Report back from workshop at Women At the Cutting Edge and suggestions for how to further pursue the questions it raised.
Aims of the Workshop
Has David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ rhetoric tapped into a genuine dissatisfaction/ desire for more control over our state services?
How do people experience the contradictory nature of the state – as an instrument of social control and as the provider of essential services?
That a simple ‘defend public services position’ is inadequate to inspiring working-people to fight and responding to their real needs
What the workshop came up with…
Many people did not have time to use public services because they had to work full time – a teacher said she hadn’t been to the dentist for years, a civil servant never got to her local library, a charity worker couldn’t take time off to visit her GP.
They were all public sector workers and public service users, but these two different roles were completely separated. People also suggested that their own stresses and work pressures as public service workers made them more demanding about the service provision they received from other public sector workers.
People spoke positively about their experiences of the NHS – a life saving service. They also commented on the long waiting lists, and sometimes grumpy and over-worked staff that came with this, though this did not stop them from strongly endorsing the service. One participant felt strongly as a result that our first and foremost position had to be to defend these services, not to critique them.
This connected to a point about there being great potential in all our public service institutions which was often stifled because workers were prevented from doing the job properly. One positive arising from this was that the fury and frustration that it provoked might be effectively channelled into fighting management.
Going on strike might be seen (and argued for) as the ultimate experience of workers taking control of these services.
Guilt of state workers providing essential services such as education or public transport when they either had to limit their work in order to protect their own health or withdraw their labour during strikes. In this context it was useful to point out to service users that management, who force workers into these positions, are NOT running the service for the benefit of the public.
This was a clear example of the paradoxical/ dual nature of these services – in whose interests they are run and how they are run depends on who runs them?
Higher education provided another useful example of the multiple ways in which the state operated in this context. On the one hand higher education could be a liberating and transformative experience for working class people. Yet the higher education establishment is currently structured to operate as a border, benefitting a chosen few and deliberately excluding the majority, and it is upon this exclusion that it derives its prestige. So now higher education, or lack of it, is also a way of ensuring that people who don’t have a degree will be trapped in minimum wage jobs. One participant felt strongly that as a result is was not possible to simply defend higher education (despite his positive experience of it), we need to imagine a different system altogether[?].
Important to ask who is empowered to access state services and who is not.
State services and the housing system were even more explicit examples of ‘gate-keeping’ public resources – dividing working class people and making them see each other as the enemy.