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.