From paternalistic elites to participatory networks – Neal Lawson on Rethinking Poverty
I try to love everyone and while I fail, I at least think everyone is lovable. I know that every life is as valuable as any other and that we all deserve the right to make the most of our abilities and, in the parlance of Charlie Leadbeater, to lead lives of significance. When I look into the eyes of others, all I see is a reflection of myself – my hopes and fears. And I only know myself because I know others. I hate the brute luck of birth unjustly stifling our potential. My heart bleeds for those whose lives are short, precarious and humiliating.
This is why I want to end poverty and to do so, I believe we have to rethink how.
Barry Knight’s book helps us to do this. It is a short and unassuming tract. It is modest in its language but soaring in its ambition. It oozes humility and the kind of wisdom that can only be acquired over decades of listening, looking and learning about how to end poverty. And being prepared to change your mind.
The person in the white coat isn’t going to end poverty
What it tells us is this. The person in the white coat isn’t going to end poverty. It is no longer a technical fix we seek. Yes, back-end tweaks like tax credits can stem the tide, at least for a bit, but the leap we must make is not technical – it is cultural, moral and political. Poverty will end when people who are poor take action to end it, when people who think they are rich realise that they can’t be, and when humanity either reaches a level of consciousness that allows us and the planet to survive – or doesn’t and we won’t. When push comes to shove, it was always going to be social-ism or barbarism.
“When push comes to shove, it was always going to be social-ism or barbarism. But the how and why of that social-ism is going to have to change.”
But the how and why of that social-ism is going to have to change. As Barry sets out in his own calm, rational and evidential way, the golden era of the later 1940s to the early 1970s is not coming back. It was an age when progressive government could redistribute from the top down. A strong working class, the threat to capitalism posed by the existence of the Soviet Union, the collective experience of the war, working national borders and Fordist systems of bureaucratic administration made the narrowing of the gap between top and bottom possible. And then came globalisation, financialisation and individualisation and it all fell apart. We can’t unbake the cake.
From paternalistic elites to participatory networks
What we can do is end poverty in the right way for this age – just as previous generations did it in the right ways for theirs. This takes us from the Webbs to the Web, or more precisely from
the alleviation of poverty through paternalistic hierarchies to participatory networks. Or simpler still – the end of poverty will now be done by people, as networked citizens, not done to them.
My view, for what it’s worth, is that the good society was never going to be enabled by paternalistic, well-meaning elites – no matter how well-meaning. Indeed, the neoliberal counter-revolution was a consequence of this dehumanising cul-de-sac. It’s why Barry is on to something when he says we must go beyond left and right. I agree insofar that neither markets that are too free, nor states that are too remote or too close, have the answer. But, as Barry alludes, the right tends to see poverty as a personal construct – it’s your fault if you are poor – while the left tends to see it as a social construct. It must be a bit of both, but hope comes from the belief that everyone wants to make the most of their lives and that structural barriers hold them back. You can get on your bike, but if there are no roads and no jobs that pay, then what? We will end poverty when we believe the best in people – not the worst.
“You can get on your bike, but if there are no roads and no jobs that pay, then what? We will end poverty when we believe the best in people – not the worst.”
The book is a tour de force of theories of change and economic and spiritual insight. Barry quotes Brene Brown, John Ruskin and Amartya Sen. And that’s just for starters. But despite its scope, in 150-odd pages you can’t cover everything. The one blind spot I would mention is a lack of global or international focus. The project to end poverty has to be global – as daunting as that is.
A stepping stone to the society we want
I know Barry and the Trust didn’t just want this to be another book on poverty that sits on the shelf and gathers dust like too many other well-meaning reports. We have enough of them. Instead it’s a call to change the only thing we can: our behaviour, in the hope that it will inspire others to change themselves.
The poverty lobby shows too few signs of the solidarity they preach. It’s all about housing, education, benefits, the living wage, training, basic income or whatever their organisation exists to promote or attack. All have their merits. But unless all these groups and issues join up and scale up there will be no systems change. Rosie Rogers, a former colleague at Compass, would rightly preach a practice of ‘no silos and no egos’.
As such the book is not a collection of words and pages so much as a collection of groups and ideas Barry and the Webb Trust have been pulling together for the last few years – a network legacy for when they finally shut the Trust’s doors, enabling many more to open.
The book is rich in stories and examples, from the present and the past. If the Town and Country Planning Association could create a 21st century garden city movement; if the Centre for Local Economic Strategies could build foundational economies, where the existing mostly public infrastructure is used to buy local and invest local; if the voices and views of children and their experience of poverty could be heard and acted on, then we would be better equipped to make a world without poverty.
“It’s a call to change the only thing we can: our behaviour, in the hope that it will inspire others to change themselves.”
Of the many critical insights contained in the book my favourites are these two: first, the insight of Mary Parker Follett, an early 20th century feminist who described the difference between power over and power with. It is power with that we must seek. The second is the idea that we need to frame the future we want in a positive manner to make our vision of the good society and the good life more seductive and enticing than the world as it is and will be unless we change. Hope, not fear, must be the guiding spirit of progressives. This great little book, the stories it tells and the links it makes between those that have shared and will share the journey that created it, is a big stepping stone to the kind of society we want.
Neal Lawson is Director of Compass
Disclaimer: Compass, the organisation I chair, was a beneficiary of the Webb Memorial Trust before it decided to shut its door.
Read more from the Rethinking Poverty discussion forum:
- A narrative that resonates for single parents – Gingerbread Chief Executive, Rosie Ferguson
- Let’s talk about security and freedom – Webb Memorial Trust Director, Barry Knight
- Imagining a new future – former Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust Secretary, Stephen Pittam on Rethinking Poverty