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.

Back to the 1950s with a sexist Quidco advert – an email

Another masterpiece from Quidco

Having not yet cracked under the relentless stream of crap adverts and paid up for Spotify I have no choice but to listen to the products of the nation’s best and brightest advertising executives. A recent ad from Quidco went beyond being merely irritating into the territory of the outright insulting. In response to their carefully thought out campaign ‘Fight the signs of thinning wallet’ I sent the email below to Quidco, to one Jo Roberts, head of marketing.

Hi Jo, the only conclusion I can draw from the Quidco advert on Spotify (in which you imply that women are largely attracted to a man’s wallet) is that you think your target market is sexist in a kind of 1950s Mad Men style. This may in fact be the case. I also have to listen to the advert and am not sexist but possibly I am not your target market (my membership of Quidco is pretty inactive but I do already have an account so need no persuasion). I was wondering if you have done much research to back up the assumption of your audience’s sexism. If so I’d be interested to see this. I admit to being surprised. If time-travelling back to 1950s gender stereotyping were that lucrative I’d expect more people to be doing it. I look forward then to hearing what it is that has led you to believe this is a good way forward.

I think that you are yourself a woman, so I’d also be interested to know your personal experience of choosing a man by the contents of his wallet. I’d like to know how that has worked out for you and so on. Perhaps you did not do this however. Perhaps instead you thought “What’s a little lighthearted sexism between friends?” But we’re not friends are we Jo? And most of the people who listen to that advert are not your friends. And you do not know how people will read the sexism. Because some people actually do believe women are just interested in a man’s wallet. I’ve met some of the British sex tourists in Thailand who thought exactly that in the UK and went to Thailand to find ‘girlfriends’ who would confirm all their prejudices. Come to think of it, was this your target market? The sex tourists of the future? That would make sense. If so I have underestimated your targetting.

You may however wish to have a word with Spotify about their targetting. I think the Baka Beyond fan/sex tourist crossover market is smaller than you might wish.

Regards

Bedresistance

For those interested, Baka Beyond play West African/Celtic fusion. It isn’t really true to say I’m a fan – they’re a bit too easy-listening for me – but I listen to them from time to time.

Now I also copied Spotify into this email. They had a category on their contact form called, and I quote exactly ‘Share something fun :)’, so I wrote a little intro saying ‘Hi Spotify! I know you like us to share fun things with you! So below is a copy of an email I sent to Quidco. Enjoy!’

I had no particular axe to grind with Spotify. They are still struggling financially and would probably sell their grandmother’s corpse to a necrophiliac for a bit of extra ad revenue, so I sent off the email and thought nothing more of it. Until they served me up this slice of grating corporate chirpiness:

Hay (sic) Jacob,

Sorry. We might have got that one wrong please forgive us…. 〷◠‿◠〷

I have let our content team know and they will definitely keep an eye on this type of content.

Thanks for raising your points with us.

Kind Regards and a friendly smile,

John L

Spotify Customer Service – Cambridge

George Leonard:
At the root of all power and motion, there is music
and rhythm, the play of patterned frequencies against
the matrix of time, Before we make music, music makes us.

Now perhaps I should feel grateful that Spotify responded and said they’d pass it on. But here’s the thing John L, if I can call you that: I hate to dent your no doubt 100% genuine twenty-four hour effervescence, but a cute picture in company emails is a poor substitute for functioning brains and a sense of ethics. Isn’t it now? I rather feel that I should never have had to send this email.

I’ll update you all if the Quidco marketing geniuses get around to replying between bouts of patronising their customers.

What’s this liberal doing in my head? And what does it mean by a ‘free’ society?

Freedom in the US recently: management fails to achieve full complicity in NATO crimes

This post is one in a series about being a ‘liberal’, an admittedly vague term I use to refer to left-leaning, moderately-inclined people who think it worth fighting for a fairer world and who largely accept existing institutions as the appropriate channel for change.

It’s common to refer to the societies of rich Western countries as being ‘free’. A lot of people will hastily qualify this. We are, they say, relatively free. We can’t protest anywhere or anyhow we want, but we can protest. We can’t get our opinions on the BBC but we can at least hold our opinions without being arrested.

And of course, admits the liberal in your head, we all have constraints on us. For instance physics, or wealth, or the lack of it. So there are limits. But ultimately the government does not force us to hold or express certain views and we will not be punished for our political beliefs.

Mmmm, yes. And no. Sometimes things are neither one thing nor another. We are, in Western societies, rarely whipped into believing something, but does that equal freedom? We are, for instance, managed. We’re actually managed quite a lot. Let’s start with your boss. You can argue with them to some extent, but they also have the power to sack you if you argue too much.

Maybe that seems obvious. What’s a bit less obvious is that we are managed by many more people than just our bosses. The process of government, being only briefly interrupted by ballots, is a process of management. PR is a form of management of your opinions. Big media is management of what you consume – think of all those people sitting around in offices deciding what you will consume in your paper.

But even less obviously, I would also say we are managed by a whole array of professionals. Architects manage our personal and work space. Planners manage our public space. ‘Creative industry’ professionals manage what we consume, from the theatre to the television. Psychologists manage our perceptions of abberant behaviour (no-one has adequately explained to me why lack of confidence is a frequently-treated pathology while the far more damaging overconfidence is not). Social workers manage our families if we fail to hit the mark. Charities manage our altruism.

Some might argue that the good intentions of the professionals absolve them from looking like authoritarians. But well intentioned control freak parents are still control freak parents. Good intentions in themselves don’t count for much in my book, particularly when they take place in the context of very unbalanced power relations.

Perhaps, in the end, you think that all of this management, because it is not directed at you personally, because you stay out of the arenas where it is strongest, does not affect you much. Perhaps the architects you live with are long dead and the social worker never visits you. But in the unlikely event that you are immune to everything professionals say you are surrounded by people who are not. We are social beings and our social world is distorted by a vast weight of top-down management across all of society.

Meanwhile let’s go back to the obvious management: your boss. What they ostensibly manage is your technical performance and yet you likely will have noticed that the most incompetent people often get promoted first. It happens so often it’s almost like it isn’t a coincidence. Almost like, say, people are promoted for having particular personality attributes, particular ways of behaving, almost like people are rewarded by management for conformity to their viewpoint. And what is the combined effect of that happening across all of society? It’s difficult to measure but I don’t think it is small.

It’s easy not to think too much about the effect on us of all this management, particularly if you feel that you benefit from it – you may be on a management wage yourself. Perhaps you believe your personality overcomes society. Perhaps you are a superhuman, immune to social pressure. Or perhaps there’s a liberal in your head, and it loves pretending to be free. If so, try to gently introduce it to words and ideas between the two poles of ‘free’ and ‘oppressed’. Perhaps one day it will even be grateful for having learned language to describe its situation.

Simple things made complex: You have to decide where you stand

Careful what company you keep....

This is a series of posts in which I talk about simple things but extend my commentary on the simple things to several paragraphs, thus making them more complex.

These are trying times for politicians and for those being screwed by them. Crises are happening. Decisions MUST be made. Those of us not willing to have everything good and lovely stolen from us by powerful people who don’t even know our names feel we must take a stand. We must take a POSITION.

And sometimes it seems like project management, but with less appalling jargon. We must make a series of decisions that will take us where we want to go. We must follow the decision tree. But without calling it such a wanky name. Should we vote? Y/N. Should we confront? Y/N

It seems obvious we have to take a position in politics, but there is a problem. As individuals our decisions are usually almost imperceptible, and to the degree that the world at large does notice them, they (people, organisations) will decode our decisions as they feel like. And politics should not be about being sure of our rightness in our own heads, it should be about relating well and getting good things to happen. Meanwhile our decisions being decoded by others may have – for all we know – been caused by someone asking us the wrong question, or phrasing the question in a way that created an artificial dichotomy.

Not making decisions one way or the other can cause tensions inside us, but the world is full of tensions anyway. Tensions between different positions will only be resolved by death, and if you’re a Catholic, not even then.

In a way we do have to take a position in this world, or rather, we find ourselves in a position. I’m not sure it’s our decisions that get us there. We are not as rational as we pretend. We choose sides according to…what we feel like. That’s fine, and we can even dream up rationalisations for it if we are that way inclined, but that’s no reason to go resolving all the tensions.

Should we vote or not vote?

Should we confront or nudge?

Should we work from inside or outside institutions?

Should we aim for revolution or reform?

Do both. Together. Consecutively. Alternately. Do whatever seems appropriate with those around you at that particular time. It may seem strange to choose a life with more tension, but it also means choosing a life less defined by the questions people choose to ask you and more defined by your relationships and making stuff happen.

The VICE guide to politics

Dicks writing for dicks?

For a magazine that covers a lot of political stories it is interesting that Vice magazine does not have a ‘politics’ category on the header bar of its website. Vice covers a lot of political stories but it does not do politics. And it absolutely never takes political stories seriously.

In defence of Vice, it doesn’t take anything at all seriously. There are reasons that our culture has fled from ‘truths’ and there’s something to be said for the Vice point of view, for its ability to rip the piss out of everything and everyone. It is the extreme end of particular attitudes that have developed in our culture in reaction to the failed authorities of the past.

People can no longer take seriously anyone who claims a universal political truth. Part of me is glad about that. I could never take them seriously either.

Against Vice it has to be said that it is run by reactionary arseholes and is firmly embedded in neo-liberal ideology. A lot of the reason its readers don’t want to take anything seriously is they are globalised rich little brats who think hardship is the emotional toll of having to ask their parents to help pay their London or New York rent.

It is fine to not take political ideas seriously. It is not fine to treat people’s suffering as another part of the joke. Sometimes, like, stuff is real? I read a tweet recently by an @DanStayte:

Some say the sun goes round the earth, some say the earth goes round the sun. I say it’s something in between #liberal

This excellently describes the nonsensical ideological space in which Vice flourishes. But I didn’t particularly want to challenge Vice with this post – the editors couldn’t give a fuck what I think. Vice will probably die a slow and agonising death as the western economies wither. We will be sad, oh yes.

The point for the future is: when people do want to fight back, they won’t be the slightest bit interested in adopting political ideologies but that’s the solution most of the left tends to offer them. I’m not suggesting a Vice-like left – putting photos of men snorting coke off women’s breasts on leaflets and placards – but here’s something Vice does, albeit within the framework of neo-liberal capitalism: it provides a way of interacting with the world and with other people. It does present a truth of a sort, embedded within the dominant ideology.

The truth is, Vice does politics better than you do. It knows what ideology is there for – to run in the background informing what you do without ever being stated. If you do have an ideology, fine, and I don’t think you should hide it, but the point is not to persuade people of it but to help create ways for people to act in the world.

You should probably also take yourself a bit less seriously. If you don’t laugh at yourself, someone else will.

5 reasons being right doesn’t matter in politics

I think I've now heard critique of the 'We', the 'Are', the 'The' and the '99%' bits of this slogan. Maybe those critics were right...

One reason for the fractiousness of Britain’s extra-parliamentary left (slightly redundant hyphenated word there but some people are still confused enough to think Labour is a left party so it needs to be said) and presumably the left in most places in the world is, ironically, that many people are obsessed with being RIGHT.

This is not a problem that I imagine afflicts, say, David Cameron or Rupert Murdoch. They couldn’t give a toss who is right, they just want to achieve certain things and they’re usually pretty good at it. Now I don’t want to argue that lefties should stop trying to be right in order to compete with our Bastards In Chiefs, but I think there are other reasons to not focus so strongly on being right.

1. But really, how far does it get you? Jesus was right and look what happened to him. Being right doesn’t win you any friends, or any battles, or any resources. It won’t keep you warm at night, or if it does only from the strength of the moral glow within you. For sure it won’t keep anyone else warm at night and if you care about the poor getting heating that should matter.

2. Being right is good for our egos but our egos won’t take us far. You can be right but boring, right but self-denying, right but self-righteous, right but too angry, right but inarticulate, or right but alone. What matters in each of those combinations is not the ‘right’ bit I’m afraid. The moral glow isn’t too attractive and alone you are powerless. It’s not that you shouldn’t make your arguments, but if being right makes you push away potential allies it probably isn’t all its cracked up to be.

3. It’s very difficult to escape the mental structures of Christian traditions. People’s conviction of ‘rightness’ often combines the worst aspects of religion and individualism. It relies on both absolute belief and on you self-definining yourself as different from others. The result is that many people end up belonging to a cult with one member. Even when the cult is a bit bigger than that, it becomes very difficult in our individualistic age for it to grow into a full scale proper religion, even if you consider such a thing desirable.

4. You probably don’t really believe what you do on the basis of evidence. Political ‘truths’ sometimes have a basis in the real world but the important ones establish themselves socially. They become more significant not according to their ‘rightness’ but according to how many people share them and how they share them. Most people participate in such ‘movements’ not on the basis of evidence but because it ‘feels’ right – and if you had any honesty you’d know that’s the real reason you do too.

5. All that really matters in politics is getting people to act together. Contrary to what many people think this does not mean getting them to believe the same things. It means creating and promoting temporary alignments of interest in order to generate the power necessary to change things. This can be done without ever once proving how right you are. I don’t mean you should never argue for what you believe in, only that the arguing is not the point, it’s the people you’re arguing with who are.

What to say when people say… we’d have better wages and public services without immigration

We can live every day like this or we can change their skin to white but that won't change the fact you're paid £5.93 an hour

I usually try to write (slightly) funnier posts than this, but yesterday I read this article and I’ve been thinking about it, y’know, seriously. So I’m not going to do a funny post about how the English Defence League couldn’t organise a piss-up in a British brewery because they all drink shit foreign lagers. Instead there is just one point to make. I think it is the most important response to this line of argument. It’s not an argument that we be nicer to foreigners. It’s not a plea for us all to get along. It’s not a request for a society that looks like a Benetton advert because that will ‘make life more colourful’.

Here it is: The level of wages and the level of public services depends on who has the power in society. As a society we have the resources to pay better wages. We have the resources for better public services. We are, collectively, wealthier than most other societies around today and wealthier than any society at any time in history you care to name.

Better wages and better public services don’t happen because those people and institutions who hold most of the money don’t want to share it around. And they pay our politicians in order to stop it being spread around. Some of them are our politicians. And they are very happy for people to carry right on blaming immigrants.

If your wages are shit, if your hospital is shit, if your street lights don’t work, it’s because you don’t have the power to claim the resources that are available to solve all those problems. So take more power for yourself, and when you do, you’ll find it doesn’t make a bit of difference how much immigration there is, except in one sense: if you can join with immigrants to claim better wages or better public services your numbers will be boosted and you’ll find you have even more power.

The level of wages and the level of public services are not about the number of people in a country (otherwise the quality of life would be better in Belgium than in Spain and if you’ve been to Belgium you’ll know it isn’t) but about who has the power and who has the money. The liberal opponents of racism are uncomfortable talking about naked power and economics, partly because many of them are at the higher powered, more moneyed end of the spectrum. They respond to anti-immigrant rhetoric with descriptions of the economic benefits of immigration, or a plea for valuing difference. Bollocks to valuing difference – no-one who didn’t value it was ever convinced to start valuing it because a well-meaning person asked them to. Instead let’s value our own power. Rather than fighting over scraps against people who have less than us we should ensure we have control of the resources we all collectively create.

How to get to that position? There are no easy solutions, and it’s not going to fit into a blog post. But blaming immigrants is only playing the game of the people you really need to fight.

5 lifestyle tips for Guardian readers

1. Buy all the clothes and consumer electronics and cultural products you don’t need until you feel a bit of sick come up, then realise it has made no difference at all to the rest of the world. Turns out the Guardian was right to advertise all that shite. The Telegraph, The Daily Mail and the News of the World too, but they also hate gypsies, which the Guardian doesn’t. They just launched Guardian mobile after all – who is that for if not the gypsies?

2. Turn all the lights off in your house. Turn them on again. Turn them off again. Notice that the planet is still screwed. Secretly the Guardian editors know that changing your personal energy usage won’t save the world but they know a bit of self-denial makes you feel good so they’re helping you out.

3. Watch the latest film produced by a billion-dollar profit-making industry and have a serious discussion about it. Then have a serious discussion about the relative merits of Coke and Pepsi. Culture, like soft drinks, is something created by other people, including writers at the Guardian, which is why it needs to be read.

4. Go on an eco-holiday. By plane. You know you want to. And you know that with massive hidden subsidies to polluters it makes economic sense, just like it does for everyone else. The Guardian understands this – at least on some level, though they rarely come right out and say it – and that’s why you’ll find an eco-holiday in the Andaman Islands somewhere in the Environment section.

5. Find a job in a creative or altruistic industry in the Guardian jobs pages, commit to a political party that says things that vaguely fit with your ideals. Vote for them and argue for their relative lack of evilness at social events. Look at your bank account one day and thank yourself (and the editors and writers of the Guardian) for believing, on a deep, almost unconscious level, that the establishment works. With your help, and the Guardian’s, it will become better. The establishment that is, not your bank account.