You may think that the Big Society is now completely dead. The last time David Cameron did a major relaunch of it was over three years ago. However, it still keeps being plugged, most recently a year ago (apologies for the link to the Daily Mail). Most recently, the Big Society hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons with the National Audit Office investigating grants to the Big Society Network (see the excellent citizen reporting of Toby Blume for more on this).
It is undeniable that the UK coalition government, and David Cameron himself, are no longer putting the emphasis on the Big Society that they once were; the endless re-launches of the initiative that marked the first three years of the coalition have ended. The rise of UKIP and the growing pressures of austerity and other policy distractions have meant that the policy idea has lost any small degree of traction it once has.
Because of this, about a year ago, I was party to a conversation which included someone musing “does anyone do research on the Big Society anymore?” Given the paper I was currently working on with my co-author Prof. Annette Hastings had the “Big Society” in the title I was left feeling a little like the apocryphal students researching real existing socialism in the DDR in 1989, bravely fighting to keep the Berlin wall standing so they could complete their fieldwork.
However, the Big Society is still useful – particularly because it has become a metonym for so much more. Although the policy was quite separate from the localism policies, the one has come to represent the other. In launching the Big Society in 2010 David Cameron stated that:
“We know that the best ideas come from the ground up, not the top down. We know that when you give people and communities more power over their lives, more power to come together and work together to make life better – great things happen.”
Accepting this, we can argue that effectively the Big Society was the delivery mechanism, or the implementation phase, of localism. The Localism Act 2011 gave communities in England power over land-use planning, the community right-to-challenge, the community right-to-buy and the community right-to-bid. It now needed civic action to fill the gap the state was proposing to leave.
As a metonym it has proved particularly influential in academia – a quick google scholar search finds over 400,000 results since 2010. Part of this is because of the breadth of what it covers: the continued attempts by governments of all hues since the 1960s to empower and engage communities; the decades-old desire of governments to “decentralise” power (while often using these processes to cement centralisation); and the growing focus in policy on co-producing policy with communities and individuals rather than imposing solutions on them. As such, many of those 400,000 google hits are papers and commentaries that use the metonym to critique these bigger ideas.
While many critical researchers have looked into these areas, the most common intellectual traditions are critical theory and critical Marxism. The former, emerging from the work of Habermas, focuses on how practices of engagement diverge from the ideal of communicative action; the latter focuses on how structural inequalities are reproduced through governance processes. However, apart from the work of Jonathan Davies, very little work on political empowerment has engaged with the theoretical work of Pierre Bourdieu.
Bourdieu’s particular influence on class analysis has been his formulation of theoretical stance to understanding class distinction as cultural practice. As social actors in classed societies, we deploy unequally distributed economic, social and cultural capital when we act through our habitus deployed in social fields. A particular insight of Bourdieu that is useful for understanding policies such as the Big Society is the way that the capitals are deployed by individuals in a self-interested way, often quite strategic; as Bourdieu and Wacquant argued:
“The lines of action suggested by habitus may very well be accompanied by a strategic calculation of costs and benefits, which tends to carry out at a conscious level the operations that habitus carries out in its own way.”
Both the unconscious and conscious action from habitus also works to hide the unequal distribution of capitals, or to make their unequal distribution seem natural, through doxa.
Arguably, this is what the Big Society does. As demonstrated in my own research with Prof. Annette Hasting, there is strong evidence that middle-class people benefit disproportionately from the state because of their active engagement with it. In particular, of the four causal mechanisms we found by which this advantage is accrued, two – the alignment of cultural capital between users and providers; and the general favourable disposition of policy – are in evidence within the Big Society.
The Big Society normalises all the patterns of behaviour found in our review: neighbourhood planning and the community right-to-bid require organised skilled groups to lead processes which the middle classes are more likely to be members of. The idea of “armchair auditors” would mean the middle classes who complain more vociferously and more successfully. The greater cultural capital, and alignment of cultural capital, will mean middle class groups will be more successful in their interactions with the state. Yet the Big Society is presented as benefiting everyone at the very least, or in the grandest statements as benefiting the poorest most as it would empower them against their previous “reliance” on the state.
While initiatives like the community organisers may lead to investment in deprived communities, the massive cuts to local government expenditure across the UK and in England in particular, mean that services to give more marginalised communities voice, are those that are being slashed. The increasing focus in policy across the UK on using coproduction to reduce the costs of service delivery also belies some of these trends. It also ignores the fact that good coproduction often requires greater investment in services; services may be redesigned through coproduction but this will not necessarily save money.
If you wish to read a fuller account of the argument in this blog post and our setting out of a new research agenda applying Bourdieu in the analysis of inequality and the state, please see our new article Bourdieu and the Big Society: empowering the powerful in public service provision? in Policy and Politics journal. Please see the author’s institutional repository entries for open access versions of the paper after a year, or drop us an email for a copy.
Viewpoint 2: Dr Andy Inch, University of Sheffield
Some recent experiences have made me think again about that widely derided slogan ‘the big society’.
The first took place during an evening meeting of a community regeneration group. Two senior officers from the local authority came along to break the news that the council was pulling funding from the community centre where the group meets. This announcement did not come as a complete surprise but it is a serious blow for the residents of this deprived estate on the edge of Sheffield. The centre is the only community facility in an area that has been largely bypassed by previous rounds of public investment.
Whilst expressing sympathy with local residents, the officers explained that the authority simply had no choice in the face of what will eventually amount to a 50 percent reduction in centrally allocated grants. The cuts mean that the community centre cannot continue to be supported, if the residents want to retain it they are going to have to find a way to run it themselves.
I have some concerns about the ways in which such decisions are often made over the heads of those affected and I wonder whether the structures imposed by standard ‘cost-centre’ accountancy don’t sometimes close off the potential for more creative valuation and management of public assets. However, I don’t want to get too far into the rights and wrongs of this ultimatum here. The level of cuts facing many local authorities are clearly massive and do necessitate precisely these kind of unpleasant decisions.
What made me uneasy was the way the officers presented the news, the tone of: There. Is. No. Alternative. TINA. Thatcher’s favourite daughter still doing her bidding from beyond the grave.
The officers sought to distance themselves from any responsibility for the situation, it wasn’t their choice they told us but the withdrawal of the local state was now a foregone conclusion that had to be unconditionally accepted. In this new world it really is up to citizens to come together voluntarily. One of the officers went so far as to tell us that, although he hated the term, this was a ‘big society’ moment for these residents.
The ‘big society’ was, of course, a keyword of the Conservative General Election campaign of 2010 and the heady early days of the con-dem government. As articulated by its more committed proponents this was a reworking of significant traditions of conservative political thought, seeking to resuscitate the ‘little platoons’ of Burke’s civil society as a response to the twin excesses of the free market and the bloated central state. For David Cameron the idea helped lay blame for the state of ‘broken Britain’ at the dirigisme of New Labour; justifying the shrinking of the state as an unavoidable response to financial imprudence, whilst presenting unprecedented cuts in public spending as an opportunity to free up a spirit of cooperation and volunteering – where the state withdrew citizens would step forward to manage their own affairs.
Even within the Conservative party, however, the label was never really accepted and it quickly became a political liability. On the left it was widely derided as a thinly veiled justification for further rounds of neoliberal state restructuring.
As a result the term largely disappeared from use. Google trends data shows a peak of interest in February 2011 followed by a fairly steep decline. Although some academics have continued to try and make sense of the big society, like many of the big political concepts of recent years it now seems little more than an historical curiosity. (A point driven home to me when a well-respected academic journal knocked back a paper that a colleague and I had submitted on the basis that the big society was no longer of any interest to its readers!)
Since that evening, however, I have heard similar ‘big society’ sentiments repeated by other senior public sector officers and several groups of citizens who are now taking on the running of facilities. This leads me to wonder whether the big society is as dead as its disappearance from public discourse would suggest and if not, what this means for sustaining resistance to the imperatives of austerity.
Early in the con-dem government it seemed that forces of resistance were gaining momentum and that real political change might be possible. Over the last two years, however, the momentum of protest seems to have stalled. The country has stumbled on, the economy kept afloat by boatloads of capital seeking asylum in the London property market, any real political effects of crisis and austerity seemingly deferred. We seem to have entered what Gramsci might have called a morbid interregnum – the undead corpse of neoliberalism staggering on.
On one level the continued, zombie like presence of ‘big society choices’ is easy to explain. The effects of any policy take time to become apparent. The implications of cuts in local government funding are only slowly revealing their full extent. However, this truth jars with the ADHD symptoms that characterise our contemporary condition, the restless switching of our attention to the next political issue or celebrity scandal (a criticism that might equally be levied at the academy with the typically short-term imperatives of funding leading a restless search for the next big thing).
Of course, the big society choices being presented to many communities are significantly different from what the rhetoric promised. For many this is not a choice at all. Rather communities are being bullied into taking on massive responsibilities. It seems a fair bet that many will not be able to sustain the effort. Meanwhile, the very valid fears that were expressed when the idea was being debated and contested are now becoming a reality. Those communities that can will take on the burden. Those that can’t, won’t. Inequalities will be strikingly reinforced. Add in the combined impacts of welfare reforms and draconian workfare sanctions that actually prevent many people from volunteering in their communities and the picture looks even more worrying.
In this context, the absence of debate about the continued roll-out of the big society raises some significant questions. The defeat, and at this stage it looks like a serious ideological defeat, seems to be related to the difficulty of sustaining political engagement through the long attritional unfolding of this crisis. In this regard, we might speculate that part of the success of the big society lies precisely in the zombie form it has taken on. It’s hard to engage politically around a concept that has been quietly killed off, even as it’s language and logic reshape the world.
And what of the officers delivering the news? Their attempts to distance themselves from the term show that they do not necessarily identify with what is happening. But happening it is, and with seemingly little resistance on the part of local government. The distaste those officers described did not prevent them from carrying out the work they claimed to find so unpalatable. Here too we see ample evidence of ideological defeat. Being charitable we might see this as a pragmatic exercise in damage limitation, accepting a defeat and seeking to tactically minimize its worst effects (acknowledging too that some public sector workers may identify with principles of community control, albeit not like this). More worryingly, however, there seems little evidence of anyone playing a longer game. TINA seems to be firmly in control.
Readers might also be interested in related publications from the editorial collective on the Big Society & Localism themes:
- McKee, K. (ed.) (2014) “The Big Society, Localism & Housing Policy: re-casting state citizen relations in an age of austerity” Special Issue in Housing Theory and Society (online early) – includes papers by Flint, Manzi, Jacobs and Matthews et al.
- McKee, K; Moore, T.; Muir, J; Flint, J; Ferrari, E; Clapham, D. and Maclennan, D. (2012-14) “Big Society, Localism and Housing Policy”- ESRC Seminar Series Project Website
- Moore, T. and McKee, K. (2014) “The Ownership of Assets by Place-based Community Organisations: political rationales, geographies of social impact and future research agendas”, Social Policy and Society 13 (4): 1-13.
- McKee, K. (In Press) “Community Anchor Housing Associations: illuminating the contested nature of neoliberal governing practices at the local scale”, Environment and Planning C