In UK politics, from the dawn of the 2010 Coalition onwards (but probably in Blair’s time too – nothing ever comes from nothing, now does it?), welfare has become a very bad fare. Now we get stories such as these, where people who describe themselves as progressives couch the debate in the following terms (the bold is mine):
Yes, the left should always push back against the demonisation of people on benefits , but equally important is to remember that a life on benefits is a huge waste of a person’s potential. There is absolutely nothing left-wing about that.
The reason why I disagree so fiercely today with James, generally coherent and quite matter-of-fact as he is on such stuff, is that someone of his journalistic calibre should want to take issue with the words we’re obviously choosing to use to define the debate.
Something he doesn’t really do.
Of course a life on benefits is a huge waste of a person’s potential; so is a life on the meek living wage that some organisations are proposing – or even lukewarmly implementing. Until small power – ie the power held by small people (and here I don’t for example mean powerless toddlers – except in that figurative sense modern liberal democracy makes of us all!) – is allowed to knit itself cogently and productively into much bigger power (bigger in the sense of getting important things done), the alternatives people like Rick propose – large corporate organisation, transnationally structured – will never bring any benefit to the fore which doesn’t have its collateral antidemocratic instincts integrated into the DNA of its very being.
So when Rick argues …
The thing about big power is that it gets stuff done. The organisation and concentration of resources is what made rich countries rich (which is why places with lots of very small companies are poor). The countervailing power of unions and other social movements made the owners of these concentrated resources agree to share the fruits with everyone else.
… he’s using arguments which are clearly easily evidenced but lead to the very situations of dependence James decries in the context of the welfare state. Are we therefore saying big is great for private industry (and here I mean industry in both its fundamental meanings: structure and outputs) but not in any way for the counterbalancing of nation-state government? And where we accept government should be big, are we arguing that it should only serve in its immensity to service its counterparts in the business sectors?
I suppose what I’m really suggesting is that we haven’t moved – in politics or business – from any of the primal medieval hierarchies. We are as old-fashioned as they come; and this couldn’t be a sadder reality in a century which claims to be the most technological in history.
Advanced in our physical tools; meanwhile, as backward and primitive in social and organisational tools as ever. I don’t know about you, but this is not what I expected of the post-millennial age.
Three final links; three final sadnesses. This involves the British Coalition government, supposed bastion of intellectual and cultural freedom, dismantling the last vestiges of our sense of physical and personal privacies and integrities. Whilst this describes a parallel destruction of nation-state rights by secretive treaty-making. And in the middle of these two fronts, even our Internet communications continue to be retained against overarching legal judgment.
As already – and frequently – expressed, then, my overriding responses are ones of sadness. I can see the point of view of people like Rick, and I am sure many others who read and appreciate his finely-wrought blogposts, that big problems need big organisations. And I can accept the opinion of James on the waste that it is a life on benefits, even when I sincerely disagree with the justice and fairness and intellectual accuracy of using the language and focus he employs. (Just as much a waste it is to spend a life under the yoke of wage slavery, after all.) And, in fact, I can even see the need to track Internet usage, and trawl what bad people do – although our privacies may suffer at the hands of such behaviours.
But, at least in my eyes, it would seem that as leaders have got used to collateral damage in a residual kind of warfare (residual in the sense that whilst drones in some places consistently bomb the hell out of people, the consumer markets and environments which freely occupy the planet elsewhere continue to easily generate their useful activity), so they have become accustomed to the idea of collateral damage very much at home. That people on benefits should be punished with even more wasted and terrified lives – instead of someone intelligently managing the change they really need – has become such a given that even people like James and Rick give the impression of generally accepting it.
And this is where we must surely part ways. That UK politics is destroying our homeland instincts to kindliness, generosity and consultation, and that global biz is performing the same role all over, is really not difficult to take onboard – at least conceptually, at least from the point of view of perceiving the processes taking place.
What is difficult to take onboard, however, is that progressives like James and Rick are consistently failing to see the things they advocate as part of the problems we have; and part of the reasons we’re all now desperately flailing not only to find but, more importantly, impose radical solutions.
For this is where I really am sad: those who believe they already have such solutions – in UK politics and global biz both – are demanding of everyone who occupies any square metres on this earth a total submission seen rarely in previous times of democratic engagement. Tying up loose ends frantically as they are – via international treaties, door-to-door inspections and extralegal where not illegal data retention practices – they’re covering all their bases in a quite fearful way: fearful because it indicates they’re as afraid of the future as we should now also be.
And fear of the future always brings out the worst in this wonderful, frustrating and complex species we call the human being.