Category Archives: New Labour

A Trade in People: the ‘free market’ is failing us all …..

Arguably, the ‘free market’ is anything but ‘free’ with  the cost to many in society excessive in terms of compassion and inequality.

A report published by Lancaster University  entitled ‘A Trade in People’ expresses the failure of the free market in providing services to those most vulnerable in society when it writes

‘it is clear to us that the way in which the healthcare economy has been encouraged to develop by recent governments turns people into commodities and liabilities. For local authorities and CCGs they are liabilities that they have often sought to export to other areas and for independent hospitals they are a commodity and source of millions of pounds of income and profit.’

Whilst an economic and political system premised on the commodification of people and neoliberal theory maybe a reliable form of wealth generation for some, it is also associated with little compassion for those who require support, as well structural inequality and poverty for many.

Nobel prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz is clear, we are now engaged in a battle which is ideological, describing free market neo-liberalism as  a stifling economic ideology which has run it course.

Neoliberalism has an insidious presence in our lives, much like the air that we breathe, everywhere, yet unseen. George Monbiot  provides a compelling argument against this ideology, which values the free market as the place in which citizens can exercise their democratic choices through consumer choice and the private provision of goods and services.    Supporters of neoliberalism maintain  “the market” delivers benefits that could never be achieved by government, and that the more unregulated the market, the better the efficiency. Within this framework everything we do, and every person is a potential commodity that can bought, sold and traded for profit.

However, for me,  the free market  is associated with a loss of compassion, dignity and respect for one another as an inactive state projects structural failure onto the individual, along with an outdated mantra of ‘private sector good, public sector bad’.

One need not dig too deep to see the flaws within the current system. The research by Lancaster University adds to a plethora of  reports, all stating the same thing. This system is broken!

Just consider  housing and the care of older people to establish the limits of the free market.

Shelter’s report on the barriers low-income households face in private renting exposes the private housing  market’s limitations,  clearly arguing significant government intervention is needed if it is to play an expanded role in preventing homelessness and housing people on low incomes.

The same issues arises in the care of older people, where significant market failure is a continuing problem.

Over two years ago the King’s Fund  highlighted what many in the sector already know, the free market is failing stating

‘Social Care is now a complex and sprawling sector – more than 12,000 independent organisations, ranging from big corporate chains to small family-run businesses, charities and social enterprises, which makes the NHS provider landscape look like a sea of organisational tranquillity. Less than 10 per cent of social care is actually provided by councils or the NHS – their retreat from long term care provision is virtually complete. But unlike the NHS, when a social care provider hits the financial rocks, bankruptcy not bail-out is the more likely scenario.  But a deeper problem is the failure to think through the consequences of shifting the bulk of our care provision to a private business model’.

This is supported by  Andrew Dilnot , former drector of the Institute of Fiscal Studies, who suggests social care is is a classic example of a market failure where the private sector cannot do what’s needed.

However, the effect of the failure of the free market and neoliberal ideology extends beyond money,   the real effect of failing markets rests upon the poorest and most marginalised in society, like the  residents of Grenfell Tower and those with social care needs in private institutions, the frail and vulnerable who require support.

The problem in government today is that many of those who govern this country are woefully out of touch and too quick to blame individuals for their descent into a commodified system of care, rather than look at their own role in the rising tide of compassionless care which threatens us all.

Michael Sandel argues the free market is not just a mere mechanism designed to deliver goods, it also embodies certain values, and the problem is these values ‘crowd’ out non market values which are really worth caring about and preserving, such as compassion’.

Where values and ethics are weak in any system which seeks to support those in need, we need a strong and active state to intervene, where both are weak those most vulnerable in society will continue to be denigrated and exploited.

Advertisements

Grenfell Tower represents the culmination of Thatcher and all who follow in her neoliberal footsteps ….. Time for change

Commentator, after commentator have made political links to the manmade tragedy that befell the innocent residents of Grenfell Tower. Within such commentaries the authors refer to the ideology of ‘neoliberalism’, which whilst well known to economists, politicians, Guardian readers and academics (like me!) is rarely thought about in wider society. Yet its impact on society over the last 40 years is immense, and for me Grenfell Tower represents all that is wrong with this insidious ideology that does more harm than good.

But, what it is?

Firstly, I think it is important to be aware of the power of  ideology, and neoliberalism, because it provides government with  a  framework which shapes its ideas, ideals, values and beliefs about the world, what motivates individuals, and provides a guide on how life should be lived, how society should be structured and our role in society.

In short it determines the nature and limits of that state, what matters and whom.

An example of the power of ideology can be seen in religion. Religious values and beliefs  shapes its organisation and provides motivation for the actions of its leaders and believers. As we know all to well religious ideology can lead to intolerable acts of violence, whether it be the Christianity of the  Klu Klux Klan or the Islam of ISIS.

Just as religious ideology can be a strong motivator in shaping thoughts and actions, so to is the  political ideology of neoliberalism.

There are a number of strands to neoliberalism which are, arguably, as relevant as the cladding on Grenfell Tower in understanding why so many lives have been destroyed. In political terms neoliberalism depends on, firstly, stigmatising those who require support and then disinvesting in the public services that provide their support to promote open unregulated markets and the transfer public services into the free market.

This has resulted not only in the deregulation and privatisation of publicly owned assets, such as housing, but also the transfer of responsibility for those requiring public services away from government, so that when, as in this case, there is a failure in the system,  holding someone to account is almost impossible due to a diffused chain of responsibility government has put between it, and the individual,  by creating a host of intermediary layers of officials and organisations , such as management companies, contractors and sub-contractors.

A key tenet of neoliberalism is the role of free market in delivering everything from baked beans to iPhone to cancer care. The free market is highly valued by neoliberals because it is viewed as a more efficient system in providing goods and services and promotes individual liberty by empowering society through consumer choice.

In the case of Grenfell Tower, the extremes and limitations of these beliefs are starkly revealed. Not least in Brandon Lewis’s comments regarding regulation to enforce the installation of sprinkler systems in tower blocks.

Mr Lewis, recently promoted to immigration minister by Theresa May, had declined in 2014 to force building developers to fit sprinklers. The coroner’s report into the 6 deaths after a fire in a block of flats at Lakanal House had recommended regulations be updated, and called for developers refurbishing high-rise blocks to be encouraged to install sprinkler systems. But five years later, Mr Lewis told MPs:

“We believe that it is the responsibility of the fire industry, rather than the Government, to market fire sprinkler systems effectively and to encourage their wider installation.”

He said the Tory government had committed to being the first to reduce regulations nationwide, pledging a one-in-two-out rule. He added:

“The cost of fitting a fire sprinkler system may affect house building – something we want to encourage – so we must wait to see what impact that regulation has.”

Even after the controversy when these comments were publicised  Micheal Gove’  still held to the neoliberal ideological line when interviewed in respect of Grenfell Tower, suggesting that it is a matter for “debate” that government should regulate so that people could have safe housing conditions.

Whilst some might find such comments incredulous, these responses are wholly consistent with neoliberal ideology, which promotes the commodification of everything from  housing to education to health, to social care and more worryingly clearly includes ‘risk’.      This combined with limited regulation of the free market and an unshakable belief that all consumers can exercise free choice  to control, or eliminate,  risk is concerning.

Those in power do not seem able, or willing, to recognise there are  flaws within the neoliberal  ideology they so zealously adhere to, that authentic consumer choice is often a facade in important areas of life, such as housing and health and social care, that individuals cannot always eliminate risk because of the governments hand in creating structural inequality, which restricts the individual autonomy and consumer choice they purport to support, unless, of course you are very wealthy.

The powerlessness of the residents of Grenfell Tower to exercise autonomy and choice is seen in their inability to challenge decisions around whether a sprinkler system should have been installed and this exposes the interplay  between the structural and personal realms of life. Peter Weatherby QC is one of Britains top lawyers, and he suggests a key action of government had been overlooked in this tragedy, the swinging cuts to legal aid. Residents of Grenfell Tower had sought to challenge  decisions being made, and residents did try to get a lawyer, however,  they could not get a lawyer because of cuts to legal aid, according to campaigner Pilgrim Tucker, speaking on BBC Newsnight

“These are poor residents – or they’re ordinary residents. They’re not 
the wealthy. They’re not the Camerons. They can’t afford private 
schools, they can’t afford lawyers. They tried to get lawyers but,
because of the legal aid cuts, they couldn’t get lawyers. ”

Other lawyers have also pointed out the role of legal aid cuts in this tragedy.

However, again, this is consistent with neoliberal ideology, why should the state fund legal aid?

This is actually structural abuse, which is defined as ‘the process by which an individual is dealt with unfairly by a system of harm in ways that the person cannot protect themselves against, cannot deal with, cannot break out of, cannot mobilise against, cannot seek justice for, cannot redress, cannot avoid, cannot reverse and cannot change’

I think this sums up the plight of the residents of Grenfell Tower pre and post fire!

Albert Camus wrote “We must mend what has been torn apart, make justice imaginable again in a world so obviously unjust….. ”, going onto suggest mending a broken world is ‘steadfast, often unglamorous work – it is the work of choosing kindness over fear, again and again…’

To mend the broken in this society,  those marginalised through poverty and  homelessness, or through age and fragility, to ensure we never subject anyone to the horrors of those lives ruined in Grenfell Tower we all need to be more aware of the ideology that underpins our current system of government and decide if it is fit for purpose, and where we find it lacking, find new ways of governing.

Replacing Theresa May with Boris Johnson or Micheal Gove or A.N . Other will not mend our broken society because politicians all seem to adhere to the same ideology – neoliberalism.  Nothing will change until this insidious ideology is revealed and challenged by us the people, and we hold our politicians to account for their actions.

Let the fate of the individuals of Grenfell Tower be a lesson to us all, and lets ensure their tragedy is never forgotten. We need real change for all our futures.