The ‘Big Society’, neoliberalism and the rediscovery of the ‘social’ in Britain

An alternative vision to the ‘Big Society’ is needed and should be based instead on genuinely democratic principles of equality and community

Alan Walker & Steve Corbett

Since 2010 the UK Coalition Government has been attempting to flesh out vague election promises to ‘empower communities’ by translating its ‘Big Society’ notion into policy. Its measures thus far include a ‘National Citizen Service’, which encourages children to volunteer (although the scheme also has an entrepreneurial free-market bent); a ‘Localism Act’, which sets out the Government’s individual and community empowerment agenda; and a social investment bank, called ‘Big Society Capital’, to fund appropriate projects.

But the credibility of these Tory-led initiatives, and their claim to empower individuals and communities, is dubious. That’s because the Government is simultaneously removing state support through massive funding cuts to local government and the welfare state.

At first glance, the two-faced nature of the ‘Big Society’ agenda suggests that the rhetoric of empowerment is no more than a veil for neoliberal policy. However, a deeper look reveals that ‘Big Society’ thinking has a much more complex foundation – both in terms of the ideological and historical appeals made by the Conservatives and the political space it has opened up for developing a more critical concept of the ‘social’.  As yet, Labour’s ‘One Nation’ response has only partly begun to engage with this agenda.

The ‘Big Society’ draws on a mix of conservative communitarianism and libertarian paternalism. Together, they constitute a long-term vision of integrating the free market with a theory of social solidarity based on hierarchy and voluntarism.

The social strand, which has also been dubbed ‘Red Toryism’, locates the bases of social organisation in the family, community and voluntary groups and regards these as buffers against both the power of the state and rampant market individualism. The first part of the argument chimes with 19th century conservative communitarian opposition to state intervention, as well as the promotion of paternalism in the form of mutual aid, philanthropy and voluntary activity.

But this view of an earlier prosperous British peasantry is rose-tinted: exploitative conditions were rife in the 19th century and it took a much more active state to attain progress.

The potentially radical value of ‘Red Toryism’ rests in its parallel critique of neoliberalism. Over the last thirty years atomising neoliberal policies have overlooked the importance of social solidarity. In the proposed new narrative Conservatives must now ‘radically’ reclaim the territory of the ‘social’, albeit on an extremely narrow basis that emphasises solidarity and (market) freedom, but not equality.

Yet, by rediscovering the’ social’ in this way, the Conservatives have been able to occupy part of the traditional ground of the social-democratic left.

The economic strand, which is a form of libertarian paternalism, emphasises freedom of choice for consumers, but also sees a role for the state in steering the choices available to individuals.  In this vision, however, the state’s role is limited to shaping the development of basic social institutions like the family and local community.

The big problem here is that insufficient attention is paid to existing inequalities of wealth, free time and social power.  This is aggravated by the Government’s approach to public spending. The effects of major local government cuts and substantial reductions of public funding support for the voluntary sector in the years up to 2015-16, will generate higher levels of unemployment, the replacement of welfare by workfare and increased ‘marketisation’ of society.  All of this will hit the most vulnerable the hardest.

Blithely ignoring these negative impacts, the ‘Big Society’ project pretends that there is a zero-sum relationship between society and the state. It purports to believe that removing state funding will spontaneously create more community participation.

This invites comparisons with the governments of Mrs Thatcher in the 1980s.  Despite her infamous claim that ‘there is no such thing as society’, and Cameron’s retort that ‘there is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same as the state’, both share a common neoliberal orientation.

Thatcher’s neoliberal policies were legitimised by repeatedly emphasising the notion of the ‘public burden’ generated by welfare and appealing to so-called ‘Victorian values’, such as voluntarism. She drew on exactly the same mythical conservative communitarian past to justify anti-welfare state policies. While both Mrs Thatcher’s ‘no society’ and Mr Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ appeal to the same ideological heritage, the former was more focused on the individual, while the latter has shifted (at least rhetorically) towards the community.

However, the rediscovery of the’ social by the Conservatives presents an opportunity for Labour to question the complicity of this whole project with neoliberalism. Ed Miliband has taken up this challenge in his tentative exposition of ‘One Nation’ Labour.  But he must be careful to avoid the mistakes of the past.

Previous critiques of neoliberalism, when last in opposition, were swiftly transformed, when in power, into a similar kind of conservative communitarianism that ‘Big Society’ advocates now espouse.

In their attempts to rethink the relationship between community and the market-state, communitarians of both the Right and the Left have been bedevilled by one glaring omission: their failure to offer a serious consideration of equality.

A critical response to the ‘Big Society’ must emphasise empowerment and democratic reform. But it also needs to address society understood as the framework within which people develop as human beings and participate in multiple and collective identities. In this vision the appropriate role of the state – central and local – should be to promote and sustain the well-being of communities, democratic equality and the full capacity of all to participate in society.

This blog post is based on a longer ‘OnlineFirst’ article in Critical Social Policy, available from: doi: 10.1177/0261018312471162