Author: Simon Duffy
Sometimes we don’t know why we do the things we do. Sometimes we can provide many reasons, but we still feel none of them are quite right. Instinct is often the most important thing, but we can only guess at the forces that converge in our gut.
In 2009 I felt that the best use of my talents (or perhaps the best way to disguise my weaknesses) was to create a think tank called the Centre for Welfare Reform, dedicated to the radical transformation of the welfare state. I felt that the term “welfare reform” was being exploited by people who wanted to harm and diminish the welfare state and I wanted to try and wake people up to two things that still seem true to me.
My first assumption is that the welfare state is essential and good. Without the welfare state life becomes brutal. Competition, insecurity and fear eat away at the soul and allow people to become victims of fascism, racism and greed. We need the welfare state. Hannah Arendt, who understood this better than anyone put it like this:
"... only legal and political institutions that are independent of the economic forces and automatism can control and check the inherently monstrous potentialities of this process. Such political controls seem to function best in the so-called welfare states whether they call themselves socialist or capitalist."
My second truth was that the current design of the welfare state is far from perfect. The people who led its design in the UK (Beveridge, the Webbs, Keynes, Marshall etc.) had many gifts, but they were still creatures of their time and of their class. They had an extremely paternalistic and negative view of ordinary people and they assumed that the state and its officers could be trusted to supervise the development of the welfare state and our collective well being. For instance Beatrice Webb said:
“We have little faith in the 'average sensual man', we do not believe that he can do more than describe his grievances, we do not think he can prescribe the remedies.”
This state of affairs is not unusual. We often create something useful, but then find we must improve it or reform it. This is what welfare reform should mean: constantly improving our welfare state so that it becomes even better.
However this is not what welfare reform has come to mean. For instance Wikipedia define welfare reform like this:
“Welfare reforms are changes in the operation of a given welfare system, with the goals of reducing the number of individuals dependent on government assistance, keeping the welfare systems affordable, and assisting recipients to become self-sufficient.”
On this definition the welfare state is at best a necessary evil that causes us to be “dependent” instead of “self-sufficient.” As a definition of welfare reform there are several problems here. We do not reform evils, we eliminate them and it is clear that the term welfare reform is actually being used by people who want to weaken the welfare state, while pretending they are improving it. So welfare reform - as defined - is syntactically confused - reforming has become diminishing - which is not the same thing at all.
But of course the real problem with this definition of welfare reform is that it relies on ideas of dependency and self-sufficiency that are utterly bogus. All human beings are dependent on one another, it’s what makes us human. If you can find a person who is utterly self-sufficient then you’ve found a person who is isolated and without consequence. Human beings are not built for self-sufficiency, we are built for need, mutuality and actions that reach beyond our own limits. Self-sufficiency is for the birds.
In fact I made several efforts to challenge the Wikipedia definition of welfare reform, but my editorial changes were always reversed and I eventually gave up. This is not the fault of Wikipedia; it just reflect how powerful this false and self-contradictory conception of welfare reform has become: reform means weaken, welfare means isolation.
Despite the resilience of the right-wing concept of welfare reform the Centre has continued to publish articles, reports and books (over 1,400 so far) that demonstrate both the harm being done to the welfare state by these so-called reformers as well as the positive possibilities for reform that continue to exist. Over the past 12 years we have much we can be proud of, including:
None of this has been easy. We are based in Sheffield, far from London and the headquarters of charities, foundations and government quangos. Our positions on matters of policy are largely seen as extreme or unrealistic (although in fact we are often describing ideas that are based on very real work in our communities). We try to always speak the truth on matters of public policy, but in the current political environment this does not make you friends. We’ve survived by hard work, low costs and lots of voluntary effort.
But we have survived, and in the current context that does feel like an achievement.
Perhaps the most important aspect of our work, and what perhaps makes us a rather unusual think tank, is that we’ve tried to build communities around new ideas and to help network people who want to see positive change. We are less concerned with writing the perfect policy proposal, cited by a powerful politician. We are more concerned with helping citizens find their own power to bring about change in their own lives, in their own communities and in society as a whole.
In fact it is the idea of citizenship which runs like a thread through all our work and which led, in 2016, to our establishing Citizen Network as global non-profit cooperative to create a world where everyone matters. Citizen Network has over 800 members and over 200 groups have joined from over 30 countries. It is through Citizen Network that we are supporting the development of many hopeful initiatives:
This network and these interlinked projects and larger networks feel like the basis of a more hopeful and positive world. Today the creation of Citizen Network feels like the central achievement of the Centre for Welfare Reform and it now feels like time for the Centre to change.
So, after consultation with the Supervisory Board of Citizen Network Osk it has been agreed that the Centre can change its name to Citizen Network Research. [Osk is the abbreviation of the Finnish word Osuuskunta and our coop is a global non-profit cooperative registered in Helsinki, Finland.]
Citizen Network Research will continue as an independent company registered in England and it will also become one of the first organisational members of the coop, alongside a number of other key partners. The Centre will transfer all its current intellectual property to the Citizen Network website which it will also manage on behalf of the whole coop.
Personally I still believe in the welfare state and the need to positively reform the welfare state. I am also a Northerner and I care about the North of England and the place where I live, Sheffield. But I think that there is more power, hope and truth in working globally and connecting up all the positive initiatives that are emerging. Over the last 12 years I’ve tried to learn from others and I’ve tried to learn from our many struggles. In particular:
Perhaps most importantly, I think that we can only make the changes we need to make together.
We need to see ourselves as part of a greater whole: both locally rooted and globally connected.
The title of the very first CitizenFest neatly says it all: We are one.
If you value the work of the Centre then please stay with us on this journey. Join Citizen Network and start to see yourself as a citizen, as someone who, by working alongside other citizens, can begin the process of creating a world where everyone matters. Visit: https://citizen-network.org
The publisher is the Centre for Welfare Reform.
Moving the Centre © Simon Duffy 2021.
All Rights Reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher except for the quotation of brief passages in reviews.