Friday, 29 June 2012

What would Rousseau make of our selfish age?

300 years after Rousseau's birth, the great Enlightenment philosopher would surely be horrified by modern Europe, writes Terry Eagleton

85Rousseau is the explorer of that dark continent, the modern self

Few thinkers have left their fingerprints on the modern age as indelibly as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the tricentenary of whose birth we celebrate on Thursday (28 June). He was a philosopher who helped shape the destiny of nations, which is more than can be said for Pythagoras or AC Grayling. He was also a political visionary of stunning originality, a potent influence on the French revolution and a source of inspiration for the Romantics. Those who like their fiction drenched in lofty moral sentiment can also claim him as a great novelist.

Much of what one might call the modern sensibility was this thinker's creation. It is in Rousseau's writing above all that history begins to turn from upper-class honour to middle-class humanitarianism. Pity, sympathy and compassion lie at the centre of his moral vision. Values associated with the feminine begin to infiltrate social existence as a whole, rather than being confined to the domestic sphere. Gentlemen begin to weep in public, while children are viewed as human beings in their own right rather than defective adults.

Above all, Rousseau is the explorer of that dark continent, the modern self. It is no surprise that he wrote one of the most magnificent autobiographies of all time, his Confessions. Personal experience starts to take on a significance it never had for Plato or Descartes. What matters now is less objective truth than truth-to-self – a passionate conviction that one's identity is uniquely precious, and that expressing it as freely and richly as possible is a sacred duty. In this belief, Rousseau is a forerunner not only of the Romantics, but of the liberals, existentialists and spiritual individualists of modern times.

It is true that he seems to have held the view that no identity was more uniquely precious than his own. For all his cult of tenderness and affection, Rousseau was not the kind of man with whom one would share one's picnic. He was the worst kind of hypochondriac – one who really is always ill – and that most dangerous of paranoiacs – one who really is persecuted. Even so, at the heart of an 18th-century Enlightenment devoted to reason and civilisation, this maverick intellectual spoke up for sentiment and nature. He was not, to be sure, as besotted by the notion of the noble savage as some have considered. But he was certainly a scourge of the idea of civilisation, which struck him for the most part as exploitative and corrupt.

In this, he was a notable precursor of Karl Marx. Private property, he wrote, brings war, poverty and class conflict in its wake. It converts "clever usurpation into inalienable right". Most social order is a fraud perpetrated by the rich on the poor to protect their privileges. The law, he considered, generally backs the strong over the weak; justice is largely a weapon of violence and domination, while culture, science, the arts and religion are harnessed to the task of preserving the status quo. The institution of the state has "bound new fetters on the poor and given new powers to the rich". For the benefit of a few ambitious men, he comments, "the human race has been subjected to labour, servitude and misery".

He was not, as it happens, opposed to private property as such. His outlook was that of the petty-bourgeois peasant, clinging to his hard-won independence in the face of power and privilege. He sometimes writes as though any form of dependence on others is despicable. Yet he was a radical egalitarian in an age when such thinkers were hard to find. Almost uniquely for his age, he also believed in the absolute sovereignty of the people. To bow to a law one did not have a hand in creating was a recipe for tyranny. Self-determination lay at the root of all ethics and politics. Human beings might misuse their freedom, but they were not truly human without it.

What would this giant of Geneva have thought of Europe 300 years on from his birth? He would no doubt have been appalled by the drastic shrinking of the public sphere. His greatest work, The Social Contract, speaks up for the rights of the citizenry in the teeth of private interests. He would also be struck by the way the democracy he cherished so dearly is under siege from corporate power and a manipulative media. Society, he taught, was a matter of common bonds, not just a commercial transaction. In true republican fashion, it was a place where men and women could flourish as ends in themselves, not as a set of devices for promoting their selfish interests.

The same, he thought, should be true of education. Rousseau ranks among the great educational theorists of the modern era, even if he was the last man to put in charge of a classroom. Young adults, he thought, should be allowed to develop their capabilities in their distinctive way. They should also delight in doing so as an end in itself. In the higher education systems of today's world, this outlandish idea is almost dead on its feet. It is nearly as alien as the notion that the purpose of education is to serve the empire. Universities are no longer educational in any sense of the word that Rousseau would have recognised. Instead, they have become unabashed instruments of capital. Confronted with this squalid betrayal, one imagines he would have felt sick and oppressed. As, indeed, he usually did.

Written by Terry Eagleton & published by the Guardian

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Cameron's attack on the ‘feckless poor’ has a very long history

The government's planned welfare cuts are the latest attempt by authorities to root out the idle and inactive and set them to work, writes Jeremy Seabrook

David Cameron's latest attack on the poor has a longer history than he seems to know. "We" have not created a culture of dependency; the animus against the poor, and the remedies proposed, go back at least to the consolidation of the Elizabethan poor law in 1601, and even further: one of the post hoc justifications for the destruction of the monasteries was that these had offered alms and relief to the idle and undeserving, who had dissimulated themselves among the widows and orphans fed and sheltered by religious houses.

One of the principal aims of the Elizabethan poor law, apart from the relief of the "aged and impotent" was "to set the poor on work". Houses of industry, provided with supplies of hemp, flax and other materials, were to train to habits of industry the idle and inactive who were sound in body and mind.

This project has haunted the rulers of Britain ever since, despite having repeatedly proved impracticable. In the late 17th century, the idea seized the imagination of administrators of the poor laws that a profit could be made out of the labour of the poor. Commentaries on the shamelessness of valiant beggars and idle rogues were accompanied by practical schemes for using their labour for useful ends. John Locke thought the increase in numbers of the poor a consequence of "the relaxation of discipline and the corruption of manners", a diagnosis eagerly repeated down the generations ever since. Parishes combined their resources to construct "houses of industry" and, if some briefly made a profit, the impossibility of co-ordinating the highly variable skills of the poor to spin, weave and produce lace or linen for the market soon became clear.

That did not prevent a stream of ingenious devices for keeping the noses of the idle poor to the grindstone. The idea of contracting the poor out to private entities became all the rage in the 18th century, anticipating the extensive privatisations of today. The maintenance of the poor of a parish could be contracted out for a lump sum, or on a per capita basis, in the workhouse of the parish or in premises of the contractor's own choosing. Contracts were made with the owners of carts for the forcible repatriation of the poor to their legal place of settlement, with clothiers for paupers' uniforms and shrouds, and with carpenters for coffins. As a result, conditions in workhouses deteriorated. Filthy and overcrowded, they were described as "receptacles of misery". A majority of parish infants died before their sixth birthdays.

As part of the alternating process throughout our history of severity and leniency, towards the end of the 18th century, a more humanitarian spirit prevailed, and out-relief was more usual. In fact, topping up wages became the norm in the counties of the south of England, a system whereby the parish made up the wages of labourers according to the size of the family and the price of bread. This meant that, no matter how little work was done, income was assured, and however little a farmer paid his labourers, the deficit would always be made good by the parish. This gave rise to what can only be described, in Cameron's words as "a culture of entitlement"; at the same time, women were blamed for giving birth to bastards, for the maintenance of each of whom the parish rewarded her with 1s 6d a week. Observers continued to fulminate against the poor, claiming that hunger was the best goad to make them work.

The Poor Law Amendment Act was passed in 1834. This made relief available to the able-bodied only within the workhouse, in conditions "less eligible" (that is, worse) than those enjoyed by the poorest labourer who earned a living by his own efforts. Despite mitigation of its worst rigours, this system remained in place until the 1948 National Assistance Act, with its preamble, "The poor law shall cease to exist," which lifted the shadow of punitive detention, which for over a century had threatened the poor in times of sickness, incapacity, old age and bereavement.

No sooner had the welfare state come into existence than the clamour against it was heard: it sapped character, reduced independence, feather-bedded and cosseted people. And this, as they say, is where we come in. The profligate and improvident have been sheltered by the welfare state; the opportunists and idlers have used the deserving poor as human shields against the asperity designed to banish welfare cheats and raiders of the public purse.

The wasteful and wanton poor have always been in the sights of authority, because it is through them that more general campaigns against the poor can be waged. The improvident are obviously culpable: they give poverty a bad name, and are responsible for their own condition. Unfortunately, they are never removed, no matter how punishing the legislation or intensive the effort to flush them out of their hiding places. They remain, a frieze of incontinent and picaresque humanity, wenching and pilfering their way through the 18th century, standing shamelessly before the parish pay-table in the 19th, living behind closed curtains in overheated front rooms watching television from dawn to dusk in our time.

The feckless poor have been neither legislated out of existence nor drowned in prosperity. They have not been set to work, because the labour they perform profits no one. They continue their relentless march through time, unabashed and indifferent to the fury of politicians and the odium of the public. All efforts to bring them into the fold of respectable society have failed, and the only ones to suffer from the continuing efforts to set them to work are the timid and the helpless. The words of David Cameron and the rest of them are truly conservative, for they have been formulated by every generation for at least half a millennium.

Written by Jeremy Seabrook & published by The Guardian

Monday, 18 June 2012

#CarersWeek (18 -24 June) highlights how unpaid carers are being let down by a failing social care system

Eight charities, including Age UK and Carers UK, have joined together under the umbrella of #CarersWeek to highlight the plight they face – please share

The UK's ‘leading army of unpaid carers’ is being ‘let down’ by the failing social care system, campaigners warn. Feedback from 3,400 carers showed those providing the most intensive care often ended up with health problems themselves. The government said there was now extra funding to allow carers' breaks.

It is estimated that one in six carers either give up work or reduce their hours to look after elderly friends and relatives or younger adults with disabilities. The charities said it demonstrated the hidden effect of the squeeze on council-run social care support. The numbers of elderly and younger adults getting help from councils has fallen in recent years. And the coalition of charities said it was the 6.4m unpaid carers who were being left to take up the strain.

#CarersWeek asked carers what impact caring and the lack of support had on their health. Most of the responses were from those heavily involved in caring for someone, often providing support on a daily basis. Eight in 10 said their responsibilities had caused them health problems, including everything from back pain to insomnia. And two fifths said they had delayed seeking medical help with some reporting that had had serious consequences, such as delayed cancer diagnoses and damage to lungs.

#CarersWeek said carers should be offered regular health checks and there needed to be better information and support available. Manager Helen Clarke said: "It's a scandal that carers can't get the time or support they need to look after themselves which could be jeopardising their health as a result. Carers are feeling the strain of a woefully underfunded system and still we're seeing more cuts. Unpaid carers save the Government a fortune - £119 billion a year - yet they're let down in return. It is time for urgent action to tackle the crisis in social care."

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Small comfort for Greece as Europe teeters on the brink

Greek supporters celebrate knocking Russia out of Euro 2012 and qualifying for the next round, against the odds. Meanwhile, their country goes to the polls for the second time in six weeks in a vote that may well affect the future of the European Union.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Friday, 1 June 2012

Who's sari now?

Butter wouldn't melt in the mouth of failed Conservative parliamentary candidate turned Baroness, Sayeeda Warsi, in this picture from September 2011 outside the Sikh Shrine Golden Temple in Amritsar, India. Warsi is currently in Indonesia to see how the country has recovered from the devastation of the Asian tsunami in December 2004. May I respectfully suggest they were doing fine until you came along, love.

The trip comes only days after it was alleged that Warsi claimed up to £2,000 in expenses while staying rent-free with a friend. She denies the claims and has referred the case to the Lords Commissioner for Standards, Paul Kernaghan, who has begun a 'parliamentary assessment' before what is expected to be a major investigation - the result of which will undoubtedly be 'no further action'.