It all started with a question on twitter
I’ve been asking this question over and over again, and no-one will touch it. Zero replies on twitter, when I ask people face to face, it’s like I never spoke. The cognitive dissonance the seemingly-innocent question provokes is a sure sign of “buried treasure” in the form of unexamined assumptions.
This question, and its answer, goes right into the heart of our anxiety about the Tory government and their values, and into our own uncertainty about our futures in what threatens to be a post-economic age.
So let’s examine the question again: can the Big Society take over functions from the Market as well as from the Government?
At first blush, there are two possible answers to the question.
- No. The big society cannot be an alternative to business in providing services to people.
- Yes.The big society can provide people with a meaningful alternative to spending money in exchange for services.
If the big society is not ever an alternative to the market, then it logically exists only in the space being relinquished by government through spending cuts and withdrawal of services. It exists purely to buffer public service cuts.
On the other hand, if the big society is sometimes an alternative to the market, then we are seeing government suggest that people turn away from market capitalism and the state for provision of some of their services.
In the first instance, Big Society would be an utter sham and a diabolical lie. The Tories would be suggesting that we simply work for free to do the things that government used to do for us rather than, say, taxing the rich to continue doing the jobs at hand. This accusation has become standard rhetoric already.
In the second instance, however, something more subtle is going on. The State is telling us to organize to take back territory from it and from the market. We can logically deduce that we must be in this second case, too, because the state has no power to compel the Big Society not to fill some needs which would otherwise go to the market.
This is where the skin-prickling unease comes from. The idea that our elected masters are suggesting that we should start doing things for ourselves is, indeed, inspiring the same unease as freed slaves felt in any age in history. Not that I am suggesting we are slaves, rather I am saying that the disorientation of having power we have come to trust simply surrender is not easy to find metaphors for. Because it never happens.
Yet how else are we to interpret Big Society? A Tory government which says “neither State nor Market are equal to the challenges of our time”?!
We must start thinking for ourselves in this age of mystifying paradoxes from above.
I think that from this angle, the idea that Government is punting to the People, rather than to the Market, is indeed an historic turning point. I am not at all sure that this distinction is well understood – the defensive vagueness of Big Society’s rhetoric is impenetrable – but to see a Tory government suggest handing power to the people, rather than to the market through privatization is genuinely new.
At this point I must confess my own class bias. I grew up in a council housing estate with 70% unemployment for men under 25. I went to an ordinary high school. I never graduated university. As a teen-ager, I saw the Miner’s Strike in Yorkshire at close hand. My father routinely drove on the roads that people were murderously hurling concrete blocks down on from the flyovers. When they got elected this time, I joked “it’s not a real Tory government until there are troops garrisoning Yorkshire.”
But I’m having a moment of compassion for the Tories. A single, lonely not-quite-Crocodile tear hangs upon my cheek. Because this turn of the wheel is not privatization. Not even they believe in the power of the market any more, and into this loss of faith rush new archetypes, which is to say old ideas reborn. No longer is the Market the panacea, the universal solvent for all of our social woes. They cannot sell it because they themselves no longer believe it. It has been tried, and failed.
In the same way that the fall of the USSR brought down the Left as a credible option, so America’s onrushing freight train of bailouts and bankruptcies removes the rhetorical credibility of the Right.
We are done with the old game.
The Big Society is the first, fumbling attempt at a new politics – an infant idea from our old class enemies in search of a future outside of the American model.
And for this, they should be saluted.
The Big Society could turn out Victorian, Feudal, Democratic Socialist, Swiss, even Anarcho-Syndicalist. It could draw influences from anywhere. But it is unambiguously a move off the traditional left-right axis of politics and I believe this is why we are all so confused by it.
My own take on The Big Society is very simple – anybody who wants to talk about localization, anybody who wants to talk about the power of being embedded in a place, owes a debt to Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi used social power, beyond all concept of governance, to peacefully solve a problem which everybody around him thought was only soluble by war.
Perhaps if we allow ourselves to see the confusion about the future which is at the heart of the Big Society, and the radical crisis of faith that must have brought it about, we can act in unity to move politics off the Left-Right axis and try and find a new way forwards, together, through the unprecedented challenges of our times
The Guardian ran a piece on open source and Gandhi, including a section on my relocalization work, shortly after the election under the banner of The Real Faces of the Big Society.