How to build a new welfare society

Neal-Lawson-chair-of-Co-006-300x180In the third in a series of essays on Poverty in the UK, commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Prospect magazine, Neal Lawson makes the case for a new welfare society for an age of insecurity

Many books have been written on the subject of poverty and I cannot possibly do them all justice. I want to pick out two that have been important to me and then examine what they say about what needs to be done to build a more equal society.

They are Left and Right: The Significance of a Political Distinction by the Italian theorist Norberto Bobbio and Work, Consumerism and the New Poor by the Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman. I’ve picked them not just because they made a lasting intellectual impact on me in terms of how I think about poverty — which they did — but because I read them at a profoundly important moment in my uneven political development. I read them in 1998, a year in which I became increasingly concerned by the direction New Labour was taking both the party and the country. I had spent all my active political life up until that point believing that the election of a Labour government was essential to help the poor. I have spent all my active political life since becoming less sure that that is the case!

I had been a member of the Labour party through years of heavy student and factional activism in the 1980s and was always on the left of the party (albeit the soft-left). But after the gut wrenching loss in the 1992 general election, I, along with many others, effectively moved rightwards. This wasn’t intentional, but winning became everything and in the search for ‘power at almost any cost’ corners were cut and things were forgotten that shouldn’t have been. Like the slow boiling frog, I wasn’t aware of what was happening to me. Though that isn’t an excuse. These two books woke me from my vote-grabbing torpor and reminded me why I had wanted to win in the first place.

Bobbio reminded me that there is a right and left in politics and always will be. The left, at any one moment, wants more equality than is presently the case. The right resists such a move because it is defined by the belief that society is either equal enough already or should be less so. There are other important political distinctions — not least that between authoritarianism and liberalism — but Bobbio regrounded me. As long as you want a more equal society, you remain on the left. Because of Bobbio, I found my feet on the left again.

I then went on to Bauman (and have never stopped reading every word of his I can). Now the scales really started falling from my eyes. Bauman’s book is a history of modern poverty. It recounts the story of the enclosures and the shift from the land to the factories and the rise of what he calls the ‘producer society’. This was the age in which society was reproduced through work and labour — we understood ourselves, others and the world around us primarily through the prism of work. The culture, structures and relations of society were predominantly those of work. Poverty in this era was defined as the failure to produce. But while this was an age of exploitation, it was also an age of solidarity. The creation of a working class led to an industrial and political movement that could bargain for a better deal. And although the relationship between capital and labour was based on exploitation, and therefore much suffering and misery, at least workers were a class unto themselves — they shared the same lives, neighbourhoods and cultures. They had each other. And although they suffered from bouts of unemployment they tended to be kept sufficiently fit and healthy to be ready either for war or an upturn in the economy.

Bauman then goes on to explain the shift to the consumer society in which we know ourselves not by what we make or do, but by what we buy. Today it is through the culture, practice and operation of consumption that society reproduces itself. Shopping is not all we do, but it is the predominant cultural mode in contemporary society. This has had an impact on poverty in ways we are only just beginning to understand.

Today’s poor are failed consumers and their plight is in many ways worse than the poor of the past. This is because they are not part of a class, they are not needed for war or employment and have nothing to hope for other than to become like the celebrities they worship. They have no value, no hope of salvation, no enemy to overthrow and nothing to do except face a life of failed consumption in a world dominated by shopping. Their only role is to be ‘othered’, ridiculed, despised and feared so as to keep the rest of us on the treadmill of never-ending ‘successful’ consumption. They are a warning of what happens if you don’t buy things you didn’t want, with money you don’t have, to impress people you don’t care about.

The good life now is not anything public, rather it is a private world in which enough is never enough. If you are a successful shopper, that is down to your own abilities and hard work. Those who fail do so because they are lazy and indolent. Successful consumers might feel like kings or queens of their own lives, but the reality that Bauman describes is more akin to life in The Matrix, where human beings exist solely to service a machine over which they have no control.

The consumer-industrial complex of designers, marketers, psychologists, advertisers and retailers swamp us with every more sophisticated designs and techniques to keep us on the treadmill. What matters is our place in the consumption pecking order relative to others. Enough is never enough. Through the process of privatisation and individualisation the cultural, emotional and even physical space in which to be a citizen, and not just a consumer, is closed down. This is a war of all against all.

Finally, Bauman tells us that the second great shift of our era — on top of the move from the producer society to a consumer one, though allied to it — is the separation of power from politics and politics from power. Corporate power went global with the ability to ship capital, investment and production to where taxes were low and regulations were lax. Politics, meanwhile, remained stubbornly local. Corporate blackmail now trumps democracy. If governments don’t do as companies say, they will relocate to more compliant states. ‘If we are capable of compassion yet at the same time powerless, then we live in a state of irritability,’ wrote the Polish activist Slawomir Sierakowski recently, summing up the times succinctly. Humanity, in other words, has created the conditions in which we cannot be human.

The lessons to be drawn from Bobbio and Bauman’s books can be summarised as follows:

  1. There is still a difference between left and right and where you stand depends on whether or not you believe society should be more equal.
  2. Poverty today is based around the concept of the failed consumer which drastically constrains the scope for action to redistribute power, income and wealth.
  3. Power and politics have been separated in a way that restricts the ability of governments to make corporations accountable to society.

So, in the words of Lenin, ‘what is to be done?’

A better vision
The starting point is to recommit ourselves to being ‘on the left’ through the belief in greater equality. This isn’t a matter of saying we are on the left — after all, Thatcher never, or rarely, said she was on the right — but it does mean being committed to a more equal society. Why? Because we have a profound and unbending belief in our shared humanity. We acknowledge our shared hopes and fears, such that when we look into someone else’s eyes, we do not see an ‘other’ but simply a reflection of ourselves. This belief in equality is not a belief in sameness, but in variety and diversity. We believe that everyone is born different but that we share an equal right to make the most of our uniqueness. This means, in turn, that we believe that those who suffer from sheer brute bad luck, who, through no fault of their own, were born less healthy, strong, fast or intelligent than others, need extra help to ensure their equality alongside their fellow human beings. When misfortune strikes — ill health, loss of work and so on — then society needs to intervene to help people. We really are all in it together.

From this insight we need to move to a better vision of the good life and the good society than that offered by consumer capitalism. The great trick of consumerism is to entrap us in a world of seduction, a never-ending steam of goods and services we think we desire. Products are built to become obsolete over a much shorter duration so that we keep going back for more. The problem is that the space in which alternatives to consumerism might flourish is being squeezed. It isn’t that a better life doesn’t feel urgently desirable to most of us, but that nothing better seems feasible now that power has escaped democratic control. The onslaught of consumer culture is such that it simply doesn’t feel as if there is any way out of this.

Better organisation
The answer, therefore, lies not just in a better vision of the good life and the good society, and not just policies and polling, but in a theory and practice of change that will give us the confidence that we can indeed move from where we are to where we want to be.And that theory of change — about how to shift from one paradigm to the next — must complement the vision; there cannot be any separation of ends and means. So if the vision of the good society is one in which people are empowered to create a more equal and sustainable world, then they must be equally empowered on the journey towards that world. Democratic equality is what we fight with and what we fight for.The problem of conventional party politics is not just that it has been intellectually hollowed out, but that, organisationally, it has moved towards a command-and-control model of change. While political parties remain necessary for aggregating popular demands and directing the state, in a world in which power has gone up to the global level, parliamentary majorities on their own can’t deliver lasting change.

Poverty endures not just because there is a Conservative-led government, although that helps. Poverty persists because neo-liberals have at their disposal a whole array of vehicles to entrench their political position, intellectually and culturally: academics, think tanks, pressure groups, newspapers, TV and radio stations, employer organisations, the consumer industry and so on.

Progressive politics was strong when two countervailing forces — the existence of an industrial working class and the Soviet Union — helped to tame capitalism in the postwar years and so to underpin a new settlement that delivered unprecedented levels of equality in this country. The fear of real revolution was as palpable as the bargaining strength of the unions was irresistible. As trade union power declined and the Soviet Union unravelled, neo-liberalism seized the agenda and has dominated it ever since — and it continues to do so even after the financial crash of 2008.

So the fight for poverty today requires a new set of countervailing ideas and forces strong enough to bring capital back to the table to negotiate a more just social settlement. Those ideas cannot just be a rehash of the post-war demands for social security and full employment, as important as those things were and indeed are. Instead, the promise has to be for a level of human freedom and wellbeing that can only be delivered collectively through diverse participatory structures — not just the old forms of statism.

Such countervailing forces are produced by shifting and unlikely alliances that are constantly negotiated and renegotiated in the pursuit of a good society. No single party or organisation can bring about genuine change on its own. Instead, alliances of egalitarians, environmentalists, democrats, civil libertarians, trade unionists, localists, feminists, and social entrepreneurs are going to have to search for common ground. Such alliances will have to operate at multiple levels —locally, regionally, national and internationally— if power and politics are to be reconnected.

This is a tall order, to be sure, but it is the only way to operate in a complex peer-to-peer world driven by social media and flat structures.

A new poverty narrative
A new welfare society, in which the state plays a crucial, but not dominant role, will require the establishment of a new national consensus, indeed a new national mood. This will be based on an understanding that there is a deep-seated problem that affects the vast majority of us and will require that majority to find a shared solution. The pervasive national mood of insecurity, fragility and anxiety is the dark emotion that grips society and which has, somehow, to be lifted. It is a mood that is shared across the nation and could form the basis for a new settlement for the welfare state.

Before the crash of 2008, when, economically, things felt healthy, Compass, the organisation that I chair, coined the term ‘social recession’. It referred to the sense that, despite economic growth, something wasn’t quite right with society, that somehow the quality of our lives didn’t match up to the quantity of things we were busily consuming. Despite unparalleled wealth, life for many felt fragile, empty and unsustainable.

Our instinct was correct. The economic crisis, and the austerity measures that followed, entrenched financially what had previously gone wrong socially and culturally. Today we are caught in a pincer movement of job and wage insecurity compounded by welfare insecurity. In the past, when work followed tight economic cycles, you were unlikely to be randomly unemployed and if you were unlucky enough to lose your job, you could expect to be reasonably looked after by the state. Today you are much more likely to lose your job and the only certainty is that there will be a minimal welfare state there to support you when it happens. It is the precariousness of economic activity, allied to the never-ending demands of the consumer society, that defines so many people’s lives today.

Insecurity isn’t only economic, however; it is also social, cultural, commercial and environmental. Growing class, gender and racial inequalities exacerbate it. Nothing is permanent and little can be relied on. The crisis of insecurity is multi-dimensional:

  • Outsourcing, downsizing, takeovers, restructuring, the decline of professionalism and zero-hours contracts have transformed the culture of work.
  • Pay has been flat-lining since 2003 for all but those at the very top.
  • There is a severe squeeze on family and leisure time as we try to ‘keep up’ on the learn-to-earn-to-spend treadmill
  • Pensions are under severe strain in both the private and public sectors.
  • There is a severe shortage of affordable housing and homelessness is on the rise again. Another asset boom means another crash is inevitable
  • Debt has rising to record levels — the UK has one of the highest household debt to GDP ratios in the world
  • There is a growing reliance on the largesse of charities such as food banks.
  • In education, there is a tyranny of choice as parents scramble to get their children in to the right nursery, primary school, secondary school and university, with all the additional costs involved — a house in the right catchment area, fees if you can afford them, private tutors and so on.
  • Immigration has become neuralgic once again, with concerns over identity, loss of community and pressures on overstretched services, housing stock and wages
  • Climate change prompts the fear that we are living lifestyles that require more than the one planet we have.
  • Despite the near-death experience undergone by the global financial system in 2008, banks are still too big to fail and derivatives continue to be traded at multiple levels of GDP.
  • Emerging risks such as cyber crime, terrorism, energy and food shortages compound the sense of insecurity.

Societies have always faced deep crises but the mood today is aggravated by the concern that little can be done — that in the face of all this we are powerless to act. The separation of power from politics leaves us feeling that insecurity is permanent. The focus is on the individual and what they can do to save themselves. We must work harder, retrain and try to insure ourselves against forces beyond our control. But there are no individual solutions to socially created problems, of course — hence the crisis.

Those who can’t keep up are both denounced for their weakness and used to reinforce the existing tight rules of the game. Those in poverty are denigrated and humiliated to such an extent that they play a defining role in keeping everyone else on the straight and narrow of perpetual in- security — for fear of becoming poor. So we end up in a situation where the state exists for those who don’t deserve it. The state, which should be there to help the poor, is increasingly used to punish them.

Trust, a good proxy for security, is shrinking: only 35% of people in the UK trust others, compared to the over 70% of Swedes who trust their fellow citizens. Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), otherwise known as chronic worrying, has become a recognised medical term. The knot tightens further.

Building a welfare society on the basis of national security
An age of insecurity hits different social groups in different ways. The poorest get hit first and hardest. But what is distinctive about this era is that everyone feels insecure — it is a shared emotion and, as such, a potential point of empathy and common ground between different social classes. Insecurity is universal. The white-collar worker spends more time in the office because of the fear of losing his or her job or not getting that ‘essential’ promotion and with it a pay rise. Meanwhile, the cleaner in the same office is working three shifts a day just to make ends meet. Both feel vulnerable. Neither sees much of their partners and neither has time to read their child a bedtime story. Guilt and anxiety grow inexorably. Insecurity may find different expressions, but the roots are the same.

By understanding the extent and scope of this insecurity and projecting it onto the decision-making system, more broadly-based support could be built for the recognition that socially-created anxiety cannot be met effectively by the individual search for security. This is an issue for responsible business leaders just as it is for compassionate Conservatives. It is about family and place as much as it’s about corporate responsibility. The idea of insecurity and the related notion of social security (security offered by society rather than the state, or at least the old lumbering, remote state) may provide the basis for the emergence of the countervailing forces necessary to the building of a better society. These won’t be the class-based forces of the past, although workers and trade unions have a key role to play. They will be shifting alliances of forces that share common ground but don’t and can’t agree on everything.

Karl Marx under-estimated the ability of capitalism to reinvent itself culturally and over-estimated the potential of the working class. But he was surely correct when he said that between two rights force decides.

  • Neal Lawson is the chair of Compass and the author of All Consuming (Penguin)
  • This essay is one of a collection including contributions from AC Grayling, Leanne Wood, Roger Scruton and Rowan Williams, published in partnership between the JRF and Prospect Magazine. To read other essays or download the full report, please click here


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John R
John R
10 years ago

Good article. We need to replace welfare to work into a jobs based system of local social enterprises that underpin our local communities. We can’t leave 20% of people to live as sub-citizens. The rich have got richer largely at the expense of the rest of us – sucking the money upwards to them through a bank backed programme of sub-prime lending to fuel consumer demand.

And now we reap the impact of this even before the misery of Thatcher’s dismantling of the northern economy is overcome.

Unfortunately the Labour movement seems like it has locked-in syndrome – unable to chart a way forward that redefines our society around the things that matter like opportunity, experiences, work and work/life balance, caring for our elderly properly, etc.

On a larger level we are living on a precipice. Our energy is not secure. Capitalism and consumerism as we know it needs to change before we go ‘pop’.

China now holds 97% of the world’s supply of rare earth minerals. They therefore largely control the supply of electronics components and war rages across the CAR and Congo largely because of minerals; and across the middle east because of oil.

We need a shift, not just to save our poor from misery, that quite frankly should not be as pervasive now as it is, but because if we don’t shift our attitudes and behaviour now, we will be in for one almighty shock quite soon.

Simon Cooke
Simon Cooke
10 years ago

Perhaps we could begin with a more honest definition of the distinction between left and right? While it’s true that I believe we obsess about equlity – presumably on the false basis that one man’s wealth defines another man’s poverty – the distinction is much more fundamental than this and is concerned with whether society is a collaboration of individuals or a collaboration of groups. I am right-wing because I do not believe men are defined by their belonging, or not, to a group (or class, or race, or club).

The shift you point at from producer to consumer should be welcomed – at least in principle. Prior to the revolution that was, and is, capitalism, most people lived a hard, largely pleasure-free life scraping a living from the land. It was also a short life. Millions still live this life across the world although capitalism continues to work its magic and lift them from being subsistence producers subject to famine, flood and plague into being a new group of consumers.

The problem you identify between the “poor” (and it’s hard to know what you mean here – in cash terms England’s “poor” are among the world’s wealthiest people) and the “rich” is one of relative abundence. Moreover, these people are not the victims of consumerism – indeed, it would serve you to read some of the evidence of advertising effect and to understand its purpose when used before criticising its role in society. They are rather the victims of government, of the intention to fix poverty through welfarism. We spend over £100bn alleviating poverty – that’s nearly £1500 for every man, woman and child – £200 billion if we include pensions, and we fail to do so. The answer lies in the choices we make about that money, on the fact that our welfare system doesn’t.

Finally the shift of power – the suggestion that somehow corporations are unaccountable is true only if you believe that “to government” is the only direction for that accountability. The reality is that – hard though it will be for those well remunerated government employees and ever more ‘professional’ political classes – the direction of travel for our society is away from government not towards it. We will wonder in the future why we felt it necessary to have such huge, unwieldy and essentially unaccountable governments.

It seems to me that there are two routes opening up – the one popular on the left draws on the old syndicalist and corporatist ideas of Sorel and others, the ideas that gave rise to the fascio nazionale. These aren’t evil ideas just ideas that we know don’t work. The other is local, liberating and based on the wonderful cooperative idea of exchange – an idea that pre-dates and will outlast government and state-control.

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