Anarchists and the Big Society

Much has been made of the supposed links between the "Big Society" of David Cameron and anarchist politics. Percy takes a closer look. Originally published in May 2011.

The Big Society is an unnerving idea, one that has tripped many with even the slightest public conscious as they stagger towards confronting the austerity regime. Amidst the dismantling of social provisions of the State, it seems this vacuous rhetoric goes straight to the heart of undermining the traditional foundations of progressive movements; calling for cooperation and solidarity in lifting society to a higher plain of socialisation. It is, of course, a divisive use of language, but even so, it has been approached with caution. There is nothing new taking place when the ideas and values of the Left get swept up with and become part of the status quo. This time, again, Conservative party intentions seem not only to incorporate but also to subvert or blunt the political concerns of broad groups from community charities to squatted social centres.

When the government asks its subjects to “come together, solve the problems they face and build the Britain they want” , it’s fair to take a skeptical step back and reflect on what is going on. Not just because it seems out of character for a Conservative government to propose an approach that offers such a particular form of social agency. Looking back, our experience of modern Thatcherite conservatism is one of social destruction and decapitation of the means for social action. Of course, few on the broad left would ponder on the idea of the Big Society without skepticism and we only need scratch the surface to reveal the dogma of Neoliberalism. David Cameron is, after all, following in the footsteps of Thatcher, but the Big Society is something more than a ploy to differentiate him from the deeply unpopular ‘there is no such thing as society’.

When the Big Society was first introduced as a potential policy for the new government it was met with instant scorn and distrust. Britain’s large Third (or charity) Sector has dealt with funding cuts while continuing to make up for a lack of political will to tackle the social grievances in this country. Any calls for charities to further their provision of social services while putting a halt on funds was seen as insulting and misguided. An embarrassing policy U-turn for the government was anticipated.

But the concept hasn’t gone away. Charities and voluntary organisations never had the unity of perspective, nor the political impetus, to present a real challenge. Instead they criticise the perspective of the government for their lack of consultation and their failure to recognise charities need more money, not less. Then, reluctantly, they work longer hours and accept more volunteers. Initially, it is easy to denounce the Big Society as incapable of delivering – in the short term in particular the results will be sparse – but in the long term the success for the government will be more subtle.

The Tories claim the argument for a free market has been won. Despite this they have always known there are winners and losers and that markets still need something (pacifying) to hold the fabric of society together. The Big Society is the attempt to expropriate community and compassion, to ‘provide’ the ideas of social responsibility (outside the State) without providing anything at all.

Charities and publicly funded institutions will call the Big Society unsuccessful. And that’s fine, but the danger is we lose sight of the government’s long term objectives, to re-establish the role of the state – to dismantle and reassemble the notion of the ‘public’ – and make way for a new moral order that sanctifies the existing social divisions while incorporating social action as a solution to the inability of capitalism to close the divide.

Our 21st Century Big Society claims to hand power to communities through decentralization and fosters a spirit of social action. This presents a problem. Social action among communities has always taken place. Big Society is a huge insult to all those in established institutions, plus all those who work tirelessly outside these institutions - often for no financial return - in the interests of community and social change. Those who struggle to stabilise the social deficit between the rich and the poor, those with and those without opportunities, between the exploited and the exploiters.

The means of community resistance is now being triumphed as the saving grace of our future homogeneous and socially aware society. The role of the state is changing. It can no longer function with the pretence of being a publicly contested space, a place for ideologue and bastion of public need. Now we have managers of the economy and administrators of law and order. When we consider the changes in State form we can see the removal of political ideas which are being replaced with a logic of economic governance. The Big Society is the perfect solution for a small government that protects total capitalism. The rolling back of the State is precisely a removal of social responsibility for (homes, health, education) the things it took so long for social struggles to achieve. Such changes will inevitably provoke protest.

Chants of ‘No Cuts’ and ‘pay your taxes’ that have been heard across the protest landscape suggest the State should uphold its responsibility to serve our needs and mediate our social life. Furthermore, there is a moral plea being proposed to the rich to avoid legal loopholes, perhaps even for State law to be firmer in regulating capital. We could say these pleas call for a stronger, bigger State. Or simply suggest a confusion of ideas among the direct-action Twitterati.

An evident insecurity has also taken hold among anarchist and anti-capitalist circles. The drive towards cooperative organizing, community empowerment and resilience has left many in fear that their actions will complement the rhetoric of the State. Particularly, anything that is volunteer led, without funding and is mostly achieved at the expense of the time we have left after selling our labour, is understandably ill at ease. What needs to be tackled is not the method of social action, but rather the cause.

So how are anarchists supposed to interact with a shrinking State and public condemnation of the removal of State support initiatives? Why are anarchists against the austerity cuts? What are we protecting here?

An ideological push towards total-market-capitalism is being presented as an economic necessity with a social policy to salvage the cohesive quality that social rights once achieved. But beneath the image it is clear that Tory plans to foster cooperation are shrouded in a veil of economic slavery and consolidation of a republic of property. As a global phenomena, the establishment of State administered legal systems - which work most effectively for the protection of property rights - cement capitalism in the logic of the State. Of course, it has been like this for some time; however, the destruction of the ‘public’ consciousness of the State marks the final process of the separation of Politics from Economics.

This diversionary separation, once achieved, ensures the safeguarding of the economic logic and perfomative role of the government that operates on two different strata. Any challenge is met with Law and Order and sanctioned State violence. And so, the coercion of the State lies in its protection of forms of living and dissemination of moral norms. The protection of rights of property - and the moral order that follows - exacerbates exploitation and directly binds the nature of the economy to the State. State politics and the economy are presented as power, or forces, in their own right, but are in fact wholly linked and support each other. Social relations are embedded in the economic inequalities that are protected and maintained by State law. The majority of populations are denied access to valuable property or ownership of resources that give opportunities for capital accumulation.

The Big Society is a negative policy that aims to make up for the inequality and disproportionate allocation of resources that create the social inefficiency of Capitalism. It is a policy that aims to affect the grievance without affecting the cause. We could call this a meta-policy, following market economics, which accepts existing socio-economic relations as given, yet outside the realm of politics. Furthermore, the Big Society extends the myth of abstract equality. Before the law, it is claimed, we are all equal and equality of rights equates to an equality of being and meritocratic impartiality. Meanwhile, the inequality of society is separated from the politics of the State. Any social divisions deriving from this inequality are smoothed out, or made (somehow) irrelevant, in part by the participation in an imagined community. Instead of exchanging wages for labour, active members of Big Society initiatives receive moral fortitude for their actions and sense of belonging to a community committed to social values and provision of care. We are all in this together.

Capitalism, many would argue, is a planetary catastrophe. The Big Society aims to make the catastrophe of communities in Britain more bearable while reproducing socio-economic relations for the benefit of a certain class. The unequal impact of these austerity cuts, the integration of market capitalism into all aspects of social life, the proliferation of crisis-capitalism - the march of the zombie - can only be made bearable through an assault on the mediator of socio-economic relations, as well as development of forms of living and social relations that do not seek to extract capital from relationships; not simply by cooperative social actions - at one’s own expense - that leaves the social reproductive potential of capitalism in place.

We should not be afraid of the incorporation of our language and ideas into the rhetoric and function of the State. We must occupy the rhetoric! Transform it with an understanding of our relationship to the State. It is an invisible hand that, safeguarded by the State, creates the division, exploitation and mechanisation of social life. It must be revealed as the hand of the State.

The necessity now is to subvert this negative cooperative society for a more positive one. For a community where social action can encounter a new form of lived social experience. An experience that can inform a new politics by its critique of State form, recognition of economics as politics and creative engagement with social reproductive forces. We are human by our own being, and not the membership of someone else’s vision of society. The Big Society separates community from the means for people to establish their own communities as they please and are desirable for them. It separates citizens (equal under law) from the wider context of citizenship – the potential of social agency – and ignores the binary between citizens and the state.

Only once it is realised that equality, democracy and liberty cannot be provided by a government authority that protects private property are communities able to locate the critical part of their struggle for social care. The other, creative part will be realised in the production of communities to come. We want to protect our public services (many of which were founded on the principles of working-class self-help initiatives), not because we rely on the State for support but because it is part of an experience beyond Capitalism that was forced on the State. The Conservatives may develop their policies around an anarcho-capitalist vision of the future, by dismantling the State’s ‘public’ function, but anarchists should continue to point to the destruction of the Common in the relations of people to economic value. The anarcho-capitalist Big Society poses a development in State form but not a change in the relevance of anarchism. Property is still theft, not simply in a classical sense in the denial of its collective possession and use for other purposes, but, under the tyranny of rent and sanctity of profit, of the social means to a life of one’s choosing. When it comes to social action, we are not all in this together, but we should come together, for the Common and beyond the State.

Percy is involved in the University for Strategic Optimism