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Speaking Ill

April 14, 2013 3 comments

In the last few weeks, the political climate in the UK crossed a line into a darker place. Anyone who has been following me over the last year or so will know my concerns about the trajectory that we are currently following. I recently re-watching this interview with rogue economist Steve Keen, where he talks about the danger of the rise of extremist politics as a result of the economic climate and austerity, and I am reminded that I am not alone in my fears. It is also a reminder that the UK is far from unique in these dangers: while this post will talk about the events of the last two weeks in the UK, readers in Australia, the US and other parts will no doubt recognise these problems in their own current politics.

The Philpott State…

It started off badly enough a couple of weeks ago with Iain Duncan Smith’s absurd comments that he could survive on the £53 a week that some welfare recipients are being subjected to as a result of his policies. This showed Duncan Smith to be nothing more than a school yard bully with a dangerously weak connection to the real world of many people (a more balanced report that I saw puts the figure at around £193 a week – I am fortunate enough to own my home and not pay rent and I would struggle on that amount – IDS’s figure wouldn’t even feed me).

But Duncan Smith’s nonsense – rarely a day goes by when he doesn’t fail a debunking of some sort or another – was just the hors d’ouvres to a more poisonous main course. It really got going with the Philpott trial. This was a man who had killed his numerous children in a house fire. He was also a recipient of state welfare. The Daily Mail, in a coup de grace for the Architecture of Resentment, went front page with a headline stating that the killings were a result of the welfare state – yes good people, you heard it here: welfare makes people kill their children. We need only change the story a little (instead of being a welfare recipient he was, say, Jewish) to see where this kind of politics is located in the course of history. Of course, the Daily Mail is an extremist right-wing paper – during the last election it described Liberal Democrat candidate Nick Clegg as a Nazi (ironic) – and perhaps shouldn’t be taken too seriously. But it is also very widely read and is a useful barometer of the low and more dangerous end in our political discourse. The article in the Daily Mail was shocking and hateful – it illustrates the Architecture of Resentment in the clearest manner possible. It speaks ill of the living and the vulnerable.

So far, so bad. The following day Chancellor George Osborne spoke a sanitised version of the Daily Mail’s hate speech (Prime Minister Cameron’s only contribution was to endorse Osborne’s comments). He said, and I quote, “there is a question for government and for society about the welfare state, and the taxpayers who pay for the welfare state, subsidising lifestyles like that.” His words, to be sure, are prettier than those found in the gutter press. But he was making exactly the same generalisation from a specific isolated case. His words evoke the same message, and it is a message that has been repeated endlessly for three and a half decades: the poor choose to be poor; it is a lifestyle choice (which includes, apparently, murdering children); welfare destroys homes (Now with new KILLING!). It is nothing more than the tired rhetoric of welfare dependency. This is the right-wing argument that welfare creates dependency on the state and on taxpayers. Welfare is like a narcotic, addictive and pleasurable to the recipients. The welfare state is nothing more than an opium den: at least as harmful and as undesirable.

Speaking Ill of the Living

To anyone who has ever actually depended on welfare the offensiveness of this kind of talk will be obvious. I grew up within Australia’s state welfare system. It ensured me a home, food, shelter, and an education – primary, secondary, and tertiary. To be sure, growing up within this system was far from perfect – the erosion of the social contract was already well under way even then. But I shudder to think of what my life might have turned into if I had been abandoned to the vagaries of the free market – if I could only have received the health care, shelter, and education that my capacity to buy would allow me. I am grateful for the support I received. I have gone from being a recipient of welfare benefits to paying taxation in the highest brackets, and I do so gladly.

I have proudly watched many good friends grow up within this system of support to become nurses, teachers, software developers, accountants, lawyers, musicians, restaurant owners, and so on – productive and responsible members of society, growing according to their own life plans and through their abilities rather than from whatever bargaining power they inherited. Such cases are not the exception – these are the success stories that are not told often enough. So much of our political space is polluted with fanciful talk of how the welfare state ruins people, with hardly any space to its real-life achievements. (It is curious that the Daily Mail universalises from Philpott but not from J. K. Rowling who wrote the first Harry Potter book while receiving welfare). These are cases where a worse result would certainly have ensued without the supporting social structure. The people in my life are real people, with their own goals and ambitions, hopes, fears, needs and wants. They are no different from the other seven billion people in the world in that respect.

It is certainly true that a lot of people remain within the welfare system (although the degree of intergenerational welfare “dependency” is grossly exaggerated as testified to in this Joseph Rowntree Foundation report). I have no reason whatsoever to believe that their failures are due to the welfare system, and I would hazard that their lives would have been even worse without the existing safety net, and that whatever “burden on society” that they posed would remain regardless, in some form or another.

The “dependency” rhetoric is loaded and deeply misleading, intended, like all Architecture of Resentment talk, to produce a certain result. The truth is that we are all dependents. Each day we depend (quite unknowingly) on the actions and (less recognised but just as important) inactions of many thousands of people. This deep interdependency is greatly expanded by the economics of capitalism. There are those who do depend on state welfare. To claim that they become dependent because of welfare is to get things the wrong way around. I will use the word “rely” instead of the poisoned word “depend”: such people rely on welfare. They do not form a dependency – they have one already that the state fulfils because the market will not or cannot. Some cannot work for reasons of illness, some are unlucky, some made bad choices, in many cases bad choices are forced (the best of a bad lot), and very often vulnerabilities compound each other. Some have been told for too long that they are valued by the market, and the market, finding their value to be zero, marks them as worthless. Some are simple functions of an economic framework that need unemployment to work properly – capitalism does not operate if everyone is employed: new businesses cannot start, new techniques cannot emerge, and, without the example of the destitute job seekers, employed people become unruly and might even start thinking for themselves (shock!); wages would rise and profits disappear. This is simply to say that unemployment is what economists call an “externality” – where one person benefits and another pays the price. If capitalist ideologues were more internally consistent and less expert at managing their spectacular cognitive dissonances, they would have to conclude that those who fulfil the role of being unemployed should be compensated well for the awfulness of their job by those who benefit – the profit takers. The state, in economic terms, should simply create a “perfect market” by forcing the beneficiaries of unemployment to pay for what they get from it. Of course that will never happen – profits uber alles!

Economics aside, what I can say with absolute certainty from my own experience is that welfare recipients have more than enough problems of their own without having to deal with the resentment and prejudice of ignorant people.

Breeding Welfare Scroungers…

One of the most popular welfare myths is that state welfare encourages people to have many children. The “logic” is that they are paid more welfare if they have more children so there is a “moral hazard” built into the system. This was part of the Daily Mail’s story on Philpott, and was also part of what was insinuated as a “lifestyle choice” by Osborne. Discussing Philpott with a friend, she looked at me (exasperated, as usual) and said (it wasn’t a question) “But why else would he have had so many children if not to claim the welfare benefits?” I have this sort of conversation far too often. The odd part is why people should think that this is the one explanation left over when all other candidates have been exhausted. The neighbourhood where I grew up was a government housing area with maybe a thousand families on welfare – I was one, and these are the people I went to school with. Nearly all families had between one and three children. I don’t recall a family with four or more (which is not to say that they did not exist). But I would say that the average was about two. (The number of parents might be more variable – marriage failure and economic insecurity are closely correlated). The Joseph Rowntree Foundation report above corroborates this in present day Britain. The number of children in welfare-receiving families doesn’t differ in any significant way from other families. The real question then is, if there is such a financial incentive for welfare recipients to breed, why are there not more children in welfare families than there are?

In fact, there is a case to be made that a stronger, more generous, social welfare state can reduce the chances of large families (both in and out of the welfare state). We know from studies of different cultures that the main reasons that people have very large families are to compensate for high mortality rates (from malnutrition and so forth) and in very financially insecure environments where parents rely on their children in old age. We also know that more unequal countries and countries with stingy state support tend to have higher rates of teenage pregnancy which, in turn, tends towards larger families. Today in Britain the government has proposed caps to welfare recipients so that they receive no more when they have more than a certain number of children. Using state welfare to shape people’s reproductive choices should make us all very nervous. The whiff of eugenics is deeply disturbing, and quite possibly the thin end of a very fat wedge intended to breed the poor out of existence. Caveat emptor.

Speaking Ill of the Dead

The Philpott story receded quickly, but only because the Tories got an even better opportunity to propagandise: the death last week of Margaret Thatcher. And no writing about welfare vilification and the political manipulation of the people is complete without a mention of her.

I spent (far too) much of the last week furiously arguing with people who claimed that negatively commenting on the legacy of Thatcher in the week of her death was distasteful and wicked, and that the spontaneous street parties and the campaign to top the music charts with that Judy Garland tune were the poorest of all possible forms. One should not speak ill of the dead. I have to disagree. The week has been spent by the Conservatives attempting to rewrite history, sanctifying and sanitising the memory of Thatcher’s legacy. In other words, they want to create a lie. And part of the reason for this is that they see themselves as the inheritors of her ideological project. They are right in that, of course (Blair was also in this lineage). But it is this that makes it wrong for them to try to suppress criticism of Thatcher’s legacy, even in its quirkiest manifestations. So let’s take a look at that legacy…

She was someone who was, by any honest account of public records, homophobic, racist, contemptuous of the unfortunate, an advocate of instigating war to deflect attention from home affairs, and a friend and admirer of a number of the world’s most brutal dictators. With her trans-atlantic partners-in-crime, she was the co-executor of what may be the largest process of social larceny in human history, transferring more wealth up the social ladder than ever before seen. Her economic policies stripped Britain of its public assets, brought about large-scale unemployment, and ultimately led to the financial mess that we face today (Will Hutton gives a good overview of her economic legacy here).

Apologists, of course, reject this, even if it is all on record. Some, for example, in the flurry of revisionism, have suggested that her friendship with Pinochet was a quid pro quo for his help with the Falklands. But her association with him starts well before and goes far beyond that. Pinochet came to power through a CIA-backed coup of September 11, 1973, that evicted the democratically elected Salvador Allende. This was a key stage in the neoliberal project that Thatcher was so central to. Pinochet’s regime marked the first large-scale experiment in free-market fundamentalism and involved the open complicity of many key figures of neoliberalism, including Milton Friedman and Friedrich von Hayek, who, like Thatcher later, openly praised Pinochet. This experiment proved conclusively that neoliberalism and liberty are in no way related, and that free-market capitalism is perfectly compatible with torture, rape, and murder – a lesson that I fear we have not learned thoroughly enough. Thatcher didn’t admire Pinochet (or Suharto, or Pol Pot,) despite what he was and did, but because of it. They were ideological kindred.

I attempted a Socratic thought-experiment with someone who was appalled at the street parties. I started with “If Hitler were to die today, would you not celebrate?” The experiment ended immediately with a barrage of “there’s no comparison between Hitler and Thatcher”. Actually, there is always a comparison – comparisons imply ranking, not equality. But never mind. My point was not that she was as bad as Hitler – she wasn’t – but rather to make the (what I thought was obvious) point that Hitler should not be the threshold of evil only beyond which criticism is valid. Had the experiment continued I would have moved down the scale through less evil men and women, trying to find the point where criticism becomes distasteful. Mussolini was arguably less evil than Hitler, for example, but I’d still think it appropriate to criticise him after death. Some of Thatcher’s buddies no doubt would cluster around the Mussolini-mark. And in a good-evil scale, say, Ghandi-to-Mussolini, I would hazard that the Iron Lady was closer to Mussolini than to the Mahatma.

But even if you buy into the whole “Thatcher-as-Saviour-of-Britain” line – and many do, despite the evidence to the contrary – who are you, or I, or anyone else, to decide how others should react to her death? No one can honestly deny that there are an extraordinary number of people who feel that Thatcher wronged them. I happen to agree with them: you might not. But this is neither here nor there. Only they can decide what response is appropriate. This coming week, Thatcher will be buried, and I fear that there may be violence. But maybe not. It is not for me to judge.

The press have been using the word “divisive” to describe Thatcher’s premiership. They mean that she was “controversial”. She was indeed that. But she was divisive in the other way too – she seeded division in a way that British society has yet to recover from. She was the classic “divide-and-conquer” leader, and a first class proponent of the Architecture of Resentment. Never one to let facts get in the way of a good story, Thatcher, like Cameron’s government today, was adept at vilifying the poor and those reliant on the State. Today, Thatcher’s legacy is an extreme politics contemptuous of evidence and powered by the open manipulation of people’s emotions. Speaking ill of the living is the stock trade of this government. In the face of this, we have a duty to speak ill of the dead: speaking ill of the dead is the beginning of an honest assessment of where we are and how we got here.

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The Gorilla in the Room

March 6, 2013 5 comments

Last week I was reading about an experiment in neuroscience. It involved a video made by Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris in which a group of young people passed a basketball back and forth to each other. Midway through the video a person in a gorilla suit walks into frame and waves wildly to the camera and then walks off again. An audience of viewers watching this video were asked to count the number of times that the ball was passed. Typically about half the viewers had no recollection whatsoever of the man in the gorilla suit. The purpose of the experiment was to examine how the human brain focuses on specific things at the expense of context. My own purpose is humbler: it is a useful and amusing example of how easily people can be distracted from the important things that are happening around them.

Distraction is an idea that is very much at the heart of neoliberal politics of the last three decades, and it is playing a very important role right now. These distractions are multiple and mutually reinforcing and they form what I call the architecture of resentment. The architecture of resentment operates by deflecting emotional energy away from the powerful and towards the powerless. It is the collection of institutional frameworks and rhetorical arguments of the right, and makes heavy use of scapegoating, something I touched upon at the end of last year as being a dangerous and slippery slope.

 

Institutions

Changes to welfare mechanisms over the last few decades have been instrumental in shaping the context of the architecture of resentment. There have been many changes of which we can only examine a couple. The erosion of welfare provisions and the deregulation of the labour market (so-called “worker flexibility”) create the context for deep insecurity – a killer of clear thought if ever there was one. This is standard capitalistic practice: internalise the benefits (profits) and externalise the costs and risks (by pushing them onto workers). The introduction of means-testing to welfare entitlements adds two things to this. First, it stigmatizes those on the “wrong” side of an artificial dividing line: they are made conspicuous by their relationship to the line and by intrusive and humiliating bureaucratic procedures, bringing about the sense that they have been publicly judged to be failures. Second, a deep sense of resentment is created for those who fall just on the “right” side of the line – those who are most like those on the other side of the line but who are disqualified from help. There are few more effective techniques than to set the weak against the slightly weaker. This is a standard “divide and conquer” tactic, neighbour against neighbour, brother against brother, a certain corroder of solidarity.

The psychological effect of this divisive strategy is clear, and is illustrative of the general strategy employed in the architecture of resentment. The recipients who are eligible for state assistance are sometimes emotively described, by those who are not, as having a “culture of entitlement”, a term leaked into the public consciousness by the architects of the architecture of resentment. What is typically meant by “culture of entitlement” is that those people think that they are entitled to welfare benefits when they shouldn’t be: maybe they should have to earn their entitlement, and so forth. I have heard this said by quite a few otherwise reflective people, and it is obviously a catchy enough tune. What I believe lies at the bottom of this is actually the opposite: the active force here is not outrage that those others receive those benefits but that this person is barred from them even if they were in a situation where they need help or have earned them. This is the ultimate effect of means testing. This division creates a schism, an asymmetry, an alterity. It is of a kind with the current treatment of public sector pensions and wages, where groups of opposition are fabricated solely in order to inspire and maintain resentment.

 

Rhetorical claims

While the institutional components of the architecture of resentment help to reproduce and expand the basis of distraction, the real meat lies in the rhetoric. The rhetoric is a mixture of catchy slogans (like “the politics of envy”, “culture of dependency”, or, as above, “the culture of entitlement”), as well as more direct claims about groups in society.

Let’s start with the claims. These claims take the form of assertions or stories about groups. At some points in history these claims take the form of racist slogans; at others they deflect attention away from domestic affairs towards outside groups – Muslims, commies, etc. More commonly they refer to vulnerable groups within a society and today the most popular claims are against those receiving welfare support from the state. (Note the mutual reinforcement between these claims and the institutions above: welfare claimants are morally deficient in some way or another and so we must put them through the crucible of shame before granting support).

Sometimes these stories contain elements of truth: the truthful part is rarely interesting or important. Often the claims are more in the mould of urban-myths, wild extrapolations from isolated cases (and usually without a clear understanding of even those cases). What little truth there is in such claims is distorted by the use of emotive and loaded language; marginally truthful data are misrepresented through, again, loaded labelling (the rhetoric of dependency is a common example); a spade is called a parasite, and we cannot understand the nature of a spade if we believe that it is sucking us dry. And sometimes stories are simply fabricated. Reagan famously invented his welfare queen. The UK Conservative party insists on the existence of families that have been on welfare for three generations (a tale they inherited from Blair), although, like the Yeti, not a single bit of evidence has ever been produced nor a single case found. In the last few weeks the UK press have been salivating over a case of supposed “welfare scrounging” involving a woman, her eleven children, and a horse living in apparent profligacy in a supposed mansion. On closer inspection (unsurprisingly not so much covered in the press) it turns out that she was allocated her house (not quite as nice as implied) by a housing group, part of the program of welfare privatisation.

Scapegoating works the better the less that the scapegoated group can respond. So it is unsurprising to find increasing occurrences of hybrid compound vulnerabilities being targeted: the latest in the UK is the notion of “welfare tourism” – our country, apparently, is being remorselessly milked by foreigners moving here in order to receive welfare; a few months ago it was obese welfare recipients; the current obsession with disability benefits is of the same character.

The usual definition of “hate speech” is publications and statements that deliberately lie or misrepresent facts about an ascriptively linked group in order to stimulate ill feeling toward them. By this definition the scapegoating of welfare recipients is clearly hate speech. Welfare scapegoating is the new racism; Barbara Ellen of the Guardian describes “shaming the poor” as the “new bloodsport”. It is hate speech because the claims are very often false. As often as not, the claims are simply the manufactured products of the fertile (and extraordinarily well funded) imaginations of right-wing think tanks, who lack any transparency and represent the views of a tiny, unaccountable, anti-democratic, and invisible elite. Ellen, in her article, refers to a recent report jointly published by a number of British church groups including the Methodists, the United Reformed Church, the Church of Scotland and the Baptist Union. The study, The Lies We Tell Ourselves, is to be welcomed and systematically debunks many of the most popular and corrosive welfare myths in Britain today. It addresses such catchy classic hits as “welfare recipients are lazy”, “welfare recipients have an easy life”, and “welfare recipients caused the deficit”. These myths are simply untrue and we have a duty to make sure that people know this.

 

The Politics of Envy

So much for the popular rhetorical claims. What about the slogans? There are far too many to choose from. But in order to give it some decent attention I will focus on just one. Last week I attended a debate on the (de)merits of the UK government’s austerity program, with particular attention to the human rights implications of slashing public spending on welfare programs. One of the defenders of austerity, a member the right-wing think tank the Institute of Economic Affairs, blamed anti-austerity sentiment on the “politics of envy”. This is an old favourite among conservatives. The general idea is that the poor are envious of the success of those better off than them; envy is neither virtuous nor admirable; ipso facto the poor and those who argue for them are not just wrong but also a little bit wicked.

The argument from envy has a long history in conservative thought. It can be found in just about any right-wing thinker. For illustrative purposes I’ll focus on two. The daddy of neoliberalism, Friedrich von Hayek was an early and enthusiastic contributor to the “politics of envy” rhetoric.  He tells us that:

When we inquire into the justification of these demands [for economic justice] we find that they rest on the discontent that the success of some people often produces in those that are less successful, or, to put it bluntly, on envy. (Hayek, 2006, pp. 81-2)

…and, again:

In a wealthy community the only justification its members can have for insisting on further advantages is that there is much private wealth that the government can confiscate and redistribute and that men who constantly see such wealth being enjoyed by others will have a stronger desire for it than those who know of it only abstractly, if at all. (Hayek, 2006, p. 88)

…and once more with feeling:

[Unconstrained economic liberty is] a condition of freedom so essential that it must not be sacrificed to the gratification of our sense of justice or of our envy. (Hayek, 1984, p. 30)

Robert Nozick, another demagogue of the libertarian right, is even plainer in his appeals. He devotes many pages of his libertarian these, Anarchy, State, and Utopia to the theme of envy, only a sample of which we have space for here. He writes:

Is it so implausible to claim that envy underlies this conception of justice, forming part of its root notion? (Nozick, 2009, p. 229)

…and ten pages later he is still going strong:

The envious person, if he cannot (also) possess a thing (talent, and so on) that someone else has, prefers that the other person not have it either. The envious man prefers neither one having it, to the other’s having it and his not having it. (Nozick, 2009, p. 239)

These are mighty big claims (and, I will add, undemonstrated (probably indemonstrable)). But why should we accept such ideas? Much of the best and most influential egalitarian writing comes from people who are, or were, fairly comfortably situated – surely it is implausible that they are all that envious of the wealthiest? Many of them (those that Nozick, for example, is responding to) are accomplished academics and are surely clever enough to have become rich themselves if they so choose? And how can a person be envious on behalf of someone else anyway? Why do conservatives find it so darned hard to accept that these people may be acting on moral impulses wholly different to envy?

And is it not also plausible that it is the wealthy and powerful who are acting out of envy, at least as much as the poor? I don’t think that Danny Dorling is wrong when he describes “the everyday politics of the envy and fear of those who had come to know a little luxury, who wanted much more as a result and who lived in constant uneasy fear of it being taken away” (Dorling, 2010, p. 138).

And, we should ask, is the envy of the poor, assuming it to exist, wholly their own moral failing? The late, great E. F. Schumacher is clear on this:

Excessive wealth, like power, tends to corrupt. Even if the rich are not ‘idle rich’, even when they work harder than anyone else, they work differently, apply different standards, and are set apart from common humanity. They corrupt themselves by practicing greed, and they corrupt the rest of society by provoking envy. (Schumacher, 1993, p. 236)

In fact, envy plays a critical (and lamentable) role in capitalist society. It is the oil without which the consumerism that keeps the rich rich would have no grip. Throughout neoliberal thought imitation, emulation and covetousness – envy! – act as drivers for market growth and innovation. Envy lies at the very heart of modern consumerism. We are continually reminded that we are inadequate and that the solution is to buy products x, y, and z if we wish to be functioning wholes like everyone else. It would seem that envy is perfectly fine when directing people to act in the interests of the wealthiest – it is only morally objectionable when it works against them.

We can, and should, turn the “politics of envy” rhetoric on its head. “[E]nvy, resentment, and hatred,” Michael Walzer points out, “…are the common consequences of hierarchical domination.”(Walzer, 2004, p. 130). Envy is not wrong because it opposes inequality; inequality – of power, in the form of domination – is wrong because it produces envy along with a multitude of other evils. Envy is a mark of poison in society – a symptom of a greater problem. We should not seek to punish envy but to relieve it. A true “politics of envy” has the admirable goal of removing the reasons for envy, and limiting the mechanisms that utilise it for personal gain.

 

The Gorilla in the Room

So let’s talk about the gorilla in the room… It has been running around while we have been distracted with the busy work of worrying about non-existent bogeymen: welfare scroungers; welfare dependency; the “politics of envy”; the “culture of entitlement” etc etc etc. What has it been doing while we were busily looking elsewhere? Under the disguise of talk about liberty and state interference, these groups who claim to want to remove “big government” from business have actually done a great deal to get big business into government. We should be clear about what this means. When government intervenes in business – say, in the form of regulation – this is part of, and entirely compatible with, the democratic ideal: as thinkers such as Karl Polanyi have pointed out, government intervention is necessary to legitimate the exercise of the powers of capitalism: it is the safety-valve on private power. On the other hand when business interferes with government – when “money is speech”, when “corporations are people”, both forms of power and both concentrated into the hands of a small and unaccountable minority – then what we have is simply corruption and nothing more. It is ironic that libertarian demagogues have derided government regulation and action by highlighting the risk that some powerful individuals will use the state to garner advantages for themselves; in fact, what has happened is that the efforts to “shrink the state” and reduce government action has simply weakened democracy and brought about that very evil it was supposed to prevent. The state hasn’t been shrunk, it has just been retasked.

A final, somewhat bittersweet, thought for those who have made it this far (attention spans are yet another casualty of the architecture of resentment). All of this places us in a difficult situation. If we address the false claims, the fairytales, the resentment-producing rhetoric, and slogans then we have, in a way, handed a victory to their purveyors. We are necessarily on the back foot and our responses are a rearguard action. It costs them little to produce and spread these narratives. It costs us a great deal to oppose them. The point of the architecture of resentment, as I started with, is to distract us. By investing our time and energy in responding to such nonsense we risk giving them credence while we squander our valuable resources on defensive acts rather than putting them to the better use of formulating solutions to today’s problems. But, nevertheless, I firmly believe that we do have the moral duty of opposing these tactics. We must continue to push back, and we must do so much more firmly than we have done so far: when faced with a cheap slogan or a defamatory “fact” we must demand the evidence in a neutral form, the source of the evidence, and the funders of the sources of evidence. We shouldn’t simply accept the conservative-assigned role of dog-fetching-the-stick: instead we should be beating them with their own sticks. We need to stop letting unaccountable right-wing think tanks control the language of the discussion and we must call out complicity with them wherever we find it. We must stare the gorilla in the room directly in the eyes and point it out to everyone around us.

Works Cited:

Dorling, D. (2010). Injustice: Why Social Inequality Persists. The Policy Press.

Hayek, F. A. (1984). Individualism and Economic Order. The University of Chicago Press.

Hayek, F. A. (2006). The Constitution Of Liberty. Routledge Classics.

Nozick, R. (2009). Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Blackwell Publishing.

Schumacher, E. F. (1993). Small Is Beautiful. Vintage.

Walzer, M. (2004). Politics and Passion: Toward a More Egalitarian Liberalism. Yale University Press.

 

Property and Interests

Private property is most effective in advancing the cause of liberty when ownership is closely aligned with primary interests. When the two coincide ownership can protect these interests by securing our ability to act on them. But, by the same token, liberty is eroded when ownership and interests diverge: where a person or group owns the things to which others have a primary interest, ownership becomes an instrument of control, and opportunities for domination multiply. The individualistic market and property model is predicated around a schism between interests and ownership: we produce or own things that others have an interest in to ensure that our own interests are met by others. At its best, it facilitates matching ownership with interest, at worst it keeps them apart and allows the gap to be used as an instrument of control. In part, this is what distinguishes a healthy economy from an unhealthy economy: the former aims to shorten the distance between interests and goods while the latter seeks to capitalise (pun intended) on increasing that distance. This raises a broader question as to whether the libertarian property model is universally suited to uniting interests with ownership, and hence uniquely placed to protect those interests.

Robert Nozick proposes that things come with claims already attached, and this may well be the case. His intent is to refute such institutions as tax-based wealth redistribution and promote a fully-realised private property market regime. But the claims that are attached to the things in the world are often very different to what Nozick imagines, and they may go so far as to exclude the very framework that Nozick wishes to demonstrate. His model assumes that property is about choice: we choose to make things; we choose to transfer things; we choose what to do with things, and so forth, such that everything is thus a result of free choice. The relationship between interest and ownership is only that interests shape our choices.

But this is a very poor model of what goes on in the real world. Choice is not liberty (liberty precedes and shapes choice), and what we agree to and what we would choose do not necessarily coincide. Some choose and others don’t, and some control the things that matter very much to others in ways that negate choice. In the real world we exist in relationships with things – places, activities, people – that have little to do with choice but that constitute our core interests. And these relationships give rise to claims that demand recognition. Nozick cannot be right, if he takes liberty at all seriously, that the claims that attach to property derive solely from the history of choices around these things. Individualised choice may, in fact, actively violate the most pressing claims that are attached to things. Unconstrained transfer rights make the relationship between interests and property very fragile: it only takes one party to transfer away the control over their interests for those interests to be forever compromised.

A property/market model suits some situations, especially where the goods in question are inherently individual, exclusionary, and transferable, and where the interests are transitory: in other words, consumer goods. But a different model, focussed on interests, is a more natural fit in at least some cases and, by aligning interests with ownership, is better suited to minimising domination and protecting liberty and autonomy. In this different model, some or all of the rights that we associate with property flow directly from the interests themselves. These rights flow not from ownership but from association, and so we might call such cases associational property. Associational property is not a matter of individual voluntary choice and transaction but rather derives from inherent relationships. Only changes to the association can change the ownership claims. This model recognises that liberty and autonomy depend on control remaining with the affected parties. There is nothing especially novel about the basic idea here: it is at the heart of what is best in socialism, anarchism, and even democracy. But to a libertarian it is a wholly foreign idea.

Ownership of self is perhaps the definitive case of associational property. It is the most intimate association that we all partake in, and many of the difficulties in libertarian theory come from the attempt to confuse self-ownership with conventional ownership. Self-ownership is rooted in the idea that I have the most interest in the parts of myself. Control of these parts by others is what makes slavery so offensive. I own myself and my constituent aspects simply because they are me. I did not choose to have these legs, ears, eyes, talents, or inclinations: I have relations of ownership to these elements simply because they are the integral parts of my being. Nor can I transfer these aspects to others – at best, I can agree to transfer the benefits of the use of these aspects to others: I can affect the outside world and that might conceivably be translated into transferable property claims. But I can never transfer myself in part or in whole without destroying my integrity. Self-ownership, then, derives from – and can only derive from – the prior fact of our existence, and only by ceasing to exist can we alter that relationship.

Our core interests deviate most from the libertarian individualistic property model when they involve other people. Most of our interests involve plural and complex associations. In some cases assigning controlling ownership rights over these interests to identified individuals may be efficient or practical. But as often as not such allocation is arbitrary and introduces a divorce between interest and control, creating opportunities for exploitation. The natural ownership model for these things is one that is mutual between stakeholders.

One example of this is core public infrastructure. Roads, public transport, utilities and the like are so important to our capacity to conduct our daily lives that this creates claims that are incompatible with those of private ownership: there are things that cannot be done with such items without violating important interests. The owner of a city’s water system cannot simply start pumping lemonade instead of water through the pipes. It would not be within the rights of the owner of a city’s road system to simply dig them up and plant cherry blossom trees. These shared interests create partial ownership claims over such infrastructure. Indeed, this is what we normally mean when we talk about public ownership.

A hugely important topic, to be saved for another day, is one of the most important interests that most of us have: that of the ownership of our productive activities. It is no secret that the gap between ownership and production is immense in its currently dominant form of stocks and shares. This has been a major source of irresponsibility, instability, locally and globally, and a driving force behind growing inequality. For now, I will simply state the conclusion that seems obvious to me: we need to take seriously the notion that the space of ownership of production must change dramatically to be limited to the workers, communities, and, in some special cases, consumers. Another zone of shared interest, again to be deferred in its discussion, is our ecology.

We all have critical stakes in ourselves, in our cities, in our ecologies, and in our workplaces. Regardless of the plurality of stakeholders with interests, any separation of interests from ownership introduces the opportunity for control and domination to emerge. When transferable ownership is superimposed on self-ownership we create the possibility for slavery, exploitation, and human misery; when critical infrastructure is sold-off to remote owners, driven by profit, we lose local autonomy and stability; when our workplaces are owned by volatile and disinterested shareholders the worker’s life becomes fragile and non-autonomous. These are all forms of domination that occur when natural forms of ownership are supplanted by a form that simply does not fit. What we have seen over recent decades is the privatisation of the greater part of public infrastructure, the quiet privatisation of public spaces (replacing rights to public protest with the right to advertise), the widespread imposition of mobile capital, and the enforcement of labour “flexibility” (read as “insecurity”). These all represent compromises of core interests in favour of increased domination. The question to be posed is whether, given the core interests involved, these transfers to private individualised ownership has been anything but a violation of trust.

 

Athena and the New Versailles

April 4, 2012 1 comment

A few weeks ago I went to an interesting talk by author Nicholas Wapshott about his new book on Keynes and Hayek, the two economists who have shaped the dominant views on twentieth century economics. John Maynard Keynes secured his international reputation in the 1920s through the publication of his book The Economic Consequences of the Peace. After the First World War, representatives of the British, American, and French governments met in Versailles, just outside of Paris, with representatives of recently defeated Germany. There, they hammered out a treaty outlining reparations to those countries by Germany for the costs of the war. Keynes was a member of the British delegation and wrote his book based on his observations there. He walked away appalled by the terms of the treaty. It was these impressions that he outlined in great detail in his book. He made what was one of the most extraordinary predictions in modern history. The terms of the treaty would, he claimed, create extraordinary poverty, insecurity, and resentment in Germany. The resulting degree of desperation among the German people would make them deeply prone to the less than benign influence of ideologues and demagogues. And this would make a second great war all but inevitable within a short period after the first. Short of actually mentioning Hitler by name, Keynes was exactly right on every point. His prediction was maybe the single most spectacular, audacious, and important one made in the last century. And it has implications that we must take seriously today.

Wapshott, in his talk, vividly painted this picture of Keynes’s arrival onto the public scene. He then went on to make a very interesting point. There was, he claimed, a parallel between what happened after the Great War and what is currently happening now in Europe. Of course, now the shoe is on the other foot and it is Germany that is naming the conditions. In the place of post-war Germany we now have Greece which has been asked (if we can use that term) to accept extraordinary terms of austerity in exchange for a bailout package. This general theme has been on my mind for some time, and it is one that refuses to go away. This week I went to a talk by the renegade Australian economist Steve Keen who made the same point when asked what the options for Greece are: there was a serious risk, he said, that they might vote for a “man with a moustache”. The cradle of democracy is no stranger to dictatorship. Greece is not alone in this danger.

The secret of Keynes’s prediction is that he did what economists are generally loathed to do (and one reason why economic modelling so frequently proves inadequate or even harmful) – he took actual human behaviour into account. People who are afraid and insecure make poor choices and are prone to doctrines that offer quick and easy solutions. They are likely “to listen to ugly voices, and to use their votes and money to give these voices a political platform of increasing influence” (Standing, 2011, p. 1). The oft-quoted saying that those who trade security for freedom deserve and receive neither is too facile: some forms of security are essential if freedom is to exist at all. Desperate people behave irrationally. People who are divided economically can only be united by appeals to their worst natures – their pride, vanity, and prejudice. This is also the secret of social control through the commonly applied method of fear of the “other” (Communists, “Radical Islam”, Homosexuality, Atheism, and heretics). It is here that the apparent dichotomy between equality and freedom is shown so nakedly to be false. The puzzling and contrary shift to the political far right since the banking crisis must be understood in these terms.

It is a curious thing that the “rolling back of the state” by reducing the state’s welfare and regulatory capacities has also involved extending the state’s enforcement capacities. We saw this under Thatcher with the wholesale extension of CCTV coverage of London and around the UK, and the use of naked force against the unions. It is no surprise that the same US government that cut taxes for the wealthiest also introduced the euphemistically named “Patriot Act”. Today, Cameron’s austerity measures and rolling back of state welfare provision is accompanied by serious talk of internet and telephony surveillance and secret trials in the interests of state security. It is no secret that incarceration rates correlate directly to a weak welfare state, with the US leading the way and the UK taking the prize in Europe.

From time to time, in defence of Thatcherism, I am told that the UK was in terrible shape before she took hold of the country. No doubt this was true. It is also true that today’s woes in the UK are a direct “consequence of her peace” – her ideological platform and “solution” of deregulation and privatisation. Hitler achieved an extraordinary rejuvenation of the German economy. He also committed the greatest crimes that humanity has ever seen. The cure can be much worse than the disease. The libertarian stance of the likes of Hayek was that the state is inherently bad and any large state will inevitably lead to the loss of freedom and dictatorship. He used Nazism as the exemplar of this claim. But he mistook symptom for cause and derived exactly the wrong lesson. By defining liberty as absence of coercion libertarians come to the party far too late – this is why I identify freedom in opposition to domination which can be economic as much as anything else. Hitler certainly did use the state to effect great evil. But he could only do so because of the state of the German economy and the desperation of the German people, a direct result of punitive austerity which a healthier state could have avoided. Austerity in a time of depression is not only bad economics – it is bad politics. The big government / small government debate is and always has been entirely the wrong debate. The debate must be about good government / bad government and should talk about representativeness and accountability. Limiting the debate to a matter of size simply begs the question. A small strong state is not a good state. The economic functions of the state are no great threat to liberty – economic liberty is not liberty per se; it is often its worst enemy. But the enforcement function of the state surely is. Healthy public provision provides the weak with a defence both against the state and against the strong who might use the power of the state to harm them. Weakening such provision while strengthening the enforcement capacity of the state is not a recipe for liberty: it is an invitation for the “man with the moustache” to enter the scene.

So to check the score: Keynes – 1, Hayek – 0.

The liberty of the Germans died in Versailles, long before Hitler came to power. It is not yet too late for the rest of us, but we cannot take this for granted.

[Edit] Here is an interview with Steve Keen from late last year – very interesting.

References:

Standing, G. (2011). The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class. Bloomsbury Academic.

An Overview of my Argument

March 16, 2012 Leave a comment

I’ve been asked to do a short talk about the book I am writing so I thought this would be a good opportunity to provide a very high level outline of where I’m heading. I’d like to sketch out here in very broad brushstrokes an overall thesis, tying together some of things that have already been discussed here, and leaving for future posts the details of the remainder. Where I can, I will make links here to more detailed arguments that I have made in past posts. The remaining arguments will be regrettably brief but I will endeavour to flesh them as I progress with the book.

The case I am making is against the ideology known as “political libertarianism”. It is closely related to an economic doctrine called “neoliberalism” and the arguments I make will count against both. These doctrines are typical of the “new right” in politics, the motivations of people such as Reagan and Thatcher, but also in practice of the likes of Blair, Clinton, and Cameron. All of these have sought to “roll back the state” and to promote free market capitalism based on variations of these philosophies.

The libertarian argument is, very roughly:
1. Liberty is an absence of coercion, where coercion means physical force or the threat thereof. This is the so-called “negative” definition of liberty.
2. People have the right to liberty. Therefore the rights that people have are limited to protection against coercion. Coercion is only permissible in preventing coercion.
3. Private property can only be transferred between two parties voluntarily. This is mostly free exchange (in a market or otherwise), or in the form of gifts or bequests (e.g. inheritance). Any other mode of property transfer is coercive and therefore a violation of people’s rights.
4. The state should only involve itself in protecting people’s rights. Therefore, the state should limit itself primarily to protecting private property.
5. Taxation and the provision of welfare and services to the members a society is a violation of liberty because it requires taking resources from some to provide to others. Similarly, regulation of commerce, labour conditions, and so forth limit free exchange and, hence, liberty
6. Free market capitalism consists of voluntary exchanges, so a) the free market is the only valid manifestation of liberty and b) the state should support the free market.

In philosophical terms these claims are indefensible. In practical terms they are unsustainable.

Here, as briefly as possible, are the top-level philosophical objections.

The idea that liberty means non-coercion is simply too narrow and does not reflect any reasonable notion of what it means to be free. Freedom is not just something that individuals have. It is a function of the relationships between people in a shared real world. Libertarians conflate liberty with choice, or “revealed preferences”. But we cannot infer freedom from the fact that people choose between some options. People under dictatorships typically go along with it without struggle, and, in that sense, make choices within that context, but they cannot be said to be free. The nature of the options available to a person, and how they are shaped by the choices of others, is an important component of liberty. Arguing for freedom-as-choice, Robert Nozick was able to defend voluntary slavery as compatible with liberty. He could only do so by ignoring the likelihood that a person is very likely not free before they make such an appalling “choice”. A more plausible definition of liberty is “non-domination”. Domination implies that a person or group has significant control over the life options of others. I can dominate you and bend your will to my ends simply by having something you need. Coercion is simply the extreme point of domination and cannot exist without domination already being present. They need not resort to actual coercion to impose this control. People can be perfectly unfree before coercion need be employed (in fact, a recourse to actual coercion might point to imperfect domination). Our interaction with others is grounded in relative bargaining positions, often very asymmetrical, and it is here that we find the spectre of domination.

The idea of rights goes well beyond the prevention of coercion. Rights are social devices that protect us from “standard threats”.  The common right-wing view suggests that rights exist to protect us from the state. This is only half the story. Rights exist to mutually protect us from each other (including but in no way limited to the uses that some would put the state to). This extends the notion of rights well beyond simply preventing us from the coercion of the state. Bargaining asymmetries are an important site of standard threats and a variety of rights may be needed to effect protection.

The notion of private property, in the hands of libertarian thought, suffers from numerous problems. It is common for the ownership of property to be conflated with the ownership of one’s self – Nozick, for instance, segues between objecting to the redistribution of bodily organs, talents, and other personal attributes, to objecting to the redistribution of wealth and material goods. But the two are importantly distinct. Interfering with a person’s body and mind is a very different prospect to interfering with their property. Property ownership is a relationship to the external world. It is, importantly, a relationship between not just the owner and a thing but all people and a thing.

The property relationship is one of tyranny as much as it is one of freedom. A person’s property defines their own little dictatorship. It is a limit on the freedom of what everyone else in the world can do with that thing. It is not clear that any individual can or even should have such a unique control over any part of the external and shared world. We all need physical resources to pursue nearly all of our goals in life. Exclusive control of some resources that we can use to directly pursue our goals is thus an essential precondition to any reasonable notion of liberty. But property is also held that is not directly needed by a person. We live in a complex world where our goals can typically only be fulfilled by cooperating with others. So property can also be used as leverage against people who have the things or skills that we need to pursue our goals. Beyond that, it can simply be used as a coarser lever against others to bend to one’s will. It is here that the prime threat to liberty exists. The question is how much control over the resources needed by others is compatible with liberty.

Property exchange is both subject to, and heavily influenced by its outcomes, asymmetries of bargaining positions. It is not the only component of bargaining advantage but is surely the most important. Other components, like the very important informational advantage, and the ability to develop innate talents, are heavily influenced by property control. The relationship between property ownership and bargaining advantage is the primary contributor to the fact that property tends to concentrate in a small number of hands (anyone who can grasp compound interest can understand this, I think). It is simply not the case, as libertarians claim, that the transfer of property according to some “rules of the game” automatically produces just and fair results – the content of the rules matter very much.

Property rights are, on the whole, instrumental – they exist to serve other, more important, goals that we may have. Clearly they cannot protect these goals if the role of the state is limited to purely protecting existing property holdings. For property rights to be effective in asserting our liberty they must ensure that a) all people have some amount of guaranteed property, both for direct personal use and for exchange, and b) differentials in property ownership do not become so large as to create intolerable differences in bargaining relations. Property ownership, unchecked, contains both the seeds and the mechanism of domination. The protection of unlimited property accumulation is not a defence of liberty but a defence of power. Not only is the redistribution of wealth not necessarily a violation of liberty (or no worse than the violation inherent in defending property rights) – it is a necessary precondition to the preservation of it. Liberty and equality are not at all opposites as is often claimed.

In some cases it is preferable to protect more directly the things that people need rather than leave it to the indirect means of private property ownership and the markets. Provision of rights to health care and education fit this bill. Their contribution to bargaining positions makes it important to ensure that access to them is not subject to pre-existing bargaining advantages. The state has a clear role here that goes well beyond simply facilitating open markets.

Finally, the kinds of property that we permit in a society are important. In the not so distant past it was thought perfectly ok to own people as property. Laws in many parts still treat spouses as property in important ways. Today, the dominant form of productive ownership, the investor-owner share/stock model, is effectively the ownership of the productivity of workers (the argument on this is long, and for another day). This is no great advance on feudalism, and the arguments that defend it are flimsy to say the least. The resulting businesses look uncomfortably like authoritarian systems. They are also one of the greatest sources of compounding inequalities. A society built around worker-owned cooperative enterprises is a necessary step to fixing this.

So much for the philosophical case. What, then, of the practical objections? I can only discuss a couple of points here, but these are especially important.

It is orthodox in right-wing economics that market transactions capture everything of relevance to the world. This is patently false. Every transaction carries potential costs, risks, and benefits to people who are not involved in the transaction. Economists call these “externalities”, or third-party effects. Most discussion limits these to physical effects like pollution (and more recently, climate effects). These are very important and illuminate much in what is wrong with the property and market models. What is much less discussed is what I call “social externalities” – the side-effects of markets on people across a society. These include poverty, unemployment, crime, social instability and many other things. In an increasingly complex and interdependent world risks taken by some are leaked onto others who had no part in choosing them: risks are increasingly social. Growing inequality and, with it, growing disparities of bargaining positions have compounded the problem by making it much easier for powerful actors to shirk risk while retaining the profits (again, compounding their advantages). The banking crisis of 2008 is a dramatic example of this. Both redistribution (understood here not as welfare but as insurance) and regulation have crucial roles to play in this.

Closely related to this is the notion that private ownership ensures the best use and conservation of a resource – neoliberals would say “something that is owned by everyone is owned by no one”. This bears little scrutiny. Capitalism has an appalling track record of conservation and it can only get worse. Markets hold notoriously short-term and myopic views. An individual owning a rainforest will as soon sell or destroy it to make a profit and move on to some other profitable activity with the gains than preserve it for future use. Private ownership denies a voice to many interested parties (including the not yet existing parties of future generations). Self-interest, of the mythical “rational” type or otherwise, has little room for the consideration of others.

Markets may be blind to race, religion and gender (although this claim is much exaggerated – they are very much alive to wealth). But they are also blind to need. Market demand only recognises the presence of purchasing power, and gross inequality also means that the productive powers of a society are weighed heavily towards fulfilling the wants of the best off. The conservative argument is that the worse off benefit because the rich serve as “early adopters” and pay the price of research and so forth, paving the way to luxuries become available to the poor. This claim, like others, is greatly overstated and depends very much on the gap between the wealthy and the poor being reasonably close. (Never mind that it has been overwhelmingly the middle classes who have served this role in the last century). It also ensures that many of the things that poor need that already exist (like healthcare) are priced to suit the rich and kept out of reach of the poor. This has been even more evident in the inflation of house prices by wealthy “speculators” which did much to create the debt conditions leading to the “sub-prime crisis”, and the following financial crisis.

Finally, the overall structure of capitalism has no end-goal. It relies on perpetual growth and a form of economic obesity. Over the last two centuries we have moved from a producer economy to a consumer economy. The mechanism of capitalism has been useful in raising our capacities to meet our material needs. (The jury is out on whether this might have been achieved in other, better, and more sustainable ways). But having met those needs, and then some, the system, relying as it does on ensuring that investor/owners continue to profit, has come to depend on exponentially ever-growing consumption. We have gone from producing in order to consume to consuming in order to produce. While we adhere to a property system that insists that those with more than they need are richly rewarded for allowing the use of their excess wealth it cannot be otherwise. Rather than reap the rewards of improved productivity in better lives, we have sold (and have had to sell) those lives in exchange for things we simply do not need or even want. We have seen, in only a few decades, the growth of planned obsolescence, and increasingly short life-spans for products, along with the encroaching commodification of all aspects of life, from food preparation to the out-sourcing of the raising of our children.  At the same time we have seen the transformation from a public that saved to one that takes on personal debt in order to compete in the anti-social status consumption race, so much so that people are paying off their debts long after they have consumed their goods. This was also important in the lead-up to the banking crisis. The bailouts in 2008 have extended across generations and across all of society the indebtedness required to keep this system going. We work longer and harder than we used to and are, by most measures, less happy. The alternative – living good, sensible, fulfilling lives – cannot work because, to put it bluntly, if the “one percent” do not get their three percent per annum they will take their ball and go home, taking all of our social gains with them. Perhaps we should let them – this is a most sublime form of servitude. Libertarianism has no answer to these questions but goes a long way to explaining how we got here. The growth problem has profound implications for the way that we view society, property, employment, unemployment, the work ethic, and progress. These are just some of the vestigial ideas that past circumstances have left us with that we need to reconsider.

Or else.

Unstoppable Force / Immovable Object

February 21, 2012 1 comment

This isn’t the blog I was intending to publish this week – I had begun work on a little discussion about the situation in Greece which I may get back to hopefully before the world changes too much again. But events in the last week of my own life have provoked a somewhat different topic, and as the Hollywood saying goes, “this time it’s personal”. Even now I am reticent to write about this because my emotions are running hot on the matter, but then sometimes there are truths to be found in passion. I need to be somewhat circumspect in what I write as it may have further (legal) implications for me that I would wish to avoid. But, at least as far as I am aware, my own life experiences remain my own property to do with as a please, and if I have signed away that much then my problems are indeed serious. So I will tell my tale, avoid naming names, and try as best as I can to relate it back to the more general philosophical ideas that this blog is committed to…

My dirty little secret (well, at least one of them, and the only one that I will offer up today) is that I earn an income by writing software for investment banks. Over recent years, as my philosophical and moral compass has moved in a particular direction, leading to a growing amount of cognitive dissonance for me. How can I be involved in an industry that I have so many issues with, both ethical and practical? The income from the work has allowed me a degree of luxury to pursue frequent periods of unemployment in which to pursue the real thing: writing music, reading politics and philosophy, and, now, writing politics and philosophy. I offer that not as excuse but simply as explanation.

My discomfort with the industry and my role in it may have come to a sudden head in the last week. And in coming to be, I might just have discovered the neoliberal answer to that age-old philosophical riddle: in a battle between the unstoppable force and the immovable object the former destroys the latter. Last week Wednesday I resigned from my current role, and on Thursday I was fired from it, with immediate effect. This all goes back to last November when the company announced that all contractors (of which I was one, being paid a day-rate) would undergo a security screening process. This is common practice in this industry when applying for a role but relatively uncommon during employment (although I suspect it is becoming more common). This process involves checking that people have worked where they claim to have worked, have no criminal record and so forth. So far so good – I have nothing to hide. As I was away on holiday for most of the period of December and January, most of this story takes place in the last few weeks. (There are some details that relate to the earlier period too, but in the interest of clarity I will skip over that bit and go straight to when I returned after my break).

So, as I mentioned, I arrange my work through term-based contracts in order to have periods where I am not formally employed. This is where the problem begins. Bureaucracy gets upset when the world fails to meet their box-ticking model of the world, and nothing looks more suspicious to the protestant work ethic than periods of not being in paid employment. My periods of actually living, henceforth to be referred to as (employment) “gaps”, fail to conform to the box-ticking worldview despite being relatively common amongst day-rate contractors and eminently laudable. They are a priori reasons for suspicion. This led to a demand for documentation of my “gaps” – specifically, travel documents, passport stamps, flight tickets, and bank statements. I declined to provide these, pointing out that, despite respecting that they wish to minimise their risks, such documents are private and not pertinent to the role. I invited them to pursue their search, suggesting that any irregularities that might be of interest to my employer can be best found through criminal record checks (to see if I am or have been a wanted fugitive), Interpol (to see if I am a global terrorist) and credit checks (to look for those kickbacks from my life of crime and corruption). These are all (with the exception of Interpol) standard practice for such screenings. (I mention as an aside here that such credit checks cannot possibly be to see whether I can pay my bills – they will always owe me money and never vice versa, and since 2008 this is not even a funny joke). I confess here to “picking a fight” – this is something I feel very strongly about and it is a practice that I abhor. I have encountered these demands from prior employers and ended up acquiescing after an appropriate token protest. But, having taken full ownership of my home last year and having a little in the way of savings in the bank, I decided this time I would make the principled stand. To continue the tale, the unstoppable force responded that these documents were required by policy. To which the immovable object responded that the company had no more right to these private documents than I had to demand proof of what they do on weekends and holidays. Not only that, but these documents do not demonstrate an absence of misdoings. Such an absence is, by definition, impossible to positively demonstrate – to compensate, the process starts with a presumption of guilt. That aside, if I were inclined to engage in nefarious activities (and I think I’d be rather good at it) I would most certainly not do so in a way that showed on my regular bank statements. I need not even do my wrongs during periods of non-employment – I could just as easily do them while employed. The irony is that if I actually had something to hide I would be more than eager to provide any documentation that would suggest otherwise. Or imagine that I had travelled to, say, Iran (I would very much like to) – what conclusions could be drawn from this? Then there is the “slippery slope” argument. By opening up my private life to (frankly pointless) intrusion I encourage the practice to grow – what next, proof of what I do on Sundays? (Maybe they wish to know whether I am a good church-goer – I am not, maybe it’s just “policy”).

Anyway, never argue with a machine. This went on for a few weeks, and after repeated demands for these documents and repeated attempts to explain and defend my own position I gave up and tendered my resignation – life is too short – expecting to work the remaining four weeks in peace. The following day my contract was terminated with immediate effect: the immovable object ceased to exist, at least as far as the unstoppable force was concerned. I was notified by email, mid-afternoon. The reason given was that by failing to provide necessary documentation I posed a security risk. Score: Unstoppable Force 1 / Immovable Object nil.

I have to say a word or two about the legal structure under which I worked in this job. Bare with me – this will hurt more than a little. On the surface of it, I went to a building on many weekdays and interacted with real people doing things that were hopefully useful to someone and that resulted in money appearing in my bank account from time to time. Here’s how (as I understand it) the law sees it: Legal Entity “A” (that would be me) is employed by Legal Entity “B” (the umbrella company) who enters into a contract with Legal Entity “C” for my services who then enter into a legal contract with Legal Entity “D” (the company in whose service I ultimately laboured). Did you follow that? Yeah, neither did I – but I’m learning in a real hurry at the moment. During the screening process “C” and “D” were quite happy to bombard me directly with emails and phone calls, right up to the moment of the final email. I replied to that final email, expressing disappointment that my resignation had been superseded by immediate termination (causing both financial and reputational loss as it did) and that I would not even be able to hand over my work to my teammates. And then the real reason for the existence of “C” became clear. My line manager (one of those real people who I worked with, and an employee of “D”) had been instructed not to communicate with me as I was in fact an employee of “C”. So “C” essentially operates as a legal shield, a firewall, for “D”. My post-firing email to “C” and “D” was replied to several days later by a representative of “C” with a statement that all enquiries to them should be made through my immediate employer, Legal Entity “B”. “B”, being a company set up for no other purpose than to administrate invoicing and tax collection wants nothing to do with this disagreement. The contract that they entered into with “C”, unbeknownst to me, contained sufficient scope for “D” (by way of “C”) to dismiss me for any reason they choose at any time. They also suggest that the contract that they (“B”) have entered into with “C” has no bearing on “A” (me), which is patently silly – it is on my behalf that they entered into that contract and it is the terms of the B-C contract that have allowed my dismissal without notice or recourse. So I now find myself in a surreal M. C. Escher maze with staircases that take me nowhere, with no obvious line of recourse or response. Which is where I find myself today.

That, then, is my sorry tale of woe. So what, beyond giving me a place to vent my current anger and tell a ripping good yarn, is the point of this discussion? There are several that could be made.

Firstly, some ironies within the context of Entity “D” – the final employer… In a period of history where investment banks are seen as immoral and unprincipled it is a curious display for them to eject staff that have taken a moral and principled stance and because of that stance. The only morality in evidence is, as ever, shareholder uber alles. Then there is the further matter of whether the shareholder is even well protected by any of this. Part of my stance was that the demanded documentation did not show reduced risk. Furthermore, this process has been going on for several months now and affects many hundreds, probably thousands, of workers in that company. All of them have the threat hanging over their heads. I am now personally a head-on-a-pike in that workplace, a warning of the price of not complying. This affects morale and productivity in the workplace in all the obvious and predictable ways. Bravo for people management, puttin’ the “H” back into “HR”.

Secondly, I took a principled stand largely because I am relatively well off. This needs to be acknowledged honestly and openly. I was able to stand up for what I believe is right only because I felt that I could absorb the costs of doing so. This will not be the case for most people. The sort of practice that I have taken a stand against proliferates because people give in to it. They do so, by and large, because they have mortgages to pay and children to feed and school. I mean by this to cast serious doubts on the conventional right-wing notion of responsibility. Responsibility is not and cannot be compatible with making heroic and costly efforts – it cannot exist as an isolated social norm and must be supported by other social norms. The two groups best positioned to stand against such forces are those with nothing to lose and those who have so much that they can afford to lose. The former are largely ignored, the latter largely disinterested in biting the hand that feeds them. And so the invisible hand leads us once more into darkness.

Thirdly, there is the matter of the law. I have commented elsewhere on problems about the notion of the rule of law – how the fact of law is only important if the content of the law is fair. As one friend told me this week, legal institutions are not about dispensing justice – they are about dispensing law. I have to say explicitly at this point that I don’t know how my current situation would test against the law. I suspect that the law would do me no favours (that the content of the law would not be to my advantage), but actually testing this is an entirely different matter. Part of my objection to the notion of rule of law is not only that the content of the law is important but so too is access to the law. A major problem in labour laws is that the people who should be protected by it also have difficulty using it. Even I, as a relatively wealthy individual, have serious doubts as to whether it would be economically rational to flush my own resources (money, health, and happiness) down the s-bend of legal action that in all probability I would lose. At the very least, the byzantine lattice of legal firewalls between me and the company to which I provided my services would ensure a lengthy and unpleasant battle. And, of course, big employers rely on this. This is never truer when the action one wishes to test against the law relates to their income. This is to say simply that far from equality under the law, access to the law, by being subject to the market and to wealth, is characterised by my overall theme of unequal bargaining power.

Finally, there is the issue of the legal edifices that have been erected here. Party “C” exists for one and only one reason – to provide “D” with all of the benefits but without any of the attendant accountability and responsibility. This is yet another ugly way that corporate law makes a lie of the neoliberal emphasis on responsibility. To repeat, I cannot complain too much – I am a reasonably well paid professional, at least when they pay up. The point I am about to make does apply to me and those like me, but has a greater moral force in the more general case. Such company structures exist everywhere these days. We find their spectre throughout the corporate world, and we should fear their shadow whenever we hear such euphemistic terms from government as “public private partnership”. It is common, for example, for people providing “building services” (janitorial, catering, and so forth), hotel cleaners, and many other low-paid workers to be employed by outsourced companies who act as firewalls to those who benefit from these services. Under this legal cover they can be fired without notice, denied standard benefits, held on tenure without pay, and treated generally with impunity. It’s all perfectly legal. It’s all perfectly compatible with neoliberal “liberty”, both to the beneficiaries of the work and to the workers (who “choose” to agree to these terms). But of course it makes a mockery of the word “liberty” in doing so. It’s not “efficient” in any normal sense, but the overhead costs of coordinating these occult structures are more than matched by the savings made by companies who no longer need to meet pesky obligations to real people. Which means, of course, more money for the shareholders. Repeat after me: “Shareholders uber alles!”.

Home is where the Heart is

January 19, 2012 Leave a comment

My trip to Australia is rapidly drawing to an end. I’ve managed to get some good work done on the book. And more than this, I’ve had good opportunities to test my own political philosophy against the realities of the land of my birth. There have been many discussions about the legitimacy and implications of government efforts here to introduce a carbon tax and a mining-windfall tax, not to mention discussions about the current danger to Australia of becoming a “Dutch disease” economy dependent on a single industry at the expense of all others. I have also had a chance to think about a matter close to my heart – that of public housing.

I had the honour today of being given a guided tour of a site of a non-profit housing provider in inner Sydney by a good friend who works there. It was a heart-warming experience, not least to see the amount of satisfaction my friend derives from the work and the difference she can make in the lives of vulnerable people. The building I visited contains apartments that provide affordable housing to homeless people and the working poor. Within the building are workers who provide medical facilities as well as counselling and advice to the residents.

It was an eye-opening experience. It is too easy to ignore the poor and the homeless without giving a second thought to what their realities are like. The people working here deal with these problems every day and meet them with creativity and enthusiasm. To give some examples, the building has been made “pet-friendly”. It’s not something I’d have given any thought to, but the benefits of this are obvious. Clinical tests have shown, for instance, that pet ownership is a major reducer of stress. Pets offer great companionship which can be vital for people who have lived rough and have endured loneliness and rejection. They are also a great way to meet people (sad but true that we are often more likely to give money to a beggar with a dog than without one). Another example: the building had a bicycle rack with donated bicycles. Again, obvious enough on reflection: car ownership and maintenance is prohibitively expensive even for those who do have money. One last example: I was told a touching story of how one of the tenants was bamboozled by those little plastic covers that come on electric plugs when you buy appliances. The in-house workers helped them through it. It might sound like a funny story but imagine that you’ve never owned an appliance. We take far too much for granted.

So I walked around this building, looking at it through the lenses of my own political ponderings, thinking, as I often do, about the appropriate role of the state. Anyone who knows me, or has followed my arguments here, knows that I envisage a role much bigger than the “minimal state” found in neoliberal fantasies. Particularly I believe that we have rights, arising from “standard threats” and discovered through democratic discourse, that go well beyond the rights of contract and private property. The state is obliged to ensure the fulfilment of these rights. And it is difficult to think of many more obvious threats than having no home.

One of the more objectionable articles of faith put forward by the New Right is that private charity should step in and sort out problems such as poverty and homelessness. I’ll write another time about how these problems are in varying degrees side-effects of the property and market systems that the New Right would like to see replace all public enterprise – today I’ll just assume that this is fairly self-evident. The recourse to charity is insidious. It is nothing short of the denial of people’s rights. A right is a right because its fulfilment is guaranteed by a state. Private charity is, by definition, discretionary. Any system that replaces rights fulfilment by private altruism removes the decision on how (and even if) something should be rectified out of the democratic domain, placing effective control into what is typically a very small number of hands. There is the obvious question as to whether a wealthy altruist making charitable donations is doing so out of kindness or out a desire to be seen to be altruistic (morally very different prospects, even if the end result might be the similar as far as the recipients are concerned). There is the more compelling question as to whether such an altruist can have any understanding whatsoever of what are the most pressing problems (especially ironic given the neoliberal defence of markets, that “local knowledge” is the only knowledge there is). Wealthy donors exercise considerable control through their choice of charities and often insist on further control beyond this: we can easily find some very odd charities in existence that come from the pet fancies of the rich. This is not to disparage the amazing and laudable work done by charity workers everywhere – their own good work is ultimately compromised by this funding problem too.  Finally, there is the two-part concern that charity has never, at any point in history, been anywhere near sufficient to address these kinds of problems and, at the same time, our social structures have never been so potent at creating the problems in the first place. We can put these questions aside for today. What matters is that a right implemented primarily through discretionary charity is not and cannot be truly considered a right: it simply lacks the qualities that identify it as a right. The ideological recourse to charity is, ultimately, nothing but a shield to allow certain groups of people to opt out of their obligations to satisfy rights.

The other article of faith of the New Right is that governments are bad and that anything they provide is bad (be that through inefficiency, potential for coercion, or whatever). Government provision must be done badly because governments do things badly: the market and private provision clearly don’t have these problems. This is all, of course, poppycock. No such generalisation can be made and credibly maintained. Don’t get me wrong – things can certainly be done badly: I grew up in social housing and can give you a long list of things that were done poorly, not least of which is putting a great many people with problems together. But we learn from mistakes. The state here is slowly but surely dismantling the vast welfare suburbs and dispersing them. The organisation running the building that I visited is part of that process. It is, of course, a private organisation. But it is also a public organisation: it is mostly publicly funded (about 80% is government funding comprising 60% federal and 20% state), and its funding is dependent on transparency and accountability to the electorate. I have niggling doubts about the small remainder of the funding, but the ratio is sufficient to ensure that they do the right thing, and it is infinitely better than wholly or mostly relying on the whims of the wealthy. But the question of funding, if we are to take rights seriously, is wholly nonnegotiable: it must be funded by public money raised through taxes or through other government fund-raising activities (contrary to the myth, governments can and often do manage to run profitable enterprises). It is a separate matter of how that money is used most effectively. The state-funded-multiple-provider model that this organisation operates under is promising. It decentralises control putting it into the hands of the implementers, embeds the solution within communities, encourages creative solution-finding, and gives people some degree of choice while preserving the majority of the rights fulfilment aspects and retaining accountability. It won’t do in every single case of government provision, but this is a practical matter and not ideological, and is to be resolved by experimentation and learning.