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Building a New, New Jerusalem for the 21st Century

12/02/2015 10:53

David Cameron’s recent announcement that housing benefit would be withdrawn from young people under the age of 21 following the election, received little press attention. Perhaps this indicates that this, and a related series of expulsions from the provisions of the post-war social democratic settlement, are now experienced as received wisdom, banal even? The post-war settlement was secured in the UK in the mid-20th century by a coalition of forces, including the ethical, institutional and political forces mobilised by William Temple through his writing, speeches and events such as the Malvern conference. Sociologist Saskia Sassen notes that the concepts of human value, personhood and community formed within this post-war settlement were relatively complex and multifaceted, for example, people were valued as workers, consumers, citizens with a range of rights and entitlements and for many – such as Temple – as human beings with deeply intrinsic worth and value. Sassen reflects that the political and institutional space created by the post-war settlement and the forms of personhood and community which are formed within it are now being incrementally eroded and reconfigured. Various forms of expulsion, such as the proposed removal of housing benefits for under 21s, are key means through which this is being achieved.

Across contemporary social policies there is considerable evidence to support Sassen’s contention.  Proposed changes to housing benefits for young people under 21 follows other policy measures such as the Bedroom Tax, which has resulted in expulsions from the rubric of some of Temple’s key markers of what it is to be human, i.e. secure housing, community relations and freedom from poverty. Furthermore, a relentless increase in benefit sanctions have amplified expulsions from further underpinnings of viable and dignified human life, such as access to fuel and food, with claimants often pincered between sanctions and tightly regulated access to foodbanks. Broader expulsions from access to resources which enable viable human existence have increased through the deepening and widening of poverty and inequality; notably, most people in poverty are also in work – effectively creating a form of internal exile for many. The institutionalised cruelty of policy expulsions runs deeper still; for example Department for Work and Pensions figures  indicated 10,600 people died within weeks of having their Employment Support allowance removed. At least 60 claimant deaths have been linked to benefit sanctions. Complementary dynamics of expulsion have also been manifest across the public sphere, for example, a 213% rise in disability hate crime  mirrors the increasing political and media denigration and demonization of welfare claimants. These and related expulsions have progressively contributed to the erosion and even evisceration of vibrant and valorised conceptions of humanity and life in common as embodied in Temple’s ‘Christianity and the Social Order’ and Attlee’s promise to build a post-war new Jerusalem.

Sassen goes on to argue that in tandem with this hollowing out of post-war conceptions of humanity and common life, socio-political space is now being colonised by new forms of advanced capitalism.  She suggests that these new formations do not value people as workers or consumers nor in many cases, as human beings. Rather, even within the limited bounds of homo economicus, simplified and relatively empty conceptions of what it is to be human are being promoted. As a complement to this, new forms of corporate and financialised capitalism are afforded increasingly complex and ascendant forms of agency and community. These comprise, for example, corporatised conceptions of community and entitlement which have become increasingly detached from both liberal conceptions of the labour theory of value and certainly from nation states. The realisation of such conceptions of entitlement are reflected in both the staggering scale of tax avoidance and the upward syphoning and accumulation of wealth within both national and international contexts. Such developments are underwritten in significant part by a neoliberal ideology which is profoundly hierarchical and authoritarian, i.e. the logics of entitlement and expulsion are written into its political DNA.

Many of these developments have been and continue to be ‘locked-in’ through the use of a formidable range of policy permissions and enablements; arguably, they also have vulnerabilities.  For example, the shift from industrial to financial capitalism, is progressively underwritten by complex and yet arguably inherently fragile forms and levels of debt within the bounds of which, in Greece and beyond, the question debtors are increasingly asking is “do I have to repay?” The fragilities of indebtedness are complemented by relentlessly rising levels of inequality; such that even the International Monetary Fund and the OECD have raised questions around sustainability. These vulnerabilities also extend deep into the heart of politics itself. As noted at the Davos summit last year, the corporate colonisation of the political establishment and the public sector is eroding democracy, creating instabilities through political disaffection and disconnects (see for example BSA 2014).

So what of change? Can, and if so, how might alternative political resources, strategies and visions be mobilised? Is it possible to politically counter, even reverse these developments?  Are there resources with which to build a new, new Jerusalem? Arguably a hostile mainstream political and media environs means that many responses to these questions are often denigrated or occluded and so are perceived to lack credibility, definition and profile – i.e. they are also subject to forces of expulsion. Although rooted in another era, perhaps Temple can offer us some valuable pointers here.  First, logics of expulsion resulting in “wanton and callous cruelty” need to be continuously exposed and challenged. Second, systemic political change or transformation is neither linear nor formulaic, but rather emerges from potentials which are distributed across a wide array of locations within the socio-economic, political and cultural fabric – new, new Jerusalems, both material and virtual, are possibilities which need to be articulated, interlinked and fostered. Third, alternative visions of change need to be crafted which resonate strongly and amplify themes embedded within political yearnings of the times. Fourth, change needs to be tactical and strategic, and as such, affiliations and alliances need to be forged. Although not forming the epicentre of the mobilisation of the post-war settlement, Temple’s vision contributed both ethical and pre-figurative vision and weight, as well as vitality and momentum to the eventual success of a broader narrative, captured in the inspirational imagery taken from Blake in the figure of ‘The New Jerusalem’ and adopted by the post-war Labour government.  Perhaps the critical question today, is do we have a Blake, Temple, Bevan or Attlee for the 21st century?

Tina Hearn is an Associate Research Fellow of the William Temple Foundation

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1 Comment

Alan H

12/02/2015 10:53

In short, I agree. Sassen’s view that humans have inherent worth and value has been profoundly eroded in modern times, and your reference to Cameron’s announcement is just one fruit on the tree.

What worries me is that this agenda of erosion of human worth feels actively progressed, rather than passively developed. Following on from your reference to beefits sanctions, consider press coverage of Public Spending – HM Treasury stats that underpin the article
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2818168/How-biggest-chunk-hard-earned-tax-goes-welfare-Average-worker-pays-1-100-bill.html
do indeed show that Welfare is 24.5%, which the Mail states “went to fund benefits”.

However, https://fullfact.org/economy/calculating_tax_summary-36103 digs a little deeper – housing, personal social services, social exclusion, incapacity, family and children, and other pensions (State Pensions being described in the original breakdown) make up the majority of the welfare spend, with Unemployment being around 3% – so less than a penny in the tax pound funds unemployment. We could add those on some form of incapacity
benefit (22.31% of 24.5%, say 5.5p/tax pound), and we that would show some 6.5p/tax pound to protect the very weakest in society. But how many Government initiatives focus on squeezing money from these individuals, and how many (cheap-to-commission) TV shows are there per week that would demonise them?

Now, it’s not going to be easy to bring about change – I’d suggest the modern appetite for instant gratification and the reduction in attention
span means we’re as likely to see a new Russell Brand than a new Nye Bevan – but it’s certainly something to be desired. Indeed, if we can’t look after the weak, the lonely, or the stranger, what good is our society? You mention Blake, and to quote his ‘Divine Image’:

And all must love the human form,
In heathen, Turk, or Jew.
Where Mercy, Love, and Pity dwell,
There God is dwelling too.

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