Big Society(6): Building the Shire in Mordor?

February 1, 2011 by
Filed under: Social Brain, Social Economy 

After writing about the challenge of building the Big Society in the context of economic austerity, it became clear to me that any discourse about the Big Society had to be framed in this particular British early twenty-first century context, and not in abstract.

But between concrete and abstract there is allegory, and the following parallel occurred to me.

JRR Tolkien, author of Lord of the Rings, and creator of Middle Earth, conceived of the Shire, the home of the hobbits, as a gentle, rural, and quintessentially English place, like the West Midlands before industrialisation and perhaps not dissimilar to a tory heartland like Buckinghamshire, the kind of place where David Cameron was bred.

The Shire is a land of plenty, with a flourishing civil society, no state to speak of, and lots of informal mutual support. The Shire  embodies the principles of minimal government and localism and barely even needed law enforcement, because it was a voluntarily orderly society. The only government services were the Message Service (the post) and the Watch, the police, whose officers were called Shirriffs, and whose chief duties involved rounding up stray livestock.

Mordor, on the other hand, is the home of Sauron ‘the accursed’, the nazgul, and innmuerable orcs. In fact it’s so bad it’s called dying land not yet dead”. The vegetation clinging to life in this area of Mordor included “low scrubby trees”, “coarse grey grass-tussocks”, “withered mosses”, “great writhing, tangled brambles”, and thickets of briars…Not a happy place.

Mordor is all but barren, the orcs are slaves and resources are not well distributed. Things may not be that bad here, at least not yet, but our conditions are arguably closer to Mordor than the Shire.

A recent NEF report argued that the problem with the Big Society is that the severity of public and third sector cuts militates against all of the best things about the Big Society.  Joining groups, volunteering, becoming more politically active and collectively solving social problems all sounds great, but such things require social and economic foundations that may not be available.

So perhaps, at an allegorical level, the challenge of the Big Society is as follows:

Is it possible to build the Shire in Mordor?

Comments

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  • Harriet Riley

    This is a really effective analogy. From a front line perspective working in the third sector, it is starting to feel like central government is creating Mordor with one hand; by cutting funding and support, whilst attempting to create pockets of The Shire within it with the other. Between those two hands there is a distinct lack of clarity and communication.

    • Jonathanrowson

      Thanks Harriet. I’m glad the analogy has some resonance.

  • Harriet Riley

    This is a really effective analogy. From a front line perspective working in the third sector, it is starting to feel like central government is creating Mordor with one hand; by cutting funding and support, whilst attempting to create pockets of The Shire within it with the other. Between those two hands there is a distinct lack of clarity and communication.

    • Jonathanrowson

      Thanks Harriet. I’m glad the analogy has some resonance.