Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Ties that Bind

Driving near Ypres yesterday, we listened to a podcast from Intelligence Squared. It was called "Europe on the Edge". One of the speakers was Professor Paul Collier, who I think advocates a new approach to helping refugees - namely, giving incentives to businesses to move to areas bordering countries from which large numbers of refugees are fleeing, creating jobs there so that the people who are refugees do not need to deal with people smugglers and all the dangers that that entails, nor to go miles from their own homelands to seek a living, losing any sense of belonging, forsaking the familiar et cetera.

Under his plan, Professor Collier(1) believes refugees can be given the opportunity to set up productive lives near to where they come from, avoiding the culture shock that both they and the receiving communities tend to experience when they move out of their own sphere. In addition, when and if things improve in the places that the refugees have fled from, they are able return to their own homes without much disruption.

Anyway, on the podcast Professor Collier started to talk about community and a shared sense of responsibility. He argued that a willingness to help others depends on shared identity, citing studies and polls to support his proposition. In amongst all this, he made some remarks about the middle classes and the recent tendency he says he has identified among them to walk away from community responsibility. These remarks struck me as providing an interesting perspective on the story I told about my uncle yesterday and on the circumstances that may have contributed to the Grenfell Tower being badly maintained due to penny pinching.

Here is what the professor said:

"I'll just focus on the English working class - I think the English working class now is more or less where it has always been. I think what has walked is the English middle class, which has decided that it doesn't really want to be English. It has walked away from a shared identity with ordinary people. I think this is particularly pronounced in London, I'm afraid. I grew up in Sheffield. I grew up in an environment where I was surrounded by Scots. Left, right and across the road, all Scots - and it never occurred to any of us that we were not the same identity. They were Scottish and I was English but we were all British, we'd just fought a war together. And because of that there was a strong willingness on the part of the fortunate to redistribute to the less fortunate - because there was a shared identity. And I think that that has gradually corroded.

Here is an uncomfortable piece of statistical evidence: across Europe, the higher the proportion of immigrants in the population, the lower the willingness of those above median income to make tax transfers below median income ... what that means is that people below median income, ordinary people, have a perfectly rational reason to fear that immigration will weaken the sense of shared bonds and that the middle class will just run off and go and do its own thing."

Reading this now, I see that it could be seen as completely racist. It certainly does seem to suggest  diversity is not the unadulterated good it is usually thought to be. Statistics, of course, are just statistics, and the experience of Australia seems to undermine the argument that a society cannot cohere if it is made up of many different migrants. Perhaps the situation is different in new world countries or perhaps the very closely managed - some would say cruelly and unkindly managed - approach to immigration in Australia has prevented a sense of cultural alienation. I don't know. I am though fascinated by the way Western society seems to be changing and becoming generally more turbulent and polarised and every time I read or hear a theory, I like to try to think about it with an open mind. And I recognise above all that, since the financial crisis and the absence of any punitive action against those who caused it, the social contract has been seriously damaged and nobody seems to address that.


1. I haven't read his work, but I have the impression that his arguments run roughly along those lines, although it is more than possible I've got the whole thing completely wrong.

12 comments:

  1. I think the professor is right. There is a real schism between the Europhile middle classes and the working classes who feel far more of an affinity with the anglophone world of Australia, USA etc.

    One of the things that the EU referendum did was expose the contempt many middle class people have for the working classes. They'd been pretty PC and tight-lipped since the egalitarian 60s, but suddenly it was open season.

    As someone from a working class background (but who still gets accused by middle class friends of being "too posh"), I felt very much the outsider amongst my peers. I knew exactly why people voted to leave the EU and although I didn't agree with all of their reasons, I didn't think they were, to use the most popular phrase of the day, morons or automatic racists. They were simply trying to preserve a type of community that exists outside the whims of the free market - one that is marked by continuity and communality. Middle class people aren't motivated by that to the same degree.

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    1. When I was a child I lived in a street off the King's Road at what is called World's End. When I went back there in the 1980s and saw a whole lot of red brick towers that I didn't remember, I asked someone what had been there before exactly: "A community" he said, without hesitation

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  2. I wonder if it had, to use that awful phrase "community leaders"?

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    1. Do you think Captain Mannering would have been a community leader? Is the phrase interchangeable for pushy git? I never know

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  3. Interesting. David Goodhart wrote along similar lines a few years ago in a fascinating article ('Too Diverse?').

    Also, interesting how discussions of class have been displaced by a preoccupation with identity. And no mention of how the so- called working classes have turned to populism and right- wing ideologies?

    Billoo.

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    1. I shall seek that out and read it.
      As to class, I think that will always be with us and that therefore, rather than trying to address inequality, which is ineradicable - plus distributing power equally actually means providing people who don't want power with power - we should look entirely at how to ensure that the relationship between the powerful and the powerless, the rich and the poor is one where the powerful and the rich feel a duty and inclination to be kind and good and responsible etc. Someone told me about something called, I think, the Blind Experiment, where you have to design a society in which you may end up as the unemployed, illiterate person with a disabled child or the prime minister or anything in between, so you have to ensure that, wherever you end up within the structure you design, you do not suffer. It's an interesting idea.

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  4. " rather than address inequality..." . Please, please tell me you're winding me up? While you're absolutely right that some level of inequality is inevitable any progressive thought depends, in my humble opinion, on undermining the structures of dominance.

    The rich being good and responsible? Er..what if they became rich on the back of not being ' good and responsible' ? Have you read Stiglitz's The Price of Inequality? There's also a fascinating book by Will Hutton on the importance of fairness.

    Talking of which...I think the experiment you are alluding to is based on Rawls.

    Should we also say that women don't want power and that men should just be good and responsible to them?

    Billoo.

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    1. As I said, I do not believe the structures of dominance will ever be undermined and therefore the rich and powerful need to operate within a system imbued with expectations of their responsibility. I described my uncle as behaving in this way in the post before this - his wealth came from his father's expert stockbroking, which may well have included investment in what would now be viewed as unethical businesses. If an ethical approach is applied to all moneymaking in the future, what happened in the past becomes a matter of historical regret and a lesson to be learned from. I do realise this, unfortunately, is not going to happen, that corruption is worse and more widespread than it has ever been and will continue and also that it is the source of most poverty in the world. The solution is not in my view state socialism but a self imposed code of honour - and please don't even bother coming back with your "Please, please, tell me you're winding me up" scoffing, because no, I am not - except inasmuch as I freely admit that I have no idea at all how to recreate a society in which the rich do see their wealth as carrying responsibilities with it, in the way my uncle did, and in which businesses run on the principle of the triple bottom line. As to women, I certainly think that we have been mistaken in pursuing rights to work as equals within a workplace constructed for males, whose reproductive role is quite different from ours and who therefore have never factored in the needs our reproductive role entails.

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  5. But people haven't always accepted inequalities ( see E. p. Thompson on Patricians and Plebs). One of the great movements in modern history has for been greater equality..its a central plank in the modern social imaginary. And in recent years there have been ( successful) attempts to reduce inequality. And I'm afraid that did come about as a result of " state socialism". So, I'm not quite sure why you think it's inevitable/ desirable?

    Also, your view does sound similar to: black people, Jews, women or the poor should accept their station in life. The ' ties that bind' have often been ones of dependency and/ or brutality. Which is, I'm sure, quite comforting if a person is one of the ' responsible and the good'; less so, if he is on the " receiving" end.

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    1. Look all I'm advocating is the elimination of greed and selfishness - should be pretty easy, surely

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  6. But that would entail going against a four hundred year old tradition of individualism and narrow self- interest (" life is nasty, brutish.."). At the very least it would entail overturning forty years of neoliberalism. Not so easy, methinks.

    I'm sure your uncle was an honourable person but surely we can entertain the possibility that it has been the greed and the selfishness of rich people that has led to many of society's current predicaments ( climate change, for example)?

    On the other hand, I like aspects of what you say about care and responsibility and that obviously must remain * part* of any reasonable way forward ( along the lines of Macintyre's ' rational dependent animals'). All I'm suggesting is that the language of the ' good and the responsible' has often been employed to further class interests.

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    1. I was being flippant - although overcoming selfishness and greed is the essence of the Christian message, on which Western culture is supposed to be based, the sad truth is that human nature is not always obedient to the demands of morality. Every system - especially the most idealistic - fails when humans get involved

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