Imogen Atkinson is a Conservative activist and a philosophy graduate. She works for a Conservative MP.
While on the campaign trail I heard the grievances of many constituents. It was a varied task; encouraging and stimulating at the best of times and thankless and culpable at the worst. The majority of complaints were centred around negative campaigning and broken promises. On occasions things got technical and I had to rack my brains to find the accompanying manifesto statistic, but there is one particular argument which I didn’t often dare to refute – the food banks, the use of which has reportedly quintupled since 2010. Amongst the highly impressive results of the last five years, such as record employment, falling crime and zero inflation, people seem to think that the rise in the number of food banks renders our achievements insignificant.
The assumption that I meet on the doorstep is simplistic; that more food banks means more hungry people and more hungry people means inadequate welfare provision. Unfortunately, this assumption is in line with the culture of today which aims for a socio-economic condition where people are not required to help each other. If one person requires the extension of another person’s compassion, then the whistle must be blown on the state.
However, the quintupling of food banks does not have to mean any of the above – rather it indicates both that the welfare state is shrinking and the safety net is not disbanding but expanding.
It can be taken for granted that the welfare state requires reform, including cuts, but this does not mean an end to welfare. Instead, it invites charitable organisations and individuals to mobilise support networks to help the vulnerable and disadvantaged. Far from there being anything shameful in this, it is a stunning picture of the good deed; one man helping another as a way of treating a symptom.
Dare I say this on the doorstep? No. It sounds, at face value, passively disdainful.
What we must appreciate here is that state welfare provision is not an alternative to third sector emergency involvement, which operates with completely different dynamics. We need a conscientious mixture of both. They are both productive and neither should make the other redundant. The welfare state is a mechanism; it mechanistically kicks into action at a certain threshold and drops off at another. It does not have the tools to flex according to the ups and downs which are an inevitable fact of escaping poverty, nor can it adopt a long-term vision for its own extinction, but persists at a constant rate.
This differs hugely from charity which as a resource has an empathetic capacity in the form of a compassionate person who can be moved to action after being convicted of his or her own fortune on encountering the misfortune of the vulnerable and disadvantaged.
Continental philosopher Emmanuel Levinas describes this conviction using the metaphor of a ‘face to face’ encounter. He says that when one face looks at the face of an ‘other’, the face cannot but consider the other as lacking and in need of his or her compassion and moral resource. Levinas insists that this demand is infinite and can never be sated such that no human should ever be considered as a completed case. For Levinas, people helping people is a phenomenological reality of social interaction at its most candid and should not be discouraged.
I have intentionally used philosophical words such as ‘mechanistic’ and ‘phenomenological’ not least because I am a philosophy graduate but also to highlight the incomparable difference between the welfare state and ‘welfare people’. While the former is mechanistic and unable to flex and bend to the progress of those escaping poverty, welfare people have the capacity to respond to the particular person, their particular needs and the best course of action in order to help the recipient out of poverty. This is ‘phenomenological’ because, in the words of contemporary continental philosopher James Mumford, ‘it aims to achieve a more accurate description of the world and the experiences it furnishes by returning to the first person point of view’, as if seen for the first time, rather than a one size fits all approach.
For this reason, while many have accused Cameron of making yet another feeble attempt to re-introduce ‘Big Society’ values into our social fabric, I commend the manifesto commitment which seeks to encourage charitable tendencies in people; preparing a society of individuals equipped to compensate for a shrinking welfare state.
Continental philosophers have typically been more comfortable with the imperfect and unsightly instances of life but can appreciate that they make up credible material with which to philosophise and contribute to public policy. This phenomenological approach seeks to minimise the damage done when the ill-fitting instances of life, which are painful to comprehend and require coming to terms with failings in our society, are overlooked for the sake of presenting the bigger picture.
This is my worry about the nature of the welfare state: that the mechanism can only handle casework, while part and parcel of attending a food bank is the invaluable social interaction with another person who sees what lacks and responds accordingly.