Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Category: Essays (page 1 of 6)

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.

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.

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!

Welfare and the Common Good

My friend Virginia Moffatt recently edited a collection of essays called Reclaiming the Common Good which explores the way that society, in so many ways, seems to have lost its way. My essay explores some of the original thinking behind the welfare state and what we might do to return to the ideas that originally inspired it. The book launch was in Bloomsbury on 20th September 2017. Virginia asked several of the authors some questions, and here are my answers.

How would you define ‘welfare’? Why is it that we are currently living in a country where those in greatest need are being denied help?

A Finnish friend of mine, Katja Valkama, who was doing research on social policy in the UK asked me: “Why do people say all these negative things about ‘welfare’? In Finland welfare just means well-being.”

Exactly.

The term ‘welfare state’, was coined by Archbishop William Temple, and it was certainly meant to capture the idea that we needed to ensure that our social arrangements – underpinned by law, democracy and the power of the state – worked to guarantee everybody’s welfare – everybody’s well-being.

And the five main pillars of the welfare state still do so today:

  1. Health – The NHS provides us with universal healthcare
  2. Education – Public schools provide us with free education up to 18
  3. Income Security – Pensions and benefits provide some income security
  4. Housing – Housing benefits and social housing provide some protection from homelessness
  5. Disability Support – Local government provides some rather limited social care to people with disabilities and older people who are frail and need assistance

As my ordering suggest – some systems work much better than others and interestingly the ones we value most are:

  • The most universal ones, with no means-testing
  • The ones we forget are part of the welfare state

The word welfare – and its associated stigma – seems to attach itself most closely to social security and to any systems that seem to be just for the poor. This is despite the fact that the biggest benefit – accounting for about 50% of all benefits – is the state pension – a universal benefit. We have somehow allowed welfare and the welfare state to become stigmatised; this is despite the fact that the largest parts of the welfare state remain popular and so have been relatively protected from recent cuts.

On the other hand, the reason why the cuts of austerity have fallen so heavily on disabled people is that they are a group that is particularly dependent on the less universal elements of the welfare state: housing, care and benefits. These are politically easy things to cut because most people think they have no stake in them.

It is particularly important to recognise that our current problems are not so new. Things have been moving in this direction for several decades. For instance if we compare our situation today to the 1970s three things stand out:

  1. The poor have been made poorer, by a mixture of economic change and the lower value of benefits
  2. The rich have become a lot richer, but they do pay a little more in taxes
  3. Most people are in the middle and they are about the same – their wages have dropped, but the difference has been made up by benefits (disguised as tax credits, pensions, housing benefit etc.)

Austerity has recently made things much worse the poorest. But the system has been getting worse and worse for over 40 years. Over time its main function has shifted so as to subsidise the incomes of the middle-classes. But this has been managed in a way that enables them to psychologically distance themselves from those stigmatised groups that they see as beneath them. This is today’s double injustice: we steal from the poor, but heap blame and stigma on their shoulders at the same time.

What would you say to those who argue that the welfare state is no longer necessary in modern Britain?

It’s really important to realise that the development of the welfare state is correlated – above everything else – with the growing insecurity of the modern world. Our productivity or average wealth is irrelevant: people can starve or be forced into prostitution, homelessness or suicide even if society as a whole gets wealthier.

Average wealth is irrelevant, it is equality and income security – not economic growth that is most important.

In fact our amazing productivity has only been achieved by sacrificing (often not willingly) basic economic securities:

  1. First we lost the security of the land and millions were forced to come to the towns for work, and they then became dependent on ’employment’ and those who did not fit into this system were forced into the workhouse.
  2. Second craftsmen and labourers lost the security of their roles as machines produced more for less.
  3. Third we discovered, through the Great Depression, and many other bubbles, slumps and downturns, that even a job was no security. We can now manufacture droughts and famines through bad planning, economic anxiety and panic.

We discovered that the modern industrial world is no protection from growing inequality and radical insecurity – what Simone Weil calls rootlessness. These injustices then inspired revolutionary hopes and fascist reactions. This unleashed war, revolution, terror, eugenics and the Holocaust.

The welfare state – which had its seeds in Bismarck’s Germany – was always a way of replacing the basic securities that people desperately need in a world that had lost the older securities of land, church and community.

Nothing about the current state of the economy makes the welfare state less necessary. Income insecurity is even more extreme today than before the War. Our incomes are far more dependent on Government-run systems and subsidies. We simply take for granted the enormous benefits that come from the welfare state and the security – even its current inadequate form – that it provides for all of us.

We’ve gone to sleep and we’ve forgotten all that we’ve come to rely on.

The organisation you run is called the Centre for Welfare Reform. Can you give us some of your thoughts how the welfare state could be reformed for the good of all?

I do wonder whether it was a good idea to name the Centre as the Centre for Welfare Reform. The term ‘welfare reform’ is now so toxic and so closely associated with the changes introduced by the Coalition Government that it is quite confusing. However, I think that a civilised society will always want to ensure that it is organised in the best way it can be to ensure the welfare of all its members; so I think welfare reform – true welfare reform – actually improving how we take care of each other – will remain an important project – even if we’re not sure what to call it any more.

For me the central challenge of improving the welfare state was set out by the philosopher Jeremy Waldron:

Above all, I think the idea of citizenship should remain at the centre of modern political debates about social and economic arrangements. The concept of a citizen is that of a person who can hold their head high and participate fully and with dignity in the life of their society. (Liberal Rights, p. 308)

What this requires is up for debate, but I think we can mark out the two extremes that we must avoid – the Scylla (rocks) and Charybdis (whirlpool) of welfare reform between which we must steer:

  1. We must avoid the assumption that the state is some rational and benign entity who can be trusted to simply meet our needs and solve social problems on it own. This way of thinking is fundamentally undemocratic and it treats citizen as non-citizens – as passive, dependent and lacking in responsibility. The last 40 years, and particularly the last 7 years, have clearly demonstrated that the state cannot be left alone with this task of taking care of us.
  2. We must also avoid the assumption that we have no need for the welfare state, that we can all manage alone, or in our families. Citizens are not lone wolves, consumers or producers; they are people who need to live together and need to work together to build a meaningful and mutually rewarding world.

What this means is that we must look for welfare reforms that are going to encourage us to be the best that we can be both singly and together. We need to create a world where everyone is included, everyone is an equal, everyone is treated as a full and valued citizen.

So, what might some positive reforms look like?

Briefly I would suggest the following:

  1. The basic idea of the NHS remains sound – what we will want to do is bring it closer to our communities. Professionals sometimes forgot their core purpose – to teach, assist and enable.
  2. Schools needs to be freed from the tyranny of regulation and the phoney idea that they can prepare people for work. Education should be more inclusive and focus on building our capacity to be citizens.
  3. Income security needs to be radically reformed, and at its centre needs to be the idea of a basic income – a secure income that is enough for each of us to live a life of dignity.
  4. Housing needs to become a right and a fundamental responsibility of local communities must be to ensure everyone can live in their own community and not be forced out by increased housing costs. Citizens should belong where they live – and they should not be forced out of their communities by ‘market forces’. I believe a Land Value Tax, which ensure property owners support non-property owners will be the core reform required.
  5. Social care – or disability support – needs to be established as a universal, non-meanest-tested right for all of us. This is entirely possible and affordable.

Underpinning all of this – I believe – will have to be a resurgence of genuine democratic behaviour and of constitutional reform. People need to be free in order to be citizens, so that they can challenge, engage and collaborate in order to build the society we need. We will need new constitutional arrangements to establish, monitor and protect our human rights, and we will need a renewed civil society – with social organisations that are willing to speak out and stand up for justice.

I suspect that, along with secure social rights, established at a national level, we will need to pay much more attention to the local. Meaningful citizen action and community life can only becomes possible if some powers are decentralised and so people can focus on change at a personal, family and community level.

Of course much of this will seem a dream. But the post-war welfare state also seemed like a dream. I suspect it is only dreaming that will save us from years of further moral and social decline.

Australia’s Pride, England’s Shame

How Australia is taking the lead in disability rights and social care

I have just returned from 3 weeks in Australia where I have been working with disability advocates, families and support organisations. The question we were exploring is how can we best support our own active citizenship and the citizenship of others. I was also able to be part of the launch of Citizen Network Australia in Perth and it was fantastic to hear people’s enthusiasm about building a global movement for citizenship for everyone – for a world where everyone matters.

The trip was also a chance to reflect again on the development of NDIS. Australia’s National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) is without doubt the most exciting, most ambitious and most perilous attempt to reform disability support and to bring it in line with human rights and the principles of independent living. All around the world, we have a stake in this reform, because no other country has been brave enough to introduce such an important reform.

Critically NDIS aims to do three vitally important things:

  1. Properly fund the support needs of all people with disabilities (including many people with mental health problems) under pension age.
  2. Remove all means-testing so that every Australian has the security of knowing that the system will be there for them, no matter their income.
  3. Ensure all funding is individualised and under the control of the person or their representative, so that people can get support that makes sense and enable them to be a full and active citizen.

This is brilliant – if Australia achieves this it will have moved itself from the back of the pack in disability rights to become a true world leader.

This is in stark contrast to my home country, England. Similar reforms in England, which began with the Independent Living Fund (ILF), Direct Payments and then Personal Budgets all promised much in terms of increasing people’s level of control over their own support. However these achievements pale into insignificance alongside the vicious means-testing and the severe cuts that began in 2009. There are 700,000 fewer people now getting support than in 2009, a drop of about 40% – and these problems are only getting worse. The United Nations has severely criticised the UK for its failure to respect the human rights of its own citizens, and their criticisms are entirely justified. Social care in England remains a ‘Poor Law’ service – a poor service, for the poor, that keeps you poor.

We have still not learnt that genuine and positive reform is possible; but it begins by bringing together people with disabilities – all disabilities – families and support organisations to campaign and to explain – not so much to Government – but to the general public – why a right to disability support (what England calls social care) is a fundamental human right. I continue to work with the Socialist Health Association to encourage the Labour Party to develop a more positive and ambitious vision. I am extremely grateful to the Australian disability movement for showing us the way ahead – we just need to follow them.

However there are some major challenges ahead. Having a plan is one thing; putting that plan into action is something entirely different.

I was in Australia when the details of NDIS were first announced and I met with the design team – the civil servants charged with defining how NDIS was to be delivered. My analysis, which I went on to publish (with my usual tact and diplomacy) was that the design of the system was very poor indeed. There remains a severe danger that the system will become enmeshed in centralised bureaucratic controls that undermine the basic human rights that NDIS aims to respect.

Moreover, many of my friends in Australia are the people who called for these reforms and who continue to work to innovate and improve the system so that disabled people and families are put in charge of their own lives. They are now on a rollercoaster of emotions as they see enormous progress in some areas, matched by the development of systems that seem damaging or just plain peculiar. You can read a moving story from one woman’s perspective here.

It would be tempting to say “I told you so.” But I don’t think that’s the appropriate response, and my last visit to Australia has left me much more encouraged than down-hearted.

First of all Australia is living up to its promise to properly fund NDIS and this is no small achievement. Second, while many of the detailed systems do seem crazy, they can all be resisted and reformed. In fact even more encouraging than the progress around NDIS is the continuing sense of passion and determination amongst Australian advocates and disability leaders. They know that they can achieve so much more and they know that they can – despite all the obstacles – make the system accountable. Disability advocates have been able to achieve more change and have created more transparency than in any other countries that I am familiar with, including: England, Scotland, Finland, New Zealand and the USA.

What is more, I see increasing signs of collaboration between different kinds of disability advocates around the issue of genuine choice and control. For example, Vicserv has pulled together a wide-ranging alliance of disability leaders to explore how to define good practice in self-directed support. Likewise the Self Direction Collaboration Network brings together a range of brilliant advocates, leaders and facilitators for shared work on turning the dreams of NDIS into practical reality.

The challenge may be to simply to hold one’s nerve and to holdfast to the original intentions of the NDIS. The current system is changing and evolving in such a fast, complex and unpredictable way that it is easy to be mesmerised by it. When it does crazy things that don’t make sense then its natural to be disappointed and angry. But it is possible to fight-back and often it is possible to work around the problem.

I was struck by how the innovative organisations that I worked with in Western Australia, like Avivo and My Place, were also having to remind themselves that they’d already spent decades working around the rigidities of poorly designed systems. The capacity to respond creatively to bureaucratic rigidity hasn’t disappeared simply because the funding body has changed from the State to the Federal government.

It is important to remember that important changes and innovations do take time and that NDIS involves at least two distinct innovations, both of which are at different stage of their evolution. Innovations evolve over time and go through distinct stages as they (and if they) evolve. Partly NDIS is introducing a model for calculating need, and ensuring everyone gets a suitable package of support. This is priority for the system, and this is moving into the stage of mainstream implementation – Stage 3.

A graph showing how innovations develop

Where NDIS is on the innovation curve

But NDIS also promises flexible funding that people can control and here progress is at much more primitive stage – at best early Stage 2. This may seem disappointing, but it’s important to recognise the reality of how these kinds of changes take. Individualised funding began in the 1960s (in California) and the first UK models began in the 1970s. When I first came to Australia and talked about individualised funding in 1999 everyone looked at me like I was crazy. When I next came back in 2008 I found handfuls of people and families who had got self-managed supports, but they had been told not to tell anyone – they were ‘State secrets’ – in theory not allowed, and if you talked about it you might have it taken off you. Today the idea of personalised support and self-management has been normalised – although the reality is a long way behind. This is how progress happens.

I left Australia, not only encouraged, but also thinking that there is much more we could do to work together globally. The battles in Australia are the same battles that we’re facing in other parts of the world. In each country, where people have been inspired by the desire for citizenship, equality and inclusion, then people and families have been able to find a way through to create better support solutions. Countries can learn from each other, advocates can help each other, we can share the lessons we learn to speed up the process of change. For instance, we might be able to use Citizen Network as a global alliance; we can start to share examples of the very best practice to feed our courage and strengthen our confidence.

We launched Citizen Network in November 2016 and already there are 10 countries who with national coordinators and hundreds of people and groups have joined as members. It is still early days, but we have all the reason in the world to work together for a better world, where everyone matters, where everyone can become a full citizen. Why don’t you join us?

Equality – The Kind That Really Matters

or why status is not a zero-sum game

This essay jumps headfirst into a complex debate which deserves a more careful set of introductory comments. However, I am pressed for time, and so I merely want to offer a few philosophical thoughts in response to some of the practical work that I’ve been involved in over the past few months.

The limits of reasonable income inequality

One of the most important political philosophers at the end of the twentieth century was John Rawls. He asserts:

All social values – liberty and opportunity, income and wealth, and the bases of self-respect – are to be distributed equally unless an unequal distribution of any, or all, of these values is to everyone’s advantage. (A Theory of Justice p. 62)

In principle Rawls offers us what appears to be a highly egalitarian starting point for social justice. However, in practice, the publication of his A Theory of Justice, his ground-breaking work in political theory, coincided with the end of a moderately egalitarian period in the political development of English speaking countries. Since the 1970s income inequality has grown significantly in the UK, USA, Canada and Australia and governments of all colours have abandoned any serious effort to promote income equality as a social goal. I am not blaming John Rawls for the collapse of egalitarianism and the rise of neoliberalism – but it is a curious coincidence.

The principle that Rawls is most famous for advancing, a principle that arises logically from the assertion above, is the maximin principle: Social arrangements should be so organised that the position of the worst off (the min) should be as high as possible (the max) and that if a certain level of inequality makes such an improvement possible then – only to that limited extent – such inequalities would be justified.

As someone who studied Rawls in the 1980s I remember this as a convincing theoretical position. How could I as an egalitarian resist a level of inequality that improved the position of the worst off? However looking back today I wonder what real effort we made to distinguish Rawls’ position from the idea of trickle-down economics: Let the rich make as much money as possible in the hope that the poorest would benefit – for a ‘rising tide lifts all boats.’

It turns out, if we examine the data of the last 40 years – as I did recently – this is a forlorn hope. It is very clear that growing inequality has not improved the position of the poorest, nor even overall economic growth. In fact, in the UK at least, as inequality increased so have the incomes of the poorest fallen. What is worse, because it is clearly intentional, is that the political system further reduced the incomes of the poorest by policy changes that were highly regressive. In fact we’ve stolen from the poor three times: First by allowing greater economic inequality; second by redistributing money away from the poor by political policy; third by pouring scorn and stigma on the heads of the poor through shameful political rhetoric.

Rawls’ argument was equivalent to saying: Poison sometimes improves our health and so we should sometimes be willing take poison. For, in fact, all medicines are also poisons – what is critical is to take exactly the right amount of the poison if you want the beneficial impact. However instead of taking care to find the correct dose of inequality we’ve been swallowing inequality by the bottle and declaring our overdose success.

Meanwhile, if someone did identify the sweet spot for a legitimate level of inequality, then I guess I missed the news.

Instead of careful efforts to limit and control inequality in the interests of poor we’ve seen trickle-down economics rise unchallenged as the economic philosophy of our time. Instead of attempts to quantify the minimum level of inequality necessary to lift the incomes of the poorest we’ve seen a number of other more dangerous arguments and assumptions rush to fill the vacuum in Rawls’ argument.

For instance, some argue that the economy needs a free labour market to efficiently allocate resources to promote the skills necessary for the economy: If we need to pay an extra £10,000 to get the right doctor, an extra £100,000 to get the right CEO or an extra £1,000,000 to get the right football player, then we must do so.

This kind of free market argument seems quite persuasive, if we don’t think too hard. After all this seems precisely the kind of reason why Rawls might allow us to release the hounds of inequality from their leash: To incentivise better performance and recruit people for essential skills – whether they be medical, commercial or athletic. But a moment’s thought must make us wonder whether we’re confusing the good of the worst-off with the good of a particular community:

  • If we need more doctors, don’t recruit doctors from Africa or Asia (where they are needed even more) to come to Europe (where we have plenty already and could certainly train more).
  • If your company needs a better CEO then train one, don’t bribe someone to leave their current job by simply offering them more money than they get now.
  • If you are a fan then you may be happy that the wealth of your team allows you to poach the best players from other teams. But none of this adds to the quality of football.

Incentives may offer a different kind of argument: There is surely a case for rewarding people for good work and discouraging people from doing bad work. But very low levels of inequality leave plenty of room for incentives. Good work is surely what we want everyone to do as a norm and inequality makes it harder to reward good work when everyone is working well.

In fact I think the case could be made that what is more important than positive incentives is the possibility of failure. Failure is what makes all forms of progress possible. Systems that makes failure impossible or too expensive are systems that do not develop and improve. The failure of state socialism in Russia was not an excess of equality, it was an excess of security, where rigid economic structures didn’t adapt to changing circumstances. (One of the arguments for basic income, which I support, is that it would make economic failure, and therefore improvement, much less risky.)

Another weak argument for inequality, but one that is heavily relied upon by advocates of inequality, is that economic goods (let’s call this wealth) are not created in a zero-sum game. If you are not familiar with the idea of a zero-sum game let me try and explain what this means:

Chess is a zero-sum game. I can win and you lose, you can win and I lose or we can draw. We can’t both win. Some things in life are much more like chess: winners are matched by losers. Zero-sum games can only redistribute a finite (fixed) amount of resources. Land is finite and hence the distribution of land is a zero-sum game.

Not everything is a zero-sum game. For instance, education is not a zero-sum game (unless you’re doing it very badly). Everybody can learn, and if I develop some ability at Latin, I do not reduce your ability to understand Latin or anything else.

Whether economics is a zero-sum game is a critical question, but also quite complex. When we look at the economy from some perspectives then it can seem a zero-sum game. For instance, the UK’s recent Coalition Government increased VAT, increased income tax thresholds and cut benefits. The combined impact of these changes was to reduce the incomes of the poorest 10% (6.5 million people) by 9% and to increase the incomes of those on middle-incomes. Government redistribution like this is, in the short-term at least, a zero-sum game.

Not all economic change is like this. If people begin to find new ways to organise things then this may increase the overall amount of wealth. Better farming techniques can improve productivity overall. Industrialisation and technology can increase the availability of useful products. These changes are much more like educational changes, new ideas and technologies change how we do things to make more possible.

However, sadly, these transformational changes, that certainly do accelerate economic production, are also associated with the greater levels of social injustice, uprootedness and insecurity. Often they led to riots, rebellions and revolutions. So, while such economic growth can potentially benefit the many, it usually seems to benefit the few, especially in the short-run. We are discovering the same today as global businesses and technologies demolish old ways of working, accelerate inequality and reward socially irresponsible behaviour.

I think this means that economics is not quite a zero-sum game; but neither are most economic goods infinite. Distribution remains a critical issue, especially for obviously finite goods like land and access to basic resources (like water, food, clothing and healthcare). It is also clear that we should be constrained by our respect for the planet as well as the needs of each other.

The evidence that economic inequality is good for us and is justified by its impact on the poor is very poor. In fact we don’t seem in much of a hurry to gather evidence on this matter at all; perhaps we are simply in awe of the power of money and don’t know how to put the dogs of inequality back on the leash. When money can buy public policy and research, as it does today in the UK, there may be few incentives to be honest about the limitations of inequality. Perhaps also, the glaring failure of socialist states like the USSR, has rather blinded us to the obvious success of democratic welfare states, like Denmark, at finding a much better balance of equality and productivity.

The importance of status

One other thing that strikes me, looking back on Rawls, is that most of the discussion about equality has tended to be highly materialistic. Perhaps we should have looked rather harder at what Rawls called the “bases of self-respect” for surely the respect in which we are held, particularly our status as an equal, is of much more importance to an egalitarian than the particular bag of money we happen to be holding.

In fact neoliberals often deploy a version of this argument when they propose that egalitarians are simply promoting the vice of envy: There is nothing wrong with inequality; inequality is helpful and essential; you are simply envious of the better-off and your envy is wrong in itself and damaging in its impact. You’ll drag everyone and everything downwards in your quest for equality.

Now, I think it is rather easy to show that income inequality (perhaps beyond some modest level) is harmful. It is also possible to show that income inequality is controllable – if you want to control it. However I do think there is something to the argument that income is not everything and that there is something worrying about a society fixated on achieving income equality as if that were the most important goal.

True equality does not meant I have exactly the same amount of money in my bank account as my neighbour: It is to live with my neighbour as an equal – for us to value and respect each other as equals.

Moreover the reason that this kind of equality is important is not that my neighbour and I are equal: We are not the same and we do not want to be the same; we are different from each other, along an infinite array of dimensions.

What we seek is an equality of status, of respect; perhaps we could almost say that we seek spiritual, not material, equality. Moreover there is a name for this kind of equality and that name is citizenship. For at least two and half thousand years, and possibly longer, some humans have sought to live together in a community of equals.

One famed example is ancient Athens, the home of democracy, where Pericles once said:

We regard wealth as being something to be properly used, rather than as something to boast about. As for poverty, no one need be ashamed to admit it: the real shame is in not taking practical measures to escape from it. Here each individual is interested not only in his own affairs but in the affairs of the polis (community) as well: even those who are generally occupied with their own business are extremely well-informed on general politics (community life) – this is a peculiarity of ours: we do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics (the community) is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has no business here at all… (cited by Thucydides)

What mattered in Athens was to be a citizen, and as such you had equal status with other citizens. Of course, Athenian citizenship excluded slaves, women and foreigners, but it still offers an important example of a different approach to equality. Moreover, in many ways it was much more egalitarian in its actual organisation and spirit than is a modern democracy. Athenian citizens had much more influence over and involvement in the life of their community than we do today.

And is this kind of equality not a more fundamental kind of equality? We do not want people to be uniform; we do not want lives to be standardised; we should surely not care too much about differences in roles, resources or relationships. Surely, what we want is a world where everyone can flourish, in all their diversity, and where everyone is treated with respect – as an equal.

If you accept this argument then you might think that it gives some support to the neoliberal position: Stop worrying about inequality; stop envying the rich.

However, this is wrong. It is in fact precisely because status equality, not income equality, is the goal of a just society that we actually need to take income equality much more seriously.

At this point I’d like to quote an argument from C. S. Lewis. But we moved house last year and most of my books are still in the garage; so I will try and make his argument from memory. The reason we should take great care to limit the visible and obvious differences between us, like differences in wealth, is not that we are all equal, but that we are all different. It is because of our much deeper and wilder diversity that should ensure that we clothe ourselves as equals. The disciplines of equality exist to help diverse people live in a spirit of equality.

This may seem a paradox, but it is not. We are beings who are each unique and diverse, but who are also each of equal moral worth. In living together we must find a way to appreciate each other’s uniqueness and yet respect each other as equals. We can do this by choosing to live as citizens; that is we can choose to live in a society that honours our shared status as equal citizens. In so far as we discover that certain kinds of artificial differences (like income) can become excessive, that they can threaten our ability to treat each other as equals, then we should restrict or tame those differences. Excessive income inequality does threaten our ability to see each other equals, particularly by stoking the pride and greed of those with the most; but also by encouraging a sense of worthlessness in those with the least. Income inequality is corrosive of most of our virtues and it makes it much harder to live in a spirit of equality.

Status is certainly not a zero-sum game. Societies can exist with very low levels of status; in fact the twin concepts of meritocracy and aristocracy offer us a vision for society where the highest status goes to the ‘best’ and the lowest become the ‘worst’ – the scapegoat, scrounger or outcast. Meritocracies produce very low levels of status overall by using a narrow and highly rationed account of social value. Almost everyone’s a loser in a meritocracy.

Citizenship maximises the distribution of status by equalising that status – everyone can share in it. Moreover society can not only adopt equal citizenship as its goal; it can go further and also seek to welcome others into citizenship. If male Athenians had welcomed women as equals, allowed foreigners to become citizens or abandoned slavery then it would have advanced equal status for all. There would have been no loss of equal-status for male citizens. (I accept that this would have made the category of citizen less ‘special’ within Athens – but this kind of enhanced status is actually a form of meritocracy and is not essential to the kind of true and equal citizenship which I am arguing for). To feel you are an equal and to see others as equals is a real form of non-hierarchical status and it is the best form of self-respect – because it takes nothing away from anyone else.

It is this is inclusive account of citizenship what some of us have been exploring as we develop Citizen Network: How to build a world where everyone is a citizen, where everyone is equal and everyone is different.

How to find justice

So, if we return to Rawls, then I think my argument is that Rawls has made a fundamental error. He forgot that a just society does not start by redistributing resources in order to advance the bases of self-esteem. Instead it begins by commiting itself wholeheartedly to equality, and it does so by establishing equal and universal citizenship as the basic role which everyone can occupy.

Rawls tried to get to equality ‘by going round the houses’ – by focusing on economic goods first – and I think this is connected to another mistake that Rawls makes:

There is no reason to assume our sense of justice can be adequately characterised by familiar common sense precepts, or derived from the more obvious learning principles. A correct account of moral capacities will certainly involve principles and theoretical constructions which go much beyond the norms cited in everyday life; it may eventually require fairly sophisticated mathematics as well. (Rawls, A Theory of Justice, p. 47)

The fundamental problem here is that Rawls is seeking a formula for justice which must be applied to society from the outside. He is not offering us an attractive conception of justice, one towards which we can turn, around which we can rally and one which enables us to build a just society together. Instead Rawls is offering a complex and ambiguous template for ghostly civil servants or philosopher-kings to interpret on our behalf.

If we are not motivated towards justice by a shared conception of justice then no operating principle, however sophisticated will save us: For who is to interpret and implement such a principle? If we do not choose to live as citizens, and if we do not act to build a world for citizens, then we choose to live in a world where inequality is guaranteed.

If we are motivated towards justice then what matters is identifying it, living by it and disciplining ourselves according to its needs. Our fundamental principle must be that we are citizens, we are all equals and that we must welcome others into this world of citizenship.

Why Welfare Reform is Wicked

The term welfare reform might naturally suggest improvements in welfare systems. However the term is usually, although not always, used by those who have a negative view of the welfare state and who propose policies to reduce the level of welfare provision. A cynic might argue that the word ‘reform’ has been chosen precisely because it disguises their real intentions and implies an improvement that doesn’t exist. However, critics of the welfare state do believe that cuts to the welfare state are an improvement, by the light of their own theory.

One of the areas upon which critics of the welfare state have placed a great deal of emphasis is the fact that providing income security might reduce our incentive to do paid work, and that this may be damaging to society as a whole or to an individual, who might actually benefit from working. However, plausible as this may sound, it should be noted that countries with high levels of income security, like Denmark, also tend to have low levels of unemployment.

It is also worth noting that the term ‘welfare’ is also ambiguous. The welfare state is best understood as combining a system of income security with systems of education, healthcare, housing and disability support. However often the term ‘welfare’ is associated simply with income security or benefit payments. This may be because income security systems are designed in ways which seem more exclusive and less universal than other systems. For example, in the UK most people benefit from free education, but don’t tend to consider this as part of the welfare system, while fewer people rely on benefits. Moreover, some benefits, say pensions, are universal and people receiving pensions don’t think of themselves as being ‘on benefits.’

So, although the best definition of welfare reform might be as an improvement in welfare systems it seems that the actual definition in practice is very different. Welfare reform in practice involves reducing income security for targeted groups, who are treated as in some way different or less important than the ‘ordinary citizen’ who is encouraged to see their own welfare entitlements as being of a very different kind.

The idea of welfare reform is not only confusing, but so are the actual means used to make the cuts and other changes. Overall I think it is possible to identify 7 different kinds of welfare reform, although in practice some or all of these policies may be mixed together in different ways in different policies:

  1. Direct cuts in income
  2. Increased means-testing by income
  3. Increased means-testing by other factors
  4. Reduced rate of growth in benefits
  5. Reduced eligibility
  6. Increased disadvantage
  7. Increased control for the sake of control

Here are some examples from recent changes in the UK of how welfare reform operates in practice and how it uses these different policies.

A recent example of a direct cut in income is contained in the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016 which cuts income for new ESA (Employment and Support Allowance) claimants in the work-related activity group from £103 to £73 per week. This is a major cut in income, however it has been introduced for new claimants, which means existing claimants do not experience the cut and new claimants won’t realise they’ve been ‘cut.’ This is a typical strategy for introducing cuts which aims to reduce likely resistance.

Sometimes cuts are made by increasing the level of means-testing, or in other words, by demanding that people are poor enough to be eligible. For instance the Welfare Reform Act 2012 introduced a year’s time limit for contributory ESA (a non-means-tested benefit) after which people would have to be means-tested for ESA. Note that means-testing has been introduced at both ends of the scale, for instance, people on higher incomes can no longer receive Child Benefit.

Often the word means-testing is used only to refer to reducing a benefit as income increased, however there are other factors which can be taken into account in order to reduce eligibility, for example, savings, housing or your family situation. For instance, an important cut, which targeted disabled people, was the introduction of the bedroom tax. This was another element of the Welfare Reform Act 2012, which reduced people’s Housing Benefit if the system decided they had a spare bedroom.

Since 2010 many benefit cuts have been introduced by means of reducing the rate of growth in benefits, by changing indexation or by freezing any increase for a fixed number of years. This seems like a highly technical change, but it actually is the most important change in terms of the overall level of spending. If benefits do not grow with the economy or with average wages then relative poverty will increase and people will feel poorer. Also, if basic living costs increase above the average rate, then people will also be absolutely poorer. This has happened in the UK as housing and heating costs have risen above the general rate of inflation.

The fifth important change is in the eligibility of any benefit. Since 2010 there have been very many changes which ensure that people will no longer be classed as eligible for a particular benefit. Some changes are obvious, more are quite subtle and complex. An obvious change was the closing down of the Independent Living Fund in England, which ended the ability of disabled people to get funds to support their ability to live independently from central government. Changes to ESA and to PIP (Personal Independence Payment) have been connected closely to the use of new assessment regimes, which involve new tests for how disabled someone is and the privatisation of those tests to private agencies who may have less reason to be more humane in their handling of such assessments.

Another important strategy for reducing benefits is to reduce demand, that is to to discourage people applying for benefits that they are entitled to. There are a number of ways in which current approaches to welfare reform seem to rely on this strategy. The negative stigma associated with benefits is already significant, however politicians and government departments have encouraged further stigma and this may be encouraging people to avoid the system altogether. Furthermore, the increased use of sanctions and so-called ‘conditionality’ programmes, like the Work Programme, which demand regular attendance at benefit offices or training centres, can also serve to make the indirect cost of benefits seem too great.

Finally, some kinds of welfare reform seem to be designed simply to exercise control over people who need benefits. For instance the Work Programme, which is supposedly designed to help people get work, has had a poor record helping disabled people into work, and ia itself very expensive. It may be that it’s true purpose is to exercise control over people and to ensure that they have reduced freedom. Similarly the new system of Universal Credit seems an expensive solution for providing income security, but it requires very close monitoring of the weekly activities of people on low incomes. It may be that this kind of social control of people on low incomes is also one of the objectives of welfare reform.

The paradoxical point we’ve reached in the evolution of the welfare state is that those who are bent on destroying the welfare state claim that they want to save it. Their use of the term ‘welfare reform’ has been combined with a range of strategies that have been highly effective:

  1. Seize the centre ground – They claim that they are reforming the welfare state and this claim, while hard to justify, goes largely unchallenged.
  2. Narrow the definition of welfare – They encourage people to think of welfare as something that applies to ‘other people’ not to themselves
  3. Pander to our worst instincts – We’ve accepted lies about benefit fraud and the laziness of people in poverty which are used to fuel prejudice and injustice.
  4. Confuse people with technical mumbo-jumbo – New policies are dressed up in a complex web of meaningless or deceitful acronyms which disguise the true impact of any change.
  5. Act with haste on many different fronts – So much has been done so quickly that people don’t know what to look at next and as they try to fight the next injustice they must accept the last one as a battle lost.
  6. Scorn all criticism – Anyone, whether they be a vicar, a disabled person, an academic or the leader of the Labour Party, who dares to suggest that any of this is wrong is treated as a fool.

The UK is currently in the midst of another General Election, called because Theresa May wants to cash in her ‘Brexit means Brexit’ winnings. Unlike the 2015 General Election it is some comfort to see that the Labour Party is now clearly opposed to austerity and to this kind of wicked ‘welfare reform.’

The political odds stacked against the Labour Party are horrendous; but I do not see how we can begin to hope for something better unless we’re prepared to be honest about what’s wrong.
Welfare reform has been a wicked failure and we need to somehow find the right language and alternative policies which can reveal, challenge and reverse its impacts.

What Do We Believe?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Malcolm X nailed it when he said:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But we cannot allow ourselves to given into despair.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tilting at Windmills or Radical Hope

I was very lucky recently to get the chance to participate in an event organised by the University of Leeds and Hope Not Hate entitled: A Future for Post Industrial Communities? It provided much food for thought.

The reality of post-industrial decline

The central focus of the two days of presentation and discussion was the fate of all those many towns and villages across the North and the Midlands where heavy industry or mining had once been dominant: Bolton, Barnsley, the Black Country, County Durham and many other places, including the City of Sheffield, where I live. The people from these places established our industrial heritage, built our national wealth and fought for the social rights that established the welfare state, giving us the legacy of social justice that we are now so busily frittering away.

Many of the academics noted that in these places, typically Labour-voting communities, the vote for Brexit was high and the vote for UKIP had risen. It was noted that in these places, as the primary industry had declined, it had been replaced with very little. Today people survived by working really hard, but with no job security, multiple jobs and low pay. Today the UK is the most unequal country in Europe, and these communities were on the wrong end of that inequality.

It was also noted that that these communities lacked power. The UK is the most centralised welfare state in the world and these places have minimal democratic control over their communities and minimal representation in London. They have been abandoned by mainstream politics. Moreover the social structures, the meeting places, the pubs, churches, working men’s clubs and leisure facilities had all declined. People have few opportunities to meet, organise or advocate for themselves; poverty has been privatised. The opportunity to speak out, make change or even rebel has been diminished to the point that these communities present no threat to the status quo.

The consequence of these multiple injustices are severe and include the fact that people living in these places will tend to die many years earlier than the people living in places that have power and money. But it was more encouraging to hear that in other places, say Germany, industrial change has not led to this kind injustice. Communities can be supported to develop and to get back on their feet. There is nothing inevitable about decline; but Britain seems to be leading the way in heartlessness and inequality.

It was also noted that racists can take advantage of these injustices. Many felt that the Brexit decision was influenced by those who were frightened by immigration. Many feared that the problems of racism and race hate, which are bad enough already, could now get much worse.

Competing identities, complex injustices

It struck me how, when these multiple injustices pile up, one on top of another, it can become very difficult to work out which fight you are having and which injustice comes first. If we are not careful we end up tilting at windmills – nobly taking up arms against the wrong thing in the wrong way.

Just to be clear. It is clear that Hope Not Hate are not guilty of making this mistake. Their agenda is clear and important: to combat the rise of racism and to advance appreciation of our multi-cultural communities. They have already demonstrated that it is possible to defeat racism by using community organising strategies in local communities. It’s good to have a clear mission, a clear target and a clear strategy. They are an organisation worthy of support.

My fear is more for myself, and for others who like me, who want to see greater social justice, but who may not be quite so sure where to put our energies. As ex-MP Professor John Denham noted: we need to distinguish underlying causes and symptoms; we need to get the cart before the horse.

My own assumption is that racism is largely a symptom of other problems: it’s a cart pulled by the horse of social injustice. There are racists, and they can exploit the negative political and economic circumstances harming people in these places. But these places are not naturally racist, nor is racism the primary cause of their problems. Or at least, people in these places suffer from injustices which have some rather different root causes. In my own talk I stressed the powerlessness that had created the circumstances where injustice went unchallenged.

But this whole discussion can create a whirlwind of different perceptions. In particular discussions over the two days revealed wildly different assumptions about which of our identities are most relevant to our understanding of what is really going on. Our identities really matters; but these identities are also complex, disputed, sometimes useful and but often dangerous.

If we think about ourselves and we think about our beliefs, passions and prejudices then we can see how complex this whole business can become.

Race is clearly an important identity that plays a powerful role in people’s imagination. Racism is real and it feeds off this category of race. But race is a very peculiar identity. The racial categories that dominate modern politics were invented by racists largely for the purpose of justifying imperialism. Race is a possibly a fiction; but somehow we seem stuck with it.

And do we value our racial identity? I certainly don’t consciously value being white; I am not proud of being white and I wouldn’t ever want to organise my life around that identity. I cannot even bring myself to tick the ‘white’ box on forms seeking our racial profile. I’d rather live in a world where everyone is ‘other’ and not be parcelled up by such a useless concept.

But, if I was subject to vile racial abuse, I’d certainly want to organise around my racial identity in order to protect myself, my family and my friends. It’s no comfort to be told that your racial identity is an imperialistic confection when someone’s kicking you to death. These categories become important as a matter of self-defence because other people have made them vitally important. The same is true for disabled people, viciously under attack by the current Conservative Government. Not to use the concept of disability when your enemies are using it against you is a mistake.

Over the course of these two days I found my head whirling with all these competing categories. Victims and perpetrators seemed to change places and people were forced to wear or to shed the groups identities that clearly matter to some people, and some theory, but may not matter to people themselves:

  • White working class men are seen by some as a threat
  • White working class men are seen by others as victims
  • But do white working class men really exist?
  • Whose interests does this identity serve?
  • Probably not the people shoehorned into it.

There were many other fractured groups. Some academics stressed the changes in the world of work, the end of industry and to the loss of valued work roles. Others noted the unfair distribution of job roles and the way in which women were missing from so many of the histories of these places. I was left wondering whether we were sometimes mourning a model of industry that was deeply disempowering and patriarchal. Can we do no better than choose between giant top-down heavy industries or the precariat working in the fluid service service sector? Aren’t there better ways of cooperating and of being productive than working for some anonymous corporation?

Why local identities matter

Perhaps all of our identities are a bit like this – artificial and exploitable. In fact some argued that one of the identities that really does matter to me – my membership of various geographically defined communities is in danger of being exploited by those who pretend that we solve structural problems like inequality simply through creative community action. I have a great deal of sympathy with this critique of the Big Society Bullshit.

However, at a personal level, I must say that I don’t think my Northernness, my being citizen of Sheffield or my living in Nether Edge is quite as peculiar, or as artificial, as my ‘Whiteness’. The reason why I think such identities do matter, and are worth defending, is that as a citizen part of my role is to look out for the place where I am. Not because my place is better than your place, but because it’s my place. I am a Bolton Wanderers’ fan, because its my team, not because I think it’s the best team. We need people to care about our places (and particularly the people in those places) in the same way that football teams need fans. Without identities like these we lose attachment, passion and commitment to our people and our places. Without identities like these then these places and their people will simply cease to exist as valued places.

Of course this does not mean we should be so attached to any of these places that we lose our sense of proportion. I don’t want Barnsley to be treated better than any other place, I just want it to be treated fairly. As a matter of fact Barnsley doesn’t get its fair share of public spending: It is missing £0.84 billion of its fair share of public spending (50% of it actual spending). This is wrong and this is something we can change.

Justice demands that I can stand back from all these identities – but not for ever. For justice also demands that we use our identities to advance the cause of justice. The challenge is to know when to use our identities and how.

I was particularly struck by how suspicious many were to the idea that small local communities – not just Barnsley, but the small townships, villages, parishes and neighbourhoods from which its made – did not need or should not be granted more power or control over their own destinies. While many are prepared, at an intellectual level, to accept that the UK is a hyper-centralised state, I do not think there is a strong sense that this is a serious problem for social justice, in its own right. I am not sure why this it, so this is only supposal:

  1. Perhaps we are frightened that those of us who live in these places are simply not to be trusted with deciding important issues for ourselves. Perhaps we are thought to be too racist or too sexist. (In this sense, for many, the Brexit decision will have confirmed their prejudices about us.)
  2. Perhaps we are wedded to the dream that social justice requires that every decision be made by the Prime Minister or her minions. The idea that a fair welfare system is identical with one giant nationalised industry seems hard to shake off.
  3. Perhaps many of us enjoy a cosmopolitan lifestyle, moving between differences places, and expecting that these places will be looked after by other people or by the state. No place is our place, they are always some body else’s responsibility.

Colonising England

Another idea, offered by the brilliant Reverend Al Barrett, is that some of this refusal to take the local seriously is that we are still in an Imperial day dream: Britain is still united, Britain is still Great, our mission is noble, but sometimes the natives just get a bit restless. I was also reminded also of an insight by my friend Cheryl Barrott: Northerners have never really recovered from the Norman invasion.

This may seem fanciful, but the way in which we’ve responded to industrial change does seem like a form of colonialism – even strip-mining. I was particularly touched by the story from two ex-miners from Durham, where I grew up. They explained that, as the mines were closed, Durham’s pit villages were classified from A to D. Villages that rated D were to be abandoned – left to rot – but people still live in these D-villages today.

I was shocked by this and after the conference I told my mum about it. But it she knew all about it. She remembered that the policy was put in place after I’d gone off to university. However she was volunteering for Samaritans at that time and so she talked to lots of folk who were living in D-villages. Their sense of despair was obvious.

It also struck me almost all my friends from Durham chose to leave the area after university. My mate Antony is one of the few honourable exceptions. There was no meaningful plan to build community, economic security or new forms of economic development to the communities of County Durham.

The same colonial attitude can be witnessed inside some of those industrial cities that have supposedly ‘benefited’ from more investment. Recently the BBC and its money moved to Salford; but little positive changed for the people of Salford. Instead they saw the quality of their own housing deteriorate, just as shiny new office buildings rose up around them.

Some of the natives are left behind as the money train moves out. Some of the natives are forced out as the money train moves in. What is clear is that the natives lack control of their own homes, their land, their work and their destinies. They must simply adapt to the law of the master.

It was particularly striking in this regard to hear from Labour MP Hilary Benn. It was a shame that he only had enough time to give his speech, so he missed the chance to listen to the detailed testimonies that explained how so many communities had deteriorated – despite 3 consecutive Labour Governments. I often feel sorry for MPs. One of the side-effects of the massive concentration of power in Westminster is that the MPs are far too busy to actually find out what is going on. It may be unfair, but it seemed to me that the one social injustice that really got Hilary Benn riled was why it took him so long to travel between his constituency in Leeds and his home down South.

Anyway.

The main focus of Benn’s speech was to remind us of the importance of investment. Communities couldn’t thrive without investment. And if we, the people of the country, can’t afford to invest in our own country, then we would need to seek foreign investment in order to make good things happen.
This seems reasonable, doesn’t it?

Until you think about it.

How can it be the case that a country of over 60 million people, with a long history, good education and at least the trappings of a democratic system, needs someone else to give them money in order to make anything good happen?

What’s more nobody just gives us money.

Instead they buy our industries, our towns, our resources and our people.

What’s the difference between foreign investment and colonial exploitation? The only difference seems to be that we choose to be exploited. The UK’s economic policy seems to be to make ourselves the most exploitable country in Europe: this is why our salaries are so low; this is why our job security is so low; this is why our benefits are so low and this is why our productivity is low. We offer other people high volume, low cost labour. We are the modern equivalent of the American South: the masters milk the profits, the rest of us do the work.

Perhaps, when someone says investment we should always ask: What have we sold-off now?

Radical hope

This whole approach to economics makes no sense. It locates human and economic value in money and in things – but not in people. Yet we know that people can thrive in any environment, if they have control, the ability to adapt, to create and build afresh. Technology and knowledge have never been so accessible. We don’t need to turn ourselves into somebody’s else’s slave class in order to survive.
It may be a long journey back to a proper sense of our own value. We may be tilting at windmills for decades, but we start with one radical assumption:

We, the people living in these places, are good people who have the right to shape the destinies of our own communities together.

We don’t need paternalism or meritocracy. We just need a fair share of our common resources and the means to shape them to our own advantage, to create a better and more welcoming world for everyone.

The Centre for Welfare Reform has over 80 Fellows all of whom have real experience in creating the kinds of solutions that combine justice and citizenship. Our radical hope is that we can finally abandon meritocracy and its wonky ladder to nowhere. We can start to build a world around the truth that everyone matters, everyone has value and everyone has a role to play.

Together we can create a world that works for everyone.

We also recently launched an international cooperative to connect up efforts like these around the world.

Why not join us at Citizen Network?

Addendum

I voted Remain. I am a Northerner and a European. I value my friends and colleagues in Europe and am saddened by Brexit. However some of the arguments against Brexit are a bit peculiar. For instance, Hilary Benn said that we will all be demanding visa rules that enable the NHS to recruit more doctors from abroad. Maybe we will.

But I would encourage Mr Benn and others to read Sir Nigel Crisp’s excellent book on global health economics: Turning the World Upside Down. As Crisp argues, there is something very strange about a technically advanced Western nation failing to train enough doctors and instead using its wealth to pay doctors to come to the UK from their native land. We should be exporting our technology and expertise to developing countries – not inviting their experts to come and work here. Perhaps he should ask the NHS and the BMA to re-examine their restrictive employment and training strategies instead.

Inequality is Inefficient

Over the past few decades inequality in the UK has grown considerably, by whatever measure you choose. After World War II, at the birth of the welfare state, inequality was at a very low level. Over time we’ve come to accept very high levels of inequality. In just a generation it has doubled.

And the UK is an extreme case. It is now the most unequal country in Europe. A land that prided itself on its sense of fair play seems to have readily abandoned the notion of a fair distribution of resources. It would be fascinating, in a rather disturbing way, to explore why the UK has been so particularly negligent of equality.

Often the explanations offered for inequality are economic. However it is particularly important to recognise that inequality is political, not economic. It is a social and political choice to accept or encourage high levels of inequality. Society can choose to control inequality – if it wants to. However the political nature of inequality is often wilfully ignored and inequality is often presented as being merely a matter of economics, as if economics was some natural and uncontrollable force, quite distinct from human decision-making.

Inequality is neither inevitable nor necessary; but this truth has been perhaps obscured by a rather different debate. Often the debate about inequality is confused with the debate about the role of the state in the economy: the conflict between dirigisme and the free market.

Now it is certainly true that some advocates of equality do believe that it is only possible to create equality if the state takes absolute control of the economy. Opposing them are advocates of extreme economic liberty who argue that any economic control is bad, taxes are theft and that the inevitable inequality that arises from free economic activity is utterly justified. In fact both sides share the same false view that there is no way to reconcile equality and freedom; instead they both believe we are forced to choose: so the Left choose equality, while the Right choose freedom.

But this is crazy. We need both freedom and equality. Even in economic terms we need a significant degree of freedom and of equality simply in order to make our economic system work:

  • Without freedom economies don’t develop: investment, risk, failure, success, learning and innovation all depend on our freedom to spend our time and money on things we value, even when others don’t.
  • Without equality economies don’t grow: fewer and fewer people have the resources necessary to purchase, consume or invest. An economy with only one consumer or only one producer is dead.

Even more importantly freedom and equality are not just economic variables. In life we need to be free, free to define a life of meaning for ourselves; and we also need to be an equal, valued as an equal member of the community. We reconcile freedom and equality by creating decent communities where we work together to create a better world for everyone.

One aspect of any decent community is that its members work hard to create the necessary conditions to achieve both freedom and equality. And, there are many ways to do this, ways that can combine a significant degree of economic freedom with a reasonable level of economic equality:

  • Create shared goods that are not distributed by the market, for example ensure everyone has access to high quality healthcare rather than making people pay for it.
  • Redistribute income, increase benefits to increase the incomes of the poorest, and increase taxes to reduce the incomes of the richest. Currently the net cost of benefits (benefits after tax) is very low indeed, hence the UK’s high level of inequality.
  • Exercise self-discipline when rewarding people for their work; keep the ratio between the best paid and the worst paid as low as possible. For example, Plato recommended a ratio of 1:5, but in the UK welfare state the best paid civil servants earn 50 times the average income of the poorest 6 million people.
  • Disdain greed and excessive wealth and encourage values that focus on other dimensions of human life. For example, Pericles, the great Athenian leader, suggested their society was best because it did not value people for their wealth, it measured people by their contribution to community life.

However interest in these disciplines is very low in the UK today. Redistribution is now treated with suspicion and excessive rewards for the rich are treated as the inevitable price to be paid for economic progress. There are many arguments of detail here and much evidence that can be provided to challenge the arguments for injustice and inequality. However I want to add just one argument, an argument from economics itself. I’m sure it’s an argument that someone else has made before, but I cannot remember seeing it, so I thought I’d try and outline it here.

Before I begin I’d like to distinguish my argument from two other important and valid arguments:

  1. Inequality is harmful – This argument has been made most effectively by Wilkinson and Pickett, and in great detail. In essence they have correlated economic equality with many other things that we find valuable and discovered that there is strong link between equality and many aspects of a decent society (better health, lower stress, less crime etc.). They show that inequality is bad for everyone – even the rich.
  2. Inequality is sub-optimal – This argument is often made by utilitarians and it rests on an observable truth. When you get something you want you feel some benefit; but the more you get the less you feel any increase in the benefit you get. Our desires are increasingly sated. Given this truth then the best distribution of any limited set of resources will be the most equal one. Inequality reduces the total level of happiness.

But the argument I want to offer is slightly different to these. I want to argue that inequality is also very inefficient.

At its simplest my argument is as follows. If I have a limited amount of money and I want to get the maximum amount of work done then paying people equally will maximise the amount of work that gets done. However, if I choose to pay some people much more than others then I will have to reduce the total amount of work I pay for.

This may seem obvious, but it’s perhaps worth underlining the point. Currently the false belief is that inequality is economically necessary – here I want to propose that inequality is inherently inefficient – in economic terms.

Imagine the distribution of salaries as a polygon. An equal distribution would be a rectangle, with salaries on the y axis and the volume of time purchased on the x axis. If some people have a higher salary then the polygon will be equivalent to a rectangle, with a right-handed triangle on top. Total spend is therefore equal to the volume of the shape.

Now if you assume that you have a fixed amount of money to pay for people’s time then the most efficient shape will be the rectangle. The more unequal the distribution then the higher the peak of the triangle and the shorter the width – in other words the less time you can buy.

In fact, if we make certain simplifying assumptions we can even calculate the level of inefficiency of increased inequality. If we describe the relationship between the base salary and the top salary as a ratio we find that efficiency is measured by the following formula:

e = 2 ÷ (R + 1) where R is ratio of base salary to highest salary

  • 1:1 means absolute equality and this has an efficiency of 100%
  • the 1:5 ratio was recommended by Plato this has an efficiency of 33%
  • public sector salaries are at a 1:15 ratio and have an efficiency of 12.5%
  • the ratio between the poorest 6 million citizens and the top civil servants is 1:50, which means that the welfare state has an efficiency of 4%

Now this exaggerates the size of the inefficiency. In practice the upward slope will be a long convex curves. Lots of people are on low salaries, fewer are on high salaries. However the basic truth remains, the higher the ratio the greater the level of waste.

Of course critics of equality will argue that we need inequality to buy the best. But this is a double fallacy. Of course, once you’ve allowed inequality to run amok, then you surely will have to spend more on some people to get them to work for you. But this is simply a side-effect of broken self-discipline: the Premier league may spend more to buy more of the better players – but it is not creating better football – it is merely skewing the distribution of better football away from one country and towards another. In other words inequality in incomes merely leads to inequality in skill distribution. This is not a good thing.

The second fallacy is that it assumes you have to pay people more to get them to do more complex or challenging work. This is clearly nonsense. Primarily people choose to do such work because it is intrinsically interesting, suits their talents and brings with it many other rewards. The things you should really have to pay people extra money to do are those things that are dirty, smelly and tiring (the things that in the real world people are paid less to do). If inequality has any real purpose it should be to compensate people for doing intrinsically unrewarding work.

The reality is that inequality suits those with the power to dictate the distribution. It is not the poor who set the salaries of the rich. Power – economic and political – is at the root of inequality. And power will be necessary to challenge and reverse it. The reason why inequality was low after World War II was that the poor had a lot of power and the rich knew it. Today the rich know the poor are weak and they exploit that fact.

Rebalancing things will take more than vapid debates about the state versus the market. It is not the market which is the real threat to equality, it is our low opinion of ourselves. If we choose to measure ourselves in terms of money then the state will not protect us, it will just adapt itself to our own low standards. We should instead choose to see ourselves as citizens who are worthy of equality – not because we are all worth the same money, but because money measures nothing of value. We should seek economic equality, not to pull anyone down, but to pull everyone up, to a higher level, to the status of an equal citizen.

Equality and the Market

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

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

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

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

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

However in my Twitter debate three false claims also emerged:

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

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

Let’s take them in reverse order:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well they would, wouldn’t they?

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