Soft power and freedom under the Coalition

The Coalition’s conception of “freedom” has little to do with empowering individuals and local communities. Instead, it means enhancing corporate power by “liberating” services from public control.

Emma Bell
19 March 2015
Meet your big socieyt

Freedom for whom? Flickr/Chris Beckett. Some rights reserved.As a recent report by the think tank Civil Exchange demonstrated, the Coalition has failed to deliver its promise to empower civil society. It has instead pursued policies which have extended the power and the reach of the state, resulting in liberal authoritarianism. Policies have not been overtly authoritarian, but have instead sought to engineer change via more subtle means, often using the private sector as an instrument of “soft power”. Although the term “soft power” is generally only used to refer to states’ exercise of power abroad, as a way of extending cultural and economic influence without the use of military intervention, the term may also be understood as the exercise of state power at home through more subtle means than those deployed by classically authoritarian governments. Used in this sense, “soft power” is more diffuse, exercised via the intermediary of a number of different state and non-state actors. It is less overtly coercive, and tends to be dressed in the language of liberalism and individual empowerment.

Under the Coalition the discourse of empowerment has been used to justify coercive, centrally-directed policies: the liberal discourse of localism has masked the continued directive power of the central state and the privileging of corporate over local power; liberal “compassionate” conservative social policies have masked the degree of state and corporate coercion of vulnerable populations; illiberal anti-terror and pre-crime measures have been disguised in the liberal discourse of security whereby the state’s primary role is seen as protecting the individual from external threats; the politics of austerity which hurts individual citizens has been justified by the liberal discourse of the free market; and new imperialistic measures extending both state and corporate power have been dressed in the liberal language of international aid and development.

The real coalition in power

The failure of such apparently “liberal” policies to empower individuals and local communities can largely be understood by the Coalition government’s extraordinarily narrow conception of the notion of freedom. It was conceived in essentially negative terms as freedom from the state to take responsibility for tackling local problems, finding employment, fighting crime and tackling the deficit. Many people who were regarded as lacking in responsibility were to be made free, often via coercion. Welfare claimants, for example, are subjected to extremely harsh financial penalties which now exceed the number of fines handed down by criminal courts.

Yet, the state did not act alone. The private sector was recruited as a trusted ally, granted powers to determine access to the basic rights of citizenship such as welfare, to “manage” offenders both in prison and in the community, and to spread “soft power” abroad. In education and healthcare, the private sector has been allowed to extend its reach and benefit from new markets; under the Localism Act, local authorities have been encouraged to provide “clients” for the private rented sector and to ensure that its interests are protected when it comes to planning and development. It might be suggested that the real coalition in power is actually that which now exists between government and private corporations. Indeed, the power of the private lobbying industry and the revolving door that exists between government and the financial sector in particular ensures that the private sector is now intimately involved in the policy-making process.  

It is often thought that an increase in the role of the private sector automatically equates with a decrease in state power. Yet, rather than regarding the trend towards involving a greater multiplicity of actors in governance as diminishing the power of the state, as the neoliberal reformers of the 1980s and 1990s had hoped, it would be more appropriate to regard this trend as having led to a situation whereby the state remains largely in control of an increasingly complex structure of partnerships and networks.

The “Big Society” should not therefore be understood as merely a smokescreen for privatisation, even if the private sector was the main beneficiary of the policy. It was about governing more effectively. Even if local communities are not genuinely empowered, the discourse of "localism" at least makes them appear to be more responsible for fixing the social problems associated with “broken society”. The government can claim to have given them a range of tools to improve their local schools and get involved in local democracy, for example. This is presented as preferable to solutions imposed from central government. Who could be opposed to getting local communities involved in repairing the “broken society” – surely social problems need “social” solutions, developed by and for local communities?

Yet, the failure to genuinely empower local communities, whilst increasing the power of the private sector, has serious consequences for democracy. Unlike elected representatives, private companies are not (in theory at least) accountable to the people. This is particularly problematic, given that they have taken over many state functions, notably with regard to public service delivery. Individual citizens have no direct way of holding them to account: they can only be held to account by the government.

A new concept of community

Yet, government does a poor job of overseeing the contracts of its service providers. This does not mean that it is weak, however. The real loss of power has been that of ordinary citizens. Whilst it is clear that citizen power has always been limited, at least in the more recent past government’s primary role was to protect the citizenry by guaranteeing minimum social and economic security and providing public services. Today, its main efforts are directed at enhancing the opportunities of the private sector for capital accumulation by “liberating” these services from public control and “freeing” the people from the state by granting them greater market choice in services.

In doing so, it assumes an extremely interventionist role in economic policy, putting in place favourable fiscal regimes and setting up the regulatory structures necessary to oversee the process of market liberalisation. Yet, it is also obliged to assume an extremely interventionist role vis-à-vis the people who are to be persuaded that these reforms are in their best interests.

In order to counter such trends and revive democracy, it is necessary to respond to sentiments of disempowerment and marginalisation from mainstream political processes. There must be collective mobilisation for freedom. Yet, “community”, at least as it is often commonly understood, is not the starting point. In New Labour’s communitarianism or the Coalition’s “Big Society”, communities were often imagined as being tied together by common values, meaning that those who were deemed not to share those same values – the immigrant, the “problem family”, the welfare “scrounger” – often found themselves excluded and citizens pitted against each other rather than able to work together. The idea of a genuinely new politics means encouraging a new pluralist concept of community and tapping into existing popular movements to create genuine “communities of resistance”.

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