The Big Society And ‘Dysfunctional’ Communities
The Conservatives’ Big Society proposals, derived from their Broken Britain idea, might more truthfully be called the Boot Straps (community use of) proposals; for that is what they advocate. Scant hope here that disadvantaged communities will receive the support and investment they still need. The Big Society help them join mainstream society. Rather, Big Society rhetoric – ‘dysfunctional communities’, not disempowered ones; ‘platoons of volunteers’ comprising all adults in every UK community – suggests an altogether more prescriptive model of modern British society.
The core concept of the Conservative Leader, David Cameron‘s Big Society is, as his policy speech demonstrates, that ‘empowering’ people to get together will do the job of repairing what he contentiously refers to as Broken Britain:
[Conservative] policies will give new powers and rights to neighbourhood groups: the “little platoons” of civil society – and the institutional building blocks of the Big Society….. Our ambition for the UK is clear: we want every adult in the country to be an active member of an active neighbourhood group.
To achieve this, Conservatives aim over the next parliament to create a new “neighbourhood army” of 5,000 professional community organisers that would give communities the help they need to work together and tackle their problems, [operating] independently of government, …. not be employed by the state [and…] required to raise funds to pay for their own salaries.
Platoons of all citizens?
So ‘little platoons’ of civil activists, engaging every adult in the UK, are about to achieve what massive government investment and effort has in David Cameron’s view so far delivered only partially, if at all.
Let us however put aside incredulity, to ask for instance:
• what impact can five thousand people – unpaid by the state, but still assuming they are all actually active – spread across a country of over sixty million people have, by the end of five years?
• are you personally, to pose an age-old question, going to undertake your (neighbourhood) civic duty with a glad heart, as prescribed?
Even more fundamentally worrying is the model of ‘communities’ which underpins this extraordinary Conservative ambition, to have every adult in the country volunteer for work in the local activists’ platoon.
All we have to do, is set the people free!
‘Platoons’ of volunteer activists will do the rest.
The Conservatives’ discovery of double devolution is ironic for those who have long held that the micro-community is critical.
What, it seems, we were missing is the idea that this level is enough. The state might do a bit at the micro level to help individuals to hone their skills (‘training’…); but that is all it needs to do.
Can whole communities be ‘dysfunctional’?
Nonetheless, even the Tories see an obstacle to progress; dysfunctional communities will need to be sorted.
If the prospect of being ‘platooned’ to undertake your civic duty is a matter of concern, the idea of a whole community being ‘dysfunctional’ is infinitely moreso.
Critical questions include:
• Is ‘dysfunction’ a denial of deeply embedded disadvantage?
• Can an entire community really be dysfunctional? (Is it even sociologically possible?)
• Is this idea insulting to many decent people who live in these communities?
• Would members of a community blanket-labelled dysfunctional want to join their neighbourhood platoon?
Dysfunction is not the same as disadvantage
Big Society ideas about ‘Broken Britain’ will not empower the most challenged communities.
Conservatives see disadvantaged communities as dysfunctional; they will not continue to invest serious government funds in them.
In his Big Society announcement, David Cameron referred to Saul Alinsky, the American activist of the 1930s. That was the time of the Great Depression and the misery of the pull yourself up by your own bootstraps philosophy of economics.
But the remedy which actually worked was Keynesian, not Cameroon.
A version of this article, entitled Some critical questions for David Cameron’s Big Society and ‘dysfunctional communities’, was first published on LabourList on 21 April 2010.