Just had an interesting discussion with my daughter. Emily is 16, lovely, intelligent, part of a middle class nuclear family, surrounded by good friends and enjoys a situation of safety and security. She lives in a quiet, relatively crime free part of the UK, one of the richest countries in the world.
In many ways, you could say that she has won the life lottery.
This would be unfair of course-life has this way of challenging all of us in some ways- she is having to learn to cope with dyslexia, and to develop her own individual self confidence, which is difficult enough for any of us.
But what this highlights to me is the issue of equality. Equality of opportunity is the watch word for our current political elite. Borrowed perhaps from the American dream, we cling to the idea that in a vibrant market driven capitalist economy, our measure of success is determined by our ability, more or less.
I suppose in many ways I stand as some kind of evidence of this- the child of a single parent, brought up by the welfare state, educated to degree level, now more or less middle class. However…
There is a devastating critique of this idea by Deborah Orr in today’s Guardian. Here are a few extracts-
The idea is that as long as there is “equality of opportunity”, then a highly competitive economic system that naturally sorts people into “winners and losers” – let’s call it a meritocracy – is perfectly reasonable. But the rhetoric is laughably fallacious. In a system that divides people into winners and losers, you can’t have “equality of opportunity”. The children of the winners will, broadly, always have the advantage. The children of the losers will, broadly, always have the disadvantage, theinability, if you will.
Welfare dependency is not a cause of society’s problems, but a consequence of them. Sadly, it is in the febrile interest of all mainstream politicians to continue pretending that it’s the other way round. The belief that you can transform society by prodding at welfare is similar to the belief that you can untangle knots by pushing at the ends of string.
What might this mean for those of us who are about to hand over our responsibilities to Emily’s generation? Will we saddle them with the same addictions to capitalist excesses? Or will we (and in turn they) find a different way untie the knots?
It is difficult to know where to begin on the macro scale- back to earlier discussions about the Grand Correction. But it is perfectly possible (if extremely challenging) to begin on the individual scale…
Some of this might be about an attitudinal shift, away from blaming the victims of our system-
Humans are not born equal, and individual vulnerabilities are not always easy to identify or to repair. Those who are stronger need to look after those who are weaker. It is precisely because humans are not good at doing this – it’s not in our aggressive, predatory natures – that so many people shrug at their inability to clothe, feed and house themselves. At the very least, this failure of the able should be recognised, rather than dressed up as a failure of the unable. Until it is, it’s hard to see how a better future can be imagined, let alone planned for.
But my greater hope is in Emily, and the desire for us to yet live together in a way that is less concerned with protecting what we have as we seek to gain more, and more concerned with sharing and supporting others, and living our lives in connection.
If anyone can do it, she can.