• The green shoots of a new, Big society

    by  • October 17, 2010 • Everything Else • 10 Comments

    It all started with a question on twitter

    Question of the day: Can #BigSociety take over functions from the Market as well as from Government? Answers to #BigSociety please!less than a minute ago via TweetDeck

    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.

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    Vinay Gupta is a consultant on disaster relief and risk management.


    10 Responses to The green shoots of a new, Big society

    1. Pingback: The Big Society? « Justin Pickard

    2. October 17, 2010 at 3:36 pm

      This seems to be a British meme that I’m unfamiliar with. But re some specific points:

      “can the Big Society take over functions from the Market as well as from the Government?” – clearly it can (as the existence of societies without currencies illustrates). The question is how well it does this. I see a continuing place for both, but will be interested to see what innovations come from both sides.

      This reminds me – I’d love to read Putnam’s “Making Democracy Work,” a seminal work based on his in-depth research on social capital in Italy. I’ve read a few chapters and it’s a little dry, but has fascinating insights.

      Re “America’s onrushing freight train of bailouts and bankruptcies removes the rhetorical credibility of the Right.” – It may remove the credibility of the irresponsible corporate sucks on the crony right wing that dominates a big part of politics and media in the USA, but it doesn’t really tell us much about the effectiveness more intelligent conservative or center-right politics. (I’d class mainstream Democrats as center-right, economically.)

    3. Warren Draper
      October 17, 2010 at 6:40 pm

      As for “a move off the traditional left-right axis of politics”, it would be wonderful if this were the case; there are few things more tiresome – and less productive – than that Hegelian oubliette. But I think it was Robert Anton Wilson who said that the right-wing usually come up with the right answers for all the wrong reasons – the Tory’s Big Society would seem to be a case in point.

      You get the feeling that they’d actually like a return to the Victorian idea of ‘charity’ replacing state/government sponsored aid (in the form of grant funding). Unfortunately the horrors of Victorian life remain the best illustration as to why this would be a really bad idea ;-)

      On the other hand I live in one of Yorkshire’s former mining communities and despite the £millions of ‘regeneration’ funding pumped into our area nothing ever changes at a community level – the real beneficiaries seem to be outside ‘experts’ and petty bureaucrats.

      What we need are grass-roots initiatives which aim to create greater autonomy through the development of a network of stronger, but necessarily diverse, local economies. If we can use the Tory’s commitment to a Big Society in order to ensure these ends then we might finally be getting somewhere.

    4. Eleanor Saitta
      October 18, 2010 at 10:51 am

      First, I must admit that I’m speaking from a less-informed position than I should be. That said, I think you’re seeing what you want to see, not what’s there. This is only a devolution of authority to the people in the vacuous sense. Rather, this is business and government saying “we can’t do this; we’re going to look after our own”. It’s notice that all of these services, which we’ve come to assume were part of the social contract, are simply going away. The rich will continue to take care of their own, of course, but for everyone else, that’s it. Now, obviously, they can’t actually say that openly, so instead they come up with a “plan”. There is an open question of whether an alternate structure can meaningfully take over not only the provision of services but the authority that goes with it, but I think the answer is almost certainly no. They’ll be happy to hand over all the money-pit social services while still keeping a watchful eye on their performance, but they’re not going to let anyone take the authority behind those services away.

      Indeed, that’s pretty fundamental — the roles which are being devolved to the people are those roles which do not contribute to the maintenance of the corporate-governmental power base, in a direct sense. Proportionally speaking, they’re simply become a more efficient parasite.

    5. October 19, 2010 at 8:05 am

      Sure it can, if you mean social enterprise and that was one of the main points of the white paper describing this then theoretical economic paradigm.


      It never suggested public services, especially those founded on social principles like our NHS could or should be considered in this way.

      It was about business contributing to the common wealth, addressing social problems and learning to share in the widest possible interpretation.

    6. October 19, 2010 at 8:11 am

      A couple of observations whilst reading your post:

      The market has failed in it’s current format. We don’t have informed consumers; we don’t have agile or responsive suppliers, and we don’t use the right KPI’s. Our system is bust and needs re-booting. What the world needs is one that incentivises the good things in life….appreciation, respect, love not the bad things in life like greed, getting away with it etc. But the market will fix that.

      The Tories are smart enough to shrink the size of the state – they had no alternative – and what will replace it is a new system that uses money AND complementary currency to incentivise the right sort of behaviour.

      This will be organized by the private sector by businesses that are socially minded – a Natural Capitalism to replace the worn-out Industrial Capitalism. Yes, this is a revolution of sorts (France, again…)

      I think it is punting to the people, as you say, but the people need organising into something that produces. that something has to be collaborative, transparent and participative.

      I don’t think it’s anything more than ‘Wisdom of the Crowds’ stuff though. Kind of makes sense to get people to solve problems.

      The more we stare down the barrel of the gun that the dark greeners call the End of Civilisation, the more we realise the obvious need to work together in a one-world sort of way. Ghandi is one of many leaders who preached peace, love and understanding and I think your name-check to him his timely and relevant.

      Peace to you for that.


    7. October 19, 2010 at 4:43 pm

      Hello. Saw somewhere recently that Thatcher got there first; a quick google gives us a nice quote from one of her speeches -


      On Putnam and Italy, from Chris Watkins: one of the my big takeaways from the Italy stuff was that those places with the most social capital (or densest social networks or whatever you like) had histories of civic vibrancy going back centuries. It’s a terribly old-Tory point, but this suggests anything like a “Big Society” grows only very slowly. Plants only grow at a certain speed and under the right conditions; are human connections the same? Is there a better metaphor? Are we Japanese Knotweed or Sequioas?

    8. October 19, 2010 at 9:36 pm

      I’ve been thinking about the 4-day-workweek as a path to said Big Society – a concept which bridges Heath’s reactions to strikes in the 1970s (to save electricty), the New Economics Foundation (battling consumerism, creating jobs), and Ed Miliband’s mumblings about a ‘good society’ beyond flexible labour markets.

      Less time in ‘pure’ economic activity = more time to volunteer; to create alternative societal (super)structures.

    9. Pingback: P2P Foundation » Blog Archive » Big Society: threat to the state, or threat to the market?

    10. Pingback: »Big Society« — der kommende Hype? — keimform.de

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