Big Society(4+) “You can call it internal combustion, I call it baked beans.”

October 28, 2010 by
Filed under: Social Brain, Social Economy 

I haven’t given ‘the Big Society’ much thought for a few months, but it seems it has retained its status as a fledgling proto-idea that commentators love to mock, perhaps because it is clear that the public are not yet warming to the notion, or even understanding it.  Rather than properly develop the previous blog series I’ll inch it along by referring you to the following paragraph from an article by Timothy Garton Ash in today’s Guardian, which I found particularly amusing:

“Take David Cameron’s slogan of the “big society”, for example. In his speech presenting it this summer, he said: “You can call it liberalism. You can call it empowerment. You can call it freedom. You can call it responsibility. I call it the ‘big society’.” In its evangelical incoherence, this is a passage worthy of Tony Blair. Liberalism, empowerment, freedom and responsibility are all good things, but they are not the same thing – and none of them are the same as “big society”. So this is like saying: “You can call it milk. You can call it cheese. You can call it socks. You can call it internal combustion. I call it baked beans.”

Somewhat harsh, I suppose. To be charitable, we can assume Cameron was just being pragmatic, suggesting that the conceptual proof of the big society pudding is in the practical eating (baked beans or otherwise). That said, when you launch a new idea into the world, it is incumbent on you to distinguish it from existing ideas. An idea needs a place to stand, with just enough wiggle room to flirt with other ideas, but not so much that it collapses and loses its shape.

They say that nothing is as powerful as an idea whose time has come. The end of slavery, the march of civil rights, the spread of female emancipation, Glasnost. All these ideas had theoretical parameters, historical context and practical implications. The Big Society has that potential too, but not if its proponents allow it to be completely protean.

The Big Society is a flag that needs to be ironed out in certain ways before it can fly in any way. Our Connected Communities report tried to do this with the following line: “Social capital is the currency of the Big Society and social networks hold the reserves of that currency.”   This may not be right, but at least it is clear enough to be wrong.


Comments

  • http://bigsocietysuffolk.wordpress.com/ Richard Stacy

    Call it The Big Business Society however – and then all of a sudden it starts to assume theoretical parametres, historical content and practical implications. Perhaps, therefore, the clue is (not quite) in the name.

  • http://bigsocietysuffolk.wordpress.com/ Richard Stacy

    Call it The Big Business Society however – and then all of a sudden it starts to assume theoretical parametres, historical content and practical implications. Perhaps, therefore, the clue is (not quite) in the name.

  • Patricia

    Point granted, ‘liberalism, empowerment, freedom, responsibility’ are not tautologous. This is however not to say that they are inconsistent or ‘incoherent’. Still, in isolation from terms such as ‘fraternity, relatedness, collaboration, engagement’, this selection of terms is a terrible choice to describe the concept of the big society – first and foremost, because it places the whole emphasis on the individual and non on the collective. If there’s one uncontroversial claim that holds of the big society on the conceptual level, it is that the big society is about an attempt to think the collective through the individual and vice versa. It is astonishing that Cameron’s ‘foundational exposition’ missed the whole point. I think it is an indication of the conservative bias to think of the big society as a ‘pretty’ antonym of ‘statism’, but this is precisely to miss the point…

    • dapara

      You’re right Big Society is not the opposite of Big State yet Cameron subtly and not so subtly portrays that it is. However he also acknowledges the need to use the state as a catalyst. What I would question is with the high level of civic engagement, volunteering and neighbourly support in this country whether it is not a bit condescending to introduce this idea as something new as it is very much in evidence already. It’s as if your saying ‘you’re free to live more as an individual without the state on your back so go ahead and create the society you want’. In my mind this will make the greedy greedier and the more charitable more charitable (possibly) and more compliant with the government. It’s really a way for the conservative party to tackle their traditional non-supporters head on and garner support even while offering little substantive. Unlike Tony Blair who did offer business lots to go with his rhetoric! However if anything I think Cameron should be applauded for recognising that part of the role of prime minister is to enthuse the public to take action and encourage positive responsible behaviours, something the previous PM didn’t realise. If Big Society were based on a state/society collaboration and was not initiated during a time of brutal cuts then it may have stood more of a chance but unfortunately I’m sure the successes will be local and limited rather than widespread.

      • Patricia

        I agree with you that the previous government neglected its duty to nourish civic values. Yet, it does seem to me that the current government does not do much when it comes to ‘enthusing’ the public to active citizenship in practical terms; despite the official rhetoric, in reality, communities are asked to pull themselves by their bootstraps in generating social capital. Rather than renouncing statism, what I think is needed now is a state intervention to instigate behavioural change in order to give all people the necessary resources to function as/in the big society (not just the sharp-elbowed middle classes) – what is needed is a sort of global ‘Steer-approach’ to behavioural change.

  • Patricia

    Point granted, ‘liberalism, empowerment, freedom, responsibility’ are not tautologous. This is however not to say that they are inconsistent or ‘incoherent’. Still, in isolation from terms such as ‘fraternity, relatedness, collaboration, engagement’, this selection of terms is a terrible choice to describe the concept of the big society – first and foremost, because it places the whole emphasis on the individual and non on the collective. If there’s one uncontroversial claim that holds of the big society on the conceptual level, it is that the big society is about an attempt to think the collective through the individual and vice versa. It is astonishing that Cameron’s ‘foundational exposition’ missed the whole point. I think it is an indication of the conservative bias to think of the big society as a ‘pretty’ antonym of ‘statism’, but this is precisely to miss the point…

    • dapara

      You’re right Big Society is not the opposite of Big State yet Cameron subtly and not so subtly portrays that it is. However he also acknowledges the need to use the state as a catalyst. What I would question is with the high level of civic engagement, volunteering and neighbourly support in this country whether it is not a bit condescending to introduce this idea as something new as it is very much in evidence already. It’s as if your saying ‘you’re free to live more as an individual without the state on your back so go ahead and create the society you want’. In my mind this will make the greedy greedier and the more charitable more charitable (possibly) and more compliant with the government. It’s really a way for the conservative party to tackle their traditional non-supporters head on and garner support even while offering little substantive. Unlike Tony Blair who did offer business lots to go with his rhetoric! However if anything I think Cameron should be applauded for recognising that part of the role of prime minister is to enthuse the public to take action and encourage positive responsible behaviours, something the previous PM didn’t realise. If Big Society were based on a state/society collaboration and was not initiated during a time of brutal cuts then it may have stood more of a chance but unfortunately I’m sure the successes will be local and limited rather than widespread.

      • Patricia

        I agree with you that the previous government neglected its duty to nourish civic values. Yet, it does seem to me that the current government does not do much when it comes to ‘enthusing’ the public to active citizenship in practical terms; despite the official rhetoric, in reality, communities are asked to pull themselves by their bootstraps in generating social capital. Rather than renouncing statism, what I think is needed now is a state intervention to instigate behavioural change in order to give all people the necessary resources to function as/in the big society (not just the sharp-elbowed middle classes) – what is needed is a sort of global ‘Steer-approach’ to behavioural change.