With the ‘Big Society’ project apparently on the rocks, Adam Ford asks what’s really behind the initiative
The political fraud that is David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ has been grabbing a lot of mainstream media attention over the last couple of weeks. The frenzy was kicked off when ‘Big Society Tsar’ Lord Wei cut his hours, after discovering that working for free on three days each weeks was not compatible with “having a life”. But what is the class significance of the Coalition’s crusade?
Wei – a ‘social entrepreneur’ – was ‘created’ a Tory peer by Cameron in May last year. He started work advising on the ‘Big Society’, but “at the last moment it turned out to be unpaid”. He committed himself to first two and then three days per week, but “in the autumn I asked to go back to two days”. Apparently, he had to balance “…making a living, seeing my family, and helping to change society.”
Of course, that is the central dilemma that all wannabe ‘Big Society’ volunteers face, and it’s much more difficult when you haven’t got a lot of cash behind you. For much of the media, this was a bit of joke, and Labour supporters like Polly Toynbee and the Daily Mirror used it to make easy political capital.
But the ‘Big Society’ goes beyond party politics. Ok, so a Tory (backed by Lib Dems) has introduced it, but it has come about because we’ve reached a certain point in the class struggle. Even under Labour, charities and voluntary organisations were used to provide a poor imitation of services that people might need, but that the capitalist class had decided were unprofitable. Now under the Tories and in a time of recession, charities and voluntary groups find themselves even more starved of funding – because people who would normally donate are themselves starved of funding. At the same time, they are asked to do more with less resources, because in times of recession there is much more to do.
The central contradiction in the ‘Big Society’ plan – if you can call it a plan – is that the government is currently forcing through unprecedented cuts in public spending: about £83 billion according to last autumn’s Comprehensive Spending Review. £18 billion of that is benefit cuts, so this means that £65 billion per year of stuff that used to be done won’t be done in the future. In comparison, the ‘Big Society Bank‘ will be offering loans from a pool of less than a billion per year.
As many national government departments and local councils continue to deliberate where exactly the axe will fall, campaigners have started rallying against cuts. Despite Cameron’s suggestion that library users could take over lost services, pro-library campaigners have been particularly active so far, and thousands took part in co-ordinated protest actions on 5th February.
The pro-library campaigns have won support from many prominent authors. Philip Pullman – writer of theHis Dark Materials trilogy – summed up the entire ‘Big Society’ hoopla when he asked Oxford protesters:
“Does [the prime minister] think the job of a librarian is so simple, so empty of content that anyone can step up and do it for a thank-you and a cup of tea? Does he think that all a librarian does is to tidy the shelves? And who are these volunteers? Who are these people whose lives are so empty, whose time spreads out in front of them like the limitless steppes of central Asia, who have no families to look after, no jobs to do, no responsibilities of any sort?”
Pullman went on to observe that: “…old Karl Marx had his finger on the heart of the matter when he pointed out that the market in the end will destroy everything we know, everything we thought was safe and solid. It is the most powerful solvent known to history. “Everything solid melts into air,” he said. “All that is holy is profaned.”
This is the new normal. These services are never coming back as paid jobs. With financial aristocrats gorging themselves on state payouts for the crisis they triggered, the capitalist class has simply decided that your local Waterstones is better than your local library. If you want to keep that library – and a myriad of other services essential to human dignity – you must work to keep them open without pay. If you can’t do that, cherished buildings will become derelict, or they’ll be bulldozed for car parks, or a new Tesco.
For communists, the ‘Big Society’ blather is dripping with irony. We envisage a world where people do indeed work for free, to improve their communities. However, in a capitalist society, where the overwhelming majority of the population struggle to make ends meet, ‘spare time’ for volunteering is almost non-existent, once leisure (necessary for our recovery from paid work) is taken into account.
The real Big Society is growing in the Arab world, where working class people are taking on dictators. The real Big Society is growing in the UK, where people are getting ever more angry about the scale of Cameron’s cuts. The real Big Society is growing in our minds with every passing second. The fight to save your services is inseparable from the wider class struggle.