Beth Cherryman

Portfolio Site

Are There Such Things As ‘Social Rights’?

The press coverage concerning the British welfare system and how it will be effected by the Con-Dem coalition government’s spending review and cuts has dominated news outlets the past few weeks.

It has prompted me to question whether simply being a British citizen gives one the right to be looked after by the welfare state.

Who is it that benefits from the welfare state?  Surely the predominant beneficiaries are the working middle classes.  They have access to the NHS, state pension, state education and subsidised (at least for the time being) higher education.  Although, many would argue this is fair because it is also the working middle classes who make the greatest contributions to the funding of the welfare state.

This is not to say that the welfare state does not benefit the poor.  I do not see people dying on the street – rough sleepers, yes; I guess no system is perfect – but no sick and starved bodies lining the gutters.  Even a British citizen who does not work has access to NHS facilities.  The welfare state provides a basic minimum, or safety net, to ensure the poor are not without a minimum standard of healthcare, education, or nutrition.

Of course, lets not forget the State also benefits from such an arrangement.  Keeping the Nation’s human stock healthy makes for a more efficient workforce.  If productivity increases then this in turn bolsters Britain’s standing in the economy both internally and internationally, which is good for Britain (in theory).  Also, more people are able to work – I am quite sure many a politician has dreamed of full employment, but sadly since WW2 that dream has eluded them all.

However, the benefits given out are not generous and so much of the responsibility has been privatised.  For instance, although everyone is entitled to a State pension often a further sum is needed to live on and this comes from a former employer.  Benefits in this country are also means tested and this process can be made extremely hard and unpleasant, perhaps to discourage people from taking up the all the finance available to them.  The working middle classes get the most out of the system because they are able to take up the State services and their various work benefits.  (As discusses above this system also encourages people to work.)

The welfare state of this country thus strikes me more as a system of rewards for cooperating with the State.  That is, for being a member of the labour force.  It perhaps also fulfills a certain moral obligation of a wealthy developed state to allow everyone access to a basic quality of life, but importantly also the potential to enter the labour force to improve one’s lot (and National efficiency).

If welfare provisions are a reward, then they are not a ‘right’.

It appears to me that ‘rights’ are by definition intrinsic; with humans came rights.  The ‘right’ to education means that every human being is entitled to education wherever they are in the world, or indeed whenever they lived in the world.  All people past, present and future are entitled to education wherever they are whatever their circumstances.  Obviously this is not the case.

None of the ‘rights’ we enjoy are first principles: they were fought for.  The reason the Nation’s average working week is 40 hours is because workers held strikes and demanded a reduction in working hours.  Voters demand certain conditions in return for their input.  (The median voter is middle class, so it makes sense that the welfare state primarily benefits this sector of the British population.)

Maybe ‘rights’ are social constructs.  Because workers participate in the labour force and fulfill the duties of a British citizen they are entitled to certain things in return and these things are embodied in the welfare system.  So the rights equate to rewards.

I think this view is mistaken.  The ‘right’ to education is not enforceable.  There are people in Britain who do not go to school, whether by choice or because they believe their situation makes it untenable to attend, and what of it?  An entitlement is just an entitlement.  You can’t make people act in accordance with their entitlements.  Similarly it is hard to ensure ‘rights’ are universal.  Everyone has the ‘right’ not to be tortured, yet this ‘right’ can be forfeited for the “greater good” it would seem without consequence.

This is because ‘rights’ are theoretical constructs not social constructs.  As soon as a right becomes enforceable, that is, negligence or inaction becomes an offence, then it ceases to be a ‘right’ and becomes a law.  It is the law in Britain that children must attend school from the ages of four to seventeen.  If they don’t then their parents or carers could be locked up, or social workers assess their situation and try to help the family into a position that the child can attend school.

No longer is it a ‘right’ to education, it is compulsory education whether you would choose to be educated or not.

Human ‘Rights’ don’t exist; they are not tangible real things of which there are examples of in the real world.  They are ideals – the worst kind because they are undemocratic ideals.  They have no value because they involve no input from the people they pertain to.  I was not consulted as to which entitlements human beings are to enjoy regardless of anything other than the fact they are human beings.  Maybe this is one of the reasons they are habitually ignored.

Likewise, social ‘rights’ do not exist.  In fact they do not exist in a more immediate way than human ‘rights’.  There is not even a conceptual framework for social rights.  They are simply rewards for the people because they cooperate with the State and the economy (i.e. capitalism), and because the people asked for them, demanded and fought for them.  Indeed compromised to obtain something that resembled the ‘rights’ they wanted.

No one has a ‘right’ to be looked after by the welfare state.  ‘Rights’ are theoretical constructs with no bearing on, or value in, the world we really live.  That which could be perceived as social ‘rights’ is no more than the evidence of struggle and compromise between State and labour market to maximise efficiency and minimise dissatisfaction of workers and employers.

And on that note, I cannot say I agree with the drastic cuts to the welfare state the Con-Dem coalition is about to inflict upon the British people.  To me this does not seem like a good way to either maximise efficiency or to minimise dissatisfaction.  If anything I think it will only serve to widen the already substantial gap between the super-rich and the poor.  Further the cuts will condemn us to decreased opportunities for social mobility, which in my opinion is the most fundamental element to a successful and happy society.

WikiLeaks Does Not Promote Transparency It Only Aids Those Seeking to Destroy Such Liberal Ideals

WikiLeaks has been proving a constant source of controversy these last few months.  The whistle-blowing website is poised to release 391,832 secret documents relating to the Iraqi war.

The new release has governments the world over (especially the American government) denouncing WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.  The WikiLeaks enterprise has recently seen the defection of many of its higher profile comrades stating reasons of disillusionment with their founder and boss.

The defectors portray their enigmatic leader as a man of erratic and imperious behaviour and nearly delusional grandeur unmatched by any awareness that the digital secrets he reveals can have a price in blood.  12 weeks ago when WikiLeaks went live with secret Afghan documents, Julian Assange decided without consultation to release them with the names of Afghan intelligence sources for NATO troops.

I believe there is a man, formerly of the American military, facing a 52-year prison term for passing the documents to Mr Assange.  Not to mention the Taliban have admitted to using the information posted on the WikiLeaks website to track down their “most-wanted list”.

Indeed organisations like Amnesty International and Reporters Without Boarders have joined the bandwagon of criticism, saying Mr Assange is risking people’s lives by publishing such documents.

Mr Assange himself (in the New York Times article linked above at least) seems to view these as collateral damage necessary for the greater good of bringing these documents into the public domain.

Now I’m all about transparency, but I think Mr Assange has a rather warped concept of a balance of harms.  It is ridiculous to sacrifice a bunch of people, who moreover seem to aspire to Mr Assange’s notion of openness, for essentially nothing.  The release of the Afghan papers was a story for that week but has since been forgotten by the general public.

The release was more beneficial to the Taliban than any abstract idea of transparency.

WikiLeaks has gone some way towards redefining whistle blowing.  Gathering secrets in bulk, hiding them, and then publishing those secrets instantly and globally.

I have discussed citizen journalism in a previous post, but I actually do not feel it correct to classify WikiLeaks as citizen journalism.  There is no thought, no critical observations or interpretation; just a mass of documents that frankly no ‘average Joe’ is going to sift through himself.

When The New York Times released the ‘Pentagon Papers’ in 1971, the newspaper did not just throw 1000 pages of a secret study of the Vietnam War at its readers.  They provided analysis and a map for their readers to follow the reasons why the information contained within the 1000 pages were important and what was being said.

Further, while I’m sure it is not a universal law, newspapers do go someway towards protecting their sources, for instance, by not revealing who they are.

Mr Assange has no doubt done some good with his website.  For example the release of a video showing American Apache helicopters shooting 12 people including 2 Reuters journalists in 2007 Baghdad.

But, in its current state, I do not think WikiLeaks is a force of good or indeed of benefit to anyone except people who wish to use the information to harm others.  Oh, and I suppose such splashes like the release of the forthcoming 391,832 secret documents relating to the Iraqi war certainly bolster Mr Assange’s profile.

Paying for Failure

Some schools in the UK have started schemes to incentivise their students to undertake an appropriate amount of work to pass their exams.  And indeed to enroll for these exams in the first place.

Blackburn College is offering £5000 to students who fail their A Levels.  Of course, this is qualified.  A fail constitutes not managing to obtain an E pass, even though the student had attended 95% of classes, met targets, and handed in work on time.

The idea, apparently, is to encourage people to sign up for A Levels.  That is, to invoke the prospective student with the confidence they will not be wasting their time – supposedly the school does not intend on paying out too many £5000 cash gifts.

Indeed I’m quite sure Blackburn College will not be paying out any cash gifts.  To me this seems like an ingenious scheme from the point of view of the school – they drum up participants and thus funding courtesy of the government.

While £5000 may sound an impressive sum to impressionable 16 year olds, who probably work for a few hours at the weekends for minimum wage, it does not strike me as adequate compensation for two years solid effort and work towards one’s A Levels.

It seems to me that Blackburn College is taking their students on a bit of a ride.

Maybe this scheme should be interpreted as more of an incentive to encourage good behaviour (even if it is in effect with reverse psychology).

This angle offends me more.  Paying someone to turn up to school and take non-compulsory classes – or more precisely tempting someone to take these non-compulsory courses because if they fail they get £5000 – seems wholly contrary to my notion of education and, moreover, the purpose of education.

A monetary bribe to dissuade bad behaviour is one thing.  While again intuitively I dislike it with regards to education, I suppose it is essentially what happens the world over in adult employment.  We work for money and understand that in order to keep up this deal we must behave as our employer would like.

But the Blackburn College scheme is not even like this.  They pretend to promise money in exchange for good behaviour, which leads to unhappiness or lack of success.

Surely I’m not the only one that finds such schemes (for Blackburn College is not the only school to run them) nonsensical and frankly just another convoluted and backhanded way for schools to get their hands on a bit of extra funding, potentially at the cost of someone’s current and future happiness?

Why should we be concerned with the ‘gender pay gap’?

Yet another report, this time by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, has informed us that on average women earn less than men.

The report states that women earned 16% less than men. 

I have to question why we still talk about this ‘gap’.  After all on average women will always earn less than men – women with families on average prefer to work fewer hours.

Maybe all the “feminists” that appear on Radio 4’s Women’s Hour harping on about equal pay are dreaming of a society in which 50% of the people taking time out of work to attend to their families were men?  Or perhaps they believe women should be paid the same amount as their male counterparts who do not that a corresponding amount of time out of their work?

I’m not entirely sure – but then from the arguments I have heard relating to the importance of closing this gap, I’d say they don’t know what they’re suggesting either.

To deal with the points in order, I would first argue that women on the whole do not want to shirk the responsibility of child care to their male partners.  Women seem to enjoy a career break to have and raise a family.  Now I accept this is not a universal truth; many women choose to work, when they have the luxury of choice, because they prefer it.  And I note that in these cases it is rare for the husband to take a career break to care for his children, no, usually the partners arrange formal outside childcare or extended family chip in.  Controversially, with respect to the “feminists”, I do not think this is some engrained behaviour from a sense of ‘society expects men to be the bread-winner’.  I think this pattern has continued since the beginning of human existence because men like to get away from their family, they need the distraction of work.  On average men prefer to work.  Thus 50-50 primary childcare will not happen because on average men don’t want to look after children full time whereas women do (at least for the first few of years).  This also means that women tend to occupy jobs like nannies and childminders, which are traditionally low paid jobs.

The idea that a person should get paid the same as someone doing more, that is, working longer hours or providing a more technical skill or higher valued service is ridiculous – communism has been tried ladies and it was not a great success.

Women get paid less than men ON AVERAGE because they choose to.  Instead of a sign of inequality and repression the ‘gender pay gap’ represents the ultimate liberty – freedom to choose one’s contribution to society to fit with their personal preferences.

What’s the Use of University?

University fees are going up, graduates’ job prospects are coming down, and social mobility is practically non-existent; so why go to university?

I think people go to university for four reasons.  Firstly because it delays having to get a proper job, secondly because it is relatively cheap in the short run, thirdly because they feel their school education was somewhat lacking, and lastly because they believe it will give them the opportunity to get a job they find interesting or well paid (or both).

With an increase in fees only one of these reasons will be truly applicable, and in my experience ‘to be educated’ is usually the last reason people would give to explain their “occupation: student” status.

And why should they?  It’s not like we don’t have an education system beginning at the age of four.

It has constantly puzzled me that one has to go through their entire schooling – 14 years – to get to a stage where they can be educated, namely university.

Apparently my degree bestowed upon me a set of  “transferable skills”.  No, that doesn’t involve a screwdriver, instead I am now able to read, write, and think.  Why was it necessary to wait until I turned twenty to learn these skills?

I do not really see what makes thinking and communicating so difficult that it was impossible to learn while I was at school.  Then university could be about thoroughly engaging with your chosen subject, and not have to essentially waste time teaching you how to express yourself and your thoughts.

I was told that university students were not expected to say anything original (I interpreted that as ‘have an original thought’) until they reached PhD level.  That rather points in the direction that undergraduate degrees (and Masters degrees) are not about education in the sense of advancing their chosen field, or even contributing to it, they are simply undertaken so the prospective job seeker can claim to know how to read, write, and think.

At this point I should probably acknowledge that degrees such as engineering and law, that is vocational degrees, are understandably necessary to enter their respective careers.  But these degrees, I would argue, are in fact training for the student’s chosen profession, and being trained is not the same as being educated.

The intrinsic value of university seems to have been lost.  With many desirable jobs requiring a degree, and humanities and social science degrees advertising themselves in terms of transferable skills, universities have come to be viewed as stepping-stones – good if they help the student find acceptable employment, but not good in themselves.

So why pay up and go to university? Because for some unknown and obscure reason university has become the new school.  It’s necessary because it gives you the basics.  Perhaps if schools functioned as schools, and taught everyone the basics, universities could go back to being for ‘lovers of wisdom’.  Universities could return to purpose.  Then, just maybe, devoid of all the people who enroll to compete in the job market there would be considerably less strain on the institutions and their finances.

Labour Leader Announced, Do We Care?

The Labour leadership contest is finally over – and the trade unions have it.  As Ed Miliband screams at anyone who’ll pretend to listen: ‘I’m staying central’, I really feel it necessary to comment on what a non-event the entire contest has been.

For weeks I hardly heard a word from the candidates (and I thought Cameron’s campaign was poor).  I cannot blame the newspapers for their lack of interest, after all to find a more boring and cautious set of people would be a challenge.

There were no great speeches, no real surprises, and no new ideas.  I thought Diane Abbott might at least liven up the party, but instead she completely disappeared – was that her entry price?  Not that Ms Abbott could be thought of as ‘diverse’, I mean she is a middle-aged Oxbridge graduate.

Indeed, the only subject the media thought necessary to discuss in any real detail was the brothers Miliband.  That’s a statement in itself.

But I suppose it was a forgone conclusion the Labour party leader would be an Oxford educated forty something man – who needs a government that can actually identify with the plight of the individual?  We’re the big society after all.

Although I find it somewhat ironic that the trade unions voted for such a cliché.  I suppose they viewed him as the lesser of the two evils, but surely they do not believe they’ll be granted with any genuine influence over policy.  He’s not exactly a Jimmy Reid by any stretch of the imagination.

What happened to the many voices of democracy?  Perhaps democracy only constitutes many and competing voices by definition, and not so much in reality.  (That would imply simply that no civilisation ever got to be a democracy).  After all, the UK, considered a highly developed country, is currently governed by a set of policies no one actually voted for.

I wonder what the point of having a party system is if each party does not stick to its defining convictions.  Or indeed what the point of having politicians is if they are not moral crusaders, working tirelessly for the good of the country and every citizen.

Most importantly, I wonder what voting in another showboat of a party leader and says about our society.  Is it really the case that we do not truly care who’s in government so long as the country doesn’t implode?  Do we really no longer have a value-system, individual or communal, we feel necessary to defend and advocate?

Racists are Poised to Hold the Balance of Power In Sweden After Polls Close Today

Immigration.  Immigration.  Immigration.  Just a pseudo-issue in our own election, throw out as a question no one really expected an answer to, the aim instead being to fluster the politician it was directed to.  However, it seems the far-right party Sweden Democrats with their racist ideologies may play quite a significant role in Sweden’s next government.

The Sweden Democrats, formerly a bunch of skinhead racists ignored by any kosher press or politics, seem to blame Muslim immigration for all Sweden’s woes (e.g. the 46 shootings that have occurred this year in the city of Malmo).

Of course the world’s rightwing press has jumped on the bandwagon, bolstering fear and the opinion that Sweden is currently compromising too much with Arab “anti-democratic values”.  As usual Rupert Murdoch’s empire looks to be thoroughly enjoying its self.

America is dealing with its own growing prejudice toward anyone of Arab decent.  But lets face it, we saw that one coming.

Traditionally socialist, it first surprises me that Sweden has had a coalition government ruled by the moderate right and that the moderate right four party alliance is likely to oust the Social Democrats yet again.  It would seem that Swedish people are coming around to the idea of sacrificing the welfare system for tax cuts.  Unlike the UK, I might add, who seems to be sacrificing our welfare state for significant tax increases.

It secondly, and more greatly, surprises me that Sweden Democrats are poised to assume the role of kingmaker in the forthcoming Swedish parliament.  A Synovate survey predicts they will steal 5.9 percent of the votes (21 seats).

How has Sweden, in just two terms, strayed so far from their quiet and progressive mindset?

Obviously the economy must play a part.  Sweden has managed to spare itself from most of misery Europe has seen.  Surely this will make the moderate right government popular.  But it does not explain the growing anti-Islam culture.

Then again the British National Party (BNP) achieved a similar notoriety and force before being flattened in the UK elections earlier this year.  Perhaps, support for the Sweden Democrats is simply a message that immigration should be addressed, and that these people actually will never be able to bring themselves to positively vote for such extreme ideologies.

The Iraqi immigrants have tended to settle in one place, such a concentration of people ‘unswedish’ in appearance and custom, probably goes a long way to scaring the outnumbered Swedes in the area.  No doubt, their perception is somewhat warped of reality.

Indeed of the 14% of the Swedish population that are immigrants, the largest influx has come from neighbouring Finland.  Iraq is the second largest group.

I will look on with interest as the results come in at the end of today and I hope that UK government will do the same.  It is not difficult to draw parallels with the UK; a previously second rate issue ought to be addressed to make sure we never find a far-right racist party with the balance of power here.

Twenty Years After Germany’s Unification It’s Still Capitalism Vs Communism

“Freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect. But we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in – to prevent them from leaving us.” President Kennedy’s ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ speech.

The “wall” is the Berlin Wall.  And Kennedy’s “we” are capitalists.  Now, I was not even born when the wall fell.  I missed that piece of history completely.  But, from what I’ve read about it, I have rather formed the opinion that the Berlin Wall was a bad thing.  An ugly, hateful, obscenity cutting through a country like a scar.  A concrete symbol of suffering, secrecy, and suppression.

Yet, 20 years after the unification of Germany, it would seem that there can be no similar unification of capitalists and communists.  This is clearly illustrated in a plan to re-build the Berlin Wall.

The wealthy residents of Potsdam, a former East German city, are planning to rebuilt sections of the wall to keep out their less successful (financially) neighbours.

The famous fashion designers and film directors, who own the lakeside villas, take issue with public access to a footpath (former border guards’ path) by the lake.  They dislike the ‘ordinary’ citizens spoiling their expensive views.

Undoubtedly, these people are the winners of the capitalist game.  Consequently, I think it is fair to attribute them with all the values one might associate with capitalism.  Certainly, this move does nothing to suggest otherwise.  They have bought the footpath after outbidding the city.  Potsdam’s politicians sided with the ordinary citizens and wanted to keep the path open to the public.  They are seen to retain East German communist values in their hearts.

The Berlin Wall was torn down in 1989, amidst great joy and celebration on both sides.  Yet that is not to say that East Berliners wanted to become West Berliners.  They were proud of their achievements obtained under the communist regime.  And West Berliners were similarly weary of their eastern neighbours.  True to capitalism, while they were welcoming on the face of it, they did not want to share their achievements or wealth to the extent necessary for complete unification.

Indeed although unification of Berlin was supposedly successful by October 1990 there remained, for many years, an obvious divide.  Westerners emanated an air of confidence and colour, while easterners retained their social conscience.  Though 20 years on this split of personalities is increasingly blurred.

Thankfully, the plan to segregate a Potsdam has sparked protests.  One protester told German TV: “Twenty years ago we fought to bring down a wall that kept the capitalists away from the East German proletariat. Now we have got a new wall that keeps the proles away from the capitalists.”

Frankly, I couldn’t have summed it up better.

Why the Camera Phone is Instrumental to Democracy

“The world doesn’t know it happened, because you didn’t photograph it.” Martin Luther King

Okay, so the pictures tend to come out a little grainy.  And maybe they’re not always perfectly in focus.  But for many people camera phone images are the only means of holding those in power to account.

Those blurry images are their primary weapon against injustice, corruption, and straight out lies.

My case and point is the reportage of a series of protests involving Buddhist monks, students, activists, and ordinary citizens against Myanmar’s regime (formerly Burma).

The regime has a long history of controlling media coverage.    It presented a much-edited version of the increasingly violent events to the outside world.

However, a steady stream of pictures and texts detailing the horrendous and inhumane actions of the regime soon destroyed this diluted presentation.

Citizen witnesses captured images of bloodied monks and shootings with their camera phones.  The images were posted them on the Internet and picked up by major news networks.

Another defining event for citizen journalism was the London Bombings.  The first images and recordings news outlets had to work with came not from trained journalists but from ordinary citizens on the scene.

The BBC and MSNBC broadcast these images during their reports.  They were not for context, they were the report.  At least until journalists could get further information.

These two examples highlight two ways in which “user generated content” (to use the jargon) is essential to the process of journalism.

First, it is simply an unfortunate fact of life that the events that really change the world are those that nobody really saw coming.  Second, the people with the worst records of criminal activity (especially governments) are generally very good at keeping the press at arm’s length.  Their victims often cannot rely on journalists to expose the injustices.

And yet there is something special about getting the report from someone emotionally connected to the story; someone part of the struggle.

Don’t get me wrong.  There is more to journalism than being a witness to a newsworthy event.

But I have always thought of a journalist as being someone who tells the stories of people who, for whatever reason, cannot speak for themselves.

The advent of the camera phone means that more and more people can tell their own stories.  I fail to see how this could be a bad thing.  To empower the ordinary citizen, the persecuted, perhaps the victims of crimes we hadn’t even been aware of.

That’s accountability journalism.  That’s democracy.

Perhaps it’s a funny thought, that one could hold the world to account with a camera phone, but it is a thought I wholeheartedly believe in.

I hope that as this technology becomes more accessible, particularly in Africa and South America, we will start to see a truer picture of the world we live in and the worlds in which our fellow human beings live.