An anchorite moves on

There have been many changes in my life recently and the time has come to move on. I started this blog in 2010, just after I moved to Dalston, and the blog and my life have evolved in parallel with huge social transformations that have taken place around me. I have been reflecting on the mutual interactions between these developments.

If you are a writer, I suppose all life can be viewed as a form of ethnography, in which your understanding of social reality evolves in a dialogue between your inner narrator and what you observe. In this case, this perspective was all too obvious, as I was literally watching the social, economic and cultural reconfiguring of the area from my windows, which gave me a grandstand view of changing Dalston.

I was, of course, an active participant in these changes, partly in my role as secretary of the local residents association and partly because the research I was carrying out in my paid work covered a lot of the same issues (social exclusion, the economic impacts of the financial crisis on poor households, polarisation in the labour market, gentrification, the increasingly contradictory character of creative work, the rise of the platform economy …).

Part of me felt uncomfortable recording what was going on outside my house. It made me feel like a nosy old lady peering voyeuristically from behind net curtains. So there were many things I did not photograph. But evidence was required to substantiate residents’ testimonies to the local authority and some pictures had to be taken for such purposes. Others I took because I could not resist sharing the experiences with friends. When it came to my own horticultural achievements, of course, there were no such inhibitions and I find I have vast stocks of images of plants. Likewise, innumerable photographs of dramatic skyscapes.

I was already somewhat disabled when I moved in. I had been struggling to get up and down stairs in my last house because of breathlessness due to anaemia. My reason for picking this particular house was that it had scope for installing a lift. Since 2016, when I had the first of two accidents, other incapacities have made me even more housebound. This has meant that I walk about much less than I used to and view the world much more from indoors. And this tendency has, of course, been further exacerbated during the coronavirus pandemic.

Indeed, I have been feeling more and more like a mediaeval anchorite, walled up in an enclosed space with three openings to the outside world. One of these openings, to the adjacent church, was the one through which the anchorite found out what was going on in wider society and received inspiration. The 21st century equivalent of that, I guess, would be the Internet and one’s digitally intermediated communications with friends, colleagues and family. The second opening was used by a servant to hand in food and take out bodily waste. The modern equivalents of these servants would be the delivery workers, public sector workers and care workers who are currently risking their lives to keep the locked down population going during the pandemic. The third window opened out onto the street, and through this one the anchorite would dispense words of wisdom to passers by. Rather like giving a zoom lecture, or, indeed, writing this blog.

Anyway, on looking through the archives I found that I have quite a lot of visual documentation of the changes I have witnessed over the past eventful decade through my windows and I have assembled some of it here into a short video (around 8 minutes) that reflects on these Dalston years – see below.

WordPress has used some algorithm I cannot fathom to select the image to use to display it. It is not the one I would have chosen but it does, perhaps, sum up the ways in which contradictions are played out when differing social forces collide with each other in particular times and spaces. Sometimes a random selection is the best choice. Anyway, I hope you enjoy it.

What an epiphany!

January 6th is quite a date. Biblically, it is the Epiphany, the last day of Christmas, when the baby Jesus was presented to the three Magi. In Italy it is the day that Santa Claus’s more ancient, more down-to-earth, female counterpart, La Blefana, brings good children their presents. And in more secular, but still superstitious, Britain the day on which you take down the Christmas tree and decorations – failure to do which will bring bad luck for the rest of the new year.

Perhaps it is just a coincidence that, under the 1887 Electoral Count Act, this is the date set aside under US Federal Law for the formal counting of presidential and vice-presidential ballots by the Congress and Senate, but it is certainly apt. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a day more laden with symbolism than the Epiphany for yesterday’s storming of the Capital by those so enraged, yet so entitled, Trump supporters, watched around the world with who knows what combination of schadenfreude, fear, horror, sadness, bemusement and I-told-you-soism.

Like many others, I suspect, I spent the locked-down day with too many windows open on my PC, toggling between emails, research-related reading, writing in progress, social media and the news. Interested in the outcome of the nail-bitingly close senate election in Georgia (one democrat candidate had been declared; the other was leading the republican by 50.2 to 49.8 – too close to call) I had CNN open in one window, and was checking it periodically, as part of that 21st century way of punctuating the rhythm of work (a substitute for the cigarette breaks I used to take back in the 1970s when I got to the end of a difficult paragraph). Since I last looked, the scene had been transformed. The static image of unchanging numbers and talking heads had given way to an incoherent lurching between shots of crowds in red MAGA hats wielding US flags on the steps of the capitol building, people scaling walls, windows being smashed, masked security guards pointing guns and senators huddled under desks on the floor. In some, men, and a few women, looking like strays from a biker rally, were nonchalantly wandering around among the pompous dark wood trappings of the official rooms, treading the blue carpets with their quite possibly muddy boots.

It is clear that this violation touched a symbolic nerve in the American psyche that has failed to respond to so many other outrages associated with the Trump presidency over the past four years. I was astonished how often the word ‘sacred’ came up in connection with democratic institutions, spoken both by media commentators and the politicians they began to interview as the scale of what was happening became apparent. Not least in Biden’s statesmanlike speech. This, after all, is a man who himself had to preside over a similar congress session as vice president, graciously conceding defeat to Trump, as others, including Gore and Nixon, had done before him and his outrage was apparent. (This being 2021, as I watched his call to Trump to address the nation from the White House to ask his supporters to desist in one window on my PC, I was able to open twitter in another, to see Trumps’ immediate response – a tweet telling his supporters that he agreed with them and loved them but that they should – for the time being, it was implied – ‘remain peaceful’).

This reaction draws attention to the enormous value that is placed on the ceremonial quality of how democratic processes are enacted in the USA. Their legitimacy seems to depend crucially on the very precise following of formal rules, carried out with reverence – so like a religion that the word ‘sacred’ does indeed seem to be the appropriate one.

Early this morning, I watched the now reconvened senators being called, one by one, to declare their acceptance of the votes in their states, answering the ritualistic questions with a ‘yea’ or a ‘nay’. The oral rhythm reminded me irresistibly of one of those litanies of the saints recited in the Catholic churches of my childhood, where all that was required was to utter ‘pray for us’ after the naming of each saint (with an occasional switch to ‘intercede for us’ or ‘have mercy on us’ just to keep you on your toes). Visually too the formality was, on the one hand moving and touching and, on the other, just plain weird, made all the more bizarre by the additional accoutrements of pandemic behavioural norms: the wearing of masks; the use of hand sanitiser before touching a piece of paper. I wondered what future anthropologists will make of it all when they see the videos.

It only takes a suspension of disbelief for any ceremony to become suddenly laughable. Virginia Woolf memorably did this when she showed us the powerful procession of judges, generals, priests and professors as just men wearing silly hats and sometimes frocks. Of course we should be careful not to mock this seriousness. Without these clothes the emperor really is naked. And, in a world where some people have powerful weapons and others have none, we are not equipped to deal with the consequences of such a realisation. These rituals are the best defence we’ve got. An all-too-fragile barrier to the complete breakdown of democracy and gun law on the streets. But neither should we minimise the extent to which this whole event represents a triumph of white supremacy and ruling class entitlement. Black protestors, for example, would not have been allowed within several blocks of the Capitol building. They would most likely have been tear-gassed, intimidated and their leaders arrested, with minimal media coverage. And certainly no equivalent sense of outrage.

But perhaps this moment will nevertheless go down in history as a real turning point. The end not just of a festive season, a year, or, indeed, a presidency, but of a particular conception of democratic institutions and their inviolability. A real Epiphany.

Is the pandemic creating a new centrifugal force in British politics?

Two stories have jumped out at me from this morning’s news. The main headlines report a series of challenges to the government’s decision not to close down schools despite the rapid spread of the Pandemic, coming from local authorities, such as Brighton and Liverpool, speaking in concert with the teachers’ unions, who have taken legal action in an attempt to force the government to disclose the scientific basis for its insistence that they should remain open – the first main story. The second is the report of a survey that suggests that if a UK general election were to be held now, the Tory majority would be wiped out.

Could it be that one of the many unexpected political impacts of the pandemic is a reversal of the tendency, present since the Thatcher Era, to concentrate ever more power in the hands of central government? The manifest failure of the Johnson government to provide effective leadership and its repeated attempts to deflect responsibility for failures in the management of the spread of the virus onto individuals have left a policy vacuum. With a clear crisis in survival for vulnerable citizens, local authorities and voluntary organisations have been sucked in to fill this vacuum, setting up a range of creative initiatives, often building on community solidarity, to provide the essential services that are so desperately needed.

Last year, this led to a change in the tone of the bargaining between central and local authorities, with some, notably Greater Manchester, asserting their demands with a new-found sense of entitlement. Might this new muscle-power, backed by popular support, be a sign that we are entering a new era of local experimentation – a kind of bottom-up building of local initiatives that could be precursors to a more equal post-Covid society?

Looking for a historical parallel took me right back to the middle of the 19th century – in particular the period following two of the most serious cholera epidemics – the 1848-9 epidemic (which caused 53,292 deaths) and that of 1853-54, which caused 20,099. The establishment, by pioneering epidemiologist, John Snow of the link between the spread of cholera and the presence of sewage in drinking water, was one of the triggers for a major programme of sewer-building in London, under the the direction of Joseph Bazalgette, (the other trigger was the ‘great stink’ of 1858, which got right up the noses of the MPs forced to endure it in the Palace of Westminster).

But perhaps more interesting was what happened in Birmingham, where Joseph Chamberlain developed a much more holistic model of municipal management of public health. Having pioneered the provision of public education, co-founding the Birmingham Education Society in 1867, he became mayor of Birmingham in 1873. Under his leadership, the City embarked on a radical reform programme, including in 1875 buying up the existing sewerage companies to form a single municipally-owned sewage system. This followed a similar exercise in which, the previous year, they had consolidated the city’s gas supply, purchasing the existing gas suppliers and merging them under local authority control. This was followed by an early experiment in the provision of public housing as well as the establishment of a public library and a public museum. Although sometimes dubbed ‘municipal socialism’, Chamberlain’s approach was in many ways highly paternalistic, but it does supply a prominent example of the the ways in which public policies were pioneered at a local level in Britain, with similar, if less well-known examples to be found in many other cities – to which many inscriptions on public buildings and statues in public parks still bear testimony.

The cholera epidemics did not just inspire local initiatives in the provision of infrastructure; they also stimulated new forms of social insurance. Take the case of James Gillman, vicar of Holy Trinity Church in Lambeth, of whom it is written that (reminding us of some of the heroic NHS workers in our own locked down times) during the cholera epidemic

‘…for three weeks he never returned to his home for fear of carrying the contagion to his family, and during this time he slept on a sofa in the surgery of the parish doctor. His experiences led him to consider the possibility of providing a fund for stricken families on the principle of life insurance. Gillman worked out his scheme with Henry Harben, who was then the secretary of a small and struggling insurance company which was called the Prudential. The new scheme was based on the weekly payment of small sums from one penny upwards, and in 1850 Gillman became the Chairman of the new company. At his death in 1877 the weekly payments amounted to over two million pounds per annum‘.

The latter part of the 19th century was thus a laboratory in which many 20th century developments were trialled, some of which prefigured important elements in the the mid-20th century welfare state, solidified in its institutions. Here we can point not just to municipal advances in the establishment of new utilities, providing such things as gas, water, electricity, telephone networks and transport services but also health and education services. The importance of these local blueprints can be seen in the influence of radical local experiments on the NHS, which was partly inspired by the Workmen’s Medical Aid Society originally set up in 1890 to serve miners and steelworkers in Aneurin Bevan’s home town of Tredegar.

Since that 20th welfare state was founded, its public and universal character has been chipped away at by over four decades of neoliberal policies that have handed more and more of it over to private companies a a source of profit. Indeed, in the current pandemic, the conservative government hasn’t even bothered to pretend that it is following fair procedures in the awarding of contracts, brazenly ignoring tendering rules as it dishes them out to the political cronies of Johnson and Cummings. In the meanwhile, the neoliberal common sense that the most efficient way to run a country is to leave everything to the market has exploded. The pandemic has made it abundantly clear that state action is an absolute necessity to keep citizens safe and manage the distribution of goods and services.

Could the government’s manifest failure to deliver these things open up an opportunity for municipalities once again to take the lead in pointing an alternative way forward?

In my book, Reinventing the Welfare State: Digital Platforms and Public Policies I argue that the moment has come for precisely such a development. The conditions are now ripe for local authorities to build on the commitment, engagement and creativity of their citizens and, using the new digital technologies, to start developing prefigurative experimental models of a better, more equal and more inclusive society.

Mourning the loss of the great Leo Panitch

The Left Reflects on the Global Pandemic: Leo Panitch

Still raw from the shock of the news, I feel the need to express some thoughts about the devastating loss of Leo Panitch from our midst. He was a man of unbounded generosity, integrity and principle, in his personal as well as his intellectual and political life.

A personification of Gramsci’s ‘pessismism of the intellect; optimism of the will’, he was far too clever and politically astute to imagine that the revolution was around the corner, yet unwaveringly positive in his support for socialism and solidarity with those in struggle.

He is known by some as the intellectual heir of Ralph Miliband, taking over the editorship of the Socialist Register Miliband founded, and editing it, in partnership first with Colin Leys and then with Greg Albo. He participated, from his hospital bed, in the launch of the 2021 Socialist Register by Zoom just three weeks ago (characteristically upbeat, despite the knowledge that he was seriously ill with multiple myeloma, though the COVID infection and pneumonia that were to kill him so quickly had yet to occur). But Socialist Register was only one part of his public life. Indeed he several times tried to shed the role of editor, which took up an enormous amount of his time and energy, but was so hard to replace that his sense of responsibility kept calling him back. It is indeed hard to imagine anyone else on the planet with such a vast overview. He did not just have a horizon-to-horizon knowledge of the literature but was also personally acquainted with many of the greatest political thinkers of our time. He used to boast about how rarely anyone turned down an invitation to contribute to Socialist Register, attributing that to its history as a non-sectarian source of quality analysis. In fact, I suspect, it was Leo himself they did not want to say no to. The warmth and charisma that he radiated made everyone want to be included in it. And he bore no grudges, often inviting people with whom he might have had serious disagreements on some issues to contribute their ideas if he thought these ideas deserved a hearing.

That characteristic modesty meant that he rarely worked alone. His partnerships with Colin and Greg were paralleled by another very deep intellectual and personal partnership with Sam Gindin. Both hailing from Winnipeg, they had known each other since student days and collaborated closely over many years, including co-authoring the magnum opus The Making of Global Capitalism: The Political Economy of American Empire. I often tried to find the details of the extraordinary joint labour process by which this seamless partnership operated, with no visible joins between the two great brains which seemed to operate as one. I have to put it down to some miracle of chemistry. But such collaborations were not just literary. Leo also invested enormous energy in the building of institutions. First at Carleton University’s Institute of Political Economy, then at York University in Toronto, he created environments where serious political thought could thrive, bringing together leading Marxist thinkers – during periods when Marxism was demonised elsewhere – to create centres of excellence and forward thinking in political economy.

In so doing, he created safe havens where voices could be heard that were silenced in other parts of academia, where the ravages of neoliberalism were taking their toll, using the resources he could raise to sustain networks and support younger scholars. These were spaces that attracted bright young PhD students from across the world and Leo put a huge amount of his energy into supporting them personally as well as intellectually and politically, inviting them into his home as well as patiently commenting on their drafts.

He came into my life in the mid-1990s. I was visiting Toronto for other reasons and Sheila Rowbotham suggested I look him up. I was invited round for brunch, to which he had also invited others he thought I might like to meet and by the end of the day i had already agreed to write an article for Socialist Register – an article that, I afterwards realised, gave me the first chance to write in my own voice since the 1970s, giving me a new public persona. From then on, he gave me unfailing (though not always uncritical) support and I felt sustained and honoured to be part of his life.

In 2015, I happened to be in Toronto at the time of his 70th birthday party. It was an amazing gathering, bringing together family and friends from many parts of his life. Everybody I spoke to seemed to bring a different perspective on Leo but all were loving. At one point, much to my surprise and embarrassment, I was asked by Leo’s friend and colleague from Ottawa days, Donald Schwartz, to propose the toast. I am often quite good at improvising such things but this time I made a complete hash of it. I was so angry with myself that I spent the next two or three days writing in my head the speech I should have made. I had arrived arrived fresh from a conference (organised by the UDC) in which many earnest young radical scholars had been discussing the future of work, and of socialism, and what I wish I had said was that in leaving the conference and arriving in the Panitch home I had moved from the abstract discussion of it to the reality of how socialism should be lived. That, in the company of so many people who had known Leo so much better than I did and for so much longer it felt very presumptuous to speak at all. But it was nevertheless a great privilege to be there, embraced in the welcome of the Panitches (including Leo’s wise, brilliant, generous wife Melanie, his wonderful children, Vida and Maxim and grandchildren) in a place where there was not only a generous, unstinting sharing of ideas, but also of love. And much more. Today I do not have adequate words.

How he will be missed.

Seasonal greetings from locked-down Dalston

Another December day dawns, with one part of the population shut up in our homes viewing the world through uncleaned windows or via screens, while another part works out there on the street, risking their lives to save ours and keep essential services going.
Here’s hoping 2021 will bring better things to you all, whichever group you currently belong in.

Who is the corporate person? a psychopath!

We are habituated to companies presenting themselves as people. Organisations such as churches, colleges and municipalities have had the legal status of personhood for centuries – in Europe going back to the days of the Roman empire and in India, where the shreni (associations of merchants and artisans) had such a status, right back to 800 BC. When companies began to be formed, they also acquired the status of being ‘legal persons’ and, in the USA, this was cemented in 2010 by a Supreme Court ruling that even allowed corporations to make political contributions as if they were private citizens.

Outside the courts, in everyday life, we have become increasingly used to being addressed by companies as if they were people. Pret a Manger have been informing us since the 1980s that they are ‘passionate about food’ while Odeon cinemas have been telling us for almost as long that they are ‘fanatical about film’. And we are constantly reproached with guilt-tripping messages about how sorry corporations are that we have chosen to leave them if we terminate a contract, or reminded that ‘it’s a while since we heard from you’ if we have neglected to visit a website. Corporate mission statements are infused with affect – telling us how much the brand-holders care – about our children, animals, the future of the planet or whatever cause they think will tug at our heart-strings. It can be hard, sometimes, to remember that they are not flesh-and-blood entities with eyes that weep and skin that responds to touch.

So let us for a moment suppose that corporations really are people. If so, what sort of people might they be? The answer is actually very creepy; on close examination they turn out to exhibit many of the most toxic pathologies to be found in the 21st century lexicon of personality disorders. Here are a few.

Narcissism

A medical website defines people with Narcissistic personality disorder as having ‘an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, troubled relationships, and a lack of empathy for others. But behind this mask of extreme confidence lies a fragile self-esteem that’s vulnerable to the slightest criticism.’

This is a pretty accurate description of the typical corporation with its obsession with brand image. Staff are not only issued with minutely detailed instructions on how to present it (or themselves, as its representatives) but it may even be a disciplinary offence to voice any scepticism about its boasts. Such rules also extend to anyone receiving sponsorship, such as athletes, students on scholarships or organisers of cultural events. Press releases trumpet its virtues and lawyers are kept on standby so that critics may be sued if any grounds can be found for doing so. There is a need to be forever in the limelight, with logos and corporate slogans always on show. The more branding, the better. (If you still haven’t got the idea, think of the White House under Trump.)

Coercive control

Here’s a definition of coercive control, from another medical website ‘Coercive control is a strategic form of ongoing oppression and terrorism used to instil fear. The abuser will use tactics, such as limiting access to money or monitoring all communication, as a controlling effort.’ As Women’s Aid explains, ‘This controlling behaviour is designed to make a person dependent by isolating them from support, exploiting them, depriving them of independence and regulating their everyday behaviour.

Sound familiar? Many taken-for-granted management practices follow very similar patterns. Workers are given targets to meet and minutely monitored to make sure that they meet them. Detailed procedures are prescribed, to be followed to the letter. Budgets are laid down with penalties for overspending or deviating from them. Communications may be monitored and movements tracked. Warnings are issued if these commands are not followed precisely, with an escalating scale of warnings, leading to the ultimate sanction of losing the job altogether or being dropped from the online platform. Seeking support from a trade union may be punished savagely.

These forms of control, often administered via online digital interfaces, to which there can be no answering back, are not just applied to workers but also to customers where the corporation has established an ongoing relationship of dependence. Some of the most extreme forms of terror are inflicted on customers who owe money (or are accused of doing so) with the threat (or actual use) of physical force by bailiffs to seize their property. But many organisations, including landlords and suppliers of energy, broadband services, phone contracts, insurance, maintenance contracts on malfunctioning appliances, also routinely generate enormous amounts of misery as they force their customers to spend hours of their time following convoluted procedures and proving that they have met obscure legal requirements in order to access their rights.

Corporate relationships with such clients often follow a pattern that is well-known in abusive relationships, whereby an initial period of ‘love-bombing’ with seductive promises is followed by the creeping introduction of ever-more controlling behaviours.

Bullying

Closely related to coercive control, bullying can involve a single person being directly targetted by a corporate person or, more insidiously, the encouragement of a culture in the organisation that allows for the spread of collective forms of bullying, especially of vulnerable groups or individuals. There is now such a large literature on bullying and harassment at work that I won’t discuss it further here, other than to point out that the corporate person does not just bully its workers but may also bully people outside the organisation, including competitors (especially small organisations, from whom it might have stolen ideas) and critics, such as journalists or NGOs who point out its imperfections in public or – in the case of large global corporations – even governments who try to stand up to their worst excesses, for instance by trying to extract taxes, protect indigenous industries or minimise environmental damage.

Stalking

As wikipedia succinctly puts it ‘Stalking is unwanted and/or repeated surveillance by an individual or group toward another person’ and, in this digital age, probably represents the most definitive feature of contemporary corporate behaviour. To paraphrase Churchill, they stalk us on the beaches, they stalk us on the landing grounds, they stalk us in the fields and in the streets, they stalk us in the hills; they never surrender. Tracking our every movement online or offline and incorporating the resulting information into every more precise means to monitor us, control us and target us with their commodities, they are omnipresent.

I could go on. Check out ‘borderline personality disorder’, for example, or ‘obsessive compulsive disorder’. But I hope I have said enough to give you the general picture.

A psychopath

Put all these things together and you have what starts to look very much like the condition, described by wikipedia in these words: ‘Psychopathy, sometimes considered synonymous with sociopathy, is traditionally a personality disorder characterised by persistent antisocial behaviour, impaired empathy and remorse, and bold, disinhibited, and egotistical traits’.

In short, the corporate person is a very nasty one – not somebody you want to share your life with in any intimate way. What part is played, I wonder, by enforced subjection to these abusive and controlling relationships with corporate ‘persons’ in the creation and reinforcement of the epidemic of depression that seems to have swept the world? And to what extent has it generated such behaviours in the population? Abusive parents, we are told by scientists, produce abusive children. And there do seem to be an awful lot of abusive people around these days. Just look at the statistics on femicide, child abuse and racial harassment, to name but a few.

But, as any therapist can tell you, it is the recognition that one is in a relationship with someone with a personality disorder that constitutes the first step to escaping it. Get the self-help books out, comrades! And remember the importance of solidarity.

Hospital transport – a problem in search of a solution?

Today’s announcement that the UK government is planning a massive hike in parking fees for NHS staff who travel to work by car draws attention to a lack of joined-up thinking in public policy – one example among many of a situation that represents the intersection of several different public problems that, when addressed separately, generate new dysfunctionalities with the solution to one problem adding to another.

In my latest book Reinventing the Welfare State: Digital Platforms and Public Policies, I argue that if people are brought together at a local level to discuss such problems, new and creative solutions can be found, where necessary using digital platform technologies to develop new kinds of public service that meet environmental and social goals in innovative ways.

Transport to and from hospitals provides a good example of just such a multifaceted situation – perhaps best conceived as a set of overlapping problems – to which publicly managed platforms might provide a solution.

Here are some of the problems:

  • NHS workers need to get to and from their work safely at all hours of the day and night
  • Hospital parking is at a premium and must be controlled carefully to ensure that emergency vehicles are not blocked
  • Ambulance services are expensive to run and there is a need for transport for patients who are not in a critical condition to attend outpatient appointments or taken home on discharge
  • There is also a need for family members, friends and support workers to be able to visit patients, often staying with them for unpredictable hours (for example if they are terminally ill, about to give birth or undergoing a mental health crisis)
  • Many hospitals are some distance away from the nearest major public transport hub
  • Taxi services are unaffordable for many patients and their families and friends
  • Taxi drivers have precarious working conditions and are rarely provided with adequate drop-off, waiting and pick-up arrangements at hospitals, let alone facilities (such as toilets) to use while they are waiting

Here are some of the policy challenges:

  • Maximise use of public transport; minimise use of private cars (for environmental and other reasons)
  • Optimise use of ambulance services
  • Maximise benefits for NHS staff including safe and affordable travel to work
  • Maximise benefits for NHS patients and their families and carers
  • Avoid wasteful use of NHS land
  • Improve working conditions for precarious workers

How about this for a possible solution?

Develop a platform for the provision of hospital transport services, using a range of different types of vehicle (suitably adapted for people with disabilities and using fuel from renewable sources), managed by a consortium including representatives from the health authority, the ambulance service, the local public transport provider, the local authority care service, patient representatives and representatives of trade unions.

Drivers could be offered flexible shift patterns to fit their personal circumstances but would receive the basic rights of employees (such as sick pay, holiday pay, minimum wage, pension contributions and the right to trade union representation). They would also be provided with suitable training including, perhaps, the possibility of career development, for example into becoming a paramedic.

Any profits from the platform would be used to improve the quality of its services.

This platform would provide a range of transport services including:

  • 24-hour shuttle services to and from the hospital from the nearest public transport hubs
  • emergency transport to hospital for non-critically-ill patients (referred by GPs or NHS 11)
  • transport to and from outpatients appointments (perhaps provided on a sliding scale of payment – eg people entitled to free prescriptions would be entitled to free transport; others might pay subsidised rates)
  • transport to and from work for NHS staff (perhaps with subsidised rates)
  • transport to and from work for hospital visitors (perhaps with subsidised rates for designated carers)

If the platform were efficient enough, well-enough integrated with local public transport, and its services sufficiently well priced, it could become the normal way for everybody in the area to get to and from hospital. A fleet of suitably adapted ‘green’ vehicles would be available round the clock, discouraging people from using private transport, freeing up hospital land, providing decent employment for drivers and generally making the whole process of attending or visiting a hospital more pleasant and affordable.

In short, it would provide a new kind of 21st century public service.

Jenni Murray, the BBC and the Welfare State

If ever there was an event that justified the use of the cliché ‘the end of an era’ it was Jenni Murray’s departure last week from hosting Woman’s Hour on BBC Radio 4. With the possible exception of The Archers, this is perhaps the last remaining programme that still enacts the BBC’s symbolic relationship with an abstraction of British society as a unified, entity that can be spoken to as a single audience by a singular voice.

In writing my recent book Reinventing the Welfare State, I did a lot of thinking about how the welfare state was formed in the mid-20th century, and the assumptions that underpinned its creation. The post-war world, it was presumed, was one where either you had a job, and were ‘employed’ or did not and were ‘unemployed’ or, more rarely, ‘self-employed’. Employment was full-time and permanent. Employees were assumed to be men, or unmarried women. On marriage women were supposed to leave the workforce to bring up their children at home, supported by the male wage. The benefit system provided universally for the whole population, in the form of free health services, child benefits and old-age pensions. A contributory national insurance scheme took care of workers in the case of misfortune like becoming ill or disabled, or losing their job.

This imagined world was faithfully reflected in the BBC’s radio programming which assumed that people were doing more or less the same thing at the same time, right across the nation. In the mornings (1946-1967) housewives did their dusting and hoovering while listening to each other’s music requests (always presented by a man) on Housewives’ Choice.

On their lunchbreaks, the skilled men and less-skilled unmarried women of the working class listened to Workers Playtime (1941-1964), broadcast from factory canteens around the country. Then at 1.45 (1950-1982) the housewives sat down with their toddlers to Listen with Mother. With any luck, by two o clock they had got them to sleep in time for Woman’s Hour (1946-now) which, perhaps more than any other programme, has surfed the waves of change that have rocked the last three quarters of a century.

The story of the last seven decades has been that of the slow disintegration of these unities – a tale with a double aspect. The first aspect involved a bringing to visibility of the ways in which this unified image never quite fitted the script, in a narrative that pointed to the realities of life for immigrants, single parents, travellers, homosexuals, the mentally ill and others whose lives did not conform to these norms. The second involved challenging the rigidity of the very template itself, by people whose lives fitted into it, but who experienced it as a straitjacket. Over the course of these decades there have been shifts of emphasis among those people who agitated for change, in particular a shift from looking for collective solutions, affecting large social categories en masse, to more individualised ones.

Murray’s 33-year term as the voice of Woman’s Hour spanned the most recent stage in this process. What began in the 1960s and 1970s, in a series of demands and actions by the women’s liberation movement, rooted in an insistence that the category ‘woman’ encompassed far more than just ‘housewives’, had, by the 1980s, diversified into a range of different campaigns and positions as feminists found themselves entering diverse positions in the professions and in the labour market, and women who were not feminists stepped through the doors that they had helped open. When Murray took the chair, there was hardly a topic on which a ‘woman’s angle’ could not be identified, and it is greatly to her credit that she interviewed an extraordinary range of women in different positions (including myself, on a few occasions), while continuing to address ‘core’ feminist issues seriously. By the time she left, a third of a century later, the very category ‘woman’ had itself been problematised, opening up existential questions for the future.

Over the years the BBC has come under attack in many of the same ways as the welfare state. Presented by neoliberals as an expensive, inefficient colossus, draining money from the state and impeding the free play of markets, it has been subjected by successive Tory governments to cuts, outsourcing and accusations of political bias. As I write, its future is very much in doubt. But as a broadcasting network among many it has greater ability to adapt, and more independence, than other state-funded institutions. The diversity of its audiences can be addressed by multifying the channels of communication, although this may come at the price of confirming minority voices as marginal, and conceding more ground to the power of global markets.

But pity the poor old welfare state. Like a ramshackle building subjected to cut-price extension, renovation and demolition of its various parts by a succession of cash-strapped owners, it now bears little resemblance to its founders’ bold visions of universality, but its scope for adaptation is minimal. That imagined post-war scene of the worker in the factory, the housewife in the kitchen and the sick and unemployed living in their council houses on the ‘dole’ seems quaint and fantastical. And, in volatile 21st century labour markets where growing numbers of people do not know from one week, day, hour or even minute to the next when the next ‘task’ might ping into possibility on their mobile phone, being readily classifiable into the status ’employed’, ‘self-employed’ or ‘unemployed’ is beyond the creaking capacity of the outsourced bureaucracy that adminsters the benefit system to determine with any approximation of fairness.

As I have written elsewhere, the combination of the tax-credit system on the one hand, with it subsidies to low-paying employers, and the benefits system, on the other hand, with its penal sanctions regime, in a deadly pincer movement, traps the poor into accepting precarious and dangerous work quite as effectively as the Poor Laws that preceded World War II and the workhouses that they replaced in 1930. No further tinkering with the current obsolete mechanisms will remedy this. What is needed is a complete reboot.

To find out more, you can order my book Reinventing the Welfare State  by clicking on the link.

If you enter the coupon code ‘HUWS30’ at the checkout you will get a 30% discount. The discount applies to both the paperback and the ebook editions.

New worker’s rights – and enforcement – needed for the digital age

As I look out of my window in Dalston, one of the signs that lockdown is over is the increasing density of the congregation of delivery riders outside.

delivery riders outside my window last week

As more of the surviving local restaurants reopen, my neighbourhood is once again becoming selected by the algorithms as a hot spot for food collection. And the nearer you are to the restaurant when the order comes in, and the quicker you hit the ‘accept’ button on your phone when it does, the more likely you are to get some work – and hence some income – that day.

Of course their work did not disappear during the pandemic. On the contrary, many of these riders were redeployed – at great personal risk – to deliver food and other goods from local shops and supermarkets in a newly intensified competition for dominance of the ‘last mile’ of delivery which suddenly became so lucrative when people were prevented from going out to the shops themselves. As consumers google their options online, a great reconfiguration of labour has been taking place on our streets.

For many, it might be more or less a matter of chance, or slot availability, that dictates where you order things from, but these apparently small choices can cumulatively have large consequences for workers, determining whether these things are delivered by an employee of a supermarket chain like Tesco or an online retailer like Ocado (arriving in a branded van driven by someone who is most likely an employee), a Royal Mail worker (an employee), a worker for a courier company like Hermes or DPD (with a variety of different employment statuses but mostly casual), a car driver for a platform like Uber, redirected from the dwindling taxi market to the expanding field of food delivery via Uber Eats (not an employee but the Supreme Court will soon announce whether the status of ‘worker’ will be awarded), or the rider of a scooter or cycle, working for a platform like Deliveroo or Just Eat (most definitely treated as a self-employed ‘independent contractor’).

As the newly unemployed join this expanding labour pool of ‘key workers’, the jungle becomes denser and harder to navigate and it is increasingly difficult to work out what they are entitled to. One of the key themes in my new book, Reinventing the Welfare State is the need for a new set of worker’s rights for the digital age.

Instead of the hodge-podge of existing laws, and exceptions to those laws, that leave growing numbers of workers outside their scope, confused about what rights they do have and – even if they are entitled to some of these rights – unable to claim them without expensive legal costs, I set out some basic universal principles that should apply to all workers – with a clear definition of self-employment so that genuine freelancers (who set their own rates, control their own labour processes and work for multiple clients) can be distinguished from dependent workers.

These rights include some that are traditional, such as entitlement to the minimum wage, sick pay, paid holidays, pensions and the right to organise, join and be represented by a trade union. But they also include new ones for the digital age, such as the right to communicate with your employer directly rather than via an app and the right to see what information is held about you, feeding the logarithm that determines your chances of being allocated a task, and hence your working conditions and income.

Enforcement

But rights mean nothing if they cannot be enforced. One of the ways my book breaks new ground is by suggesting a new, and simplified, approach to the enforcement of labour rights. Of course when it comes to representing workers nothing can replace the power of an organised trade union, but – as unions have known since the 19th century when they first started campaigning for factory inspectors – these need to be backed up by public systems that publicise the legal standards and make sure they are complied with.

In the book, I propose the reorganisation of existing services, and, where necessary, their expansion, into a three-tier model. This model would link the provision of basic information with other kinds of local and national specialist services, through a single access point, contactable in real time.

Tier One would consist of an easily accessed national helpline (along the lines of the NHS 111 service) that would provide an instant response to everyday queries but, if more specialist information or local enforcement were needed, would carry out a triage function, referring callers on to specialists in one of the other tiers.

Tier Two would draw on the expertise of specialist services, such as those currently provided by ACAS, the Health and Safety Executive, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority and the Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking Unit of the National Crime Agency, and make it quickly available.

Tier Three would be made up of locally-linked networks of inspectors combining the knowledge and powers of wages inspectors, health and safety inspectors and the many other inspectors, currently spread across different local authority departments, with powers to investigate issues relating to such varied matters as consumer safety, traffic violations and public health – on the spot.

To find out more, you can order Reinventing the Welfare State  by clicking on the link. If you enter the coupon code ‘HUWS30’ at the checkout you will get a 30% discount. The discount applies to both the paperback and the ebook editions.

Take care!

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

Pondering the strange period we are living through, I have several times been reminded of these memorable words by Charles Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities. Despite the many horrors, some of the ‘best’ features of these unsettling times have been the way that the pandemic has stimulated forms of neighbourliness and mutual help that had lain dormant for far too long in many communities, as well as awakening some big discussions about what sort of post-COVID society we want to live in.

Thanks to the valiant efforts of left publishers, this unique set of circumstances has created an opportunity – and an appetite among readers – for books that, instead of focusing on the minutiae of social developments and policies, start to address some of the big political questions that confront us in the search for alternative ways of managing our society and economy. Into this category I would place Ann Pettifor’s clear and compelling The Case for the Green New Deal and my own Reinventing the Welfare State as well as the marvellous Care Manifesto: the Politics of Interdependence, also published this week.

The Care Collective: Andreas Chatzidakis, Jamie Hakim, Jo Littler,
Catherine Rottenberg and Lynne Segal
The Care Collective (left to right): Jamie Hakim, Jo Littler,
Catherine Rottenberg, Andreas Chatzidakis
and Lynne Segal

The authors of this concise, beautifully-written book have put their finger precisely on our collective pulse. In one word, they have identified what is both the key deficit in our current society and the key component in any alternative future: care. What has been so deeply troubling in the way that our government has treated the most vulnerable members of society during the pandemic and in the years of austerity leading up to it has been, in a nutshell, it’s failure to care. The realisation that ‘they really don’t care’ has been a painful shock to many, especially those who grew up believing that Britain had a welfare state that would look after them ‘from cradle to grave’, but there it is. We live in a world that the Care Collective characterise as ‘careless’ and this book is an idealistic call to design an alternative future that puts universal care at the heart of its vision.

The authors define the word broadly as ‘our individual and common ability to provide the political, social, material, and emotional conditions that allow the vast majority of people and living creatures on this planet to thrive – along with the planet itself’ and discuss the ways that this goal has been thwarted at every level starting with interpersonal relationships and building up via kinship networks, neighbourhoods, communities and nations to the world itself. They draw on a wide range of research from the fields of psychology, sociology, political economy and environmental science to build their argument but, more importantly, illustrate their points with inspirational examples from around the world of social experiments that have shown how it is possible to do things differently.

I particularly like their emphasis on developing pilot schemes at a local level that can then be scaled up, perhaps because it is the approach I favour in my own new book where I suggest developing publicly-managed local platforms for delivering care services and organising local food distribution strategies. This has several advantages. It is something that can be done straight away, into which people can put their energies without waiting for a change of government. It builds on neighbourly initiatives that are already there, which have sprung into life during the pandemic. It demonstrates that alternative futures really are possible. And it can give us hope in these bleak times.

If only to lift your spirits, I urge you to read this book.

As to our government and its manifest failure to care, I am put in mind of that gruesome nursery rhyme:

Don’t care didn’t care,
Don’t care was wild:
Don’t care stole plum and pear
Like any beggar’s child.

Don’t care was made to care,
Don’t care was hung:
Don’t care was put in a pot
And boiled till he was done.

PS Just after I finished writing this blog, I looked out of the window beside my desk and this is the shocking sight that confronted me. How desperately we need the lessons from The Care Manifesto!