A Personal Introduction to the Strategy for Losers Web site
(And my thanks to those who saw me though the writing of it)
This is a web site dedicated to losers - it explores why people, individually or as whole groups and communities, become losers; what it is like to be trapped practically and psychologically in a variety of loser roles; how a vicious society in general parasites on the inevitability of some people coming last, building the wealth, comfort and the self esteem of the "successful" on the backs of other people's vulnerability, and, finally, what non futile practical alternatives "losers" have to live satisfying lives.
The essential idea is that losing is an inevitable part of the process of life but that when particular individuals and communities lose out long term and cumulatively there is a deeper problem to be dealt with which cannot be grappled with using the mechanisms of a competitive society. Unless this deeper problem is dealt with then a human rights issue arises. This is the right to be able to grow through having access to ordinary satisfactions of life appropriate to each age.
Everyone eventually loses youthful looks, their health and then their life. One cannot go through life without losing money, jobs, parents, partners and friends. Indeed loss can often be seen as the chance for a new beginning and new opportunities for life. It is not necessarily traumatic to lose things when you are in any case ready for something else if you can move into a new satisfying daily pattern. What matters is that at each stage in life one has done the things appropriate to that age. You do not become sad at losing your toys when you have outgrown them. But it is sad and painful where one loses the chance to live to the full what is appropriate to each age in life. I know in my own life there have been times when the terror of dying has seemed quite unexpected and unexplainable but yet, if I look back years later, I can understand this fear as the terror that I would die before I had really truly lived. It was a fear that my ordinary life would never properly begin - a life with a proper home, people who loved me, a stable income, the satisfaction of working and creating something with other people. Everywhere today I see people on the streets living with this terrifying prospect that they have lost their future - their chances for the ordinary satisfactions of life. It is therefore no surprise to me that so many have what are called "psychiatric symptoms". It seems inevitable to me that one should escape into fantasies, take drugs to run away from the pain, feel bitter and resentful to other people. Inevitable - although these responses are almost always futile.
What have such people done to deserve this fate? In the common way of thinking there is an implication that losers are people, communities and places that were not good enough in some sense to reap the rewards of "success". Success and failure, winning and loss are supposedly based on how well we play the game. But everyone also knows that success and failure are also based on what cards we have been dealt by life and that cheating is widespread. No loser really believes that success is the reward of hard work, of having the right skills, the right assets at the right time and that losing out is appropriate and just. Every loser has to deal with a sense of bitterness of having been cheated in life. For the truth is that while we make our own destinies from our own actions no individual or community starts out from conditions of its own choosing. We do not choose parents, birth place and life circumstances. Some of us are born with silver spoons in our mouths, some with plastic.
These things seems inevitable to me and I have tried to understand because in part I have been there. After two degrees in economics and life as a university rebel my life went into crisis. I could not believe in the mainstream society enough, given my left wing ideas, to get a mainstream job and after being a rebel finding work was difficult - yet as a middle class kid I was not really prepared for a life without a job and a future. When I tried to invent my own future by doing research and support for trade unions, community groups and the like, the practical issues were much more complex than I had thought and I was chronically terrified that I would fail in my work. This chronic fear meant that for a long time I did not have enough self esteem to have satisfying emotional relationships. In the space of ten years I had 8 or 9 breakdowns.
The psychiatric services were absolutely useless. Not knowing what was happening to me for several years I accepted their varying labels of manic depressive and then, schizophrenia, as well as their medication - but now I do not care a toss what they called me, I have not touched their prescriptions for years and I do not bother to go and see them. I got better because I stopped thinking of myself as being different - I worked from the assumption that my mind was working the way anyone else's mind would work if they had lived in the same life circumstances. For a while I worked in the psychiatric services users movement, worked out my own ideas about so called mental illness, published them and lectured on them and then got bored with that and moved on. I still work with funding from the mental health services but to develop an environmental project that anyone can get involved with - though I and my colleagues are especially encouraging of the involvement of people who have used mental health services. As is the way nowadays I am measured on how well I do this. For a while I had a German lover and got to go to Germany and eventually to work there for a while - at the Bauhaus Dessau Foundation. Many of my practical ideas come from Germany.
On a recent flight to Berlin I passed through the airport shop and noticed a book written by a psychologist on how to develop the mental framework of a winner. I felt a wave of hostility. It is of course true that one can develop a winning mentality in a competitive society. To win in the rat race one must develop the right psychology: self centredness, ruthlessness, manipulative in that sense that recognises that contented cows give more milk - turning them into meat later when you have no more use for them; regarding others as resources and means for one's own agenda and ends; an ability to move on quickly before you get found out; an ability to cover up and re-present your vulnerabilities; above all that form of single-mindedness in the pursuit of your purposes which is based on never questioning what you are actually trying to achieve - because you are sure you can never be wrong.
We all have to live within limits - but we can try to push back those limits by accumulating more power in a way which sets greater limits on other people. To win in our society so often means to deny one's community and environmental responsibilities. Winning often means powerful individuals and institutions accumulating wealth and power in some places while the social and environmental destructive effects of the same processes are created in other places. The social and geographical space in between allows the winners to ignore the plight of the losers and their role in creating this plight. Losers are too busy surviving with their lives in retreat, to analyse their plight, find their voice and organise their responses. Indeed it is often futile to respond in the same competitive terms - it is better to look for a different way out.
The strategy for losers essays here therefore reflect very much the problems and the training that I have had in life and the perspective my past history has given me on things - there are not many economists around at my age who are still living on a very low income, nor many who have got to work in and around the mental health services. But the strategy for losers articles on this web site also contain my reflections on current trends on social and environmental policy thinking. I work as a development worker - it has been my job for a number of years to develop projects that will benefit people who have mental health problems and I have tried to develop projects which are holistic - that relate to people's needs in an all round way. Naturally, therefore, I am interested, up to a point, in current trends in policy thinking. On this web site I have taken my opportunity to have my say.
At the time I was writing this introduction, for example, I attended a meeting which was discussing the ideas of urban regeneration and the policy goal of "social inclusion". The idea that individuals and communities who are socially excluded should now be "included" at first sight seems a reasonable response to the problems I have been referring to. However the policy idea of promoting "social inclusion", if it is taken to mean being included in the mainstream social and economic system is a deeply flawed idea. For one thing you cannot have an economically competitive society without having losers. Also as I shall show repeatedly in the pages in this web site the society of winners needs its losers, they underpin the care industry, drugs industry( legal and illegal), the law enforcement and administration industry, big chunks of the academic world and so on.
Also at the time of writing this introduction I read an article about the lecture of Professor Anthony Giddens, director of the London School of Economics, Blairite guru and proponent of the "Third Way" in the news magazine "Third Sector". Giddens argues that charities must embrace social entrepreneurship, charities must be go-getting, the government had a role in the formation of government policies and in return the government was demanding modernisation of the voluntary sector in terms of how funding was provided and time was used.. "It seems to me that this effort bargain is at the front line of what we all should struggling for". Meanwhile voluntary and non governmental organisations the world over are getting better at challenging big corporate interests and changing their definitions of corporate responsibility.
Despite some similarities to what is written in some parts of this web site my immediate first emotional response was hostility to the message of this Professor. What the Professor seems to be saying is that as people in the Third Sector get better at what they are doing so they will have more influence over politicians and business. But this is the message that needs greater exploration.
Of course I look forward to the day when Greenpeace vanquishes Monsanto and when the non governmental organisations of the world bring the World Trade Organisation to its knees. I fear, however, that the real process will be the other way round. Behind Professor Giddens is Sir Leon Brittan negotiating on behalf the European Union at the World Trade Organisation. His agenda is that of the worlds mega winners - which includes eventually having tradable health and social services so that the power and money junkies who run the multinationals can carve up this part of life as well. In this context one can envisage the so called "Third Sector", under pressure to become more and more "professional", ending up providing standardised packages of care and environmental work as they, in turn, become absorbed as just another group of market providers - perhaps even forming transnational partnerships that are really thinly disguised businesses - creating a new group of losers since care is always unique, and only real if it contains genuine human feelings of sympathy and empathy which cannot be had for money.
Professor Giddens also promises that the voluntary sector will be able to influence policy. Hurrah! How wonderful!. The truth is that whatever the Professor thinks, to try to influence policy is extraordinarily time consuming and to get involved in "policy formation" you have to virtually abandon involvement in anything resembling "social entrepreneurship". If you want to do something directly about your problems then you may find you do not have the time for "influencing policy". This is what I have found over the last few years. Once I started developing a project I disappeared from view - and meeting several people lately they have remarked on this. It is true, of course, that when you are developing a practical project you will get lots of brown envelopes with sticky address labels on them full of invitations to consultations about urban regeneration policy, partnership councils, health and social services new agendas, new deals in this and planning zones in that. These policy programmes come on top of, and further complicate, the meetings that you have to go to, as a result of re-organisations in local government, the health services bureaucracy and Europe. Few of these policy changes are ever really helpful because whatever their intended aims as individual programmes the net effect of this restless energy with which government "improve things", when they are all added together, is chiefly to eat up the precious time that you would like to devote to developing your project. If I ever could find the time to talk to Professor Giddens I would tell him, in the jargon of economics, that this is a question of "opportunity costs". If you spend time on policy formation you cannot spend it on social entrepreneurship.
Small businesses often complain about paper work imposed on them by government regulations. Social entrepreneurs have the same paperwork and a need to keep pace with the endless changes in the institutional environment in which they are working, the endless series of meetings and consultation papers. There are people who specialise in doing virtually nothing but attending consultation meetings - often employed by "umbrella organisation". However there is a question of how well they can operate because they have little time for on the ground project development work whereas, in contrast, the people doing the innovation on the ground do not have time to get involved in policy discussions.
For these people on the ground the only message of substance from Professor Giddens is that they are just going to have to try harder, be more professional and put in more effort because they are going to be relied on more in the future.
What is an "effort bargain" anyway? It wouldn't be one of those deals where the more you give the more they take, would it? In the relationship between winners and losers you see these kinds of deal occurring everywhere and losers trapped in them - including in the not for profit, social enterprise or Third Sector. Here is the example of the successful manager getting his face seen at lots of meetings and sizing up his next career move and behind him there is a supposedly part time administrator who actually carries the project and makes it work for a fraction of the pay and no career prospects. Here is the project in which most of the staff gets to go home early - because someone else really cares about their clients and stays working late. Here are the people who are passing the buck and here is the person trapped in the role of picking it up - because they care about who will get hurt. It occurs in the relations between the not for profit sector and the private sector too. Here is the business that doesn't need to care about the environmental mess it is making because here are the volunteers prepared to clean up.
I've seen this "Third Way" working recently in Germany. When I went to Berlin in the early 1990s I found many radical enterprises training unemployed young people with addiction or mental health problems in environmental technologies or renovating housing blocs. They had developed European wide connections. In the mid 90s I worked with them busting my gut to form European partnerships and made 3 European bids - all totally unsuccessful and for no return to my own project work whatsoever. Now, at the end of the 1990s, for the first time Germany has a coalition government with socialists and the Green Party. This government in favour of social and environmental responsibility have slashed expenditure. The largest and most successful social entrepreneurs have gone bust or are reeling, struggling to survive. Long live the Third way supported by Blair and Schoeder!
I am not trying to sell a PR lie. As Professor Giddens proclaims with confidence the new way, provides us with orientation and sets our agenda for us, I am struggling to believe that there still is one. Why put my ideas down then? If I do it is because I can see no choice but to keep struggling on, living in the agony of faint hope, living with the fear that it will all be for nothing. I have spoken to friends and colleagues who understand what I mean and who understand the mental framework I am trying to convey when I write this. If you want to work for positive social and environmental change then you are working against the stream and against the odds. You know it isn't going to be easy, that you are on a treadmill, but its a choice that you have made nonetheless. Unless you work with that attitude you will end up being a liability - one of those "social entrepreneurs", and they exist, that take out a lot, put in very little and say all the right things to further their personal career - i.e. who are insincere and misleading about how things really are, who sacrifice honesty in order "to pursue excellence".
When your experience of social and environmental organising has been of pushing a boulder up a hill for years, to be lectured to by an academic about effort bargains is something that I for one experience as deeply offensive. Giddens is a winner and I have been a loser. He sees the world from a different place and I do not think the place he sees the world from gives him anything very useful to say about what it is really like on the street, in the asylum and in the gutter - academics can write about things, collect statistics on things, analyse trends from the outside. At most they are visitors. Experiencing the world at the bottom and trying to organise those self help initiatives, remaining truthful about things, is different.
I suppose someone like Giddens might conceivably ask me what I think the government should do - which is a question I would reply to by saying that it is usually a waste of time for someone like me to try to think what the government should do. I am not usually interested in trying. I would borrow and adapt a concept from economics theory. When you have very few resources and little time you need to think about what gives you the best return on the "expenditure" of your time. Usually it does not repay the effort of losers to think about what the government should do, supposedly on their behalf. Most losers know this - which is why they do not read the Guardian and do not vote. At a recent discussion I went to a Professor of Social Policy bemoaned that excluded and poor people do not get involved in the policy debates about defining poverty and social inclusion. My gut feeling was why the hell should they? What would they get out of it ? Except becoming some Professors patronised token poor person, like a fish out of water, an uncomfortable specimen for the academic seminars and proof that the professor is really "right on".
To be "discovered" by academics, who invite you to give workshops or who write you into their work - or to become the protégé of officials who invite you along into policy making events is not necessarily the same as making progress. It can give you, for a long time, an illusion of making headway whereas in reality all that is happening is that one has become a new focus of interest for the chattering classes. For me finding the right audience for this web site is important and the right audience is unlikely to be among the various species of winners, even if these well meaning people read the London Guardian, Le Monde Diplomatique or the Tageszeitung.
If winners take a look in this web site then they are here as voyeurs when I am not wantng to be an exhibitionist. (Voyeurism is offensive when there is a power relationship in it - when the voyeur is getting off on the feeling of superiority or the power they feel from noticing the vulnerability of the object of their view - or perhaps when they feel that condescending sympathy our betters feel when they know that they are observing someone who is less moral, less street wise or, in this case, less policy-wise than themselves. )
My hope is rather that this web site will reach the people like me whose lives have taken a battering and I hope they are people who want to do something about it. As the years have gone by I have become more and more sceptical of all those "theories and theorists" whose ideas do not take a practical expression. Writing and communicating about things does not necessarily bring them any closer to realisation - indeed writing, communicating and "theorising" can be a substitute for action and a way of endlessly putting off doing something. I have been to endless meetings where the intellectuals make their contribution by clarifying the issues and then go home feeling very virtuous. For myself unless the clarifications connect up at some point with who is going to do the mulching, how the solar panel is to be installed or who is going to help move the office then it is not very useful. In this respect Tony Gibson, who devised "Planning for Real", makes a distinction between "moving spirits" and "leading lights" which I think is useful.
"Moving spirits" are the people who actually get things goings - they go beyond talk shops to set up activities, events and products that are tangible, let us say that you could photograph people doing or making. They make things happen because they put themselves out - it is not, as the policy gurus would have it, because they have absorbed the values of the enterprise culture, it is because the "moving spirits" are committed as citizens. They have a sense of community, social and environmental responsibility which is just what the enterprise culture, with its focus on winning and on personal and corporate gain, lacks (except in its manipulative PR strategies).
"Moving spirits" gets things done. Often this is because they have themselves been losers, they have suffered and they know what it is like. The don't employ academics to tell them what needs doing because they are living in the problems day to day. (Isn't it curious how often, if you employ an academic to do research for you, he or she will discover that "more research is needed" - i.e. the chief finding is then more paid work for themselves.)
The moving spirits don't make a name for themselves endlessly researching the problems they keep on searching and improvising until they have solutions that work in and for their own community, for the people with the problems like themselves. These things cannot be transferred into wonderful new government programmes because when, for example, you put pressure on uninterested unemployed people to do the same things, or employ career minded officials to do them, they do not have the same motivations nor the courage to risk their careers by on the spot improvisation.
"Leading lights" are the characters who make the money and take the glory by writing about the problems. Show me a problem and I'll show you a good way of making some money from it, to feel very moral and good, drawing other people's attention to it. There is a market niche writing to make Guardian readers feel righteously indignant. But isn't there a danger of parasitism when one merely draws attention to problems and then appeals for someone else to find the solution. You make a name for yourself having an exciting time in the tropical rain forests and then tag on a bit about the forests being in danger and you've done your bit.
Of course leading lights can also, and do, make TV programmes that (mis)interpret what the moving spirits have done in the way of practical solutions - they turn other people's hard work into media productions, they write them up for their next book, they put them into social work training courses, they advise politicians (who then mess you about by hitching their own agendas to yours - trying to give you a bit part in their successful new policy innovation......)
The ideology of winners focuses on expertise, science, technology, academic and intellectual expertise. The winners are the thinkers, they are the clever ones and the solutions their new technology and their clever new concept system. Yet science and academics discover in the directions they are paid to look. For example when they look for solutions to human misery and disorientation while they are in the pay of pharmaceutical companies they discover tranquilisers. Should others question their findings, they must then speak out against a huge network of vested interest and, predictably, they are heard with reluctance, or more usually ignored.Whole industries have arisen around the consequences of poverty without actually tackling poverty itself. Intellectual fashions come and go but the solutions to poverty, if there are any, lie in directly working to help poor people to use their own time grow more food, improve their houses and reduce their costs, turn throw away wastes into new products, share expensive transport and equipment and so on. In large part this is at the level that losers can grasp hold of and control, using the skills that they already have or can acqire. But for the leading lights such activities are simply not grand enough - and do not give them that kind of role where they can "add value". "This community gardening project is all very well but I would like to offer you something far more exciting - gardening therapy." Indeed, with gardening therapy we have more expertise available, our new improved project can turn colleagues into cases who are there, not to because they want to grow things, but because they are sick and the project is going to make them better. Ask yourself this: who is higher in the pecking order, the gardener or the therapist? Who can pull the higher income? Who is the winner and who is the loser?
The winner is the gardener who can get rid of the therapist - or, at least, successfully put the therapist in his place. Over two centuries ago Voltaire had already said what I mean in his novel, Candide. After a lifetime of turmoil and misery in the pursuit of fortune and success Candide and his companions disengage from the crap, and, although one of their number, the philosopher Dr Pangloss, still uses every opportunity to prove that his own philosophy is right, he is tolerated good humouredly. In practice what matters is that the characters continue to cultivate their garden together, thereby ending their lives happily.
There is no way in which the rich and successful, the winners, will ever be able to use such ideas. The last will be first and, what is more, the first will be last. The first may be able to grasp what I write as ideas but not be able to put them to any practical use. This is because if you measure yourself against others, and if you measure yourself by your possessions and your power, you really have nothing to contribute in a strategy for losers - other than being a nuisance. If you buy books in the airport shop about winning you would have to lose your identity, your whole orientation in life and all your core motivations. To say this again in a slighly differenet way - you would have to go through complete disorientation and loss of identity - i.e. Madness - then escaping the grasp of the psychiatrists and rebuilding your identity on a different life path, with a different orientation and a different set of motivations.
In this sense a strategy for losers can only really be fully taken up by losers - people whose lives have come to a dead end, who have to start again and who therefore have that freedom that they have nothing more left to lose. The more people are bound into their possessions and get their motivations, their ideas and orientation from them and from inside the industries of vested interest, the less they have to contribute.
Yet who knows? In this web site you will see a article about the Millennim computer bug that I wrote in May 1999. Now, at the end of July, when I again "surf the web" I see a wave of chaos getting closer, and can see the white water breaking at its top. Science and technology, the clever solutions organised to hold together a global order of powerful institutions, the world run by the winners, is not invulnerable. I cannot judge how big the chaos will be but there is enough evidence to suggest that, as when one falls into the surf, and one is pushed and pulled and pummelled in all directions, a host of co-ordinative, technical and orientation systems that we take for granted in everyday life may go break down plunging us all back on the fundamental - the provision of food, drink, shelter and helping each other in our communities. Were the chaos to be extensive for people to get through they would have to do those very things that I suggest make sense in a strategy for losers - supplement their incomes by community gardening, saving energy working on their own homes, sharing resources and tools, helping each other out and, to a large degree, starting again.
This is perhaps a fantasy taking something positive out of what could be a very bad time but life is sometimes built and evolves through such paradoxes. Meanwhile I am putting out this web site as it is. It is based on what I have tried, often not very successfully, to do and the framework of ideas, that I have built up around that. It is only my personal opinion about things and is based on my belief that there are other moving spirits out there. If you want to make constructive comment on the ideas here I would be delighted to receive e mails from you. My e mail address is Brian@bdavey.freeserve.co.uk.
Mid July 1999
The essays in this web site were written over the last few years and I owe a lot to a large number of people who supported and encouraged me during this time. I fear to write on in case I should forget anyone and I am not really sure where to draw the line at not writing out the full contents of my address book. First of all though I should definitely mention Nick Laird for taking time during his travels to help me through various Internet technicalities - without his support many of these essays would remain as photocopies at the bottom of the chocolate chip cookies cardboard box....
Naturally not everyone I mention here, who are in one way of another connected with these writings, will see eye to eye with everything written - indeed I've had plenty of long discussions with people in this list who don't. So don't blame:
Craig Newnes, David Guiness, John Price, Alec Jenner, Marius Romme, Dorothy Rowe, David Brandon, Phil Barker, The Strategies for Living Project at the Mental Health Foundation, Peter Durrant, John Turner, Tony Gibson, Mary Barnes and others at the Neighbourhourhood Think Tank and Neighbourhood Initiatives Foundation, Doris Buhss, Gabi Mueghlig, Martina Schaefer, Christian Roerher, Ulla Peters, Babette Scurrell, Harald Kegler, Guenther Lorenz, Nicola Morris, Helen Thompson, Liz Clarke, Jim Simms, Gill Hanvey and all my colleagues at Ecoworks and the Eco-Sewing Group.
© BRIAN DAVEY