Class distinction

Nice to see my recent post making it on to The Guardian’s Society Daily post yesterday. Patrick Butler’s commentary is a far more thoughtful contribution to the debate than the original letter he’s defending. The operative sections being:

“I have some sympathy with the signatories of this letter in “defence of civil society”, from a group of social entrepreneurs who feel that the election knock-about over David Cameron’s ‘big society’ has somewhat obscured, misrepresented or trivialised some of the ideas within it – citizen engagement, community ownership, self-help, public services co-ops and so on.

Media cynicism about big society I expected. But I’ve been struck by how a combination of election fever and tribal loyalty has turned some liberal-minded friends and colleagues who I imagined might be sympathetic to some of the ideas in the concept into unfeasibly staunch defenders of the big state, as if what we had before us was a straightforward choice, one or the other. Friends who have for years bemoaned the decline in voting, the scarcity of cub scout leaders, and other signs of the erosion of social capital bristle at the chutzpah of Cameron for proposing to do something about it.

I’ve also noticed how presumptive and self-referential some of my contemporaries’ scepticism is: that because “we” are too busy with our 30- or 40-something metropolitan middle-class professional lives to contribute, who could possibly make it work? And isn’t it all just a rightwing conspiracy to undermine the welfare state?”

I can’t comment on behalf of Mr Butler’s friends but not only am I not cynical about citizen engagement, community ownership and self-help, I happily spend my paid working life and a large proportion of my spare time on a voluntary basis either promoting or carrying out this stuff. What I am sceptical about is the idea that these activities necessarily can and should act as a replacement for the essential functions of the state.

The key problem’s not that 30 – 40 something middle class professionals won’t have time to take part in civil society – please note, I am under 30, do not have a degree or a professional qualification and am writing this wearing a hoodie.

30 – 40 something middle class professionals are disproportionately likely to either not be heavily dependent on the welfare state to ensure the viability of their everyday existence or, if they do rely heavily on some public services, to receive good ones that the won’t need replacing with a Big Society or John Lewis style scheme.

The danger with political enthusisasm for people in communities solving problems for themselves is that it represents the state – whose reasonably well paid professionals have consistently failed to solve some of the biggest problems affecting the most disadvantaged communities – washing its hands of the problem and crossing its fingers that plucky local volunteers or small social enterprises will be able to do better.

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3 responses to “Class distinction

  1. James Doran

    The reason Cameron harps on about the “big society” is because it is a conscious reference to Thatcher’s claim that there’s no such thing as society (a claim at odds with her passionate patriotic belief in the British state’s use of power, but hey-ho).

    And it seems this narrative appeals to politicians, and to focus groups populated by affluent swing voters living in key marginals.

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  2. beanbagsandbullsh1t

    The Thatcher quote is obviously the origin of the Big Society label but I don’t think the Tories are entirely wrong about the need to generate alternatives to the big state – certainly the centralised big state.

    I think we do need to have a sensible discussion about what the state should and shouldn’t do – and how much people are prepared to pay in tax to facilitate this being done.

    My problem is that the social enterprise movement is currently struggling to fashion a contribution to that debate beyond ‘social enterprise will sort it out’ then if anyone asks how social enterprise will sort it out they’re labeled as negative and cynical.

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  3. James Doran

    Such a sensible debate is possible, but it is not likely to actually impact upon policy-making – largely because state spending is dictated by the activity of the private sector – a large part of which has been bailed out during the last few years.

    The political consensus is that the state should act to guarantee the functioning of property ownership and competitive markets beyond which a safety net should be provided through taxation to help the sick and unemployed, to provide healthcare, education, etc. at low or zero cost to consumers.

    The Tories seem to be arguing not only that the state should not directly provide services beyond policing and defence – but that it might be possible to solve a “broken society” with less state spending.

    Now, if the private sector was comprised of more social enterprises – in other words, enterprises which internalise social and environmental costs – there would obviously be reduced need for state spending. But these enterprises would have lower profit levels than traditional capitalist firms.

    The question is, who would be willing to invest in social enterprise given the much lower rate of return on capital? It would require a conscious decision on the part of investors to make less money than they could elsewhere.

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