Tensile politics for tense times: 5 political tensions we shouldn’t try to resolve

Many people who dislike current political and economic institutions have a tendency to decide they know the solution to the problem. In the past I have also tried to work out the real way to bring change, the essence of true radicalism.

The alternative to ‘real radicalism’ seemed to me to be the ‘pragmatism’ of people whose politics appeared terminally compromised by, for instance, their acceptance of roles within certain institutions.

Here I want to make a plea for neither ‘idealism’ nor ‘pragmatism’, but for something different. We should recognise that there exists no ‘real radicalism’, or if it does exist we can’t know it for sure until after the fact of radical change. But once we accept that we don’t know all the answers we shouldn’t jump towards ‘pragmatism': the pragmatists also think they know the real route to change. They don’t really know either.

I understand the argument that once the structure of society is understood it seems necessary to break it entirely. And I understand the argument that working within acceptable political paths brings certain types of change more quickly. I try to bracket both these lines of thinking, accepting both and not mistaking either for ‘truth’.

Instead of choosing one or the other we should live on our feet. Rather than resolving contradictions between different methods we should actively seek to keep the tensions alive – because at this point who really knows from which direction change will come? Rather than plotting the ‘true’ path to change we should accept diversity of efforts and reject the idea that we – or anyone else – have found the ‘right’ way forward.

There are always moments when people commit to one particular method of change in order to create the critical mass necessary. But when that moment comes it will likely emerge organically, not because it is the ‘right’ way. In the meantime, even if feels a bit uncomfortable sometimes, let’s try to sustain tensions:

1. Between positive or negative politics. Should we unite around what we hate or what we agree on? Yes.

2. Between working inside or outside institutions. Should we use existing institutions to bring change or ignore them in favour of building our own social models? Yes.

3. Between voting or not voting, engaging in current political games or not. Should we take part in a discredited political system or try to bring about its downfall? Yes.

4. Between confrontation and building bridges. Should we seek to bring conflicts in society out into the open or try to unite people of disparate interests? Yes.

5. Between revolution or reform. Should we try to change everything or try to create incremental improvements in people’s lives? Yes.

The difficulty of adopting this kind of thinking is that you can be attacked from both sides. The moderates will pick on your ‘radicalism’, the radicals will pick on your ‘reformism’. Since none of them have – in my lifetime at least – brought about a better world, I try not to take any of the critics too seriously.

Empty ethics: the dangers of a charity sector liberated from charity

A recent partner of charities who may not share a charity ethos.

Charities using coerced labour from workfare programs smells very off to the millions of people who see those programs as a poisonous attack on proper wages, on job creation, and on the right to eat whether you are working or not. These are charities, you hear people saying. Aren’t they supposed to be the good guys?

We could be charitable to the charities and assume they were being naive, thinking they would receive only genuine volunteers. In that case, they should relieve themselves of their naivety forthwith by reading the Boycott Workfare site and the personal testimonies of people coerced into work (for around £2 per hour) that can be found across the internet. They should also, perhaps, relieve themselves of their naivety about this government’s intentions. It fully intends to lower the cost of labour (i.e. make most of us poorer) for the sake of greater profits and anyone engaging with the government should understand this and ensure they are not playing a part in it. As an aside, workfare doesn’t work, if the intention is to get people into work. But the government is expanding the program. It’s almost like the main goal really is to provide cheap labour isn’t it?

But I think the issue is more than mere naivety. The charity sector has undergone two changes in recent years and both must have seemed like an improvement to the charities. One change was that with the growth of the EU, the arrival of the National Lottery and the (late) Office of the Third Sector, there has been more funding available from official sources. This has some apparently good effects but it also means – inevitably these days – the imposition of targets and monitoring. It is easy to mistake success against targets for success in making people’s lives better, particularly once your job depends on meeting the targets. It is easy too to start shifting your goals in response to the money.

The second change is the increased numbers of senior managers moving across, sometimes temporarily, from the private sector. This brings management ‘expertise’ into the charity sector but this is not a neutral expertise. Business-oriented managers are more likely to pursue growth for the sake of growth (since growth is all in the private sector) and they too are fond of targets. They are also more likely to make ‘rational’ economic decisions, like the alcohol dependency charity that takes money from alcohol companies. ‘We can make bad money good,’ the argument goes, blithely ignoring why the alcohol company needs them as a fig-leaf. The managerialism of big business frees those businesses from all responsibility to people – except the people they choose to please for sound business reasons. Is business management liberating charities from the need to show basic charity to people beyond their area of work?

The charities would claim, no doubt, that they have not lost their core ethics. And perhaps they haven’t. But many have lost their peripheral ethics, their all-round view. If you stick to a few ethical rules but decide to blind yourself to anything outside that then your ethics are empty. Charities should think hard about the damage this loss of a broader ethics could do to their reputation. They should think about the dynamics they are getting involved with when they agree to provide outsourced services for government, or when they partner with outsourcing corporations with goals very different to their own. They should think about more than just growth or targets. When someone offers them free labour from a pool of often-desperate people, they should perhaps take a moment to think about what they are getting involved in.

Meanwhile the rest of us should all think harder about who we give to. We now face a far worse prospect than targets-obsessed charities slipping into being feel-good employment schemes for middle class professionals. Some of them are in danger of becoming feel-bad unemployment schemes for us all.

Shifting the debate on welfare: towards a state of caring for each other

The site of desperation

In the wake of a man setting himself on fire outside a jobcentre I have been thinking why the welfare state feels so difficult to defend. It is true that it is subject to relentless attack from the right, but I also think the welfare state is a stranger hybrid than we usually give it credit for. Rather than having behind it a coherent logic and narrative the welfare state has emerged as the result of compromises between the needs of a naked capitalism that needs a reserve of unemployed people and prefers to move the ‘problems’ of disability and mental health out of its way, and socialist ideals that declare that, as a result of the way wealth is collectively produced, we all have a right to the common wealth of the nation.

So the welfare state can be attacked for being ideologically incorrect (those people don’t ‘deserve’ their benefits because wealth belongs to the individuals who earn it) or it can be attacked for being technically incorrect, because it is a strange mix of ideological construct and technical fix. It can – and probably should – be defended on ideological grounds of course, but that has become more difficult in a world where the whole mainstream debate has shifted rightwards. It can also be defended on technical capitalism-saving grounds but today’s capitalists seem to be too dumb to do that.

However, while I might lean strongly towards the social point of view I still find the ‘right to the collectively produced wealth’ argument to be something of a technical, abstract argument. I think the notion of shared wealth is important but I’m not sure it is the only basis for defending the welfare state. I also think it is important to develop arguments for the welfare state that do not depend on a particular ideological view of the world.

For me the case for the welfare state can be made on a very personal level. Why do I choose to support the welfare state? Why do I hate this government’s attacks upon it? Put simply: my sympathy for people leads me to defend the welfare state. I feel strongly that people should be cared for, and the weaker they are the more they need help. In a society with poor community links the state sometimes has to step in to do that. I know that we live in an economic system largely uninterested in caring for people and so I am happy that some small part of the system can make minor amends for that.

That’s it. I realise it’s not a sophisticated argument, but it carries a lot more weight with me than any ideology does, however ‘right’ it may be. It might sound like something of a ‘liberal’ position to some people but actually liberals also tend to defend welfare on functional grounds. Never have I heard a liberal on a news debate saying what I want to say: I think our world is not caring enough. Not only do I hate attacks on welfare, I think we should go much further. I think we should ask how to embed love and care in all our institutions, or ask what institutions would have to look like to embed love and care within them.

The argument over whether welfare ‘works’ or whether people are getting their ‘fair share’ seems irrelevant to me compared to my desire to see people cared for. I suspect that many other people feel the same. Why is it so hard to just say that we want a kinder world? Does kindness seem ‘unrealistic’? If so, we should think hard about why, and think about how we can change people’s ideas of what is realistic.

There are reasons to still make the shared wealth arguments: to explain why we tax, and to avoid the idea of welfare as charity. But I think if we moved towards being prepared to defend the welfare state on simple empathic grounds, rather than constantly having to refer to some big theoretical framework to ‘justify’ our position, we might find the welfare state easier to defend.