Locked In – blinded by ideology?

With the benefit of 73 years existence, and more than half a century’s engagement in human services, I’ve been trying to gain some understanding of how we’ve arrived at a point in UK history where, in public policy terms, we seem to be societally stuck in a mindset that, to quote Professor John McKnight, maintains that the only route to good lives is founded upon “buying their stuff” and trapped in a ‘contractual’ mindset?

My research leads me to conclude that our current ‘Social Care Crisis’ has roots in the ideological fervour of ‘Thatcherites’ to destroy the inherent interdependent collectivism of humanity – which was misguidedly associated with socialism – and replace it with a culture grounded in consumerism and materialism.

…Margaret Thatcher, who was prime minister from 1979 to 1990, set out to change attitudes as well as policies and to emphasise the role of the free market and individualism in place of public ownership, planning and collectivism in social welfare. ‘I really think that (my government) was the turning of the tide. We were slipping so fast into a socialist state, that the individual mattered less and the collective more’ commented Margaret Thatcher on the significance of the Conservative Party victory in 1979 (quoted in Rentoul 1989). (She) was specifically concerned to ensure that the basis for such socialist ideas in Britain should be undermined: ‘Economics are the method’…. But more fundamentally, ‘the object is to change the soul’ (The Sunday Times, 3rd May 1981). By the time of her final election victory in 1987 (she asserted): ‘We are well on the way to making Britain safe from Socialism’ (The Sunday Express 17th May 1981).

Cited in Communities and Caring, Marjorie Mayo, 1994.

It seems to me that this ideological initiative has been exceptionally successful, but now the consequences have come home to roost across the wide span of public services. There is a fundamental problem inherent in the market when it comes to human services – it thrives by creating demand, sells replicable products rather than enabling non-monetized solutions, and, having created demand, is doomed to repeatedly fail to deliver the bespoke and unique solutions that are required (which gives rise to repeated expensive failures). Things can only deteriorate until the marketizing ‘reforms’ of the 1990’s are reversed and the direction of travel so clearly set out in, for example, the Barclay Report (1982) is pursued in our contemporary context.

Meanwhile the Socialists that Thatcher was actively marginalising were, given the diversity of positions evidenced in the literature, in disarray and easy prey. There seems to be little evidence of any championing of the recommendations of the Barclay committee and the only common cause was the ‘defence of the welfare state’ which, when the mist disperses, means institutional services. Griffiths successfully highjacked the high ground in the enactment of the NHS and Community Care Act in 1991, but community care was therein substantively redefined as commissioned services and institutionalised volunteering. The idea of a different formulation of strong, democratic, caring communities was not on the radar.

Mayo’s study, in my view, accurately reflects the essentially political and ‘organisational’ debate that dominated as the obsessions of the ‘New Right’ were put into practice between 1979 and 1997; then regulated rather than reversed by the ensuing Blair administrations. Her focus was materialist, on the machinery of a workable mixed economy of welfare rather than an exploration of the nature of care and the means by which a truly caring society might be imagined and pursued. She is interested in services as the dominant expression and machinery through which care is delivered and she properly reflects the dominant mindset of both the left and right political cadres (with the exception of the libertarian anarchists which she prominently references).

Basically, Mayo asks whether there can be a role for community/non-profit organisations in the delivery of welfare services that is not “undermining the mainstream of public sector provision, or the pay and conditions of public service workers, …. (or) the imposition of a third burden on women who are already struggling with their double burden of coping with the demands of family responsibilities and paid employment?” (ibid p195)

Strengths-Based, Gift-Centred, or Asset Based Community Development had likely not yet crossed the pond with McKnight and Kretzmann’s Building Communities from the Inside Out appearing in the US in 1993 and Edgar Cahn’s No More Throwaway People much later in 2000. Recognition that citizens have brought their gifts and assets together in mutual, free association since the dawn of time and offered an alternative world view to the materialism, institutionalisation, and authoritarianism that was implicit to the command-and-control governmental culture that persists was not in her thoughts. To this day, doubts about the viability of perpetual growth are rarely entertained and the necessity to re-envisage alternative ways of being and inter-relating are seen as just that, ‘alternative’ and a bit juvenile.

For me, this is a crime against nature. The successful, democratic, egalitarian and, above all, caring society to which it seems the large majority of us assert to be our aspiration requires the nurturing of our interdependence. Concurrence with this view litters the academic literature:

‘Survival of the friendliest? Why Homo sapiens outlived other humans          We once shared the planet with at least seven other types of human. Ironically, our success may have been due to our deepest vulnerability: being dependent on others.’

New Scientist 24 November 2021 Kate Ravilious

It seems clear to me that consumerism and materialism has been almost ‘genetically’ welded into our society’s culture and world view. Consequently it feels like we are already ‘locked-in’ to a state where those who order the system successfully obstruct the possibility of alternative possibilities and futures.

Lock-in Definition:

‘Value Lock-in: an event that causes a single value system, or set of value systems, to persist for an extremely long time. Value lock-in would end or severely curtail the moral diversity and upheaval that we are used to…Some changes in values might occur, but the broad contours of society would have been set, and the world would enact one of only a small number of futures compared to all those that could be possible.’  William Macaskill: What we owe the Future. 2022.

Bob Rhodes

February 2023