Whatever became of the Big Society? It still gets mentioned, sometimes, as a joke: its humourless punchline, the lengthening queues at volunteer-run food banks. At Westminster, the Tories forgot their flirtation with social capital, localism, community organising and got down to the business of cutting, privatising, outsourcing, fracking and inflating a new housing bubble. So David Cameron’s one-time big idea gets written off as a warm fuzzy makeover for the Thatcherite desire to shrink the state, the kind of neoliberalism from which an independent Scotland might hope to liberate itself. Yet this obituary misses what is worst about the mess that was the Big Society. The Tories did not simply invent a half-baked cover story, they took other people’s ideas for a joyride, then smashed them into the dead end of their own ideology. The challenge now is to salvage what is worth saving of those ideas from the wreckage.
The suggestion that there is anything worth saving will probably be met with scepticism. The first hurdle against which the Big Society fell was the inability of even its supporters to explain it. Tony Blair’s Third Way had been many things, but not incomprehensible: it stood for a merger of market choice and state provision; a pragmatic compromise, according to which the old positions of right and left had become an anachronism. The Big Society was more puzzling; rather than propose a new deal between market and state, it insisted on the importance of something which was neither one nor the other, and which it could not define in terms which would explain its importance. In the absence of such an explanation, it was left enthusing over an easily-parodied mixture of the Women’s Institute and Wikipedia.
The paradox of the Big Society is that it could only have made sense in the light of an admission that was surely beyond the imaginations of those responsible for it: the admission that we are already in, and headed inexorably further into, an historical moment defined by the failure of both the market and the state. It is in such a context that forms of social production which lie beyond the grasp of market and state may well take on an importance that they have not had for generations.
Underlying this argument is a take on our situation which many will find troubling: that we are caught in a web of crises that have been exacerbated by—but cannot be reduced to—the consequences of neoliberalism. For any of us who have felt the destructiveness of those consequences—the upward redistribution of wealth, the dismantling of public institutions, the abandonment of whole communities, the narrowing of any sense of the social good—this sits uncomfortably, since it seems to let those responsible off the hook. The point is not to mitigate for them, however, but to recognise them for the opportunists they were (and are). The destruction is real enough, still ongoing and to be resisted, and yet it does not follow that, in their absence, we could have sustained something resembling the social democratic settlement of the post-war era—still less, that we could reassemble anything resembling that settlement, starting from the mess in which we find ourselves.
In historical terms, the neoliberals did not inherit a fully-functioning version of the post-war model: the rising and broadly-shared prosperity of its golden decades had given way to stagnation and inflation, the crisis of the 1970s that would be their opportunity. Having seized it, their ideological attachment to the market blinded them to the primary function of the state: to save capitalism from its own destructive tendencies. Even where it acts to constrain the immediate interests of capital, the state is not so much the enemy of the market as its life-support system. Lacking any feel for this, their policies succeeded in destabilising both. All the more reason, some would argue, for a return to social democratic sanity: except that reason alone was not the basis for the achievements of the post-war era, they were underwritten by the power of organised labour, and it is far from clear today what could constitute an equivalent source of power.
It is in this context that it makes sense to speak of a failure of state and market, not as an apocalyptic prediction, but an attempt to describe a reality that has been playing out in the lives of more and more people and communities for decades. Neither side is delivering on its promises, as we have slid from societies of mass prosperity to societies of mass precarity, with no route back to the future that once seemed to be on offer.
As this slide continues, however, another element comes into play, because the state and the market share a common weakness: they have rarely been able to draw on what is best in us. The truth of this is contained in the old saying, ‘One volunteer is worth ten pressed men.’ Yet this truth has been diluted, since the language of volunteering now suggests selflessness and ‘doing good’ for others, so that we are in need of another term to express the power that comes when we act out of our own free will. For there are reserves of enthusiasm, dedication and deep pragmatism which people draw on when they come together to do things for their own reasons, rather than because they have been paid or told to do them—reserves to which neither the state nor the market generally has access.
The worst thing about the Big Society is that—in its half-baked, more-than-half-cynical way—it sought to draw on these reserves, and risks to have poisoned the well instead. Its failure could extend the life expectancy of a model of politics which frames society in terms of the axis of state and market. Yet if it is true that we are now in a situation where neither the state nor the market can secure the kind of mass prosperity they once seemed to offer, then a flourishing of new forms of social production—many of them voluntary in the older, deeper sense of the word—may be our best hope of having societies worth growing old in, a generation from now.
On the edges, at the grassroots—among the geeks and hackers, but also where people’s memories are longest—clues to what such a society might look like are starting to come together. It was to some of these edges that Cameron’s advisors came, scouting for ideas—and if what they came back with seemed half-baked, that was true. There is not a ready-to-go plan for how to reorganise a society along these lines: rather, these ideas are still forming, born out of people’s attempts to improvise responses to the ongoing failure of the market-state duopoly in the places where we find ourselves.
Quite how existing public institutions, scarred by a generation of neoliberalism, begin to engage constructively, on a large scale, with ways of working that are at odds with many of their assumptions—this is a question that none of us will answer alone. It may well take a rupture on the scale of starting a new country to allow the room for the imagination required to embark, collectively, on such a project. It will require a renegotiation of ideas about work and a willingness to relinquish the safety of professional identities. Above all, it will require an attention to how people feel about their situation, to their sense of meaning and justice, that becomes uncommon in environments shaped by the power of the state or the power of money—for the society worth working for is one that is not just big, but fairly big.
Published in Closer, a one-off newspaper from the editors of Bella Caledonia.