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.

A post all about our individuality. Sorry, YOUR individuality.

I didn't have a relevant photo for this post but I love Balinese temples.

It hardly makes sense to collectively describe individualism does it? Except that it is one of the problems of living in a society where people obsess about their individuality that the social constraints upon us are less transparent than in other times and places. These social constraints always exist, always place pressure on us, always influence our decisions, but because we are all pretending that we are heroic individuals we have to kind of blank out all this social influence in case we realise how little our choices have to do with ourselves.

As well as constantly talking of ourselves as atomistic individuals another weird way we use language is to refer to our ‘social lives’ and ‘work lives’ as different things. I know that by ‘social life’ people often mean what they do to relax with other people, but the distinction obscures something that would be obvious to an anthropologist or a native of a Brazilian basin tribe: that a work environment is a strongly social environment.

It follows then that a lot of the social constraints and pressures on us originate not from friends we chose, or from family or even the work colleagues we ‘socialise’ with, but from the constant social interaction in the working environment in which we spend 8-10 hours a day (less if you’re one of the new army of part-timers who can’t get more hours – this post should make you feel better).

But let’s think about what this working environment is: a top-down, internally authoritarian structure, often with a deliberately created organisational ‘culture’. It also has specific aims, and in the private sector and much of the targetted and monitored public sector, the aims are around constant efficiency calculations, constant cost-benefit analyses, and assumptions such as individuals needing to suffer for the sake of the organisation.

In conclusion, not only are we not as individualistic as we like to claim, but a lot of the influence on us comes from an essentially authoritarian environment that mandates particular ways of thinking and working. You can leave the organisation any time of course. But since most organisations – from charities through the public sector to academia – have deliberately adoped business methods in recent years, there aren’t many places to run to that would actually offer something different.

The point of this is not that we should all be more individualistic, simply that the hypocrisy involved in pretending to be individualistic while living most of your day in an authoritarian culture is enough to make anyone turn to working with trees.

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.

Occupy and kicking out the management

Disgruntled with the management

The Occupy movement arose in part in reaction to what many people viewed as bad management decisions by those in power – bad decisions that led to a financial crisis in which the banks got bailed out but the people didn’t. Some people, particularly those without homes, are still miffed about this.

While many people active in the Occupy movement have what I might see as a weak crique of why those decisions were made (idiots in power, wrong-headed economics, greed) one of the great strengths of the movement has been the desire of people involved to get involved in collective self-management rather than just running begging to the people in power to set things straight.

But today I popped along to the Occupy London site in Finsbury Square and was reminded just how difficult self-organisation is. At the moment people at the camp are struggling with multiple issues arising from the evictees from St Paul’s moving into Finsbury Square. I also overheard a conversation in which someone fell quickly into the idea that labour should be divided between those doing technical tasks and those doing…er, thinking. At the welcome tent a man arrived and effectively asked for endorsement for a campaign in which he was involved, an idea that makes little sense within Occupy structures.

The problems of collective working in our society are often presented as the problem of getting people to stop thinking individually and start thinking collectively. This may sometimes be the case but I would attribute a lot of the problems to something else entirely: that we are used to being managed.

Much management emanates from the world of work but it is also noticeable that there is little difference between the management structures used in corporations and in governments: they are all top-down hierarchies. The purpose of these hierarchies is almost solely the management of resources. We get sucked into this system of management of resources, often with not much more significant a place in it than a barrel of oil.

The reason people do not necessarily notice the extent to which they are managed is that there is no one person telling them what to do. At work they might have a boss but the rest of the time they can ‘do whatever they want’. But the key to the collective management system we are caught in is that it is both decentered and hierarchical. It is without a head and yet is entirely dominated by organisations that do have heads.

We are caught in a network of organisations that control resources (including us) and every last one of them is a top down hierarchy with internally authoritarian working practices. It is inevitable that their ways of working seep into us, from work, naturally, but also from our involvement in other organisations across society, from transport organisations through corporations to governments.

What we deal with when we attempt to escape being managed is our own habituation to top-down management. What Occupy and other social movements strive for is more horizontal or ‘democratic’ self-organisation, but our habits – the management techniques – from ordinary life constantly seep into what we do.

Working together is not difficult because we are too individualistic to work together but because we are used to other people making decisions for us while we work together – we are used to authoritarian collective working. We are used to being caught within a network of hierarchies that shapes every part of our lives. The management is top down but it also schools our thinking because it depends on our complicity with the hierarchies, including our ability to manage each other and our acceptance that certain things should be left to experts we have no control over.

Having learned how to organise within top-down hierarchies but being used to other people taking decisions, we tend to fall back on learned management techniques once the hierarchy is gone. A guy I know who has been politically active for some years has a tendency to say ‘committee’ when he means ‘working group’, because that was what he was used to in older leftist organisation. He always has a bit of a chuckle at people’s annoyance when he makes the slip, and with good reason. He gets confused because they are pretty much the same. In theory a ‘working group’ is meant to be more more part of a horizontal democratic process than a ‘committee’ but the reality is often different – swinging between a complete inability to make decisions and someone taking it upon themselves to ‘manage’ the group.

I’m not writing this to offer solutions to the problem. I don’t think there are quick solutions. I just think we should stay aware of where our ‘instincts’ will lead us – either into paralysis or back to the management systems that we all know so well – if we don’t keep an eye on them. We need to resist the management within ourselves as well as within banks or parliaments.

Jousting with your Inner Thatcher (Part 3): You must contribute to society to get the benefits of society

Things to do with a Thatcher

This is the last in a series of posts about the Inner Thatcher that hides in the dark depths of our souls. After decades of propaganda for a dog-eat-dog world the fight against the ideology of the day is not just a fight against our rulers but a fight in our own heads, like one of those scenes in a film where an actor (Johnny Depp let’s say) has an internal struggle with himself, illustrated by a montage displaying his internal conflict while he stands there looking pretty.

The idea that we should all contribute to society in order to get the benefits society offers didn’t originate with Thatcher or her acolytes of course. It’s a much older idea than that, but the era of Thatcher and Blair created an intensification of the idea that we must all contribute to society by working and paying tax. On the surface it can seem common sense, but first allow me to wonder why it appeals so much to low-tax, small-government obsessives. Well, the richer you are, the more you can contribute, but the less you need society’s help in return. So it creates a wonderful logic in which those who deserve society’s assistance don’t need it, and those who need society’s assistance don’t deserve it. In case it is not already clear to you, the purpose of this feat of logic is to lower taxes on the rich.

However my first gut reaction to this manifestation of the Inner Thatcher is not to do with justice and wealth distribution. Instead I find myself thinking: you’re talking as though we’re on the edge of starvation as a society. As though we’re some hunter-gatherer society where everyone will suffer if one or two people do nothing. The reality is the opposite: we have available to us absurd excesses of wealth that we piss up the wall on Olympic stadiums and other vanity projects. So why this pressure to force everyone to work? What is all our technology for if it doesn’t allow some of us to put our feet up sometimes? I think the answer to that is another side-effect of the contribute-or-suffer argument: pushing everyone to be available to work increases the supply of labour and thus lowers wages. This idea is a real beauty for those at the top raking in the profits isn’t it? Time to get our war hammers out and root the bastard out of our heads.

But come on now, I hear the Inner Thatcher cry, the motives of our rulers may be rotten, but surely they are right: surely it is only just that everyone contribute to society to the extent they are able? Well…perhaps. But the politicians’ arguments only hold true if we allow that sneaky Inner Thatcher to pull a trick on us. The trick is to deliberately confuse money and value – I use the word value in a broad sense here, not in the way it is sometimes used in economics. Many things have value to us, as people and as a society. Some of them have a monetary value, like washing machines, some of them have apparently arbitrary monetary value, like art, and some of them we choose not to put a monetary value on at all: a mother’s love for example.

We can go further than this and say that the monetary reward for labour is not in proportion to the usefulness of the labour. The bike you ride, assembled in China, probably strikes you as more useful than, say, high street phone shops that never have the best deals (try the internet people!). So it is clear the high street phone salesman does something a lot less useful than the chinese worker who built your bike, but you know who gets paid more.

And then there’s people working in finance. From time to time they move resources to where they are needed but the majority of what they do is parasitic upon that. They are the highest paid people in society and tend to go to great lengths to avoid paying tax. When you think about it, there appears to be very little link at all between wages and what we really need or value. The link is more generally between wages and power, but that’s another subject really. It’s true that richer people pay more taxes of course, but if that’s a tax on parasitism then we can’t just go congratulating them on contributing so much.

So what does our Inner Thatcher mean when she talks about people contributing to society? Does she take into account the value of a single mother who devotes herself to her children? Does she take into account the pleasure we can give each other through art, through conversation, through simply being there for each other? No? Does she take into account the people creating beautiful front gardens in their free time, or campaigning to improve the lives of other people? Then it’s probably time to get dirty. A firework under the hooves of her charger perhaps. A poisoned dart aimed through the slit in the helmet. If she’s not fighting clean then why should we?

But the Inner Thatcher is not yet defeated: she has more arguments in favour of making us all work until we’re wrung out. Work brings self-respect apparently. And it’s true that achievement can help build self-respect, but only some jobs achieve things, and much achievement happens outside of work. Many jobs give no sense of achievement at all and – in my experience at least – these jobs undermine the very meaning of your life, let alone your self-respect. I also can’t help thinking that you will only gain self-respect in work in which you are respected by your employers and colleagues. So this argument only works if the jobs unemployed people are being pushed into are meaningful jobs in which they will be respected. Ha ha ha ha ha ha. Kill your Inner Thatcher now.

But the Inner Thatcher has another defence and David Cameron is the man to sell it to us all: ‘Why should the assistance of society mean the assistance of the state?’ Says she, and he. It is a very good question. It also has a good answer. The state is the body that frames the legal entities (companies and corporations) that both produce things in our society and concentrate the profit from them among very few people. The state is therefore, until the end of those legal structures, the only body with the power to correct the wealth distortions they create. Very probably the spending mechanisms should not be centrally controlled, but within the current economic system, so beloved by Thatcher and perhaps by your Inner Thatcher too, we have no choice but for taxes to be centrally collected. You could almost say it’s a logical product of corporate power: only the creator of the corporations has the ability to ensure that a wider benefit can come from their activities.

There is one last weapon in the toolbox of your Inner Thatcher. What about those people who are genuinely just lazy spongers? What should we do about them? Well I don’t know, but I don’t think they’re a big problem to society. Really. I think they’re a big problem to their friends and relatives. To society? They’re pretty insignificant I think. They’re certainly not worth producing an entire linguistic and political apparatus in order to fight. It’s like swatting a fly with an RPG. That apparatus is there for other reasons, already mentioned.

That apparatus is also there because redistribution is a dirty word to the people in power now. Everyone gets what they deserve, according to them, and the state shouldn’t interfere in that. Everyone gets what they deserve? That’s the thinking of a child. Or a greedy, lying political operator. If you find one of the latter in your own head, be sure to challenge her to a joust, and remember not to fight fair.