We need to remember the ‘Big Society’ is a temporary solution

Doing constructive things helps. Spreading messages on social media and signing petitions is good political work, but sometiems it can feel empty. The immediate buzz of a like or a thanks feels nice and is addictive, but doesn’t make us feel better in a lasting way. Having something in your life that feels like you’re *building* a better world can be really transformative. Doing active things with your friends is especially good. Maybe that’s volunteering for your local LGBT support group. Maybe that’s making the tea for the migrant solidarity meeting. Maybe that’s helping redecorate the benefit advice drop-in centre. This kind of everyday maintenance is vital political work and tends to feel psychologically better than tweeting or even marching.

I don’t want to criticise this message in its context. It is designed to help those who work very hard for social justice, who may in the long term be at risk of burning out. I think self care is extremely important. I write this giving full support to the sentiment expressed by the author.

It is definitely true, not just intuitively, that giving to worthwhile causes (I mean giving time, not just money) is a path to happiness. The New Economics Foundation (and Mind the mental health charity) concluded this to be the case. It is therefore extremely important for everyone’s well-being that we contribute to something we care about regularly.

By my understanding, Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ plan was the transfer of social initiatives from state-run or other large professional organisations into the hands of local communities. It takes the responsibility of looking after those in need from the (inefficient? overbearing?) state and into the hands of individuals. Like all market-driven economics – so the story goes – this will lead to an efficient and better service. Notwithstanding that such services must have care rather than profit as their principal drive, which makes you wonder whether they can be run just like businesses, this seems to be a simple solution to the problem of a care sector that is perhaps not as well-run as it should be.

However, the message above has allowed my reservation about this idea in our society come to light. I want to argue that this notion that everyone should give their time to services like this can only be a temporary solution.

Cameron basically wanted us to do what the state was previously doing, but for free. It is totally right that we give to causes we care about for our own happiness. But the fact is that, in our society in which working a 40+ work week is the idealised employment situation, you are forced to be either time or money poor. In our lives, our avenues for giving to just causes is quite slim. It is a situation in which no one has the resources to make effective change in our society.

Moreover, people who require these services need and deserve reliable, professional organisations; organisations that are sustainable and not reliant on voluntary, temporary labour. We cannot expect that, for instance, LGBT people have support only if enough people have the free time to contribute. It is not sustainable for people to want to work aiding a charity until they have ‘enough experience’ to get a ‘better job’ (no shade on those people – it’s just how things work at the moment!). Our future needs a better solution.

What about the rest of us, who want careers outside of the non-profit sector, but also want to be able to give to fulfilling social projects? Perhaps we need to end this idea that companies based on profit alone is at all sustainable – perhaps your 9-5 job needs to be just as compassionate and fulfilling as a charity working on acute social problems? I can’t help but feel that our society will continue to be unhappy, until we make work fulfilling, where every moment of work is “building a better world.”

We must not stop giving support to people who need it on the grounds that our society should be better than it is. But equally, we must recognise it is not the role of anyone who happens to have free time to give that support on a casual basis.

What might ‘progressive nationalism’ look like?

Lots of writing I have seen recently – good, evidence based writing, analysing why the left is failing* – has come to the conclusion that the left needs ‘nationalism’ to survive. This will set off alarm bells for anyone who knows about Britain’s legacy of imperialism, and the harm nationalist ideas have caused to innocent people for centuries. I ask what a progressive nationalism might look like.

My dad told me that if a group of children were misbehaving in the street when he was young, they would be told off together. The notion that ‘it was him’ who actually broke the window, destroyed the flower bed, should prevent the other children from blame was not common sense. Now, it is perfectly acceptable to punish the one child who did the wrongdoing. The way we understand responsibility has focused in on individuals rather than collectives. This, I believe, traces a general cultural evolution that has been happening for centuries. Historians and philosophers have acknowledged the way our society has become individualistic.

It is not good to romanticise the past. Simply because we have lost something doesn’t mean we should give up what we have to go back. But it is fair to say that the movement for social democracy following the second world war, based on reducing social inequality, was a noble effort to counter this spread of individualism. We have lost much of the spirit that drove this change in the last thirty years.

We call it Neoliberalism. I think its success can be explained rather simply – it is a divide and conquer strategy. Both the horrific success of Imperialism, and the rise of protective Trade Unions, were formed on the insight that together we are stronger together than we are apart. Neoliberalism concluded that if we can be divided, then we can be controlled. The people who govern can only get away with abuse if we are prevented from uniting against it. Globalisation, democratic constraints and the welfare state are powerful tools to enable social equality; to stop these tools being used to disassemble the faults in our politics, we had to be persuaded that we were all in it for ourselves. They succeeded in this. Now we do not think it is our business that our fellow citizens live in poverty.

How did this come about? There was perhaps one lesson that social democracy failed to learn – the influence of nationalism and identity in politics. Everyone wants to belong to something and feel validated by it. Everyone wants a home. The home offered by social democracy was either too abstract to be real, or the same kind of nationalism that fueled two world wars before it. This void could be exploited – neoliberalism’s primacy of the individual has permitted everyone to care only for themselves. It was thus founded on two lies: that the individual can have the goods of social democracy without giving to the oversized state, and that anything bad that happened as a result of this was the fault of outsiders who tried to exploit the system. The faults of neoliberalism became the faults of those who failed to partake in this old, stale idea of nationalism.

Nationalism can be regressive. Regressive nationalism is about us and them; we define the people that are in, exclude those that are out, and look after ourselves at the expense of anyone who doesn’t fit this criteria. Exclusionary nationalism rejects immigration and appeals to fantastical, non-existent, ‘natural’ ways of defining ourselves. It is a driving force of violence and prejudice.

Since this form of nationalism has no regard for truth, it can happily distort history, art and science. For instance, nationalism has been the cause of most, if not all, the conflicts that have taken place in the last 100 years. I will refuse to allow Michael Gove to rewrite history, and assert that the first world war took place for reasons other than arrogant imperialist powers wanting to test their newly built weapons. Some have began to call our society a ‘post-factual democracy’. Benjamin Studebaker wrote that the acceptance of narratives regarding Labour’s blame for the financial crash, or the need for austerity, is “surreal Orwellian nonsense,” because it has no basis in fact. We understand now that the Vote Leave campaign won because it used ‘Trump’ tactics; it’s okay to lie about the facts and the details, so long as the heart of the electorate is won.

Our society cannot progress forward if we do not take notice of how reality actually is. People are afraid of what truth might to do their careers, their homes and their communities. This is called bad faith; willful ignorance. This country’s politics is in tatters, and the time to end our culture of bad faith is now.

What would progressive nationalism look like? Luckily, there is a contrary to bad faith – good faith. Good faith means attention to the evidence, the acceptance that we might be wrong. Wanting to listen to others because of the genuine insights they might have. Knowing that, at heart, we truly are all in this together, and working together is the only way forward. That it is only dog-eat-dog if we let it be that way. Consider the “Good Country Index” – everyone wants to be part of a country they are proud of. We can be proud of our country because, in truth, it is doing wonderful things, as well as accepting that we are ashamed of our past. Being ashamed of your past is the only way to know that you have learned and moved on from it. So long as we continue to take false pride in our past, we will fail to learn what we did wrong. Progressive nationalism will look to the future; it will say there is no reason for us to be proud of the place we were born – it was arbitrary – let’s do something to make it something to be proud of.


* I’ve lost the original article that started this line of thinking. Here is one that I think is rather similar: http://labourlist.org/2016/02/labour-needs-to-forge-a-progressive-patriotism-to-win-in-england/ 

Thoughts on the referendum

  1. I am upset about the result of the referendum. I don’t blame those who voted leave in general for the chaos that may ensue. Although some people voted for a regressive and exclusionary future, others thought it their best chance to make a positive change.
  2. The Conservative party have lied in the face of the public on numerous occasions; misleading them about the results of Brexit is unforgivable. That Johnson and Gove clearly did not expect to win – that they just wanted to shock the system to boost their own careers – is also unforgivable.
  3. The Conservatives only support something if the social elite want it to happen. I can understand the elite case for remain; the EU is good for business, it being a neoliberal institution. But why leave? Some have suggested leaving would enable the UK to become a great tax haven. This cannot be allowed to happen.
  4. I understand Rupert Murdoch said he would support Vote Leave, because he finds it much harder to control the EU than the UK government with his press empire. The broken press in this country deserves the blame. Thatcher, who allowed Murdoch to break monopoly laws, deserves the blame. Even now they rally support for Brexit and fuel Labour’s divisions.
  5. David Cameron will be remembered as good with style, but not so much with substance. He did get some notable improvements but I don’t know if I am sad to see him go. His government experimented with the economy after the crash and destroyed the livelihoods of thousands of people. Now his arrogance, for the sake of healing divisions with his own party, has divided us.
  6. It is wrong to blame Labour. We have seen that at least two thirds of Labour voters voted to remain. There are also some strong progressive arguments for leaving the EU. I fear this is merely an excuse to through Corbyn under the bus and they must be resisted.
  7. My biggest worry is the rise of racial and ethnic tension. A vote for leaving is not a racist thing to do, but now those who have racist views have felt themselves validated by the public. They are out on the streets with renewed confidence. People feel divided, unwelcome and unsafe.
  8. All I can hope for is that the lies of neoliberalism are exposed. Our system, which feeds us endless individualism, is not sustainable. Maybe the Conservatives will fail to deliver the secession from the EU the public now expects; perhaps Labour can ride this anger to victory.

     

  9. I am starting to think that proportional representation is the only thing that will stop the Tories from having disproportionate power in our politics.

On the universal income

This article has got me thinking about universal (or basic) income again.

The idea seems quite simple: everyone gets money from the state to live off. It seems wonderful for many reasons: elimination of poverty overnight, and the end of worker exploitation seeming to be the obvious ones.

The article makes two claims:

  1. By providing an income that many will be dependent upon, the state will have unprecedented control over our spending habits. This is likely, given the increasing tend to authoritarianism by governments across the globe.
  2. The ‘wage floor’ – the natural minimum wage that companies charge for a band (unskilled, skilled…) of labour – will decrease because companies will no longer have to pay for the subsistence of their workers. Thus profits will increase, essentially meaning that the people who make the most of the income are the shareholders of companies that no longer have to pay their staff.

In general, this obviously liberal writer seems to think that any increase in state power is to be avoided at all costs, with the two assertions above taken as obvious fact, refuting the need for the universal income. They may not be refutations, but they seem to be interesting arguments.

The first claim, I think, is a good one. The universal income ought to be unconditional, otherwise it is not truly universal. If we start making caveats as to who can get what money and when, then what the state will effectively be doing is a) very similar to what most welfare states have already, giving only to the ‘deserving poor’ (a charming and foolish 16th-Century idea) and b) will require the kind of increased state machinery the income is meant to avoid. Quite rightly, the idea that the government can directly force our spending habits, in an age where the government is increasingly lobbied by corporate interests (and the ghost of corporate legal courts is on the horizon) is frightening and should be avoided. But this isn’t a criticism of basic income, I think, as much as what the basic income could be if we let authoritarians get away with it.

The second is not so good. It would be nice if the author had referenced the economics he cites for verification. It does seem plausible that the wage floor may fall in response. This is not bad in itself, so long as the profits that companies make are taxed properly – easier said than done, of course! But there is an alternative economic argument, a more Marxist one. The ability to choose work gives greater economic freedom to someone who is unemployed. It is conceivable that the wage floor will rise because people will choose not to work for roles that they think do not pay them properly. A comfortable freelancer, who knows her worth, will happily refuse work that does not pay her what she deserves. It is for economists to decide which of these perspectives (if not something else) will play out in reality.

Before going any further, since I’ve already dug up Marx, Slavoj Žižek is on YouTube talking about basic income here. There are a number of perfectly good arguments against universal income that come from the left hand side of the political spectrum.

The first is a familiar one, and harks to the second point above. Not only would such an income prop up companies, but the entire broken, capitalist economic system we have in place. It would sort of be akin to paying people to remain capitalists; a delay on the inevitable collapse of an exploitative system. Žižek thinks the income would amount to rent: rent to participate in society. This has the inevitable consequence of ensuring that a minority of people continue to profit at the expense of many others. Relatedly, it is also absurdly nationalist: giving everyone in Britain money to spend on food and clothes does not make the sweatshops across the globe disappear. The capitalist system still depends for its profitability on the exploitation of many people that will never see the benefit of an apparently generous and intelligent redistribution of income. If the universal income ends up perpetuating such a system, can it really be said to be humanitarian?

I am also worried about inflation: the amount of money given to people has to be carefully moderated to ensure that prices do not spiral out of control, like in the 70’s, when there probably was simply too much welfare relative to what we produced. If everyone has a basic income, the price of bread might shoot up to match the increased purchasing power. Even if it does not, we cannot be assured until we’ve tried it out, as economists are often terrible at making predictions.

The last worry I have is regarding participation in the economic system, and by what we understand as work. It would seem that we are not ready to embrace universal income: it is unlikely that many will be able to make the most of the opportunity it confers. People who find themselves on the right hand side of the political spectrum may worry that people will use the opportunity of universal income to take advantage of everyone else. This is bad not only because they will fail to contribute to the economy and pay their way, but also we may worry what economic and social isolation may do to the slackers’ mental health. It is not adequate to deny that such people will take advantage of the system, because they will, no matter how small their number may be. What is needed is a cultural change. Work is currently seen as something that must be done in order to pay for food and housing, with leisure time a bonus. Work ought to instead be seen as something interesting, an opportunity to make something good for the benefit of yourself and others around you. Worker exploitation forces people into jobs they hate to their own detriment, which is not only morally abhorrent, but also terribly unproductive (if we assume that people will be better at doing what they love). We already see fragments of this way of thinking in the ‘Millennial’ attitude to work. As a society, if we can understand the real economic and social value of art and other jobs, which could entice the ‘slackers’ who do not enjoy the rat race into the city, then we can go some way to solving this problem. There is a stigma around certain kinds of work as a waste of time, a hierarchy of jobs that confers status to lawyers, bankers and doctors. There are plenty of other worthwhile contributions to be made.

Some concluding remarks then. For every economic argument against the universal income, there’s an equally plausible one for it: I believe we simply don’t have enough experience with such a system to make any conclusive judgements about it. In addition to this, there are a couple of looming concerns. We have to ask whether adopting such a policy is the humanitarian thing to do, if many around the world will continue to suffer by the system it props up. We have to ask whether our society is ready for such a policy, if our understanding of what makes work worthwhile is so limited, and getting as much for as little work as possible is so esteemed. The universal income is a beautifully simple idea but we need to know a little more before marching onward.

Shower thoughts

So we have a Tory government.

I am of the opinion that austerity is not and never was a good solution for the economy. It is an economic truism that investment in a recession yields better results. It would be better if the government listened to specialists and think tanks on issues such as economics, education and reform instead of insisting that ideologically driven changes are the best thing for the country.

People will die under this premiership.

Form and content are not separate. No matter how indignant progressive politicians and people are that they have the right message, if it is exclusionary and elitist, it is wrong.

‘Blu-kip’ could not have happened. At heart, the Tories are the establishment, and UKIP is an anti-establishment party. I think UKIP has more in common with the traditional values of the Labour party. Both have traditions representing the ‘average, working class British voter’ who has been mistreated by the state. Labour has failed to engage with this field of voters in an effective way, appearing aloof and elitist; an over-educated and classist party. UKIP, however, fail to understand that the problems faced by this group of people are not best solved by reducing immigration of even leaving the EU, both of which would have disastrous economic effects, and of course inhumane consequences for many people both inside and outside our borders.

UKIP came second in many Tory-won constituencies. The greens didn’t split the Labour vote – UKIP did. This doesn’t mean that UKIP are evil and responsible for the current state of affairs. It means that UKIP voters are disillusioned – quite rightly – because Labour doesn’t listen. But it also means that UKIP voters are themselves not educated enough; perhaps following the media, they blame outsiders. UKIP was able to unite many under the flag of populism, reigniting faith in anti-establishment politics, uniting the focus of blame on outsiders instead of ourselves. All of us want politics to change. We need to listen to each other if we want to kick the Tories out.

Some conclusions:

  • Labour lost because they failed to debunk right wing narratives.
  • People do not want to take a risk on labour.
  • Labour will not fix the economy so long as they subscribe to austerity.
  • People also vote for their MPs, regardless of party

Nihilism is Meaningless

Someone said that life is meaningless.

They heard Nietzsche say that God was dead; that humankind creates values. If we create without criteria, values must be arbitrary. Life cannot have its intrinsic meaning. Life cannot be worthwhile.

They heard Nietzsche ask them to be the Übermensch. They read that they must create values and seize life by the throat. They were to embrace the post-modern condition as it pressed against their throat. Nietzsche told them to stipulate greatness and then act it. To act great is then to be great, and there is no greatness beyond this acting.

They heard Sartre ask them to be authentic. He said we bear the world on our shoulders. That even if the world does not recur again and again, we are ultimately responsible for everything we do. He learned the hard way that humankind is nothing but what it is about to do. Sink or swim.

Thank God we do not see life from God’s eyes. If we did, we would surely be miserable. We would see its meaninglessness, formlessness, colourlessness. The infinity of variety, such that there is no variety. The infinity of choice, such that there is no choice. If God would truthfully tell us what the truth is, it would be hard on our ears.

They decided that God is truly dead. They accepted that they were to be God instead. As a human construction, the significance of his existence vanishes the moment we are free to consider ourselves as him. They decided that life was meaningless. The omnipotent presence looks at the Universe as the most intricately fashioned, ultimately futile project: a hard-hitting pinball machine of cause-and-effect, which doesn’t even waft a breeze in God’s direction.

But we cannot see life from God’s eyes. No matter how hard we try, we cannot ask God to tell us how it really is, if it really is, who I really am. We are stuck with our values. Merleau-Ponty told us that landscapes on canvas are dry and dead because they are painted from a point that cannot be seen by human eyes; they are how God sees it. Humankind sees shapes, colours, forms, flashes, fears and uses. We see the world like Picasso; a chopped series of cubes and colours. When we look at it we see the meanings we learned from textbooks, the meanings we made on the spot.

Imagine the pinball machine itself is craterous, fertile, volatile and full of mirrors. The pinball machine is free to observe itself in various carnival sizes; its introspection is endless and unceasing. The moment, we, as people (the balls in this pinball machine) begin to imagine the machine in isolation, each ball forcibly amputated, leaving it desperately alone and non-functioning, we take up God’s role: we see its tragic posture, its cause-and-effect not propagating beyond a millimetre. It is just as much a valid existence without us to drive it into action. Once this realisation occurs, we have transcended ourselves; we have severed our limbs from the meanings from which we once considered ourselves inseparable. This compelling numbness kills God without us doing anything, and forcibly enters us into his psyche, sad and cold, unable to play this arcade game, no longer working, because we are up here, looking down at the ghosts of ourselves.

Our someone is condemned. Condemned to be ignorant of the true meaning of life, of God’s truth. Condemned to see colours, meaning, and form. Condemned to be happy, condemned to be sad. Condemned to attempt to apprehend the life as meaningless, if they choose meaninglessness. Condemned to be unable to realise that life is meaningless beyond pretending to be God.

  • SKB & DFH