if we “can’t afford” public services, then capitalism is failing

There’s a common argument which comes from people arguing for right-wing politics (or, more usually, from people arguing against what might be thought of as left-wing politics) which goes “We simply can’t afford it”.

But, if it’s true that under the current economic model and under the current levels of wealth distribution, we cannot afford to pay for the basic public services which go to make up a decent, civil society – then what it means is that capitalism is failing.

Positive Discrimination

Equal opportunities policies are usually called “positive discrimination” by the people opposed to them, a subtle reversal of meaning which legitimises criticism.

It sets up the most common argument against these policies, that goes along the lines “It shouldn’t matter what a person’s background or identity is, the job should go to the person best qualified to do it”, with the suggestion that “diverse” candidates are substandard and only get certain jobs because patronising white men took pity on them and “discriminated” in order to give them jobs they’re not properly qualified for. But the phrase “positive discrimination” is inaccurate, as is the argument it supports. The argument is wrong in theory and practice. The theory relies on a false assumption, and in practice we have real evidence to contradict it.

The rationale for the argument only works if there are ways of accurately judging candidates, but suitability for a job is very often an extremely subjective thing. Similarly suitable candidates may have very different sets of qualifications and experiences, or even very similar ones, and there’s no formula for deciding who might do what role best. And candidates are graded finally through interviews – which are tests of social compatibility, not objectively measurable factors such as qualifications or previous jobs.

In practice, it’s well documented through research that CVs submitted with white European names get significantly more positive responses from employers than identical CVs submitted with names from other cultures. But we can see this with our own eyes just by observing the real world: the most obvious evidence against the idea that “the best candidate should get the job” as a reason not to implement equal opportunities policy, is the fact that so many top roles are filled by white men. Unless you are an out-and-out white supremacist who believes that white people are inherently better, then you have to acknowledge that something’s going on.

White men are being given better opportunities from primary school, through higher education and early careers, and these opportunities are cumulative – they add up to have an increasingly greater effect on both CVs and social networking. The truth is that positive discrimination already exists, for white men, and this is why calling measures to reduce it aren’t “positive discrimination”. They’re measures to reduce positive descrimination for white men: they are policies that are about giving other people opportunities. Opportunities which should be equal to the opportunities white men have.

And the thing is, even if tools such as “minority” quotas are imperfect – at least they’re something. What’s worse than using imperfect tools, is doing nothing at all. Using imperfect tools is inevitable, because human social relationships are complex, messy, even contradictory and nothing in our social world will ever be perfect. Accept that the tools will be imperfect, recognise the imperfections of your tools and continually work to balance those against the effectiveness of the tools in the purpose they’re being used for, but if you want to work against the structures of discrimination that exist – and which are unfair, unjust, unethical, shitty – you have to use imperfect tools.

profit is not the only motive

People often argue for privatisation by asserting that the profit motive drives efficiency, which is a lie. Profit only drives profiteering, which involves delivering the cheapest product or service for the highest price. In areas such as health or social care, this is a motive which runs against the interests of the people who need those services.

Another, far better and effective motive is good conscience and the desire to do your job properly. It shouldn’t be controversial to say this, but it is hardly ever heard in conversations about privatisation of public services.

what we can do #1

For whatever reasons, you might not be able to engage in formal political activism, or you may just not want to. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be active, or that you’re powerless to influence politics. If you can see that contemporary politics is broken and you don’t know what to do or how to help, there are crucial, important ways you can make a contribution.

The most basic direct action is simply talking to people. It’s one of the most accessible ways to influence politics and society. Engaging family, friends, people at work, people you socialise with, and even strangers, will help us move towards a better culture of politics.

It might seem insignificant, as though it will have no influence on the wider culture and politics but it can be hugely powerful both on the personal and cultural levels.

On the personal level, if you’re persistent and thoughtful, tailoring your style to your audience and the situation wherever you can, over time you can gently change the way individual people think about things.

And this adds up. The more grown-up conversations each of us have about politics with other people, the more conversations about politics we have as a society. We can help to change our culture, if we commit to it.

The main strength of this sort of activism is that almost anyone can do it.  It requires no resources. The greatest barrier most of us have is sheer social discomfort. And yes, it can be difficult sometimes to know what to say or how to say it. The topic might be one you find discomforting. But with practice and persistence, it can be done.

Talk about politics. Talk about social issues. Talk about what you care about, what you’re concerned about, what you think needs changing about how we manage society. Have conversations with people about politics and explicitly state your doubts at the rise of callousness and unpleasantness, or the lack of respect given to science and research. Whatever you care about, speak to people about it. It doesn’t have to be the only thing you talk about, but if you care then you need to make it something you *do* talk about regularly. Change minds one at a time.

It’s not too ambitious either, because the point isn’t really to get people to agree with your own opinions on individual subjects. You can change a mind by gently influencing them away from extremist views, shallow politics and false arguments. It’s not so much about changing what they think, as changing how they think.

Don’t give in to rhetorical tricks or cheap point-scoring. This is sometimes the most difficult part of “talking activism”. Those sort of shallow tactics are an unhelpful, but pretty widespread in our conversations about politics. In fact the normality of cheap arguments is a significant part of the mess we’re currently in, politically. The dominance of rhetorical tricks and point-scoring in our language is connected to the dominance of charlatans and demagogues in our politics.

Remember that people can repeat bad faith arguments without realising the false or duplicitous logic. It’s crucial to understand whether the person you’re talking to knows they’re playing games or not. If they know they’re taking the piss, stop bothering with the conversation. Don’t waste your time. Point it out, and move on. Hopefully it can also act as a deterrent for them – if someone’s ignored when they try to play games, eventually they’ll have to find better ways of communicating. Also, however, fuck that shit don’t waste your time on dickheads and trolls.

But most people who repeat false arguments are simply repeating what they’ve picked up in other conversations.  The proliferation of shallow arguments is driven by a dedicated and calculated tabloid propaganda industry. Propaganda works by getting people to believe lies, so it’s no surprise so many people sincerely believe the bullshit, so be patient. It takes time, care, and careful explanations to get people to understand that the logic their arguments are based on isn’t as strong as they’d thought. But people can be helped to understand.

You have to accept that the change won’t be instantaneous. It might take a number of conversations over many weeks before they start to recognise the rhetorical games that are being played by the tabloid arguments. But with patience, determination, and careful conversation it can be done. Have faith that simply encouraging more reasoned, thoughtful conversation about social and political issues will help change someone’s mind in the long run.

What can make it uncomfortable is that in order to be effective, you have to give other people space to express their own opinions their own way – and you have to listen to them. It requires that you let them speak and sometimes it requires biting your tongue while they express bigoted views. This doesn’t mean you should let them express bigoted views or promote hatred unchallenged. But if they’re sincere, and if they don’t see the harm in what they’re saying, letting them finish and showing you’ve heard them is going to encourage them to listen to your replies.

Understand who you’re talking to, where they’re coming from. It’s crucially important to distinguish between people who hold problematic or bigoted views unconsciously, and those who know how unpleasant their views are and embrace it. There are a few people who consciously hold destructive, violent, bigoted views. For most of these people it’s about power more than social beliefs. Fuck them right off. Don’t waste your time speaking to them. Fuck that shit. But most people are genuine, sincere, wanting the best, wanting the world to be better – even people who believe things which you think of as distasteful, unpleasant, discriminatory, bigoted. Speak to these people. Speak to the ordinary bigots.

The difficulty is finding the patience to let them express unpleasant opinions. It’s uncomfortable, it’s discomforting. It can make your skin crawl. But unfortunately that’s the deal. If you want to move them away from those beliefs, then you need them to listen to you. Which means you have to be willing to listen to them.

This idea that “all bigots should be shouted at” is wrong. People prefer shouting at bigots because it’s easier than thinking through the explanations and arguments. It’s easier to shout at someone who holds views that make you uncomfortable than to deal with that discomfort and talk to them.

But arguing that all bigots are the same and should be treated the same way is wrong. It’s wrong because it lumps all bigots into the same category of bigotedness. It is wrong because it entirely erases any chance of treating each individual bigot as an individual who will respond to patricular strategies of conversation. It’s wrong because it prevents us from pushing back against the bigotry in an effective way.

It might make us feel better to just shout at people whose views we find unpleasant, but if we really care about making the world less intolerant, less unpleasant – then it is also on us to sacrifice our own egotistical self-satisfaction. “Some bigots should be shouted at, and some bigots should be spoken to, and we should be careful to distinguish between them” would be a more helpful statement.

People are different. They will respond differently to different communication strategies. But the people who are unconsciously bigoted or unpleasant will generally not respond well to being shouted at. It’s difficult. It’s uncomfortable. But if you genuinely want to make a difference it is necessary to have genuine conversations with these people. Accept that their good faith opinions are held in good faith. But try and gently nudge them into thinking about the wider implications of narrow politics or simplistic solutions.

The aim is not to make them agree with you, or to abandon their beliefs and opinions. This is an unrealistic ambition. People aren’t going to simply abandon their sincere beliefs because of a single conversation with someone. The aim is to get them to think for themselves just a little bit more carefully, a little bit more clearly. The aim is to raise the level of political discourse, to demonstrate that a better way of talking about politics is possible.

An example would be when someone talks about immigration increasing the strain on public services – remind them that if public services are under strain, then they need more investment. It’s not immigration which caused the government to cut funding. If the response is that “we can’t afford to pay for public services”, remind them that we’re a wealthy nation and we can afford it, except for the fact that the wealthiest in society are draining wealth from the economy, hoarding it, and not putting enough back in to the society that they’re benefiting from.

If you have the chance, point out that the media – which is working to blame immigration for the pressure on public services – happens to be owned by the same wealth class which are the real cause of the problems with public services. Speak about how privatisation will only result in us having to pay more for worse services.

Do so with good humour and respect for the fact that they might not agree. Accept that they probably won’t agree but engage anyway. Engage them on a personal level to show that differences of opinion don’t need to result in antagonism and anger. The point isn’t necessarily to get them to agree with you. It’s to nudge the conversation to be a little more thoughtful and carefully considered.

People aren’t going to simply abandon their sincere beliefs because of a single conversation with someone. But they might begin to think differently, just a little. And the more conversations like this they have, the more they’ll think about their beliefs and question them. Have faith that over time, through the course of many conversations about various political issues, people’s minds can be changed profoundly.

But it can only work with mass participation. That means not just the people already engaged with politics, it means the people who aren’t active, who know there are problems with what’s happening but who wouldn’t normally raise the subject with strangers.

So, if you despair at the current state of politics and society in general, and if you believe yourself to be someone who genuinely cares: it is time for you to act. And here is the most accessible way you can act.

There is a pressing moral and pragmatic duty on all of us to do whatever we can to wrest back our cultures from the brink of social and environmental disaster. This means we must insist upon rational, reasonable, ethical politics.

Is healthcare a human right?

There’s been a fashion recently amongst conservatives to argue that healthcare isn’t a human right as a reason for dismantling free or affordable access to healthcare as a social policy. If healthcare isn’t a right, then people from the wealthier demographics in society don’t have to subsidise everyone else and can keep more of their money for themselves. Basically – fuck the poor, we want our tax cuts. I’d like to offer a counter-argument.

The thing is, that because rights are only human ideas about how we treat each other, it’s up to us to decide what’s a right and what isn’t. Universal human rights are a pretty recent idea, only as old as the knowledge that we exist as a single species on the planet. Back in the day there were still notions of rights for people, look at the Magna Carta, but they weren’t extended comprehensively amongst everyone – they had tribal, cultural and racial limits. I guess what’s modern is the definition of “human”. And even now the idea of rights which cover every individual who shares a specifically human D.N.A. is developed from theories of ethics, justice and law which are exquisitely human, verbal inventions. Which means that we have the authority to collectively decide what each individual person’s rights are within our society. Of course we’re also collectively deciding what our responsibilities to others are as well – we’re agreeing everyone has the right to these beasic considerations, as long as they’re not impinging on others in the same way (so that freedom of movement is suspended for criminals eg). But we’re deciding.

And the decisions we make about the rights in our society determine what sort of a society we live in. We could abolish the right to free speech, for example, but it would make our society more restrictive and suffocating. We could abolish the right to practice religion, or just certain religions, although this would also have an effect demographically in a way that correlated with racial groupings and might be considered racist. I wouldn’t want to live in a society that treated people like that, it’d be shit.

So no, universal healthcare is not a human right by some law of nature, but then no other right is either, even the right to life. It’s a question of what sort of society we want to live in. I’d like to live in a society where the vulnerable and the needy are looked after. Actually looked after properly, treated with care, dignity and respect. Part of the very point of healthcare is that it’s only ever accessed when there’s a need, because healthy people don’t go to the doctors. So it’s there for people who need it. And if someone needs healthcare and it isn’t there, that’s going to put them in a desperately shitty situation. I don’t want to live in that sort of a society, that lets people who need healthcare go without it. I don’t want people to become that desperate, that vulnerable. I would prefer to live in a caring, decent society – which means I think access to decent healthcare should be a right.

And that’s the answer. No, healthcare doesn’t have to be a human right, not if you’re ok with living in a nasty, uncaring, dystopian society where people live in desperate need and are left to rot because they don’t have enough money to live. But if you want to live in a decent, caring society that doesn’t bankrupt people for being too ill or let them die for being too poor, then healthcare is definitely a right .

the left is losing

The left is losing.

By “the left” I mean the broad collection of political philosophies and ideologies which is generally connected through a shared belief that treating other human beings with decency, compassion and fairness. The left are, generally, the people who hope for a better, kinder world.

People on the right may well take exception to that characterisation, especially the sincere, but it’s a fair one and they should understand that without bad feeling.

Sharing wealth as equally as possible amongst society is generally an ideal of left-wing politics. The right is more interested in an individual’s freedom to accumulate wealth at the expense of others. This is all uncontroversial.

But unfortunately for the left, it is also uncontroversial to state that they are losing in the current war of cultures and ideologies. Losing badly. And it cannot continue if humanity and the human species are to survive. Climate catastrophe is looming, and social inequalities are becoming unsustainably vast.

We need to develop radical new ways of engaging with people both in our practical media strategies and our underlying philosophies.

We need to develop new ways of speaking to each other and new ways of speaking with other people who may not share our political beliefs.

I’m going to use this blog to ramble about politics, culture and language but always with one theme – to imagine possible ways we could work to reform the world as a better place. I’m happily and determinedly left-wing.

Language Matters #1

1.Language matters. It matters because language is the way we pass information to each other, and information is important. Language makes things happen, by causing people to act and react. A commander says fire, or two generals sign a peace accord. A witness gives evidence and a judge gives her verdict. Even in the mundane activities of our lives, how do you get the pizza place to put your preferred topping on instead of just whatever they hell they felt like at the time? And when someone tells you the pizza has arrived, you begin to salivate before the smell has even hit you. Language has physical effects on the neurochemistry of people’s brains.

The people who publicly promote this myth usually have a direct interest in making you confused about language and how it works.