A difficult conversation.

A difficult conversation.

I had a difficult conversation with my neighbour this morning. Each day I, and my neighbours, take our constitutionals with our dogs around the lanes of our valley. It is rare not to meet someone and usually the walk ends with a handful of folk and a reasonably sized pack of dogs doing the circuit. My immediate neighbour, and his two terriers, are my most frequent companion and my reliable source of local news. He has been very ill over the last few years and had become significantly disabled. However, fortunately he discovered the idea of a mobility scooter and his life has been transformed.

On his own he is able to walk, perhaps, 20 yards on a flat surface and over the past years he had to give up many of the activities he enjoyed. Now, with his scooter he walks the dogs daily again, visits friends, post letters, and the many other activities which allow him to have an independent life. But I have to confess that, at one level, it was his mobility scooter which made the conversation difficult this morning.

On his scooter there is a little dial. This dial can be turned from pointing at an icon of a tortoise through to a picture of a running hare. I think this dial is probably stuck solid through lack of use as he never switches it from the dashing hare. I believe he hates the idea that he might hold people up or slow down their walk. Unfortunately, this means our walks take the form of me jogging and running trying to keep up while he zips along with ease. To a passer-by I am sure it looks as if he is being chased by an elderly, wheezing asthmatic, but safely evading their clutches.

I have asked him the speed that the ‘hare’ setting represents as a hint that perhaps this was a little too fast (As prior hints by wheezing, stumbling and falling behind were obviously too subtle). It seems at this setting we can manage a steady pace between 5 and 6 miles per hour. This is the pace that marks the change from jogging to running and it seems that this is good estimate of our progress. So our conversation was difficult: my replies obscured by wheezy breathing; his replies lost on the wind as he flew on.

However, this was not the main reason the conversation was difficult. The real difficulty came with the content of his news. He, and his wife, have been keen Rotarians all their adult life and done an enormous amount of charitable works. He sadly informed me that his, and possibly the other, branch of Rotary in our area might have to close down. We are unusual in our small town that we have two branches of this charity. It relates back to the great schism a decade or two ago. Arguments about the membership of women, and difficulties relating to important players personalities, split the Rotary into two groups.

Both groups were successful for a while but in the last years their membership has risen in age and fallen in numbers. Insufficient people attend to justify two groups continuing and if they merge back it is possible that there may not be enough interested people to even keep one branch functioning. As we talked about this it became clear that this type of charitable work is often maintained by older people. Younger people don’t seem to have the interest or enthusiasm to take part in this type of charitable activity. As members die there are not new recruits waiting in the wings to take their place.

This would not be a terrible situation were it simply reflecting a change in practice and new styles of charitable works were being brought forward by a younger population. This is not happening, we seem to be losing the interest in charity. Although charitable donations have increased, the number of people giving is less and fewer people report active involvement in any form of charity. I fear that some of this may be an unintended adverse effect from the larger welfare state we now enjoy. We pay our taxes and expect the state in return to look after us in our periods of misfortune. Ideas of self reliance and prudence for the future are less fashionable now.

Charity is a virtue, possibly the greatest virtue. But often now charity is seen a a poor or bad thing, something to be avoided. Public opinion often complains if charities provide a service rather than the state. The poor and the misfortunate will always be with us and we will always need to be able to do what we can to help our fellow men and women when they fall on hard times. The state will never cover every eventuality and nor should it.

If we don’t get the opportunity to undertake charitable actions we miss out on one of the most important aspects of being human. To knowingly and deliberately help, or forgo something, to help our fellow is what marks us as human. It is also, in most psychological research, the most potent source of our happiness. Material things can only give brief and transitory pleasure, while helping others does bring lasting happiness. It is in our nature. This may help explain the paradox that while the material wealth of the population has risen year on year unfortunately our happiness has not. Indeed, as we have become materially wealthier more of use are falling prey to depression and sadness.

It was difficult to hear about the possible loss of these local social groups. It sounded like a further sign that we are continuing on a path which distances us from our neighbours and making us less involved particularly when times are hard. No amount of money, no amount of taxation, can have the same effect of a helping hand from a friendly neighbour and we should be wary of seeing comfort as a substitute for happiness.

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He is probably just around the corner

 

The State : Its historical role. (Piotr Kropotkin)

The State : Its historical role. (Piotr Kropotkin)

One of the great advantages of the e-book and e-readers is the ability to gain access to a huge library of published work for free. Most of the classics from the ancient world are available and a large library of modern and, not so modern, work is available for the easy job of a little bit of browsing. It is hard to believe but most of us now have access to a library that would have made Croesus jealous. Emperors and kings a hundred years ago would not have believed, and would have envied, the texts which I have available today. It is almost impossible to think of a philosopher, political theorist, or other man or woman of letters that is not easily available either for free or for a very modest price. I find this wealth of literature captivating. I browse the 56,00 books available at the Gutenburg Project, or the 15,000,000 texts and books (including 550,000 modern ebooks) of the Internet Archive and wonder at the riches available. But this surfeit of choice does bring problems – ironically, “What to read next ?

thestatehistrolesmall

There are problems when choosing books from this library. Some have become very dated and are only really interesting as historical artefacts. Others were a fad of their day and really didn’t need to weather the years. Many other are well written and important but with the passage of time modern readers have changed. Modern readers can find the dense, heavy prose difficult to read and, at times, the vocabulary can be archaic and thus not understood. A further difficulty in understanding can arise from a prior presumption that readers would be familiar with the classics and the bible which is no longer a safe generalization. This having been said, I have been pleasantly surprised how many do stand the passage of time. H.G. Wells still reads as if he were writing yesterday and his science fiction is still enjoyable despite the appearance of the horse and cart along side the rocket ship.

I have tried to cope with this problem by the simple strategy of trying to read the classics of which I have heard. This includes reading books which I thought I had already read, as sometimes I found that I had never actually done so. My knowledge of the book was apparently achieved through cultural osmosis rather than actual reading. Sometimes this has been startling when I discover what was the actual content of the book.  Sometimes I have reread classics simple because I was too young first time around. Some books were wasted on me as a callow youth and it is only reading them now, with the hindsight and hopefully wisdom of age, that they truly make sense. This was my strategy which lead me to Kropotkin’s “The State : Its Historic Role

With regards to readability this is not a problem, it is clearly written and its still is easy on the modern reader. There are references to important political events which would have been known to any informed reader in 1897 but which might be more hazily recalled for the reader over a century later. Occasionally he makes assumptions that authors discussing the Paris Commune, or describing the Lombardy League, will be known to us. However, this is not sufficient a problem to impair the enjoyment from the text.

The basics of the text are his views on the historic development of the state and the crushing of  societal developments which existed before this. He describes the development of the Communes and the Guilds across Europe and how this allowed the mutual aid which provides support for the members of societies. His concern is that society is in our nature, as it was in the animals from whom we evolved,  and mankind will always find way to create supportive societies and does not require the state to do this.

“Man did not create society; society existed before Man.”

“Far from being the bloodthirsty beast he was made out to be in order to justify the need to dominate him , Man has always preferred peace and quiet .”

“Henceforth , the village community consisting entirely or partly of individual families – all united , however , by the possession in common of the land – became the essential link for centuries to come .”

Unfortunately my knowledge of medieval history is rather poor and I find it difficult to assess the accuracy of his descriptions of medieval city life. He is clearly very impressed with the early municipalism and syndicalism that he describes :-

“Was it not in fact the rule of the guild that two brothers should sit at the bedside of each sick brother – a custom which certainly required devotion in those times of contagious diseases and the plague – and to follow him as far as the grave , and then look after his widow and children ? Abject poverty , misery , uncertainty of the morrow for the majority , and the isolation of poverty , which are the characteristics of our modern cities , were quite unknown in those ‘ free oases , which emerged in the twelfth century amidst the feudal jungle ’ .”

But he pays rather scant regard to the problems of the serf in feudal society  and to the other well documented problems for the poor of this time. However, he does detail the developing strategies that were made to provide support and succour which operated at a more local and personal level prior to the development of the state. Though I fear that sometimes he was donning spectacles with a strong rosy hue when reading his source texts.

He sees the state developing through the cooperation of chiefs and Kings, the Church and the priesthood as well as the judiciary :-

“And who are these barbarians ? It is the State : the Triple Alliance , finally constituted , of the military chief , the Roman judge and the priest – the three constituting a mutual assurance for domination – the three , united in one power which will command in the name of the interests of society – and will crush that same society .”

He describes the operation of these agencies to impose their power, in the form of the state, over prior voluntary organizations. He pays particular attention to the role of religious belief in the development of anarchist ideas and thinking. He is very aware that the Protestant revolutions did much to free the minds of men at the same time as the established church tried to limit thought and opinion. He ultimately reports that in this ideological battle for the soul of man the established church won.

“Lutherian Reform which had sprung from popular Anabaptism , was supported by the State , massacred the people and crushed the movement from which it had drawn its strength in the beginning .”

He is scathing of Martin Luther who he views as a turncoat who, by the end,  encouraged “the massacre of the peasants with more virulence than the pope“. In general Piotr Kropotkin deals well with these issues. There was much greater understanding by these seminal authors, compared to contemporary anarchist writers, that to build an anarchist society depended on a change in the hearts and minds of men and women. These early writers saw the importance of personal responsibility and morality and dealt with the need for a root and branch reform of societal relationships in a much more thorough manner. These were not simple economic or political arguments but moral and spiritual also.

Once the state has started on its development he was aware that it would brook no opposition. He describes the hostility the state has to any autonomous societies or support organizations  as it views these are threats. It sees them as “a state within the state” which can not be tolerated. Any alternative forms of mutual aid are opposed and although our instincts are to band together and help each other this is discouraged if it is not done by the agencies, and under the control,  of the state.

“Peasants in a village have a large number of interests in common : household interests , neighborhood , and constant relationships . They are inevitably led to come together for a thousand different things . But the State does not want this , nor can it allow them to join together ! After all the State gives them the school and the priest , the gendarme and the judge – this should be sufficient .”

In our present days where the state has a large welfare component these factors are still important. Self help and mutual assistance is lost while centralised state provision takes it place.

“ The neighbor , the comrade , the companion – forget them . You will henceforth only know them through the intermediary of some organ or other of your State . And every one of you will make a virtue out of being equally subjected to it . ”

“ No direct moral obligations towards your neighbor , nor even any feeling of solidarity ; all your obligations are to the State ”

In many areas of the western world social care, health care, and education are removed from the individual. While basic safety and care may be provided the ability of the individual to participate in these matters is severely curtailed and their personal responsibility reduced. Further, it is the cooperative arrangement of these types of aid and support which creates our societies. It is possible, as we are discovering, that it is possible to have a large state providing many aspects of welfare but at the same time to have small or absent communities , an alienated and atomised population and very little society.

In the future, our ability to create societies which support our diverse peoples is going to be the biggest challenge in the face of the spreading state and globalisation. Anarchists and libertarians will need to take their part in this challenge and some of the history in the book may usefully guide them. His call to action is still valid as it is not simply and economic change we require but widespread social change.

Throughout the history of our civilization , two traditions , two opposing tendencies have confronted each other : the Roman and the Popular ; the imperial and the federalist ; the authoritarian and the libertarian . And this is so , once more , on the eve of the social revolution .

 

Volunteering : Why do we do it ?

Volunteering : Why do we do it ?

via Daily Prompt: Volunteer

When I moved to my present home, and shifted from an urban to a rural community, I became more aware of the role that volunteering played in my and my neighbours’ lives. It is not that there is any more or less volunteering in either site but rather that the structures of community organisations, and the role these play in day to day life, are much more visible in the rural setting. It is easier to see what is going on among a few people than it is amongst very large groups.

It is clear that many people volunteer regularly to provide services to our own community and for those further afield who are in need. Obviously, as this is volunteering, it is done with no thought of payment or recompense. Indeed, the cost to volunteers in terms of  time, money, and energy is often quite considerable.  For example, one neighbour drives daily to the old peoples’ home at her own expense and spends an hour talking to elderly people who might otherwise be lonely.

So why do we do this ? Some, of a religious bent, may do it as it is part of their way of practising their faith. Other may do it in recognition or thanks of previous help given. However, looking at my friends I’d suggest that most do it because they gain pleasure from helping others. In addition to pleasure it is also part of living, being a part of a community rather than a simple consumer of the benefits of society.

Every second week in our village hall committee we meet and spend hours organising events for the community and seeing to the logistics of running various societies which have their base in our society. When we meet and talk, when we interact and exchange ideas, when we choose form options for our society, we are in fact living. While we do this we are more than individual consumers, we are not solitary agents but social beings, and while we take part like this our lives become richer and fuller.

Possibly the most quoted sentence by Adam Smith  is this below :-

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.

and many people think that this suggests that selfishness was the sole key to the organisation of capitalist societies. Many portray capitalism as incompatible with altruistic actions and see the  phrase “greed is good” as one which summarises a trading society.  Many libertarians do little to counter this image.

While it is true that self-interest guides the many voluntary trades that people make everyday which allow our society to develop and grow. It is these multiple interactions  which allow us to concentrate on what we are good at, to specialise and divide labour, and to create things that would otherwise be impossible. It is through all these voluntary transactions that the spontaneous order arises which makes up our society. Billions of individuals freely interacting with billions of others give rise to the order which is the society in which we live. While this requires that the individuals look after their own interests it works because we are human and there is another side to our nature.

Unfortunately the following quote, which is the first sentence of Adam Smith’s “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” is much less frequently quoted :-

“No matter how selfish we suppose man to be, there is obviously something in his nature that makes him interested in the fortunes of others and makes their happiness necessary to him, even if he derives nothing from it other than the pleasure of seeing it”

Adam Smith believed that innately we wish to help our fellow man. Indeed he believed that the pinnacle of moral development would be “To feel much for others and little for ourselves; to restrain our selfishness and exercise our benevolent affections, constitute the perfection of human nature”. He correctly recognised it was the combination of voluntary transactions, guided by self-interest, in association with an innate tendency to care for the welfare of others which allowed capitalism to thrive and develop.

It is this innate desire to help others alongside the gaining of pleasure by doing so that I see in my community here. I am aware that this is a universal aspect of human nature seen in people from all walks of life and in all areas of the globe. It doesn’t detract from the wealth creation of trading but rather augments it as it is the glue that creates the society in which we can pursue our dreams. I am sitting using a computer and social media to create this blog, this is just one example of the multitude of sites (Flickr, Youtube, Facebook,  Freecycle, Twitter, etc) where people create things (images, stories, songs, news, goods) simply to share with our fellows with no expectation of profit. It seems further evidence of our need to share and to give.

However, I do have some concerns that the last century has seen a change in how we view such activities as volunteering and charity. Alongside the growth of the welfare state it is possible that we have started to feel that we no longer need to undertake these activities.  Certainly the amount we give to charity has dropped from an average 10% of a middle class family’s income in  1895 to around 1% today. Friendly societies which used to provide much of the welfare that people received prior to the war when it was estimated that over three-quarters of the working population were registered with such a society were destroyed by the introduction of National Insurance. A model which was based on local planning, voluntary choice and democratic decisions when local people got together to form groups to look after themselves was swept away by Lloyd George’s changes. In their place, an unaccountable, impersonal and inefficient centrally organised state system took over.

The change to state organisation funded by taxation has had a further change which has an impact on charitable activities. As James Bartholomew said “People have changed from being team members in mutual support groups to being state dependants who feel no particular responsibility to act decently. “. It is important to feel that one is helping others, as said before it is an innate desire and part of what lifts us above other species of animal. When we organise our welfare services by taxation it removes us as individuals from the care of our neighbours. It becomes anonymous and faceless, it breaks the link between the two individuals helping each other. It removes our option to be compassionate and good as we can’t really think of ourselves as good when we have no choice over our actions.

We will always need to provide welfare for our societies and will always want to do so. We need to encourage voluntary arrangements which allow this to be done in a human, individual and engaged manner and we need to wrest welfare back from the state. We need to bring it back from the central state and back to local societies and the individuals amongst them

I think Dominic Frisby summarised this well in his “Life after the State” :-

“The giver goes unconsidered in the process of state care. Taxes are taken and that is it. But the giver too has needs. Sometimes the giver needs to be anonymous – sometimes he needs recognition. Sometimes he or she likes to be involved with the recipient in some way, sometimes not. The forced giving that is taxation destroys the satisfaction that altruistic people get from giving voluntarily. To share with others is part of humanity. In a world in which the government takes care of the poor and needy, compassion is removed from life. As a result, the state now has a monopoly on compassion! In fact it is even more bizarrely specific than that: the pro-welfare left wing has a monopoly on compassion. Anyone who doesn’t agree with the concept of a large, generous welfare state is deemed heartless and selfish.”


Volunteer


Wealth of Nations
Theory of Moral Sentiments
The Welfare State we are In
Life after the State
David Green, Working-class Patients and the Medical Establishment (Gower, 1985).