Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Farewell to Welfare Statism or Good Riddance

Andrew Pearmain writes:
So what do we make of that then? On a personal level, the 2015 General Election leaves me with two contrasting emotions. Firstly, a certain sense of vindication about the outcome, because for several years I've been the only person I know predicting an outright Tory majority. It was pretty obvious what they, and the disgruntled and “worried” great British public, were up to. On the other hand I feel deep gloom about what a far right English government will do with its shiny new “popular mandate”. I suspect that, compared to this lot, the abrupt adjustments to neoliberal globalisation engineered by Thatcher/Major, New Labour and the Con/Lib coalition will come to seem partial and cautious.

The smug determination with which Cameron and Osborne shut the doors to their neighbouring abodes and on us poor bemused electors, and set about ruling party business as usual, was quietly terrifying. It's full steam ahead to a low-tax, low-wage, low-skill, low-productivity, low-security, low-quality economy of services and consumption, retail and distribution. Social tensions and divisions are turning into semi-permanent fractures along class and race lines; “culture war” between competing identities and interests more relentlessly vicious; regional animosities more blatant and unapologetic. In or out of Europe, it doesn't really matter, we're heading for the worst of America, a nation profoundly and permanently ill at ease with itself. This small island is more turned against itself than pretty much anywhere outside the Middle East.

The political prospects of the “anti-Tory alliance” look suitably bleak. The Lib Dems, having been seduced by the lure of ministerial office to provide the Tories in coalition with a veneer of “conscience”, have been duly cast aside. I expect we'll see a revival of their “social democratic” leftism, relapse into comfortable opposition, and a further slide into historical irrelevance. The SNP cheerfully stepped forward to frighten the poor bloody Sassenachs into doing what they were told. I knew some of these new-found, ex-Tartan Tory “anti-austeritans” in former guises - step forward “comedy impresario” and old Labour leftist Tommy Sheppard! -  and believe me, they are just as careerist and opportunist as the old Labour beardies they've displaced. Without the labour movement disciplines that just about kept the old guard in check, we can expect some spectacular nonsense from these new Bravehearts. The Greens, as I've written elsewhere, continue to squander the historical opportunity of climate change for a secure niche on the margins of the political establishment. 

As for Labour, the real surprise is that they've still got so many MPs. How did these 230-odd bores and chancers and big-mouths get anybody to vote for them? The North London “weirdo” had his very own Sheffield-arena moment with his tablet/tombstone (or was it the “gotta” with Russell Brand? Or the “hell yes”? Or the stumble off the stage in Leeds? Choose your own historical embarrassment). Surely, for all the thrashings of the New Labour dinosaurs - “We were right all along!” - we can agree that Labourism is finally, definitively, thankfully dead, an ex-parrot of a subaltern mentality/emergent ideology. Even Neal Lawson, chair of perennially Labour loyalist think-tank Compass, is talking of “kicking the cat to see if it's dead”. We've had Old Labour, New Labour, Next Labour, and New New Labour if Mandelson pulls off his latest zombie trick. Now we have No Labour in Scotland, the South and East of England, and pretty much anywhere anyone else can be bothered to push them out of the way. The question we now need to ask, and which the next five years will almost certainly answer, is what dies with Labourism?

The central project of the forthcoming Tory government will be to complete what first-wave Thatcherism only partially accomplished: to dismantle the one undisputed historical achievement of Labourism, the welfare state. It has always been a deeply compromised legacy, and the contradictions within it – enabler or oppressor? Safety net or trap? Divider or unifier? - have continually undermined its popularity and efficacy. But this election gives the neo-Thatcherites carte blanche to slash welfare, submit benefits to the same squeeze as wages, and carry on the already advanced programme to outsource the public sector's marketable functions. This will entrench our established social relations of wealth and poverty, exploitation and subalternity, grievance and deference, “striver”/“shirker” (and doesn't that hegemonic couplet mark a significant advance on the 1980s stereotype “scrounger”) apparently forever, or for as long and as deeply as makes no difference. In waving farewell to the welfare state, I have to declare an interest. Born dirt-poor in the de-industrialising north of England, but bright and ambitious, I was a child of the welfare state, the beneficiary of benefits, free health care, a scholarship to grammar school, then fully-funded university. In bidding it good riddance as well as farewell, there may be some Oedipal element in my attitude to the welfare state, but that does at least alert me to its essential paternalism, which is surely what's done for it in the court of public opinion.

Much has been said and written about growing inequality, with lots of trendy demographic and economic studies – Wilkinson, Picketty, Dorling etc. - briefly cited by the formers of liberal opinion  in order to fuel philanthropic outrage. For me, the more significant and comparatively neglected social phenomenon of modern Britain has been the stalling of social mobility, the sense that the country is “stuck” in established patterns of power and wealth, that individuals or sub-groups can no longer move up (or down) the social scale by virtue of their own talents and efforts (or lack of them). Instead, we have a system of dynastic succession in power, property, business ownership and acumen, educational and cultural prestige, and even in Parliament. I for one am sick to my stomach at the sight of posh boys taking over everything from art and fashion, even bloody pop music, to food culture, broadcasting and sporting pastimes and whole “hipster” districts of London, invariably assisted by Daddy's money, contacts and reputation   And because it's all “kept in the family”, nobody sees fit to question any of it. Meritocracy was only ever a useful myth, but it helped keep the spirits up in a grim postwar Britain. They're drooping now.

We can rail against the basic unfairness of it, but by far the most destructive aspect of social stagnation is the way it traps people in poverty and misery and dependency; in other words, the not so tender clutches of the welfare state. There are now several generations of families and communities all across Britain who have never had secure employment. They are sustained in various incapacities and disabilities, including the inability to take care of themselves. And don't they make a handy scapegoat/bogey, especially when featured in the burgeoning sub-genre of reality TV known as “poverty porn”? Even the proliferation of foodbanks can be explained away by their lumpen fecklessness, because “these people” spend their benefits on alcohol and tobacco and have to rely on do-gooders for food.  It is fear of that state of destitution, of being somehow hurt by people already in it or of falling into it yourself, which lies behind the mood of “anxiety” which apparently was the key factor in deciding how people voted in this general election.
So what can we “on the left” we do about it? Firstly, we have to accept that the welfare state is dead, along with the century-old tradition of Labourism, itself a strange amalgam of “respectable” workerism and liberal philanthropy. Secondly, we can start to build a new kind of “social welfarism” from the bottom up, that echoes pre-Labourist traditions of mutuality and self-reliance, but adds new 21st century networks and styles. That's what  I plan to do, by returning to the “front line” of social work which 25 years of social services management has taken me further and further away from. I'm sick of the make-believe of “policy development” and “performance management”, of ever rosier reports of the state of things as you go up the hierarchy so that the crock of shit on the ground becomes a bed of roses seen from the top floor of County Hall. If we want to recreate the bonds of social solidarity and mutual interdependence which our “politics” says we do, we can't sit around waiting for the “welfare state” to deliver it, as Labourism promised us it would. Like the pioneers of pre-Labour socialism, we have to do it ourselves. I fully expect to become tired and disillusioned on a professional diet of human misery and squalor, but I might just help one or two people climb out of it.   

No comments:

Post a Comment