Where has Big Society left Civil Society?

The social role of the state is viewed differently by different parties.

The Left sees a more proactive state that is concerned with the guarantee of social justice and equity by redistributing wealth and opportunity.

The Right would prefer the hands-off state who guarantee a minimal safety net for the most vulnerable, set at a level that discourages dependency by those who might opt into state support when on a downward spiral, rather than finding the determination to find self-reliance.

The idea of the Big Society arrived when civil society organisations had found themselves in a new place in relation to these formations. New Labour had recently re-configured to include the addition of state/civil-society collaboration through the Office of the Third Sector. The sub-text of the new partnership with civil society was that it would bring a second democratising force to support social justice in our political life, enfranchising representatives of the people as advocates for those in need, and as voices for equality. This second, civil force might also influence commerce to become more ethical – the dream of Blair and Brown at the time they dropped Clause 4.

If this ‘state in partnership with civil society’ idea was in our minds when we first heard ‘Big Society’ we are now under less illusion that the state as safety net is now evidently much closer to the new proposition.

The removal of the equalities based groups from partnership status with the Office for Civil Society has led many to characterise the ‘Charity State’ as a replacement for the Welfare State, leaving a place only for brokers of localism amongst its closer ranks. And whilst the OCS decreased its financial commitment to partnerships with charities, apparently because of financial cuts, those cuts to funding are mostly tapered to soften the blow that we are being let loose. After four years, whether we become wealthier as a nation or not, the state will be the state and not a partner with civil society. In short, despite the same old language of warmth to civil society, the terms of engagement haven’t just changed; it looks more like they’re off.

The difference between the OTS and Big Society is subtle but absolute. In the Big Society the state is not only pushing power away, but also shedding an element of responsibility, saying “we’re not best placed to do this – you civil society people are”; “The state doesn’t care… people do”; “The state decides what kind of things should be attended to, but real people should attend to it, not the state”.

What citizens need to question here is the insinuation that we are locally human but collectively merely an economy. This is a form of depersonalisation and disempowerment – similar to the way that we are currently portrayed as powerless against to the greater forces of the economy. This time it suggests that we are powerless to construct other models of social collaboration that support equality except on a voluntary or local level. But the power of citizenship is that it can create a collective constraint on natural excess and a corresponding demand for equity, not just charity: citizenship is how we say “enough” together. It is how we conclude national preferences through a humanised state, made up of individuals bringing their cultures, identities, values and concerns. The evidence suggests that people comprehend that – with research showing that they don’t want more devolved power, just as they don’t want the kind of GPs they sometimes abhor in local surgeries to run the NHS. It’s just that they are being offered the Charity State as a sole option borne of economic necessity.

But it’s surely not for lack of money – the welfare state emerged in a much poorer nation than today’s. I believe it is much more for a lack of will to risk ourselves to state management. In David Cameron the people simply saw a more trustable leader at a time of few discernible political options. And this is the unspoken genius of the Big Society perspective. Firstly it does at least offer some glimmer of a low-cost route out of debt (‘we will need to buddy each other into better times’) but secondly it allows the state to promise less and therefore live up to less. And in an age where government is scrutinised for every breath it takes, the party that promises least will definitely have a better chance of staying in power.

This position is at least consistent. The idea goes that just as citizens will be stronger for developing the kind of autonomy that won’t defer to the state, so too will civil society. And the state will be stronger too, because it can get on with doing its (smaller) job.

The new position is that the state will define the minimal offering below which people are truly in need, not sounding so much like a political disposition but more out of collective compassion, and all other social supports will be down to how the people use their freedom once the state gets out of the way. It goes something like this:

  • The state will not interfere with society except to help it stand alone;
  • The state will create a minimal intervention in supporting those in social need;
  • The government will take credit for this minimal intervention being better than a larger one;
  • This government will be seen to keep its promises because it’s not promising to do much;
  • Charities will form little partnership with the state but will be encouraged to bid for minimal state money to support those in need;
  • The state will not generate pre-emptive conditions to support social justice but will encourage everyone to be ethical towards each other;
  • This will all save money, excess may go unchecked but welfare scroungers won’t.

That last adjunct was thrown in gratuitously to make a point… As someone who cares about citizenship, I’m suspicious that Big Society rhetoric is smuggling in a myth that we’re not in such a highly constructed and constrained politically organised community as is the case. Put another way, it talks up the freedom of citizens and civil society groups, but we only really appear to be free because we live in a force field of legislated controls, and we call the permissive gaps in between ‘freedom’. But try not paying your taxes because you don’t believe in buying weapons, or breaking into a bank to get back some of your interest that just paid the CEO’s bonus. The terms and conditions are all decided. You’re a citizen almost as much as you’re a human. The state can’t vacate society just as civil society is never apolitical (as Dom Helder Camara said, “When I give food to the poor they call me a saint, when I ask why the poor have no food they call me a communist”) – but things can be done in many other ways. For all that it may prefer not to, or imply that it isn’t complicit, government is an apparatus for pre-empting the conditions of justice and our freedom is given boundaries related to our rights and responsibilities. It sets the framework, defines the way things work, makes the choices, addresses (or not) the bias.

But more than that, it isn’t actually being absent. It has its own project. The project is ‘The Big Society’. It’s a state funded project, not just in the millions that are being put into preferred partnerships, but also in the millions that pay for designated civil servant time to foster new initiatives such as the National Citizens Service in preference to other options. Big Society is a project that needs to be conceived, tested, piloted and evaluated in a very short period of time in order to aid re-election. All that over-and-against sustaining previous activities. It’s not a neutral, ‘society doing its own thing’ option. The political reality is closer to ‘The rest of society can do its own thing… we’re doing Big Society’ or more fairly, “Big Society is the way in which we will enable society to do its own thing”.

So here is where it might fall down. The people don’t really want a ‘bigger society’. In fact – it’s probably a deceptive rhetorical device. Society is actually the people and the state together. There is no dividing line. The state is the collective expression of the people’s organisational preferences. No one voted not to be organised, they probably just voted for a more trustable government. And very cleverly they’ve been given one that can be trusted because this time, it won’t do so much.

And if that is the case, the question for civil society groups, now that they are free of government favour, is ‘if Big Society is not actually about us, then what are We about?’

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

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