Monday, 21 November 2016

On The Desire For Citizenship



What connects
The child abandoned by his mother,
The mother beaten by her man,
The wounded soldier, and
The fleeing refugee?

Love,
Love certainly is needed.
But love alone,
Or love unguided,
May fail to hit the mark.

For we each need
To live a life
Of meaning, where hope can spring,

Where our presence takes on weight,
And where respect can be restored.

Perhaps
We long for citizenship
In heaven, or perhaps
Just along our street.
For the world may bear our absence,

But we know it could also be our home.

May we connect,
Like stars in constellations,
Offering guidance, and meaning in the dark.

May we weave a net for souls,
Haven or harbour, where love can work,

And reconnect us all.

Why We Are Launching Citizen Network



Hütia te rito o te harakeke, kei hea te kömako e kö? 
Kï mai ki a au, 'He aha te mea nui i te ao?' Māku e kï atu, 'He tāngata, he tāngata, he tāngata'. 

If the heart of the flax is pulled out, where will the kömako sing? 
If you ask me what is most important in this world, I will reply, ‘It’s people, it’s people, it’s people.’

Maori Proverb*

Last Thursday, in Auckland, at the international conference on self-direction, brilliantly hosted by Manawanui In Charge, we launched Citizen Network. I think this might be the most important initiative that I’ve been a part of and I want to explain here why we've come together to create Citizen Network, and why we hope you will join us.

The idea of Citizen Network began at the Vancouver Conference on self-direction in 2015. We wanted to find a way to connect up all the positive initiatives, around the world, that advance citizenship for people with disabilities, and for the many others who face oppression, stigma and exclusion.

Many of us have spent a good part of our lives working on important system changes (like closing institutions, creating community supports or developing systems of self-directed support) and we want to build on all of this. We want to get better at recognising and supporting positive innovation and be more effective at advocating for these changes within our societies.

However we also feel that these system changes are not enough. Even the best system can be corrupted when we lose sight of the deeper values that inspire our work and our own integrity in helping change to happen.

We need to understand what we are really trying to achieve and why it is important. So we have focused not just on self-direction, but on the broader goal of citizenship for all.

For while it would be simpler to have a narrow focus, on systems of self-direction (important as these are) we feel that this will fail to address the real challenges that we face. Even more importantly, we would fail to tap into the hunger for justice and for true citizenship that had originally inspired deinstitutionalisation and the creation of positive innovations, like systems of self-direction.

It is the values that inspire and fuel our appetite for making change happen. We believe people are ready for a more ambitious and hopeful vision of the future.

Now is a good time to stand back and think about the bigger picture. Now is a good time to break down the barriers, silos and categories that so easily divide us. Now is a good time to go deeper and seek the true source of our values. For so many of us want to live in a world where

difference is not just accepted, but rather it is cherished and celebrated, where

we don’t just treat people as if they were equal, we know that they really are equal, and where

everyone can be a true citizen, living a life of meaning, supported with love.

There is no better time to express these hopes and to try and act from them. The election of Donald Trump, Brexit, politicians pandering to hatred and vicious austerity policies (especially in the UK) are all signs that the old ways of thinking are not working.

We cannot be satisfied by just focusing on changing systems when the world as a whole is going backwards towards increased social injustice. We must see our lives and our work in the light of this bigger picture - no matter how challenging that may feel.

So how can we respond to the challenges ahead?

Of course it is important for all of us to play our part in the ordinary political processes in our communities, to get involved and to support those advocating justice and citizenship for all. But even if we win the occasional victory in this way this won’t help us if we do not also understand the cause of our current problems. Winning power is only helpful if we know what to do with that power.

Those of us who have been fighting to close institutions, to advance disability rights, to promote self-direction and community lives, have a special responsibility to share what we’ve learned with others. We have two generations of learning about what it takes to support real citizenship. We must share that and try to reshape the assumptions of the political landscape around it.

For instance, we could make common cause with those who face others kinds of exclusion from citizenship. The migrant, refugee or asylum seeker, fleeing terror or just trying to build a better life, faces hatred and exclusion, just as have many disabled people. Can we not work with those communities and learn from them about what they are doing to achieve true citizenship? Can we not help them stand up against xenophobia and racism?

Also, if we do advocate inclusion into community, then surely we must also pay attention to the real state of those communities. We do not want to include people in communities that are rife with poverty, insecurity, inadequate welfare systems or where there are no decent democratic structures. Citizenship is a problem for all of us; we are increasingly living in an elitist society where the only source of value is a paid job. This is bad for all of us, and in our changing economy it is hard to see how this is even sustainable. Inclusion is not enough. It must be inclusion, with justice, that we seek.

Perhaps, at a deeper level, this is also about the kind of people we want to be. Do we think the worship of money, status and power will lead anywhere good? Lives of meaning and love, lives of citizenship, are possible for all of us. But we must leave behind the shallow values and insecurities that feed our fears and tempt us to blame other people for our problems.

We must be citizens, true citizens, thinking and acting with integrity and with a concern for other people and the natural world. We must value citizenship - and explain its value to others. We must act like citizens - cooperating and taking responsibility for the communities in which we live.

We must grow and safeguard the heart of the flax - the communities that nurture and sustain us.

This, at least, is our crazy dream; and this is what led us to form Citizen Network.

You can find out more by visiting the Citizen Network website. You can join for free, and groups or organisations who want to become part of a community committed to the values of citizenship will be listed on our world map.

It is early days, there is much to do and we are bound to make some mistakes. But we have already established networks in Australia, Scotland and England and we hope to have several other countries join us shortly.

What will it do?

Well to begin with I think the focus will be on innovation and advocacy.

There is much we can do already. There are great people out there doing brilliant work. We need to learn from each other. So Citizen Network will act as an international cooperative of people and organisations who are willing to learn and share with each other - share and share alike. We hope to end the pointless competition which so often closes down innovation. Instead we will focus on how we can help make positive change happen together. Events, webinars and practical projects are likely to be early first steps.

There is also much to challenge. Sometimes we need to change systems, change laws, combat injustice. Often this is too hard for one person or one organisation. But through cooperative international action we may have the ability to exercise more influence on behalf of justice. For instance international surveys can help us better understand where progress is, and isn’t, being made.

And of course self-direction and individualised funding will still be a very big part of things - it is still our strongest suit. I very much hope we can build on the great work started in Vancouver and continued in Auckland. Perhaps we can set a new date for an international gathering.

It’s early days, but I know that others will join us. There is a hunger for a more positive vision for society and we can play a part in helping to define and share that vision.

When times are hard and when so many seem to have forgotten the meaning of citizenship and justice then we must stand up and we must reach out to each other. We must not join in with those lost in hatred, nor can we stand by, expecting someone else to solve our problem.

Perhaps the triple call of the Maori proverb is to remind us that

People are valuable - there’s no place for rejection and exclusion

People are special - each of us can live a life of love and meaning

People are powerful - together we have what it takes to build a better world

Citizen Network may not be able to solve all the worlds problems; but together we can create a world where we recognise that everyone is different, everyone is equal and everyone matters.

Join Us

* By visiting Auckland library I discovered that the kömako is most probably the bellbird and the metaphor of the flax is related to the fact that new life comes from the heart of the flax bush; to pull out the heart of the bush is to leave the bush sterile and incapable of bring forth new generations.

Friday, 11 November 2016

Is a Pro-Community Welfare State Possible?



In the space of a few days I’ve been lucky enough to be part of two workshops where we explored the question of how to narrow the gap between public services (the official welfare state) and the community. Each event was inspiring, with stories of exciting innovations that demonstrate the power of community action and the ability of the state, sometimes with a little help, to act as an agent for positive social change. There is a clear appetite for a new settlement, a new kind of pro-community welfare state, one which works in harmony with its citizens, not against them.


Now I know that for many fellow campaigners against the UK’s austerity policies even to discuss these ideas is to move dangerously close to the Big Society Bullshit that has been used as a screen by Government to disguise more than six years of cuts, stigma and increasing inequality. Some believe that the old welfare state was just fine, and that we must go back to the 1945 system; others recognise that all was not perfect, but think that any criticism of the old system, at this time, just provides dangerous ammunition for the new barbarians.

I certainly have some sympathy with both positions. The old welfare system had many virtues which we have lost sight of, including a much greater faith in the ability of officials in the welfare system to make sensible decisions, at a local level. Much of this freedom and flexibility has disappeared as Whitehall has taken over the ‘management’ of the welfare state. I also recognise that the Coalition Government did a brilliant job of covering its tracks. For every vicious cut they imposed there was some wacky new programme (usually funded by the Cabinet Office) that was used to grab headlines and scatter glitter over gaping wounds. We live in a cynical age.

But I don’t think we can hold back from considering some of the fundamental flaws in how the welfare state has evolved over the past few decades. It is particularly important to consider some of the deeper factors, which are much harder to see, but which not only damage the welfare state but also enable the Big Society Bullshit to gain credibility.

The best lies are wrapped around a small nugget of truth, and repeated lies cannot be defeated unless you can share some deeper, stronger and more hopeful truth.

To begin with I think it’s important to remember why we need the welfare state. The welfare state is a compensatory mechanisms that helps us deal with two kinds of inequality: inequality of wealth (income and assets) and inequality of need (disability, illness and age). The more equal a society is in wealth then the less you need systems of benefits, taxes and social housing to rebalance things. However, even if wealth were equal you would still need to deal with the fact that some people will also need further help which they cannot get on their own.

Now it is important to note that this second problem is also linked to how willing people are to do what is right without payment. Inequality of need is no problem in a community that naturally organises itself to meet those extra needs; however in a society where doctors, nurses and social workers want to be paid, and to be paid well, for using expert skills then inequality of need will also require additional welfare systems to ensure these important additional needs are also met.

So the purpose of the welfare state is to compensate, not just for inequality, but also for the insecurity that comes from knowing that you might have needs, and that nobody will be willing to help you meet them without payment.

Now, in the way of a thought experiment, let us imagine that you are the ruler of a community that already has a welfare state; and now imagine that (for some strange reason) you want to destroy the welfare system, but in a way that people won’t notice. Here are some strategies you could use:

  1. Forget about the importance of inequality, spend less on making the poor less poor, but spend more on services instead. In this way public spending will remain high, but inequality will grow. This is what the UK has done, spending about 50% less on poverty now than it did in 1977. In this way, fundamental needs will grow but the system will appear unable to help them. This helps to undermine the whole system.
  2. Encourage inequality within public services themselves. The Chief Executive of the NHS is paid about £200,000 - 50 times more than the poorest 10% of UK citizens who live on about £4,000 per year. Charity chiefs can earn similar amounts (e.g. £175,000 for the CEO of Mencap). In this way the public and charitable sectors can create the inequality that they are supposed to be there to solve.
  3. Make the poor poorer through hidden taxes. For instance the poorest 10% pay 50% of their income in taxes, meaning that their real income is closer to £2,000 per year (about £40 per week). In this way the poor are tricked into paying the salaries of those who should be helping them.
  4. Then create extra taxes, just for those people who have higher needs. This is called means-testing or charging, and it means that if you have a disability you will only get support if you are very poor or if you are prepared to pay the high 'disability taxes' imposed by the adult social care system. For this reason many people opt out of the welfare state and start to believe that that the system only exists for ‘them’ (the poorest, the most unworthy). At the same time the poor have to make themselves even poorer just in order to get vital services.
  5. Associate the welfare state with stigma, control and a sense of unworthiness; in this way people will not want to support it, use it or value it. Spending public money on campaigns which suggest people on benefits might be “benefit thieves” has been a highly successful means of spreading fear and mistrust through the general public. Today people believe benefit fraud is rife, whereas it is actually statistically insignificant.
  6. Pretend that public services are inadequate and will be better managed by private sector companies. This has the double benefit of reducing people’s sense of control and faith in the system, while adding to the inherent inequality of public services (frontline workers salaries are pushed down, profits are sucked out, yet senior public officials can now earn more as ‘commissioners’ rather than providers).
  7. Talk about the need for communities to take back control, for citizens to be empowered and then dismantle any of the remaining systems of support. And here we are today - Big Society Bullshit.

Some of you this may think that this is an unduly critical view of public policy over the past 40 years or so; others may think this is simply a restatement of what many others have been arguing for some time - “It’s the workings of capitalism; it’s the ideology of neoliberalism.”

So I’ll end by considering the question of motivation. Who wants to destroy the welfare state and why?

I asked you to consider how you would destroy the welfare state from within. But personally I find it difficult to believe that most of the politicians and the civil servants responsible for the welfare state have really been trying to destroy the welfare state. (But I may be being naive). In my experience (most of) our rulers want to do the right thing, but they do not understand the systems they control and act in order to gain short-term political advantage. Rationality and wisdom is harder to attain in a position of power.

Nor do I think that, for most of this period, greed and corruption by commercial companies has been the biggest factor in the destruction of the welfare state (although I think things have now changed, and it is certainly a significant factor today).

However I do think that shallow thinking has played its part; but I think that state socialism has been nearly as damaging as the kind of narrow economic liberalism that has now been relabelled as ‘neoliberalism’. It we think of people as merely animals, seeking selfish material benefit, then our thinking about the demands of justice and the organisation of society will be utterly inadequate.

So what are the real driving forces that continue to undermine the welfare state? Here are five poisons that I believe are eating away at the welfare state from within. I do not think they are the only corrosive factors at work, but I think they are important internal factors which should be given more attention as we try to think our way out of our current problems:

1. Centralisation - The more that decisions are taken centrally then the fewer the people involved in those decision, the easier corruption and the easier it is for powerful groups to get advantage over less powerful groups. Elites speak to elites, and after dinner comes the contracts, or the increased salaries for senior staff.

2. Meritocracy - The more hierarchical and the less democratic a society then the easier it is for its rulers to believe that they deserve their power, the money (that they award themselves) and their many other privileges. Meritocracy has always been the ideology of aristocracies - ‘we rule because we are the best’. The fact that the best are now the likes of Donald Trump, rather than the landed gentry, is merely a matter of detail.

3. Inequality - The welfare state exists because of inequality, but progressively it has treated inequality as an unavoidable fact, not as a problem that it was designed to tackle. Inequality make the poorest, not just poor, but weak and demoralised. Inequality makes the rich complacent and heartless. Today the welfare state not only fails to respond to poverty, it makes the problem worse by creating new kinds inequalities within public services themselves.

4. Insecurity - The ongoing dilemma for the welfare state, one that can be witnessed in the writings of Beveridge, Marshall and its other early designers, is the fear that the welfare state will give people too much security and encourage laziness or undue dependence. For this reason income security (unlike health security) has always been viciously means-tested. Strangely, as economic insecurity continues to grow in our increasingly global and technological economy, the state now works to increase this sense of insecurity through damaging changes to the benefits system. This toxic insecurity means that if people are unable to find paid work they are then punished if they volunteer or act like a citizen. The need to keep the poorest under control and feeling insecure eats away at the legitimacy of the system and further enables paternalism or bullying.

5. Individualism - The welfare state has been built around a highly individualised conception of the citizen. Family, friendship and community disappear in its gaze; instead bureaucratically defined solutions are offered to mere individuals. There is no role for collaboration, solidarity or cooperation in the modern welfare state, because all of those things move the centre of power towards community and treat the person as a citizen, not as a unit. Atomised we are weak - and that is how the system seems to want us.

The irony is that creating a good welfare state, or at least a much better welfare state, is quite possible. There is nothing inevitable about the ongoing decline of the welfare state. But in order to reverse the current decline we will need to think much harder about the real and underlying problems built into the current system itself.

Some of these problems cannot be solved by 'policy' (encouraging our rulers to have better ideas). The solutions we really need are constitutional, they require rethinking the fundamental structures of our democracy and our society. Unless we are prepared to do that thinking and begin advocating for more fundamental changes the legacy we were handed by our grandparents and great-grandparents will wither and die on our watch.

Monday, 15 August 2016

Why Socrates would vote for Corbyn


I was reading Plato's Gorgias recently and I was struck by how close this two and half thousand year old discussion was to the debate currently going on within the Labour Party. In brief, I think it is clear that Socrates would have been a Corbynista - for he advocated the need for a commitment to the principles of justice and he rejected the pragmatic need to flatter or pander to the electorate.


For those of you who have not read Gorgias I heartily recommend it. It is certainly rather funny.

It is a debate between Socrates and some of the leading teachers of rhetoric (the art of oratory) of his day. Socrates mercilessly attacks each of them and demonstrates that as the central function of oratory is to persuade others to an action which is independent of the justice of that action then the person persuaded (or the demos) has been corrupted.

The humour comes from the nearly visible eye-rolling and wry smiles you can imagine on the rhetoricians'  faces as they think to themselves that - for all the truth of Socrates' critique - everything he says is unrealistic. People want to be flattered. We want politicians to lie to us. Justice feels far too much like hard work. Power is more important than principle.

And of course the wicked twist in this tail is that they were right. The Athenians killed Socrates for his truthfulness and his refusal to flatter them.

Today we hear that Jeremy Corbyn is unelectable, unpersuasive and unrealistic. He’s too principled. Far better that we accept someone to lead Labour who can 'reach out' to the middle and win those critical swing votes.

Is this the vapid choice that lies before us - between honest failure and the victory of the charlatan?

Well here are three reasons why I'll back Socrates and Corbyn over the current alternative:

Truth has its own victory. We behave as if the trick to justice is to get 'our man' (or woman) into power. But in the process, not only do we place an unreasonable responsibility on such a candidate, we also forget that true power comes through community. As Socrates observes, the tyrant inevitably loses that which is the very best thing - friendship. The desire to gain and to keep hold of ‘power’ by tricking people into believing in you is actually the desire to take on the lonely job of manipulating others to do your will.

We commonly confuse - as Hannah Arendt observed - power and force. Control of government only gives you force; real power comes through the collective action which can also shift the will and the understanding without coercion. Offering someone control of your democratic organisation, in the hope that they can then seize power over the country, but in the name of your part, is not the meaning of democracy.

Democracy is more important than Party. Simone Weil persuasively argues we'd all be better off without the Party Machine. This is another (connected) unrealistic idea. But, even if we do not achieve that utopia, surely we must all recognise that democracy in its current form is an inevitable process of victory and defeat and that 'our' party cannot be right all the time. The paradox is that this also means that we should want politicians to disagree, to hold out for principles and avoid the race to the middle. It is only through this kind of democratic process that we can expect to develop and improve our society.

The fact is that we are suffering under the most extreme Right-wing Government in the developed world precisely because Labour's long-term strategy has been to occupy the ground that is as close as possible the Tories. It is a strange form of competition to drive you to imitate your competition. In the end the result of this strategy has been to create no effective counterweight to the Rightward swing that began under Thatcher and has reached such extremes under Cameron. Debate has been stifled, interesting alternative policies are not considered and a stifling elitist consensus prevails.

In fact one of Socrates' most powerful arguments is that these experts in rhetoric cannot even name someone whose rhetoric has left Athens in a better state than he found it. Even the greatest of Athenians found themselves attacked or exiled after their periods of leadership. As Socrates says, a true leader would not have made the people more vicious, more eager to blame and less interested in true justice. What then the legacy of the New Labour as we enter year 6 of an austerity programme condemned by the United Nations for rejecting human rights?

Argument trumps rhetoric. Modern politics has abandoned any respect for evidence, logic and the wisdom of practice. We wish to be saved from our fears and anxieties and we rush to those who promise us safety. In the end we are disappointed and in fact we knew we'd be disappointed, because we'd listened to promises that we knew lacked substance. The salesman sells and we buy, because all we are offered are competing sales pitches. We do not really believe all the rhetoric - we have just come to accept that the only choice available is to choose the best salesman, the best spin doctor.

Corbyn's refusal to look the part, to sell himself, to use rhetoric and bombast - that's what I love about him. I'm sure that on many matters of detail I'd disagree with him. But so what? What appeals to me is that he is offering - both within and without the Labour Party - the chance for meaningful debate.

Socrates may also have been unrealistic and there is certainly no apolitical path to justice. What I'm looking for is someone who wants to open debate - not someone with all the answers. What I'm looking for is someone who remembers that justice is never safe in the hands of the rich and powerful. What I'm looking for is someone who knows I don't need a hero or even a leader; I just need someone who remembers that it’s ordinary people - the demos - who are the foundation of a just society.

And one last point. You may not have heard of Gorgias, but you've probably heard of Socrates. His ideas and his thinking survived his murder by his enemies.

Monday, 8 August 2016

Gangster Economics


Economics emerged as a moral science, an attempt to understand how to advance justice and the wellbeing of all. The word comes from the combination of two important Greek words:

  • Oikos - which means family, family property or the family house
  • Nomos - which means law, order or justice

Today economics is treated as merely a social science, and as with all social sciences, the assumption that there is a moral order and that justice is a fundamental reality has faded. This is very much to the disadvantage of the science. Without moral imagination economics becomes lost in its own self-made world of artificial principles and models. It tries to predict rather than to guide us towards what is right. It becomes a servant of the powerful and of economic power in particular, rather than an advocate for economic justice.

It is striking that one of the founders of economics, Adam Smith, was a moral philosopher and that, his original vision was certainly very moral. For instance, Smith wrote:
“This disposition to admire, and to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean conditions... is the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments.”
Smith is responsible for helping to found the most powerful and well known of economic theories, economic liberalism; and while there have been some other important innovations in thinking and practice over the years, this approach - which stresses the importance of individual free choice in promoting good outcomes - has been resilient. Most economic theory is merely a footnote to liberalism.

It is a sad irony that the ideas of a man who often stressed the rights and freedoms of the poorest is now often cited to support the policies that harm them. In the UK, Government’s of both Left and Right, have turned justice on its head and acted as if we exist to serve the market, not the other way around. Advocates of justice often use the term liberalism, or its variant, neoliberalism to define the nature of their moral error.

This marks a decline in the meaning of the world liberalism that is also bitterly ironic. Originally being liberal meant to be free or to be lavishly generous. There is nothing liberal about the meritocratic, mean-spirited elites who rule our country today.

In fact I think that when we criticise the current Conservative Government, or the previous Coalition or New Labour Governments, as ‘liberal’ or ‘neoliberal’ we are in danger of flattering them. There is nothing liberal in their policies - in either sense. They do not enable more people to be free and independent, they do not encourage generous giving or secure welfare. They are illiberal, reducing freedom and increasing inequality and poverty.

How then should we characterise their economic policies if they should not be called liberal? I’ve been thinking about this for a while and I think I’ve come up with the right name. We are living through an era of Gangster Economics, where the purpose of economic policy is to reinforce the power and wealth of a small group by exploiting the poorest and bribing the powerful.

Think how gangsterism works. First you must exploit the poorest, using fear and violence, while ensuring that no powerful forces of resistance can arise from within the exploited communities. Compare this to a range of current Government policies:

  • Benefit cuts, sanctions and workfare brutalise the poorest
  • Regressive tax increases (poorest 10% now pay 50% of their income in taxes) milk them
  • Legal aid, trade union rights and the right of charities to protest have all been weakened
  • Asylum seekers, immigrants, disabled people and the poorest are stigmatised and insulted

The second phase of gangsterism is to protect the gangster’s field of operation, to ensure that nobody will come to the aid of the poorest. In 1920s America this was achieved by bribing the police, the mayor and by threatening jurors. In the UK today such bribery and pandering takes a somewhat subtler forms.

  • Tax and benefit policy is designed to benefit swing voters, to keep the elite in power
  • Honours and contracts are distributed to political donors, charities and commercial interests
  • The commercial media is courted, the independent media is undermined

For instance, during the Coalition Government taxes and benefits were both changed so that the poorest 10% were hit more harshly than any other decile. Their income, which was already only £40 per week after tax, was reduced by a staggering by 9%. At the same time the incomes of some middle income groups were even increased. If the Government’s objective had really been to reduce the deficit then logically it should have targeted the well-off and middle income groups. If you’re looking for money, don’t go to the poor. This policy reveal that current economic policy is an exercise in power - not in accounting.

The third stage of gangsterism is to get the whole economy dependent upon some substance over which you have monopolistic control and from which you can then cream enormous profit. Twentieth century gangsters used alcohol and then, when that was legalised, drugs. In Gangster Economics the drug on which we’ve all been hooked is debt.

  • Government has allowed banks to create more money, by creating debt.
  • Banks then profit from this new power by taking a slice of their Government granted monopoly
  • Politicians then discover the joy of the housing boom, as interest rates drop house prices grow, along with all the associated debt. 
  • Home owners are happy (a ‘popular’ policy in the UK and US with high levels of home ownership) because their house is ‘worth more' and they vote for the Government. 
  • Banks are happy because they can cream off yet more money from higher levels of debt. 
  • Banks then discover that they can manufacture new forms of debt, junk bonds, CDOs, synthetics from which they can cream further profits.

I would like to say that, eventually this all came crashing down; but it hasn’t. After a small wobble, the world economy is still doing its crazy debt-ridden dance. The Government keeps it going with Quantitive Easing and, now, 0.25% interest rates. Banks are the drug pushers, government is their backer and protector.

Historically debt has always been the means necessary to create slavery. Debt keeps us obedient and makes us run for protection to the government. Government reassures us and tells us that they will solve the problem, a problem they say that was the fault of the poor, the disabled and the immigrants. It beggars belief that we believe them, but believe them we do.

It is encouraging to see organisations like Positive Money emerge to challenge this nonsense, for social justice will require more than a restored welfare state, it will require new forms of economic policy. I think this will happen, eventually; the current system is just too crazy to survive and, as Adam Smith also said:
“Avarice and injustice are always short-sighted”

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Confusopoly - lessons for social change

I came across, thanks to Samantha Connor, a beautiful new word the other day - confusopoly.

After some searching around the internet I think I found the source of the word to be Scott Adams, the comic genius behind Dilbert. He defines confusopoly as "a group of companies with similar products who intentionally confuse customers instead of competing on price."

Well we can all recognise the truth of that. Who has not been confused by the complex and mobile pricing structures used to disguise a crude choice between a handful suppliers of utilities, phone lines or TV services? We all know we are being bamboozled; we often accept it as a feature of modern life.

I may not have given this enough thought, but it seems to me that confusopolies must thrive when:
  • We have little choice but to accept one of the available options - e.g. we need to heat the house
  • There is little, other than price, to distinguish the actual choice in front of us - e.g. iOS or Android
  • There are few real competitors - e.g. BT, SKY or Virgin Media
Oligopolists would not risk a strategy of confusopoly if they though most people would just walk away, choose on the basis of some different criteria to price, or choose someone offering a simpler and clearer alternative price plan.

I've always found the behaviour of firms in competitive situations interesting to watch. Do you remember when cash machines were new? (I'm showing my age now). Originally you could only use your cash card at your own bank. Then banks started to club together to create greater advantage for their customers. Eventually the system became a kind of duopoly, where about half of all banks would take your card. At this point the Government intervened (from memory) and insisted banks agreed to accept all cards - without charging us for the privilege.

This was a case study in how diversity becomes duopoly - but how duopolies must be forced over the line into more useful forms of monopoly. There was no commercial advantage to the banks in organising a monopoly - it was just better for us, the customers.

The reality seems to me that free commercial enterprise is basically helpful, innovative and creative - but always in danger of becoming damaging, exploitative or absurd. I find it strange when some people think commerce is bad. I find it equally strange that some people think democracy shouldn't try to discipline commerce into being better than it naturally would be.

I love a beautiful garden. I don't make the plants grow. But it wouldn't be much of a garden without weeding, pruning and some overall design.

The tension between commerce and democratic control is inevitable and we should not be persuaded by liberals or by Stalinists from wanting both free commercial activity and strong democratic discipline.

However, when Sam Jenkinson used the term, she was referring to Australia's disability support system and I found the term also being cited by Australia's Productivity Commission in its design of the National Disability Insurance Scheme to replace the previous complex system. So perhaps it is not just commerce that creates confusopoly.

Reflecting on my own field of endeavour I can see that systems can become unnecessarily complex for a number of reasons:

  1. We may create an innovation from within a largely static system. For example, Direct Payments were a good innovation, but they created greater complexity because they left the old social care system untouched. One system became two systems.
  2. Alternatively we may create an innovation which can only be fully integrated into the system over time. For example, Personal Budgets were progressively rolled out, but many systems protected older forms of practice either by excluding Personal Budgets from their domain or by corrupting the definition of Personal Budgets to include inflexible options.
  3. Or we can force an innovation to adapt to an unreasonable obstacle. For example, integrated Individual Budgets died when parts of the bureaucracy, like the civil servants running the 'Supporting People' programme successfully defended their own funding stream from integration into one coherent model.
In fact we can see that here bureaucracy mirrors commerce. Bureaucrats do not always prefer what is rational, clear or to the advantage of the citizen. Their first concern (as with business) is to safeguard their own roles, their own funding streams and their own patterns of thought and behaviour.

Bureaucracy is not bad, bureaucracy is necessary; but it is perhaps no more likely to choose to do the right thing than is commerce. This is what I take from my own experience. Just as you cannot give a good idea to commerce and expect all to be well, so with bureaucracy. Discipline and integrity are required and some of this will need to come through democratic processes that can exert pressure on both bureaucracy and commerce.

The lesson for advocates of social justice and true welfare reform is that to have a good idea is not enough. Giving good ideas away is not enough. We must also attend to the process of change itself and in particular to the public and political processes that create some of the necessary discipline for coherent change.

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

From Cameron to May - Thoughts on the Invisibility of Justice

As we change our Prime Minister I’m wondering what we’ve learned about the battle for justice in the last six years. While I doubt we can expect a significant shift in policy, we must certainly take a fresh look at our strategies and amend them for a new period. The new boss, even if she’s the same as the old boss, can always disown previous policies, while continuing them under a new name.


First we have to accept that, for 6 years, Cameron got away with it, and we failed to stop him. We’ve had 6 years of the most vicious cuts, including direct attacks on disabled people, immigrants and on those in poverty. There is no need here for me to repeat his crimes. The United Nations has already successfully outlined his attack on human rights. Yet none of this ever became a political issue.

It was not Cameron’s injustice that was his downfall, it was his foolish gambling and vanity that brought things crashing down. Extraordinarily - our new Prime Minister has even praised his approach to social justice - Good Grief!

It seems injustice is invisible and his crimes have gone unnoticed.

We can of course blame our rulers. But I suspect that most politicians will say, “Well if this issue is such an important one surely it would have come up more. The electorate seems to care more about immigration and Europe than it does about social justice and equality. You’ve got to be realistic. You can only get elected by paying attention to what the electorate actually cares about.”

In fact one of my family, who I love dearly, is a Conservative and has worked closely with that Party in the past. After I explained to her the impact and unfairness of Austerity she said, “I know, it’s sad, but that’s politics, Simon.” And I know she’s right, this is our country’s politics - blind to injustice.

Austerity was purposefully designed to hurt those with no political voice and in ways that are very hard to see:
  • An array of welfare cuts were marketed as ‘reforms’, despite the deep harm they caused
  • Benefits were attacked by a series of salami slices, with cuts hidden inside complex technical changes
  • The skiver rhetoric played well politically and was used repeatedly on both sides of the House
  • There was no resistance to the attacks on local government, and hence on social care
  • Tax-benefit changes actually benefited middle-income groups
  • Interest rate policy created enormous and regressive benefits for the better off
In fact, for most people, Austerity was not Austerity. Most people do not even know what the term ‘Austerity’ means and never experienced any Austerity. What they did experience was a short sharp shock as the fragility of our debt-laden economy was briefly revealed in 2008. The political consequence of this was not that we started to question our crazy financial and economic system. Instead most went running to any politician who promised to clear up the mess and to safeguard our mortgages.

After this Austerity has just been a smash and grab raid on the incomes and rights of the voiceless. It hasn’t touched most people and it isn’t visible to most people.

But why has mainstream media failed to report on these issues?

Well of course, some of this could be considered corruption. Rupert Murdoch’s world view clearly frames the editorial policy of much of the mainstream media. Meanwhile the BBC seems to have turned itself into Pravda. Even The Guardian has been disappointing (despite some excellent individual journalists).

This may also be partly the result of economics. If the people who buy you, or advertise with you, do not want to think about social justice then why are you obliged to offer them something they do not want. Statistics, stories of hardship, analyses of policy impact - none of this is news, none of this is very interesting or entertaining.

You might be on the road to Hell, but if you go slowly enough it will never make the headlines.

The one honourable exception here, in my opinion, has been the Daily Mirror. Only The Mirror has been willing to call a spade a spade on welfare reform and on the cuts. Perhaps this is because it’s readers are much more likely to recognise the reality of the cuts, the sanctions and the everyday heartlessness of Government policy.

But it is not just economics and corruption that has led the media astray. The abject failure of Labour under Balls and Milliband was also critical. I am sure that many in the media assumed that, if Labour didn’t seem to think cuts, inequality and growing poverty was important, then it probably wasn’t important. Labour’s symbolic role has always been to stand up for social justice; when it doesn’t then the media draws the logical conclusion - nothing too much is wrong.

Assuming that they would continue to get the votes of the downtrodden, Labour marketed themselves to swing voters and pandered to their fear that Labour might prove irresponsible and put at risk their mortgages. In the process they lost votes to the SNP, UKIP and Greens, while convincing hardly anyone to come in their direction (they merely picked up some votes from disenchanted Liberal Democrat voters). Given the gift of the most extreme Right-wing Government in over 75 years Labour’s strategy was to merely legitimise the Coalition’s policies, by offering milder versions of those same policies. Poison is still poison, even when it’s watered down.

There is one more reason why I think we have been struggling to defend justice. Too often we are defending an unlovable version of social justice. When the Government attacks justice it does so by attacking ‘welfare’ and it is true that what people often experience as ‘welfare’ is rather hard to love:
  • Bureaucratic and impersonal systems
  • Incompetent and unaccountable services
  • Disempowerment and rightlessness
The welfare state has been deformed by its centralised and paternalistic starting point. We are all its beneficiaries, but those who come in regular contact with it often experience it as an alien force. It does not feel part of the community and it does not treat us as citizens or as its co-creators. What Hannah Arendt says of ‘charity’ could equally well be said of the post-war welfare state:
“But charity is not solidarity; it usually helps only isolated individuals, with no overall plan; and that is why, in the end, it is not productive. Charity divides a people into those who give and those who receive.”
I can probably keep this finger of blame moving. But in the end it will come back to point at me. What have I done? What could I have done differently? Are we just doomed to injustice? Is the rise of greed and inequality just another phase of our history? Must we turn fatalist or Marxist, and merely await inevitable doom or inevitable paradise?

I don’t think so and there are perhaps a few crumbs of comfort to feed on.

Unite the Union recently created Community chapters, in order to recruit into the trade union, people who were not workers, but who wanted to campaign for their communities. This seems to be a crucial development. It is an example of a trade union thinking beyond the immediate and short-term interests of one group of workers and reaching out to include families, neighbours and allies for justice.

The attempted coup within the Labour Party is, on the surface, a disaster. But in a funny way it’s much better that this all happens now. From my perspective what we are watching is an effort to restore democratic control of the Labour Party to its members. To those who think Blair’s New Labour strategy was a high point for the Labour Party then this will seem like madness; but for those like me who think New Labour is part of the problem, then this process is inevitable. I think it is inconceivable that Labour’s new members or the trade unions will fall for another version of New Labour.

In this respect the Labour Party and the Conservatives are very different. The internal politics of the Conservative Party is always about victory first; for they can divide the spoils afterwards. The rich and powerful know that, whoever is leading the party, they will always get a hearing, if they have the money to pay for it. Nothing is sacrosanct, everything can be purchased.

The same is not true for Labour. Like Odysseus’s crew, they must tie their leader to the ship’s mast, so that he or she does not jump overboard to be drowned by the Swing-Voter Sirens. Policies should emerge from the Party, because the Party represents the people and their experience of life. If the Party has not been persuaded in advance then why should it trust it’s leaders to make the right decisions once they get into power.

I can see why some might want their leader to be free of such a restriction. It is clearly more convenient not to have to worry about what Labour Party members think or want. But such leaders ask too much of us. To have reached the top of the slippery poll is certainly a remarkable trick; but it is no guarantee of integrity or a regard for justice. As G K Chesterton said:
“You can never have a revolution in order to establish a democracy. You must have a democracy in order to have a revolution.”
The third crumb of comfort is that we are just beginning to see how the welfare state can be reformed to become a local and citizen-friendly welfare state. Last week I was listening to people in Barnsley explain how they are connecting the Council to real community action. Councillors are becoming community champions, and instead of ‘deploying services’ into their communities they are co-creating sustainable solutions within their communities.

If the welfare state can become loveable then it can be defended. This is not easy, and it is not going to be quick, but it is not impossible.

These reflections help me refine my own understanding of my own path and the path of the Centre for Welfare Reform. Sharing and publishing social innovations or accounts injustice may be fine, but we must increasingly seek to engage directly with the groups and organisations who really care about justice and whose destinies will ultimately be bound up in any positive reforms.

I think the Centre must start to think of the audience, which it must serve with integrity, as:
  • Trade union members and other collective bodies
  • Members of progressive political parties, and this must particularly include the Labour Party
  • Local community groups and umbrella organisations that connect people and communities
I suspect that justice cannot be made directly visible, but the institutions of justice can be seen and these can made more loveable. Simone Weil claimed that only a few things can be loved absolutely: truth, beauty and justice. But when it came to her own country, as its leaders prepared to rebuild France after the war:
“…give French people something to love; and, in the first place, to give them France to love; to conceive the reality corresponding to the name of France in such a way that as she actually is, in her very truth, she can be loved with the whole heart.”
Let us try and imagine what might make our country (whatever shape that ends up being), our communities and our institutions worth loving. Perhaps then we can make justice somehow more visible and more defensible.