Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Tag: socialism

Socialist Response to Austerity?

Austerity has been severe and unjustified and it has targeted the poorest people and the poorest places. It has also targeted local government. For instance, Barnsley saw its funding fall by 31% in 5 years, and these cuts have continued.

Austerity must be rejected, fought against and overturned.

But what do you do in practice if you are victim of austerity – like local government – and you are expected to pass on the pain to local people?

Often the only feasible response to this challenge has been to cut costs and to cut services, starting with anything that does not seem essential. Preventative work is the first thing to be sacrificed; this means the long-term impact of austerity will be to make local government less efficient: Instead of solving problems cheaply upstream more money must be spent on more expensive services downstream. Cost pressures increase on care homes, hospitals and prisons as local government can no longer help people to stay home or to stay out of trouble.

This is not just a financial challenge, for strong Labour authorities, like Barnsley austerity is also a philosophical challenge. For many years socialism has been identified with increased spending on public services, and so, making cuts to public services feels like a betrayal. However a recent report, published by the Centre for Welfare Reform, Heading Upstream, reveals that Barnsley has found a very different way, a socialist way, of responding to austerity.

This is not exactly a new idea.

The welfare state was not created out of nothing in 1945: much of it had already been developed by local authorities, trade unions and cooperatives in the preceding decades. Ordinary people, often working with local government, had developed a range of locally organised self-help solutions, including hospitals, cooperatives and local community services, to help people live better lives.

Socialism is not limited to government spending; at a deeper level it is a determination that we help each other and that good help means helping people to be citizens, to live with freedom and respect, to make their own unique contribution to the life of the community.

Socialism is about people, not money.

The Barnsley alternative

This is something that local councillors and officers in Barnsley understood before austerity began. For instance, Barnsley had been a leader in the personalisation of social care services since 2005. Now 97% of those eligible use a personal budget to manage their adult social care. Barnsley also pioneered the Future Jobs Fund, where support for people out of work was organised locally and in partnership with local business. Even the DWP was forced to recognise that this project had been far more efficient than its own failing centralised Work Programme.

More recently Barnsley began a more wide-ranging shift in its culture and organisation. As their Chief Executive, Diana Terris explained:

What is required is a cultural shift, from a paternalistic ‘What can I do for you?’ to a partnership and an exploration of ‘What can you do?’

From 2013 Barnsley has seen a wide-ranging organisational changes which have touched everyone from councillors to front-line workers. Critically Barnsley realised that the necessary changes could not be made from within the Town Hall. The Council has embraced the many smaller communities that people really feel a part of and it has changed its governance structures to push planning and spending down towards the level of the local ward.

This strategy has also been combined with a significant focus on citizenship and community volunteering. Spending on local developments must at least be matched by what people bring themselves. For instance, the Council contributed £10,000 to a £74,000 project at Milefield Community Farm; the rest of the funding came from local people, local businesses and other public services. As Leader of Barnsley Council, Councillor Sir Steve Houghton CBE put it:

…we’re tapping into something out there that’s been around for a long time. People are proud of their villages and their towns and communities. People are prepared to do more, if they are given the chance. So now that is what we are trying to do, and the response so far has been absolutely incredible.

Critically Barnsley have put their Councillors on the frontline of these changes. Many decisions are now made in partnership with local people, in local Ward Alliance meetings. Local councillors are more focused on the direct impact of local spending on their own patch and empowered to hold people to account. Councillors work in partnership with the community development team to keep building local capacity.

This not the vapid Big Society. This is an intentional partnership between the state and local people to make Barnsley a better, stronger and fairer place. Local leaders are very aware of the underlying structural inequalities which persist. For instance the report calculates that the centralisation of power, costs Barnsley about £0.75 billion per year, about 40% of all local public spending, and equivalent to more than £3,000 for every citizen of Barnsley. What is more Barnsley Council only controls 11% of local public spending.

But we can also calculate the enormous positive contribution already made by citizens as carers, which is £435 million. Further, we can also estimate the latent capacity of citizens at £1.3 billon. In other words citizens can contribute directly just as much  as public services combined.

Civic socialism

This raises important questions for future Labour Party policy:

  1. Will we continue to confuse social justice with public services or will we really help people transform their own lives? Public services are vital, but they are not enough, and they do not deliver all that matters in a human life.
  2. Will we continue to centralise power and money in London or will really shift power to local communities? We do want public ownership, but we don’t want to suck power away from people or from their communities.
  3. Will we treat people as recipients of services or will we start to see people as citizens with rights, responsibilities and the capacity to contribute? Our ultimate purpose must be to support people as active citizens, contributing, growing and connecting.

Austerity is the enemy – but it is not the whole enemy. Complacency, paternalism, elitism and injustice are also part of the enemy, and if we cannot begin to challenge these then I suspect that spirit of austerity will eat away at our shared lives like a cancer.

Just down the road from Barnsley, in Sheffield, some of us are now gathering to explore what this means for us. Surely we can imagine a new kind of local democracy – where local people have control over their own communities and where people are at the heart of making their collective lives better.

Globally Citizen Network is asking the same question: may be now is the time for us to put aside our differences and work together build a better world?

Who can hold us back?

Perhaps only ourselves.

How Relevant is the Communist Manifesto?

The Communist Manifesto, written by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, was first published in 1848 – that is 170 years ago. Today we may think of Communism as either irrelevant or as a dangerous evil; for it is firmly associated, above all else, with the Russian Revolution of 1917 and subsequently with the Terror unleashed by Lenin and magnified by Stalin, and the murder or starvation of millions. The relatively recent collapse of the Soviet bloc and the increased use of private property and enterprise in communist China has generally been seen, in the West, as confirming that we’ve seen the end of Communism.

However I think it is largely forgotten that in the 1940s Communist parties were widespread and popular across most of Europe, and many of the assumptions of Communism were shared, not just by Socialists, but even by some Conservatives. There was then a widespread recognition that the State must play a constructive role in ensuring social and economic justice and in planning the development of society along progressive and a more equal footing.

Today it feels like we’re in the midst of a new phase of history. Inequality has re-emerged, particularly in the English speaking world, and the 2007 financial crisis has helped to reawaken a more critical approach to economics. The populist movements in the USA and the UK remind us that powerful economic elites (whom Marx and Engels called the bourgeoisie) often need to exploit fear, find scapegoats and increase division and hatred. The post-War assumptions: that things will just keep getting better; that all we need is more and more growth; that the modern welfare state can be trusted to redistribute resources fairly and we can trust the powerful to look after the rest of us – all these assumptions look faulty today.

At the same time the growing strength of the Labour Party in England, now with leaders who promise to return to Socialist principles, and the increasing assault on those leaders by the ruling elites and the media, remind us of earlier times and older battles.

So, amidst all this fear, hope and uncertainty I thought it would be interesting to re-read the Communist Manifesto and see what it might have to teach us today.

The Manifesto’s policy proposals

I think it is best if we start in the middle, for the central purpose of Communism is defined quite late in the Manifesto:

“…the theory of the Communists may be summed up in one single sentence: Abolition of private property.”

However this bold and simple claim is revised later on when Marx and Engels offer a series of practical policy proposals which, as they say, will need to be adapted to local times and circumstances:

  1. Abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes.
  2. A heavy progressive or graduated income tax.
  3. Abolition of all right of inheritance.
  4. Confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels.
  5. Centralisation of credit in the hands of the State, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly.
  6. Centralisation of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the State.
  7. Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the State; the bringing into cultivation of wastelands, and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan.
  8. Equal liability of all to labour. Establishment of industrial armies, especially for agriculture.
  9. Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of the distinction between town and country, by a more equable distribution of the population over the country.
  10. Free education for all children in public schools. Abolition of children’s factory labour in its present form. Combination of education with industrial production etc. etc.

Now, clearly, many of these proposal are not a reality – 170 years later. But these proposals do not feel entirely irrelevant nor wholly unachieved. For example, item 10 has largely been achieved, at least in most industrial societies. Moreover the creation of the NHS (although interestingly healthcare is never mentioned in the Manifesto) and many other public services would seem to have extended beyond the limited demands of the Manifesto. Outside the US and the UK, communications, utilities and parts of the banking system are often nationalised.

In other respects the situation is more mixed. Taxation is certainly significant, possibly heavy, but it is not progressive, it is regressive. In fact, in the UK the poorest 10% pay the most tax as a percentage of their income (10% higher than any other group). In other areas, like inheritance tax, progress has been modest. Broadly speaking you could argue that the state has taken on a very significant economic role, but that it does not take on the role of distributing resources fairly. Instead it tends to redistribute resources in ways that are politically advantageous to the ruling party, often focusing on swing voters in the middle.

Interestingly, the most utopian elements of the Communist Manifesto are also perhaps mirrored by objectives of the Green Party: improving the soil, changing the way people live in towns and in the country and transforming agriculture. Even the idea of industrial and agricultural armies may not so far from modern efforts to reimagine national service as a form of active citizenship.

So, have we achieved communism? Well if we were to look only at the policies then I think the answer might be about 33%, but we’re certainly a lot more communist than we were in 1848. Some of the aspirations of the Manifesto still feel right and relevant; however perhaps one of the things we have learned from the past 170 years is the state, even a democratic state, is not always guaranteed to protect the interests of the weakest. Marx’s description of the bourgeois state don’t seem out of place today:

The executive of the modern State is but a committee for organising the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.

The Manifesto’s view of history

However the Communist Manifesto is not really a set of policy proposals and we can see this if we examine its very interesting structure:

  1. Bourgeois and Proletarians – this first section, and the longest, explains the Communist view that history is made by an inevitable process of class conflict which has now been revealed by scientific analysis (by Marx and Engels).
  2. Proletarians and Communists – this section explains that Communists are those aware of the force of history and who link themselves to the best elements of the Proletariat, those who will be the vanguard of history.
  3. Socialist and Communist Literature – this section basically criticises various forms of inadequate socialism, the kinds of socialist who don’t understand their place in history.
  4. Position of the Communists in Relation to the Various Existing Opposition Parties – a tiny section, with a very long title, which sets out which parties the Communists are backing in several countries, but which ends with this ringing statement:

The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.

WORKING MEN OF ALL COUNTRIES UNITE!

So, this is not a vision of an ideal future, it is rather a train ticket on the railway of economic and social development. The key to understanding this strategy is found in the comparison that Engels, makes in his Preface to the 1888 English Edition of the Manifesto:

I consider myself bound to say that the fundamental proposition, which forms its nucleus, belongs to Marx. That proposition is: that in every historical epoch, the prevailing mode of economic production and exchange, and the social organisation necessarily following from it, form the basis upon which is built up, and from along which can be explained, the political and intellectual history of that epoch; that consequently the whole history of mankind (since the dissolution of primitive tribal society, holding land in common ownership) has been a history of class struggles, contests between exploiting and exploited, ruling and oppressed classes; that the history of these class struggles forms a series of evolutions in which nowadays, a stage has been reached where the exploited and oppressed class – the proletariat – cannot obtain its emancipation from the sway of the exploiting and ruling class – the bourgeoisie – without, at the same time, and once and for all, emancipating society at large from all exploitation, oppression, class distinction and class struggles.

This proposition which, in my opinion, is destined to do for history what Darwin’s theory has done for biology…

Communism is not so much a policy as it is a prediction – of the eventual victory of the proletariat – based on a scientific theory of history (which like the theory of evolution) has been hitherto hidden.  Communists can do no more than act as agents on behalf of the inevitable process of history. Their job is to back the winners – not to define the nature of the victory.

In a sense this is a low risk strategy, allowing Communism to adapt to changing circumstances, without ever really defining what it is about. And, as there is no necessary timescale for a Communist revolution, then you can still be a Communist today – you can still patiently await the inevitable revolution.

However, as Simone Weil rather brilliantly puts it:

The great mistake of the Marxists and of the whole nineteenth century was to think by walking straight ahead one would rise into the air.

Moreover, if I have understood this historical argument correctly, then it seems to me we are living through a period in which the central claim of Communism has been put under a lot of strain. Marx and Engels seem to assume that the tendency of Capitalism to become increasingly monopolistic means that increasingly fewer people will be bourgeois and more people will become proletariat – so the divide will become sharper and more unequal. Victory is inevitable, because the Capitalist position is unsustainable; it implodes and so the proletariat can take control.

However modern society seems to have evolved differently. The super-rich have given up a little, so that the moderately wealthy can enjoy some more, and together they divide the poor into different groups, leaving the very poorest even more exploited, and isolated from those who are somewhat better off. Divide and rule, always a successful strategy, seems like its working very well for the powerful and wealthy. They have succeeded in getting people to fight amongst themselves, to be suspicious of the poor and protective of the small gains they’ve made.

The Manifesto criticises those who defend a more moderate kind of Bourgeois Socialism:

A part of the bourgeoisie is desirous of redressing social grievances, in order to assure the continued existence of bourgeois society.

But moderate, Bourgeois Socialism seems now be the order of the day. The Communist revolution did not happen and there seems no sign of it happening. Instead, you could argue, the bourgeoisie worked out how to compromise with some of the proletariat. They offer some jam today, while others become scapegoats and are exploited – not just by Capitalism – but even by the state. The modern state is democratic, but it has not prevented

…the exploitation of the many by the few.

The Manifesto’s strategy relies on the reader’s faith that history will follow the preordained path. But once that faith starts to decline it is not clear what the Communism offers, for it does not offer a clear standard by which to evaluate and improve the present. Being on the right side of history only really works if history really is moving clearly in one direction.

Marx and Engels were surely right to point to the economic dimension of politics and to the capacity of people to organise themselves to defend their interests. They were also accurate to notice the revolutionary and destabilising features of the modern era:

Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence of all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face, with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

However they overstate the inevitability of progressive change and the perhaps they underestimate our need to reinstall the sacred, the relational and the communal. We are perhaps not ready to accept what Marx and Engels describe as the “real conditions of life”.

Style and substance

Perhaps the most striking feature of the Manifesto is its style. It shifts between a kind of scientific objectivity, dripping in jargon, to sweeping moralistic poetry while seeking every opportunity to put the boot into anyone who might disagree with them. Only the Communists themselves, and the precious vanguard of the proletariat are safe from vicious attack. One can sense that lively democratic debate and differences of opinion are not things they value.

Anger burns through its pages, even today: scornful, superior, bitter and even triumphant. But love is hard to find. The one positive definition of the purpose of the revolution that gives us some sense of its positive vision is this:

In place of old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.

For all the truth of its observations and the justice of that anger there is an obvious self-contradiction at its heart. It claims material factors determine everything, yet it itself is the declaration of an idea.  As Nadezhda Mandelstam says:

These rulers of our who claim that the prime mover of history is the economic basis have shown by the whole of their own practice that the real stuff of history is ideas. It is ideas that shape the minds of whole generations, winning adherents, imposing themselves on consciousness, creating new forms of government and society, rising triumphantly – and then slowly dying away and disappearing.

Perhaps the Communist Manifesto is really a vivid poem of hatred towards all of those who exploit their power to harm the weak. It adopts a scientific style, because this gives it a tactical advantage, but really it is at its strongest when it exposes the hypocrisy and horrors of Capitalist exploitation. It helps us believe that a better future is possible, not because its efforts to predict that future are believable, but because it taps into a moral reality that is more real than Communist theory itself.

Can Socialism Reinvent Itself for the 21st Century?

I am a proud member of the Socialist Health Association. I feel strongly that decent healthcare is a basic human right and that nobody should be deprived of it because of poverty, nor should the wealthy be able to buy their way to longer or healthier lives. If this is socialism then I’m a big fan.

Recently, the Socialist Health Association decided to review its fundamental principles, and as a philosopher by training, I thought I’d try and help clarify what socialism, at the beginning of the 21st Century, really means. However this turns out to be a rather difficult task.

It is certainly clear that socialists are against greed, exploitation, inequality, capitalism (possibly) and injustice (certainly). But what are socialists for?

One clue might be found in the social- part of the word socialism. Socialists believe in society, and more specifically I think socialists believe that society should come before the individual, that individualism puts the cart before the horse. 1 Certainly, the Socialist Health Association’s first principle as it currently stands, reflect this:

“The claims of the individual should be subordinate to social codes that have collective well-being for their aim, irrespective of the extent to which this frustrates individual greed.”

Now, as a piece of English, this is somewhat dry, abstract and rather confusing.

First, there is the strange notion of “claims”. This is quite a peculiar word. What am I claiming and to whom? Why is anyone interested in my claims anyway?

Second, there is the notion of sub-ordination. In what sense are my claims meant to be subordinate? Must my desires, plans or projects be directed towards “collective well-being”? This seems totalitarian in its ambition.

Or, on the other hand, are my claims legitimate as long as they don’t directly contradict the “social code” which has (somehow) been identified as for the greater good? Perhaps I can claim the right to drink alcohol, but I must only do so to the extent allowed by the state. This is perhaps nanny-state socialism, a little more tolerant than the totalitarian version.

All of this seems to be far too strong and quite alien to my reasons for supporting the NHS and social justice. I don’t want to be slotted (tightly or loosely) into some social code for collective well-being. I want to live in a decent society where we treat each other as equals. I don’t want to tell people how to live; I just don’t want to be advantaged at the expense of others, or to see others so advantaged. I really like the fact that the NHS is organised to limit how someone can jump the queue to get a better or faster treatment than someone else with similar needs, but less money. It’s fair.

The third problem with this way of defining socialism is that we are often confused about which “collective” matters. We can be part of many collectives: the family, the tribe, the class, the nation or humanity as a whole. Sadly, it has not been too hard for the wicked to corrupt the ‘social’ inside socialism into one ideal group that should be valued above all others. There is more than a theoretical link between socialism and national socialism and the twentieth century has seen millions sacrificed on the competing altars of these deathly versions of socialism.

But it is possible to imagine a better kind of socialism and one clue can be found if we go back, beyond the word society, to its Latin root socius or friend.

Friendship has nothing to do with state power and control. C S Lewis was not alone in observing that, at its core, the relationship of friend-to-friend is not a relationship of dependence, assistance or charitable action. Friends get along, even love each other, but not ‘in order’ that they can help each other. Helping gets in the way of friendship, and this is why friends hate to be in debt to each other. An undue level of do-goodery and interference in the lives of others is also irritating and unhelpful. It is certainly not friendly.

The challenge for socialism, at a practical level, is to convert our commitment to justice and our proper sense of responsibility for each other into a way of living that is ethical and sustainable. People who live only for others are not much better than people who live wholly for themselves. Citizens understand that they have obligations to themselves and to other people.

In practice most socialists are not trying to create totalitarian states or nanny states and they are quite aware that all human being are equally important. Today, much of the moral imperative of socialism has been converted into support for the welfare state and for the social contract it seems to imply: I must be prepared to pay my taxes, and in return – and as an equal member of society – I become entitled to some rights, such as being able to get free healthcare.

Now this welfare-state-socialism seems relatively benign, however it still has some peculiarities. For instance, notice that in this example of day-to-day socialism, the agent of good is now no longer acting from any moral principle. The doctor is not treating you because she’s a good person; instead she is (very) well paid to treat you. It is not the doctor who helps you, it is the anonymous welfare state, it is the system. So, interestingly, in order to operationalise itself socialism, appears to have moved away from the notion of friendship or mutuality. If we are not careful, the whole thing starts to feel entirely mechanical or transactional. I do this in order to get that. But then what is the difference between this kind of welfare-state-socialism and the kind of left-leaning liberalism that sees the welfare state as form of national insurance: we all put something in (according to our means) and we all get something out (according to our needs).

What seems to be missing is any deeper sense of our responsibility to our community, or even a sense of our unique individual value. Society has been converted from human-sized communities into a vast state-run charity. This may be a charity from which we all benefit, but as Arendt says, “charity is not solidarity.” In the face of this monolithic system we each become one part donor and one part recipient, one part tax payer, one part service user. The uniqueness and value of ourself and of our community disappears from view.

Welfare-state socialism is much better than totalitarian or many-state totalitarianism and much better than heartless forms of liberalism and individuals. But does it not feel we’ve sacrificed too much? Is there not a better way of defining socialism for the 21st century?

The fact that the meaning of socialism can be corrupted is no reason to abandon it, nor to abandon the concerns that it was developed to address. The underlying reasons for socialism are as real today as they were yesterday. Economic forces and greed do not control themselves; even the minimal democratic control of the state which we ‘enjoy’ today is no guarantee of justice, particularly when power and influence seems so easy to purchase. It remains essential that we examine what is really to the benefit of society, and not to treat society as if it were merely equivalent to a mass of self-interest.

However, if socialism is going to thrive we must find a better version of socialism.

For me the best starting point is the idea of citizenship. To be a citizen is to be much more than taxpayer, much more than a voter and much more than a right-holder or recipient. Citizens make community; their actions, innovations and creativity are the source of social value. They may be prepared, in extremis, to die for their community – but actually, more often, they get to live for their community.

The model of citizenship I use has seven elements, and I think each could be explored to develop a reinvigorated and healthier sense of what socialism might mean:

  1. Purpose – Citizens have a sense of purpose which is encouraged and supported; today’s dreams are tomorrow’s solutions.
  2. Freedom – Citizens are free, free to do their own thing, free to work with others, free to do the unexpected.
  3. Money – Citizens have enough, they abhor poverty and they don’t like excessive inequality (Plato’s suggested 1:5 income ratio for poor to rich would be much better than today’s tasteless and destructive excess.)
  4. Home – Citizens have homes, roots, neighbours and a sense of belonging. They are part of the community and they construct that community.
  5. Help – Citizens help each other, need each other, and know there is no shame in getting some assistance. However, what citizens don’t tolerate is sacrificing their freedom in order to get that assistance.
  6. Life – Citizens live life to the full, they work (and they know paid work is only one kind of work) they rest and they play. Citizens seek balance and know that you can only get out of life what you put into it.
  7. Love – Citizens need love, cherish love and respect love. Family, friendship and loving partnerships are all aspects of life that citizens nurture and protect.

Defining 21st Century Socialism seems a worthwhile project. The key I think is to leave behind the paternalism of the welfare-state-socialism and to rediscover the spirit of citizenship and community which actually built the welfare state in the first place. This does not mean abandoning the welfare state; it means reinvigorating and redesigning the welfare state. We must build the welfare state again, but this time not bury its builders and architects beneath its edifice.

  1. This point has a long pedigree; Aristotle, for instance offers us an early version of socialism “…even if the good of the community coincides with that of the individual, it is clearly a greater and more perfect thing to achieve and preserve that of a community; for while it is desirable to secure what is good in the case of an individual, to do so in the case of a people or a state is something finer and more sublime.” ↩︎

Is a Pro-Community Welfare State Possible?

In the space of a few days I’ve been lucky enough to be part of two workshops where we explored the question of how to narrow the gap between public services (the official welfare state) and the community. Each event was inspiring, with stories of exciting innovations that demonstrate the power of community action and the ability of the state, sometimes with a little help, to act as an agent for positive social change. There is a clear appetite for a new settlement, a new kind of pro-community welfare state, one which works in harmony with its citizens, not against them.

Now I know that for many fellow campaigners against the UK’s austerity policies even to discuss these ideas is to move dangerously close to the Big Society Bullshit that has been used as a screen by Government to disguise more than six years of cuts, stigma and increasing inequality. Some believe that the old welfare state was just fine, and that we must go back to the 1945 system; others recognise that all was not perfect, but think that any criticism of the old system, at this time, just provides dangerous ammunition for the new barbarians.

I certainly have some sympathy with both positions. The old welfare system had many virtues which we have lost sight of, including a much greater faith in the ability of officials in the welfare system to make sensible decisions, at a local level. Much of this freedom and flexibility has disappeared as Whitehall has taken over the ‘management’ of the welfare state. I also recognise that the Coalition Government did a brilliant job of covering its tracks. For every vicious cut they imposed there was some wacky new programme (usually funded by the Cabinet Office) that was used to grab headlines and scatter glitter over gaping wounds. We live in a cynical age.

But I don’t think we can hold back from considering some of the fundamental flaws in how the welfare state has evolved over the past few decades. It is particularly important to consider some of the deeper factors, which are much harder to see, but which not only damage the welfare state but also enable the Big Society Bullshit to gain credibility.

The best lies are wrapped around a small nugget of truth, and repeated lies cannot be defeated unless you can share some deeper, stronger and more hopeful truth.

To begin with I think it’s important to remember why we need the welfare state. The welfare state is a compensatory mechanisms that helps us deal with two kinds of inequality: inequality of wealth (income and assets) and inequality of need (disability, illness and age). The more equal a society is in wealth then the less you need systems of benefits, taxes and social housing to rebalance things. However, even if wealth were equal you would still need to deal with the fact that some people will also need further help which they cannot get on their own.

Now it is important to note that this second problem is also linked to how willing people are to do what is right without payment. Inequality of need is no problem in a community that naturally organises itself to meet those extra needs; however in a society where doctors, nurses and social workers want to be paid, and to be paid well, for using expert skills then inequality of need will also require additional welfare systems to ensure these important additional needs are also met.

So the purpose of the welfare state is to compensate, not just for inequality, but also for the insecurity that comes from knowing that you might have needs, and that nobody will be willing to help you meet them without payment.

Now, in the way of a thought experiment, let us imagine that you are the ruler of a community that already has a welfare state; and now imagine that (for some strange reason) you want to destroy the welfare system, but in a way that people won’t notice. Here are some strategies you could use:

  1. Forget about the importance of inequality, spend less on making the poor less poor, but spend more on services instead. In this way public spending will remain high, but inequality will grow. This is what the UK has done, spending about 50% less on poverty now than it did in 1977. In this way, fundamental needs will grow but the system will appear unable to help them. This helps to undermine the whole system.
  2. Encourage inequality within public services themselves. The Chief Executive of the NHS is paid about £200,000 – 50 times more than the poorest 10% of UK citizens who live on about £4,000 per year. Charity chiefs can earn similar amounts (e.g. £175,000 for the CEO of Mencap). In this way the public and charitable sectors can create the inequality that they are supposed to be there to solve.
  3. Make the poor poorer through hidden taxes. For instance the poorest 10% pay 50% of their income in taxes, meaning that their real income is closer to £2,000 per year (about £40 per week). In this way the poor are tricked into paying the salaries of those who should be helping them.
  4. Then create extra taxes, just for those people who have higher needs. This is called means-testing or charging, and it means that if you have a disability you will only get support if you are very poor or if you are prepared to pay the high ‘disability taxes’ imposed by the adult social care system. For this reason many people opt out of the welfare state and start to believe that that the system only exists for ‘them’ (the poorest, the most unworthy). At the same time the poor have to make themselves even poorer just in order to get vital services.
  5. Associate the welfare state with stigma, control and a sense of unworthiness; in this way people will not want to support it, use it or value it. Spending public money on campaigns which suggest people on benefits might be “benefit thieves” has been a highly successful means of spreading fear and mistrust through the general public. Today people believe benefit fraud is rife, whereas it is actually statistically insignificant.
  6. Pretend that public services are inadequate and will be better managed by private sector companies. This has the double benefit of reducing people’s sense of control and faith in the system, while adding to the inherent inequality of public services (frontline workers salaries are pushed down, profits are sucked out, yet senior public officials can now earn more as ‘commissioners’ rather than providers).
  7. Talk about the need for communities to take back control, for citizens to be empowered and then dismantle any of the remaining systems of support. And here we are today – Big Society Bullshit.

Some of you this may think that this is an unduly critical view of public policy over the past 40 years or so; others may think this is simply a restatement of what many others have been arguing for some time – “It’s the workings of capitalism; it’s the ideology of neoliberalism.”

So I’ll end by considering the question of motivation. Who wants to destroy the welfare state and why?

I asked you to consider how you would destroy the welfare state from within. But personally I find it difficult to believe that most of the politicians and the civil servants responsible for the welfare state have really been trying to destroy the welfare state. (But I may be being naive). In my experience (most of) our rulers want to do the right thing, but they do not understand the systems they control and act in order to gain short-term political advantage. Rationality and wisdom is harder to attain in a position of power.

Nor do I think that, for most of this period, greed and corruption by commercial companies has been the biggest factor in the destruction of the welfare state (although I think things have now changed, and it is certainly a significant factor today).

However I do think that shallow thinking has played its part; but I think that state socialism has been nearly as damaging as the kind of narrow economic liberalism that has now been relabelled as ‘neoliberalism’. It we think of people as merely animals, seeking selfish material benefit, then our thinking about the demands of justice and the organisation of society will be utterly inadequate.

So what are the real driving forces that continue to undermine the welfare state? Here are five poisons that I believe are eating away at the welfare state from within. I do not think they are the only corrosive factors at work, but I think they are important internal factors which should be given more attention as we try to think our way out of our current problems:

1. Centralisation – The more that decisions are taken centrally then the fewer the people involved in those decision, the easier corruption and the easier it is for powerful groups to get advantage over less powerful groups. Elites speak to elites, and after dinner comes the contracts, or the increased salaries for senior staff.

2. Meritocracy – The more hierarchical and the less democratic a society then the easier it is for its rulers to believe that they deserve their power, the money (that they award themselves) and their many other privileges. Meritocracy has always been the ideology of aristocracies – ‘we rule because we are the best’. The fact that the best are now the likes of Donald Trump, rather than the landed gentry, is merely a matter of detail.

3. Inequality – The welfare state exists because of inequality, but progressively it has treated inequality as an unavoidable fact, not as a problem that it was designed to tackle. Inequality make the poorest, not just poor, but weak and demoralised. Inequality makes the rich complacent and heartless. Today the welfare state not only fails to respond to poverty, it makes the problem worse by creating new kinds inequalities within public services themselves.

4. Insecurity – The ongoing dilemma for the welfare state, one that can be witnessed in the writings of Beveridge, Marshall and its other early designers, is the fear that the welfare state will give people too much security and encourage laziness or undue dependence. For this reason income security (unlike health security) has always been viciously means-tested. Strangely, as economic insecurity continues to grow in our increasingly global and technological economy, the state now works to increase this sense of insecurity through damaging changes to the benefits system. This toxic insecurity means that if people are unable to find paid work they are then punished if they volunteer or act like a citizen. The need to keep the poorest under control and feeling insecure eats away at the legitimacy of the system and further enables paternalism or bullying.

5. Individualism – The welfare state has been built around a highly individualised conception of the citizen. Family, friendship and community disappear in its gaze; instead bureaucratically defined solutions are offered to mere individuals. There is no role for collaboration, solidarity or cooperation in the modern welfare state, because all of those things move the centre of power towards community and treat the person as a citizen, not as a unit. Atomised we are weak – and that is how the system seems to want us.

The irony is that creating a good welfare state, or at least a much better welfare state, is quite possible. There is nothing inevitable about the ongoing decline of the welfare state. But in order to reverse the current decline we will need to think much harder about the real and underlying problems built into the current system itself.

Some of these problems cannot be solved by ‘policy’ (encouraging our rulers to have better ideas). The solutions we really need are constitutional, they require rethinking the fundamental structures of our democracy and our society. Unless we are prepared to do that thinking and begin advocating for more fundamental changes the legacy we were handed by our grandparents and great-grandparents will wither and die on our watch.

Ideal Markets or Real Markets

In public policy we use the word ‘market’ in radically different ways and in fundamentally inconsistent ways.

For the liberal (or if you prefer, neoliberal) the word ‘market’ is used to describe a special kind of human interaction – the ‘free exchange of goods or services at an agreed price’. The beauty of this liberal vision lies in the market’s seemingly magical ability to achieve three wonderful things at the same time:

  • It is a place of freedom – free individuals come together to bargain and exchange
  • It is a place of community – people make promises to each other and bind each other by contracts
  • It is a place of productivity – time, energy and money flow into the places which have the most value.

Of course, this vision of the market is just a beautiful ideal. In the real world:
The starting point is not fair, and advantages accrue to those already advantaged, and so freedom turns into exploitation.

When relationships of power are radically unequal then the community we create is atomised and elitist.
The most productive is not always the best; commerce can destroy nature, community, industry and even politics itself (as we are finding out to our cost in the UK).

And most liberals do know this. The market is their ideal, but they accept that in many areas there will be what they call ‘market failure’ and – for various reasons – it is recognised that the ideal market cannot really exist. So they will – to varying degrees – accept that markets must be controlled or an alternative system offered in their place. The market is for the liberal a ‘Platonic ideal’ – it may not be fully realisable – but we should strive towards it and use it evaluate the real.

Thus economics becomes the measure of man, not man the measure of economics.

Of course there are those who do not worship the market. These anti-liberals include socialists and conservatives. This may seem a surprising alliance and we often forget that there used to be a very different kind of conservative (small c) philosophy – one that valued King, country, religion, the local and the small. But this kind of conservatism now has nothing to do with the UK’s Conservative party. The Conservative party is now the leading ‘liberal’ party and it is no longer in the business of ‘conserving’ anything at all – except perhaps the interests of the rich and the powerful.

The anti-liberal thinks of the market not as a space but as a force:

  • The financial market is a malevolent force selling fraudulent products or gambling with our savings.
  • The housing market is crazy bubble where our own greed drives up prices to the benefit only of those who can escape it at the right point.
  • Markets drive the growth of monopolies, big business and the industrialisation of almost everything – markets even seem to kill the possibility of markets.

Of course socialists and conservatives also will accept the need for markets. Only the most zealous want to control food production, everyday shopping or enterprise. But the market is, for them, not an ideal space, but a demon, to be controlled and harnessed. At best its energy provides other resources and so it can be taxed to support the things the anti-liberal really values.

Until the 1990s the battle between the liberal and the anti-liberal was largely fought on the margin of the sphere of public services. Markets were for private goods and services; when it came to public services it was the state that was in control. There was a disagreement about what should be nationalised and what should be left free – but no disagreement that nationalisation meant – ‘outside the market’.

But this has now changed radically. Today it is quite common to hear people talk about markets for public services: the social care market, the healthcare market, the market for social housing. However these markets rarely have any of the qualities that the liberal associates with markets. It is not people, making free decisions, who buy these services – it is commissioners or governments. Here the word ‘market’ takes on a third meaning – roughly – ‘the stuff we spend public money on’.

So we are left with three entirely different and contradictory meanings for the term market:

  1. A space within which free, contractual and efficient exchanges can take place – the idealised market
  2. A force which can redistribute, steal or exploit resources and power – the demonised market
  3. An array of objects, services or products, perhaps purchased by the state or its agent – the phoney market

Of course when a word is so used and abused it is easy to lose patience and to simply abandon the whole concept. What is the value of the word ‘market’ when it means three contradictory things?

However I would like to make the case for a fourth use of the term – I would like to make the case for the market as an ‘agora’ – a free, protected and public space where a whole range of human activities can be carried out. The agora is not primarily economic – it is simply the space the community needs to collaborate and to work together. Business can be done there, but it is not defined by business.

I was very struck a few years ago to find, on a visit to Athens, that the ancient agora had been marked off by sacred stones. The purpose of these stones was to protect the agora from the private – from the invasion of the sacred space by people’s desire to extend their houses or gardens. It was sacrilege to privatise the market – the market was public property – divinely blessed.

What is more the agora was not just for shopping. The agora was for every kind of public business. The school master taught his students; philosophers sat on the stoa, a shaded area on the edge of the agora (hence stoics); government officers worked and ran meetings; and temples operated. The agora is messy and human – lots of stuff goes on – out in the public square. The agora even housed the building for weights and measures – the system for checking on cheats – for ‘regulating the market’.

Interestingly the agora excluded the Acropolis (the centre of religious life), the assembly which met on the Pnyx (the centre of political power) and the Areopagus (the centre of justice). Each of these institutions was based on one of the hills looking down over the agora from on high.

Perhaps it is time to leave the idealised, demonised and phoney markets behind us. Perhaps it is time to work out how to protect and cherish real markets – the agora – those essential public arenas in which we do stuff together.

Today these place will not just be physical – they will also be virtual – but they are essential. Without the agora we cannot be fully human.

The Welfare State and Citizenship in Political Theory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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