A history of campaigning for the welfare state

A guest blog by Rebecca Falcon (@RFalcon_) on a talk given by Roger Harding (@roger_harding) as part of the #changehistory series. You can listen to all the previous talks here and read previous blog summaries of them by clicking on the #changehistory tag at the bottom of this blog. 

As a single mum, Sarah has to juggle three jobs at once to provide for her son, but her low wages mean that if it weren’t for housing benefit she could still end up homeless. Down her street, Brian has had a hip replacement on the NHS and today his wife Beryl collected her pension from the post office next door.  Beryl noticed that her neighbour is home during the day again. She suspects he is cheating the system.

We all benefit from the welfare state, but holding on to taxpayer’s support for the system is no simple task. Support for benefits is only slightly higher among people who receive benefits than those who don’t, Shelter’s Roger Harding explains, and concerns about fraud and excessive taxpayer spending have been issues since Clement Attlee’s day when it all began.

In the latest History of Change talk on the Welfare State, Roger walked us through some of the lessons we can learn from the work by political parties, trade unions and issue groups to maintain the welfare state over the last seventy years.

He describes the longevity of the welfare state as a victory against the odds thanks to smart campaigning. These, he says, are the key lessons:

1) Big Change Doesn’t Happen overnight

Popular opinion may say that the NHS burst into life at the end of the Second World War, but in fact, it was the product of decades of campaigning by political parties and trade unions from the beginning of the 20th century.

2) This was a deal, not a gift

To win taxpayers’ support, and fund the welfare state, Clement Attlee introduced contributory National Insurance. Framing the welfare state as a project that we all pay into, based on responsibilities – not just rights or charity – helped to win over working and middle class voters.

3) Patriotism can unite people in common cause

Patriotism is a powerful driving force that can be used for good or bad. Campaigners for the welfare state tapped into post-war patriotism in the 1940s, selling the NHS and social housing as the best of Britain and a core pillar of our new post-war national identity.

4) Build solidarity across classes

Labour knew that working class voters alone couldn’t win general elections. By broadening the welfare state’s appeal to the middle classes, with some universal services and a contributory model, the project gained mass appeal.

5) With great [campaigning] power, comes great responsibility

Next was a warning to campaigners to learn from some of the single issue campaigns of the 1960s and 70s. The Child Poverty Action Group’s powerful criticisms of the disparity between rising wages and benefits played into the opposition’s hands. The opposition Conservatives used the pressure group’s evidence in a very political way in the next election. On the other hand, Harding spoke about CPAG’s success in the 1970’s to improve the child benefits system, by leaking minutes from a government meeting. The lesson is to be aware of your power and to use it responsibly.

6) Resistance works, if the cavalry is coming

In the 1980s, many councils refused to co-operate with Margaret Thatcher’s Right To Buy scheme. They believed that a subsequent Labour government would repeal her legislation. However, Thatcher’s continued success meant that in fact, by staunchly refusing to engage, they lost an opportunity to negotiate and improve the policy. Resistance can work, but you do need a chance of winning coming around the corner.

7) Responding to public concern can increase public concern

In the 1990s the government tried to build trust in the system with adverts warning benefits cheats that they were being watched. Although the action by the government did reduce levels of fraud, they didn’t receive credit for it as people thought fraud must have been widespread if the government were putting so much effort into advertising about it!

8) Don’t trash the brand

Criticising a government’s poor delivery of welfare policies can make people want to throw the towel in on the whole project. Nuance can be lost in the public sphere, so be careful about publicly criticising a system you ultimately support.

9) Learn from successes – contributarian and majoritarian

The NHS and pensions are amazing successes of the welfare state that we can learn from – both of which have record levels of funding today. Universal healthcare means there is no stigma associated with using the NHS, while the strong sense that pensions are contributarian has upheld public support (even though in reality pensions aren’t entirely contributory and actually the closest thing we have to a basic income).

10) Less ‘Saints vs Sinners’, more ‘Boringly Normal’

Studies show that painting people who will benefit as saints (for example focusing on pensioners and disabled children who receive benefits, who few people would object to the state supporting) can actually reduce public support for your cause. People think they are being misled if your policy sounds too good to be true. Better to describe those who will benefit as ‘boringly normal’, like the single mum who still needs housing benefit despite working as much as she can.

11) So many ideas to steal

Finally, we were reminded that the issues we face today are not new. We have a duty to look at the work of previous campaigners to understand what worked and what didn’t.

Some further reading suggestions

Austerity Britain, 1945-1951 – Tales of a New Jerusalem, Daniel Kynaston

The Five Giants – A Biography of the Welfare State, Nicolas Timmins

Citizen Clem – A biography of Attlee, John Bew 

Shelter’s analysis of current drivers of attitudes to welfare, Jenny Pennington

Historical analysis of support for welfare (second doc in this link), University of York for Shelter

•How to talk about inequality in a way that might actually fix it 

•A series of blogs on Shelter’s current campaigning pilots on welfare, Paul Donnelly and Tilly Williams

Meeting Martin McGuinness

“Ben, Martin, I have to introduce you to each other,” said an Irish writer who knew us both.

It was Dublin March 2016, and we were there to commemorate Ireland’s 1916 Easter Rising against British imperial rule. I, an Englishman with what friends tell me is the most English accent ever, was there as a descendant of 1916 Irish rebel leader, Padraig Pearse; Martin McGuinness, former Provisional IRA man, was there as the Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, which remains part of the UK.

As a student of history, follower of politics and staunch supporter of the Peace Process I had become, from a distance, and intellectually only, an admirer of Martin McGuiness. He’d ended a war and was central to the new Northern Ireland of inclusivity and progress. He was a super smart politician. Tony Blair once shared at a talk I attended about how in the Peace Process he’d come to like Irish Republican leaders Adams and McGuinness “almost too much”.

And yet I remain an Englishman, steeped in the culture and conversations of my people. To many in England, including amongst those closest to me, McGuinness remained a hate figure, a Bogeyman. In any conversations in which I contextualised what had happened in Northern Ireland I was told back: “no, no, he’s a terrorist, nothing justifies it, nothing.” “But I’m not justifying it, I’m …” “No, no, stop. He’s a terrorist.” And the brutality of the conflict, of which he was a central part, was truly horrific. I strongly opposed the paramilitarism he embodied. Not only did I understand why he personally filled so many with dread, I felt some of it myself. And I felt it surge in me at the very moment we met.

We started talking about the beautiful service of remembrance that had just taken place, what it meant for the elderly relatives. Then we talked about the events being commemorated. I said, as if in challenge, “it wasn’t just about nationalism, it was about a society where all were cherished equally.” “Oh yes yes,” he replied, “that’s what inspires me most about it, how progressive it was: it was 1916 Ireland, and their proclamation begins ‘Irish men and Irish women.’ We’ve still a lot to do on that score.” “Ben is a descendant of Pearse,” our mutual friend shared. “Oh I love his poetry,” McGuinness replied.

He seemed to be doing too well at being gentle and charming, and I worried that I was letting down my English folk, perhaps even my own English self. “I’m English,” I said, “as you can hear from my accent. Pearse’s sister, my great-grandmother, married an Englishman, and we’ve been English ever since.” I smiled in challenge to see his response. “Oh there’s nothing wrong with being English. One of my nieces came to me and said ‘Uncle I’m going to marry an Englishman’ and she waited for my reaction and I said ‘is he a good Englishman?'” And he laughed. And I couldn’t help laugh back.

He asked me about my life as a development worker and shared what he’d learnt from South Africa. He asked me to get in touch if he could ever help my work.

Martin McGuinness had shaken hands with the Queen and made a friendship with the firebrand Protestant Ian Paisley, so befriending an English descendant of an Irish rebel was nothing compared to that. But in my case it was a private conversation with a person irrelevant to political gain and from which he could have extracted himself with ease. And yet he chose not to. Making peace can be the smartest strategy, the best calculation, and it is clear that the strategy he chose was a smart one and that he had especially acute political nous. But that day we met I couldn’t put it all down to that. For all the contradictions of any life, and he was clear that his had been one of both light and dark, it seemed he really was, deeply, a man who sought peace, and his achievement in bringing it was not only political but personal. And it taught me that even our Bogeymen, perhaps especially our Bogeymen, can be our teachers, and that we can learn not only to love our enemies but even to like them. May Martin rest in peace.

Scotland and our movement moment

This weekend was the inaugural Adam Smith Festival of Ideas in Kirkcaldy and I was asked to speak about how Scotland could change the world in the years ahead. This is what I said.

Our world needs movements – and movements need Scots

I want to tell you a story about who we are, where we’ve been, and where we could go. A story about the Scotland we could become – if we first understand who we are.

I came of age politically after the fall of the Berlin Wall and during the highpoint of a global order based on shared rules and human rights. From the Arms Trade Treaty to the responsibility to protect doctrine to the cancellation of third world debt, I got kind of used to the uninterrupted march of global justice.

And then the darkness descended.

Just take the last three years.

2015 was the year of the refugee, with global refugee figures reaching their highest point since World War Two.

2016 was the year of populism, with surging support for nativist political forces across the Western world.

2017 is set to be the year of famine, with more than 20 million people at risk of starvation across Yemen, South Sudan, Nigeria and Somalia in the worst crisis of its sort in more than three decades.

Something has gone very very wrong and I’m here today to ask you to join me in helping to put it right. My argument today is three fold.

Firstly, that this particular moment in history is a ‘movement moment’ – it demands of us a willingness to join movements in unprecedented numbers, because the problems cannot be fixed by politicians, public policy or public institutions alone.

Secondly, my argument is that Scots in particular have special responsibilities here, because we believe in cooperation not only in our communities and in our country, but across the world. And thirdly that Scots not only have a duty to be involved in global justice movements, but actually have a very distinctive contribution to make, by virtue of the quirks of our historical experience.

A movement moment

Let me begin by saying a bit more about where we are, and why I think this is a movement moment.

By day I work at Save the Children and each day I try to remind myself of the good we have done together. Since 1990, we have halved the number of children dying before their fifth birthday. Anybody who has ever suffered any form of bereavement knows that each loss is shattering, leaving a hole in a family that can never be filled. That we have halved the number of families experiencing the depths of that sorrow is a good reason to get up in the morning. And if you’ve ever given to an international charity like Save the Children, or happily pay your taxes and support that money being spent on aid, then these are your achievements and you can be very very proud.

But at the same time I cannot say, hand on heart, that I am optimistic about the way the world is moving. I despair every time we release a new report charting the catastrophic failure to protect the children of Syria. Last week we published a report in which a child said “when friends die my chest hurts and I can’t breathe so I sit alone because I don’t want to scream at anyone”. These are words that no child anywhere should say.

In the report before that parents in a besieged area of Syria told us what it was like to raise children in a town where all the doctors had fled or been killed. They had resorted to taking their little ones to the vet when they got sick.

All across the world, from Paris to Mosul, ordinary families are terrorised by extremists and a medieval barbarism is encouraging people to target and torture those who disagree.

Meanwhile here at home the mood has soured and something ugly and sinister is on the march. Jewish friends receive abuse from the swamps of history, Muslim friends report a surge in the most vulgar and blatant Islamophobia, while my friend Jo Cox was murdered doing her job.

Behind all these trends is the same basic story: frightened and frightening people are obsessing about what divides us. We have lost the art of seeing each person as precious and unique, as an irreplaceable and perfect version of themselves, without whom our world would be irrevocably impoverished.

None of these are problems which politicians, however honourable or gifted, can be expected to solve on their own. If we want a different kind of Scotland, Britain or world, we’re going to have to get involved.

For me movement thinking is exactly what we need now because we live in what I call a 3D world – a world characterised by distrust, division and disruption.

Distrust, of both the motivations and the competence of institutions. Division, between people of different backgrounds and opinions. And disruption, of old ways of thinking, doing and being. Those 3Ds all add up to people feeling overwhelmed and alone, and movements hold out the prospects of an answer.

A movement can be the answer to distrust – because movements are strengthened by their perceived authenticity. And it can be the answer to division, because by definition movements involve more than one person (there’s never been a movement of one). And it can be the answer to disruption, because movements are defined by being for change, but giving us the sense that we’re more in control of which change we choose.

This word movement gets bandied around a lot at the moment, so I want to be really clear about what I mean by it. To me a movement is not the same thing as an organisation. To me a movement is a tribe – a really, really big tribe, but a tribe nonetheless – which coalesces around a shared view of how the world could be and which commits not simply to taking one action but instead to a lifetime of service to an ideal.

My friend Alex Evans has just published a book in which he quotes an American organiser as saying ‘what makes a movement is simply enough people feeling part of it – sensing a shared culture, and forcing those watching to take note and take sides’.

That seems about right to me, because movements do force us to take sides, and decide where we stand on the big moral questions of the day. This isn’t a new thing – we’ve had movements for the abolition of slavery and for women’s suffrage and for civil rights. But just because we’re sympathetic to the most famous movements, we shouldn’t assume that movements are always the good guys. There’s a global far right movement too. And a global jihadi one.

So there’s nothing new about movement thinking, and nothing inherently honourable about it either. But my argument today is that there is nonetheless something about it which makes it uniquely well suited to the demands of the hour.

Scots as movement-builders

So why am I talking about this here in Scotland, and suggesting that Scots have a special obligation to fight hatreds which seem so much bigger than us, so big in fact that they could overwhelm the world? My answer is a simple one: Scots have a calling now, because we know better than anybody that none of us have to be put in boxes not of our choosing.

For three centuries we have been simultaneously Scottish and British and there are plenty of people who want to campaign for us to be Scottish and European. The fluidity of our identity is why we can talk of people being Scottish by birth, choice or aspiration – because we have long accepted that there’s nothing binary or closed about being a Scot.

And so my second argument today is that there is such a thing as Scottishness and that it leaves us well placed to be the movement builders that this movement moment demands of us.

The nature of Scottishness has obviously been a source of some controversy, so let me share a little about where I’m coming from.

Given the mesmerising range of choice – the grandeur of our Munros, the mysteries and histories of our lochs and the breathtaking beauty of our islands and our glens, it might surprise a visitor to Scotland to know that two of my favourite sights here are stones. They are both small, both plain and both can be seen within an hour of where we are now.

The first is the one bearing a circular inscription on the floor of the National Museum in Edinburgh, the one which says ‘Scotland to the world to Scotland’. The motto is chiseled in a circle so that, depending on how you look at it, it either says ‘Scotland to the world’ or ‘the world to Scotland’.

The second is embedded in the wall of St Giles’ Cathedral and says simply ‘Thank God for James Young Simpson’s discovery of chloroform anaesthesia in 1847’.

It seems to me that it is in these two small slabs – even more than in our poetry, plays, novels, songs or political speeches – you find the essence of the Scottish national character.

In the National Museum stone, you learn of our sense of Scotland the Good Samaritan, unwilling to pass by on the other side. There is much to be proud of here, from the disproportionate numbers of Scottish volunteers in the International Brigades to the phenomenal demonstration of people power on the eve of the 2005 Make Poverty History summit in Gleneagles. Whatever our views on the constitutional question, we can be proud that both nationalists and unionists, Yes and No supporters are united in their support for Scotland fulfilling our obligations to those beyond our borders who need our help.

In the St Giles’ Cathedral stone, you see a very Scottish combination of intense pride in our temporal talents, combined with a beautifully understated trust in providence, and a reminder not to get too cocky – it’s all very well being the most inventive people on the face of the earth, but don’t go thinking you did it on your own. The reason I love this stone so much is because it really encapsulates what I feel about my obligations as a campaigner – life isn’t about being ‘nice’, about having good intentions but not a real strategy for change. On the contrary – life is really about each of us straining to fulfil our potential so that the talents of each of us are used for the benefit of all of us. Our time on earth is supposed to be a succession of periods of hard thinking followed by periods of hard work.

We don’t have a Scots word or phrase that describes precisely this mix of social duty and determination to apply rigorous thinking to big problems, and the best I’ve come up with is ‘strategic service’.

I should say at this point that I don’t consider these national traits of ours an unalloyed good. The same overwhelming sense of obligation which can lead us to great acts of courage and self-sacrifice can tip all too readily in to an oppressive puritanism and self-righteousness. So I’m not suggesting here that Scots are superior to other peoples, just that we’re not entirely in the wrong when we ask ‘wha’s like us? Damn few’.

Movement thinking

So my second argument today is that to be a Scot is to have a particular take on the world, bound up in our sense of connectedness to other peoples and also in our obligation to give the best service it is in our power to give. It is for historians and anthropologists to tell us how we came to be this way, and for the philosophers to tell us if the downsides I have just described are a price worth paying for our gifts, but for our purposes today I hope we can take it as a starting point that there is something real about Scottishness, and our cultural distinctiveness is to be found somewhere in this area.

My third and final argument is that – if I am right, and our world needs movements and, if I am right that Scottishness is characterised both by its richness as a porous identity and by its internationalism and sense of strategic service, then Scots have a particular contribution to make to building movements in the years ahead.

Let me just say a little about what that would look like.

Firstly, great movements don’t buy great man theories of history. That doesn’t mean movements are leaderless – it means they are leaderful. Just think about Black Lives Matter, or the women’s marches on the inauguration weekend, or the refugees welcome movement. I don’t know who is in charge of any of these things, because nobody is in charge of these things. They are full of leaders, people who identify themselves through action.

And that brings me to my second point about movements. Movements are only as good as the activism they inspire and that should be our aim – providing inspiration, not giving orders. Brilliant movement builders rally people around a vision and then let people decide how they are going to contribute, creating the space for a whole range of creative tactics to emerge.

If we take a look at just the refugees welcome idea for a minute, it is clear that no one person could have come up with the range of activities people have done. Let me be clear here – I’m incredibly proud of Scotland’s response to the refugee crisis, just as I want to celebrate the contribution of communities across the UK. But I’m not naive – my point is not to suggest that everybody is welcoming or that Scots are inherently more progressive on these questions than folk down South.

But I do want to look at how people in Scotland were able to link up with a wider movement in a way that should make us all proud.

To take just two examples. How brilliant that ordinary folk from Glasgow set up Refuweegee, a charity which offers new arrivals to the city not just essentials like toiletries and nappies, but ‘letters fae the locals’ introducing what we love about our city and explaining treats like In Bru and Tunnocks Tea Cakes.

Or when Syrian families were first resettled in Bute, how amazing that locals went to speak to the church about giving a space for Friday prayers and to the local co-op about making sure they had halal meat for sale.

All of these things were just people finding different ways to contribute, the same way a QC in London decided to set up the billable hour campaign where he encouraged all his pals from chambers, and then all the solicitors they worked with, to each give what they would bill in an hour to Save the Children’s child refugee appeal. All at the same time as Belle and Sebastian decided to put on a gig for us, and Caitlin Moran organised a single, and a member of the public set up a petition which ended up forcing David Cameron to agree to take 20 thousand Syrian refugees, while another ordinary woman invited a few of her friends on Facebook to a protest and ended up leading a march of 10 thousand people through London.

There wasn’t a mastermind behind all of these things – but there was a movement, and the movement is delivering real change, right now.

And here’s the final point I want to leave you with, and it brings us full circle as to why we’re talking about this in Scotland. Being a movement builder means connecting with people on the very deepest level of their values and their identity. Something can have mass participation and still not be a movement – after all nobody says they are part of the movement for iphones, or converse shoes or AirBnB. These communities are all massive, but they are just organised around things we use, they don’t represent who we are.

Likewise even if we feel a very strong attachment to one political party or one charity, our loyalty to the movement of which it is part tends to run even deeper. Nobody has a twitter bio saying ‘supporter of the Fawcett Society’ – we say feminist. We don’t say ‘Hope not Hate donor’ – we say anti-fascist. And we don’t say ‘Amnesty member’, we say human rights defender.

And that, of course, is the same idea we started with. My experience of being Scottish – in part I am sure because it’s been an experience of being Scottish and British, not Scottish or British – has made me feel incredibly comfortable with the idea that I’m part of more than one community of action, of mutual obligation, and of identity.

Movement thinking is a new buzz phrase around the world, but it’s actually something Scots do instinctively, because whether we like it or not, duality is part of who we are. There will be plenty of people here – and there are certainly plenty of people among my own nearest and dearest – who want another referendum, and will use it as a chance to vote for independence.

It isn’t my place to pass judgement on that one way or another today. But I hope it is my place to ask you to weigh very carefully whether the rich, multi-layered nature of Scottish identity is something you value and, if it is, whether you’re prepared to put that special perspective to good use in this movement moment.

Over the course of this weekend and in the months and years to come the status of Scotland in the Union will no doubt continue to dominate. But if that is all we talk about I fear we are missing the chance to make our mark on questions of truly global and historical significance.

Scotland’s national question is a complex one, but my argument today is simple: our broken world needs movements, movements need Jock Tamson’s Bairns and they need us now.

Austerity economics has just been smashed. By the IMF.

A powerful new report finally kills off any remaining intellectual veil for a broken economics that is breaking society.

Sometimes an ideology is so brilliantly propagated that observers might not even notice it’s an ideology. In the corridors of power and in mainstream discussion, it ceases to be questioned. Then it goes catastrophically wrong. And it begins to seen again for the ideology it is. It becomes questioned again. And, if they are smart, leaders hear this and start to self-correct. This is where we’ve got to with neoliberalism, austerity, and rising inequality. Except for the self-correct part. Right now, instead of self-correction, we’re seeing many mainstream politicians unable to shift away from dead economics, and what seems in too many countries like the start of social breakdown. Change is well overdue. Who can prompt leaders to drop the old economic nostrums that are causing so much harm?

Enter the IMF with a sledgehammer. Progressives duck in case in the sledgehammer is meant for them. But then the IMF demolishes the case for neoliberalism and austerity. It sounds extraordinary, and it is.

Today the IMF will launch a new report, “Macro-Structural Policies and Income Inequality in Low-Income Developing Countries”, the latest in series that mark the intellectual journey the IMF research department has been travelling in recent years. Packed with detailed quantitative analysis it demonstrates that much of what elites have been advancing as unquestioned economics is demonstrably harmful both to economic growth and to public wellbeing.

Of course what makes this surprising, and what may make some progressives unenthusiastic about welcoming this, is also what makes it so powerful: an institution that has been, for far too long, a defender of the free market story and the Washington Consensus – the idea that liberalizing trade, privatizing everything possible and cutting down public spending was a one-size-fits-all solution to any government in trouble – has now refuted it.

This paper is not the first by the IMF to take a stand on inequality, but it is notable because it claims in no uncertain terms that public spending – i.e. the opposite of the budget cuts that it once advocated for – decreases income inequality. They even have a formula – a 1% increase in public spending, they report, leads to a 2.3 decrease in inequality after 5 years.

The paper also takes a strong stand against prioritizing indirect taxes, such as VAT, showing that they increase inequality.

The paper not only demolishes neoliberal economics but also helps build the evidence base around the kinds of policies that are necessary to reduce inequality. Those include some of the things that NGOs like ActionAid have been talking about: emphasizing direct taxes instead of indirect taxes, spending on social services (this paper focuses on infrastructure, but we would see that more broadly), support for cash transfer programmes, and the need to ensure that any programs that are likely to increase inequality are offset by measures to decrease inequality.

Lives and livelihoods are being lost because those who design policies are following a damaging model. And now, in countries around the world, the lack of action in inequality is leading to a resurgence of xenophobic nationalism and the far right. Broken economics is breaking society. But too many leaders still seem trapped in the belief that there is no alternative. So let them know that today the IMF – yes, the IMF – has comprehensively set out why that broken economics must be consigned to the dustbin of history.

 

 

Update: The IMF report is now online here

2016 has shattered outdated assumptions, but if we change ourselves to fight inequality, it need not shatter our world.

A dominant worldview amongst many progressives in recent times has been that over time things will keep getting better, sometimes with exhilarating speed, sometimes too slowly, and sometimes disjointedly, but broadly, over time, better and better. 2016 has shattered that. Let us state it plainly: the simplest summary of where we are right now is that things have started getting much worse.

This is not a counsel of despair but one of action to fix the crisis. But to fix it, we have to confront the failure of many progressive organisations to assess and respond effectively to what has been happening.

The first failure has been failing to acknowledge the gravity of the crisis. The broken economics of ever increasing inequality has broken society and politics too. Elites have seemed at times to not see the crisis, or cynically worked to accrue as much as possible while good times lasted, or even more cynically readied themselves for deals with the hate-filled forces now ascending. Many progressives (NGOs included) meanwhile have been failing to take on this crisis with the strength and imagination needed, consoling themselves with marginal reforms and allowing themselves to grow ever distant from the lives of millions cast aside, imagining that their own closeness to the establishment would ensure they could always bring change. Or they have finally found the courage to name the crisis but even still have found themselves couraged-out when it came to approach, carrying on almost as before, following a radically new diagnosis with a similar treatment. The 2008 crash showed that the world’s prior way of doing business was broken – and by and large the world responded with some tweaking here or there. And from that dysfunction has emerged the obscene politics of the far right that threaten every social gain of the twentieth century, and risk a return to its horrors. We cannot rely on institutions to prevent evil at a time when increasingly there is not much justice, just us. We will need to depend on solidarity, on each other. This is not new…

For the second failure has been failing to learn from the elders. We hear that 2016 has been the worst year ever. It has been no such thing – it is only been the worst year that those who have discarded older traditions have seen. And so part of ensuring that our futures surpass the present is to rediscover lessons of our ancestors. We need to go deeper than tactics and ask how did older generations keep hope alive in times of hate? Let us re-read King, let us re-read about the resistance of the 1930s, let us re-read about those who fought slavery and colonialism, let us re-read the great stories about hope under Babylonian captivity. Older worldviews, from the Buddhist to the Celtic, have seen life as more cyclical.  Older worldviews have demonstrated a capacity to walk through the valley of death without fear. More recent approaches have implied that with an x at election time and a click for every crisis, things would only get better. This was wrong. There is a need to relearn the capacity for long-haul struggle. And yet there are those who have been living up to those histories, but they have not been given the backing they deserve…

For the third failure has been failing to learn from the youth. The progressive establishment have been lecturing them to compromise more, smooth their edges, be more “grown up” – patronizing them with the claim that they agree with their ends but that the youth are just not doing it right. It is what Martin Luther King powerfully lambasted as “the tranquilizing drug of gradualism”. But 2016 has shown that the future is being written by the determined. The comfortable world of consultations and reports built on projects won’t ever be enough to bring about the deep changes in power structures that are needed to build a society that works for everyone. It is from the courage of grassroots young activist groups that the opportunity of a better future will grow.

My own sense of despondency after the events of 2016 was lifted by joining in December a global gathering of activists at a community farm in South Africa. Organisers, writers, artists, activists, musicians, and community leaders from 15 countries – South Africa, Kenya, Brazil, Nigeria, Myanmar, Sierra Leone, Zambia, India, Australia, UK, USA, Denmark, Tunisia, Uganda, and Malawi – gathered in Rustlers Valley, Free State, South Africa for a two-day sharing of experiences, discovery, challenge, music, hiking, spirituality, and planning a campaign to fight inequality from local to global level. Veterans of the struggle against Apartheid, from the ongoing struggle of the Brazilian landless movement, and of the first nations of the Americas dialogued with love and respect with brave young activists for Fees Must Fall, Black Lives Matter, human rights, climate justice, economic justice and more. They climbed the nearby rocks together, reconnecting the personal and political. The gathering signaled a shift in the roles of different organisations too, with the INGOs there accepting the challenge put forward by social movements for INGOs to support those at the sharp ends of the struggles in their leadership.

The activists at the meeting recognized that we are at a moment of global crisis, in which the dominant economic and political systems are broken and must be transformed; that a radical democratising of institutions must be fought for; that the intersection of capitalism, colonialism and patriarchy has produced a dramatically dysfunctional and unequal world in which elites find it easy to accumulate more and exclude the vast majority from power; that only people united and organised from below and beyond borders are capable of bringing the changes we want in our world.

This approach, rooted in an intersectional feminist analysis and in a commitment to challenging the power structures which perpetuate injustice, is a very different way of looking at the crisis we face today than the approaches with which many progressives have been operating for the past decades. And to change is hard. But as King said, “cowardice asks the question, is it expedient? And then expedience comes along and asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? But Conscience asks the question, is it right?”

As a student of history I am worried that 2008 was 1929. And we’re in it. And my kids are in it. The stakes are existential. And if we carry on as we are, we’re losing. Times like these remind us that campaigning isn’t a job, it’s a calling. And right now it’s so vital that we hold hands and build anew. Two roads: we organise, and win (or at least go down honourably trying), or we each try to duck and hide and compromise and survive in shame. 2016 was a reminder of the impossibility of being neutral, and the moral obligation to ensure love wins. We do not know whether we will prevail. But we do know that if we do not change, if we do not organize ourselves to fight back, if we do not build power from below and across borders, then we will certainly lose. And that if we do fight back then resistance in itself will help to restore our common dignity, and the restoration of that dignity provides a basis for building a world where everyone is precious.

“We have not overcome our condition, and yet we know it better. We know that we live in contradiction, but we also know that we must refuse this contradiction and do what is needed to reduce it. Our task as [humans] is to find the few principles that will calm the infinite anguish of free souls. We must mend what has been torn apart, make justice imaginable again in a world so obviously unjust, give happiness a meaning once more to peoples poisoned by the misery of the century. Naturally, it is a superhuman task. But superhuman is the term for tasks [we] take a long time to accomplish, that’s all.”  Wrote Albert Camus at only twenty-seven.

2016 has shattered out-dated assumptions, but if we change ourselves to fight inequality, it need not shatter our world. This isn’t about project wins in the next two or three years, it’s a generational struggle – but generations before us have fought them, and won.

Page 1 of 507123...102030...Last »