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Posts Tagged ‘socialism’

It’s been a while since I’ve settled on any particular label for my beliefs and ideas about politics and economics for very long.

I mean, “liberal” probably has the longevity title to date but I’m a way out of that one now.

“Libertarian socialist” still feels like a pretty comfy fit. “Anarchist” often works but isn’t that specific and often doesn’t convey a whole lot of useful information to someone hoping to get an idea what I think about stuff.

As far as economics goes, more and more these days I identify as a “You know neo-liberalism? Like, whatever the opposite of that is”.

Except if you were going etymologically you might then conclude I’m a “retro-conservative”, which is one of the few things that sounds like it might be even worse.

The search continues.

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So I’ve noticed how some people are strongly against socialism.

Or at least, to some interpretation of it. To the idea that a core foundation of society should involve people doing things for the good of everyone as a whole, with no direct benefit to themselves individually. To a system in which we all try to do good for each other based on what we each need, rather than what we can each afford or achieve on our own. That sounds terrible to a lot of people.

And it’s not some perverse hatred of generosity and kindness which leads them there. It’s possible, apparently, to believe that a ruggedly capitalist system, where no more is ever provided to people than what they’re able to earn and pay for, would be the optimal way to allow our most noble impulses to improve the world.

But a lot of the objections to socialist ideas and programs come from thinking too small.

Often, when people are imagining how terrible socialism would be, they’re picturing some amount of their money being taken away from them and given to someone else, because some central authority has deemed that this other person “needs” it more. And they think, hey, I earned that money, through all that tedious drudgery I have to do just to survive at that job I resent, so why does it get taken away from me by the government, to give to someone else who didn’t even work for it?

I mean, for this to make much sense, you need to pretend that people generally get paid money in relation to how hard they toil and how useful their work, which is just comical lunacy. But even so, the above paragraph is not a useful way to imagine how society could work if we were all looking after each other.

When I’m at work, earning a salary to keep me in books and cheesecake, I’d also resent the idea of chunks of it being nibbled at and taken away for things that won’t directly benefit me. I’ve kinda been numbed to it with tax and national insurance deductions by now, but they still hurt a little when I really look at my payslip. We’re a naturally loss-averse species, and I have financial commitments to worry about. Millennia of evolution have given my brain clear instructions on how infuriated it should be by the idea of something of mine being taken away from me.

But regardless of my gut reaction, helping people is a good thing to do, and in the right circumstances it can feel like it as well. If there were more of such solidarity and mutual aid going around in every direction, we’d be less worried and insecure about our own financial position, and might be able to react less violently to any possible sliver of charity we might somehow be tricked into performing.

As it stands, I’ve got bills to pay, a mortgage, animals to feed, all kinds of shit. If my or my wife’s gainful employment went away, even for a little while, I’d be panicking about our income and how we were supposed to cope. Of course I’m going to be wary of any of that vital cashflow being snatched away at the source, and I’ve got a way better and less frangible deal than many people in similar positions.

But without all those artificial worries to make me so insecure – without the capitalistic infrastructure, which massively disincentivises selflessness, and puts people in positions where actual lasting financial security is an impossible pipe dream for almost everyone – if we could just escape all that and feel safe and get the system of incentives right…

…then I’d love to work as hard to help other people as I currently do just to keep alive. And I’d take what help I can from them, too. Be part of a supportive network, a community.

As it is, chances are good that I’ll be too scared to let any of my effort go toward helping anyone else, for fear of losing out. But that attitude works both ways. So my colleagues might then be similarly disinclined to look after me when I’m sick, or keep me sheltered and fed if I lost my job or couldn’t work, or buy me a drink when I’m out of change, or work at schools where my kids will get educated, or help maintain safe roads and reliable public transport, or provide some sort of allowance to help me continue living an independent and worthwhile life when I’m old and decrepit… or any of the numerous ways that every person alive relies on the rest of the species to help them out. Because they’ve got their own lives to support and are worried about their ability to do so, even before I start free-loading.

We might all end up deciding not to let anyone else benefit from anything we could keep to ourselves, if we allow the idea of helping other people to become so abhorrent and frightening.

So if you’re worried about socialism because of what other people might take from you and how little you can afford, I understand. I totally get the feeling of financial insecurity, the urgent need to make sure you can keep a roof over your family’s heads, and put food on the table, without also being expected to take care of other people you don’t even know.

But it’s worth asking where that constant anxiety as you cling to survival comes from, and whether it’s really necessary. Is the system as it currently stands really working out so well for you? It’s made you live in fear of what you might lose out, without appreciating the vastness of the potential for you to gain. You really don’t know what you’re missing.

Especially if you live in the US and you have no perspective on how horrifying your country looks to anyone who’s grown up with socialised healthcare, I mean holy shit you need to sort that the fuck out.

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There’s an old saying along the lines of: People aren’t interested in socialism, they’re interested in putting food on the table.

I think it’s meant to discourage enthusiastic lefty types from talking openly about their political ideas on the grounds that nobody will be interested.

I don’t buy it. I know how caught-up large numbers of people can become in arguments about political ideas, labels and all, because I’ve been on the internet. People get personally interested in all kinds of things.

But even if it’s true, I don’t know why the general public are imagined to give any more of a shit about capitalism as an abstract political notion, so singling socialism out as beyond the scope of public interest seems unfair.

But maybe there’s something to it. Maybe all this outright radicalism isn’t that useful, and won’t change any minds.

Maybe most people don’t pay that much attention to the minority like us, who insist on taking societal change and complex jargonistic political ideas seriously, because they’re focused on things like how their children are going to be fed and clothed, and how much the taxman is going to take away out of what they earn at their bullshit job.

Except, y’know, all that is exactly the kind of stuff most socialists want you to take an interest in. It’s not just about fixating on explicitly political ideas; it’s about the things people just believe about how the world works, without really thinking about it or questioning it or considering it a matter of politics at all.

What kind of parent you want to be is an overtly political question. The lessons kids learn from their interactions with grown-ups will shape the way they see interactions with everyone else, on a society-wide level, for the rest of their lives. And that’s basically what politics is. The ways you choose to raise your children has a direct effect on the eventual political engagement of at least one future member of adult society.

Will they learn to view their interactions with others through the lens of domination, where the way you get what you want is by beating your enemies until they are totally defeated and you win? (The answer is: probably, unless you shield them from basically all of culture as well as treating them differently yourselves.)

If you’re going through tough times, is it demeaning to ask for help? Does it always feel shameful to have to rely on charity? Or is it a normal and beneficial part of life that a safety net should exist to support those who can’t fully support themselves and their own families, for whatever reason and over whatever length of time? It’d be odd to claim that everyday folk don’t take a direct personal interest in this kind of thing, and this is exactly what many people are talking about when they talk politics, socialists included.

There certainly exists plenty of socialist rhetoric which won’t mean much to anyone not already entangled in political intrigue, about uprisings of the proletariat and whatnot, but a lot of what I see is inspired by real-world relatable issues, to talk about those issues in a political context. Sometimes talking about socialism literally is talking about putting food on the table.

People might not care about “socialism” as an abstract set of ideas in political philosophy, or be swung by its promises in a political theoretical sense. But they already have strong feelings about the things it represents.

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How To Overthrow The Illuminati is the name of a worthwhile website/pamphlet, about the problems of systemic corruption and inequality in the world, the reasons why many people turn to grandiose and illusory conspiracy theories to explain it all, and how to actually think about correctly identifying the enemy and struggling against the root causes of civilisational inadequacy.

Thanks for the recommendation, The Ex-Worker.

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Often, what prods me to get tetchy and social-justicey on the internet and bash out a minor socialist tirade has a lot to do with the free-loader problem.

Someone else writes about the problem of other people “expecting everything to be handed to them”, and how this is a major societal catastrophe which their preferred political system is capable of handling, while your preferred political system would give free reign to these entitled monsters and then calamity would somehow ensue.

My objection tends to be to the mischaracterisation: it’s not only dehumanising to brand a class of people as moochers in this way, it’s an incorrect assessment of how entitlement is actually distributed. It’s not actually true that capitalism is busy rewarding the hard work of those noble industrialists who contribute the most to society, despite the best efforts of entitled poor people to undermine the whole enterprise with their unreasonable demands for free stuff to just be given to them. This is an untrue narrative that serves to further entrench class divides and add to the troubles of those already having the hardest time.

Reading one particular justification of class inequality the other day, though, I had another thought: What’s so wrong with wanting stuff handed to you?

I mean, as the foibles of humanity go, we’re capable of vastly worse, and this one seems to be either justified or largely self-regulating.

If you demand the handing-over of unnecessary luxuries which you haven’t earned and people don’t think you deserve, then what you’ll actually receive is probably disappointment and frustration.

And if what you expect to have handed to you isn’t a luxury but part of the bare minimum requirements to allow you a tolerable existence, then maybe these are things we should just be handing to people regardless of how obnoxiously we think they’re asking for it?

So why is it worth the rest of us making such a fuss over it? If someone’s expecting too much to be handed to them which they don’t deserve, they’re damning themselves. If they’re expecting to be handed things people should feel entitled to, are you going to be the one to look at them holding their hands out and say “NOPE, sorry, you go hungry and sleep outside tonight because you were too much of a dick when you asked for food and shelter”?

It’s relatable, I admit, the way this freeloading problem is something people react to very viscerally and emotionally. But I’m not persuaded that a rational assessment would actually identify this as a major problem deserving of such a harsh crackdown. It might make you angry, and that’s understandable, but that doesn’t make you right, or give you right to indulge those angry instincts without questioning whether that helps anything. The fact that even mild entitlement earns such vicious castigation is a quirk of human psychology, not a fact about how objectively terrible people are.

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So says this article.

We live in a world where corporate capitalism has always completely depended on state power, and the basic practical thrust of left statism has always been annexation of the economy.

I still naturally think of myself as being on the left, and tend to find more common ground with lefty ideas and positions than with self-identified right-wing thought, but it’s a fuzzy and nebulous excuse for an axis, and there are much more fruitful ways available of summing up what I consider politically important. I’m an anti-authoritarian more strongly than I’m, say, a socialist – and in fact much of my feeling on the latter flows from my vehemence on the former.

Rather than “libertarian socialist” or other similar labels I’ve found helpful in the past to sum myself up, I think I’m going to start saying that my political views can be best represented in the form of the Konami code. It conveys no useful or meaningful political information, but it’s kinda funny the first time you hear it, and feels like it could be referring to something deep and profound, and establishes that I probably enjoy being irritatingly contrarian.

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Pointing out the inhumanity, cruelty, viciousness, and not-remotely-disguised contempt for dehumanised individuals which drives modern Tory welfare policy is always something I can get behind. But the graphic at the top of this post is entirely the wrong way to think about all of this.

It’s not a “handout”
It’s not “welfare”
It’s not “something for nothing”
It’s money from the government from a fund you have paid into, for when times are hard.
And it belongs to you.

The Irritable Duncan Syndromes and the Kate Trollkinses of the world are fixated on whether people (at least, people who start with very little) think they “deserve” anything they didn’t “earn” themselves. Within a certain unbalanced, unfair, and totally rigged framework for what constitutes “earnings”, of course. If you’re in possession of a single penny you didn’t come by through some means arbitrarily deemed acceptable to our capitalist ideals (run a bank that loses everyone else’s money: good; inheritance: good; £56.80 a week from the state to stop you starving or freezing to death and to cover the bus fare to your full-time unpaid workfare placement: fuck off, scrounger) then they’re on the attack, letting you know exactly what society thinks of you.

Obviously people deserve better than this. But arguing that people deserve to be paid back by the welfare state, because it’s something they’ve contributed to before, plays directly into the right-wingers’ game.

They point at the likes of White Dee, screech about outrageous entitlement, and deny that she deserves any of the government-provided assistance she’s getting. If your response involves pointing at the things she might have done in the past to make her worthy of her benefits – National Insurance contributions or whatever – you’re giving too much ground to the conservatives’ premise, and simply lowering the bar for how much people have to prove themselves to you.

It’s a start, don’t get me wrong. It takes compassion and a sense of perspective to lower that bar as far as I’ve been seeing a lot on the left recently, and there’s a lot of important support for people who’ve been deemed insufficiently “deserving” by many. But you can take it even further by not playing their game at all.

I don’t think White Dee deserves the financial help to live a decent, bearable life just because she’s paid some taxes in the past, or in some way “given back” to the society she’s now counting on for support.

I think she deserves that help because she’s a human being and this is the twenty-first century, for Christ’s sake.

If you want to carry on trying to filter the deserving from the undeserving poor, making your list of who really needs help and checking it twice to make sure nobody’s snuck on there looking for a free ride, you need to know that, at the moment, your way of doing things is making cancer patients go for months without a penny due to a “backlog crisis” in assessments; stopping people’s benefits for having a heart attack during a work capability assessment; oh, and costing hundreds of millions of pounds as a result of the official government policy of throwing people out of their homes if they’re taking up slightly more space than they could conceivably be crammed into.

If, alternatively, you wanted to try being humane and generous and giving everybody something resembling a fair chance at making a decent life for themselves, then the side effects would include vastly reducing the levels of indignity and suffering inflicted on the poor by the state. And on the negative side, well, some people would get enough money that they wouldn’t have to starve to death or worry about ending up homeless, even if they didn’t work for it.

Wait, I mean – some poor people will get that. That’s the only way it’s actually news.

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I lack the time, energy, will, calm, poise, rationality, and overall mental composure to talk much about the condition of the welfare state in this country and the Conservatives’ attitudes toward those who benefit from it (or seek to benefit from it, or are systematically exploited by it).

However, apropos of something that came up on one of several blogs that regularly make me angry and sad about this subject, I’d like to post a brief reminder.

Whatever the heck conservative think-tank Policy Exchange are doing appears confused and misguided, at least from this reporting. But one representative phrase leapt out at me, a statement they apparently believe is supported by a majority of the public according to a recent poll:

Everyone should be made to work for their benefits except mothers with young children.

Given the prevalence of this kind of thinking, its deliberate exacerbation by many current politicians, and the extent to which the despicable repackaging of slavery for the 21st century known as workfare is still being falsely heralded as a boon for the underclasses, something apparently needs to be strongly reiterated.

If you’re doing work, you should get paid for it. If other people value the output of your labour, they should remunerate you directly for that.

Benefits, on the other hand, are what people get which doesn’t directly correspond to their own ability to pay, either in toil or coin. If you’re not working, or you’re trying to find work, or you’re ill or disabled, or if you just don’t fancy any of the shitty jobs going (yep, fuck it, basic income for everyone), then you get benefits. They’re things you just get, because we’re a social species and we give a fuck about each other. We understand that none of us can look after ourselves in total isolation, that sometimes some folk need some help, and that the rest of us have the capacity to provide that help.

What follows from these ideas, then, is that you don’t make people work for their fucking benefits.

Benefits are what people get without having to prove themselves to you.

And you especially don’t make people work for their benefits by forcing them into a full-time job, and then not actually paying them a salary, but making their benefits the only thing conditional on their labour, thus making them massively worse off than if you’d kept your grubby, sanction-hungry fingers out of the whole deal.

Seriously.

With all the effort some people put in to making sure none of these feckless scroungers gets a goddamn penny more than you’ve decided they’re entitled to, we could feed the fucking planet.

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Something that often comes up, in discussions about providing financial aid for those on low incomes, is the idea of a “payment card“.

Rather than handing out cash, this would be something that looks and acts rather like a credit card, which is topped up every so often with a fixed amount of credit, but which can only be used to purchase a limited set of goods. Food and other essentials, for instance, but not booze and cigarettes and other things that simple cash money might be frittered away on.

This may, at first, seem like a worthwhile way to make sure that those we’re trying to help are actually being helped; that, if some people have naturally unreliable spending habits which have led them to a situation where they need help, those habits can be curbed by not giving them the chance to spend their funds unwisely.

It’s understandable if such a scheme doesn’t immediately strike you as unconscionably heartless, cruel, and dehumanising.

But it’s an idea that’s been tried before. A couple of years ago, for instance, the Azure card came into use in the case of some asylum seekers. The “countless horror stories” touched upon in that CiF article – kids going without clothes, parents having to walk miles to a supermarket which might accept the card because they aren’t allowed to buy a bus pass – speak for themselves, as well as highlighting the incompetence of the government’s implementation of the scheme.

Or, if individual tales of embarrassment and degradation don’t move you, just look at the stats. A majority of card users were unable to attend essential health appointments, were turned away from supermarkets they’d been told would accept it, and found the experience of using the card humiliating and a source of anxiety. These aren’t just teething issues or a handful of isolated problems; this is the standard result when you take disenfranchised people and further remove their autonomy and dignity.

Government has amply and repeatedly proven its complete lack of ability to run such an operation in any morally justifiable manner. Yet it persists in keeping huge swathes of the public under the thumb, and going to great lengths to make sure nobody gets a damned penny more than they’re deemed worthy of, for the sake of meagre financial savings, while imposing a tragic and needless oppression on those who’ve already had the most opportunity stolen from them.

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So the Tories are cutting benefits for the poorest people struggling hardest to support the most modest lifestyles, yadda yadda tax breaks to billionaires, you know the score.

And one of the ideas Chancellor George Osborne has often used while attempting to rationalise policies which take more money away from low-income households than the richest, is that of “making work pay”.

The terrifying bogeyman he and other Tories like to conjure is that of the feckless scrounger, probably with a Northern accent, who lounges comfortably at home with their curtains drawn all day, living the high life on benefits which your taxes paid for, and who – because of the current, unjust welfare system – has no incentive to go out and work, when they can live just as cushy a life at home on benefits.

Now, leave aside for a moment that, statistically speaking, this character is so close to fictional as to make almost no difference to any of our country’s financial troubles; ignore briefly how laughable is the idea, to thousands of people who simply can’t find work, including many with disabilities or who’ve been forced into mandatory unpaid labour, that life on benefits is the “easy” choice; disregard, for the time being, the extent to which countless legitimately struggling individuals and families are cruelly stigmatised and marginalised by such characterisations as those favoured by the Conservative party.

Even without fighting any of those points, Osborne’s premise is wrong.

The Tory plan for welfare reform depends on people being bullied into doing a job, any job, no matter how low-paying or degrading, because there is no bearable alternative. They want to make life sufficiently uncomfortable, for those people they think aren’t trying hard enough, that they’ll all just jolly well try harder. Their worst nightmare is that people without savings or property or investments might somehow be comfortable in their lives, and not feel compelled by fear of starvation or homelessness to desperately look for work.

I hope my biased and provocative use of language is making it clear how I feel about this attitude. I really do.

Because aside from being heartless, it’s simply an incorrect view of humanity.

There’s this crazy wacky idea that some crazy wacky socialists seem keen on, called the guaranteed livable income. The basic proposition is to drastically simplify whatever system the country currently has in place to carefully and cautiously redistribute wealth, offering the most basic safety net it can to those who need it while making damn sure no scroungers come along and get a penny more than they deserve… and instead just give everyone enough money to live on.

No means testing. No penalties for not following the DWP’s instruction. You just all get enough money to live on. Guaranteed.

I told you it was crazy. No doubt the obvious problems and holes in this plan, and the many reasons we’re not already doing it, are clamouring to escape your furious fingers and make themselves heard in the nearest available comments section already. But it may astound you to know that the various economists and activists who’ve been investigating and exploring and testing out this idea for some decades have probably already considered many of the objections that sprung to your mind within around fifteen seconds. Whether or not they ultimately stand up, I’m not sure, but don’t be too quick to pat yourself on the back for utterly annihilating this whole worldview simply by having the blinding insight that giving money to people costs money.

Because, like I said, the Tories were wrong. A guaranteed livable income is about as far as you could possibly exaggerate their nightmare scenario. They’d have you believe that, in such a situation, the zombie feckless scrounger virus would spread inexorably across the land. Nobody would bother doing any work when they could just slob around picking up even more free money than they get now, with no risk of approbation or penalty. Without the threat of poverty to spur people into productivity, there’d be nobody actually making the money to hand out, and the whole system would collapse.

I wouldn’t put it past them to put it in similarly apocalyptic terms, too. But it’s a conclusion that depends on a cynical and inaccurate view of humanity. (The rest of humanity, anyway. Dave and George and the rest of that crowd could live comfortably without having to work another day in their lives, and would surely claim to do what they do out of a sense of duty and service, rather than being in it for the money. They just can’t imagine a similar altruism or public-spiritedness in anybody else.)

Only an unjustified contempt for other people can be the basis for thinking that they need to be threatened and browbeaten and punished into doing useful work; the relatively little amount of data that’s been allowed to exist indicates exactly the opposite.

I say “allowed to exist”, because it’s not hard to imagine the interest that governments might have in perpetuating the idea that a power structure needs to be maintained in society. In the case of the particular experiment with a guaranteed income described in that article, in Manitoba in the 1970s, the government withheld the data after the programme was scrapped, and wouldn’t let anyone gather further evidence which might have vindicated it.

What is known, though, from the data available, is that the Conservative nightmare singularly failed to come true. People didn’t just sit at home mooching off the state when there was free money to be had. In general, they kept working their jobs. There are reasons why people work beyond earning money to avoid poverty, after all. It can be rewarding, a way to socialise with people whose company one enjoys on projects one finds worthwhile. Particularly if you have the freedom to leave a work environment you don’t enjoy, and take the time to find someplace more suitable, without having to panic over paying the rent in the meantime.

And with that extra freedom, and without the stress and worry of paycheck-to-paycheck living, people were healthier. The resulting decrease in hospital visits, if similarly expanded over the whole of Canada, would save billions of dollars. And the only people who did drop out of work to live an easier life on free government money were new mothers – who spent more time with their babies – and teenagers – who graduated high school in improved numbers and had the chance to find jobs they might actually enjoy, and feel productive in, rather than whatever came along first which would allow them to pay the bills.

It’s a crazy idea. And the idea that something this crazy might actually work thrills me like little else. This right here is the shit I read about which gets me excited for a more awesome world and makes me want to share it with everyone in rambling blog posts with overly hurried endings because it’s late and I want to finish up and get it posted before I go to bed.

It might be a pipe dream. But I don’t think it has to be. And either way, it’s preferable to whatever heinous visions occupy the minds of our politicians as they sleep.

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