Nothing great about the welfare state

In The Welfare of Nations, the decade-later follow-up to his The Welfare State We’re In, James Bartholomew – former leader writer for the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail – takes us on a tour of the world’s welfare states.

It’s fair to say he isn’t a fan. He argues that the welfare state undermines old values and ‘crowds out’ both our inner resourcefulness and our sense of duty to one another – including our own families. Instead of aspiring to be self-reliant, the welfare state makes us self-absorbed. People aren’t encouraged to exercise responsibility anymore; instead, they are handed a plethora of ‘rights’. Welfare states ‘have diminished our civilisation’, Bartholomew concludes.

The welfare state has always been a problematic entity, from its modern beginnings in the nineteenth century with Bismarck’s cynical ‘state socialism’– built as much to placate the increasingly politically active masses as to attend to their welfare – to the vast systems maintaining millions of economically inactive citizens across the world today. The welfare state, as its advocates contend, always promises a better society, with higher levels of equality, but, as Bartholomew counters, it also tends to foster unemployment, ‘broken families’ and social isolation.

Some versions of the welfare state are better than others. Wealthy Switzerland has a low unemployment rate despite generous social insurance-based benefits. But, at the same time, the Swiss state imposes tough conditions: there’s no minimum wage and workers can be fired on the spot. Sweden’s benefit system is generous, too, but if you can’t afford the rent on a property, you have to move out.

In the UK, matters are equally complex. For instance, shared-ownership schemes, ‘affordable housing’ and planning regulations contribute to distinctly unaffordable house prices. Indeed, housing costs have risen from 10 per cent of average UK household income in 1947 to over 25 per cent. For the poorest sections of society, it is worse still. This is despite the fact that the state subsidises dysfunctional, workless households on bleak public housing estates.

And what of state education? Nearly one-in-five children in OECD countries is functionally illiterate. The best performing advanced countries have autonomous schools, ‘high stakes’ exams, quality teachers and a culture of discipline and hard work. Compare that to the US, where you can’t get rid of bad unionised teachers in the state schools.

Bartholomew convincingly argues that state schools’ ‘shameful’ inadequacy, for all the rhetoric to the contrary, breeds inequality. He fears that the success of the free- and charter-school movement is at risk, too, from ‘creeping government control’. Bartholomew is upfront about his own old-fashioned conservative views. He’s a kind of evidence-based Peter Hitchens, using ‘bundles of academic studies’ to show what he suspected of the welfare state all along. The care of ‘strangers’, he argues, is bad for children and aged parents alike, and damages the social fabric. Over half of Swedish children are born to unmarried mothers, whereas the family in Italy, he says approvingly, is ‘the main source of welfare’, with charity-run ‘family houses’ (no flats or benefits) for single mothers. At a time when Conservatives aren’t really very conservative, it takes Bartholomew to ask important questions about social change.

Again, southern Europe offers a useful contrast to the situation in northern Europe. Over half of single people aged 65 or over in Italy, Portugal and Spain live with their children. Just three per cent of single Danes do. Should individual autonomy trump the burden of caring for children and family members? What role should the state play? UK social workers are office-based, writes Bartholomew, and contracted care workers follow ‘rules rather than doing things from an impulse of loving care’.

By 2050 over a third of the European population will be aged over 60. Even though the age at which people are eligible for pensions is increasing, state pensions can’t be sustained, says Bartholomew. In Poland, Greece and Italy, pensions account for more than a quarter of public spending. The UK spends nine per cent of its national income on healthcare, the US an insurance-fuelled 18 per cent, and Singapore just five per cent (though Singapore has to put twice that into ‘personal’ health-savings accounts). ‘Wealth leads to better healthcare’, says Bartholomew, but the monopolistic UK system, despite the NHS’s officially cherished status, is one of the worst of the advanced countries for health outcomes, including, for example, cancer-survival rates. ‘Obamacare’ notwithstanding, millions of uninsured Americans – neither poor enough for Medicaid nor old enough for Medicare – struggle to pay for healthcare.

Democracies, says Bartholomew, are susceptible to the fantasy that welfare states can solve our problems without consequence or cost. This is despite US public spending increasing from seven per cent of GDP in 1900 to 41 per cent of GDP in 2011. In 2012, France revealed that public spending accounted for 57 per cent of its GDP.

But it’s Bartholomew’s critique of the wider welfare culture, rather than his carps at benefits systems, which provides an important corrective to what can be a narrow and mean-spirited discussion. He also offers practical solutions: let’s increase housing supply but abolish public housing; let’s have a system of ‘co-payment’ for healthcare between state and individual; let’s allow schools and hospitals to compete in markets; and let’s give individuals the opportunity to save and insure themselves to pay for social-care needs and pensions (albeit through Singapore-style compulsory bank accounts).

So what do we do with the welfare state? As Bartholomew puts it, the welfare state, rather than capitalism or communism, was ‘the ultimate victor of the turmoil of the twentieth century’. But Bartholomew makes clear that this is a hollow victory with many millions left idle and communities undermined. So yes, let’s cut the welfare state down to size and stop infantilising its dependants. But we also need to get more ambitious than Bartholomew allows. He thinks it’s too late to get our freedoms back and argues for a minimal ‘welfare’ state only. But why stop there? If the architects of the welfare state have anything to teach us, it is to be bolder in our visions.

First published in sp!ked

We can cope without the state

The following is an edited version of a speech given by David Clements as part of ‘Cuts, cuts, cuts: what, where and why?’, a debate at the recent Battle of Ideas festival.

I’m not a big fan of ‘the cuts’. They may be necessary, given the parlous condition of government finances, but they are hardly going to make public services any better. With the possible exception of the police, where a fall in crime has continued despite recent cuts, the services we receive are likely to get worse. Moreover, such cuts won’t solve the economic crisis.

Take local government. In the past few years, local government has been at the forefront of UK public-spending cuts. The funding that councils receive from central government accounts for around a quarter of public spending. Councils have already seen their funding cut by somewhere between just over a quarter and a third, depending on who you ask; and there will be another 10 per cent cut in 2015. The chair of the Local Government Association has described councils as the ‘hardest hit’ organisations in the public sector. Critics say that councils can draw on their reserves, raise council tax and – most controversially – increase various charges, fees and penalties for everything from car parking and speeding to planning applications and licensing.

And yet the arguments against the cuts are so objectionable that I’m almost tempted to wield the axe myself. It’s not simply the fact that some services – like health and education – have been ‘ring-fenced’, though I do think we should be asking searching questions about why the National Health Service should receive special protection. (Rather than insulating this mythically ‘cherished’ service from cuts, it should be exposed to a wide-ranging debate about its current performance and future role.)

No, the biggest problem I have with anti-cuts lobbyists is that they insist that everybody is ‘vulnerable’ and won’t be able to cope if the state isn’t there with a safety net.

So, like the representatives of local government, people with disabilities (once a bolshie bunch that would tie themselves to railings to publicise a political issue), or at least those campaigning in their name, routinely describe themselves as the ‘hardest hit’ by cuts to local services and welfare reform. Women, too, once championed by equally bolshie groups of feminists, have been turned into special victims by today’s campaigners. Indeed, the police and domestic-violence campaigners, not satisfied that a fall in crime in general, and in domestic violence in particular, is a good thing, have joined forces to claim otherwise. So under the headline ‘Police referrals of domestic-violence cases drop 13 per cent’, we learn that this is not at all welcome but is in fact ‘alarming’. Obligingly, the shadow home secretary blames spending cuts for this outrageous failure to find more alleged abusers to haul before the courts.

There is a lengthy queue of groups claiming to be the worst-hit by government cuts. The British Medical Association claims cutbacks are increasing child poverty, making familiarly dubious claims about children’s wellbeing and concluding that if we were ‘failing our most vulnerable children’ before, we certainly are now that we’re cutting welfare and children’s social care.

Another claim is that cuts to school breakfast clubs mean that parents are unable to feed their children before they go to school – which makes you wonder what parents did before breakfast clubs first appeared in the 1990s.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), basically an international club for the world’s developed countries, claims that the cuts will widen inequality. Here, the OECD joins a long line of organisations and commentators taking a swipe at old people, who it claims have largely escaped the hardships so far. In contrast with all the victim-talk for other groups, we are reminded that nearly half the money spent on benefits goes on the state pension, and there is a cross-party consensus that pensioner benefits will be means-tested after the next election.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) budget, accounting for nearly a quarter of all public spending (£166 billion per year is spent on benefits) certainly has a lot to answer for. The DWP is undermining all of the cutting going on in local-government and central-government departmental budgets by doing too little to trim the benefits bill. Housing benefit is the second most costly of all benefits after the state pension – it has risen to £24 billion this year. The government aims to cut this by £500 million per year. There is a benefit up-rating cap of one per cent in place until 2015/16 aimed at saving £3.1 billion in working-age benefits. And the introduction of Universal Credit (to replace many of those working-age benefits) is supposed to save £38 billion by 2023. There are clearly attempts to solve the problem, but they don’t look like being anywhere near enough.

So you might expect that there would already be a battle of ideas happening about the welfare state and how we go about making it affordable, if we choose to keep it at all; but no such debate is taking place. Instead, there is a lot of noise about how ‘vulnerable’ claimants won’t be able to cope with the benefit cap, Universal Credit, the ‘bedroom tax’ and the demands of the Work Programme. There is no discussion of the idea that it might be unfair to expect a life on benefits to be more rewarding (financially at least) than being in work. Or that people shouldn’t be subsidised by the state to live in houses that are too big for them or that they can ill afford. Or that young people not in education, employment or training shouldn’t be living off benefits. Apparently, they too are vulnerable. According to opponents of the Tory proposal to cut benefits to the under-25s – one I happen to agree with – 18- to 24-year-olds in receipt of benefits tend to come from broken families or might be abused if they go back to live with their parents.

Despite the often hysterical claims, these sorts of policies, in my view, are worth supporting. But there are no easy solutions to what is a complex and long-standing problem. The public sector is still far too big, with public spending currently equivalent to 44 per cent of UK economic output. Nevertheless, there are trends which mean that the state will inevitably have to grow further in order to accommodate the increasing care needs of an ageing population. The only cap planned for social care will be on how much individuals have to pay for it before the state steps in. To ease the pressure on housing and housing benefit we need hundreds of thousands, if not millions more homes to replace an inadequate, ageing housing stock. And if we do get back in the business of building things, the anti-free school lobby – while wrong about free schools themselves – are probably right about the need to build more primary schools. With these pressures for increasing state expenditure, surely we need to think about what might be cut elsewhere?

To conclude, we have the peculiar situation of the government doing a lot of cutting in some areas, only to see spending getting out of control elsewhere. And at the same time, we have this hysterical over-reaction on the part of the self-appointed defenders of ‘the vulnerable’ who, apparently oblivious to how serious the fiscal situation has become, think the cuts have already gone too far. There is a grown-up debate to be had about public services and the welfare state, and we urgently need to have it.

First published in sp!ked

Bringing back working class values?

First published in Culture Wars and republished for the sp!ked review of books

Public services cannot be sustained at their current level. They are under unprecedented pressure from the global financial crisis, slow growth of the UK’s service-based economy and the demographic pressure of an ageing society. Consequently there need to be drastic reductions in what is currently very high but unproductive public spending. One in four of us work for the public sector – councils are often the biggest local employers and the NHS alone employs 1.7 million, making it the largest employer on the continent. Approaching half of GDP (around £700 billion) is spent on public services including welfare benefits which account for about £200 billion. In a bid to cut public expenditure by £80 billion by 2015 tens of thousands of workers have already been made redundant. But, says Tom Manion, ‘radical’ social landlord and author ofThe Reward Society, it is the deterioration of our ‘attitudes, values and behaviour’ that is most costly of all.

The authorities spend a ridiculous amount of resources on dealing with a minority of people who are just not behaving as they should. It would be far better, he says, to encourage good behaviour. ‘If bad behaviour improved, we as a society would have a lot more resources to spend’. Putting to one side the child-like simplicity of Manion’s argument, he is perceptive enough to identify a genuinely big problem – one of the defining ones of our age – and its many manifestations. We now accept as normal the ‘dishonesty, idleness and lack of thought for others’ that in the past wouldn’t have been tolerated, he says. There is an £8 billion a year burden of dysfunctional families who ‘run health, police and social services ragged’. A welfare safety net that has ‘become a spider’s web, trapping people in dependency and making poverty comfortable’. A crippling ‘contagion’ of absenteeism in the workplace: a ‘sickness sub-culture’ not confined to the public sector but nonetheless identifiable with it. Never mind the ‘yoof of today’ it is not unusual for groups of young adults to be making an intimidating nuisance of themselves. These ‘screeching, lurching lads and ladettes, peeing in the gutter and falling into fountains’ at the weekend are ‘back behind the building society counter’ come Monday morning. ‘Their parents would not have behaved like that’, says Manion, ‘so why do they?’ Why indeed?

He answers his own question. Old ‘decent’ working class values have been lost and we’re the poorer for it. He explains that as a ‘bad boy my behaviour completely violated the standards of the working-class culture where I grew up, and I knew that and took the consequences’ he recalls. While his complaint that rent arrears have gone through the metaphorical roof is made by Manion the landlord; he also remembers how his mother’s generation ‘took pride in paying their rent, or indeed any bill, on time’. He invites us to compare this with the points-based public housing allocation system that has created an ‘arms race of need’ in which ‘people’s problems become their most valuable assets’. In place of the independence and pride of an earlier generation is a bureaucratically endorsed culture of entitlement. It has ‘infantilised’ tenants and kept them ‘locked into the dependency frame of mind’ and unable or unwilling to do anything for themselves. ‘Downloading help and sympathy on to people in perceived need doesn’t improve their situation’ he explains. ‘They’ve got to stand up on their own two feet and find their own way of including themselves in society’.

This isn’t helped, argues Manion, by the army of people with ‘social’ in their title ‘engaged in keeping their clients in a state of dependency’. He may sound very Daily Mail but he surely has a point? It does seem to be the case that ‘a lot of people reach adulthood without ever getting the hang of personal responsibility’. There is indeed, if one cares to look, an increasing tendency to blame other people for one’s problems. Unless you believe that living off the state is good for one’s health, it is hard to argue with Manion’s view that the welfare state – whatever its one-time merits as a system of social insurance – is now ‘entrapping people in conditions which stunt their development as human beings’. Manion’s book is welcome in as far as it challenges this culture of dependency. Far from being a figment of fevered right-wing imaginations – as today’s thoroughly conservative left-liberals would have it – a personally debilitating relationship with the state is a very real consequence of the way that a therapeutic mindset has undermined people’s sense of themselves as capable of running their own lives.

His solutions don’t break out of this mindset so much as reconfigure it (which I’ll come to in a moment). But his orthodoxy-busting and common-sense approach is refreshing. Manion is no fan of public services which he says ‘just aren’t that good’. Whatever remains of a public service ethic on the part of public servants is allowed to ‘dribble away in bureaucracy and ineffectual pettiness’. Instead of a ‘dynamic and productive’ performance culture we have a ‘survival culture’ he says. ‘People cling on to procedures’ rather than make a decision they may be held accountable for. Which is all spot on as far as it goes. But Manion doesn’t seem to notice that all of this is happening in the so-called performance culture he wants to bring into being. It is the very obsession with processes that is having such a corrosive influence over public service provision and has done for decades now. It has occupied the vacuum where a traditional public service rationale once existed.

Manion’s account of public sector absurdities and his own successes in challenging them suggest that there is much room for improvement. When he first became a social landlord he was baffled by the costly, off-putting and entirely unnecessary practice of ‘sheeting-up’ empty properties when tenants left. Despite much resistance, he says, he brought an end to it and employed estate agents instead of housing officers with a brief to move tenants in and out on the same day. But for all his wise words on dependency and welfare, and his challenges to daft public sector practices, he badly lets himself down with his supposed solutions. This is because he thinks that treating people like idiots will make them more responsible. Apparently oblivious to the economic dislocation of inner cities since the 1970s or the deliberate residualisation and run-down of public housing by successive governments since the 1980s; he insists that the mere presence of tower blocks and the ‘graffiti, litter and needles’ on the walk to school are to blame for the decline of the communities concerned. And that if only the ‘wrong sorts of behaviour by the wrong sort of people’ are dealt with, that will make things better again.

His desire to ‘restore pride and [a] sense of justice’ to communities seems genuine enough but it is soured by his contempt for the ‘wrong sorts’ and a narrow determinism that can see no way out except through his own petty authoritarian interventions. For all his talk of taking on local bureaucrats and liberal opinion more generally, Manion is actually today’s idea of a model social landlord. He believes in building communities rather than houses, and that housing is – despite what you might think – about ‘more than the provision of roofs over people’s heads’. This is despite the sector failing to do just that. As Manion himself tells us, levels of investment in housing in the UK are roughly equivalent to that in the former Eastern bloc countries. We live in ‘poorer quality, more overcrowded accommodation’ than our north European neighbours, he says. But if this suggests rather strongly that the housing problem is a bricks and mortar one, why the obsession with tenants’ behaviour? And why go on peddling the ‘cycle of debt and despair’ that he, like every other patronising left-liberal commentator, claims the poorest in society are caught up in.

Manion is so intent on the naturalising of dependency-induced inadequacies that his behaviour-intervening approach isn’t a challenge to, but a massive accommodation to, the problem he sets out to solve. So, while I can’t help but agree with him that we shouldn’t be subsidising fat people, via their GPs, to go to the gym (his gym!), nor do I think people like him who are ‘exercising regularly, not smoking and eating healthily’ are any more deserving of state ‘support’. It is no business of the state to dictate to people how they live their lives or to reward them when they make the ‘right’ decision either. Manion is full of contradictions like this. He wants people to take more responsibility for their lives but his proposals would have the opposite effect. So while he is against the pampering of ‘undeserving’ dependents; he thinks the rest of us aren’t’ dependent enough and should be compelled to have an ‘annual health MOT with outcomes being linked to taxation levels’.

The same inconsistencies are true of his attempts to manage the behaviour, performance and motivation of his staff. While he seems to have achieved a remarkable turnaround in reducing rates of absenteeism his account of how he has done this is not convincing. His introduction of ‘heath awareness, anti-smoking policies, motivational programmes, annual medical checks, eye tests, fitness and relaxation packages’ seem to have less to do with it than an admirably no-nonsense approach to the sickie. If they pull one staff are booked in for an appointment with the resident GP. This would be enough in itself but Manion goes much further. The Diamond employment package, he tells us, includes all sorts of perks but if the doctor thinks ‘they’re too fat or they drink too much, he will tell them’. And if they choose not to take his advice and make a ‘commitment to maintaining their health’ they ‘lose entitlement to most of the benefits’. Such is the deal you enter into when your employer takes an interest in your ‘wellbeing’ or ‘mental and emotional health’.

Ever the understanding boss, he worries about how difficult it can be for employees to leave their private troubles ‘at the door when they come to work’? But work can be a refuge or a welcome distraction from private worries too. Giving this up for lunchtime ‘fitness, guitar, dance, singing, yoga and massage’ classes may, and for the counsellors, coaches, mentors and ‘chill-out zones’ might sound empowering but the rationale is both an intrusive and bottom-line one. ‘We pay their wages and in return we expect certain behaviour from them’ explains the touchy-feely Manion. Turning the working relationship into one of counselled dependency can store up many more problems than it solves. For both parties. The fact that public sector workers tend to be a ‘bit jaded and tired’ isn’t surprising but Manion’s approach isn’t going to fill the hole where a public sector ethos should be.

‘Yes, it’s bossy and interventionist’ he concedes, ‘but the benefits to society will be enormous’. Really? As with his counter-factual treatment of the housing problem, Manion ignores much of the evidence in favour of personal anecdotes and prejudices. He manages to find a ’£4.6 million super-size mortuary’ to back-up his flabby argument that ‘excessive Western lifestyles’ will become increasingly unaffordable. We’ll have to spend ‘huge sums’ dealing with the consequences of a society that is ‘eating itself to death’ he claims. In truth, ordinary (as opposed to the rarer cases of morbid) obesity isn’t necessarily a health problem as study after study has shown. Again, as he is forced to admit when he refers to the data, the UK ‘fares reasonably well’ health-wise. Life expectancy is around the EU average; ‘healthy life years’ – those spent without the ill-health or disability associated with advanced age – are higher than the EU average and ‘exceed those in many comparable countries’. This is not to say that all is well with the health service – the NHS does not deserve its protected status as an officially ‘cherished’ institution as the crisis of care in many hospitals and care homes has shown – but it does make a nonsense of the dubious justifications for the lifestyle interventions proposed (and practiced) by Manion.

His obsession with behaviour – whether it’s that of his tenants or his employees – as if it were some disembodied dependent variable to be manipulated by public managers like himself is as depressing as it is wrongheaded. But this is in keeping with the extension of the new public management developed in the 1980s/90s into society at large. As if the managerial colonisation of public services isn’t bad enough they are now intent on the behaviour management of individuals too. Not only in health and housing. The same goes for schooling too. For Manion ‘education remains paramount’ not because it is important for kids to get a good education, but ‘because a well-educated person is more likely to understand the importance of healthy diet, exercise and so on’ which will result in ‘savings for the state’!

Manion, for all his radical pretensions, is more orthodox than he imagines. His belief that public services should be redefined so that they ‘support and promote a safe, decent, healthy, responsible society’ is already in the mainstream of public service reform. The problems that he raises – both cultural and fiscal – are no less real and pressing for that, however, and he is to be commended for taking them seriously. Many of his contemporaries don’t. But his attempt to build public service provision around these problems, rather than to try to understand them and address them in their own terms, can only make matters worse. While it may seem like a good idea to Manion for public sector bodies to tell people how to behave when so many are seemingly misbehaving; this has nothing to do with what public services should be (and used to be) about. Indeed, it makes it all the harder to build public services that meet society’s needs without nurturing more dependency, or taking responsibility out of people’s hands – ironically the very thing that he thinks he is challenging.

Shh! About Saving Libraries

First published in Huffington Post

Everybody loves libraries don’t they? Earlier this month was National Libraries Day and the good people @IlikeLibraries are doing all they can “to help save libraries any way possible, and to promote them to the point where they are all safe from council cuts”. Ahh .. the cuts! Like the ‘cherished’ NHS and the wonderful welfare state of which we are all so apparently fond, libraries must be saved from the evil cutters.

You may have guessed that I’m bored by the anti’s protests about cuts, cuts, cuts and .. whisper it .. I’m none too keen on libraries either. This wasn’t always the case. As a young student bunking off college in search of some real intellectual sustenance I would find myself at Birmingham’s Central Library. It was quite the refuge for the curious-minded. And it seems I was in good company. Terry Pratchett has spoken of how his local library taught him more than his school ever could: “I wanted to read everything” he recalls “I wanted to know everything”. Today, I rarely set foot in one. If I want a bit of peace and quiet, and somewhere to read and reflect the last place I’m likely to visit is a library.

I don’t think I’m on my own here either. Recent figures show that the numbers of people visiting libraries fell last year as did the numbers of books issued. These rebranded community ‘hubs’ are teeming with activity that is hardly conducive to book-related endeavours at all. Between the parents with their gaggles of noisy kids, support groups and ‘stalls’ of all things, not to mention the so-called students getting on my bloody nerves chatting on their mobiles – God I sound old – libraries just aren’t libraries any more. According to Tiffany Jenkins one Scottish library has even resorted to pole dancing so estranged is it from its own mission. This desperation may be an attempt to see off the cuts by demonstrating that they aren’t at all stuffy but in fact, as Jenkins says, they are “inadvertently cutting their own throat”.

Librarians aren’t librarians any more either. They are glorified signposters and they look all the more miserable for it. That there are more volunteers in libraries than there are paid staff makes a sort of sense when their function has become so degraded. Library services are always the first to be threatened when local authorities are looking to make savings. They aren’t essential services in the way that, say, social services or schools are. So there is an inevitability in the talk of yet more closures. Last year there were reportedly 200 library closures and things are widely expected to get worse this year. And yet I for one find it hard to muster much support for defending libraries or librarians. I say this not because I am mean or a philistine but because having listened to the pleading of campaigners I no longer see the point in defending them. They aren’t what they were.

Why now, of all times, is there such a concerted campaign to save these once hallowed and now hollowed-out institutions? You wouldn’t think so if you listened to the stirring words of Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) president Phil Bradley: “An attack on a library service is nothing less than an attack on the community that it serves” he has said “and a closed library reduces the ability of people to empower and improve their lot.” If only. In truth what were once institutional embodiments of that Enlightenment spirit of learning and knowledge, of the need to collect under one roof the great works of our shared literary culture for the greater good, are no more. In defence of their library service Westminster librarians wrote an open lettertelling councillors about how they ‘promote health, community and citizenship’ all for less than 1% of the council budget.

If we need community hubs then let communities run them themselves. That’s what is happening in‘no frills’ Barnet where Occupy-style squatters did what they do best (which isn’t saying much) and took over a library closed by the council. Not that this should be confused with a proper defence of libraries either. That, on being Occupied, the “library became a community hub with events for children, [and] yoga classes” according to The Guardian, only confirms that the depressing consensus against real libraries extends to supposed radicals. They did, however, we learn and to their credit restock the library with 10,000 donated books. Thankfully they also had the good sense to court the support of the local community and have now handed it over, with the belated and no less begrudging blessing of Brent Council, to residents to run for themselves. Even in the absence of Occupy protesters climbing through cuts-threatened library windows why not hand over what are actually community centres anyway to the community? They’d do a much better job and they might even decide they want to not only take over the building but set up a real library dedicated to making the best that’s ever been written available for people to read.

What’s so great about the welfare state?

First published on Spiked

Defenders of the welfare state seem blissfully unaware of how it encourages growing numbers of people to become permanently entangled in a supposed ‘safety net’.

Asbjorn Wahl is a trade unionist, director of the Campaign for the Welfare State and Norwegian. While you shouldn’t judge a book by the biog of its author, far less his nationality, it is fair to say that when I opened his new book, The Rise and Fall of the Welfare State, I wasn’t expecting much.

He begins, as all defenders of the welfare state must, with a bleak account of the public; that is, of the welfare state’s helpless, vulnerable clients and potential clients. There is a ‘feeling of powerlessness and apathy among people’, says Wahl, a feeling of ‘tragic stories’ too numerous to mention. As well as discovering an ‘unexpectedly large number… of victims of workfare’, he finds other people suffering ‘bad health and ever-more demanding work’. He tells us ‘stories of people who struggle with their health, then their self-confidence and their self-image’. As I heard a man on a picket line tell a Sky News reporter recently, everyone is ‘sick and tired of being sick and tired’.

Does Wahl blame the ‘machinery of the welfare state’ for this sickening trend? No, far from finding fault with a set of institutions that actively undermine people’s sense of autonomy and self-reliance, he chooses to blame the left’s favourite bogeyman: neoliberalism. ‘Since neoliberal reforms increase economic and social differences and social differences in turn create larger social and health-related problems’, explains Wahl, ‘the conclusion must be that neoliberalism is both a health hazard and socially destructive’. And not just for put-upon workers or welfare recipients. So formidable is this mysterious force of neoliberalism that it is even ‘turning the welfare state into a highly vulnerable victim’, too.

This is not to make light of the welfare problem. Even putting aside the plight of those living in the crisis-ridden Eurozone’s periphery, like Greece and Spain, over a million young people are out of work in the UK alone. And many more people are on sickness and disability benefits of one kind or another. But blaming ‘the system’ is a frankly adolescent response. ‘Illness, disability and a loss of work motivation’, Wahl tells us, are ‘rational and understandable responses to the brutalisation of work and the increasing inequalities in society’. But why should working conditions be considered inevitably illness-inducing as opposed to radicalising? Especially if one considers the kinds of deprivations earlier generations of workers endured without exhibiting such symptoms.

Wahl understands that the fate of the welfare state is inextricably linked with the declining fortunes of the political creed with which it will forever be associated: social democracy. He is critical of the morphing of what were ‘mass organisations for the workers’ into not very effective ‘bureaucratic and establishment… election machines’. They are cut off from the masses, he says, and as a consequence subject to ‘ever-deeper political and ideological crisis’. The trouble is that his own ‘radical’ brand of state-socialism-cum-anti-neoliberalism is no better. Indeed, it has a lot in common with the ‘anti-austerity posturing’ that Brendan O’Neill has argued on spiked is increasingly evident across Europe, most notably with François Hollande’s Socialist government in France and the left-wing Syriza party in Greece. Regardless of Europe’s economic woes and the political fallout, the left, as Wahl himself argues, is in crisis across Europe: the trade-union movement is weak and defensive, and there is a ‘lack of ambitious alternatives’.

Wahl is good on the origins of the welfare state, situating it in a historical conflict between the interests of labour and capital, both at home and abroad. It is, he rightly says, the institutional outcome of a historically specific compromise. From the Boer War to the Bolshevik revolution, this new role for the state was driven both by elite concern at the declining ‘stock’ of the working classes, and by the threat of radical change posed by their politicisation. These ‘social reforms were intended to stem the tide of socialism’, he says. The ruling class was helped in its attempt to ward off socialism by a set of relatively strong economies, the continued exploitation of former colonies, and the political stand-off of the Cold War. Taken together, this all ‘helped to damp the radicalism’ of the left in the postwar years.

That much of the European left associated itself with Stalinism, the despotic variant of state socialism that kept social transformation on ice for so long, is somewhat neglected by Wahl. Indeed, while he also says the welfare consensus began to break down in the 1970s as the economic growth that ‘gave room for’ it faltered, it was the crumbling of the political consensus after the fall of the Berlin Wall a decade or so later that was to have the greater impact. The disorientation and social pessimism that resulted, not only for social democrats but across a political spectrum denied the old poles of left and right, meant that the welfare state also lost its moorings. Today’s financial crisis has only added a sense of urgency to the need to resolve the welfare problem. For all the ‘radical’ posturing of leftist groupings across the continent, this is no bad thing.

Yet rather than confront the welfare problem, Wahl prefers to delude himself about the wonders of welfarism. He claims the welfare state is regarded ‘positively’ by the people of Europe, because it is ‘identified with a more secure and better society to live in’. It is part, he says, of the ‘humanisation of society’.

In reality, everything from the riots of last summer to efforts by the UK Lib-Con coalition government to arrest the decline in education standards suggests that the welfare state – in the UK at least – has become something of a liability. Across the continent, as Wahl’s account inadvertently suggests, the welfare state is not serving as a sensible arrangement for the maintenance of social security and delivery of public services. Instead, it has fostered dependency – both material and moral – and encouraged a growing section of society to become permanently entangled in the supposed ‘safety net’.

Wahl also complains all too defensively that the public sector is ‘presented as meaninglessly bureaucratic, laborious, [and] rigid’ by its detractors. As a long-serving, otherwise left-leaning and latterly redundant local-government officer, I regret to confirm that it is all of those things. Consequently, I have found myself at odds with the none-too-inspiring fightback against public-service cuts. Wahl is critical of the shift to arms-length arrangements, from contracting-out ostensibly public services to the outsourcing of decisions about the economy to the EU, IMF and World Bank. But his obsession with neoliberals under the bed means that he sees the rise of quangos (which are alive and well in spite of the UK government’s supposed ‘bonfire’), and the dominance of unaccountable supranational institutions, as an alien invasion by big business. He fails to see that these developments are a consequence of the long-standing diminution of politics in favour of the impositions of a managerial state.

Still, Wahl at least recognises the ‘historic defeats’ visited on the labour movement and how this plays itself out today. Just a quarter of the European workforce is unionised, he admits, noting that even this fraction is a consequence of public-sector expansion and not politically engaged labourism. Yet still he hopes against hope that something or somebody might animate a movement that has long since entered a state of rigor mortis. He thinks rather wishfully that ‘a certain radicalisation’ of the trade unions is occurring in response to the economic crisis. While events on the continent may well have ‘flung the door wide open’, it is far from clear what is on the other side.

Nevertheless, the historic role of the trade unions with regards welfare is instructive. Wahl refers to the ‘benefit funds, burial clubs and similar solidarity schemes’ that existed before the welfare state. They provided the model for welfarism insofar as they provided social insurance for their members.

As Wahl says, today’s trade unions are more likely to be found representing (or rather counselling) individuals suffering ‘increased stress’ or poor self-esteem. But rather than make these individuated experiences of the workplace intelligible – beyond blaming the market, that is – he uses psychiatric jargon as if it needs no further explanation. This betrays the extent to which the problem is driven as much by the left’s own intellectual disorientation as it is by the organisational collapse that Wahl attributes to a mythical neoliberal onslaught. He even wonders whether the ‘brutal working life’ to which many are apparently subject ‘tends to undermine rather than strengthen welfare’ or whether it is worth the resultant economic growth. (Er, what economic growth?)

Wahl is critical of both the anti-democratic tendencies of the European Union and the imposition of the ‘economic straitjacket’ resulting from the attack on living standards in the Eurozone periphery countries. But his call for the ‘stimulation of the economy, investment in infrastructure and in productive activities’ can hardly be taken seriously given his doubts about the benefits of economic growth. While attempts by Europe’s governments to counter the financial crisis, and in so doing to create public debt crises, have, as Wahl says, been ‘exploited as an excuse to make massive, intensified attacks on the welfare state’, this does not in itself invalidate the attack. His view that capitalist excess is responsible for all of Europe’s ills is also his blind spot when it comes to seeing the damage done by an increasingly therapeutic welfarism. In truth, the welfare problem is not something dreamt up by neoliberals (whoever they are). Rather, it is symptomatic of a political culture that robs people of their agency, something that you might expect somebody like Wahl to be opposed to. Far from it. ‘Good social security’, he says, ‘gives people that much-needed self-confidence boost that enables them to become active players in society’.

As this back-to-front and patronising rationale makes clear, today’s welfare state infantilises people. It tells them that they are too damaged to function without its official hand-holding and belittling interventions. Any ‘progressive’ movement would surely endorse the contrary view that people should be treated as morally independent beings, responsible for their own actions? But to say as much is to invite the charge that you are horribly right wing and endorse ‘welfare-to-work’ policies (which, incidentally, sound rather more like the unforgiving and austere welfare state envisioned by its founders than that proposed by its supposed critics).

Whatever the rhetoric on either side, we should be far more concerned by the initiative-sapping and ever-indulgent welfarism that Wahl would evidently like to see more of. Instead of meeting people’s need for periodic support in difficult times, the welfare state has increasingly come to institutionalise a dysfunctional, and increasingly therapeutic, relationship between state and society which neither can afford. Worse still, it is a dead weight around the neck of anybody that wants to criticise how society is, and come up with a vision of what a better society might really look like.