What Goes Around...

...sometimes comes around changed?

Author: Bob Rhodes

I was up at 5 and away at 6 this morning to catch a train to a meeting of leaders and thinkers who are passionate about putting citizens at the centre of welfare reform, responsible for and in control of their lives. I’d been up until nearly midnight preening the ‘earthmoving’ presentation I’d self-consciously decided to make and continued my preparations on the train, unconvinced of the coherence of my argument and anxious that my audience would be able to grasp the points I was so desperate to explain.

In the event I should not have worried. It was clear from the start that everyone at the gathering – folk who can boast exceptional against the odds achievements in practically demonstrating personalisation and self direction – was suffering from the same anxiety. How does one present inspiring stories and progressive ideas on expanding the contributing citizenship and inclusion of folk who depend upon welfare support, in the face of the least sympathetic and, history may conclude, most dishonest and divisive domestic government for the best part of a century and a disempowered, meekly compliant, incompetent and dependent consumer culture?

Speakers seemed to have three main strategies. One was to rail at the iniquity and absurdity of the prevailing chaos in UK social care. The second was (I was one of these) to propose giving up on any hope of meaningful political and systemic change. (That is, unless and until a bottom-up cultural and societal revolution and renewal movement, applying the values and skills associated with communal interdependence, reciprocity and mutuality, might be re-ignited. And then proposing actions and strategies designed to spark and fan the flames.) The third was essentially to do both while clinging to a vague expectation that the essential goodness of the welfare state might eventually win through. Anger, disbelief and expressions of impotence clouded the thoughts of most practitioners and providers. Family members and those who primarily write and consult tended to home in on proposals and strategies that might be progressed without too much institutional support or even in the face of bureaucratic opposition or obfuscation.

I am probably making the day appear depressing and unproductive – it wasn’t! When folk who share a strong and resolute value system, loyalty and commitments to flesh and blood people, and tenacious and creative personalities connect, listen well to each other, and strive for solutions; the room sparkles.

Commitments to action, to collaborations, to investigation and reflection, and to mutual support populated the plenary discussions. I and many others made our return journeys re-energised, powerful and humble.

On the train home I experienced a sense of déjà vu. Politicians and institutional bureaucracies making bad, reactive and arbitrary decisions and demonstrating absolute mistrust of the British people is par for the course. The ‘system’s’ inability to adopt Einstein’s maxim that, “not everything that can be counted counts and not everything that counts can be counted” – or, in my construct, recognise that much of what really counts in our lives is relational and reciprocal and neither amenable to institutional command and control mechanisms nor to commodification by ‘care’ businesses (profit making or not!) – is hardly news either. The challenge doesn’t seem to have changed a great deal – that being to demonstrate better ways to realise the values and principles we espouse, maintain our integrity, make a real difference if only for a few, and hope that others learn from and build upon our efforts.

But, in one way, it has. As time goes on, and generations succeed generations, the knowledge, skills and ‘innateness’ of familial and communal self-reliance, interdependence, and, as Paul Ginsborg puts it, “active and dissenting” participative democracy is giving way to outsourced ‘care’ and privatised disconnected ‘plutocracy’. As a society we seem to becoming increasingly dependent upon and vulnerable to experts. Experts who identify gaps in the ‘needs market’, insist that only these with their talents can respond to these ‘problems’, and invite us to consume their remedies, their lobbying skills, their products and their excuses.

It strikes me that our addiction to dependent consumption is as self-defeating as successive governments’ addictions to creating a short-term mirage of economic competence by stimulating domestic spending. First, like most if not all addictions, the outcomes achieved are quickly experienced as unsatisfying. In the case of social care we are left as unsatisfied when we all too often expect to experience care but find that we are simply a medium for the undertaking of specified tasks. And, second, I conclude that, as our consumer society falls prey to more and deeper economic and environmental stresses, the State will progressively shrink its welfare spending. Incompetent communities peopled by dependent and angry frustrated consumers seem to me to be a divisive and terrifying prospect.

Mr Cameron might do well to dwell on this and even to think the unthinkable. Could it be that the market has little or no place in how we ensure that we care for each other throughout our lives in the UK? Could it be that the real volunteers might be family, friends, neighbours and associates who share our interests and passions? Who would recoil at the term ‘volunteer’ in the context of their engagement with those they love and like – with whom they enjoy a relationship? Who would perhaps revel in the opportunity to engage far more in the joys and duties of mutual care and support, of community and involvement, if they were not distracted by being induced to work longer and harder in order to own more and better things they may not really need and to purchase the distractions and entertainments that they must surely need for their recreation? People aren’t choosing to live this way. They are groomed for their role.

These insights blew away the Turneresque clouds of déjà vu. We have not been here before. We are on a road to an unpredictable destination. It might be sensible to retrace our steps or stop and give some thought to where we want to go?

The publisher is The Centre for Welfare Reform.

What Goes Around ...  © Bob Rhodes 2012.

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