Tuesday 23 November 2010

Building a New Society

At the weekend I met a friend for dinner. She's quite a bit more politically active than I am, not to mention being a trained economist. We are both very concerned about the human cost of the cuts brought in by the current, Tory-led government. But she is concerned, rightly, that my response -- that we must all participate in caring for one another and reduce reliance on state provision -- is unhelpful.

Her objections, as I understand them, are good ones:

1) A simple "I will work harder" approach, where charitable people and organisations take on additional burdens while banks re-instate bonuses, does not address the root of the problem.

2) The state has access to economies of scale which are unavailable to us everyday folk.

3) Relatedly, the state is in a position to be fairer in resource allocation than private companies or charities can.

I can understand the worry that volunteerism is exactly the position the current government is manipulating us into. It's hard not to have a sense of growing dismay as we are asked, again and again, to make more and more bricks as the daily supply of straw is reduced. But my response here is not an endorsement of the cuts, but rather a pragmatic reaction to the way things are. If I don't take action to help the least fortunate, I am colluding in a system that allows people to fall through the cracks. My volunteering at a homeless shelter isn't going to change government policy, but writing to my MP and campaigning in the street are not going to give anyone a safe place to sleep.

The economies of scale available to the government are a strength and I don't propose that we can find an alternative overnight. Specialist care is needed and it is difficult to see how small, locally-run initiatives could hope to meet that need. I know some basic first aid but that doesn't qualify me to treat cancer patients! I don't suggest that state access to specialist care can or should be abolished, especially not in the short term.

However, I also think that some of the economics of scale previously only widely available to the state or to large corporations are, in fact, becoming less clearly limited. Our opportunity to communicate with one another is more extensive than it has ever been. I believe there is huge potential for economies of scale to emerge, and things like Wikipedia are only scratching the surface of what is possible. It's important to note, too, that this is not just about online interaction, not just about kids who haven't left home sitting editing the article on photosynthesis or bloggers prattling away to a nonexistent audience: the notion of a sharp divide between "online" and "real life" is a false dichotomy in any case. We're starting to see this with the likes of Kickstarter and FundBreak which use online crowdsourcing to fund projects which may well be offline. There's a lot of noise at times, but the level of connectivity is incredible and if we can find a way to coordinate our efforts, the government no longer has a monopoly on economies of scale.

Another advantage of state-run rather than crowd-driven care is that it can be administered fairly. If you tick the boxes, you get the benefit -- regardless of your accent, gender, skin colour, sexual orientation, religion or intelligence. At least, that's how it works in theory. In practice, box-ticking systems are systems where people will jump through hoops and it is pretty much impossible to make a selection system complex enough to be completely fair. It becomes paradoxical, because the more complex the system is the higher the barriers to access. If you don't believe this, ask anyone who's had to fill out student loan forms!

I'm willing to accept a certain amount of "waste" from people gaming the benefits system, but another serious problem with state care is that delegating caring for one another to the state -- reducing our obligations to paying tax, voting if we feel like getting involved, and maybe writing to an MP on issues we really care about -- means we can exist in a little bubble of our peers, telling ourselves that the homeless person begging by the Tube station isn't our problem because there is state care available. Far from reducing localism and NIMBYism, I propose that delegating our societal responsibilities onto the state actually fosters the sort of isolated attitude that renders people unwilling to bear the collective costs of supporting one another. Letting someone else deal with the nitty-gritty allows us to reduce our awareness of the interdependence of people and to fool ourselves into thinking that this is actually a pure meritocracy (it isn't) and that we have our privileges because we've worked for them and not because we've been incredibly fortunate. It's never that simple, but we're upstanding citizens who pay our taxes and vote, and so we walk past the woman who is sleeping rough rather than go back to her abusive boyfriend and we congratulate ourselves on having done so well. Next thing you know, you've got the tabloid rags blaming benefits recipients (or asylum seekers, or some other disadvantaged group that receives some pittance of state support) for economic recession and people actually believe it. Sound familiar? It's where we already are. The government we have now is not an enemy of our society: it is a product of our society. We, collectively, have created this monstrosity.

It's up to us to build a new society. That doesn't mean just getting the current government to take proper responsibility for the care of the citizens who elected them (or voted for someone else).

A new society would be one where the government cannot be held hostage by the banks.

A new society would be one where the state works with people, not against them, for the good of all.

A new society would be one where we use financial resources to reduce human costs, not human resources to reduce financial ones.

A new society would be one where we contribute to economies of scale.

A new society would be one where protest works a lot better than it does now.

A new society would be one where we ask, "How can I help you?" rather than "How can I benefit from you?", and where we are not afraid or ashamed to ask for help ourselves when we need it.

I don't have all the answers about how to create such a society. But I think it goes much further than public protest and much further than reversing the cuts. It involves all of us thinking about how we live, how our actions affect others, and whether it is actually okay to walk on by while someone else suffers. Then it involves us choosing to live in ways that value human life.

It's up to us.


Charles Edward Fluffington Penguin said...

This is a brilliant post. I've been concerned about exactly the same issues as you have.

However, there's one that I think you haven't addressed, at least not directly: information. In order to help someone who needs it, it's necessary to know who and where they are and what kind of help they need. Public bodies have much more power to get that sort of information than individuals do. If I see a homeless person on the street, I can offer to buy them a meal, but I don't see the person who is 92 and confined to the fifteenth floor of a block of flats because they are recovering from a hip replacement. If I knew about the pensioner in the flat, I could help them with everyday tasks such as shopping, but I won't know even if I walk straight past the flats, because I won't see them.

No matter how willing we are to help, we'll help the people we see and know about, and that means the other people will get left out. That's something that urgently needs to be addressed.

UKViewer said...

OK, I am going to put away my Anorak and Balaclava and stop thinking of taking to the streets.

But there are some really helpful ideas here, which would be workable in an ideal world - my question is how do we change the culture of selfishness and self interest, which appears to define our society these days.

I am working within my Parish and can see it making a difference, which it was doing before the government sought to localise things. We have to work in partnership with other agencies to resolve problems, and fighting for funds is an ongoing issue for us, in common with all voluntary sector organisations. Times are hard and money is in short supply.

Grant applications need to not only state the need and how the funds requested would be used - but how sustainable is it - even more, how we will fund it, when a grant runs out. Ticking boxes and jumping through hoops is built into the process. Charity law is the culprit. You must be able to demonstrate public benefit before any money will be granted.

But demonstrably, such partnerships between the voluntary sector (including Churches) and the public sector can work, but need to be driven by individuals with vision, intuition and determination and a practical ability to get things done. Customer and media relations, use of technology are essential parts of the toolkit.

How many individuals are available, who are prepared to do this sort of stuff? Not many, most appear to be in business or commerce, cementing their future as part of the system.

I tend to agree that the State should provide the safety net, but each of us needs to take responsibility for ourselves and our community. We need to establish and widen relationships in our community, to know or recognise the more vulnerable and needy and to support them, without compromising their ability to help themselves.

I do believe that the Church has a vital part to play - its presence in every community is a good baseline - and a great deal of knowledge and experience is held within each parish, which could be utilised, in partnership with both the voluntary and public sector to provide a level of effective support, without all the box ticking or satisfying complex criteria needed to access services at the moment.

I would love to live in the new society - but wonder if I ever will.

Kathryn Rose said...

Tenor Mongoose,

Thanks for your comment.

Information is a tricky one, because what we have is not one community for one local area but lots of overlapping ones.

I think part of good citizenship must include a conscious effort to get to know people who are different than us -- not just our workmates, immediate family and social peers -- and to support them, not only our nearest and dearest, when support is needed. I think religious communities do this reasonably well in some circumstances but they're far from perfect and, of course, there are inherent problems with religious communities being the gatekeepers of care, too.

The state can only help people it "knows" about. Ever tried to get medical treatment in this country without an NHS number? I have, and only ended up with access to care because I turned up with a passport and a friend who did have an NHS number and the nurse on duty was willing and able to circumvent the paperwork. That was in 1999 and I don't know how possible it would be now; certainly in an emergency I have the sense that one would still be treated first and the details sorted out later, but I have no idea what happens with smaller stuff. The care that I received in 1999 was a urine test and a simple prescription, not an emergency, though if left untreated it could well have escalated to an emergency.

I don't know, but I imagine that it can be rather difficult to get access to basic care without things like proof of address and identity. The state doesn't "see" everyone either.

Going back to community responsibility, there have always been hermits and recluses, people who won't ask for help even if it is there, or people who just want to be left alone. I don't know how we solve this, but I don't think the state solves it.

I think it's about maintaining connections; when we are born we are dependent on family and so we end up with a set of connections, and as we grow we interact with others and forge our own. If we move to a new city (I've done this lots of times!) we drop some connections, it takes time to make new connections and, during the time before that, we can be very vulnerable. If, while we're still new to the area, our home burns to the ground and all our documents are lost, perhaps during a period of patchy mental health when sorting out the details is too difficult, rebuilding connections can be even harder. Again, technology we have now should make this easier rather than harder, if only we can stop ourselves from existing in enclaves of "our sort of people".

Kathryn Rose said...


my question is how do we change the culture of selfishness and self interest, which appears to define our society these days.

My own experience has been one of learning by the example of others. People I admire are interested in others and continually seeking to help rather than to gain; I spend time with them and find myself caught up in the same mindset. Compassion is contagious. I still have much to learn, of course.

It does help, of course, to have been on the receiving end of unconditional love myself, and I think that most of us need to accept that we are loved before we are able to turn and offer unconditional love despite all our fears and insecurities. That's what is required if this is to go beyond a shallow sort of "just be nice to people and everything will be fine", an empty politeness in which we pride ourselves on having given to charity and then make consumer purchases that contribute to untold harm. Loving the world unconditionally has to mean being able to examine our own actions and find them at fault, and doing that without the knowledge of unconditional love can be extremely painful.

For me, that sense of love is inextricably bound up in theism and, of late, in Christianity. But I don't think it has to be that way for everyone; I concentrate on doing what I can, and let other people sort out their own interpretations.

It's interesting to read about your experience of charity law bureaucracy in your parish; I'm not hugely involved with the paperwork end of things in my own parish but I understand that it is a considerable burden, especially as we have no dedicated secretarial support. I agree with you about the need to establish and widen our relationships in the community!