Monday, December 20, 2010

Lenin + Ambridge (All power to the parishes!)

The architecture critic in last Sunday's Observer set out why the Government's localism bill is bound to lead to trouble. Eric Pickles, he says, "seems to have an idea of a 'community' as being a harmonious entity, sharing common aims and hopes, and civilised ways of resolving differences". The reality is far from this and there are bound to be feuds and bitterness as well as eccentric decisions when "communities" (ie. parishes and villages) are given the right to produce their own development plans and propose or veto housing developments within their boundaries. A nimby's charter by any other name. The correct term for this kind of policy is "atomisation" rather than "localism". Without the countervailing pressure of Government ensuring that views and interests beyond the parochial get some sort of look in, chaos will ensue. But then of course the Government has said that they see "chaos" as a positive product of the Big Society approach - a necessary by- product of their ideological desperation to destroy as much of "The State" as they can. It is bound to lead to a post code lottery where the rich areas prosper and the poorer areas sink.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Social Capital - Samuel Smiles "self-help" raised from the individual to the collective

A great lecture by Ben Fine from SOAS - one of the few courageous critics of the concept of "social capital". This is a concept that is designed to mystify and confuse us. As he says it is "definitionally chaotic" but actually serves to focus us away from looking at the real relations of power, privilege and inequality that we should be confronting. Social capital is nonsense - the rich have real capital (and don't need social capital) whilst the poor are condemned for not having enough "social" capital. Their networks are not elaborate enough, they don't know the right people or enough of them - in other words they are not part of the elite. But then that was true by definition in the first place.

Language is denuded of meaning and devalued with vague talk of "cohesion" rather than solidarity, of "fairness" rather then equality. Conflict, power, context (as well as race, gender, class and politics) all mysteriously disappear in this cheap conjuring trick that tries to convince us that we would solve all our problems if we only had more street festivals, royal weddings or other excuses to eat somosas together. God forbid that we might instead actually challenge or criticise anything real!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Big Society - the end of the Welfare State

The Big Society might seem at first sight to carry echoes of “the Great Society” - the massive attempt by President Johnson in the US in the 1960s to address urban poverty and racial discrimination. What is becoming rapidly clear is that it actually represents its exact opposite. The notion of the Big Society is best understood as being the death-knell of the Welfare State as we know it. In seeking to reduce the deficit over only 4 years by making massive cuts the Government is subjecting the UK to round two of the shock doctrine, otherwise known as Thatcher’s unfinished business. In the process it will seek to break up any remains of the solidarity that still resides in our political culture and substitute for it an impoverished and attenuated notion of “community”

The Big Society looks at first sight like a harmless, cuddly and rather vacuous concept. Far from it. On every index the idealism of the 1960s in the US or of the Welfare State in Britain in the late 1940s is set to be replaced by its opposite in the Big Society whether in terms of fairness, income distribution, gender and racial equality, investment in the arts and sciences, access to legal advice, spending on health and education and so on.

The Great Society was an ambitious and partly successful attempt to move the US out of a looming slump by seeking to address inequality and stimulate demand. Perhaps the only similarity between the Great and Big societies is that the US is currently embroiled in an unwinnable foreign conflict in Afghanistan just as it was in the 1960s in Vietnam (the UK was sensible enough to keep out of Vietnam whilst it is now haemorraging blood and treasure in fighting the Taliban as America’s junior partner). Sadly it was the increased expenditure on the Vietnam debacle that hobbled and then reversed much of the Great Society.

Expenditure on schools and other public projects was a key feature of the early welfare state as well as of the US in the 1960s but contrast this with the current demise of capital spending on school buildings by the ConDem government and their refusal to support industrial employers such as Sheffield Forgemasters. The Welfare State and particularly the NHS was introduced at a time when the country had a huge national debt. In the US, Medicare and Medicaid, whilst not perfect, were at least launched as a safety net for the old and the poor. By contrast the coalition government is now smashing up the National Health Service despite its pre election promise that there would be no more major upheavals in the health area. Access to the Law for all was a pivotal part of the Welfare State. Similarly, the first attempts to fund legal services for the poor as part of President Johnson’s “War on Poverty” were launched in the US. Currently in the UK we see the final death-throes of Civil Legal Aid, as well as cuts to Housing and Welfare Benefits on a scale that could be described as defining a new “War on the Poor”. Even the US 1960s investment in the Humanities and the Arts contrasts with huge planned cuts by the ConDems to Museums, Libraries and Arts organisations. The demise of Regional Development Agencies as a way of stimulating employment and economic growth as well as the destruction of regulatory bodies like the Audit Commission will make any serious attempts to share the pain across the regions and between localities impossible.

Affirmative Action in the US in the 1960s resulted in a more than halving of the numbers of African Americans defined as living in poverty. This was mirrored in the UK in the 1960s by the Race Relations Act and real advances in a climate of multiculturalism. By contrast the Big Society has taken no firm steps to ensure that massive public sector cuts won’t systematically damage both women and ethnic minority employment and hard pressed black and minority ethnic communities. The prospects for social cohesion in this new “Big Society” are really dire. The localism agenda that might look attractive at first sight will on current indications merely magnify the differences between those neighbour-hoods that are doing very well thank you and those poorer localities that are already far behind in terms of resources (whether in social or actual capital).Spouting on about empowerment without a real redistribution of resources is a lame joke rather than a viable policy.

Its cheerleaders see the Big Society initiative as being “a progressive, innovative strategy …. based upon the principles of empowering communities, redistributing power and fostering a culture of volunteerism..... (sharing) the government’s vision of a society where volunteering and community spirit become second nature”. The Big Society Network describes its attitude as: We feel anger and frustration at the recent behaviour of both the City and Westminster and relatively powerless to change them. We are often anonymous tax-payers without a real sense of how our money gets spent. Most of us try to be reasonably good citizens but our influence seems very small. This is of course the same anger and inchoate anti-state rhetoric used by the Tea Party movement in the US
The Big Society actually represents an atomisation of our society and could easily descend further into an anomic and chaotic locality-based version of the devil take the hindmost. The state and localities need to be kept in some sort of balance. Whilst it is true that many aspects of the UK state were too centralised under New Labour, the pendulum is about to swing so far to the opposite extreme that there will remain no effective mechanisms to allow for equitable distribution or redistribution between rich and poor families, communities and regions.

The Tories and their Liberal Democrat quislings have successfully managed to deploy an impoverished notion of “community” so as to mount a direct attack on both the state and society. The notion of community they seek to impose and which they see as the locus for involvement and voluntary activism is a notion of community that may make sense in Witney or even parts of Notting Hill. But in Hackney or Tower Hamlets, Worthington or Wigan it is likely to be seen as a largely middle class joke – cutting local services on which poor people rely (both as recipients and producers, clients and workers) whilst encouraging local people to compensate by getting together to volunteer to provide them. It amounts to little more than a kind of glorified neighbourhood watch scheme and is being used as a smoke screen to hide the withdrawal of resources and public service from the hardest pressed neighbourhoods. Of course the one sort of cohesion that they clearly don’t want to stimulate is the kind of collective action which people in their localities and work places are likely to take when they realise what a con-trick this Big Society nonsense actually is.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Broken society nonsense

The Tories insist that "Britain is Broken" and that everything used to be better before the permissive society and the welfare state interfered. This of course is absolute rubbish as a recent Economist article (6/2/10) points out: "the broken-Britain myth is worse than scaremongering - it glosses over those who need help most……..Nevertheless it is an idea that resonates. Every week serves up a new tragedy or outrage to be added to the pile of evidence” A few months after this article was written a man went on a rampage with a couple of guns through Cumbria shooting family members, acquaintances and total strangers alike. Interestingly this was one occurrence when the usual rubbish about a broken society was not trundled out again. Why? Because this carnage did not happen in an inner city area amongst the “feral youngsters” and “welfare scroungers” who are the usual denizens of this mythical Tory dystopia. Instead another myth, of a “quiet rural community” where “nothing like this had ever happened before”, came into play. Virtually every single observer was said to be shocked that this “could happen around here” in such a “quiet and close-knit community”. Actually, if one looks at the last major shooting spree occurrences in mainland Britain – Dunblane (1987), Monkseaton (1989), Hungerford (1996), and now Whitehaven – it is precisely these rural villages or suburban small town “tight-knit communities” where such dreadful outrages do seem to occur. Of course this may be partly because there are relatively few controls on rural gun ownership as opposed to urban gun crime. But I suspect it is not just this. The sense of a tightly bound and restrictive community where everyone knows everyone else’s business and where the pressures of status and respectability are far more extreme than those in Britain’s cities, seem to me to be precisely the kind of place where men will sometimes lose their bearings and lash out in this crazy way. Certainly we should stop being so surprised that it is in these picturesque and quiet “communities” that occasional eruptions of such dreadful anger and madness sometimes occur.

The Big Lunch is just a small Tea Party

In a fascinating piece in yesterdays Guardian ("A legend in its lunchtime" 17/7) Joe Moran threw cold water over the Big Lunch idea that street parties and sharing samosas will actually help us "rebuild communities" and somehow overcome the fragmentation caused by free market globalisation. On the contrary, David Cameron's Big Society (of which the Big Lunch notion is just a small course) is actually a cover for unleashing yet further privatisations and free market fragmentation.

Big Society is the Tories way of using "the community" (including voluntary and community organisations) to dismantle the welfare state. It achieves this directly by getting Third Sector organisations to join the private sector feeding frenzy as the NHS and public services are forced to sell themselves off to the lowest bidder. Almost as bad as this is how we in the third sector are simultaneously being used as a smoke screen to make it look like this is a cuddly and humane process rather than a selfish and destructive pillaging of the real social capital that we stand to lose - our welfare state.

The Big Society is nothing more than a rather polite (very English) version of the Tea Party that is sweeping the US. It starts from exactly the same basis Private = Good, Public = Bad. It believes that we can only be free if we are in competition with each other in a free market and therefore all regulation is inherently bad ("socialism"). Far from being a Big Society this is a recipe for an eventual war of all against all. A dreadful Hobbesian dystopia - and they would prefer it without even gun control. This kind of Big Lunch is so poisoned we should steer well clear of it in case its seductive nostalgia leads us ever closer to complete madness.

As for all those street parties and Big Lunches, the notion that a society in the middle of being blown apart by huge market forces can be put back together by "a bit of shared quiche and a few games of pavement Twister" is just a silly conjuring trick to amuse (bemuse) the revellers even further. Bread and circuses for the 21st Century.
The last word to Joe Moran:
"It is heartening to observe at close quarters all this feverish and largely thankless activity, most of it done by women, to hire ice-dream vans or hang homemade decorations from lampposts. And then on Sunday evening it will all have to be cleared away - leaving, perhaps a more convivial neighbourhood, but with no guarantees or firm evidence. There is something touching about so much time and effort being spent in search of the ephemeral and the intangible; a moment of togetherness which, like an incantation, hopes to become true by announcing itself"

Thursday, July 15, 2010

From the horses mouth!

Stephen Bubb in his inimitable blog admits quite rightly that communities are not always the places where people are empowered and that they are sometimes the sites of people's exclusion rather than inclusion. He goes on to argue that if the Big Society is just a front for cuts to the voluntary sector as well as other public services then it will not just fail but be highly damaging on its way down. What he fails to see is that the central purpose of the Big Society idea is just this kind of assault on the welfare state. He is far too quick to agree with the Tories plans to "refashion public services" and fails to see that this drive comes from a deeply ideological hatred of the "Big State" rather than a sensible approach to partnerships between the public, private and voluntary sectors to improve the lives of users of services.

Monday, May 3, 2010

The War on the Poor

Tony Judt in his excellent new book "Ill Fares the Land" shows how perverse and amoral our language has become when we talk about how "proud" we are to be taking the "tough choices" involved in imposing welfare cuts on the poorest in society (whilst doing nothing about tax dodgers, non-doms and bonuses for bankers). Just how hard are these choices? As Judt says:
"the poor vote in much smaller numbers than anyone else. So there is little political risk in penalising them. These days, we take pride in being tough enough to inflict pain on others. If an older usage were still in force, whereby being tough consisted of enduring pain rather than imposing it on others, we should perhaps think twice before so callously valuing efficiency over compassion"

So there is nothing hard about proposed Tory cuts to benfits or tax credits. Hard-hearted yes - principled and moral - no.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Islington evidence

Community is not something that is just "there" - rather it is an activity or a set of activities that has to be performed. It is not just about living in a particular neighbourhood or locality or being defined as a member of a group with a particular identity or common characteristics. In other words it has to be seen as an active process rather than a passive state. It is not just about being but is actually about belonging and becoming. In some cases it literally has to be fought for. It is not something that can be imposed and it can rarely be "regenerated" from outside.

The Cripplegate Foundation has just published an excellent research report on volunteering in Islington called "Unlocking the Potential". As you read many of the quotes from the active volunteers you realise that these people are actively creating a sense of community as they go along through their volunteering rather than uncovering something that was mysteriously there before their activity took place.

"I have done no volunteering and didn't know any neighbours at all and I've lived here for ten years before I joined and it's quite incredible that I can't leave the house now without bumping into people, which is lovely. And that's what I got from it more than anything else, the kind of community feeling, it's very nice"

Another volunteer says:

"The volunteering is actually what makes people talk to each other and work together. It's just that we started talking to people that maybe we wouldn't normally talk to .... it's a catalyst"

A striking finding from the Islington research is that volunteering can have the biggest impact on the most vulnerable and excluded people. When people are able to make a contribution to something bigger than themselves through volunteering they feel valued and worthwhile. Many of the volunteers were from refugee or migrant backgrounds and did not think of themselves as part of mainstream society and used volunteering in part to avoid the isolation that comes with exclusion.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Current discourses about “community” have usually been part of the problem rather than part of the solution. “Community” has been used to fracture and differentiate, to divide and control. Its misuse has resulted in a legacy of communal identity politics rather than a legacy of real political solidarity. Far from being a word or a concept that has been used to promote real challenges to racism, discrimination and inequality, "community" has often been the mechanism through which divisive and exclusionary identities have been imposed on people. The concluding chapter of Arun Kundnani’s tremendous book “The End of Tolerance” is called “Community: Theirs or Ours” and sets out a whole range of concerns about current community politics. He starts by pointing out that there has been a movement away from solidarity and the notion of anti-racism as a collective struggle by and for “black” communities and instead a break down into the politics of ethnic difference, of competing religious and ethnically defined communities. He draws attention to a “double state strategy of seeking suitably compliant community leaders who can act as surrogate voices for their community, while at the same time, demonising that community and systematically violating its civil rights”. This as he correctly points out “is the worst possible combination for creating a genuinely cohesive society. Its effect is to generate a permanent state of fear, anger and resentment among the ‘suspect community’, while suppressing any kind of constructive public expression of those feelings”

Some of Kundnani’s analysis is worth quoting in full. He points out that the thinking behind this na├»ve and quiescent community relations approach is that “communities consist of ready-made identities, which need a layer of representative organisations to be imposed on them in order that dissent and unrest can be channelled away ineffectually. This creates a climate in which different faith-based organisations compete with each other for state patronage by attempting to establish themselves as the authentic representatives of particular communities. These organisations have little interest in mobilising at the grass roots in struggles for social justice or civil rights; it is rather the state that they aim to mobilise to intervene in the community on their behalf - for example by funding educational and cultural activities that endorse their ideology. The result is , often, the closing down of spaces , particularly for the young and for women, where communities can come together to tackle the injustices that they face …. One measure of the bankruptcy of this kind of communal politics is the lack of solidarity and support that has been extended to asylum seekers, refugees and other new migrants.”

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Centre for Social Cohesion - what a joke!

The so-called Centre for Social Cohesion claims to be a non-partisan think-tank that studies issues related to community cohesion in Britain. So you might expect it to publish sober and well argued and rather dry studies exhorting us all to greater efforts towards living together across cultures in a spirit of tolerance and mutual respect. Sadly this is not the case. The Centre for Social Cohesion is actually a neo conservative pressure group that promotes vicious islamophobia and outrageous attacks on moderate muslims like Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and those who support a multicultural and anti racist approach. Yes the CSC does leaven this constant diatribe with occasional attacks on the racism of the far right but this is the exception and does little to camouflage the real project of CSC which is to promote a war on islam under the disguise of a war on terror. The deeply unpleasant and bigoted Douglas Murray who pops up every so often on Question Time to make a fool of himself claims to provide a rigorous argument against Islamic extremism. However, in doing so he fails to make any serious distinction between Islam (a diverse and inclusive faith followed by millions of people world wide for 1400 years) and Islamism (a sectarian, xenophobic and ultra-reactionary sect sponsored by reactionary arab regimes and itself a product of modernism over the last two hundred years)
Yet again the terms “community” and “cohesion” are being used to legitimate divisive and reactionary approaches to our increasingly hyper diverse society. It is no surprise that the BNP calls its activists “community champions”. The often facile community cohesion projects sponsored by the current government in response to the outrages caused by violent Islamism often fail to make a distinction between muslims on the one hand and islamists (who believe in Islam as a political project) on the other, and worse with potentially or actually violent jihadists. As Ed Husain says: “if extremist Islam is the problem then it may well be that moderate Islam can be the antidote”. The Centre for Social Cohesions approach makes this sensible approach well nigh impossible.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Community is where the guns and gangs, the drugs and pimps are.

Last week on the Radio 4 Today programme there was a very moving interview with a young woman (lets call her Sarah) who was about to go to University and who spoke articulately about her hopes for the future. A few months before this interview the same woman had been addicted to heroin and crack and had been prostituting herself out to maintain her habit. What was absolutely clear from this interview was that the community was not in any way part of the solution – indeed it was the problem. Sarah’s ability to come off drugs was because she had been lucky enough to be sent by her local authority to a residential rehabilitation centre in the countryside many miles away from the inner city neighbourhood where she lived. She readily agreed that it was only when she was able to get away from “the community” that she could summon the strength to recover. Had she continued to live in her local neighbourhood she would have continued to be plagued by the pimps and pushers she needed to get away from. These same pimps and pushers would have been waiting for her the moment she left any local rehabilitation centre and that this is why drug treatment in the community is a non starter.

Sadly the residential centre was now closing because so few local authorities were prepared to spend the amount necessary to secure effective rehabilitation outcomes but rather preferred to spend less money on “treatment in the community” despite the fact that it has a far less successful record. Far less successful it may be, but by adding the cosy, trendy (but utterly vacuous) words “in the community” to the notion of treatment, these local authorities are able to disguise their miserly and counterproductive penny pinching. They were able to use the term “community” to make it sound as though they were buying a service that would be effective just by virtue of being capable of having this sanctifying (but really sanctimonious) description applied to it.

Friday, February 26, 2010

The Market will set Community against the State

One of the consequences of us being so vague and ambiguous when we use the word “community” has been the ability of both New Labour and the Tories to hijack the term and set it against the notion of public and state provision. As the marketisation of so much of our public services proceeds ever faster we are increasingly losing the vocabulary to identify and discuss what is actually happening to us. This is a very dangerous development for all of us on the Left but in many ways we have played into the Tories’ hands because of our unthought through fetishisation of the concept of community. Similarly the Voluntary and Community sector has had little to say about the way in which New Labour has used it to disguise and collude with its attack on public services. There is a real danger that “cooperative councils” will end up offloading responsibility to local people (“communities”) rather than actually unlocking their participation and involvement in a model of mutual service provision that is responsive to different local needs and that builds a really inclusive solidarity rather than a vacuous sense of community.
Notions of “choice” and “community” look unexceptional and cosy but in fact carry a deep ideological content as well as having dangerous practical consequences. The greater the attack on public services by the market – whether by direct privatisation or “voluntarisation” or through the rich and middle classes opting out of them – the more unequal and unfair our society will become. Appeals to community and localism are often just a smoke screen that can be handily used to disguise this process.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Even old bones are now "former members of the community"

In a wierd piece on Newsnight today we heard about a Pagan campaign to rebury ancient bones held in Ipswich Museum (and thought to be Pagan relics). Because these bits of skulls and shards of bone may have been dug up around the Ipswich area they are from "former members of the Ipswich community" according to a senior curator at the Museum.
Blimey! The word community here is being used in a way that even science fiction writers might have problems with - a transhistorical, transcultural "community" based solely on where a number of people over thousands of years may have died or been buried. This takes communing with the dead rather too far!

Friday, January 29, 2010

More Red Tory Rubbish

Leading "Red Tories" Philip Blond and John Milbank were responsible for an utterly bizzare article in yesterday's Guardian (No equality in opportunity 28/1/10) in which they argued that a synthesis of old Tory and traditional left ideas was the only way to achieve a "genuinely egalitarian society". Their response to the National Equality Panel's report was to question the whole basis of "equality of opportunity". According to them the "rhetoric of egalitarian opportunity means that everyone who doesn't succeed is defined as a failure. Such contempt reinforces inequality". But who is it who is defining people as failures in this way? The authors assert this without any argument and then go onto argue the even more bizarre premise that "equality of opportunity is ... wholly synonymous with a market without morals and a meritocracy without merit". They then make weird Platonic appeals to "virtue" as their key concept (but of course they fail to say what they mean by it): "the more we seek to link social and economic prestige with virtue, then the more we can hope for good financial and political leaders possessed of compassion and integrity". A circular argument if ever there was one. But what they fail to remember is that it is precisely those "masters of the .universe" who recently wrecked our economy who are best at linking their own riches - their social and economic prestige - with their own virtue. Indeed this is effectively what "greed is good" actually means in the modern era. The Red Tories, instead of challenging this , actually end up by celebrating "a hierarchy of excellence" which looks uncommonly like Britain's current class structure. I can't understand why anyone takes them seriously!

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Right on target
‘It may be unfashionable to say so, but targets have repeatedly been shown in fact to work’. So says Peter Preston (Guardian 25/1/10 "In defence of box ticking"). So targets and regulations do work in some situations - horror of horrors! Yes of course some targets can introduce perverse incentives (taking the wheels off trolleys and calling them beds, keeping snowed-in schools closed because of Ofsted etc.) Targets also need to capture quality as well as quantity and serious damage can be caused when they don't or when they set one against another. Yes box ticking and bureaucracy can be a pain in the arse but actually it is almost always a great deal better than nothing. Indeed sometimes it is the only sensible way of recording and then describing what you are doing so that you can improve it.

There is such a reaction by the Tories to the notion of regulations and centrally decided targets and the "target driven approach" that we should smell a rat and look for the ideological prejudice that is making such a smell under the floorboards. This suspicion of targets and “box-ticking” has become a central part of the current Zeitgeist. Actually I think it is part of an overall attack on public services as a whole. As Peter Preston points out cutting this kind of red tape is the Tories holy grail (and like the grail it is of course wholly unobtainable). This drive "against bureaucracy" as Preston says comes from a world 'where painless cuts may somehow magically be made as control potters down from Whitehall and nestles in the snug heart of "community"' As he goes on to say: ''nobody meaningful anywhere on the political spectrum dissents from community sanctification these days' (this blog is I hope an honourable exception!) and yet the evidence from a substantial study conducted by the Economic and Social Research Council shows that yes, in fact targets do often work. The recent Nuffield Trust's report showed that where there is more target-setting (England and Wales) NHS services are measurably more effective than they are where such targets are less prevalent (Scotland)

Where targets are sensible and designed to produce strong performance management, measure real quality and promote success they are an indispensable tool. The increasing Tory (and sadly New Labour) rhetoric against central government and the state has as a core project the attempt to get us to deny this and to seek solace in "the community" and local “choice”. Targets are seen as centralised and bureaucratic obstacles to "choice" and "flexibility". But on further analysis much of this choice and flexibility is only for the rich and results in a growing post code lottery for everyone else (which actually is deeply unpopular). One reason the Police don't like keeping records and "would rather be out on the beat" could also be that the data not only shows little that is reassuring about their performance but also pinpoints many of their biases for all to see - differential stop and search across ethnic groups for example. Record keeping confirms that some Police authorities are very much better at clearing up certain types of crime than others. This box ticking provides vital information if good practice is to take root – and in my view is time and money much better spent then Police officers cruising around aimlessly in squad cars or carrying out stop and searches on hundreds of thousands of people resulting in only a few arrests.

As Peter Preston says 'communities aren't much of a help when hard decisions have to be made'. And this is especially the case when “communities” are allowed to make crucial decisions and judgements about their own performance. Prison Officers, Police, newspaper proprietors and bankers all spring to mind as “communities” who seem incapable of sensible self-regulation. Without an external regulating mechanism that has access to real, targeted and accurate information we know how things are bound to turn out and who will end up in charge again! Of course we all would like good services to be provided for local people and we would like them provided equitably and effectively. However, the answer to this is not just radical localism and choice but rather it is targets and standards that can be enforced. Service providers will only work effectively in the long run where there is an active civil society to call them to account and a strong state to regulate them and redistribute resources between them.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Why don't we see the state as "good"

Tony Judt is quite right (Guardian 9/1/10), over the last 40 years western democracies have forgotten the positive virtues of collective action. "We've lost the ability to talk about the state in positive terms". We have privatised the notion of change and have lost the notion of social solidarity: "This is the second generation of people who can't imagine change except in their own lives, who have no sense of social collective public goods or services, who are just isolated individuals desperately striving to better themselves above everybody else."

I think that a key part of this privatisation process has been the promotion of a spurious and nostalgic sense of "community" as a core organising principle, the primary mode of description for how people associate with each other within the confines of the market. It is only in this attenuated world of "community" (which characteristically rules out social or state action) where any kind of mutuality or cooperation is held to operate. Rather than a dynamic and collective notion of the state and a wider society acting as a redistributive and regulatory check on the worst excesses of individualism, we end up with a quasi-religious intermediate realm of nuclearised and marketised community that acts to discourage real change and social or international solidarity. This is not to try to reinstate a kind of Stalinism. It is merely to point out that local activity based on neighbourhood, locality or "community of interest or identity" is only going to be effective in achieving real change in partnership with an enabling, active and redistributive state. An active and vibrant civil society is a necessary but not sufficient condition for progress. Even if we are no longer "bowling alone" but associating actively with others in our localities and neighbourhoods does not mean that we are doing so in ways that produce positive change. After all this is what a gang does - associating with others is as likely to be destructive or ineffectual as it is to be constructive and progressive. It is the social purpose of these associations - what they are for, what they do - that make them productive or not. Without a supportive state many forms of association will either continue to exhibit a desire to keep things just as they are or exhibit all the worst aspects of powerless oppositionalism.