A Contribution to the Alter Summit Athens June 2013

Alter Summit: Athens, June 2013


A Contribution on Thinking about Welfare



There is an urgency to our discussions and actions that is growing by the day. It is an urgency driven by 2 principal factors:


1) Globally, we are in the midst of a vicious and brutal class war. Those in power are exercising the vile maxim of the masters, as Adam Smith called it, in ways we have not witnessed – at least in Western Europe – since the 1930s. This vile maxim is simple. All for us and nothing for the majority. Their arrogance, their disregard for the people are mere examples of their confidence. They are clearly content to advertise their wealth and obscenely wasteful life styles despite deepening levels of poverty and suffering. Last weekend the Guardian newspaper reported the purchase of a third of a bottle of champagne costing £300,000.


Key elements of this class war will be well known at this summit, and include smashing trade unions and the eradication of the welfare state. It is being accompanied by an extraordinarily intense, and hate filled ideology that seeks to divide, isolate and demonise those who suffer most. And, behind this, we see nation state after nation state tooling up its forces of violence and repression. Just look at what has happened to the police over the past 3 decades; just look at the readiness of governments to use chemical weapons and water cannon, tasers and rubber bullets against their own people. Look at the terror the state is prepared to deploy; look at the levels of surveillance; look at the growth in prisons and detention centres; look at the smashing of civil, legal and social rights, all of which are taking place in the so-called democratic and liberal societies of advanced capitalism. I am sure all of you here can add to this list.


2) The earth is being destroyed as a place fit for humans. John Bellamy Foster estimates that if action is not taken within the next 2 decades to stop this violence and rape of the earth then we will be in new unchartered territory. And we already know and can see today, that the first casualties are the poorest and most vulnerable. It is their homes and lives which are swept away first by so- called 'natural' disasters. The scale of this threat cannot be met by recycling! Neither can we expect some emergent technological fix to come to our aid. As Foster noted, the only way forward is the eradication of capitalism and its replacement by socialism.


Quite simply, humanity is being violated .


How are we going to respond? How are we going to act?


I don't know! But on some points I am clear. We can start by clearing our heads of rubbish and start to look at the world from the standpoint of some of the most vulnerable, impoverished and marginalised.


Let us look at state welfare for example, which I have been asked to do today.


Much of what now follows is based on my lifelong engagement with British welfare policy.


On the basis of that experience it is abundantly clear that we have to abandon slogans such as 'defend the welfare state'.


It is a slogan that has always been unsatisfactory for whatever gains this so called welfare state brought to countless people the costs have always outweighed the benefits. This is true from the beginnings of state intervention in welfare to the present day.


Moreover, it is a truth that has long been recognised by the poorest and most vulnerable in society. As Sofiane Ait Chalalet and I have been stressing in our recent work with refugees in central Athens the Left and progressive forces have all too rarely looked at the world from the perspective of the most marginalised.


What do we learn when we stand in their shoes?


In the case of Britain we can see that state welfare has never ever been seen as unconditionally positive and indeed much of it is hated.


The voices of the poorest are rarely heard, listened to or published. But in one of the rare books written from this perspective at the beginning of the 20th century we get a clear glimpse of their problem with welfare from above:


 'For many generations an innumerable multitude of charitable people have been deeply concerned in helping the poor: they have attacked the problems relating to them from the religious, the moral, the sentimental, the intellectual, the "practical" standpoints. All alike have failed almost completely either in reducing the number of the abjectly wretched, or of effecting any lasting improvement in their condition. And why? Chiefly, I believe, because they have one and all despised the home life of the poor, held it cheaply, as a thing of no moment.'(p.319)

Their book, Seems So is full of their complaints that state welfare is rooted in such a hatred of the poorest.  Why, they ask can't help us without also insulting and harassing us, we should like to know” (p.301).

Insulting and harrassing the poorest has long been a staple characteristic of British state welfare. Take state social work for example which proclaims itself as  a liberal and caring occupation. Go to any impoverished and now abandoned working class community in  Britain and you will soon discover that state social work is hated and to be avoided at all costs. Why, because it is experienced as insulting and harassing and full of class and racist prejudice. It is deeply judgemental .It threatens and damages. It takes your kids away. Anything it gives is supervised and controlled. If you want a deeper sense of what I am talking about just look at Ken Loach's movie, Ladybird Ladybird.

 And it is not just social work. State schooling, social security, health provision, social housing for the poorest are all to some degree infected by the same thinking and practices. For many state provision means quite literally torture and abuse as revealed  by working class poor children, older people and those with learning difficulties or mental health problems who have been removed into the care (sic) of the state. On the issue exposure  it is worth noting that it has not been  the myriad of welfare professionals who exposed these cruelties but the victims  themselves who in turn have been systematically ignored and often abused for speaking out. Quite simply, they are destructive of well-being.
State welfare has also been exceptionally divisive. Under the control of the state it has deliberately divided  the poor into moral and behavioural categories. The underpinning causes of their poverty and powerlessness -capitalism- is never acknowledged.

It is not hard to understand then why 'Defend the Welfare State' is a useless and meaningless slogan. It is not their welfare state. It never has been and under capitalism never will be.

But there is also another insidious dimension to state welfare policies and practices which concerns the manner in which they damaged and eradicated  deeply progressive and beneficial working class welfare institutions. The clearest example of this is in state schooling, the development of which in Britain had much to do with smashing  working-class developed schools which flourished at the end of the 19th century. Even the much heralded National Health Service by handing control to the doctors destroyed wonderful working class health initiatives such as the Peckham Health project in London. This successful and effective working class project which included building the first Olympic sized public swimming pool in London was rooted in a holistic conception of health and not a narrow notion of sickness as epitomised by the NHS and the state sponsored medical professions. The introduction of state pensions and unemployment insurance smashed the working class Friendly and Mutual Aid societies that had over 6 million members at the beginning of the 20th century. All of these initiatives, were under the control of the working-class and their practices were nothing like what came to replace them.

Of course, much of this was implemented by the state on the grounds that 'plain men and women' were too ignorant to be  entrusted with this work which needed to be done now by the appropriate state certificated professionals, whether doctors, teachers, social workers and so forth. This politics of expertise  has been a disaster as far the working-class poor are concerned and the losses far outweigh any gains.

Because of this experience many working class communities and neighbourhoods continued to self organise in order to meet their fundamental needs and to survive. It was from these areas that we saw countless initiatives emerge including supplementary schools for black kids who were routinely abused in state schools, safe houses for abused women and children, housing and food co-operatives, credit unions, tenants and resident associations, community festivals, community based legal services, refugee support and so forth. Much of this huge effort, much of the history of popular class based welfare is woefully ignored, almost as if it doesn't exist and never existed.

But too often and for reasons I don't have the time to explore here, the left and progressive forces have also tended to ignore them. They are not on our radar with the result that our discussions and strategies are all too often enfeebled and ill informed.

A small example to finish with. When we develop initiatives like non commodity exchange schemes we talk with delight at such positive developments. Yet non commodity exchange relationships have long been at the core of the survival of the most disadvantaged and marginalised. This needs to change. Many of these communities have a profound understanding of the violence of capitalism. They have come to this understanding from their lives and their experiences on the street and not from reading or studying. Moreover, they have been compelled by their circumstances to develop forms and practices which turn state welfare on its head and are profoundly respectful, non judgemental and effective.
Hopefully, in the discussion to follow we will have a chance to discuss the implications that flow from this analysis.



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