The Bickerstaffe Record

Being Labour

Sen and the art of career maintenance

07.22.09 | Comment?

The article below about James Purnell and Amartya Sen goes up at tomorrow at Liberal Conspiracy, while I’m not around.  It’s basically a rehash of the argument set out here a few weeks ago, but with added sardony.

Please feel free to comment here or over there, perhaps mentioning how impressed you are that the Bickerstaffe Record was doing articles about Sen nearly a month before he became all the think-tank and blogospheric rage.

Sen and the art of career maintenance














Amartya Sen and his capabilities model is all the rage in cabinet, and ex-cabinet. Gordon Brown’s read all about it, Liam Byrne’s been quoting Sen in the Guardian, and now James Purnell’s been using him as the basis for his attempt to portray himself as a leading left thinker, ready to lead Labour and the left out of the electoral wilderness with his new best think-tank mate Jon Cruddas.





So what are we to make of the adoption of a piece of thinking which dates from the 1970s, and set out most famously in Sen’s seminal1979 Tanner Lecture ‘Equality of What’?  





Stuart at Next Left, I’m not a little worried about how Sen’s being used.





I’m not worried simply because New Labour has a patchy record, to say the least, on equalities and the distribution of of anything much, but because there is a real danger of Sen being deliberately misinterpreted and misused as a further means of cutting back on public services aimed at the poorer in our society.






The danger is, quite simply, that as the Sen-isms are rolled out, the bits about the need for people to be able take control of their own life will be highlighted, while the bits about the need for the state to take pro-active steps towards ensuring that everyone in society necessary functional ‘capabilities’, most often related to economic circumstance, will be quietly set to one side. 



The risk is that Sen’s work will be corrupted and used as a basis for drastic cuts to welfare state, for example, on the basis that people really should be capable of looking after themselves.




Yet, this is decidedly NOT what Sen argues. In his Tanner lecture he is quite categorical about the relative importance of his then new capabilities model:





‘It is not my contention that basic capability equality can be the sole guide to the moral good. For one thing morality is not concerned only with equality.



For another, while it is my contention that basic capability equality has certain clear advantages over other types of equality, I did not argue that the others were morally irrelevant.

Basic capability equality is a partial guide to the part of moral goodness that is associated with the idea of equality. I have tried to argue that as a partial guide it has virtues that the other characterisations of equality do not possess.’







If Sen himself is reluctant to make too much of a model which was developed with disaster relief and rehabilitation in mind much more than the modern welfare state, then perhaps we too should be wary.





Maybe, just maybe, the adoption of the capabilities model is not because it has any overall validity as a guide to leftist public policy, but because it’s a convenient rationalisation for a move away from fairly basic socialist principles.

As the Yorkshire Ranter has suggested, the causal link between political philosophy and the government’s ‘operational code’ is a tenuous one at best; if the causal link exists at all, perhaps it’s the other way round.




After all, Purnell has form. 



The Welfare Reform Bill he pushed through while in Cabinet can be seen as the contortion of the capabilities model in action, as a drive towards the dismantling of welfare state universality in favour of assessments about how individuals can best cope with poverty and unemployment.




And maybe, just maybe, Sen is useful to Purnell not as his guiding political philosophy, but as a boost to his career credibility.






have your say

Add your comment below, or trackback from your own site. Subscribe to these comments.

Be nice. Keep it clean. Stay on topic. No spam.

You can use these tags:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>