Monday, October 11, 2010

The 'Big Society' and the strong state

What is the 'Big Society' for? Is there any evidence that it is a response to popular sentiments, that it actually resonates with any underlying political feeling, for example? The polling would suggest not. Most people have not heard of it, and most don't know what it means. There is little enthusiasm for the idea when it's explained to them. Certainly, the majority aren't anxious to volunteer for any 'Big Society' programmes - why should they perform for free what public servants can perform for a wage? I would hypothesise that the 'Big Society' idea isn't really supposed to resonate, and people aren't supposed to know what it's about. It is a deodorant, precisely intended to "decontaminate the Tory brand", surrounding it in a fragrant pot-pourri of sweet nothings. It does not explain the main policies advanced under its rubric, nor does it provide a coherent policy mix. At most it places a new inflection on old policies. We'll come back to this.

There is, of course, an intellectual penumbra surrounding the 'Big Society'. Nathan Coombs' dissection of Philip Blond [pdf] would suggest that at least one of its major advocates is an occult medievalist. As far as the Conservative Party apparatus goes, it would appear to derive from the 'compassionate conservatism' of Marvin Olasky, and its exemplars drawn from a whole range of corporate philanthropists, latterly including Geoffrey Canada of the Harlem Childrens' Project, who bashed the teaching unions at Tory conference this year. More on this in a moment. But is the 'Big Society' a Thatcherite idea?


You may argue that in acknowledging that "there is such a thing as society" it constitutes a break with Thatcherism, but that is to buy into an Aunt Sally version of Thatcher. Her famous quote, including the phrase "there is no such thing as society", is wildly misread if it is taken to imply that there can be no mutualism, cooperation and charity, that is if it is taken to be simply a hardnosed declaration that everyone is out for themselves. In fact, Thatcher was being an orthodox Hayekian here in that, for this kind of liberal, all corporate entities beyond the individual are fictitious. In this sense, there is no 'company', 'class', 'school', etc. These are reducible to the individuals who make them up. But the context of the quote made it clear that for Thatcher, charity and mutualism were entirely appropriate forms of social solidarity, at times worthy replacements for state intervention.

But Thatcher was also a statist. She used the state not only to discipline labour, but to ringfence the national space and keep out immigrants, to wage war, to discriminate against gays and bolster patriarchy, to draw power away from local democratic institutions and centralise it (or disperse it among quangos), and so on. Is there a contradiction here? Is there something basically incompatible between a strong state and a free economy? Was Thatcher parting with her Hayekian premises here? In one sense, yes. Hayek was a liberal whose overriding concern was not with state sovereignty. Indeed, in some of his writing he confesses to hostility to the very principle of sovereignty. On the other hand, Hayek was far more profoundly influenced by Carl Schmitt than he found it convenient to acknowledge, and it was above all Schmitt's authoritarian liberalism that shaped his views on the liberal state. The role of the strong state in Schmitt's ideology is to protect the autonomy of civil society, as a zone where the rule of law alone restricts an individual's freedom - obviously, this freedom includes first and foremost the freedom of capitalist managers to operate outwith excessive regulation, and of capitalist owners to invest without excessive appropriations. So it was for Hayek, who saw a strong state as an at times essential bulwark against the encroachments of democracy. Thatcher's bolstering of the state in its disciplinary, coercive capacity is entirely consistent with her downsizing of the state in its welfare capacity.

Hayek insisted that he was not a conservative, and in a very antiquated sense this is true. He preferred to position himself in the 'old Whiggish' tradition of Edmund Burke. This would seem odd at first glance. Hayek's market-based modernism and rationalism would seem to be incompatible with Burkean empiricism and traditionalism. Hayek was a Kantian, while Burke was a Humean. Hayek was a methodological individualist, while Burke believed in an organic social totality. But their understanding of spontaneous social order was derived from the same classical political economy, and the political order that both defended was identical - 'free market' capitalism with a parliamentary system founded on some conception of natural law, and characterised by an amalgamation of political forms including monarchy, aristocracy and an elite democracy. There is thus enough shared territory for Hayek to claim some affinity with Burke, though the latter's conservatism was of a piece with his defence of the post-1688 Whig tradition - just as Schmitt's counter-revolutionary conservatism in Political Theology was continuous in fundamental ways with the authoritarian liberalism of The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy. Today, conservatism has long since adapted to and incorporated liberal ideas, so that Hayek's insistence that he was not a conservative was anachronistic. The point I wish to underline with these observations is that a powerful sovereign state is not merely a central component of the conservative tradition, but is perfectly compatible with a certain kind of right-wing market-based liberalism. There is no reason why a 'Big Society' could not also have a strong state.


Back to the 'Big Society', then. Coming from a coalition government with a Liberal component and a 'freedom bill' in gestation, you might suppose that it will have a strong libertarian inflection. So let's look at the areas where the Conservatives have appeared to take a libertarian position relative to New Labour. The Tories in opposition sensibly positioned themselves against ID cards and the database state, having initially been supportive of the measures. They also took the side of publicans over the smoking ban, preferring 'voluntary' bans to be introduced by individual companies, though there's little sign that this ban will be reversed or even significantly modified.

Under David Cameron's leadership, the Tories expressed some scepticism about control orders on the grounds that they were both an affront to due process and wasteful. However, they did nevertheless vote for the renewal of the orders in 2007 (the legislation has to be renewed each year) before abstaining in 2008 and 2009. Since forming a government, the Tories have issued new control orders and have been engaged in a protracted conflict with the courts over the issue. The signs are that control orders will be retained in some form on the implausible grounds that the Tories were unaware of the security situation while in opposition. On asylum seekers, the Tories promised that they would move to end child detention, arguably a slight humanisation of a system that has resulted in systematic abuse - but since the detention system will remain in place, it will also involve breaking up more families.

The liberalisation that the Tories have reluctantly embraced has often involved endorsing New Labour reforms - on section 28 and gay adoption, for example. On the other hand, the Tories have firmly backed the government's anti-immigration legislation, just as they have backed the government on most 'anti-terror' legislation. The Tories have often wanted to go farther than the last government, demanding a tougher policy on crime (there are now noises that prisoners will have to work a 40 hour week in jail), and imposing a cap on non-EU immigration. Much of the legislation they have opposed, meanwhile, has been that which abridged sovereign power. For example, the Human Rights Act has been a Conservative bete noir since it was introduced. It has allowed the judiciary to inflict defeats on the government over issues such as immigration, deportation and rendition. Cameron argued for the repeal of this act precisely to prevent that from happening. Indeed, the Law Lords ruled last year that the use of control orders was in breach of the European Convention of Human Rights. All signals are that such libertarianism as does manifest itself with this government will be low key and relative - ie, relative to the last government, which set a high benchmark for authoritarianism. And it is not only in the area of civil liberties, crime and immigration that one expects the 'strong state' to persist.


The 'Big Society' has been pitched as a remedy for the 'broken society'. It involves a radical re-structuring of the welfare state and the public sector. Its intellectual basis has been in preparation since the Tories' devastating election defeat in 2001. In addition to the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS), which had informed Tory social thought since Keith Joseph founded it in 1974, there has been the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), set up by former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith in 2004 to provide conservative answers to the problems of poverty and 'social exclusion'. Iain Duncan Smith comes from the Thatcherite wing of the Conservative Party, a 'strong state and free economy' conservative whose campaign for the leadership was briefly set back when it transpired that one of his advisers was the father of BNP leader, Nick Griffin. The base and the parliamentary party had endorsed him precisely because of this vintage. But he couldn't restore the Tories to a decent standing in the polls, and lasted less than two years as leader.

Theresa May understood the problem: "Our base is too narrow," she told the party as its chairperson in May 2002, "and so, occasionally, are our sympathies". The Tories were seen, she warned, as "the nasty party". The politics of the free market and the strong nation were not enough to win elections any more. The Tories had lost votes among the professional middle class, the lower middle class and the 'skilled working class', which could not be mobilised on such a basis. Duncan Smith had tried to take this lesson on board and implement it, and David Willetts started to try to float a distinctly Tory response to poverty and social exclusion. But it wasn't enough to detoxify the Tory brand. However, the CSJ took this strategy forward and, after another failed interregnum, David Cameron took the Tory leadership. Acknowledging the advice of Lord Ashcroft and advisor Steve Smith, Cameron "smelled the coffee", staking out an ostensibly 'moderate' policy stance in order to "decontaminate the Tory brand".

Cameron's leadership succeeded to some extent, where Duncan Smith failed. Cameron, like his predecessors, comes from the Thatcherite right-wing, but he has persuaded many commentators that he belongs to the 'One Nation' tradition of Benjamin Disraeli - though he has never been a member of the 'One Nation' parliamentary group. He speaks the language of progress and social reform, and articulates concerns about inequality and poverty. It sounds a great deal more like the 'left-wing' Toryism of Macmillan and Butler than the hard-nosed Poujadism of Thatcher and Tebbitt. Yet, specific policies on welfare and the public sector are notable for being continuous with the legacy of Thatcherism. Indeed, many of the policies associated with the 'Big Society' are recycled from past Conservative manifestos, as well as camping on territory recently staked out by New Labour. 'Free schools' and 'GP-led' trusts advance the logic of partial privatization, academies and foundation hospitals. They are profoundly anti-democratic in thrust, just as the earlier transfer of public assets to quangos was an attack on democracy. The attempts to reduce 'wasteful bureaucracy' continues previous manifesto commitments, and follows from New Labour's battles with the civil service and public sector employment. 'Freeing' public sector workers from central oversight, and 'liberating' them to focus on targets is an old Thatcherite idea that was enthusiastically taken up by New Labour.

And for all that the Tories would pose as friends of liberty, when it comes to welfare reform the moral panic of the "broken society" authorises not less but more surveillance and bullying. It has been argued that the "broken society" will reduce the statist "chivvying" that has left "shards" of "vanished civilities" littering the political terrain. This is highly unlikely. A centrepiece of Cameron's election campaign in 2010 was that the government should cut off benefits for those who refuse jobs. The Tories under Cameron continued its policy of seeking to force claimants to work for their benefits, ending the "something for nothing culture" and "helping" people back into work. The morality behind this policy, implying that unemployment is the result of an individual moral failure and that those who claim benefits are parasites, is the same as that which drove the first tentative moves toward workfare under Thatcher, finally bearing fruit with 'Project Work' in 1996 and continuing under New Labour.

Indeed, the whole thrust of Cameron and Osborne's attack on the undeserving poor - because, as Cameron and 'fairness' means giving people what they deserve - is that the state should have more of a say in the lives of those claim benefits. It reflects the dominant values of a ruling class that is, pace Digby Jones, demanding ever more disciplinarian and intrusive policies for the poor, while claiming greater liberty for itself, principally from taxation and regulation. That the recipients of benefits are citizens claiming an entitlement, and not beggars, is conveniently bypassed in a discursive regime that criminalises the unemployed and disabled, just as the Tories and New Labour have successfully criminalised asylum seekers.


Now, I raise this because there is a debate between Anthony Barnett and David Marquand, old colleagues in Charter 88. It is a debate whose assumptions about the nature of Thatcherism, the Cameroons and the 'Big Society' I find deeply questionable. There is an assumption that the 'Big Society', however vague and inconsistent its concrete recommendations, is a genuine attempt to move beyond New Labour authoritarianism. There is an assumption that the attempt at finding mutualist, cooperative answers to social problems is real and meaningful, despite the incoherent mishmash of medievalist distributism, philanthropy, meritocratic dogmas and 'progressive' social thought that underpins it. There is even an assumption that the 'Big Society' answers to some popular demand for freedom from overbearing statist interventionism. But the evidence behind these assumptions is scarcely to be seen. The Tory instinct will always be to strengthen the state's repressive capabilities, because it is in this capacity that the sovereign state most effectively wards off popular democracy and upholds the interests of those class fractions that are most closely integrated into the Conservative Party leadership. To imagine otherwise is to leave oneself vulnerable to a sickening let down.