Miliband vs Cameron on the Big Society
by Rob Ray
On the face of it, the Prime Minister and his pals head in the right direction as far as anarchist theory is concerned. The Big Society focuses heavily on “empowering communities” by removing state interference, on encouraging stronger community links and communal responsibility – all of which have historically been part of libertarian organising.
Indeed his most recent piece is no different, look at some of the language:
The first objection is that it’s too vague
It doesn’t follow some grand plan or central design. But that’s because the whole approach of building a bigger, stronger, more active society involves something of a revolt against the top-down, statist approach of recent years.
devolving power to the lowest level so neighbourhoods take control of their destiny; opening up our public services, putting trust in professionals and power in the hands of the people they serve; and encouraging volunteering and social action so people contribute more to their community.
With the exception of the “putting trust in professionals” bit, I doubt there’s many anarchists who would quibble with that. There have been conferences, local groupings and national organisations for years advocating decentralisation, the very word anarchy means “without government” (implying “with each other”).
But other lines are of concern – and what’s missing is more worrying still.
if neighbours want to take over the running of a post office, park or playground, we will help them. If a charity or a faith group want to set up a great new school in the state sector, we’ll let them.
The key word which is missing here is “money.”
Cameron talks (elsewhere) about a mutualist model, of people setting up co-ops to run services. But of the things listed there, none of them make a profit. Which is one very important reason why the government is getting rid of them.
What you can’t do is find money in say, the charitable sector – because that’s an extremely mature market with the vast majority of its funds already allocated and little prospect for growth (in fact as jobs go across the economy it’s likely to become more difficult to find funding, not less). The £400m of government money being pledged to “make it work” meanwhile is a pale shadow of the amounts paid for the state functions it’s supposed to be replacing, it won’t stretch to replacing £3 billlion of council cuts, for example.
How then are communities with no money – which can barely keep the local community centre open without state/charitable grants, supposed to take over?
The only workable options are:
- Grab (dwindling) government money to fund it in an ongoing way, necessitating basically the same problems of state coercion of any important functions as if they were directly state-run
- Force it to become profitable, so bump up prices, force out paid roles and slash wages, or make previously free things a paid-for experience (this is often done alongside point one by public sector directors who have jumped ship to do the same job in the private sector except for way more money)
- Get a patron with a LOT of money to fund it for you, leaving the entire thing at the whim of (in the case of say, some of the faith groups Cameron nods at) lunatics out to expand their own dodgy interests.
What this amounts to is a partial move towards of the oldest model of capitalism going, classical liberalism, or perhaps even older, as Cameron appeals to the church to recreate its pre-capitalist role gathering and redistributing money – primarily from the poor, to the poor.
The second criticism is that this is all a cover for cuts … I was talking about social responsibility long before the cuts.
And people were calling him out for being a liar even then.
The third criticism is that this may work in the leafy sort of areas that I represent, such as West Oxfordshire, but it won’t work in the most deprived parts of our country. Now, I could point to the failure of the alternative – big government – to help the poorest in the last decade, as the poorest got poorer and inequality widened.
But there is another powerful point: a lot of this criticism is misguided and founded on snobbery.
People have the compassion, flexibility and local knowledge to help their neighbours and communities.
Bang on. Absolutely. This is where the rhetoric of Big Society dovetails near-perfectly with anarchist theory. Big government does not stop the widening of inequality and pretending that impoverished communities cannot pull together for the common good is pure and simple patronising bollocks.
But rhetoric is all that is. Inequality doesn’t stop rising if you sell off state assets, either, because the genius of Keynes when he created the social contract of the state as provider of safety nets and basic living standards was that he allowed capitalism to operate largely as normal while providing nominal security for the poorest on a hand-to-mouth basis, at least for a while. Nothing in the current setup stops the economically strong from exploiting the weak, which is the actual basis of inequality and changes not a jot if we switch to a neoliberal model.
What DOES happen is that the indirect factors, those less easily counted on the abacus, get demolished. The child whose only escape from a brutal home was the youth centre loses it and thus their only support network. The illiterate adult whose benefits are cut off cannot get help to understand the decision, because their local community drop-in has lost its funding (perhaps to the Friends of Battersea Park). Headline inequality figures may not change much, but the ability for the bottom rungs to survive? another story.
Our approach will not merely enable them to build a stronger society, it will actively help them to do so.
And this is the crux of his wider lie. This approach is not going to build a stronger society because it has no intention of funding one. In conversations with other anarchists, one of the problems which comes up frequently for community organisers is the trade-off of volunteering against jobs. If you volunteer to run a park for free, the park-keeper’s wage drops out of the system. Not a problem for a stockbroker perhaps, but this tax-based income is a major form of economic redistribution. If you demand that people do jobs but refuse to use money you’ve taken off the wealthy to fund them, you are not helping to build communities but destroying their collective income.
The recognition of this contradiction, which sits at the heart of Cameron’s Big Society, is why anarchist community initiatives in the last while have tended to pull towards ideas like LCAP, or unemployed workers’ groups – organising to make sure people get that redistribution against the plots of the state to grab it back rather than to replace them with volunteer labour. If the working class collectively owned its own communities, the factories which employ them – the material assets of society in fact – Cameron would make sense. But it doesn’t, so he doesn’t.
I don’t want to pull the old “and this is why we need a revolution” out, it’s overused in anarchist writing, but well, if we want to offer autonomy to communities, really want to, we need to take control of the means of production, not merely the right to administer whatever peanuts survived your latest cull and weren’t bought up by private interests. That will require a class struggle against Cameron, because he is hardly likely to take on the current owners!
Fourth, some people say that what I’m talking about is not entirely new.
Too true. It’s the same old BS. And to segue seamlessly into the second part of this analysis, my sentiment is somewhat backed up (as you might expect) by his opposite number…
The reason why Mr Cameron’s Big Society is in such trouble is not simply because the Government is making painful cuts. The way it is doing it – so far, so fast – speaks to its ideological heart. It really believes that a small state will produce a Big Society.
But even more than David Cameron, Ed is disingenous in his approach. Just the line “so far, so fast” is evidence enough of the reality of his thinking.
While he recognises the ideological roots of the Tories, he glosses over his own legacy. A state bowed under with long-term debt from HIS government’s disastrous ideological commitment to private business in the form of PFI. Mass privatisation of services and where that wasn’t possible, the hated “arms-length” system. A million other little and large initiatives Labour put on while in power which the Tories are merely taking to their logical conclusion.
Labour was the pioneer of what Cameron is doing now. At its highest levels it accepts the need for cuts, agrees with the desire to privatise.
There is a better way. It starts from a belief that our economy, our communities and our civic society are made stronger not by small government, not by “big government” but by a government which values and acts in partnership with them. So we reject the view, that our country will be stronger simply by government getting out of the way.I have been clear that we should recognise the shortcomings of the centralised state, and understand that government must be devolved and responsive. But if we care about vibrant communities, strong civic institutions, if we value the bonds that tie us each to one another through our clubs, societies and through our families and friendships, then the Government must act to support them where they need it.
He disagrees not with cuts, not with smaller government, not with Cameron’s statement that support should be given to “volunteers and communities”… in fact what does he disagree with in Cameron’s article? He seems to be arguing that while they both intend to do exactly the same thing, they are separated by their “beliefs.” What vacuity. What an utter indictment of his own politics!
He talks about the “re-contamination” of the Tory party towards the end of his piece, while acting himself as precisely the same brand of virus. I actively looked for a difference in views in his and Cameron’s approaches, and could find only that “so far, so fast” line, which is less a difference of view than of timing.
And so my criticism of Miliband must by necessity be short, because I have covered everything he advocates in my criticism of the Tories.