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.

Sunday, 8 May 2016

The Two Conflicting Forms of Neoliberalism


Neo-liberalism has - I think - two main contrary forms. Often the thinkers who are cited as neoliberals are philosophers like Nozick, who argued for the minimal state and who took as the primary problem to be solved the question: What is the just and fair settlement for any society? This line of thinking goes back, through Mill and Locke, all the way back to the Classical era. It is the same kind of problem that Plato, Aristotle and other genuine political philosophers, have been considering for over two and half thousand years. 


Although I can understand why it has acquired the 'neo' prefix, I think it is better to see this kind of theory as a modern form of liberalism (in the English sense). It is an attempt to set out the grounds by which diverse people can live together, with justice and with freedom. It is certainly a faulty theory - like perhaps all political theories - but its faults are better understood in the light of what it is genuinely trying to do, rather than simply treating it as all part of the devil's work. Almost all genuine liberals (of this kind) are forced to adjust their views to reflect the fact that markets do not ensure social justice. Almost all genuine liberals also tend to recognise that my freedom is limited, not just by direct political oppression, but also by my lack of essential resources.

The second form of neoliberalism is the kind of aristocratic prejudice that the 'best' should be richer and more powerful than the 'worst'. Aristocracy means rule by the best and today this has been transmogrified into what is called meritocracy - which sounds like its opposite, but actually means precisely the same thing. What has changed is the nature of the aristocracy - back then it was landed nobles, now it is the children of Eton and Oxford.

The belief of the powerful that they are the best, and so deserve their power, has always been self-serving, and often laughably so. But since Darwin it has taken on a new and more virulent form. Herbert Spencer outlined the relationship between modern theories of race and genetics as follows:
"The law that each creature shall take the benefits and evils of its own nature, be those derived from ancestry or those due to self-produced modifications, has been the law under which life has evolved thus far; and it must continue to the law however much further life may evolve. Whatever qualification this natural course of action may now or hereafter undergo, are qualifications that cannot, without fatal results, essentially change it. Any arrangements which in a considerable degree prevent superiority from profiting by the rewards of superiority, or shield inferiority from the evils it entails - any arrangement which tends to make it as well to be inferior as to be superior; are arrangements diametrically opposed to the progress of organisation and the reaching of a higher life."  
from Herbert Spencer, The Data of Ethics
Spencer, and many other thinkers from that period, successfully connected human and animal nature (or rather a debased and partial account of animal nature) in order to legitimise the abandonment of most of the moral imperatives passed down from Christian (and before that Jewish) civilisation: concern for the welfare of all, the privileged status of the weakest, the need for humility and the imperative of self-control and temperance. All those things that might be seen to 'redistribute' resources and energy from the strong to the weak were converted from moral imperatives into corruptions, temptations and threats.

This way of seeing the world reached its peak under Hitler and has gone into hiding since the end of World War II. But it is this aristocratic conceit that underlies much of what now passes as neoliberalism. It is not liberal to encourage genetic engineering by encouraging the abortion of children with disabilities. It is not liberal to concentrate more power in the hands of politicians and corporations. It is not liberal to sanction, bully or coerce people who are out of work. These approaches are not liberal, they are meritocratic.

Distinguishing these two kinds of neoliberalism - the liberal form and the aristocratic form - is strategically important, even for those of us opposed to both forms. First because we cannot easily defeat both forms together - for they have different bases. Second because we miss the opportunity to divide these forces against each other.

Personally I think liberalism, as a defence of freedom, is not our worst enemy. What is an enemy is the kind of one-eyed right-wing economic liberalism that treats the right to property as if it were some kind of divine imperative. But much worse than this is the kind of elitism that believes that ordinary people don't really need rights, that we'd much better off if disabled people did not exist and that it is acceptable to manipulate the press and media to stigmatise any group that might be helpfully scapegoated.

Meritocratic elitism (which can be found on both the Right and on the Left) should be our main enemy and it may be useful to demonstrate how illiberal and controlling are its advocates.

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Why Is It So Hard? It's Time for Action

Last year I was lucky enough to attend a ceremony in London where Jean Vanier received the Templeton Prize. Vanier (the founder of L’Arche and many other great initiatives) said to the assembled audience:

“There is a revolution going on. We are beginning to realise that everyone, every human being is important. We are beginning to see that every human being is beautiful. At the heart of this revolution are not the powerful, the wealthy or intelligent. It is people with disabilities who are showing us what is important - love, community and the freedom to be ourselves.”
This is so true. Despite austerity, despite confused and damaging Government policies, despite a culture of consumerism and ongoing prejudice - people with learning disabilities and their families continue to show that they not only belong, but they can lead the way to a better, more civilised and respectful society.

John O’Brien and Beth Mount, in their brilliant book Pathfinders, describe how the leadership that only people and families can provide, is constantly undermined by systems that keep people poor, drain them of energy and limit their potential. Yet even still, the sun keeps breaking through, for instance, they cite research from Canada where families were asked about the impact of the child with a disability in their lives:

  • More than 70% said their family was stronger
  • Almost 90% said that a wonderful person had come into their lives
  • Almost 90% said they’d learned what was really important in life
  • Over 50% said that they now laugh more

My rather childish response on first reading this was to shout: “Suck on that Peter Singer!” [Peter Singer being the eugenic philosopher who wrote Should the Baby Live? The Problem of Handicapped Infants.]

But it can still seem so hard. It can still seem so unfair. There are so many odds stacked up against families. Money continues to pour into dreadful institutional services - demeaning and abusing people. The system continues to control people, to place barriers before them and burdens on their backs.

Why is it so hard? Why do so many of the systems that should be there to help people get in the way, often doing harm, rather than good?

One concept that many of my friends and colleagues use to describe this problem is Serviceland - they picture the strange systems and assumptions of professionals, managers, social workers as a peculiar world unto itself. A world divorced from community, a world where limited assumptions have become normal, a world where small problems become huge barriers to change.

But while I recognise the truth of this description I also worry that if we are not careful we can end up further burdening families by failing to challenge services and professionals to offer the right kind of support. It may not be normal, but it is still quite possible for professionals to:

  • Listen properly and offer good advice
  • Form meaningful and supportive relationships
  • Organise assistance which the person and family can direct
  • Reduce the burdens on people’s backs

In fact I know many people who are doing this and I know many people who welcome this kind of respectful and effective support. Service providers and professionals are not the enemy - even if they spend too much time listening to the system and too little to people and families.

The question is then how can we get better at offering good help and assistance?

The most important answer to this is to put the person and their family in the driving seat. Professionals can only lead the way in emergency situations and for very short periods - ultimately power must reside with the person.

New systems of control, like direct payments and personal budgets, have made a difference here. It is now possible for people to take control and organise the support they need. This is good - it is a valid option - but surely it cannot be the case that the only way people and families can get good support is to do everything themselves.

We know that some service providers are able to offer what I’m going to call Personalised Support:

  • They work with the person to help them get a good life that has true meaning
  • They listen to the person and put them in control, but don’t leave them without support
  • They help people pick and manage their own assistants, and don’t force them to be employers
  • They create systems that are tailored to the person and keep them safe
  • They respect and protect the person’s money, they know that they work for the person

I know that there are organisations and supporters working like this all over the world. I’ve met them in Scotland, England, Canada, the USA, Finland, Australia and New Zealand and I’m sure they are many more elsewhere. There are not enough, but these kinds of organisations do exist and we need to develop more of them.

It is for this reason that the Centre for Welfare Reform has decided to start actively supporting the kinds of change that will make a real difference to people and families. Not just for people with learning disabilities, but also for older people, children, people with physical and mental health problems and many more. It is time for us to start to learn from each other - to share best practice and to set our standards higher.

To begin this process we have launched an international survey to begin to map and measure good practice in Personalised Support around the world. This first survey is targeted at service providers - we want to find out who out there is trying to do this right and what they’ve achieved so far. We want to understand the problems people face - so we can begin to work together to move things forward.

If you are a service provider then please complete our survey.

http://bit.ly/Personalised-Support-Survey-2016

If you know a good service provider or an organisation trying to change then please share the survey with them too.

We are already well into the 21st Century. We cannot keep waiting for change to begin. We must start acting according to our values and beliefs. If we say that people are full citizens, if we believe in inclusion and community, then we need to get organised and start to do the work.





Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Words are Like Maps

Words are like maps. Their meaning shifts as our we find our own position upon the map, as we identify the journey we've travelled and our plans for future travels. We may use the same map, but in radically different ways and with radically different meanings.