Big Society, big economic shift?

The Big Society has always been painted as an antidote to big government, but what about the economics? Damian Tissier argues it could equally be about the end of big business and our obsession with the market

Jeremy Paxman once famously described it as ‘a concept as easy to bandy about and as hard to explain as Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle or the doctrine of transubstantiation’.

When the general public has been invited to give their views, 78% of voters confessed that they had no idea what it means. Even the government’s own supporters admit that the idea is confusing and lacks coherence.

And yet, as a political proposition, the Big Society appears to be remarkably resilient. Since it was first launched by David Cameron in his speech to the Conservative Party conference on the 8 October 2009 – and its principles expanded upon in his Hugo Young Lecture a month later – it has gone through various iterations.

Yet unlike other flagship policies, it has not been abandoned, still standing as one of the major themes of the coalition government’s political narrative.

The Big Society is Cameron’s big idea and he is not about to let it go. Among many politicians and political commentators there is a nagging feeling that Cameron may be onto something, tapping into a deep wellspring of public anxiety about the state of country’s social fabric and community life.

While the concerns of the Big Society – the decline in neighbourliness, the break-up of the family, the loss of shared cultural values, the erosion of community, and the weakening of social ties – may resonate with the general public, there is a very obvious contradiction between the government’s social objectives its economic policies.

It makes it far too easy for critics to caricature the Big Society as nothing more than a fig leaf for cuts in public expenditure. An argument most elegantly advanced by Richard Sennett, who describes it as ‘a small minded version of what you do when you are in times of scarcity’.

Indeed, Phillip Blond, one of the more thoughtful of the Tory policy gurus, has identified the problem as follows – ‘the great missing middle of the Big Society is the economics’. But what happens when we begin to think of the Big Society more as an economic rather than a social project?

I think it opens up some interesting avenues of thinking, not just about what kind of society we want in the future but also the type of economy.

First, let’s define what we mean by ‘economics’. The subject matter of what Malthus called famously the ‘dismal science’ is primarily concerned with the production, distribution and consumption of goods and services in a society. More specifically, it’s about making, doing and exchange – or what more broadly we can call purposeful human activity.

Such activity can be organised in different ways and historically three forms of economic systems have evolved. These are often called the traditional economy, the market economy and the command and control economy. Each type of economic system is founded upon very different values, embodies human relations in different forms and derives its legitimacy from different sources.

No one economic system is necessarily superior to the others. They all have their advantages and disadvantages, their good and bad sides. The attractive feature of the traditional economy is that it binds people and human activity together in a web of mutual obligations, built upon a strong sense of custom and community – by the same token, it can be rigidly hierarchical, antagonistic to change and restrictive of personal freedoms.

In contrast, the market economy is amazingly productive, incredibly dynamic and offers unrivalled consumer choice, but it has an unpleasant underbelly of greed, crass commercialisation and social inequity. The command and control economy is the area of economic life that falls under the direct control of the state: those public goods and services provided by central and local government that the market (and for that matter the traditional economy) were unable, unwilling or unsuited to provide. Yet, despite all its best intentions, the welfare state saps individual responsibility, is centrally directive and over-bureaucratic.

The traditional economy
– the world of unpaid work –
is largely ignored because it is not
measurable in monetary values.

Both the state and the private sector have been highly destructive of the traditional economy. Henry Hemmings, in his book Together: How Small Groups Achieve Big Things, argues the rapid growth of state provision over the last hundred years has largely been at the expense of various forms of voluntarism, mutualism and collective self-help. The market is even more voracious in the way it eats away at the social structures of traditional economy, undermining extended family networks and destroying local communities.

Nevertheless, all three economic systems continue to coexist more or less uneasily, work more or less well, and take a greater or lesser proportion of national resources in modern developed economies.

Since the collapse of communism and the globalisation of capital, command and control mechanisms have fallen out of political favour, although the state still maintains a vice-like grip on its share of GDP. The traditional economy – the world of unpaid work – is largely ignored because it is not measurable in monetary values.

So across the world, for the last 20 years or more, the ideology that has triumphed has been that of the market.

It found its most florid expression in an extraordinary 10,000-word article by Peter Schwartz and Peter Leyden published by Wired magazine in July 1997: ‘We are watching the beginnings of a global economic boom on a scale never experienced before. We have entered a period of sustained growth that could eventually double the world’s economy every dozen years and bring increasing prosperity for – quite literally – billions of people on the planet.

‘We are riding the early waves of a 25-year run of a greatly expanding economy that will do much to solve seemingly intractable problems like poverty and to ease tensions throughout the world. And we’ll do it without blowing the lid off the environment.’

Heady, and as we now know, wrong-headed stuff! As we have found out to our cost, the long boom of the last 25 years was built upon unsustainable levels of debt – all of us: governments, businesses and households – maxed out on our credit. It had to end in tears. This was, of course, the 2007/2008 banking crisis; and the fall-out from it has severely tested our faith in the free market.

Even Michael Portillo, former cabinet minister and erstwhile Thatcherite, asked in his recent two-part radio series: ‘Does it [capitalism, the market economy] work anymore?’

One line of argument is that at least in the advanced western economies once the market has reached a certain size, further growth adds little or nothing to the net sum of human happiness. The economist Richard Layard suggests that once a country has satisfied the basic needs of its citizens, simply getting richer (as measured by rises in GDP) does not make the population any happier in aggregate terms. Indeed the opposite is true. The advent of the consumer society in the UK has been accompanied by soaring rates of unhappiness. As the psychologist Oliver James has pointed out, the accumulation of more and more stuff simply makes us more and more anxious.

Like the sorcerer’s apprentice in Disney’s classic film Fantasia, we are overwhelmed by the flood of possessions into our homes.

We are becoming conscious too that our consumer lifestyles and our obsession with market driven economic growth are unsustainable. According to the October Eurobarometer report, more than two out of three Europeans place climate change as one of the world’s most serious problems, ranking it higher than the current economic crisis. Increasingly we are facing up to the uncomfortable and unavoidable truth is that climate change, environmental degradation and resource depletion threaten human survival.
But as yet we haven’t woken up to the fact that, as Tim Jackson writes in Prosperity Without Growth: Economies for a Finite Planet, we have ‘an economy that is fundamentally broken, in desperate need of renewal’.

Certainly, the three main political parties in England seem to be dangerously behind the curve in their analysis of the current mess we are in. All three cling to the belief that market growth is the necessary condition for curing our economic, social and environmental woes – their prescription is essentially business as usual. Isn’t it time they started to ask some more fundamental questions?

Is it the only source of wealth creation? Are material wealth and prosperity the same thing? Does producing more and consuming more make us any happier? Can the market deliver social goals of equity and fairness? Is it possible to square economic growth with environmental responsibility?

Many of us feel deep in our bones that there is something seriously wrong. On an individual level, it manifests itself in the desire for better life-work balance, to escape the rat race, and to somehow to arrive at a more ethical lifestyle. On the social level, it is expressed through movements like Transition Towns, community barter networks and local exchange trading systems, time banks, walkable neighbourhoods and the slow cities.

What they have in common is that they all draw upon the values of the traditional economy rather than those of the market or the command and control economies.

The Big Society too marks a return to the traditional economy. Social action is the state doing less and community doing more in a voluntary capacity – it is in other words, a rebalancing between the command and control and economy and the traditional economy.

When we apply the same logic to the market economy, we can see just how radical the Big Society agenda could potentially become. As Melanie Phillips has observed in relation to the community organiser project: ‘Cameron has drawn explicitly on the [programme] created by the revolutionary communist Saul Alinsky to develop a camouflaged army of subversive activists who would undermine and overturn western society.’

Neither big government, nor big business, but big society. Is this what Phillip Blond means by being a Red Tory?


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