Welcome to the Big Nudge

First published in Huffington Post

The Big Society has been in the news once again only to take another beating, this time from the Archbishop of Canterbury. Rowan Williams has waded into what should be a debate about state and society, but is instead a wholly predictable moan-a-thon by the left-liberal commentariat. There’ll be more on him later but suffice to say that I for one would have welcomed the input of the supposedly cerebral Williams, if he could have got the discussion beyond the petty politics of the parish pump.

Quite literally in the case of London’s first parish council, in Queen’s Park, since they were abolished half a century ago. Not that this throw-back to the parochial past is all that different in content to the municipal mumblings of their big borough kin. Like every other local authority mission statement those behind it promise a ‘safer, healthier and happier’ time for their new residents. One Westminster councillor, nevertheless, has welcomed the parish as the ‘start of a brand new era in localism‘.

Sadly, he could be right. This sort of thing, bizarrely, tends to be lauded as an example of the Big Society. In fact there is nothing ‘big’ never mind new about the local approach. Add to this the substituting of the long-forgotten notion that it might have something to do with people not depending on the ‘support’ of the state in favour of the politics of the top-down Nudge, and things get very confusing. For all the protests to the contrary – this, the policy-makers’ favourite new buzzword, in fact describes essentially the same paternalistic, nannying, top-down, ever encroaching Big State that it is supposed to do away with. In truth the enthusiasm for Nudging is for something little more than a contracted-out, behaviour controlling, and consequently even more autonomy inhibiting version of the same thing. So not only is the Big Society not big, it has nothing much to do with ‘society’ either.

But the coalition shouldn’t get all the blame for this. As Caroline Slocock, director of Civil Exchange says: ‘The idea has long roots’. As does the community organising movement that Amol Rajan gets so excited about. But why are they in the ascendant now? Could it be that until relatively recently they were eclipsed by the more substantial stuff of politics? The convergence of Blue Labour and Red Tory on this narrowest of middle grounds is not something to be celebrated. It is the logical outcome of the Third Way anti-politics of the post-cold war period. Little has changed in the over nearly quarter of a century since. I suspect Slocock, principal author of the Big Society Audit, is a secret Nudger too. In much the same way that Rajan thinks communities need organisers, she wants charities and other small voluntary sector groups to fill the ‘big society gap’ where society-proper – that is, you and me – should be. It should be ‘given more power’ says Slocock to, like that old lager commercial used to say, get to the poorest, most deprived parts that other openly state-sponsored programmes can’t.

The Big Society was never meant to be a government programme or the long list of bullet-pointed initiatives that Patrick Butler details. The one-and-only point was that it was supposed to get rid of the stifling culture of a meddling illiberal state and let us – the people – get on with it! In practice, for all the anti-statist mythology encouraged by its supporters and indulged by its critics, the coalition has if anything done the opposite. Even if one were to accept the low horizons and modest ambitions – which I don’t – it seems that few have any faith in communities themselves. Trade unionists think that they are so feeble that public spending cuts are ‘destroying‘ them. A rather self-serving argument if ever there was one. And now, far from raising the discussion to a higher plane, the Archbishop of Canterbury has also intervened on behalf of the meek masses. The Big Society is, he says, ‘designed to conceal a deeply damaging withdrawal of the state from its responsibilities to the most vulnerable’. The vulnerable – a group that the great and the good ill-define the better to hide behind them. You get the Big Society you deserve I suppose.

Cooperatives, chimpanzees and alcoholics

Commentators are competing like never before to share their views on the importance of being co-operative. There is, after all, a revival of the cooperative and the mutual, of co-production, timebanking and social enterprise. While I’ve been far from uncritical of the big society, and official volunteering and ‘participation’ campaigns, I have also been an enthusiastic participant in my own right. I coordinate Neighbourhoods Connect, a volunteer-led social media project in North London, and I’m also a member of the proposal team for a new free school, East London Science School. (We’re still looking for prospective parents and sixth formers to sign up!)

So, allowing for a little bias, I am the first to argue that at first sight there is much to recommend this vogue for all things cooperative. A recently published IPPR report, It’s cooperation, stupid, declares:

… we should jettison the assumption that humans are selfish, first and foremost. Instead, we should start from the assumption that most of the time, most people want to be cooperative.

Which is hard to argue with, you have to admit? Likewise, David Sloan Wilson thinks that being cooperative and ‘society-oriented’ rather than competitive or selfish is the norm not the exception. But here is where the trouble begins. Wilson is an evolutionary biologist who thinks that studying the ‘behaviours’ of people in neighbourhoods is much like Jane Goodall studying chimpanzees. Despite, or perhaps because of, his rather demeaning assumption Wilson and his ‘evolutionary toolkit’ are very much in demand. He was in the UK recently at the invitation of the Co-operative Group. According to Bibi van der Zee at The Guardian:

… his theories are now finding favour with politicians and policy thinktanks on both sides of the Atlantic who are desperate to engage communities in their own neighbourhoods to work together at solving intractable social ills more effectively and cheaply than the state.

Which in itself – for all the short-sightedness of austerity politics, and the bleating on about cuts – is not a bad sentiment. Deborah Orr, also at The Guardian, thinks we need to ‘focus on the things that we all have in common, that bind us and make us human; the things that make co-operation both crucial and sensible, beneficial to all involved’. Can’t grumble with that. Or can I? Orr recalls her own experience of working at the now defunct City Limits magazine, a self-styled workers’ cooperative that was, she says, most uncooperative. But it is the model she professes to prefer – Alcoholics Anonymous – that concerns me. She is apparently oblivious to the therapeutic authoritarianism of the 12-step programme, concluding that it is ‘good to stop listening out for, and holding fast to, the things that make us individual and different’. I am no fan of identity politics and the divisiveness it fosters – no more, indeed, than I am of Wilson’s genetic determinism – and I subscribe rather more than she to old-fashioned collective ideas like socialism. But Orr’s enthusiasm for cooperation seems to amount to a desire to submerge the robust individual – who would surely shun the dictates of AA in favour of a little genuine ‘self-help’ – in a ‘soothing’ sea of collective therapy.

Her commentary is inspired by a new book, Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation, by sociologist Richard Sennett. I will be introducing a discussion about it at the Future Cities Readers’ Group next month. I confess I haven’t started reading it yet – or that IPPR report come to think of it – but the omens aren’t good.

How about letting communities build themselves in 2012?

First published in Independent

Communities took quite a hammering in 2011. There were the riots, of course, in which the opportunism of the apologists for them among the commentariat was more than a match for the rioters themselves. Instead of an honest appraisal of what went on, there were shameless projections of prejudices onto those actually quite unprecedented events. I even found myself in the unusual situation of agreeing with Theresa May when she said the rioters ‘weren’t trying to make any political or social statement; they were thieving, pure and simple’. But even before the riots, those self-same commentators had been anticipating the damage to come from economic crisis and the government’s austere response to it. From rough sleeping, to wife-beating and rioting, no doubt, communities would begin to descend into all manner of deprivation and depravity, we were told. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation warned early in the year that ‘fortunes may nosedive’ for the poorest as community-builders lost their foothold (not to mention their livelihoods).

More recently, as the well and truly hammered were being picked up by the seasonal booze bus, the emptying out of the high street (of shoppers at least) met with dire warnings. Mary Portas, author of a government-commissioned report on the subject, talked of how they would ‘give a sense of belonging and trust to a community’ if only they could be revived. As if to confirm that all may not be lost, the organisers of Britain in Bloom (the UK’s largest voluntary campaign), reported that their tens of thousands of amateur gardeners still ‘built strong communities’. Nevertheless, the government’s flagship Big Society seems to have sunk without trace, living on only in a tiresome spat about cuts to public services and the voluntary sector; and in ongoing complaints, most recently by the public administration select committee (does anyone actually know what that is?) Without a Big Society minister, the select committee concluded, how could they (or we?) build a Big Society?

In its absence, Baroness Hanham rather pinned her hopes on the Localism Bill currently passing through the House of Lords. She thought it might help bring an end to a public sector culture that has ‘fostered dependency, with top-down targets, smothering bureaucracy and heavy-handed guidance’. But I continued to wonder whether localism – a creed that ‘attracts support across the political divide’ according to Hanham – was ever really going to make a difference. The consensus that localism is a good thing had done nothing to rebuild communities to date, and there was little reason to believe that more of the same would do any better. Having said that, I welcomed the deputy prime minister’s ‘very serious offer of more economic freedom and more political freedom’ to the nation’s core cities. There is a world of difference between advocating better local democracy and greater autonomy for cities and resorting to the petty parochialism that only tends toward a dismembering of the body politic.

Our communities, after all, are not blighted by distant political structures, redundant community-builders or deserted high streets, anymore than they were brought to ruin by the seasonally inebriated, horticulturally indifferent or riotously uncivil. They continue to stumble along despite community-worriers’ diminished view of their members as dependent, incapable of running their own lives and finding their own solutions to their problems. Perhaps instead of hammering communities into submission, we might be best to leave them to build themselves in 2012?