Big Society or Little Trick?

Cameron’s Vision Thing is too obvious to fool anybody.

If you are a professional politician your job, as a minister when your party is in office, whether on its own or in coalition, is to take part in managing the general affairs of capitalism in your country. Politicians are elected and so you have to win popular support. Just to say “we’re a better capitalism-management team than the other lot” is hardly inspiring, even though most people do see elections as being about choosing the least objectionable set of politicians. National politicians have even been described as the mere middle management of international corporate capitalism.

As a politician in office you also have to win a degree of popular support for the policies capitalism obliges you to pursue. It’s not enough to be truthful and say “I’m just reacting to whatever problems the uncontrollable workings of capitalism place on my agenda”. You have to give the impression that you are working towards a better life for everyone. Hence the need felt by politicians to do what George Bush called “the Vision Thing”. You must give the impression that you are engaged in doing something more than the mere routine management of capitalism. It rarely works, but politicians still try it from time to time. The latest is Cameron and his “Big Society”.

State and society
Cameron’s “Big Society” is based on a distinction between “society” and “government”, reflecting that emphasised by the German philosopher Hegel between “civil society” and “the state”. In saying he wants “society” to be big he is saying he wants government to be small (or, rather, since that would be going too far from a capitalist point of view, for it to be smaller). His scheme involves transferring some of the services provided by local councils to the “voluntary sector”, i.e. to charities and “social enterprises” (enterprises that are not allowed to distribute their profits). In other words, a continuation of the Thatcherite programme – and the permanent agenda of big business – of rolling back the state so that taxes on capitalist enterprises can be reduced allowing them to keep more of their profits.

Transferring services to the voluntary sector will save money because those working in this sector are generally paid less and have less job security than local government employees. The “Big Society”, then, turns out to be not to be a grand vision but a sordid little exercise in cheese-paring. Or rather, in so far as it is a longer-term view, it’s putting a positive spin on the New Age of Austerity announced by Cameron and his government.

Hegel’s “civil society” (bürgerliche Gesellschaft) is often translated, especially when used by Marx, as “bourgeois society”, which in fact is what Hegel meant: the everyday economic activities of people in pursuit of their personal interest, capitalists competing for markets and profits and workers competing for job and wages. The state he saw as representing and enforcing the overall general interest of society as a whole. Marx showed that, while the state did indeed represent an overall general interest, it was not that of society as a whole but that of the bourgeoisie, the capitalist class, as a whole.

The state is defined not just by socialists but even by conventional academics as a institution with a monopoly in the employment of legitimate force within a given territory. But the state is more than just force. It is also the centre of social control and as such has responsibility for carrying out various administrative tasks essential to the continuation of society such as, these days, education, health care, looking after the vulnerable, town planning and many others.

It is by no means self-evident that these necessary services would be better performed by charities and other civil society organisations than by national or local government. In fact the likelihood is that in most cases they won’t be or won’t be sustainable. But that’s not the point. They will be cheaper. That’s the point.

Voluntary work
There is one interesting aspect of Cameron’s plan. Relying on volunteers to do certain things accepts that there is such a thing as voluntary work, which the ideological defenders of capitalism usually deride. According to them, people are motivated to work only by monetary compensation or by the threat of starvation. In seeking to take advantage, even if only to save money, of the undeniable fact that millions of hours of voluntary work are engaged in by people all the time, the government is unintentionally conceding an important point to socialists. People are motivated to do socially useful work by reasons other than money and so could be relied on to do this too in a socialist society.

In a sense socialism will be a “big society” in that it will be all society and no state. However, what we mean by both “society” and “state” is different from what Cameron means. By “society” we don’t mean bourgeois civil society where everybody has to fend for themselves to get a living, but one based on the common ownership of the means for producing useful things where everyone will be guaranteed a decent living by virtue of having free access to what they need. What people need will be provided by society and will not depend on their own initiative or competitive effort.

While the coercive aspects of the state – what makes it a state and which Cameron has no intention of downsizing – will have disappeared, many of its administrative functions will remain. There will still be central and local councils, though much more accountable and democratic than today and whose personnel won’t be able to allocate themselves any material privileges as everyone will have free access to what they need. In these changed circumstances there is no reason why some of the services provided by these administrations today should not continue to be. On the other hand, there will be scope for some of them to be provided by groups of volunteers. It will be up to the local communities of the time to decide. But the debate then will be a genuine debate about the best way to organise things in the common interest. Not the smokescreen to disguise cost-cutting in the interest of the capitalist class that Cameron’s “Big Society” is.


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