Wednesday, March 30, 2011

'Big Society' Thinking

Hard on the heels of the dubious arrests of the Fortnum and Mason's 138 (not something I thought I'd ever say), the blogosphere and left-leaning media are also alive with concern about government interference in another arena of public life, in this case the research agenda of the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Following the suggestion in last Sunday's Observer that AHRC funding was made conditional on establishing the 'Big Society' as a research priority, the Council has published what it describes as a 'refutation' on its website, claiming that the government didn't put the financial thumbscrews on them with respect to their agenda (there has been much hay-making on philosophy lists about the abuse of English verbs here...'refutation' being the act of demonstrating that something isn't true, as opposed to 'repudiation,' which is just saying that it isn't true.) The AHRC's 'refudiation' (as Sarah Palin would have it) has been - according to their Chief Executive - sent to the Observer and, in response, a letter from academics has also been dispatched to the editor, pointing out that there is probably even greater cause for concern (from both an intellectual and democratic perspective) if the AHRC has compromised the future of free academic inquiry entirely of its own volition.

One thing is clear: that the government might dictate the agenda for academic reflection represents a threat to intellectual freedom which is profoundly anxiety-inducing for anyone who cares about democracy. However, whether or not the government have been involved in nefarious meddling (the irony of this from those who feign concern about the dangers of 'big government'!), it is, nonetheless, important to underline that it is the tenor of the AHRC's objectives which should be the real source of alarm. While some may dismiss the 'Big Society' as propagandist nonsense unworthy of serious intellectual consideration, there is a strong argument that the ideas thrown about by people making public policy are exactly those which the academic community should be subjecting to critical scrutiny. However, the tone of the AHRC's Delivery Plan for the next five years strongly suggests that the 'Big Society' thinking they intend to fund is not that which could, in any way, be understood under the rubric of 'critical.'

According to the Delivery Plan, the function of research is to "clarif[y] and contextualize[s]" certain "key behavioural or evaluative concepts" like "justice" and "fairness" and "responsibility" that are - wait for it - "hard to pin down." These concepts are also those which just happen to have been central to "recent speeches on the 'Big Society.'" Thus, the AHRC tells us, the role of intellectuals consists in no more than helping the government to scrub up its murky political rhetoric. The light of reflection can clarify, but, in order to "contribute to the government's initiatives on 'localism' and the 'Big Society,'" it should, it is implied, stop well short of criticism. The disembowling of critical discourse at precisely this juncture is chilling, particularly for philosophy, a discipline which traces its descent from Socrates - a man who was made to drink hemlock because he insisted on pestering the powerful with questions about what exactly they meant when they used words like 'justice' and 'virtue' and 'goodness.' 'Big Society'-talk is accompanied by a number of buzzwords crying out for serious scrutiny, and attention needs to be especially directed to the way a government whose attitude to the welfare state, and corporate interests, resembles 'Thatcherism-on-crack,'* is deploying, at the same time, ideas traditionally used by movements diametrically opposed to their economic and political agenda.

Here, the main issues are, I think, those of 'localism,' 'community' and 'wellbeing' - lovely fluffy-sounding concepts that carry with them a decent whiff of the environmentalism and/or anti-individualism traditionally associated with the thinking of the left. While Thatcher's neo-liberal agenda was famously accompanied by a declaration of war against the very existence of society, Cameron's neo-liberalism wants to tie itself to a project of reconstituting and empowering local communities. When viewed from a height this is all great. There is much to be said for the role of affiliative bonds in giving people a sense of identity, connection, and self-worth. There is much to be said for the social and environmental benefits of reconstructing local economies. There is much to be said for enabling people to make judgements about particular or local needs, and not micro-managing them according to centrally determined algorithms. However, what must be confronted is whether a meaningful movement towards 'localism,' a 'localism-worth-its-name', is in any way possible within the context of global corporate capitalism, a mechanism which relies precisely on the deconstruction of local economies, the mobility of the workforce and the erosion of social bonds under the ethos of an 'I'm-alright-Jack' competitiveness. Neoclassical economics has been telling us for a while now that we are no more than social atoms intent on scheming and strategizing against each other for the purposes of rationally advancing our self-interest. Now the people who apparently have no problem with this agenda at an economic level - who still mechanically churn out the cant of 'growth' and 'efficiency' and 'competition' - want us to get all cosy with each other at the church jumble-sale and volunteer to run the local youth centre they have just closed down, during the time we are not sitting in a beige-box playing some kind of economically-impelled war game against our fellow beings.

Let us be clear about this - capitalism is not moral. It does not care about the good, it does not care about wellbeing, it does not care about environmental integrity or community cohesion. Not only does it not care about these things - and will sacrifice them without pause on the altar of accumulation - it is actually in its interests to undermine people's access to fulfilling experiences which cannot be commodified and which reduce their need to engage in compensatory consumption. A 'localism-worth-its-name' would, in reality, present a profound challenge to a global capitalist order. Not only in our refusal to eat Chilean sea bass or blueberries all year long, but also to the extent that real affiliative engagement would encourage a) a renewed sense of social and ethical responsibility which cannot be married with the logic of capitalist competition; b) experiences of meaningful labour which do not tally with the soul-sucking-mind-numbing repetition of what's on offer in the 'knowledge economy'; and, c) a sense of fulfillment entirely contrary to the pervasive alienation and exhaustion required to sell people piles of junk they don't actually need.

It is not, therefore, in the interests of proponents of neoliberal market democracy and corporate capitalist domination to actually foster the development of a meaningful localism, and the question must then become, what on earth are the ConDems really up to here? The thing to remember of course, is that whereas to most left-leaning environmentalists or communitarians, the antithesis of 'localism' is 'global capitalism,' for Cameron and his buddies, the antithesis of 'big society' is 'big government' or, to give it its other name, 'the welfare state.' It is thus that the coalition's purportedly 'non-ideological' dismantling of the remaining bulwarks of our social democracy comes into perfect alignment with their economic assumptions and their advocacy of, as the AHRC research objectives have it, 'connected communities.' What these 'connected communities' are supposed to do is take up the burden of care which has been abandoned by the state, a situation which will have profound and damaging repercussions both for the vulnerable and the disadvantaged, and also, I suspect, for women, who have historically always been responsible for the lions-share of unpaid or underpaid care work. As Zoe Williams noted recently in response to Osborne's budget, women make up a large portion of the public sector workforce, and are set to lose their jobs in far greater numbers than men in the upcoming cuts. It's just as well then, we might note, that the government is intent on 'supporting' them in their opportunities to run the local library or creche for free.

What should not be forgotten is that it is impossible to have any kind of conversation about the 'Big Society' in which its entanglement with a neoliberal economic agenda is not open to debate. The genesis of the post-war consensus was in the recognition that capitalism is an enormously productive but inherently amoral force, and that its destructive social effects had therefore best be ameliorated by constructing the welfare state as a buffer between the economic system and the people. I am all for resisting the manifold discontents produced by global capitalism through fostering a meaningful reconstitution of local economies and networks of affiliation, but this cannot be achieved by simply ripping up the welfare state and leaving people brutally exposed to the ravages of a system of production which cares nothing for their wellbeing. Given that the AHRC's Delivery Plan contains the word 'economy' 44 times (that's 44 times more than the word 'philosophy' incidentally), and is peppered with the usual neoliberal utility-speak about "delivering maximum benefits to society" and "stimuating growth" through "research and knowledge exchange," one strongly suspects that the critical questions about the inherent contradiction between meaningful localism and global capitalism are not to be put on the table. It appears, in other words, that the Research Council's advocacy of 'Big Society' thinking represents the straightforward capitulation of academic activity to political ideology. As a result of these developments, therefore, academics will be discouraged from examining the extent to which the ConDems discourse of 'localism' may serve - or is even, perhaps, intended - to neuter and discredit a potent set of political ideas which, if implemented meaningfully, would pose a serious threat to their vision of the future.


* There is significant reason to consider that the coalition's claims that their slash-and-burn agenda is 'not-ideological' is entirely disingenuous. There is a decent amount of both analytic and empirical 'refudiation' of the central planks of the coalition's justification for the cuts out there on the interwebs, and I'll post a little round-up shortly.

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