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.

After the Riots … just fire-fighting?

I was invited to speak earlier today at the London Asian Fire Service Association conference The Riots – A Year On. This is what I had to say.

There is something to be said for the view – often held to be a conservative one – that society has broken down, or at the very least those communities affected in London, Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester, broke down during last year’s riots. Those few days revealed that something quite serious had gone wrong, something rotten had been left to fester for too long.

We can ridicule the conservative for banging on about a moral decline that can be traced back to the Sixties. But what of those who hark back to the only slightly more recent Eighties as a supposed explanation. That’s when the rot set in say some of those on the left. I should probably say that I use the terms right, left; conservative and radical with abandon here. But they haven’t meant very much in a while.

Still are those supposedly radical (or is it left-liberal) commentators with their belief that mass looting and violent disregard for one’s own neighbourhood is some kind of statement about socioeconomic disadvantage, any closer to the truth? Or have they just swapped one excuse for another? Is the notion that we are more selfish and consumerist any more of an explanation than that society has become more permissive?

At least old-fashioned conservatives had a set of convictions that they stuck to regardless – even if all that is left is a conviction for convictions of rioters, or even virtual rioters. The absence of which is, in my view, one explanation we might entertain. Especially as the decline of the sorts of institutions about which they felt so strongly (e.g. the Church, the family) – not to forget those held dear by the left (i.e. the trade union movement) – has left a vacuum. The welfare state has extended its reach as they have collapsed, but as an institution it tends to engender relationships of dependency and entitlement.

In the absence of a clear left-right distinction, or institutions that might have a more positive role to play in the life of communities, the solutions tend to converge. So while the coalition were quick to blame problem families for the riots – a category created by New Labour remember – those who regard themselves as progressive were busy pitying and patronising them with talk of providing parents with ‘support’. The language may sound more liberal, but the result is much the same.

Parental determinism – the belief that parents are responsible for just about every social problem you care to name – is rife. They are made scapegoats on the one hand for society’s problems, and yet denied the opportunity to decide for themselves whether to smack their children or not, on the other. To his credit David Lammy MP for Tottenham made this very point after the riots even if he too in his book about the riots – Out of the Ashes – returns to New Labour type when it comes to proposing policy solutions.

Much the same can be said about the discussion of young people and the riots. Youth unemployment is a huge problem today. With over a million young people out of work in the UK, and there are over 5 million unemployed in the European Union – that’s more than 20% of the EU population – it is a problem that can hardly be underestimated. But that doesn’t mean it should be used as an excuse for the riots – not least because it was a phenomenon confined to Britain, actually it was very English – anymore than the Sixties, the Eighties or so-called problem families. However dire the situation may be and however clueless the political class might be when it comes to proposing solutions; this is not just an economic problem.

The stay-at-home generation where young people opt to stay at home with mum and dad rather than venture out into the big bad world is one troubling trend. The much-cited unemployability of young people is another. It is not just that times are hard. Times have been hard before but – to use a quote I thought I’d never use – there was a time when we might expect young people to ‘get on their bike’ whether it was to look for a job, or just experience life beyond their own – or at least their parents’ – doorstep. Instead today society seems beset by punctures or else insists on finding all sorts of excuses for leaving the metaphorical stabilisers on.

Which brings me to the rest of us – the grown-ups. From problematized parents to put-upon police officers, our authority and self-respect as adults has never been more in question. While the violent tantrums of youth are indulged and given unwarranted significance by their ventriloquist dummies in the left-leaning commentariat; those who should be holding the line – quite literally in the case of the police – are no longer able or its seems willing to. Whether its teachers unable to control their classes or police officers complaining about being called names by government ministers; traditional authority figures and the institutions they embody, are experiencing a profound crisis of confidence. While young people are infamously informed about their rights and have an unequalled sense of entitlement; adults are much diminished. They don’t know how to exercise what authority they might have, far less back each other up.

Given all this is it really such a surprise that those communities collapsed? It’s a wonder that it didn’t happen much sooner. Indeed so emptied out of authority are those that once exercised it that few dare to go much further than suggest we engage communities with this or that initiative. To boost people’s confidence or protect them from their own vulnerability. But this is no answer either. As before, the language may sound ‘supportive’ but it tends only to undermine. I spoke at an event last week about community engagement and came to the conclusion that sometimes it is better that we – by ‘we’ I mean the authorities, or those in the public, community or voluntary sectors who make-believe that they represent the community – don’t engage.

I think those of us who see it as our job to ‘do something’ about the riots should at the very least hesitate. If we get the analysis wrong, and in my view nearly every report and comment piece on the riots so far has, then to act on that wrongheaded analysis can only make things worse. We might do better to disengage from the community for a moment, and engage with the problem presented by last year’s riots in its own terms. What happened in those few short days of last summer was quite unprecedented. It had never happened before in quite that way. It wasn’t a rerun of the Eighties riots. It had no political content whatsoever. That was grafted on afterwards by commentators, researchers and politicians looking for a new hook for old arguments.

I think we should all, like doctors, take the Hippocratic Oath. For those of you that haven’t read it – I had to Google it myself – I am referring to the bit that says you should ‘first, do no harm’. Medical practitioners around the world are taught this important principle. According to Wikipedia: ‘It reminds the physician and other health care providers that they must consider the possible harm that any intervention might do’. This is not so much a reminder for us as a warning – and one we should take very seriously if we don’t want to undermine communities further – that those of us seeking to intervene in communities should think about the potential harm we might do by the very act of intervening.

I’ve already talked about how figures of authority, whether they work for the state or reside in communities, are routinely undermined these days. By constantly questioning the capacities of parents to bring up their own children; by giving credence to the highly dubious excuses of rioters; by insisting that communities can’t cope without us ‘supporting’ them, we inevitably do damage. The questioning and doubting alone make it very difficult for people to work things out for themselves. By constantly intervening – however well-intentioned our interventions might be – we implicitly, if not explicitly, infantilise the very adults who we expect to set an example to the young people, and they were mostly young people, who set out to destroy their communities. Darra’s report concludes by arguing that it is the responsibility of the authorities to put individuals, families and communities ‘back on their feet’.

No it isn’t. That is the responsibility of individuals, families and communities themselves. To say otherwise is not only patronising, it is also wrongheaded and liable to reinforce the dependency of young people who have picked up all too easily on the message that they’re owed something; or of the 120,000 so-called problem or ‘troubled’ families – or the Panel’s 500,000 ‘forgotten’ families – that are the lucky recipients of no end of supposedly supportive programmes; and of entire communities who are told that they need ‘building’ by us. We might flatter them and say we’ll involve them in this or that, but they’re dependency on our interventions is at least the start and usually the end of it.

I should probably admit to an interest here. Not as the old-fashioned ‘lock them up and throw away the key’ Tory some of you might take me for – that would be to forget what I said earlier about the old poles of left and right not meaning much anymore. No, I’m a community engager. That’s my job. I spend most of my time intervening in neighbourhoods on behalf of public and voluntary sector organisations; while, of course, reminding myself of the Hippocratic Oath. So I am sympathetic to those of you in the room who spend your time – when you’re not fighting fires – running various community initiatives. You, like me, are only trying to do what you think is best to avoid those ugly scenes of last summer from happening again. Or to make some sort of improvement to people’s lives. You might even kid yourself that you’re empowering people, or involving them or doing wonders for their self-esteem.

I just ask you to ask yourselves whether what you’re doing is really for the best, whether the community you are working with is really going to better off as a result? Is it going to stop the riots happening again, or is it going to contribute to the conditions that made them possible in the first place?  In other words, is it just going to be another in a long line of initiatives that far from building communities actually just chips away at their foundations? There is a lot of talk – not least in the Panel’s report – about building the ‘character’ of young people, and the resilience of communities. But these sorts of qualities – and they are very desirable qualities – can only emerge from within communities. They cannot be taught or built from without. That can only happen if we leave them alone a bit more, and intervene a lot less.

I will be speaking at the Battle of Ideas this month at the debate Pop-up Communities: here to stay?, part of the After the Riots strand at the Barbican.

Work, welfare and the disabling state

Recent moves toward a more personalised and cost-effective way of supporting people with disabilities in the workplace are to be welcomed. However as with all ‘support’ provided by the state to its dependents it can disable as much as it claims to enable.

One employment scheme will cost £6.8m to subsidise employers at a rate of up to £2,275 per worker over 3 years ‘to support more than 1,000 young disabled people a year’ into work. In the case of Remploy, while half of the factories are due to close this year with the remainder awaiting their fate until next, the government has offered private bidders potentially wanting to take over the factories subsidies of over £6,000 per worker over the first 3 years of operation. So what constitutes reasonable support to get somebody with a disability into work, and what can only reinforce a disabling culture of state dependency? A dependency that is twofold. One that not only threatens continued dependency for the disabled but  subsidises private interests too. Those companies accepting state handouts would be otherwise unwilling to take on what are after all loss-making enterprises – in Remploy’s case at a rate of £68m a year.

As Randeep Ramesh explains, Remploy is not only on its way out because it is a bad model for getting people with disabilities into work. Its post-war era state-dependent factories are very uncompetitive. Operating in sectors ‘such as electronics, textiles and automotive’, says Ramesh, they are concentrated in a failing part of the UK economy i.e. the part that produces things. Of course, as interviews with Remploy workers conducted by The Guardian suggest, whatever the economic rationale the experience of work is in and of itself something that brings a degree of independence that somebody with a severe learning disability, for instance, might not otherwise get.

A segregated environment is also one that is deemed safe from abuse and discrimination, or a lack of understanding of the limits imposed on people by their disabilities. But this notion that the only alternative to segregated employment is a life on benefits should be challenged. As should the way in which the already existing challenges of economic failure, welfare cuts and lower rates of employment for the disabled; are being confused with a fear of discrimination that is driven more by a culture of pessimism in the disability rights movement than by what able-bodied people really think.

Beyond basket weaving?

Like the Paralympics, Remploy – the oldest and the biggest employer of disabled people in the country – was established after World War II to provide employment for injured soldiers, and it has continued to do so since the announcement of factory closures earlier this year. David Floyd, an advocate of the social enterprise model that Remploy were belatedly piloting, supports the government’s decision to close these state-subsidised and segregated workplaces as recommended in the Sayce Review.

Liz Sayce, chief executive of Disability Rights UK, was charged with establishing ‘how the government could better support more disabled people to get into mainstream employment’. As Floyd argues, the response of trade unions that ‘disabled people are vulnerable and need looking after by the state’ is patronising and wrong. The view of those opposing the closures seems to be that Remploy is the best people with disabilities can expect; that they are vulnerable dependents who need protecting. As a spokesman for Unite put it during a recent strike by Remploy workers: ‘To attack the most vulnerable in our society and throw them on the scrapheap is an act against disabled people‘. But what is the alternative?

‘Sit-down comic’ Laurence Clark is torn. He turned down a gig at a Remploy factory once. It reminded him of a visit his special school organised to a nearby sheltered workshop to see ‘older peers packing disposable nappies into bags and other mundane chores’. For Clark, ‘even as a child, I expected a bit more out of life than this’. His career advisor suggested IT but this only confirmed that ‘computing had become the new basket weaving’. But it is the ‘attitudes and inflexibility of employers’ and the threat of removing ‘essential support’ provided by the state that is most problematic. Still, says Clark, Sayce is right to conclude that Remploy is expensive and outdated, representing a poor use of resources that might more effectively be used to support disabled people into mainstream work.

Sayce calculated that the state subsidy to Remploy is £25,000 per worker compared with the government’s Access to Work scheme costing just £2,900 with the prospect of a more integrated and independent working life. The government is committed, said Maria Miller then minister for disabled people, to finding a better way to spend the £320 million that goes to supporting people with disabilities (currently a fifth on Remploy alone) into employment every year. Access to Work, costing £100m a year to run – including support with ‘interpreters, special technology and office adaptations’ – and similar schemes; are a better way of doing this, she says, because they support individuals to access the same workplaces as everybody else.

Miller, before she was moved in yesterday’s reshuffle, had promised an additional £15m to help get a further 8,000 disabled people into work. So it would seem that the government is actually moving in the right direction. However, while this simultaneous broadening and personalising of the support relationship should be welcomed, other initiatives are more problematic. This is something I will explore in my next post.

Unsure about disability? Lets debate.

In a challenging piece earlier this year Kaliya Franklin – disability rights activist, founder of the Broken of Britain campaign against welfare cuts, and co-author of the Responsible Reform (Spartacus) Report – called for more frank and open discussion about disabled people at work. Or is that people with disabilities? She says that most of us don’t get to air what we really think about disability for fear of causing offence. We daren’t vocalise un-PC thoughts such as

… isn’t it nice the poor dears have something to do with their time. And get paid for it too. Bless. Not like those damn scroungers defrauding benefits.

Franklin (or @bendygirl as she calls herself on Twitter) was writing the day after it was announced that more than 1,500 disabled workers would be made redundant from state-subsidised Remploy factories.

I think she underestimates us, the able-bodied majority, who are after all currently enjoying what is already being billed as the most successful Paralympic Games ever. But I think her dim view of what she thinks we think is a consequence of a lack of debate about the issue. She’s no doubt right that few of us are comfortable discussing disability for this very reason. But we’re not the only ones made uncomfortable. Disability rights activists like her, Franklin admits, are also made uneasy by the awkward reality that segregated workplaces – a subject I’ll return to in my next post – have long provided gainful employment for a group of people still not fully integrated into the world of work. All the more reason to have an honest and open discussion rather than be stifled by the sanitised ‘you can’t say that’ culture that Franklin is so critical of, and that the Frankie Boyle’s of this world so love to exploit.

There are important questions that are not even being asked never mind answered, she says:

Maybe ‘they’ll’ be a bit smelly? Maybe some will dribble a bit, or have issues with their speech. What will happen if they aren’t very good at their job but fear of accusations of discrimination prevents colleagues or managers from raising performance issues?

These are not in themselves unreasonable concerns. The trouble is that in a society where people – not least campaigners themselves – are too easily offended and usually on somebody else’s behalf, it can be difficult to enter into an honest debate about disability. Despite this we will be doing just that at the Manchester Salon on the evening of 18 September. I hope you’ll join us!