Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Tag: justice (page 1 of 2)

What Do We Believe?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Malcolm X nailed it when he said:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But we cannot allow ourselves to given into despair.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Equality and the Market

I like and loathe Twitter; it draws you into debates with all sorts of interesting people and challenges you to make your point as sharply as possible. But it is also frustrating when something seems really obvious, but you can’t convert its truth into 140 characters. There is also a danger that you will be pulled into making ad hominem attacks on people’s character – attacking someone for their failure to understand you – rather than focusing on being clear and truthful.

One recent enjoyable, but also rather difficult, conversation was on the topic of inequality and the market. The challenge began with a video from Mark Littlewood of the IEA who made what I think is actually a fair point: charities who are against poverty should avoid treating inequality as the primary cause of poverty. Western charities can quite often score easy points in this way; yet the actual causes of poverty in a specific country may be influenced by any or all of the following factors:

  • The state’s failure to uphold the rule of law, including property rights
  • Inadequate physical and social infrastructure to enable exchange and cooperation
  • Exploitation by corporations, stealing resources and underpaying people
  • The failure to invest in talents, skills of local people
  • Dependency on Western charitable institutions that don’t create local capacity
  • Too much state control, incompetence or corruption
  • Trade regimes that protect Western farmers or others from competition

This rather random list already reveals that it is a significant mistake to think of poverty as merely a matter of redistribution. It is not. Poverty is also a function of our productivity, of our ability to get stuff done, and this is influenced by many different factors.

This list also reveals how important the role of the state is, even before we come to any question of redistribution. The state, in partnership with the institutions of civil society, is the institution that protects rights, develops and protects vital infrastructure, protects people from exploitation, negotiates trade deals and ensures that markets can function. It is a foolish liberal who underestimates the critical role of the state in protecting the economic institutions they cherish so much.

However in my Twitter debate three false claims also emerged:

  1. Taxes (and benefits) do nothing to reduce poverty,
  2. Poverty is only tackled by the Market, and
  3. The state is essentially unproductive.

These three interconnected claims perhaps mark the point at which liberalism tips into the extremes of neoliberalism. Each claim is untrue, and dangerously so.

Let’s take them in reverse order:

There is no doubt that the 20th century advocates of state socialism were far too confident of the state’s ability to do too many things very well. There are limits to what the state can do well. But there are also many things that we need the state to do and which are essentially productive. The state and its institutions (e.g. the creation of a valid currency) have been essential to social and economic development. This is demonstrated by examining the causes of poverty outlined above: economic development relies on effective state action. The state and the rule of law it guarantees are fundamental to most forms of human productivity in complex human societies.

At its core neoliberalism seems to be a form of idolatry – the worship of false idols. The market, which is essentially a useful tool (and like all tools its value is constrained by appropriate use – i.e don’t take a hammer to a screw) has been converted into a false god – The Market. Markets make poor gods for many reasons, but primarily because they don’t exist. A market is a space, not a thing; it is a vacuum; it is a space within which human beings trade stuff. Trading stuff is also useful preparation for doing other stuff, like making, healing, building, growing and creating. The market does not do any of those things – people do – but the market helps people because people can use trade to get the useful things they need from others. In other words, markets can help people be productive, but they are not productive in themselves.

Worshipping Markets is a a bit like worshipping banks. We forget about human effort and ingenuity, we forget about the amazing natural processes that create things, instead we worship the middle-men, the priests and the temples of liberal economics.

What is more we forget that, even at their best, markets are rather inadequate and imperfect institutions. We may all rather disagree about the extent and nature of those imperfections, just as we tend to disagree about what perfect means. But some of these ‘market failures’ are pretty obvious. I’ll just give two examples.

First, markets are very bad at organising a sensible and fair distribution of healthcare; because when it comes to healthcare humans are rather irrational. The fundamental problem is that we want to live, and we will pay almost anything to someone who promises to extend our lives, even to the point of impoverishing ourselves. So a free market in healthcare leads to lots of exploitation. That’s why the US system is twice as costly, but no better, than the UK system. Doctors are richer, healthcare companies make more money, but there is no real benefit for US citizens.

Second, markets inevitably increase levels of inequality because the winners increasingly dictate the outcomes to the losers. Anyone who has played Monopoly understands why monopolies are a bad thing. If you start to lose, you’ll probably keep on losing. That’s why we need tax and benefits; that’s why the state cannot avoid being drawn into trying to regulate or control the market for incomes.

Famously, in the 1970s, John Rawls argued that a limited degree of inequality might be justified if it gave people a better incentive to strive in ways that benefited the worst-off. Today this argument has been turned on its head. Some now seem to believe that any degree of inequality is justified because some inequality could provide better incentives. This is bad logic and bad ethics.

Poverty is a function of a failure in both productivity and justice. We need both to flourish in order to end it.

Figuring out what degree of inequality is acceptable and what practical mechanism are necessary to reduce inequality is also one of those practical things that we need the state to do. And this takes us back to the initial worry about extreme inequality. The fact that a small number of people control a great share of our wealth is worrying because it seems those people increasingly define what the state does. The election of Donald Trump as President of the USA reflects a further decline in the quality of our democracies and the growing influence of the wealthy oligarchs who may well believe that their own extreme wealth is good for everyone.

Well they would, wouldn’t they?

Why We Are Launching Citizen Network

Hütia te rito o te harakeke, kei hea te kömako e kö? 
Kï mai ki a au, ‘He aha te mea nui i te ao?’ Māku e kï atu, ‘He tāngata, he tāngata, he tāngata’. 

If the heart of the flax is pulled out, where will the kömako sing? 
If you ask me what is most important in this world, I will reply, ‘It’s people, it’s people, it’s people.’Maori Proverb*

Last Thursday, in Auckland, at the international conference on self-direction, brilliantly hosted by Manawanui In Charge, we launched Citizen Network. I think this might be the most important initiative that I’ve been a part of and I want to explain here why we’ve come together to create Citizen Network, and why we hope you will join us.

The idea of Citizen Network began at the Vancouver Conference on self-direction in 2015. We wanted to find a way to connect up all the positive initiatives, around the world, that advance citizenship for people with disabilities, and for the many others who face oppression, stigma and exclusion.

Many of us have spent a good part of our lives working on important system changes (like closing institutions, creating community supports or developing systems of self-directed support) and we want to build on all of this. We want to get better at recognising and supporting positive innovation and be more effective at advocating for these changes within our societies.

However we also feel that these system changes are not enough. Even the best system can be corrupted when we lose sight of the deeper values that inspire our work and our own integrity in helping change to happen.

We need to understand what we are really trying to achieve and why it is important. So we have focused not just on self-direction, but on the broader goal of citizenship for all.

For while it would be simpler to have a narrow focus, on systems of self-direction (important as these are) we feel that this will fail to address the real challenges that we face. Even more importantly, we would fail to tap into the hunger for justice and for true citizenship that had originally inspired deinstitutionalisation and the creation of positive innovations, like systems of self-direction.

It is the values that inspire and fuel our appetite for making change happen. We believe people are ready for a more ambitious and hopeful vision of the future.

Now is a good time to stand back and think about the bigger picture. Now is a good time to break down the barriers, silos and categories that so easily divide us. Now is a good time to go deeper and seek the true source of our values. For so many of us want to live in a world where

  • difference is not just accepted, but rather it is cherished and celebrated,
  • where we don’t just treat people as if they were equal, we know that they really are equal, and
  • where everyone can be a true citizen, living a life of meaning, supported with love.

There is no better time to express these hopes and to try and act from them. The election of Donald Trump, Brexit, politicians pandering to hatred and vicious austerity policies (especially in the UK) are all signs that the old ways of thinking are not working.

We cannot be satisfied by just focusing on changing systems when the world as a whole is going backwards towards increased social injustice. We must see our lives and our work in the light of this bigger picture – no matter how challenging that may feel.

So how can we respond to the challenges ahead?

Of course it is important for all of us to play our part in the ordinary political processes in our communities, to get involved and to support those advocating justice and citizenship for all. But even if we win the occasional victory in this way this won’t help us if we do not also understand the cause of our current problems. Winning power is only helpful if we know what to do with that power.

Those of us who have been fighting to close institutions, to advance disability rights, to promote self-direction and community lives, have a special responsibility to share what we’ve learned with others. We have two generations of learning about what it takes to support real citizenship. We must share that and try to reshape the assumptions of the political landscape around it.

For instance, we could make common cause with those who face others kinds of exclusion from citizenship. The migrant, refugee or asylum seeker, fleeing terror or just trying to build a better life, faces hatred and exclusion, just as have many disabled people. Can we not work with those communities and learn from them about what they are doing to achieve true citizenship? Can we not help them stand up against xenophobia and racism?

Also, if we do advocate inclusion into community, then surely we must also pay attention to the real state of those communities. We do not want to include people in communities that are rife with poverty, insecurity, inadequate welfare systems or where there are no decent democratic structures. Citizenship is a problem for all of us; we are increasingly living in an elitist society where the only source of value is a paid job. This is bad for all of us, and in our changing economy it is hard to see how this is even sustainable. Inclusion is not enough. It must be inclusion, with justice, that we seek.

Perhaps, at a deeper level, this is also about the kind of people we want to be. Do we think the worship of money, status and power will lead anywhere good? Lives of meaning and love, lives of citizenship, are possible for all of us. But we must leave behind the shallow values and insecurities that feed our fears and tempt us to blame other people for our problems.

We must be citizens, true citizens, thinking and acting with integrity and with a concern for other people and the natural world. We must value citizenship – and explain its value to others. We must act like citizens – cooperating and taking responsibility for the communities in which we live.

We must grow and safeguard the heart of the flax – the communities that nurture and sustain us.

This, at least, is our crazy dream; and this is what led us to form Citizen Network.

You can find out more by visiting the Citizen Network website. You can join for free, and groups or organisations who want to become part of a community committed to the values of citizenship will be listed on our world map.

It is early days, there is much to do and we are bound to make some mistakes. But we have already established networks in Australia, Scotland and England and we hope to have several other countries join us shortly.

What will it do?

Well to begin with I think the focus will be on innovation and advocacy.

There is much we can do already. There are great people out there doing brilliant work. We need to learn from each other. So Citizen Network will act as an international cooperative of people and organisations who are willing to learn and share with each other – share and share alike. We hope to end the pointless competition which so often closes down innovation. Instead we will focus on how we can help make positive change happen together. Events, webinars and practical projects are likely to be early first steps.

There is also much to challenge. Sometimes we need to change systems, change laws, combat injustice. Often this is too hard for one person or one organisation. But through cooperative international action we may have the ability to exercise more influence on behalf of justice. For instance international surveys can help us better understand where progress is, and isn’t, being made.

And of course self-direction and individualised funding will still be a very big part of things – it is still our strongest suit. I very much hope we can build on the great work started in Vancouver and continued in Auckland. Perhaps we can set a new date for an international gathering.

It’s early days, but I know that others will join us. There is a hunger for a more positive vision for society and we can play a part in helping to define and share that vision.

When times are hard and when so many seem to have forgotten the meaning of citizenship and justice then we must stand up and we must reach out to each other. We must not join in with those lost in hatred, nor can we stand by, expecting someone else to solve our problem.

Perhaps the triple call of the Maori proverb is to remind us that

People are valuable – there’s no place for rejection and exclusion

People are special – each of us can live a life of love and meaning

People are powerful – together we have what it takes to build a better world

Citizen Network may not be able to solve all the worlds problems; but together we can create a world where we recognise that everyone is different, everyone is equal and everyone matters.

Join Us

* By visiting Auckland library I discovered that the kömako is most probably the bellbird and the metaphor of the flax is related to the fact that new life comes from the heart of the flax bush; to pull out the heart of the bush is to leave the bush sterile and incapable of bring forth new generations.

Anaxaphobia or Who Will Lead?

Together we sat. We talked about the world’s problems, its injustices, the power of evil and all that is wrong and unbalanced.

Then we talked some more.

We imagined ways that these problems could be solved, how justice might be restored, how evil could be bound, how wrongs could be righted and how the balance restored.

And we wondered: Who would come to put things right?

Then we slept. And in our dreams we imagined that we were the heroes and the champions that we needed. We solved the problems, we acted with justice. We fought with evil and overcame it. We restored the balance.

Then we awoke. We had been dreaming. We were not the heroes we had dreamt of. We were just ourselves – tired, angry and bitter. How could we have dreamt that we could solve these problems?

Surely we must just await someone else to do the work?

It is so hard to find a common path. It is so hard to lead. It is so hard to follow.

It is easier to just sit and talk and dream.

It is easier to live in hope, waiting for someone else to act, than to act yourself.

It is so hard to lead – knowing that often you will be wrong, knowing you will make mistakes and knowing that you will end up despised and forgotten.

Is this the difference between the good and the bad?

The bad have all the best leaders – just as the Devil has all the best tunes – because they don’t care about what people think, how they will be remembered or whether they will make mistakes. Is that what they learn now, on the playing field of Eton? Leadership, however meaningless or wicked, for the sake of leadership is everything.

Perhaps we must restore to ourselves a more joyful and playful sense of what leadership might mean. Perhaps if we talked about it more – not as some profound and demanding discipline – but as just one essential ingredient of successful social action. Leadership is something we can all exercise, share and distribute between ourselves. It only becomes harmful if we try to hold on to it too long.

Afterword – One of the pleasures of the internet is to watch people agree or disagree with you. I entered into one little Twitter banter – Twantter (?) – with someone who seemed to think all forms of leadership were a kind of ego-trip. I guess this is the opposite of my point. Leadership seems to me to be full of potential for corruption (from ego-trips to Hitler) but it is also an essential and human activity and one that is fundamental to social progress – which always requires someone to at least take their finger out of the dam first.

Are we crippled by an irrational fear of leadership? I tried to find a word that described this phenomenon – but I could not find one. Until someone corrects me, I offer this neologismanaxaphobia – the irrational and exaggerated fear of leadership, which in turn leads to submissiveness and allows elitism to flourish amongst those who enjoy leadership for its own sake.

The First Welfare State

Moreover, philanthropy was an obligation too, since the word ‘zedakah’ meant both charity and righteousness. The Jewish welfare state in antiquity, the prototype of all others, was not voluntary; a man had to contribute to the common fund in proportion to his means, and this duty could be enforced by the courts. Maimonides even ruled that a Jew who evaded contributing according to wealth should be regarded as a rebel and punished accordingly. Other communal obligations included respect for privacy, the need to be neighbourly (i.e. to give neighbours first refusal of adjoining land put up for sale), and strict injunctions against noise, smells, vandalism and pollution.

Communal obligations need to be understood within the assumptions of Jewish theology. The sages taught that a Jew should not regard these social duties as burdens but as yet more ways in which men showed their love for God and righteousness.

Paul Johnson in A History of the Jews (1987)

Paul Johnson’s description of the Jewish Diaspora’s welfare system as the first welfare state may seem unwarranted. All societies are welfare societies – in the sense that all societies involve some kinds of interaction which benefit the welfare of some – if not all. In fact Herodotus describes a wide range of welfare system in his The Histories and The Bible also describes welfare systems that are at least 3,000 years old.

However, while I think that his claim may be hard to prove, it is certainly plausible, because it is based on two essential features of a welfare state – in its full and proper sense – both of which exceed earlier welfare systems.

First a proper welfare state must be built into the fabric of the community’s laws and must distinguish both rights and duties for all citizens. It must not be merely a system of state philanthropy or a system of mutual assistance. It must be underpinned by Law.

Second a proper welfare system must be inspired by Justice. By this I do not mean merely to repeat the first point. Justice excludes eugenic, elitist or discriminatory goals. Justice recognises the innate worth of each individual, in all their diversity. Justice demands deep respect for each individual. This is why the nineteenth century Poor Laws, and the eugenic welfare measures of Hitler do not qualify as welfare states, at least in the sense I am using the term here. In a sense they are anti-welfare states, because they deny the value of each human life. Instead they seek to promote the interests of an elite, a class, a race or some other group.

This explains why the Jewish Diaspora could well have created the first welfare state. For it was a society built, not on power, but only on the Torah – a combination of law and moral vision – united in one religion. Respect for the individual flowed naturally from the worship of God and the acknowledgement of God’s creation of Man ‘in his image’. And paradoxically, as the Diaspora lacked ‘a state’ it could only institute its measures through legally defined and prescribed communal practices – not through mere state coercion.

What can we learn from this?

If we see the ideal welfare state as a communal effort to ensure that each member of the community is bound together in their commitment to safeguard each other’s welfare and to respect each individuals’ worth and potential, then the Jewish example is inspiring. But its challenge is twofold:

If people do not believe that each human being is sacred then the kind of welfare we may seek to advance may not be respectful of human diversity, but may be eugenic, promoting some class, race or other utopian category of conformity. Can secular categories defend what is valuable in human diversity?

If we live with in a society dominated by a powerful state, one where the Law is seen to flow from the state – rather than fixing and limiting the state’s role – then we may find ourselves in a welfare system where those who run the state shape and determine what counts as welfare. Can we run a welfare state without a proper respect for Law?

Arguably this is what we do have: not a welfare state governed by a respect for human rights and Justice; not a welfare state organised to respect those rights and protect the interests of all. Instead we have a welfare state that is too often the tool of a state that doesn’t recognise rights and which pursues its own elitist, and often eugenic, dreamings.

This is not a counsel of despair. People of many religious views and none are capable of respecting human diversity. Societies are capable of respecting Law and protecting themselves from the abuses that flow form the concentration of political power. But we should not be naive. There is nothing ‘natural’ about the welfare state – and if we want the right kind of welfare state we will need to work hard at protecting both the values that underpin it and the institutions that make it possible.

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.

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.

Revenge Begets Revenge

Revenge begets revenge,
Truth spins and evaporates
As blood drains from the head.
It is the law of Zeus:
A life for a life.
What is human life worth?
More than itself, more than a life,
Or less? Or precisely the same?
The law of Zeus demands
A life for a life.
All – for all.
But this law of Zeus
Is a kind of disease
Inherited through the blood.
See how it has crazed
Every member of this house.

Aeschylus from Agamemnon (translated by Ted Hughes)

Justice is vital to society – ‘It is the law of Zeus’ – yet Justice can easily become a disease. Is there an answer: only forgiveness and mercy can end the craziness that Justice creates when it is unleashed without limits.

The Eight Degrees of Charity

Level One – There are eight levels in charity, each level surpassing the other. The highest level beyond which there is none is a person who supports a Jew who has fallen into poverty [by] giving him a present or a loan, entering into partnership with him, or finding him work so that his hand shall be fortified so that he will not have to ask others [for alms]. Concerning this [Leviticus 25:35] states “You shall support him, the stranger, the resident, and he shall live among you.” Implied is that you should support him before he falls and becomes needy.

Level Two – A lower level than this is one who gives charity to the poor without knowing to whom he gave and without the poor person knowing from whom he recieved. For this is an observance of the mitzvah for its sake alone. This [type of giving] was exemplified by the secret chamber that existed in the Temple. The righteous would make donations there in secret and poor people of distinguished lineage would derive their livelihood from it in secret. A level close to this is giving to a charity fund. A person should not give to a charitable fund unless he knows that the person managing it is faithful, wise and capable of administering it in a proper manner as Rebbe Chananya ben Tradyon was.

Level Three – A lower level than this is an instance when the giver knows to whom he is giving, but the poor person does not know from whom he received. An example of this were the great Sages who would go in secret and money into the doorway of the poor. This is an appropriate way of giving charity and it is as good a quality if the trustees of the charitable fund are not conducting themselves appropriately.

Level Four – A lower level than this is an instance when the poor person knows from whom he took, but the donor does not know to whom he gave. An example of this were the great Sages who would bundle coins in a sheet and hang them over their shoulders and the poor would come and take them so they would not be embarrassed.

Level Five – A lower level than that is giving the poor person in his hand before he asks.

Level Six – A lower level than that is giving him after he asks.

Level Seven – A lower level than this is giving him less than what is a appropriate, but with a pleasant countenance.

 Level Eight – A lower that that is giving him with sadness.

Maimonides from the Mishneh Torah, Sefer Zeraim, Hilchot Matnot, Aniyim 7-14

This important analysis of the demands of social justice should be given to all students of social policy, political theory and theology. For it sets out more clearly than anything else I know the real challenge of charity and social justice.

We forget that many society’s before the welfare state have figured out systems of mutual care and support. For instance, Jewish society had a long history of making social justice part of the institutions of agriculture, work, religion and society. Moreover, as Maimonides shows, Jewish thinking has been particularly sensitive to the need to ensure that charity is always an act of justice – not patronage.

Another way to read Maimonides is in reverse – the quality of giving improves to the point that the act of giving becomes utterly invisible:

  1. Resentful giving
  2. Insufficient giving
  3. Giving only when asked
  4. Giving directly
  5. Not knowing to whom you are giving to
  6. Not knowing who gives to you
  7. Giving that is utterly private
  8. Giving that is not giving

In other words we ascend to that point where there is no sense of weakness, vulnerability and dependence. The gift is still there – but it is absorbed into everyday life in a way that feels rightful and proper to both.

To my mind our efforts to create a system of universal entitlements, without stigma, in order to reform the current welfare state are probably analogous to Level 2 giving. Such a system would not be necessary in a society where everybody already had enough and where mutual exchange and support were natural and universal. But we are not that society. We live in a time of great inequality and for most people the economy offers little fundamental security. Most of us do not own land we can rent, have savings or a guaranteed income. Our securities are collective and guaranteed through democratic politics – for better or worse.

Those who seek to dissolve rights in the name of charity have not paid attention to the fundamental questions of human dignity, respect and equal citizenship which is at the heart of social justice – “you should support him before he falls and becomes needy.”

Justice and Charity

Christ does not call his benefactors loving or charitable. He calls them just. The Gospel makes no distinction between the love of our neighbour and justice. In the eyes of the Greeks also a respect for Zeus the suppliant was the first duty of justice. We have invented the distinction between justice and charity. It is easy to understand why. Our notion of justice dispenses him who possesses from the obligation of giving. If he gives, all the same, he thinks he has a right to be pleased with himself. He thinks he has done good work. As for him who receives, it depends on the way he interprets this notion whether he is dispensed from all gratitude, or whether it obliges him to offer servile thanks.

Only the absolute identification of justice and love makes the co-existence possible of compassion and gratitude on the one hand, and on the other, of respect for the dignity of affliction in the afflicted – a respect felt by the sufferer himself and the others.

It has to be recognised that no kindness can go further than justice without constituting a fault under a false appearance of kindness. But the just must be thanked for being just, because justice is so beautiful a thing, in the same way we thank God because of his great glory. Any other gratitude is servile and even animal.

Simone Weil from Forms of the Implicit Love of God in Waiting on God

Many of us are suspicious of charity, because it is a kind of patronage where the giver is powerful and the recipient is powerless; the giver is to be thanked and the recipient is pitiable. Weil sees the same problem, but also from the direction of charity itself. If charity is an act of love then it must be welcomed – for love is the lifeblood of the universe. It is central to our proper nature – however when we split charity away from justice trouble begins: the recipient is no longer entitled – as a matter of justice – to what we give. Our giving comes from being extra-nice – the bounty of the rich and powerful.

However some worry about giving too much priority to justice, to rights and obligations. They worry that this is to cut love out of the picture. How can love be about rights and duties?

Another interesting quote from Dorothy Leigh Sayers approaches this same problem:

The creative will presses on to Its end, regardless of what It may suffer by the way. It does not choose suffering, but It will not avoid it, and must expect it. We say that It is Love, and “sacrifices” Itself for what It loves; and this is true, provided we understand what we mean by sacrifice. Sacrifice is what it looks like to other people, but to That-which-Loves I think its does not appear so. When one really cares, the self-is forgotten, and the sacrifice becomes only part of the activity. Ask yourself: If there is something you supremely want to do, do you count as “self-sacrifice” the difficulties encountered or other possible activities cast aside? You do not. The time when you deliberately say, “I must sacrifice this, that or the other” is when you do not supremely desire the end in view. At such times you are doing your duty, and that is admirable, but it is not love. But as soon as your duty becomes your love “self-sacrifice” is taken for granted, and, whatever the world calls it, you call it so no longer.

Dorothy Leigh Sayers from What Do We Believe, Unpopular Opinions (1940)

I think Sayers observation helps us see that love only becomes a matter of mere duty when it no longer drives us. We are merely ‘doing our duty.’ But whether from love or duty the right remains the same. The person for whom we act is fully entitled to our assistance – but we won’t notice that entitlement because we act from love.

Justice remains central. It stops us from patronising those who need our help – their needs create entitlements and we have no right to feel pleased with ourselves for doing our duty. But it does not exclude love – we can do our duty and yet have no awareness that we are merely doing our duty. It remains our duty, even when we act from love.

The Benign Dictatorship of Democracy

Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood; it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided that they think of nothing but their rejoicing. For their happiness such a government willingly labours, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and sub-divides their inheritances; what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living.

Alexis de Tocqueville from Democracy in America

de Tocqueville’s critique of the growing power of central government in America in the nineteenth-century can be amplified many times in the twentieth-century, but with some new twists. For, of course democracies, are not interested in everybody’s interests to the same degree. Political leaders need votes – and some votes are more equal than other votes. For instance, in the United Kingdom successful political parties must capture the swing votes – so the interests of swing voters matter more than those of anyone else. This distorts political judgement and is particularly damaging to the interests of the poorest.

An even more fearful risk is that, when times are tough, central government will stop being benign. It may find that some people – perhaps Jews, perhaps disabled people, perhaps immigrants – can usefully be blamed for problems that central government can’t solve, perhaps even blamed for the very problems that central government itself caused.

Democracy is the only acceptable political form for citizens, but the current democratic system is failing both to treat us as citizens and our leaders seem to be losing the necessary self-discipline to ensure that hunt for power is not carried on at the expense of justice.

The Survival of Justice

The lucky man’s great good fortune
Ruins his children.
This was old wisdom.
Is it true?
Surely the father who breaks heaven’s law
Ruins his children.
The father who denies heaven’s right
Blinds his children.
The father who forgets to be humble
Crushes his children.
Evil begets evil.
But the children of the man who fears heaven,
They tread with care. They care for the good.
They are rewarded.

Rich pride mounts rich pride
And begets insolence.
Pampered insolence begets
Anarchy.
And anarchy, where every man
Is the tyrant
Of his own conceit,
Begets all-out-war –
Striking at heaven and earth.

Justice lives in poverty.
She survives. She measures
What is necessary.
She honours what ought to be honoured.
She seeks out clean hearts, clean hands.
She knows what wealth and power
Grind to dust between them. She knows
Goodness and the laws of heaven.

From Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, translated by Ted Hughes.

The chorus sing of justice just before Agamemnon arrives, to be slaughtered. They see how the powerful, always believing themselves to be justified, in fact deny justice. And they see how all of this will unravel. Evil begets evil. Justice survives, even as it is ignored – it cannot be eliminated.

Mr Pye and Do-Goodery

Mervyn Peake’s novel Mr Pye is a wonderful fable on the perils of do-goodery. Bringing boundless wisdom and benevolence to the island of Sark he ends up, much to his own disgust, turning into a winged angel.

What is at the root of his strange fall is his own pride, his determination to not just be good – but to look good.

Several symptoms of his prideful benevolence shine though the pages of the novel:

Unlike Christ, Mr Pye never asks the person he is about to help whether he really wants his assistance. 

Power is never questioned. Confident in his own benevolence and greater wisdom he treats people as puppets – at times quite literally. 

God becomes the “Great Pal” – always smiling, always present. Only in his final reconciliation with God does he experience any fear and trembling.

Do-goodery is not good. Goodness follows the path of justice: it is always respectful, humble and mindful that any good that is done never really came from the self anyway.

The Best Donor

The best donor gives knowing that what is given is not their own – but is God’s.

The Gift of Equality

He who treat as equals those who are far below him in human strength really makes them a gift of the quality of human beings, of which fate had deprived them. As far as it is possible for a creature, he reproduces the original generosity of the Creator with regard to them.

This is the most Christian of virtues. It is also the virtue which the Egyptian Book of the Dead describes in words as sublime even as those of the Gospel. “I have never caused anyone to weep. I have never spoken with a haughty voice. I have never made anyone afraid. I have never been deaf to words of justice and truth.”

Simon Weil from Forms of the Implicit Love of God

This gift is not a form of patronage. Rather we can only share with each other the gift of equality when we realise the ultimate emptiness of the other person’s power over us. However, this is only really possible if we can identify some source of self that is not locked into the natural world – with all the differences it throws up and reinforces.

We might also say that we have chosen equality as a moral ideal – but what lies behind the power of that ideal is not an empty choice or individual preference; instead it is a reflection of the true nature of things.

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