All those who are opposed to the cuts must give the ConDems our kind of big society - resistance on the scale of a mass movement.
With all the drivel about the big society now being doled out to us on a regular basis, it is worth remembering that Thatcher’s infamous “there is no such thing as society” was used to justify almost exactly the same policies.
One of the differences between then and now is that the ConDems feel they need to add some substance behind the “all in it together” myth. This is where “empowerment” and “self-reliance” via the big society come in.
But why would people want to volunteer on behalf of a government that savagely attacks the welfare system while leaving million-pound bonuses more or less intact?
It is true that most sane people can see right through the big society from a million miles away. But there is another glitch, for those that don’t. It’s not actually working.
First, the claptrap on the Big Society Network’s website describes it as “an organisation being set up by frustrated citizens for frustrated citizens” - not exactly an enticing pitch.
Second, the general scepticism about the concept is hard to shake off. A series of meetings recently launched by the Network to kickstart the big society escalated into frenzied arguments over the spending cuts. There were also accusations about the Network being funded by the Tories.
Third, neither the Big Society Bank nor National Citizen Service, which obliges 16-year-olds to undertake programmes aimed at encouraging civic responsibility, have been met with enthusiasm. Youth groups are cautious or at best indifferent.
Fourth, a number of charities themselves have expressed doubts. Research conducted by the Third Sector Research Centre argues that charities actually flourished in the context of a strong post-war welfare state, not when cuts are being made.
Fifth, it is unclear how the big society is supposed to get all this local investment when local businesses are going bust in the financial crisis. The big society solution to the flaws of the market is more of it: big companies like Cadbury’s and Asda through “corporate social responsibility” are stepping up to sponsor big society programmes. These programmes will no doubt be withdrawn if profits are threatened.
Sixth, even where regeneration appears to be happening on the initiative of local people, it has taken place over decades, and not without the help of local and national government services. The recent Demos report praising the regeneration of working class areas like Balsall Heath in Birmingham neglects the impact of regeneration on different groups of people: the “eradication” of prostitutes is only one example.
Seventh, councils are not saving money. Tory-controlled Barnet council, hailed as a model for efficiency savings, spent more on consultants trying to persuade residents to reduce dependency on the council than it actually saved.
In Suffolk, where the plan is to divest the County Council of nearly all its services in order to save costs, from the current 27,000 people employed by the Council only a few hundred jobs will remain.
How do you improve services with less money and fewer staff? You don’t.
Charity and the status quo
Education Secretary Michael Gove claims the big society will end dependency and encourage self-reliance: “If an organisation is a charity or a voluntary body, almost by definition the spirit that should defuse it is not dependency on the state but the capacity to do more by harnessing the enthusiasm of civil society and the generosity of individuals.”
Nevermind that working people fought to secure universal benefits in the post-war welfare state, which was also bitterly opposed by the Conservatives at the time, and was implemented when Britain’s economy was almost 150 times smaller than it is today.
Critics who are against the cuts but in favour of charity argue the ConDem government has another dilemma: while the big society depends on charities, funding to charities is being cut back, and this will cost the government more in the future.
This fails to grasp the core of the problem: the need for charity in the first place. Self-reliance and the notion of charity are polar opposites. Everyone is dependent on the state in different ways, which is why Thatcher’s mantra was so wrong. The state is in theory at least regulated, consistent and under some form of democratic control.
Charity that replaces guaranteed public services by the state means that poor and working class people are subject either to the whims of the rich within the private sector or a nebulous “civil society,” which may or may not include the voluntary free time of the unemployed, young or elderly.
Victorian philanthropists recognised the financial and ideological value of charity and set up a vast network of charitable foundations regulated through the Charity Organisation Society formed in 1869, shortly after the passing of the New Poor Law in 1834.
Charity isn’t just cheap; it attaches shame to welfare by de-socialising it and places the power of judgement over others in the hands of the wealthy.
The wealthy are then beyond regulation. The ConDems presume, for example, that only the benefits system needs to be scrutinised for “fairness” while the system of bankers’ bonuses and tax avoidance by the rich must be accommodated, lest businesses are driven abroad.
Like Victorian times, all this apparent giving without much sacrifice also makes the rich feel good. So how does a government get away with it?
The project initiated by Thatcher - the underlying framework for the steady decline in public services and benefits, the reckless lending to “sub-prime” borrowers and an increase in poverty and inequality in Britain - has not been able to rid the system of boom and bust.
But for the defenders of the system there really is no alternative. And because they calculate that Britain is not in a position to both bail out the financial system and fund a welfare state, they must choose.
They have chosen severe cuts on the one hand and the big society on the other. Spending decisions are made without public consultation - on Trident, on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and on bailing out the banks, for example.
But the truth is they haven’t got away with it yet. The ConDems have exposed their own vulnerability, wavering over child benefit and social housing. The cuts are only starting to kick in and the chaos of big society initiatives will add to the government’s woes. More importantly, a new movement against the cuts is starting to emerge locally and nationally.
Let’s be clear: the ConDem offensive has escalated the fight between those who want the cuts and those who don’t; between those who defend the cuts and those who have no choice but to resist them. The two sides are directly opposed to each other, and there is no middle ground.
In the absence of this middle ground, all those who are opposed to the cuts must give the ConDems our kind of big society - resistance on the scale of a mass movement.
Feyzi Ismail teaches at Goldsmiths, University of London, and is active in UCU
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