Thursday, 20 May 2010

What is the Big Society?


Mark Featherstone

At the end of March the new Prime Minister David Cameron unveiled the Conservative Party plan for a ‘Big Society’ to tackle the problem of ‘Broken Britain’. Although these media friendly terms faded from view somewhat during the subsequent election, and have been overtaken by events that have taken place since, my sense is that the idea of the Big Society functions as a kind of exemplar of Conservative thought in the UK and also illustrates the essential bi-polarity of politics in Britain that the Liberal Democrats sought to overcome, but have ended up reinforcing in the days after the election when they were effectively forced to choose between Cameron and Brown, Miliband, or whoever else New Labour thought could form a government. However, it is not yet clear what the result of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition will be, impotent compromise, deadlock, or the emergence of some new third form.

I think we must remain suspicious of the third option after New Labour and Anthony Giddens’ theory of the third way, which effectively jettisoned Labour’s socialist roots in favour of a limited view of a social state supporting a strong form of individualism and capitalistic entrepreneurialism. As we now know the result of this compromise formation was unfortunately the emergence of a strong bureaucratic state, a left over from Labour’s socialist past, without a commitment to real equality, and a rampant form of individualism in the higher echelons of the class structure, which eventually led to economic collapse, since in many respects the New Labour agenda represented a kind of ‘neo-liberal capitalism with a human face’. In this respect New Labour’s nod to equality was to ensure that Britain was not Brazil, Dubai, or even America, but that was about it.

Unfortunately, history teaches us that the Conservatives have no such commitment to even a minimum level of social justice. At this point I must confess my own bias, as a child of Thatcherism who happened to grow up in city that was wrecked by de-industrialism and became a Marxist Sociologist as a result. But at the same time I want to emphasise that I have no commitment to old style working class parochialism because this leads to closed communities, closed minds, and social, economic, political, and cultural stagnation. Instead, I believe that the evolution of any society requires raising the level of its most disadvantaged members as an absolute priority and that the economic success of those in the higher echelons of that society should be made subordinate to this goal through the imposition of progressive taxation.

This was, of course, the original objective of the Labour Party, before Thatcherite ideology shattered the working class as what Marxists would call ‘a class for itself’, a class aware of itself, since there is no doubt that a subordinate class still exists today, although it is clearly not conscious of itself as such. The turn to New Labour was, therefore, an attempt to catch the attention of the new Thatcherite middle class of aspiring consumers who bought their class identity on borrowed money, and created the problem of spiralling debt now facing Cameron and Clegg.

Thatcher told us that ‘there is no society’ and that the truth is every man and woman for themselves. New Labour adapted this idea, sustained a basic social state, and began to tell us that society was now a meritocracy, where anybody could make it so long as they had good credit. In the process they advanced the cause of the Thatcherite anti-society based on what the American sociologist Robert Merton long ago termed the success theme – that is to say that economic success is everything and that the good life is reliant on money. Merton’s point was, of course, that this creates enormous strain in society, because not everybody can achieve the aim of economic success through legitimate means, and therefore we start to see the emergence of criminal cultures of alternative means and pockets of alienated people who have simply fallen out of the bottom of the success-society. Today we call this class of people the underclass.

Although the Conservatives confronted a problem of law and order in the 1980s, I would suggest this was largely an effect of class and race war. The problem that faced New Labour in the last decade of the 20th century and first decade of the 21st century was very different. They were confronted by the problems of alienation, anomie, disenchantment, exclusion, and criminal adaptation from a money-society that could never include everybody because as sociology undergraduates learn capitalism must have its winners and losers.

Even in the good years, when the economy was buoyant, Tony Blair was unable to solve the problem of what David Cameron came to call Broken Britain. His Respect Agenda, which in many respects preceded the notion of the Big Society, failed because civic responsibility never emerged and what remained was a punitive state that was completely unable to cope with the scale of social breakdown occurring in neo-liberal Britain. This is the problem facing Cameron today – how to manage anomic Britain in the face of an economic crisis that is only likely to exacerbate the original problem of social meltdown? The Big Society is Cameron’s answer, but what is the Big Society and is it likely to work?

The first point to note about Cameron’s idea of the Big Society may be discerned from the front page of the Big Society paper which contrasts the idea of the Big Society to the notion of Big Government, which is associated with New Labour statism and bureaucracy throughout the report. This aspect of New Labour policy, which was a left over from its socialist past, was rooted in the idea that the state management of society was necessary to enable freedom. In this respect New Labour, Labour before them, and socialism in general was always premised on the idea of positive freedom, the idea of ‘freedom to’, the idea that the state should enable us to pursue our life choices.

Against this theory of positive freedom, which in contemporary Britain has been tainted by a state that has become overly restrictive of individual freedom to choose another route through life, the Conservative mode of thought relies on a conception of a minimal state, and a rejection of big government, in the name of negative freedom, the freedom to not be interfered with by government authority. The negativity of the Conservative theory of freedom, that it has no positive content of its own, is represented on the front page of Cameron’s paper – there is no theory of the Big Society without a critique of Big Government that defined the problem of the restriction of freedom under New Labour.

But what can we take this from point – the negativity of the Conservative theory of freedom? This theory is not problematic in itself because it simply leaves the individual to make choices and to make their own way in life. However, I think that it becomes deeply problematic in relation to Cameron’s overall programme, which locates the notion of freedom from state intervention within a theory of a Big Society, which will limit, restrict, and police individual behaviour through the imposition of a form of personal, professional, civic, and corporate responsibility. Against Thatcher’s theory of the non-existent society, where there was no limit on individual freedom, it turns out that Cameron’s Big Society is the new brake on self-expression, achievement, or selfishness, depending on how one wants to view the pursuit of self interest.

At this point we should note that the Big Society paper holds America up as an example of a Big Society, characterised by activism and community spirit, noting that Obama is a product of this mode of social integration. Unfortunately, what the paper fails to note is that America is also a deeply divided society, beset by enormous social problems, and that where community has emerged it has emerged largely as a result of the failure of the state to manage the economy in the name of the public good. Here community emerges as a form of damage limitation or catastrophe management to make up for the lack of government intervention in problems that can only really be solved by political action in the economic sphere. The problem occurs, of course, when this will to modify the economy is not there, when the government does not want to interfere with economy because it is committed to upholding the right to make money at the cost of others. But this is, of course, the American way, where the idea of negative freedom dominates social and political theory.

However, even though Cameron’s Big Society idea is problematic, in that it seems to undermine the idea of negative freedom by replacing one limit of individual freedom, the state, with another, society, thus creating a situation where the individual would be limited by something as unenlightened as common sense or public opinion, it is understandable why the Conservatives thought it necessary to move away from the Thatcherite idea of the non-existent society in the context of the anomic state of Broken Britain. Unfortunately though I think that what really undermines and ultimately defeats the idea of the Big Society as a useful theory resides in what the idea excludes or remains silent about. What the idea of the Big Society excludes or screens out by expanding the idea of society is first a consideration of politics, and government responsibility to make positive change at a structural level, and second economics, where this may be related to a consideration of jobs, welfare provision, and public sector funding. The Big Society remains silent on both politics and economics, apart from suggesting that the role of government should be to enable the Big Society and help communities to somehow combat their own anomic condition.

The core problem of this approach is, of course, that economy and politics are central to social conditions. There can be no Big Society without economic change through political intervention. This is what is required today. Unfortunately, the Conservative’s failure to understand the relationship between society, economy, and politics is not in my view a conscious ideological trick, since New Labour where similarly unable to understand why it is not possible to have a social state and a rampant capitalist economy. A classical sociologist would tell you that this is an either or choice, but in our post-modern times characterised by hybridity, bricolage, and the end of ideology nobody believes in contradiction any more.

Beyond the Big Society programme, this problem of the failure to understand the reality of contradiction is rooted in the Conservative-Liberal Democrat agreement on policy objectives for the coalition government. This hastily thrown together document tells us that the new government will reduce the national deficit, but fund disadvantaged schools. Where will the money come from to fund these schools, since we know public funding will suffer in the next round of savage cuts? The answer is a turn to new education providers, who will ensure a new freedom of curriculum. But the problem with this approach is that it refers to a new stage of privatisations, which as we know results in uneven provision, new inequalities, and the creation of an education system characterised by the very advantage and disadvantage the policy set out to combat in the first place. We find the same contradictory thinking in the new government’s vague declarations about higher education. We will apparently see an increase in spending and improved quality in teaching and research. Nobody would disagree that this is desirable, but the problem is that higher education is currently under attack and likely to suffer massive budgetary cuts over the course of next five years.

Apart from this problematic vision of education, it is interesting that the security state is entirely missing from Conservative-Liberal Democrat thinking as a support to freedom. It is almost as though the war on terror ended with New Labour. There is no mention of Afghanistan, the Taleban, or Al Qaeda in the Conservative-Liberal Democrat document. Instead, where the idea of the security state appears it is as a restriction on personal liberty. Here the war on terror and the security state is constructed as an example of New Labour paternalism and the problem of the punitive state. Of course nobody would want to defend the New Labour model, which saw the emergence of a controlling bureaucratic state without the pay off of social and economic equality, but the Conservative model is no better because what it is delivers is freedom from bureaucracy and state control without any kind of attempt to level the playing field, enable individual freedom across the board, or brake the mass production of inequality.

We should conclude then that the third way may be dead, recognising that it was never realistic to combine the social state and capitalism, but point out that the Conservative plan to jettison state intervention and replace it with the Big Society is unlikely to solve the problem of Broken Britain. What is the solution then? My view is that what is required is a modification of economic power relations and an assault on the root causes of inequality through progressive taxation policy because only this will save anomic Britain from social decay. In other words, I think that what is required is a new social contract based on a political modification of economic power relations, rather than an attempt to use the social, and the concept of the Big Society, to screen economic power relations from view and somehow expect our communities to rebuild themselves in the context of a society characterised by economic ruin, massive inequality, economic insecurity, and failing social mobility.

No comments: