Antonio Gramsci wrote: "The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear."
This feels so true. In my work as Director of the Centre for Welfare Reform, I'm constantly struck by the sharp contrast between the ghastly rhetoric and policies I see emerging from Westminster and the creativity and commitment to justice that exists within our communities. The new is trying to emerge, both despite and precisely to spite, the dead hand of central government.
Here are two brief examples. In Ed Milliband's seat of Doncaster there exists one of the most vibrant and exciting developments in mental health. The People Focused Group, instigated by one lone and unpaid social worker, Kelly Hicks, has given rise to a fantastic collective effort. People from Doncaster, many with mental health or other problems, have figured out how to generate levels of self help and mutual support that simply cannot be replicated by the NHS, even at its best.
A little further north, in Halifax, WomenCentre provides community-based support to women and families facing hellish abuse and real poverty. WomenCentre creates a three way partnership between women facing their own problems, high quality professional support and support from the women who have been through the same hell and who've come out the other side and now act as volunteers. The effectiveness and efficiency of this approach trumps that of traditional social work.
The dilemma here is that these kinds of powerful social innovation, inspired by the commitment of ordinary men and women to social justice, are often perceived by the powerful as providing further evidence for the incompetence of the state or the limitations of public services. This then leads to further privatisation or the justification of even deeper cuts to public services. This is a bitter pill to swallow.
One of the leaders of the WomenCentre described how, after lobbying the New Labour Government, funding was guaranteed to develop more women centres around the country. However WomenCentre itself - the organisation upon which this investment had been based - lost the tender for these services. It was won instead by a male dominated organisation. The mind boggles.
In fact these kinds of community-based social innovations do not provide evidence to support privatisation; instead they are living examples of anti-privatisation. People and families, given half a chance, will seek out and support forms of collective effort and will create new forms of public service. Yet our limited imagination treats all that is not government as if it were private. This is one of the primary sources of our confusion.
Government does not define the public. The public is the space created by limiting the encroachment of private ownership. This is seen vividly in the ancient agora of Athens. The agora - or public square - was not dominated by government. It included all the kinds of activities that people would want to do together: education, sport, worship, politics and business. The square was marked off by a series of sacred marker stones that the people were forbidden to move and these markers declared that there could be no private ownership inside the agora. It is not private activity - but enclosure, or the theft of public space - that we must resist.
At a deeper level our tendency to define the public only be reference to government reflects a long-standing failure in political theory to protect and sustain a vital sense of our citizenship. In the past few hundred years liberal, conservative and socialist thinking has operated with an inadequate sense of who it is that we are when we come together in community. In fact the word politics - which is rooted in the ancient polis - now means government-focused activity - but to the ancient Athenians the term would have meant public or community life - this is a much larger concept.
In my view, citizenship will be one of the keystones necessary for us to revitalise the welfare state and transform our shared political life. Although the idea of citizenship is flexible enough to be distorted and misused by xenophobes, the term should really be used to describe the codes by which live together with dignity and respect. Restoring a proper sense of citizenship to community life would give us a better way of understanding our vital needs for equality, freedom and community.
One philosopher who did understand this was Hannah Arendt, she realised that equality is best achieved when we come together as equals, by means of community: "Aristotle explains that a community is not made out of equals, but on the contrary of people who are different and unequal. The community comes into being through equalising."
Too often modern political theory has stripped us of our citizenship. We have become economic agents, utility seekers, consumers, workers or merely subjects to be moulded by society. This is not just a problem of neoliberalism. All the dominant political traditions have their own limited and inadequate accounts of what it is to be a human being.
The opportunity created by the ideal of citizenship is constantly brought home for me by my friend Wendy Perez, a woman with learning disabilities. Wendy is rightly proud of herself and her identity; she doesn't want to be remoulded or changed. She doesn't want her disability to be taken away - it is part of who she is. But she does want to be treated with respect, she does want to be treated as a citizen and she does want to play her part as a citizen in making the world a better place.
For anyone interested the Centre for Welfare Reform has published a long essay in political theory called Citizenship and the Welfare State. There I argue why many of the current attacks on the welfare state are rooted in our failure to respect the ideal of citizenship. We must hurry the death of old ways of thinking and strengthen the new.Suggest a correction