Phillip Blond, the main architect of U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron’s “big society”, is coming to Canada this week. The timing couldn’t be better as our political parties get set to offer up their competing versions of what ails us and how we might go forward together.
Blond is gaining a lot of attention with a blistering diagnosis of U.K. society that will, I think, resonate profoundly with many Canadians and tap into our growing sense that here too something needs changing and that our current politics are not up to the task. The ideas, laid out in speeches, articles, a new website and most recently Red Tory, a book named for a term invented right here in Canada, are getting picked up by conservative thinkers on both sides of the ocean and are being put into play by Cameron’s coalition government. Blond’s wide-ranging work — part academic thesis, part political tract, part sermon — is in fact being embraced and vilified across the political spectrum. It shows, for better or worse, that there is room in politics, even during elections, for big ideas. But it also shows, I believe, a troubling trend, a growing dependency on nostalgia as the inspiration for public policy.
First, what is the big idea at play here? Society, they say, is broken. The culprits: the uninterrupted growth of the state, which now reaches into every aspect of our lives, becoming increasingly centralized, authoritarian and remote; free market capitalism that has given free rein to greed and to corporations with no loyalties to community or country; and the glorification of the individual and a narrow notion of freedom that has turned us into atomised consumers, undermining our sense of responsibility to one another. The results: rising inequality and plutocracy, loss of community and mutuality, the hollowing out of civil society, and ultimately, the loss of meaning and civic virtue. This is Putnam on steroids. We aren’t just bowling alone, we are helplessly alone in the face of an increasingly authoritarian state, greed-driven monopoly capitalism and a world of selfish competition.
Little wonder that Red Tory is creating a stir. Here Blond is criticizing social democrats with their faith in the state, and Thatcher Conservatives and Blair’s New Labour with their faith in the markets, and all liberals for their glorification of the individual. His equation of Thatcher and Blair raises pretty tough questions about just what the so-called “third way” was really about. In short, it seems that just about everybody has been wrong and for quite a while now. And the solution: nothing less than a new politics – “the big society” – in which we recreate community and mutual responsibility, curtail the state and the corporation, and promote local autonomy and social enterprise and a shared sense of the common good.
So, what are we to make of all this? The diagnosis, even if over the top, will be compelling or at least recognizable to many of us, especially in our darker moments. We do worry about the increasingly closed, bureaucratized state that seems not only remote, unresponsive and inaccessible but also more and more intrusive and authoritarian particularly in the name of public security and safety. And it is an unexpected pleasure to read Blond as he explores the human and social costs of free market policies: the unsupportable levels of inequality, the power and reach of corporations, the interpenetration of money and politics — one could forget for a moment the Tory part of Red Tory. For Blond, the big box supermarket chain is the perfect symbol of what is wrong here — and he has a ready audience for these concerns. And surely, too, many of us have worried about how hollow is the narcissism and self-preoccupation of our consumer society and how hard this makes it for modern citizens to find any common ground or shared purpose.
Some of his solutions, though less clearly spelled out, will have resonance too – the importance of local initiative and control, voluntarism and social responsibility, cooperatives, mutuals, social enterprise, and other forms of association and community self-help. All this has enormous appeal as it seems to be putting people and their relationships at the centre of things — where they belong. Blond’s work is brimming with good and important ideas and we ought to be watching with great interest as the U.K. government implements at least some of them. We are already seeing examples of social enterprise that show promise, and thinkers like Davies have set out ways to encourage mutuals and meaningful employee ownership. We are also seeing examples of social entrepreneurship where citizens are taking control over issues that matter to them, not waiting for government. And Blond’s understanding of the need to harness the market and regulate the corporate sector for the common good is a refreshing voice in a neoliberal world.
But notwithstanding its merits, the approach, at least as I understand it, also presents real challenges and dangers. Its radical localism, its vision of community control of key services, will depend on local capacity which is inevitably uneven, on new funding models not yet fully developed, and on the willingness of communities to take on more responsibilities, which is not assured. Most people are already stretched for time and many may not want to become “service managers”. And, if the state uses these new models to justify deep cuts, localism could easily become compulsory volunteerism or what we usually call offloading. So, for example, voluntary firefighters are important and deserve our respect and support – but they also deserve the best of training and equipment and the support of professionals and they cannot be expected to do the whole job. We know that community health care and social services are important but they cannot do it all. They cannot take on research and science, health surveillance, infrastructure and procurement, redistribution, and the pooling of risk to ensure that everybody is covered for care.
Communities cannot do it all and society cannot be reduced to the sum of its communities. How, in the face of radical localism, do we achieve any measure of trust and solidarity across communities? Modern society depends on some measure of reciprocal responsibility and mutual accommodation with strangers as we seek solutions for shared problems that cannot be solved at the community level – climate change, the degradation of our environment, poverty at home and globally. Bond powerfully takes up the issue of rising inequality and he wants to “recapitalise the poor” so they can break out of their cycle of dependency. But the risk of radical localism and a weakened state is the perpetuation of these inequalities and the privilege, prejudice and distrust that come with them.
The radical emphasis on community, taken to its extreme, looks awfully like a desire to roll back modernity and return to the “big society” that never was. For a country like Canada, in particular, making local community the centre of action, however attractive, misses the realities of mobility, the growing desire for variety and appreciation of diversity. It also offers little on the inevitable challenges of finding solidarity across dispersed and diverse communities. We should welcome the commitment to rebuild a robust and independent civil society but not as a community alternative to the state or as a rejection of pluralism. Here Blond’s approach looks awfully like other more traditional conservative anti-governmentalism steeped in nostalgia masquerading as policy.
Blond knows that he is vulnerable to such criticism but denies accusations of nostalgia with a simple, ‘the past WAS better than the present’. But his romantic discussion of poverty before the rise of the social democratic state belies the point. Bond argues that the state stripped away the self-organizing capacity of the poor, diminishing them and trapping them into dependency. One gets a picture of bucolic medieval communities where church, charity and community ensured happy, well-adjusted poor, only to be undone by the heavy hand of the interventionist state. But this isn’t history. Missing from this picture is any sense of the vulnerabilities, of the expulsion of the undesirable, of the imprisonment of beggars, of child labour and workhouses, and the demeaning dependency on charity typically reserved for the “deserving poor”. This is indeed nostalgia not memory, not history — or, as historian Charles Maier put it, it is “history without guilt”, dangerous because it reflects a longing for a time that never was, a sense of loss for something we never had, and therefore can blind us, in this case, to the limits of community and the important role the state has played in freeing the poor from misery and dependence. The contribution of free education, universal access to health care, help in tough times, pensions, for starters, deserves more than passing mention that some good was done. And surely these “intrusions” can’t be seen as having enslaved the poor.
Few would disagree that we must reinvent how we deliver public services, that when badly delivered they can deepen dependency, that we must get the incentives right, that no one size fits all, that we have to find more empowering approaches. But Red Tory’s anti-state rhetoric confuses the picture as does the uncertain idea of a “civic state” where local communities take over the functions of government. There are promising new models being tried out here and there that could help to make government work better, but the overall thrust of Red Tory is likely to lead to massive withdrawal of state programs, with the nostalgic hope that families and communities will fill the void. In the end, Blond joins Thatcher in the more traditional conservatism of Edmund Burke. What unites these three thinkers is their belief that our answers reside in “the little platoon” into which we were born – “to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affection. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country and to mankind.”
And this brings us to the crux of what is most troubling about the “big society” – and that is Blond’s desire to rediscover the true Britishness that has been lost. He equates this with civic virtue and the common good, a return to some shared idea of the noble life, and he finds this in the past – before the ravages of secularism, liberalism and multiculturalism and the cultural relativism they imply. He is invoking a time when people knew right from wrong, took responsibility, were dutiful, when the elites had a sense of noblesse oblige, when communities had more control of their destinies. Was there such a time? Certainly not for women, or people who practiced minority religions, or no religion, or people who were different or despised. No wonder Cameron declared multiculturalism a failure. This is all a part of trying to roll back modernity – to what? To whose “high culture”?
Certainly, it is useful to debate these issues, to make sure that multiculturalism does not degenerate into islands of separate communities or a country bound together only by its diversity. And that means for a country like Canada a significant investment in civil society. It means state support for those diverse organizations that speak for the otherwise invisible, the marginalised and vulnerable, organizations like Egale, or the AFN and Elizabeth Fry and John Howard and the Civil Liberties Association. It means support for local, national and international non-governmental organizations to do what government cannot do as well. It also means encouraging new types of association that can push and prod government and hold it to account, associations that cut across our differences based on democratic values, human rights and a commitment to mutual aid and the peaceful resolution of conflict, associations that do not impose a single version of what it means to be Canadian but bring us together to hash out our best understanding of the common good and how to pursue it, associations that serve not as a substitute for the state but as necessary ingredients to revitalising our democracy and our citizenship.
I expect that whenever problems seem intimidatingly complex, nostalgia provides some comfort. We see it in the Tea Party’s rewriting of history that turns robber barons into entrepreneurial pioneers or slave owners into the champions of freedom. We see it from the left when it reminisces about the days of the great equality movements when fundamental change seemed possible, even close at hand, reconstituting those days into some idyllic time that never was, forgetting the missteps and mixed motives. Nostalgia is a sort of utopian thinking and can be helpful in linking us to enduring values that may be at risk. It can be an impetus for action – as Camus said it, “every act of rebellion is a nostalgia for lost innocence.” But it cannot be the basis for politics or policy.
So, Blond is right that we need to rebuild civil society and has some pretty exciting ideas – but just as the state without a strong and independent civil society is an empty shell that serves the powerful, strong civil society without the state is a myth. While we ought to learn from history, the model of civil society drawn from nostalgia is not the answer, nor is a sense of the common good derived from a romantic recollection of a particular tradition.
But, for all their warts, Red Tory and “big society” are reminders that politics and elections can be about ideas, even big ideas about citizens taking back their democracy and taking on the future.