Big Society needs educating away from consumer based politics

The submissions are now in for the Curriculum Review – I thought I’d put up some thoughts on why – in a time of flux and change a Bigger Society needs to know itself and its political needs as thoroughly as it knows its consumer needs, otherwise it will be duped by the smoke and mirrors of political spin.

This article asks why the next generation will be failed by a state that purports to offer greater citizen autonomy but does little to address that disparity, preferring to build government in the image of consumerism. It traces the synchronous growth of nation state politics and consumer society and calls for a top down realisation of this dilemma. Only then might we avoid another crisis as drastic and foreseeable as the recent financial collapse.
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The emergence of socialism reshaped our political landscape by offering a view of equality that encompassed the nation. Britain was no longer a Kingdom of loyal subjects within a myriad of small communities, each managing its little patch through hierarchies of patrons to peasants. The New Britain imagined itself as a different kind of single community, where principles of fairness would be applied to the benefit of the whole nation. The 20th century began with ideas of distributive justice and equal access to welfare underpinning notions of commonality and mutuality. This Britain required more central management in order to develop the corrective measures that would stop the minority from prospering at the cost of the majority, but that investment was the price of progress.

After the unifying trauma of the Second World War this progress materialised. The nation grew in stability and wealth across most areas. The previous producers of goods and raw materials emerged from years of austerity and slowly gathered the means to become mass consumers. And as they did, the means of production very gradually moved offshore. Our collective wealth, benefiting from our Commonwealth, buttressed a well-off nation who could outsource the production of our own goods to the masses in lower-cost countries.

As mass consumers, the nation became a very different place. Politics was no longer the battleground of the owners versus workers that inflamed the socialist cause: it now had three divisions. ‘The owners’ became more diverse as entrepreneurs moved into the previous domain of the upper classes. ‘The consumers’ became the servicing middle classes, and ‘the producers’ dwindled to the manual working classes, such as manufacturers who now make up a mere 9% of the workforce. At this point the shape of the Labour movement and politics itself shifted.

Through Tony Blair Labour became electable again because it became the party of the consumers ahead of the producers. But more than that, politics itself took on the paradigms of consumerism: where demand drives supply and demanders fixate on the delights of demanding. No longer were the rulers of the nation invested with the authority to which the people were subject, now the rulers were the providers and the people were the consumers. As consumers they would choose which government to purchase, and in the name of democracy the government would provide the goods.

Labour’s last era took this to new heights as the State enlarged its vocation as fixer of the people’s problems. It did this with a traditional inclination towards the plight of the disadvantaged whilst still looking to gain the approval of the masses. The only problem was that the masses no longer accepted the tenets of the Labour movement. Redistribution of wealth in the name of communal benefit is mostly over. Wealth is now redistributed in order to preserve a safety net for the most vulnerable: the charity state not the welfare state. Labour’s last throw of this dice saw public spending spiral whilst our means of production (the financial market) collapsed.

Meanwhile – out in the fast moving world of online technology new consumer paradigms saw “Web 2.0” create a shift in the marketplace. It was redefining the relationship between producers and consumers such that consumers expected a bigger role in what got produced for them. Starting with relationship-marketing, where IT facilitates such instant feedback that consumer voice becomes part of the product development process, it morphed into a new matrix of the consumer / producer dialogue where people are live players in the product itself, particularly if it has a social dimension.

The new Tory party moved to power with Web 2.0 in its DNA. The first of a new era of consumer-involving Government 2.0 saw the potential of much greater participation of the people in its historic ideology. This time Britain would no longer be a myriad of small communities with a feudal local government. The new locality-based conservatism could be imagined with new forms of interaction. People could say much more readily what they wanted as they are now content-providers and government could respond more collegiately. And now, as long as they can agree what they want, they can be participants in the social solution.

This level of interaction holds much more promise within a localised understanding of community than it does in the nation state version. Labour’s perception, where justice needs managing for the good of whole country, needs more, and more costly, centralised power to deliver its mandate to intervene in the economy for the benefit of the unified whole.

So it was that the Big Society arrived: “a new imagining of the relationship between the people and the state”. Where the state (in the traditional Tory model) would not need to be so big because Britain could take care of itself through the ecology of its organic social structure… the thousands of smaller communities each finding their natural order. This ecology would find its own balance once the people reclaim their right to autonomy and the state dissolves its intrusion through facilitating greater freedom to unelected agents at a local level.

And thus the model of producer / consumer politics moved into a new era. A vision of UK 2.0.

The only problem here is that politics has become corrupted by going with the producer / consumer model. It doesn’t work.

Politics is, in reality, the continued scrambling of the overworked few to make best guess solutions to fast-moving problems arising at a pace no one can feasibly manage. It works on the law of percentages, grasps for general principles, borrows from unproven ideologies, and attempts to bend the behaviours of the people into the preferred option of the ruling party. We do politics because we simply have no choice but to. We are born in a world too diverse to find easy unity, too complex to apply universal solutions, too quick-changing to address every inevitability, too violent to negotiate every conflict peaceably, too messy to ever work to anyone’s total satisfaction. By contrast consumers are sold products on the basis that they will work. If they don’t work, you can bring them back. You may get a new one, you may have it fixed, but it is made to work because it is based around transactions you pay for and products that must satisfy.

Unfortunately, politics seldom satisfies. Certainly not everyone.

But here’s the added problem. Politics, or more rightly political parties, now have to persuade an electorate who are socialised through the forms and norms of consumerism. The parties are branded within an inch of their lives, the marketeers work closely to package their values and beliefs, and the election season seeks our attention like a family car that needs renewing every five years. Maybe this time we can get a better one? One that will work, give a better value for our money and be more pleasing on the eye than the last model?

But this is all very wrong. The great irony of the Big Society is that it imagines a new blueprint for the relationship between the state and people, but demands that this happens not by a tweaking of the existing order, but a whole new product. And it has approximately 4 years to build its brand in order to sell it to the electorate by the time we all vote again. So within that timescale the kind of activities that the voluntary sector undertakes will be reshaped into a Big Society package. The kind of services that local councils offer will be co-produced through Government 2.0. Local people should become more satisfied because some of their consumer choices will emerge in closer-to-home service provision. But of course, it will not be fully up and running within such a short time frame: it will have to be sold on progress towards vision not actual attainment. And let’s face it there could not have been a less opportune time to launch this new brand. Just when the state has to collapse its service offer to the nation it has to try to convince us that this is a better option! It has to offer both the latest model of car and suggest that it’s an improvement because this time, like the simpler ones the Flintstones drove, we can put our feet through the floor and run it ourselves!

On one level, there is not only nothing wrong with the Big Society, there is every need to make it happen. If there really isn’t the money to afford the same kind of services yet we want the same kind of lifestyles as before, then instead of paying the taxes to fund the kind of services we want we will have to take the tax from our own time and do ourselves what we would have previously paid others to deliver. The Big Society imagines that there may be innovative new ways to co-produce and manage our needs, but in reality the statistics show that very few people actually believe it. More people think that our communal needs are straightforward and will have to be done by people who have the time to drive dustbin lorries down the road and take our rubbish to the landfill.

All this, I promise, is leading to a comment about education. But first I want to give you my hunch as to why the Big Society may struggle. It is this: we cannot endlessly build our political models around consumer patterns in the same way we could not continue to build our economy by spinning out the interest from interest. Consumerism works because people opt into their choices. But politics is the resolution of options because we have no choice but to find a way. Politics is not optional. Few people are ever more than 70% happy with the political solutions on offer yet we have to find a way to live peaceably together. But having to get on is not the same as opting into networks or consumer relationships, a setting where we see immediate benefit from participation in the product that comes our way. People are not likely to want to do the Fred Flintstone peddling when they have had a car that has run on petrol for the last 30 years. As consumers they will opt for the Ford Focus even though as citizens they can’t afford it.

So what will we tell the children about politics? Will we let them know it’s not the same as consumerism? Or will we continue to blame the politicians who are obviously very bad producers? Will we let them project their adolescent anti-establishment angst into yet another arena of adult foul-ups whilst we bemoan our lost youth and envy their innocence, or will we get real? The more we live in a society that believes everything can be fixed, or that someone will have a new model to supersede the old one, then politics will seem increasingly futile as each year passes. Someone has to start telling the truth about politics. It doesn’t work like that. Surely the Big Society Tories will let the cat out of the bag so that this new relationship between people and state can begin? What will they tell the children?? What are they saying about education??

Currently at Number One in the public profile of Big Society Educational innovations is, in the name of localism, the chance for people to set up their own Free Schools. The perceived benefit of Free Schools comes from their exemplary nature. So if some communities have enough managerial classes to conceive and develop a Free School their new format must be reproducible across the country: a model that can scale up or trickle down. But it can’t. Who on earth do we think is going to copy it in those remaining areas of working-class producers who are scraping a livelihood against the face of globalised markets? Where the managerial classes moved out years ago and where the needs of centralised support are so blatantly obvious because their social complexity demands much greater investment. The likely outcome of this policy is a certain percentage of successful Free Schools and Academies in wealthy areas, and an overstretched and under-resourced state infrastructure delivering poorer service to those in less well-endowed areas. If this is the extent of the imagination of the Big Society into education then they have surely missed the point of their own brainwave? Surely this more marginal innovation can’t be at the heart of Big Society education?

A new relationship between state and citizen rightly demands “bigger citizens” to draw power back to communities. Bigger citizens understand their own social issues more than the smaller citizens served by the large centralised state, and as such they are more demanding. They are not only given access to the statistics related to government spending, they also know how to understand the implications of that data. They are not only offered the chance to co-produce their own services, they also comprehend the relative merits of different kinds of service delivery and can claim their rights to great services because they recognise how they have contributed to the state collective. They have a sense of agency not only towards their locality but also towards government, not as consumers but as citizens. They do not see local services as the delivery of a product but as a social entitlement. But they will need to know that this will never be perfect. They will need to know that 7 out of 10 is good! They will need to recognise when they’re being sold a lie by the next politician that promises all the answers. They will need to know that the media is deceiving them when it spins political stories in order to create more sensation than truth. They will need to know that the economy is their money, not the government’s money and that the state is the trustee of the nation not the safety net for the poorest. They will need to know that that state belongs to them and that it invited their participation when it took the responsibility of educating them as to what that means. About how the law works and about how you can change the law. About their responsibilities to the collective and their freedoms from it.

This kind of education lies in the content of the school curriculum and its activities. It does not lie in the form of the school and the open market for free, less restrained school provision. Big Citizens will only come out of the intention of the state to facilitate their growth. It is time for the government to risk that project to the people by guaranteeing education for Big Citizens in a Big Society. It may need some refreshing, but it is not time to remove citizenship education if you believe in a Big Society, it is time to Big it up.

Views expressed on this blog are not necessarily those of the Citizenship Foundation.

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