Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Year: 2018

Why a New Centre Party Will Fail

It may not be wise nor truthful to think of political (i.e human) activities as driven by uncontrollable forces. But today, as extreme austerity policies lead to ever-worsening harm, it is hard not to see, what Simone Weil called gravitational forces at work. Despite criticisms by the Right-wing of the Labour Party, ridiculous slanders and invented scandals, and the threat of a new Centre Party, the strength of the movement behind Jeremy Corbyn continues to grow.

Are we really free at times like this?

Is there “no alternative.”

Spinoza famously proposed that even a stone, falling through the air, would consider itself free:

Further conceive, I beg, that a stone, while continuing in motion, should be capable of thinking and knowing, that it is endeavouring, as far as it can, to continue to move. Such a stone, being conscious merely of its own endeavour and not at all indifferent, would believe itself to be completely free, and would think that it continued in motion solely because of its own wish. This is that human freedom, which all boast that they possess, and which consists solely in the fact, that men are conscious of their own desire, but are ignorant of the causes whereby that desire has been determined.

So Spinoza imagine that a stone – falling headlong – would be thinking to itself:

Great – I’m really glad I chose to head down here!

I wonder what a pendulum would think as it swings back and forth?

This question came to mind while listening to current debates surrounding UK politics, and in particular the claim by ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair that:

I don’t think the British people will tolerate a situation where, for example, the choice at the next election is Boris Johnson versus Jeremy Corbyn.

Tony Blair’s personal position (whatever your view of him) is natural enough. He will feel that his own legacy is threatened and also, that as (electorally speaking) Labour’s most successful leader, his views should be given some weight. To a certain group of politicos I am sure all of this seems tremendously important; and I am sure there is a genuine chance that a new ‘centrist’ party will be formed, but as Gary Younge of The Guardian, quoting Heraclitus said:

You can not go back into the same river twice.

Things have changed.

Although, not all things. One of the reasons why the battle within the Labour Party is so vicious is that politicians like Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell are perceived to have never changed. They supported the movements within Labour that Kinnock and Blair defeated; and as MPs they persistently did not support the policies developed and implemented by Blair and his colleagues. They were always (from the Right’s point of view) going in the wrong direction. It is natural enough that those who went along with the Rightward drift of the Blair years would see them as hopeless outsiders.

However, think about the pendulum. If it were conscious then most of it would be on board with whatever direction it is currently travelling in. If it is Going Right – then most of the pendulum will be on board with the current direction of travel. Only a small minority will still persist in saying:

This is all wrong – let’s Go Left instead!

But for most – Going Right will feel normal and natural. Until it doesn’t. Until the pendulum is pulled back by two countervailing forces: politics (the fulcrum) and reality (gravity). Imagine what the pendulum would say to itself at the point it is about to Go Left after years of Going Right. Most of the pendulum would still be thinking:

This can’t be happening. You can’t be serious. Surely we need to keep Going Right. It’s the only way we can succeed.

This is the point we have reached: the point of change. This is why 2018 is not 1981, and whatever emerges from the Right-wing of the Labour Party will be even less successful than the SDP. The politics of the current situation is different. The Right has been so dominant for so long that, unlike 1981, there is nowhere for them to go other than into self-defeating xenophobia. There are certainly plenty of pro-Europeans who will be turned off by that – but they already have somewhere else to go – the Liberal Democrats – and its pretty clear from the GE 2017 that many pro-Europeans (like me) would much rather support Labour than the Liberal Democrats.

Also, beyond the issue of Europe, what will be the stance of this new centrist party? There’s nothing left to privatise; there’s nothing left to marketise; austerity-lite is not a policy; conditionality, workfare and all the other stigmatising policies of the Blair years have also failed. The Government’s of 2010, 2015 and 2017 have already played the trick of combining vicious Right-wing policies with heart-warming rhetoric. Fewer and fewer people will buy this bullshit a fourth time.

I hear some complain that they are not clear what the policies of Labour will be, as if that was the issue. That is not the issue – when the pendulum swings Left then there will be decades to discuss, implement and explore policies which promote social justice. There will be many issues that good people will disagree about – and many mistakes will be made – all this is natural. Politically the Left has the field of dreams before it: partly because we have now moved to such an extreme Right-wing position.

At this point the details of the Manifesto are not really the issue.

The finite nature of our political options is like the fulcrum that constrains the swing to the Right. But gravity is the other force at work and gravity represents the human forces that must be harnessed in order to win political power. The harm caused by these extreme policies is now unravelling and the balance of power is shifting. Too many people are being left out, harmed, depressed or angered by the swing to the Right – particularly the young.

Blair’s success was certainly partly due to the fact that he managed to offer a kind of Thatcher-lite: he would be a ‘moderniser’ but with a heart. And, although some will see this as harsh, I think it is fair to say that in many ways Blair simply prepared the way for austerity and for the current Right-wing extremism of our Government. For Blair excelled at policies that pandered to the middle – for political success – while often sacrificing the interest of the most disadvantaged:

  • Encourage house inflation – This policy benefits the better-off, enmeshes people in excessive debt and leaves the young increasingly adrift.
  • Subsidise the middle – Policies like tax credits lift the income of middle earners, but don’t deal with poverty nor the structural poverty caused by Thatcher’s deindustrialisation of the North – thus leaving many communities alienated from politics.
  • Blame the poor – Welfare reforms, conditionality policies, sanctions and the rhetoric of stigma were all advanced in Blair and Brown. These policies prepared the ground for horrors of the Iain Duncan Smith era.
  • Privatise and marketise everything – Private Finance Initiatives (PFI) were just one example of the craziness by which public services and assets were given away and in their place were contractual arrangement and ‘internal markets’ that never worked. Instead trust, cooperation and innovation were replaced with profit-taking and centralised management.
  • De-democratise the Labour Party – This policy enabled electoral success, but left growing numbers of people cynical and mistrustful of politics.
  • Fail to reform the constitution – Devolution in Scotland was a policy handed to Labour by the Scots. The failure to reform the House of Lords was symbolic of the cronyism and elitism which grew under Labour, undermining local government and weakening civil society.

It is these failures which prepared the ground for austerity, for the heartless Coalition and for an out of touch Labour Party which, until Corbyn’s election, was actually supporting some of the most regressive ‘welfare reforms’ being imposed by Iain Duncan Smith.

Corbyn has not restored the strength of Labour by inviting back into the party missing Marxists. Corbyn has restored the strength of Labour by telling the truth, by speaking about poverty, inequality and justice and by offering us some hope of actual change. This is why myself and so many people I know have joined the Labour Party – because in England (and with due respect to the Green Party which are owed a great deal of credit) they are only credible hope of a better world.

The pendulum is going to swing back, and after a little while it may even begin to feel normal to care about each other, our communities, all the peoples of the world and even the world itself.

The True Source of Our Security

True security can only be found in a community of citizens who honour their obligations to each other.

I love the Frank Capra film – It’s a Wonderful Life – it is pure socialism (in the word’s truest and best sense) wrapped in Americana.

Bedford Falls is an image of America, torn between two forces: George Bailey and his comrades work to free people from poverty by helping people buy their own homes. George is in the citizenship business. Set against him is Old Man Potter, a capitalist who sees exploitation as his right. On the surface both are men of property and of money; but one is governed by that money, while the other is governed by principles love and duty.

The final scene, pictured above, shows how George Bailey is rescued from the plots of Potter by the townsfolk, who are his friends – in Latin the word ‘socius’ – the source of the ‘social’ in socialism – is a companion, fellow-traveller or ally. They pool their resources in order to free George from the bankruptcy being threatened by Potter (a bankruptcy built on Potter’s theft).

It is easy to understand this final scene as a sugar-rush of human sympathy and compassion, triggered by love and admiration. But really what this scene shows us, in allegory, is the emptiness of Potter’s power – the power of money. It is a choice – a social choice – to live in fear or awe of money and to think of those who have it as being beyond justice. The redemption of George Bailey (for this is what redemption means quite literally) is based on the realisation of the community that it they who make the money, create the power and determine the course of the community towards or away from justice.

Of course, the people of Bedford Falls would not have declared a revolution – they would have saved George and then got back on with their lives – torn between justice and the pressures and impositions of Potter and his power. But – in this one heady moment – you can picture a revolution being made – the discovery that the power of Potter is the power we give him. We make property and its rights – it has its proper role – but once we allow it to fall into the clutches of the monopolists, the elites and the greedy we will keep paying for it. And the only redemption is collective – we need to wake up the trick being played up on us – seeing that truth on your own changes nothing.

George MacDonald on Heaven and Plurality

George MacDonald (1824-1905) was a Christian who wrote novels, poetry, sermons and fairy tales. He was an inspiration to C.S. Lewis, W.H. Auden and G.K. Chesterton and one of the fathers of the literature of fantasy. Here are a few of his thought-provoking words:

We all know something nobody else knows

Everyone of us is something that the other is not, and therefore knows something – it may be without knowing that he knows it – which no one else know: and… it is everyone’s business, as on of the kingdom of light and inheritor in it all, to give his portion to the rest.

George MacDonald, The Inheritance

Conformity is a sign of decline

All wickedness tends to destroy individuality and declining natures assimilate as they sink.

George MacDonald, Alec Forbes, Volume III, Chapter 26

Persecution is born from the fear we cannot defend our faith

Clara’s words appeared to me quite irrelevant… but what to answer here I did not know. I almost began to dislike her; for it is often incapacity for defending the faith they love which turns men into persecutors.

George MacDonald, Wilfred Cumbermede, Chapter 18

The usefulness of the moral law

Of what use then is the law? To lead us to Christ, the Truth – to waken in our minds a sense of what our deepest nature, the presence, namely of God in us, require – to let us know, in part by failure, that the purest efforts of will of which we are capable cannot lift us up even to abstaining from wrong to our neighbour.

George MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons, Love Thine Enemy

To not forgive is spiritual murder

It may be infinitely less evil to murder a man than to refuse to forgive him. The former may be the act of a moment of passion: the latter is the heart’s choice. It is spiritual murder, the worst, to hate, to brood over the feeling, that in our microcosm, kills the image, the idea of the hated.

George MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons, It Shall Not be Forgiven

The desirable immortality

To some minds the argument for immortality drawn from the apparently universal shrinking from annihilation is the one thing to be longed for, with all the might of longing which is the mainspring of human action. In a word, it is not immortality the human heart cries out after, but that immortal, eternal thought whose life is life, whose wisdom is wisdom… Dissociate immortality from the living Immortality, and it is not a thing to be desired.

George MacDonald, Wilfred Cumbermede, Chapter 58

What is Heaven?

The Great Divorce by C S Lewis is a wonderful thought piece on the subject of what will happen after death. Lewis delights in taking worries or philosophical problems and turning them on their heads.

The first problem is our tendency to imagine heaven as somehow less real than ordinary life, all ghostly and spiritual. But, as Lewis shows us, this cannot be right; heaven cannot be less real than earthly reality – it must be more real. So, when the narrator arrives in heaven, on a day’s bus trip from Hell, he finds he can barely walk, for the grass is too sharp for his feet.

The second problem is that, particularly today, we struggle to see how God can allow Hell to exist. But, as Lewis suggests, Hell can exist because God cannot force us to love. It is Hell that is ghostly and insubstantial, because people are free to choose not to love, and it is that failure that condemns them to their own Hell. So, after visiting Heaven most of the visitors return to Hell, not because they are not welcome, but because they cannot give themselves to love.

This of course connects to this brilliant little Hasidic story:

A rabbi asked his students how they could tell when the dawn had come and morning prayers could be said. One student responded by saying, “When you can see the sheep on the hill.” Another suggested that one can tell that the dawn has come when a person is able to distinguish between a fig tree and a grapevine. “No,” said the wise one. “It is dawn when you can look into the faces of human beings and you have enough light within you to recognize them as your sisters and brothers.”

The painting is by friend, the artist David Beatson.

What Welcome Means

welcome means
it seems
when you come
we’ll see you well
see you safe at last
see you’re made
welcome

Social Care Car Crash

This week I have been working in the USA, but it’s been hard to get people to understand how severe the cuts to social care (children and adults) have been in England. But here’s my best shot at a metaphor:

A family is crossing a busy road. The traffic lights is red, the family crosses, but a car ploughs into the whole family – children, parents and grandparents are scattered across the road, bleeding, broken and dying. The car stops and a drunken driver leans out of the car window and shouts, “Don’t worry I’ll go and get help.” But when the car arrives at the hospital it smashes straight into the side of the ambulance.

The Government – which keeps promising to help social care – is the primary source of the disastrous cuts to social care – but somehow we keep normalising their destructive behaviour.

Today (in terms of numbers served) adult social care has been cut by 50%.

Graph showing 50% reduction in adult social care since 2009

Severity of cuts in English adult social care

Cuts to children social care have also been vicious.

This is because central government has cut funding to local government by about 60% or more, and these cuts are deepening every year. Since 2010, we’ve been told:

  1. It’s okay we can take money out of the NHS (healthcare) to subsidise these cuts – but funding for the NHS has not been increased to make that possible (and its a crazy way to solve the problem anyway).
  2. Don’t worry we’ll eventually come up with a plan for funding social care differently – but the only plan we’ve seen was to make older people pay more money for it and this was quickly shelved when the public got to hear about it.

As an Englishman there are many deeply upsetting and shameful aspects to what is happening in my country:

None of this necessary or fair. Social care has always been a small, but important, part of government expenditure (about 1-2% of GDP). It is low cost and relatively efficient. It is a preventive service which, when it’s working well, reduces the money spent on healthcare or on forms of institutionalisation.

The UK Government’s policy has also been severely condemned by the United Nations as a breach of human rights, and yet it continues unabated today. Even worse, this policy is just one part of the Hostile Environment created for people and families with disabilities: cuts to income security and housing combined with the growth of mean-spirited systems of assessment, control and sanctions are driving up rates of suicide and depression.

There is still no sense of national scandal and no sense of accountability on the part of our rulers. Grass roots organisations like Disabled People Against the Cuts (DPAC) have tried to force this issue onto the agenda but there is still no effective national campaign that combines the many powerful groups and organisations involved directly or indirectly with social care.

It doesn’t need to be this way

If the leaders of opposition parties, trade unions, major charities and local government could open their eyes, listen to people and work together then this policy could easily be reversed and a new direction set.

I would ask everyone who works in the social care sector, but especially those who are likely to retire with a good pension one day, to think about this problem and ask yourself:

What do you want to be remembered for when you’ve gone?

You survived the car crash

Or

You helped turn this problem round

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.

Where on Earth is Our Welfare State?

Politicians
Who don’t come from here
Fight for our votes
Before heading off there
To London
To fight with each other
To be Ministers (well a few)
To tell their civil servants
Who’ve certainly never been here
How to make things better here
To pay their friends in business
(Who they’ll go and work for… when their time is up)
(And who certainly don’t pay their taxes here)
To go and deliver services here
To make their profits here
But not to spend it here
And to ensure
All our problems still remain here
So they can keep their jobs, their pensions and their houses
There, wherever that is,
Certainly not here

While all the time
What we really need
Here
Is a welfare state that is based
Here
Run from
Here
Where local people
Solve local problems
Where local doctors
And local nurses
Run our NHS
Here
Where local teachers
And local families
Run our schools
Here
Where citizens
Run their own communities here

What will it take?
To get our power back
Here
To get our belief back
Here
Here, where we belong

Welfare State as Wicked Stepmother

I suppose one dream of the welfare state is that the welfare state is like a Fairy Godmother, kind and wise, although perhaps living far away, and someone, who when called upon, can turn pumpkins into carriages and mice into stallions.

Increasingly that dream of the welfare state is dying and in its place is the nightmare of the Wicked Stepmother. She has her favourite daughters, those she cossets and spoils, while she curses those who are weakest, breaking their backs with unfair burdens, locking them away from opportunity and blaming for them for her own faults.

Mother is dead and the nanny state is long gone.

Of course the Fairy Godmother is preferable to the Wicked Stepmother, but unfortunately she’s just a dream. We cannot choose between these two options. Instead we must wake from the dream and find a way of creating a citizen’s welfare state, where we work for ourselves, take care of each other, and discipline ourselves to protect the weakest from exploitation, stigma and shame

Top 10 Tory Injustices: the price of austerity

Tomorrow I hope to speak at a demonstration in Sheffield against the privatisation of the NHS – although the extremely cold weather may be against us. So I thought I’d put my thoughts online, just in case.

One of the challenges of the last 8 years, since the Conservative coalition began in 2010, is that so many things have been going wrong at the same time, and so it’s extremely hard to keep up with all the many different and growing injustices. The government justifies the unjustifiable by calling it austerity, in reality it is just injustice. So here’s my top ten Tory injustices:

At No. 10 – Increasing poverty

We are told that work is the best way out of poverty – but this a lie. 13.5 million people live in poverty and most are in working families. And we ignore how real poverty is. Currently 6 million people live on £50 a week after tax – that’s £7 a day – to meet all their life costs. The UK is now one of the most unequal developed countries in the world.

No. 9 – Severe cuts to social care

The deepest cuts in Government funding were the savage cuts to local government. Predictably this has created severe cuts to social care – the support we offer children in need, the frail and disabled people. The cuts mean that the numbers receiving social care for adults has been cut by about 50%. Cuts for children’s social care are happening while we put increasing numbers of children in care because of family crisis, abuse and violence.

No. 8 – Appalling treatment of asylum seekers and refugees

The UK has one of the worst international records for welcoming refugees and asylum seekers and if you do arrive in the UK you will be placed in what the Government proudly calls a “Hostile Environment” forced to live in poverty, with diminished rights, while many women and children are forced into prison-like immigration centres.

No. 7 – Targeting cuts on disabled people

Since 2010 the group of people who have been targeted the most is disabled people. They’ve faced cuts from every direction – cuts in social care, cuts in benefits and cuts in housing, particularly through the bedroom tax. The government refuses to look at the overall impact of these cuts, but we’ve calculated that people with the most severe disabilities have been targeted for cuts 6 times more severely than the average person.

No. 6 – A vicious benefit system that causes suicide

The benefits system has been made more cruel and heartless. There have been more than 7 million sanctions, for reasons which include attending your Grandmother’s funeral instead of going to the Job Centre. The new Work Capability Assessment is associated with increased stress, mental illness and suicide. The Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health reported that these assessments had already caused hundreds of suicides and the numbers continue to grow as these policies remain unchanged.

No. 5 – Failed housing policy

Growing numbers are homeless, rough sleeping has doubled since the Tories took charge, with people now regularly dying on our streets. Those who have a home often cannot afford to heat it – with about 10 million people in fuel poverty. One million homes have damp, further worsening people’s health problems. People cannot afford to buy a house, but are forced to rent from private landlords instead, at a cost greater than a mortgage.

No. 4 – Malnutrition and the rise of the food-bank

Today, in a country with no famine, no plague nor war, there are now more than 2,000 food-banks – in 2009 there were 29. Did you ever imagine you’d be living in the land of food-banks? Extreme poverty and the vicious benefit system is now managing to create malnutrition. The numbers of people in hospital because of malnutrition has tripled since 2009.

No. 3 – The UK’s human rights record

The UK, originally one of the pioneers of the idea of human rights has now been condemned by 3 separate international committees, established by the United Nations, to help make countries accountable for their international obligations. We have been condemned because – unlike almost every other country in the world – after the financial crisis, where others tried to protect those most in need – the UK targeted these them for cuts. The fact that these reports have barely been reported by the media tells its own sad story.

No. 2 – Increasing death rates

What is the result of all this. It’s not just an abuse of human rights, it means that many of us are now dying sooner than we should. The UK Government is literally killing its own citizens. The British Medical Journal reported that death rates have started to rise – for the first time since World War II – we are not living longer, we’re dying sooner. And there is no natural explanation for this – this is the result of Government policy.

And finally, at No. 1 – Privatising the NHS

About 15% of the NHS is now privatised and the rate of privatisation is growing, with the private sector winning 70% of new contracts. Hand in hand with this are growing measures to decrease eligibility for services, extend waiting lists and reduce the personal, local and community dimensions of healthcare. NHS leaders seem inspired by the USA’s healthcare system – the worst system in the developed world and are abandoning the principles that have made the NHS the best healthcare system in the world.

In many ways it may seem surprising to put the privatisation of the NHS at the top of the list. Many of the other attacks on the welfare state are more severe and cause more direct harm to ordinary people.
But the NHS is the bedrock of our welfare state and it represents the kind of society we want – it’s fair, it’s free, it’s for everyone.

Most importantly, it’s not The NHS – it’s Our NHS.

If we lose the NHS. If it will become Their NHS – the NHS controlled by the rich or an NHS only for the poor – then we will have given up centre-piece of social justice in our country.

We must rally round the NHS. We must make it our El Alamein

We must not only protect it from privatisation but we must also start to turn the tables and begin the fight to restore the principles of justice and equality in our country.

Why Inequality Drives Me Crazy

I wrote this blog for The Equality Trust and as a contribution to the international Day of Action on 25th January 2018.

Philosophers know that when you start talking about equality you can quickly get in a muddle. The truth is that we’re all different AND we’re all equal. In fact we’re all wonderfully different and without those differences our world would be a stale and deathly place. But we’re also fundamentally equal – which means we all matter, we all share the same fundamental value, each and everyone of us. In one sense equality means recognising that every single person, with all their differences, contributes to making the world a beautiful place.

Difference and equality feel like they are in conflict because we confuse equality with sameness; we focus on some particular variable aspect of our humanity and then we are tempted into promoting our self-worth by treating that difference as the most important measure of our self. Kids want to be the tallest, adults want to be the richest and football teams want to have most points at the end of the season.

We like to win – however meaningless the game.

And, of course, as soon as someone starts to win then someone else must inevitably lose. As the great Billy Bragg sings:

Just because you’re better than me

Doesn’t mean I’m lazy

Just because you’re going forwards

Doesn’t mean I’m going backwards…

This is the reason that Dante made Pride the First Deadly Sin. If you really believe you are better than other people then you are not only kidding yourself but you will often start to harm other people. You may be tempted to fix the rules of the game so that you’ll keep winning; you may encourage others to believe that they don’t count, that they’ve got nothing to offer and that you are entitled to your supposed superiority.

Game-fixing and toxic inequality is particularly rife when it comes to the distribution of the three great social forces: money, power and fame. The more a society fixates on any of these values then the more vicious that society will become and the more likely that inequality in that variable will increase.

Inequality begets inequality.

Inequality in money is the most obvious example.

If there’s a lot of inequality in money then those with lots of money gain many things – not just extra power and resources, but also the delusion that they are better than other people – combined with a gnawing anxiety that those advantages could be taken away from them. The greater the inequality the greater the sense you have have much to lose and the greater the temptation to fix the game to perpetuate your advantage. So the rich increasingly believe they deserve what they have and they organise society to protect and increase their advantage; to buy influence they buy or bribe the powerful.

Injustice begets injustice.

Sadly the natural result of this toxic inequality is not that people eventually wake up, get over themselves and start to share things more fairly. Inequality distorts the values of everyone.

For those in the middle it is much easier to blame the poor for society’s problems than to challenge the rich. Even worse, most of the poor themselves accept this distorted vision; they rarely reject the values that are imposed upon them, they rarely organise and fight back. Blatant nonsense about benefit scrounging, fraud by disabled people, the costs of immigration or the European Union can be found as much amongst the oppressed as amongst those who oppress them.

To simplify, in the form of a Haiku, it seems that the normal pattern is:

The rich blame the poor

The middle apes the rich and

The poor blame themselves

But there is hope.

Organisations like The Equality Trust hold out a torch and help us see what a self-destructive trap income inequality has become. We can start to see how income inequality has been exploited and inflated to the disadvantage of society as a whole. We can start to identify the disciplines that are required for people to live as equal citizens, welcoming difference, not seeking to exploit or abuse others.

It is clear today that even a relatively modest correction in income inequality would lift millions out of poverty and deprivation. Plato recommended that the richest should get no more than 5 times what the poorest get. As a beginning, this ratio would transform society and radically improve our society.

It’s also exciting to see the emergence of organisations like Acorn – local people self-organising to protect their social rights, hold landlords to account and fight poverty – or Citizen Network – an international community to promote equal citizenship for all. It is possible to reimagine our world and we can organise to make that vision real.

It is time to think start thinking straight and time to challenge the unacceptable acceptance of inequality. In the words of the Gang of Four:

To hell with poverty!

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