Monday, 16 August 2010

Breakfast in the Big Society.

The Evening Standard has recently boasted of having hit the £1 million milestone as part of efforts to establish the Dispossessed Fund, the paper also featured a list of leading donors including the asset-stripping retail tycoon Philip Green and Maurice Saatchi - who one wrote If this is Conservatism, I am Conservative. The front page story brought to mind the phrase "Big Society" churned out by David Cameron's campaign machine. If you've forgotten about the term, since we've had over 100 days of a Con-Dem Coalition, it was a pillar of Cameron's speeches as the Conservative Party walked into the General Election on a campaign of "Change". The Tory vision of a "Big Society" includes community action and social responsibility as it's foundation. In raising £1 million for London's dispossessed, the Evening Standard has demonstrated such social responsibility.

The notion of the "Big Society" is in stark contrast to the "Broken Britain" phenomenon the right-wing press has spat out to bring popular anxieties - of welfare dependency, teenage pregnancy and binge drinking - together under a party-platform on which a leader can rail against 'New Labour'. The Conservatives have latched onto the idea that Britain is broken and have used it to propel themselves forward, presenting a vision of society which is "big" in the sense that government is "smaller" than it used to be. The logic of the "Big Society" is that charities, community organisers and volunteers will take on the tasks of "Big Government". This explains Gove's "free schools" paid for by tax-payer money siphoned from the funds for free school meals, let alone the talk of "milk-snatching", as a desire to "empower" communities by letting them "decide" (and pay for) what their children eat for lunch - not so rich kids can have access to the best resources that tax-payers can buy, of course not.

The Dispossessed Fund is not an instance of the cuts-driven "Big Society" but it is an example of the kind of community action which David Cameron is in favour of, which would clarify why he praised the fund - a meaningless gesture in itself. The Dispossessed Fund will raise money to help London's poorest via hundreds of grass-roots charities active in five key areas: education; getting people into work; improving mental/physical health; helping the homeless, pensioners and the working poor; tackling gang-related crime. Notice that all of these areas should be the duty of the state, as well as society, and charities are an insufficient means to such problems as poverty. Yes, charitable giving and voluntarism are better than nothing. But there is more at work in the kind of charity that the Evening Standard is indulging in, the kind praised by the Con-Dems.

This is not the kind of "creative capitalism" practiced by George Soros and Bill Gates, in their day jobs they accumulate wealth and property - benefiting greatly from the public-sector and enormous tax-cuts along the way - but give away some of the money to charity in their private lives. It is closer to the kind of consumerism which has redemption, in the form of charity, built into it - the kind practiced by Starbucks and Waitrose. In buying fair trade goods, organic food, clothes from a charity shop etc, you feels better about being a consumer and taking part in passive consumption. This is part of propelling the system onwards as it exploits. Starbucks might be "fairer" to the coffee farmers and the children of Guatemala, but such "fairness" is limited and insufficient in improving the conditions to which such children are born to. It is itself dependent on the exploitation of places like Guatemala to increase revenue, there needs to be impoverished people to give charity to in this system.

This sort of consumerism is almost obligatory in today's world, especially as a leftist or even a liberal you are obligated to engage in consumerism to redeem yourself of living in a capitalist society. Even though the aim of the social democratic reforms, out of which the welfare state emerged in Britain during the late 1940s, was to ensure that the people would not have to rely on the "kindness of strangers" to survive if they themselves could not afford adequate health-care and food etc. Whereas buying a coffee from Starbucks to help the impoverished prolongs the suffering of such people, it does not tackle the real conditions which resulted in their poverty and ultimately is part of the problem. Despite the best efforts of the Evening Standard and Starbucks, among others, the improvement of conditions for the poor does not justify capitalism as even in the slave trade some slaves were treated better and conditions improved.

If we were serious about ending poverty and dealing with the inequalities that plague our society, we would be pushing for full employment, a rejuvenated welfare state, the tight regulation and taxation of "Big Business". The kind of "Big Government" that has existed under 'New Labour' was not a progressive force in British society, it exerted state-power at the benefit of private-power. The "Big Society" is at best an example of "liberal communism", in the sense that it is proposed to achieve radical goals of equality (e.g. solidarity) through liberal means (e.g. public spending cuts). Essentially a utopian idea which quickly saw it's own arm off when put into practice. But that is a very generous and forgiving description to say the least, it might be more apt to sum it up as an instance of Cameron's conservatism - "One World Conservatism" - or, as I like to think of it,  Thatcherism without the penis.

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