Monday, November 30, 2009

Red Tories - Tall Stories

Recently there have been some weird new philosophical rumblings emanating from a group that have been dubbed “Red Tories”. This is the group that has been behind David Cameron’s oxymoronic declaration that what we need is “a small state but a big society”. An analysis of their arguments shows why the ubiquitous use of “community” as the primary and central (but ultimately unanalysed) explanatory concept can be so dangerous. As John Harris points out: “Red Toryism boils down to a slightly utopian belief in the revival of community spirit”. Yet again the nostalgia for “community spirit” raises its head as a kind of undefinable but utopian end-in-itself. The leading exponent of Red Toryism, Philip Blond, sees himself as providing a critique of modern secularism as well as the modern state. He writes in praise of the “medieval network of a predominantly horizontal communal and social order, exemplified by the church but also including guilds and agrarian communities organised around differential property relationships”. Sadly, he believes, this ideal condition of society was destroyed by the rise of powerful monarchs and states. Another way of characterising his beliefs would be: “In Praise of Feudalism” or (as the Independent 25/11/09) notes: “Back to the Middle Ages”. This is nostalgia taken much too far!

Blond believes that Labour’s post war welfare state destroyed the key components of working class “community cohesion” or mutualism – cooperatives, guilds, friendly societies etc. He believes that a fatal concoction of the permissive society and Thatcherism then took this process of atomisation even further, resulting in the “broken Britain” that the Tories love to trumpet at every opportunity (whilst they are still in opposition). His “radical communitarian traditionalist conservatism” thus rails against both the state and market monopolies: “Monopoly capitalism needs the state to disempower ordinary people’s institutions and lives……..We are creating an oligarchical elite structure where moneyed elites, the elites of industry cohabit with political elites and they move in each other’s regimes and spaces. So we have now produced what I would call a market state, and the market state really just exists for the benefit of those at the top”

It is impossible not to have some sympathy with his notion that individualistic capitalism is a central part of the problem. Thatcherism did smash up much of the working class social solidarity that she hated so fervently as the “enemy within”. However Blond’s argument presupposes that it is “both the unlimited state and the unrestrained market that have destroyed civil society”. But there is no evidence that civil society has been destroyed even if some parts of it have been under attack from both new Labour and Thatcherism before it. Civil society in Britain is a much more resilient animal then he tries to pretend. Indeed some have pointed out that it is probably more developed here in the UK than almost anywhere else in the world. Arguably under New Labour the state has shrunk considerably as large sections of it have been privatised or “voluntarised” by the growing encroachment of charities and social enterprises (which are usually understood to be a core part of civil society). The notion that the state has been “unlimited” is quite bizarre and sounds as though he believes we live in some kind of Stalinist state. The real issue is surely that the state has never been used to the full extent of its capacity to alleviate poverty or deliver opportunity. More egalitarian Scandinavian societies have made much greater attempts to redistribute wealth through direct taxation and these have been at least partly successful in bringing down levels of inequality. Surely he would not accuse societies like Sweden of being totalitarian?

Blond’s reification (even fetishisation) of community is perhaps preferable to the small state Thatcherite individualism that George Osborne seems to favour. However, it will never provide an answer to the real issues of power, poverty and inequality that are the actual causes of social breakdown. Attempts to bring in (or bring back) a world characterised by radical localism and community self-help are a classic case of mistaking a set of tactics (albeit sometimes useful ones) for an overall strategy. Such a “community centred” approach can only make any sense within a strong but flexible state system which has the power to regulate and redistribute – something which of course the Tories claim to hate. If there is to be only a shrunken and powerless state; if there are to be no effective overarching ties of social solidarity and common purpose beyond these localities, then we are back again at that old Thatcherite notion that “there is no such thing as society” by a different route. Instead of empowering localities, neighbourhoods or even “communities” within our most deprived cities, we would be setting up warring ghettos, left to 'stew in their own juice'. We would end up with a kind of medieval war between the cities and the countryside allied with a parochialism and communalism that really did characterise the worst of the Middle Ages.

Unacknowledged nostalgia can be a fatal component in bad social planning. This is another case where it is worth 'being careful what you wish for'. The notion of localism can so easily descend into parochialism just as community can descend into communalism – a war of tribe against tribe or even all against all. Only active and viable state institutions (in partnership with civil society) can provide a counterbalance and check on this tendency as well as providing the kind of material and monetary support for some of the most deprived neighbourhoods – without which they would collapse in ways that could bring everything else down with them. Parts of the US are already in this kind of catastrophic tailspin. Blond’s good intentions (if such they are) would only make this hell more likely to happen here in the UK. Only the state is able to regulate and redistribute resources away from the richest to some of the poorest areas. Without such strategic intervention a very different and even more dangerous atomisation would break out between different neighbourhoods or localities setting those with less resources in direct competition with each other as well as the richer ones. In this sense Blond’s approach is akin to a kind of communitarian anarchism.

It is no surprise that the key arguments underpinning Blond’s Red Toryism are more theological than logical. He is an unusual convert from Catholicism to the Church of England and religion is at the root of all his political beliefs – including his opposition to abortion in all but extreme cases and his rather stuffy critique of permissiveness.

The Anglican notion of communion can often be seen as underlying the English concept of 'community' even if it is sometimes in heavy disguise. Behind the use of the term community one can often discern a slightly desperate nostalgic desire for a supposedly authentic Englishness that has disappeared forever. Thankfully, life in modern multicultural Britain can no longer be reduced to or understood as Anglican parishes operating as they did in Edwardian times – “the rich man at his portal, the poor man at his gate – this is the way God made them, each to his own estate”. Everyone knew his (sic) place in this classless society beloved of John Major: “ the country of long shadows on cricket grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers and, as George Orwell said, 'Old maids bicycling to holy communion through the morning mist'.”

This notion of community is a like a fetish – the original power of the institution has disappeared but the tired old symbol is still wheeled out on special occasions to throw a veneer of importance and numinosity over proceedings. This type of communitarianism is the philosophical equivalent of Morris dancing or ‘Scouting for Boys’. It is a way of avoiding the real issues of inequality, discrimination, class and exclusion that continue to scar our society. It is certainly not the kind of theoretical background on which one might base any sort of sensible social policy towards dealing with the serious issues that actually face us in the real world.

Thankfully Cameron is no more likely to be able to get his party to adopt this approach then Blair was able to carry into power the similarly dangerous “communitarianism” that surfaced at the same early stage of his political trajectory.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Cameron’s “Big Society” the next Big Lie

Now lets get this right. It is not the Big State that has made inequality worse (as David Cameron suggests in his creepy Guardian article today). Actually it was New Labour’s refusal to use the state to make any serious redistribution of wealth away from the rich to the less well off that effectively stymied equality and social mobility during its term of office. Any attempt by the Tories to try and cut the role of the State even further than New Labour managed will hugely increase inequalities. Selfishness and individualism did not start in 1997 (as Cameron seems to claim), rather it continued under New Labour after Thatcherism had comprehensively and deliberately blown most elements of social solidarity apart. In this sense Blairism was Thatcherism by other means - with no serious attempts to undermine status, privilege and ever growing income differentials. Sadly the few good things that they did do (minimum wage, tax credits etc.) they seemed almost embarrassed about.
Cameron’s suggestion that it is the overweening state that has promoted selfishness and individualism is simply laughable. The real culprit lies in the realm of the market not the State. For Cameron to cite “the Spirit Level” (which suggests that the fairest societies are the happiest) is either breathtaking cynicism or complete naivety.
Sadly, Labour’s time in office was also characterised by outrageous attacks on “the undeserving poor” - asylum seekers, migrants, welfare benefits claimants and council tenants. At times this looked more like a war on the poor rather than a war on poverty. It is Labour’s catastrophic failure in this respect that has allowed Cameron to make his audacious attack on them from the left. As the Guardian’s leader says, Cameron is putting forward “a bold argument with dangerous consequences”.
An incoming Cameron Government will be able to use the fashionable rhetoric of community to undermine the state (and society) even more than New Labour has managed. As Michael White observes, whilst this is not Thatcherism in full cry it is “a more emollient formula for promoting local and individual responsibility, private and voluntary sector activity and shrinking big government”
There is a desperate need for leaders in the voluntary sector to start a discussion about whether we want to carry on colluding with this process under an incoming Tory regime. Do we want to be merely a mechanism for further undermining the State? Do we want to be used as a smokescreen disguising huge cuts to public services with a thin veneer of voluntarism, community and philanthropy? Do we want to bid for every contract going – charities running prisons and asylum detention centres, voluntary groups forcing people with disabilities off benefits etc.? Are we really prepared to so easily forego our critical and campaigning missions to rush headlong into the market?
If we continue to collude in this process then what will happen to the people (“the communities”) we were actually set up to serve? As Kate Green of Child Poverty Action Group quite rightly says: “all of society has a responsibility to end child poverty and charities have a role to play in alleviating the pain of poverty, but only governments can redistribute to the poorest”

Friday, November 6, 2009

"certain communities" to be targeted for surveillance

The recent speech by Nu Labour insider Kim Howells was truly worrying. Using the term "certain communities" (we know who you are and where you live!), Howells was able to get away with a deeply racist and dangerous suggestion that "the Muslim Community" should be targeted for a far more intrusive level of surveillance at the same time as we should pull troops out of Afghanistan. Rather than being clear that he meant to target Muslims he was able to use the term "community" to disguise any such suggestion. In doing so he has taken the (ab)use of the term community to new ideological depths. The term community is dangerous because it can so easily be used - as here - to mean much more (or conversely, sometimes much less) than it might seem at first sight. As Rizwaan Sabir says in the Guardian: 'at a certain point, turning "certain communities" into terror suspects becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy'

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Polly Toynbee sums up the danger of community nostalgia

Near the beginning of her book "Hard Work: Life in Low Pay Britain" (published in 2003), Polly Toynbee describes the "Estate" that she lived on whilst writing the book:
"The only place to be was inside the safe familiar, private space of your own flat. That's how it felt; safe up here looking out, but with a desert down below to cross to get to the streets and the bus stops of the outside world. Estates are curious places, locking the poor out of sight, their housing not arranged in streets like everyone else's. These were once architects' little utopias, designer fantasies of the good comunity life, fatally turned inwards upon themselves instead of outwards to join the bustling world beyond, little Alcatrazes remote from the swirling urban streets outside".
There are few better descriptions of the many disasters of post War local authority planning than that these estates started off as "little utopias, designer fantasies of the good community life".
Here again, the way in which the concept of community has been used can be positively dangerous - whether in architecture, town planning, youth and social services, race relations or social policy.
Later on in the book she also has a go at social capital/community cohesion approaches to regeneration:
"This target for community involvement struck me as an impertinence. 75% of the people must feel involved in this community? How and Why? It is strange that it is always the people with fewest resources, struggling hardest against the odds who are the ones who are expected to galvanise themselves into heroic acts of citizenship .... there is a curiously Victorian notion that 'community' activity is a good of its own or at least that it is good for the poor on council estates".
As I have said elsewhere, noone is likely to accuse Tony or Cherie Blair in Millionaires Row in Mayfair of having "low social capital" because they haven't been round to borrow sugar from their neighbours.