Why we need to talk more about how ends justify the means
In discourse around public finances and the continued, rather impressive ability, of this current government to blame a previous (but three) Prime Minister’s administration for their austere state; something you often hear is that the ends justify the means. George Gideon Oliver Osborne CH said it often about the latest round of austerity.
It is easy for us to dismiss this argument, and many people who have never been impacted by austerity often do. And yes it is probably easier to dismiss the argument when the “means” in question are linked to people dying.
I come now to everyone’s favourite Italian Renaissance man. In his “how-to guide for Princes”, inspiringly titled, The Prince, Machiavelli proposed that those in power should think nothing of doing everything within their power to get things done. Broadly speaking, that the ends justify the means.
I am currently working with someone who, like too many people it seems, is at the behest of the beast that is the system of support services – homelessness, mental health, housing, drug dependency, criminal justice.
So, in the reasoning for a lack of action or slow progress on such “cases” with such “clients”, I increasingly feel I rarely hear the Machiavellian principle. It would actually make a nice change to hear some of the following;
“They have had no gas for a year! That’s awful! Oh, that mould is shocking. They live there? We will move mountains to rehouse them!”
“Their landlord sounds like a rogue! We will fine them immediately for not registering for an HMO licence and for threatening them with a revenge eviction for complaining they cannot breathe due to the mould.”
“I’m so sorry they are suffering, they are entitled to be angry, I would be!”
“Yes the system is awful, let’s get our heads together and find a solution. These awful policies are decided by some pen pusher in Whitehall who is hell-bent on restoring faith in the public finances, which is very easy to do in a post-pandemic world where the state is paying people’s wages!”
Instead, I often hear this kind of thing (I paraphrase);
“They are single, so they are subject to the benefit cap. Sorry, they will have to settle for a bedsit. Yes okay they have BPD. But the benefit cap…”
“They seem fine, they write their own emails… Ah, YOU write the emails? Ah okay. Well can they write us an email talking about all the bad stuff – maybe about how they can’t wash or cook, anything absolutely AWFUL, that will help their case! Yes I know that is dehumanising… but that’s not my problem.”
“Well we are doing all we can. We have limited means.”
“I want the same things as you. But I’m doing my best and I’ve only had this case since last month.”
Ends and Means
I increasingly feel that this way of thinking suggests the opposite to the Machiavellian principle; that in fact, the means are the barrier to achieving the ends, any ends for that matter even when the person is at risk of long-term health damage or homelessness.
This person I am working with has been through more systems and services of “support”, that you could shake a stick at. Ironically, they often have to write lengthy emails listing how much support they receive to prove that they need support (i.e. reliving trauma). And it seems they cannot get the mental health support they seek because of the “housing issue” yet the housing issue is obviously a part of why they are struggling with their mental health.
We hear the same thing every day. That people are doing “all they can”, they have “the best of intentions”. I rather wonder if some of these people enjoy the power they exert over people in desperate need. There are good people in the system of course, but the way in which they rush to the defensive whenever they are criticised sometimes makes me wonder.
Because in the system – everything is interlinked. No one wants to upset one another, or cause “a fuss”. But what about the person at the will of the system- who has been living in publically-subsidised (via the archaic housing benefit system) squalor for a year?
Can this person create a fuss when they are already suffering? The cynic in me doubts it. They wrote an email of complaint to one service in the borough and received the most patronising response. We hear stories of people crying in the council offices for help, who raise their voices and then are threatened with being shown the door. You hear a lot of staff talking about “understanding” where people are coming from, but the people I work with see little action. All they seem to experience is aggression and hostility themselves. A great deal of Nos, and “we are working within our means”.
What about the ends? As history has shown there are many philosophers who spent more time lying in bed thinking, than with real people. Too many politicians come up with policies without knowing how they impact the individual; families or communities. People at their heart, are deeply complex. In times of austerity, the faceless nature of the welfare state and system of support services for those going through tough times is all too real. People are simply numbers, in strict earnings bands. Some will be subject to the benefit cap for some arbitrary reason, like the number of children they have, or their age. As if a benefit cap ever put off anyone having children nor to somehow magically sort their life out because they are young enough to know better.
So what happened? I contacted the excellent ITV news team who have been reporting recently on the state of the rented and public sector housing. I emailed the HMO licence people at the council and copied in an ITV producer and the local MP. Within two days, after a year of waiting, the environmental team sent someone round.
My email was arguably passive aggressive – but I am the “professional trained to deal with complex needs” (I’m not, by the way). I can afford to be passive-aggressive and demanding. The person I work with, though they are angry and fearful at being let down by the system that is meant to support them– does not feel they can afford to be such (at least not to that extent).
I was equally aggressive on email to the council housing team and received much defensiveness in response. I was hardly surprised when a support worker who has been supporting the person in question for a year, since the housing issue arose – said that the reason they might not have advocated more strongly was that they “don’t want to fall out with the housing team”.
It seems to me that this is a system where workers are more concerned about upsetting colleagues than they are about upsetting the people they are supposed to be helping. And that should worry us.
Of course, often anger and aggression make little difference. We are all at the behest of a system where there simply isn’t enough housing, and one where landlords profit via the taxpayer for providing housing in a state of disrepair. But while council workers are also at the behest of a system they rarely have much control over, I do wish the language they would use with their “clients” and “customers” could be a bit kinder. Especially when it’s basically emails stating “you are vulnerable, but not quite vulnerable enough to be housed by us”.
But let me not end on too sour a note! This person has recently talked about how it feels to be not only listened to, but “heard”. They are currently working on a blog, some complaint letters, as well as a few email rants about the whole situation to anyone who is willing to read them! It’s not fixed their housing, but it’s perhaps a start to taking some power back from the system that is supposed to be helping them.
To give this some context let me finish by sharing the scale of “support” this person is getting in an effort to prove they are “vulnerable enough” to not live in squalor.
- Five different systems (homelessness, mental health, housing, drug dependency, criminal justice)
- Six weekly meetings
- Six different organisations
- Eleven different ‘professionals’
- On hold or on a waiting list for an additional four support services
I don’t know about you but those numbers make me anxious. I can’t imagine what it is like to actually have to do all these sessions, week in, week out. It says a lot that “proof of vulnerability” is welcomed and seen somehow as an asset. Well, something is not working.
For now, the only noticeable action or change this person has seen for months was after they were actually listened to and were allowed to request support on their own terms (plus, a strongly worded email and the threat of being held accountable for a failing system!).
Working as a PTS Coach, listening to someone and understanding what support they want, if any at all; should always be the priority. Often this has been seen as radical, difficult, or demanding. But then sometimes, the ends justify the means.
About the author:
I’m Dannie G, I’m very new to this area, and have been at Mayday Trust working on the Haringey PTS (Person-led, Transitional, and Strength-based Response) pilot for six months. Colleagues tell me to not lose the “shock” element I have when I read council eviction notices, or communications from mental health teams or how people talk about “clients” when they aren’t around!
For me, it’s clear that in order to make any sort of dent in the current housing crisis we must genuinely listen and learn from those who are living and breathing it.
Things I’d like to share:
Just in case you missed it here is a link to the ITV report I mentioned earlier https://www.itv.com/news/topic/housing
This is an interesting blog about the conversations the Church of England are having; from their Compassionate Communities arm: https://www.compassionatecommunitieslondon.org.uk/themes-of-work/housing-homelessness