Tuesday, 19 March 2013

'Social Inclusion', 'squeezed' and 'broken' middles

Partly for the PhD, and partly because life and research are flowing into each other a lot at the moment, I've been doing a bit of thinking around the language we use to describe 'poverty' and 'inequality'.

I found a fascinating paper which helped to shape the international anti-poverty campaign 'The Rules', which explores the pros and cons of some of our most familiar metaphors for inequality:

  • inequality as horizontal distance ('spread', 'gap', 'divide', etc.) - it's 'tangible', they suggest, helping us make sense of an otherwise abstract concept, but the problem is that 'gaps are about end-states', as a metaphor 'it remains silent about how we arrived at this divided place'
  • inequality as vertical difference ('top' and 'bottom') - the big plus is that it gives us some sense of causality and connection: 'People are on top because others are below them.' But the problem is the flip-side of this: it 'introduces a hierarchy with a sense of superiority and deservedness for those on top', and it allows the pervasive idea of "trickle down" economics 'to make sense'.
  • inequality as imbalance (e.g. the image of the weighing scales - 'when one side goes up, the other goes down') - again, it brings 'interconnection' to the foreground, but it triggers 'zero-sum thinking', encouraging 'those on top' in their determination 'to stop any attempt to alter the status quo.'
What the paper proposes, instead, is to describe inequality as a barrier. If we see 'life as a journey', then 'when things go well, we often say they are moving forward and when they're not we're stuck in a rut.' A barrier, they suggest, is something that denies people access: 'Access means you are no longer bound. This affords individuals the freedom to give their talents to the economy, and the nation, in turn, to benefit from what every individual offers.' It's an image that enables connections to be made between rich and poor, and encourages us to see reducing inequality as a co-operative exercise of 'removing barriers'. The objective for 'The Rules', they suggest, is 'to replace [the zero-sum, winner-takes-all] game with another one that reframes the priorities and outcomes of the system into a team-oriented game where success is measured by the increasing quality of life for all people.'

So far, so good? And familiar, in many ways. The language of 'barrier' sounds remarkably like the language - common in UK policy-speak since Tony Blair - of 'social exclusion'. Surely it's all about working for a more 'inclusive' society - just as, in Birmingham at the moment, we're committing ourselves to become a more 'inclusive' city?

But there is still a problem - a big problem - with this language of 'social exclusion / inclusion'. I came across another paper, from that quirky academic field called 'discourse analysis', which punches a big hole in our desire for 'inclusion'. Analysing policy documents and speeches from the last Labour government, Veronika Koller and Paul Davidson argue that:
  • 'social exclusion / inclusion' paints a picture of society as 'a bounded space with a normative [i.e. 'good'] centre and a problematic periphery,' with the aim of policy and practice being to move people 'towards the centre'
  • those who claim to be addressing 'social exclusion' cast themselves in a positive light, 'addressing our visceral need to be protected / sheltered / on the inside'
  • by using 'social exclusion' as a noun, rather than a verb, we are distracted from the vital question of 'who is responsible for the excluding?' (which may well, in reality, be precisely those 'on the inside') and how the 'excluded' came to be so
  • those who find themselves 'on the outside' (who are often further segregated when described as being 'hard to reach') therefore, apparently, have no one responsible for that state, 'apart from themselves perhaps' - it also deprives them of any sense of positive agency or life 'on the outside' (because positive agency and life are defined precisely by being 'on the inside')
  • rather than addressing the causes of 'exclusion' (i.e. inequality), policies focus instead on short-time ways of 'bringing the excluded in', particularly through getting people into paid work
  • 'social exclusion' as a noun becomes a 'malleable object', an object which can be 'addressed', 'measured', 'reduced', which in turn makes 'voluntary and community groups' enlisted in the 'social inclusion' agenda 'accountable to government, aligned with its models of society and bound to its agenda'
  • by deflecting attention from 'the interconnections within society and how action within one sphere directly impacts upon another', policy-makers are therefore enabled to present themselves as 'problem-solvers', while at the same time 'pursuing policies that may work toward perpetuating inequality'
It's a dense argument to follow, but a powerful one. What we need, when describing poverty and inequality, are language and images which highlight the connections - relational and causal - between rich and poor, which foreground the normally-hidden negative agency (i.e. self-interested perpetuation of inequality) of the rich and positive agency (i.e. lives that are far from the 'subnormal' that the Daily Mail would have us believe) of the poor.

We also need, to go back to 'The Rules', a 'creation story' for poverty. How did it come to be? This might be one way of telling it:

"Poverty arose recently in human history. For tens of thousands of years, it simply did not exist on anything like the scale we live with today. When everyone lived in small tribes and shared the spoils of hunting and gathering, it was normal for everyone to have enough to eat when food was available. These tribes persisted across time by cooperating with one another and being sure everyone was taken care of. When bullies and cheaters tried to assert power and take more than their share, they were kept in place by the collective sanctions of the group. Then everything changed. Agriculture was invented and the tribes could settle in one place, forming great city states as their populations grew. As these city states became larger and more complex, forms of aggressive competition became normalized and then institutionalized. Domineering elites formed from the funneling of wealth from the working masses to islands of privilege. This overriding of social sanctions eventually led to the wholesale capture of many essential rule making structures by elites, and a world in which the prioritization and protection of their own privilege over the welfare of the many became the norm. Thus was poverty born in the shadow of imperial thinking and it has been with us in one form or another ever since." (The Rules)

An alternative way of telling the 'story', and just as powerful, I discovered in the work of Scotland's 'Poverty Truth Commission':

I emerged from these two papers, and Alastair McIntosh's reflection above, with a couple of thoughts.

The first was a renewed concern for Labour's recent favourite phrase, 'the squeezed middle'. Targeted at what they think are their 'swing voters', it no doubt has power. But it is morally dangerous. Whether we imagine it as a 'horizontal' or a 'vertical' metaphor, to be 'squeezed' you have to be put under pressure from both sides. The metaphor therefore legitimises attacks on the poor as somehow responsible for 'the middle' being 'squeezed' - when it is clear the significant agency comes yet again from the rich and powerful elite.

My second thought is that there is another kind of 'middle' that we need to bring into view. It's what Gillian Rose called 'the broken middle' - and while her thought is mostly beyond me, drawing on a really helpful and brief summary of her thinking, I'll attempt an even briefer brief sketch here...
  • We all want to feel innocent, in the right - which means 'others' are in the wrong, guilty
  • Most utopian movements have based themselves on this 'solidarity of the innocent' - against a 'guilty other' - or have sought to escape completely from the messy reality of the world
  • Rose proposes an ethics of engagement in 'the broken middle': the messy, complex, compromising reality of the world
  • This requires us to sacrifice our innocence and our desire to be right, and instead discover ourselves as part of a 'solidarity of the shaken' - part of communities bound together by their shared acknowledgement not of innocence but of compromise and guilt
  • To live in the middle is to experience the impossibility of reconciling different positions, and to be 'torn apart' - but this is where the sacred is
  • The key virtue of the broken middle is 'anxiety' - allowing ourselves to be unsettled, uncertain, insecure - within a community of people who have very different and deeply held ideas
I think I'm suggesting we start renouncing any images of society where we, conveniently, find ourselves 'in the middle' - 'socially included', 'squeezed' or otherwise 'innocent'. With 'The Rules', I reckon there is some value in that metaphor of 'life as a journey' and inequality as the actions of some placing 'barriers' in the way of many others. With Koller and Davidson, we need to foreground the agency of all involved - we are 'all in it together' - but we need to recognise much more clearly and honestly the effects of our actions and inactions on each other. With McIntosh, we need to acknowledge the violence at the heart of it, and that finding a way forward from such violence is going to be anything but quick and painless. And with Gillian Rose, we need to invite all to meet somewhere in 'the broken middle' - where our stories, our lives, our truths, can be told and heard, not from a position of innocence, but of 'shakenness'.

The thing is, many of my neighbours are already living in 'the broken middle'. They know all too well what 'the messy, complex, compromising reality of the world' feels like. I suspect it's the richest in our society that will have the  most trouble getting there - getting over their presumed 'innocence' and the barriers of their own making, to find themselves 'included' in the 'solidarity of the shaken'...

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