The Big Society – Calculatingly Political


The Big Society is this government’s big idea and is yet another sign that we are not progressing, but, as a nation, de-evolving back into the 19th Century.

It is not because the Big Society is inherently evil – asking serious questions about the role of the individual and society in working together to help each other and balancing one properly against and with the other – but the language and the rationale are two hundred years-old.

Whether it evokes a Samuel Smiles self-help or Quaker bankers like the Gurney family, government Whig or even Tory rhetoric reminds us of the way it was when the state did not get involved and left it to wealthy individuals to “do good”. Ian Hislop’s recent “When Bankers Were Good” on BBC2 was a healthy reminder of how society once relied on the rich to be good. Hislop proposed that the welfare state (begun by Lloyd George and accelerated by Atlee) had changed the rules so that taxation would be used instead of the rich – releasing bankers and the like to spend their money on themselves rather than anyone else. From the USA, individuals like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett show that where Government is smaller, the rich are expected to enlist their wealth to a greater cause. That may now be international rather than just national, and it seems like the banking community has exempted itself from that enlistment, but the theory holds.

David Cameron believes that society can play a larger role in putting together the broken society and that Government should play a lesser one – instead of financing, the state should guide and help. Nick Hurd’s job as Minister for Civil Society becomes more a challenge to the “do good” society to pitch up at a time when national and local government is cutting back furiously on social spending.

But, this challenge requires a complete change in the way society works. Politics and economics in the 20th Century have directed all our attention on to economic growth that has itself been aimed at maximising how we make and buy things (or develop and use services). Economics (based on 19th Century principles around what we can count and how rational people think – a simulation which has been shown to be miserably false) measures goods and services that we (or others from outside the UK) make. As our brains are progressively wired as calculators, so we drive ourselves to buying more because that is how we now work. Now, the newly developed nations such as China, Brazil, India and the rest are rushing in the same direction.

A key question is “how can society redirect itself away from spending all our time and money on things that are measured by GDP towards societal benefits that are not” – as this is what is needed to make the Big Society work. We have to work out what counts – not spend our time buying because we have been conditioned to count.

Abraham Maslow suggested as far back as 1934 that humans operate within a “Hierarchy of Needs” and that we rise up that hierarchy as we become wealthier. At the bottom end we strive for food and shelter; we obtain the things that add to our health and the health of those closest to us; as group animals, we work within groups (first, close and then wider); we develop self-esteem requirements and then what Maslow terms “self-actualisation” – the achievement of our potential.

Maslow’s work was focused on marketing, but we have marketed ourselves into a corner and stunted the “growth” that Maslow identified. The problem is that we have translated this growth into the buying of things that has simulated the provision of self-esteem and esteem from others. The recent riots in London and many other cities in the UK aguably showed that it was not poverty that drove the rioting but a desire for some form of self-esteem derived from the urge to “acquire” things such as designer trainers and other self-esteem “goods”. We have fallen for both the marketing (the spin) which dictates to us that what we count (like shoes or cars) is all there is. Economics has conspired in this – a reliance on 19th Century simulations of the economy where food, shelter and health were still basic needs for most of the economy. Economics has not progressed since that time.

Economic measurement as we know it panders to our desire for things that are easy to count. Governments (short-term thinkers at best – “it’s the economy, stupid”) have not helped to shape thinking away from its judgement that to get elected, it has to show that we are getting richer. But, “richer” means calculatingly richer – the way GDP shows we are richer – not that which really makes us all “richer”, healthier, richer in mind and spirit as well as in monetary terms. We calculate our wealth and governments calculate how to get re-elected. It leaves the concept of a Big Society – where society and the individuals in it is / are required to work to re-shape and repair society – out of our understanding as we can’t calculate its benefits (just as we have difficulty in calculating climate change – part of the same problem) and most of us focus on what we believe are more important – buying stuff.

To respond to the new paradigm, towards a society that will be driven by more than what we can calculate today, is a massive stretch. It means that we will need to measure quality more than quantity (a massive economic problem that econometricians appear unwilling to solve – maybe because they are one of the causes of the problem) and that Governments will need to consider the risks it is willing to take with quality of life rather than something we can count (GDP growth). That willingness requires long-term thinking and changing the minds of the electorate.

Developing a society with real self-esteem and one that generates that sense of belonging and belief in a society rather than just the individual– the Big Society that also takes the burden away from a cash-strapped public sector – is a tough calculation. It requires a major political and economic transformation – throughout society. It won’t be done just by cajoling people to do more. It requires culture change on a massive scale – and a change to our politics and economics and social systems and structures.

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