It’s Partly our Fault!

Every time someone who is living through hell tells me about their circumstances it hits me like an Express train. The raw emotion which comes out every time people articulate what it is like to be treated like surplus humanity charges through my whole body. The people who have lived through hell in the most risky forms of homelessness, in the most abusive relationships, who are struggling with complex trauma, few of them ever stood a chance in this society which markets itself as a meritocracy but is closer to a kleptocracy (i.e. a government whose leaders use political power to appropriate the wealth of their nation).

We live in a society in which those with wealth and power get to decide what is worthy of merit, and that just so happens to be the things which are well within reach for them, but are out of reach for the majority of society. For example, establishing a business which can make surplus within the particular brand of corporate capitalism we live in. My favourite analogy for our economy is that of a game of Monopoly where a couple of players got to buy all the properties and build hotels before opening the game up to more people. When the new players complain that they can’t compete with those who already own all the land they are told “What is the matter with you? We are all playing by the same rules?”

So that is all cleared up then? It is solely the fault of the ruling class? The land owning aristocracy who were born in to extreme wealth rigged our economy and all the rest of us are equally oppressed? What is the point of blogging when we should clearly just be out on the streets raising class consciousness and bringing about the revolution? Hopefully you picked up on the facetiousness in that comment? The solutions Marx offered weren’t anywhere near nuanced enough to bring about change in a 21st century western economy.

Let us go back to the analogy of the Monopoly game, only this time round the two original players decide to donate some of their cheaper properties to the next three players as they join the game. They explain they will shortly bring in some more players who will have no property at all, but will be given the same starting sum of money as all the rest of the players had. This second tier of people will inevitably get to extract some of this money from the new players.

If this all happened in a game, with no real reward, which is solely about the kudos of winning, then this second tier of players would probably get frustrated and not want to play. But what if we are not talking about a game anymore? What if we were talking about real life, where a very small percentage of people get to exploit almost everyone, and then a middle tier still get to benefit from how unfair this system is on others? Should this middle tier be able to claim solidarity with those who are suffering the most as a result of this system being rigged? Or does that make them a hypocrite? Do you think people in the middle tier would start to justify it to themselves somehow? Do you think they would need some justifications in place to make the inequality and unfairness feel tolerable? Because they’ll soon get used to those creature comforts which come with having a bit more money than most?

What if the top tier told the middle tier they could start to define their own value? They could design their own reasons and justifications for why they get more out of the system than the bottom tier? Would they find a shared language and culture which recognised their ‘expertise’ and value, whilst simultaneously being able to convince one another that it’s the top tier who are the ‘real problem’ and the real cause of inequality? I know I’ve done this from time to time. I might be catching myself more at the moment when I start thinking this way, but they are thoughts and conversations I will admit to having from time to time.

American political philosopher Michael Sandel says “Here is where the dark side of it comes in (selling the idea of meritocracy), the successful come to believe that their success is their own doing, a measure of their merit, they tend to inhale too deeply in their success, they forget the luck and good fortune which helped them along the way…. The humiliation, the demoralisation of those left behind accounts for some of the resentments towards elites”. Bang!! That is it, that is the express train I’ve been hit with over and over again, with more and more intensity. It is the humiliation and demoralisation of people whose value has been dismissed. Before listening to Sandel talk about ‘the tyranny of merit’ I’m not sure I was fully aware of where that raw emotion was coming from. Yet we, as the middle class, in our relative comfort keep going back to people who’ve got nothing and we hope they will embrace the language and culture we’ve come to value. This is despite the fact it’s offered so few the chance to feel they can affect change. Yet time and again we expect them to keep providing us with their expertise on where the system is failing. We are rarely able to make sure they benefit economically from sharing that expertise, and rarer still are we able to create the conditions where they can also act on the insights they generate. I don’t want to come back to people with justifications on why things are the way they are, I want to be able to offer a way forward which is based on fairness.

American author Joe Bageant was born in to a poor rural community in West Virginia and worked in gruelling manual labour for much of his life before taking to writing whilst incapacitated from that work. He has this to say “I don’t like middle class people very much, they tend to get smug really fast, their 401k’s (retirement savings plan) are earned on the back of my brothers, the reason they make money in the stock market is because these guys beat themselves into the ground all day to create value which other people keep… you (urban middle class) guys got yours, you got yours generations ago whilst ours were getting their cods shot off in every damn war since the French and Indian war and now they’re doing it in Iraq and Afghanistan, but you didn’t reach out, you didn’t do anything for those people. It’s partly your fault, all the nice affluent little liberals, it’s partly your fault. The spirit of liberalism is caring and equality and you’re not doing any of that”

I identify a lot with Bageant, although I never quite know whether to categorise myself as working class or lower middle. My deepest fear is that one day I would become the kind of West coast liberal he rallied against, claiming to espouse certain values but not doing enough to work alongside people who are suffering. To categorise myself as having earned the right to be treated differently to them, to not feel utter devastation anytime you hear about people’s most basic human rights and dignity being denied over and over again. To not feel that I have to personally do more to help break down these systems of oppression, otherwise it’s partly my fault.

In Bageant’s mind, his education and move into a middle class profession never stopped the rural poor (whom so many West coast liberals dismiss as dumb rednecks) being his people. Similarly, I like to think that those who’ve grown up in the most deprived urban areas of Greater Manchester will always be my people.

It wasn’t my intention to spend the entirety of this blog attacking the middle classes. If there is a network of relatively well paid people who have more say in what the system should value most, then it’s somewhat hard to deny that I’m in it. So if the system values the wrong things then it’s partly my fault. I’m also mindful that I promised some solutions other than a Marxist revolution. Ok then, here goes! We have a chance to redefine value in the worlds of philanthropic funding and public sector commissioning. It might be outside of our gift to define value in the wider private sector, but there is a huge amount of money floating around still in the public sector and in the bank accounts of trusts and foundations.

Austerity has given some consultants the chance to become the equivalent of disaster capitalists, they know they can make a fortune through trying to convince Local Authorities they can squeeze more and more out of ‘an unpaid workforce’. I assert that:

A) This is morally repugnant as much of that unpaid workforce will be living in poverty themselves. From trends I have seen in the public sector I have good reason to believe that the so called ‘unpaid workforce’ will contain a disproportionate number of women of colour.

B) Will eventually lead to people being burned out and unable to provide the support they once were offering to their communities.

We need to form long term, mutually beneficial partnerships with our communities rather than trying to squeeze blood out of an already exploited stone. We need to work with them so they are able to generate income from a range of sources, including developing the governance so they can bid for contracts as part of a consortium. It’s in everyone’s interests to have a flourishing voluntary sector which can offer real opportunities of work for people to the work which they most value. Give up on the idea that sustainability means free, because this will rule out the long-term involvement of anyone who isn’t independently wealthy, or at least independently comfortable.

Another thing we need to do is sit and break bread with our communities and to truly listen and respond to what they value and what will make a difference in their lives. We need to force ourselves out of sticking within groups of people who will use all the same terminology as us and be really articulate about the things which matter to commissioners but who won’t be able to connect with the communities they are supposed to serve. If you like me fear becoming the type of West coast liberal that Bageant so detested then it’s time to stop having cosy intellectual conversations over dinner with other people whose lives are pretty comfortable. It’s leaving people behind questioning why they don’t have a seat at the table and it’s leading to the demoralisation and resentment Sandel speaks about.

The biggest thing of value I’ve seen in the GM Systems Changers Spaces fund is the value of quickly getting money into the hands of people within communities and offer something on the ground on the terms of people living with the disadvantage. It’s great at fostering a sense of agency within communities and they get so much more from it than being wheeled in and out on the terms of ‘decision-makers’. Again, this just leads to those feelings of demoralisation and resentment.

We should do things alongside communities which promote the caring and inequality Bageant talks of. In the Elephants Trail we’ve used partipatory methods as a means of doing things with communities rather than merely consulting or trying to do things to or for them. These methods have included community reporting, legislative theatre, craftivism and graphic recording and have really drawn out strengths as well as the feeling this is a collective endeavour with less of a distinction between the convenor and the convened. We generate value together, we don’t have anyone in the privileged position to come in and extract it.

I work alongside communities on their own terms and try to help them bring about systemic change. I'm both inspired and frustrated on a daily basis.str