequal developed society it seems that increased poverty for some is a price we should not be willing to pay.

Ultimately there are only two ways to reduce poverty traps either (1) to push some people deeper into poverty or (2) to lift everyone out of poverty together. The government has quietly set about the first strategy. Surely it’s time to consider the second approach – the only sane and moral solution.

Not from Benevolence

[each individual] stands at all times in the need of the co-operation and assistance of great multitudes, while his whole life is scarce sufficient to gain the friendship of a few persons…

…It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their interest.

Adam Smith

We can all dream of a world in which everyone puts aside their own selfish interests and seeks the good of all. But this is not just unattractive it is undesirable. Our duty to look after our own interests is right and proper. It is the only way in which our own needs can be met in a way which is both coherent and respectful.

Other people can never look out for our own interests with the necessary eye for detail. It is hard enough doing it as a parent for a child we love, it is impossible to do it as a collective on behalf of everyone. Only we know ourselves from the inside out.

More remarkably still, as Smith observes, if kept within certain bounds, this kind of proper self love is of great benefit to everyone. Our own need for the things that only other people can provide creates a healthy interdependency. Nature makes sure that we need other people and that they need us.

The great danger however is that looking after our own interests can be turned into an idol or a god. Love for the self will not solve every problem. It will not protect the world itself nor will it protect the interests of those who are endangered by others.

We also need to love other people and we need the discipline to ensure that we can find the right balance between these two loves. It is for this reason that society develops rules and institutions that help us keep these loves in balance. The search for social justice is the search to find the right balance between love for self and love for others and the world we share.

However even social justice can be corrupted. When we begin to see some people as just too different we can be tempted to separate them from the interconnecting web of human need. Then we are in danger of making the most fatal mistakes. The eugenicist, the racist and the meritocrat all share the same mission to redefine humanity so that they only have to focus their love for others on some smaller group – some group within which they find it easier to see a mirror image of themselves.

True social justice will always be inclusive, will always seek to define itself primarily by its concern for those who are most likely to slip out of consideration all together.

Towards a View from Nowhere

In the pursuit of justice, positional illusions can impose serious barriers that have to be overcome through broadening the informational basis of evaluations, which is one of the reasons why Adam Smith demanded that perspectives from elsewhere, including from far away, have to be systematically invoked. Though much can be done through the deliberate use of open impartiality, the hope of proceeding smoothly from positional views to an ultimate ‘view from nowhere’ cannot hope to succeed fully.

Amartya Sen from The Idea of Justice

Sen is rightly cautioning us to avoid any simplistic or reductive attempt to fix what is morally important. We are familiar with the notion that pursuing our own self-interest with no regard to its impact on other people is wrong. But he is also saying that even if we do have moral concern for others the nature of that concern can also be very partial – unfair. We don’t always understand what is in the interests of other people nor can we always trust our own values or ideals. Partiality creeps in everywhere.

However it is also important to notice that scepticism about our own moral perspective can easily slip into scepticism about morality as a whole. This is very different and very dangerous. Becoming sceptical about morality may seem more ‘liberal’ or even (in a highly paradoxical way) more moral; but it is not. Moral scepticism is the death of our shared humanity – it excuses both selfishness and moral laziness.

The fact that an objective perspective, God’s perspective, is difficult to achieve does not entitle us to abandon morality or to stop striving for moral truth.

In fact it is more rational to be humble rather than sceptical. It makes more sense, when in doubt, to look to the authority of those we can trust and to those values that have survived longest, instead of throwing ourselves upon the bonfire of scepticism.

Do Not Harvest to the Edges – Biblical Social Justice Theory

When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the alien.
I am the Lord your God.

Do not steal.
Do not lie.
Do not deceive one another.
Do not swear falsely by my name and so profane the name of your God.
I am the Lord.

Do not defraud your neighbour or rob him.
Do not hold back the wages of a hired man overnight.
Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling-block in front of the blind, but fear your God.
I am the Lord.

Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favouritism to the great, but judge your neighbour fairly.
Do not go about spreading slander among your people.
Do not do anything that endagers your neighbour’s life.
I am the Lord.

Do not hate your brother in your heart.
Rebuke your neighbour frankly so that you will not share in his guilt.
Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbour as yourself.
I am the Lord.

Keep my decrees.

Leviticus: 19:9-8

This ancient account of social justice theory is not just interesting because it demonstrates how our awareness of the demands of social justice has a very long history. It also shows that about social justice in the past was often more sophisticated – even if it is framed in terms of an agricultural economy – than our thinking today. Notice in particular:

  1. The priority of making sure the most needy are provided for, but also the way in which this maintains the dignity and the autonomy of the poor – who do not need to beg or receive patronage.
  2. The importance of fair dealing and the imperative to not exploit those who work for you by delaying payments.
  3. The need to create an environment of dignity and respect for all – especially for those who can easily be taken advantage of.

These observations are all reinforced by the fear of God – his knowledge of all your actions and all your intentions. There is complete awareness that enlightened self-interest is not sufficient to protect those who might be  exploited by the more powerful. The constant refrain – “I am the Lord” – puts everyone in their place, reminds everyone that the power or status in this world is illusory – it justifies nothing and entitles us to no special treatment.

Sufficiency is Wealth

Nevertheless the soul can be just as thoroughly ruined by excessive poverty as by excessive wealth; both wound with equal severity, for wealth and beggary are two extremes. The mean is called sufficiency, and that is where abundant virtues lie, for Solomon has written, without reservation, in the thirtieth chapter, in fact, of a book of his entitled Proverbs: “By your power, O God, preserve me from wealth and beggary, for when a rich man takes to thinking too much about his wealth, he so sets his heart upon madness that he forgets his creator. And how can I save a man from sin when he is assailed by beggary? It would be hard for him not to be a thief or a perjurer…

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

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

The idea that sufficiency is equal to wealth may seem paradoxical. Its truth depends on understanding the way in which inequality poisons life between fellow human beings – the excessively poor are tempted into one set of vices and the excessively rich are tempted into a different set of vices. However, in order to accept this analysis you may need to be able to see that we should judge social life by moral standards: economic growth and achievement, on its own, has no real meaning. It is what we do with our wealth that matters.

Another way of thinking about this is to recognise that one of the keys to citizenship is sufficient income security. If someone is too poor then they become unduly dependent upon others – this damages their status. However if someone is too rich they do not need others and this also damages their status (an oligarch is not a citizen). Having ‘just enough’ is also important in that it leaves us with room for growth, earning, development – that is, incentives for deeper citizenship.

Dignity Comes First

If you take a cloak from a neighbour as a pledge you must return it to him before sunset, for it is the only covering for his body and what else has to sleep in. If he shouts out to me I will hear him with mercy. 

Exodus 22: 26-27

In other words no debt entitles you to rob another of their basic rights, including their dignity. The cloak is also a symbol of our social covering – the means by which we maintain our dignity and appear with respect before others. Property rights exist – but they are not fundamental and they must be limited by the demands of basic human rights and our shared human dignity.

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