Taking up the gauntlet in the UK: the only real Big Society is the associative society

The uncritical understanding of what constitutes a ‘community’ and the failure to grasp what forms of citizen self-government are possible in current conditions is what betrays the intellectual laziness of the Big Society’s key thinkers.

Jason Edwards
6 November 2012

As a political project espoused by Britain’s coalition government, the ‘Big Society’ looks moribund. Yet those on the left would do well not to dismiss without reservation the thinking that has lain behind its construction. Big Society thinkers such as Jesse Norman and Phillip Blond offer some accurate diagnoses of the social and economic problems of contemporary Britain, and are right to put forward far-reaching alternatives for socio-economic governance that are informed by ideas of localism, voluntarism, and mutualism.

Engagement with Big Society thinking should therefore be compulsory. But, wedded as it is to some central shibboleths of modern conservative thought, the Big Society can only take us so far in an appreciation of the potential of voluntary organisation for social and economic governance.

It is not good enough to uncritically espouse the value of the local and self-organising ‘community’ when such communities may include rich elites living in gated developments, racist neighbourhood associations, and men-only golf clubs. At the same time, it is neither politically realistic nor morally defensible to expect people who have long been denied a political voice and economic resources to run public services on the cheap.

It is this uncritical understanding of what constitutes a ‘community’ and the failure to grasp what forms of citizen self-government are possible in current conditions that betrays the intellectual laziness of the Big Society’s key thinkers. And it is this that has allowed the idea to be appropriated in Cameron’s conservatism as a mask for a decidedly neo-liberal craving to substitute the market for the state with scant regard for the social and economic consequences beyond the calculation of immediate political benefit.


Thus while we should recognise its significance for having brought ideas about localism, voluntarism, and mutualism into the front-line of political discussion, we need to move beyond Big Society thinking. Key in this regard is a word that is largely absent from the Big Society lexicon, at least in any developed sense: ‘association’.

The concept of association brings together the idea of the voluntary character of civic action with the understanding that such action is only possible given certain social, economic, and political conditions. The tradition of associationalism, best represented in recent times in the work of Paul Hirst,[i] recognises both individualism and pluralism as ineradicable and mutually reinforcing features of modernity. The individualism that emerged from the development of the modern state in tandem with the capitalist market is both dynamic and corrosive. Over the course of the last two centuries, it has remorselessly buried a world in which the primary loci of social identification and action were the family and the parish. In combination with the increasing complexity of the division of labour and the rapid rate of technical change that accompanies the rise and development of industrial and post-industrial societies, this individualism gives rise to a deep pluralism at the level of economic and social relations. Thus the kind of individualism characteristic of modern societies is necessarily supported by a plurality of economic and social actors and institutions.

Statism v. voluntary combination

The two major responses to the socially dissociative effects of individualism over the course of the last seven decades both damaged the role of voluntary associations in British society. Statism did so by concentrating the administration and delivery of welfare and public services in large-scale, centralised public bureaucracies. Its effect was to eradicate many of the intermediary bodes in civil society that stood between the state and the individual, and that were able to effectively articulate a plurality of social and economic interests. The neo-liberal orthodoxy that took root under the Thatcher governments was premised on the belief of the public benefits of promoting individualism by the removal of planning and regulation, and the privatisation and marketisation of public services. The upshot has been an ever sharper decline in levels of citizen participation in public decision-making and control of public assets, and the transfer of power to large-scale, centralised private bureaucracies.

In contrast to these two orthodoxies, associationalism starts from the view that individualism can only be channelled towards the achievement of common goods when the conditions are provided in which citizens can voluntarily combine in associations in order to co-ordinate and regulate the conditions of their social and economic life. Associationalism in this regard is as much a moral as a political project as it recognises that it is only through association that citizens can overcome the alienation that characterises the hyper-individualism of the modern world. We are more likely to be happy when we pursue our projects in concert with other citizens than when we are left to our own devices to achieve selfish and largely materially-oriented ends.

Those little platoons

Big Society thinking is a very pale version of associationalism thus understood. The Cameronian understanding of pluralism is superficial, a touchy-feely sense of diversity which says little more than that we should tolerate a variety of lifestyles and have compassion for unfortunate individual circumstances. This ‘compassionate’ conservatism sits uneasily with the other side of Big Society thinking that stresses the moral imperative to mend the ‘Broken Society’. Here, responsible citizens are pictured as being under constant threat from the irresponsible – permissive liberals, crapulent teenagers, the undeserving poor. Even the more astute supporters of the Big Society fail to register how far individualism and pluralism are embedded in the modern world as the necessary conditions for voluntary action. They urge a return to family and local neighbourhood that is simply not possible in a society where people increasingly identify with geographically disparate networks of friends and colleagues and have only fleeting relationships with those who happen to use the same GP practice, local swimming baths, or bus route.[ii]    

Public funding

An associationalist politics seeks not to retrieve a mythical golden age of local community, but rather to provide the conditions in which strangers can act together in respect of the public resources they use in common but over which they currently have little control. The principles of associationalism, so conceived, could attract a great deal of public support. However, one central obstacle that needs to be overcome is widespread opposition to high levels of public spending among the electorate (though it should be noted that surveys also routinely find that a majority would support tax increases if this meant improved public services). The construction of an associative society requires big public funds. Extensive welfare provision and high quality public services cannot be provided on the cheap.

The experience of the last thirty years in the UK shows that the market has failed as an alternative to the state in the funding of public services. Privatisation and marketisation have generated unacceptable levels of social inequality, and have seen the transfer of billions of pounds of public money into profits for unaccountable private companies that have consistently failed to provide value for money. Public funding via taxation will thus have to remain the main source of spending on welfare and public services – the only alternative is their atrophy.

But how can people be persuaded that overall levels of public expenditure should not just be maintained but increased? (They would first have to be persuaded of the bankruptcy of the economic argument for austerity and deficit reduction, but that is another matter). An associationalist politics can help here because people are far more likely to support the idea of higher taxes and public spending if they know that it is not central government, but rather citizens themselves, who get to determine how that money is spent. At the same time, having a say on the distribution of public resources is likely to encourage greater numbers of people to participate in civil associations. The charge often laid against associationalism is that people are too apathetic to be involved, but apathy is a function of a lack of opportunities to participate.

An associative society cannot be born overnight, but the objective must be to make associative government increasingly viable as a supplement to and eventually substitute for the state and the market by providing the circumstances in which citizens can govern the conditions of social and economic life.

School associations

At the centre of the associative society, then, are internally democratic, self-governing civil associations backed by public funds. The role of the state, local, and regional government is to maintain and police a number of democratically agreed minimum legal standards that associations must subscribe to.  But thereafter, associations are free to spend publicly allocated sources as they see fit.

There is nothing wrong, from this perspective, with teachers, parents, and pupils combining in association to govern a school. School funding would come directly from the local authority, as happens now with Academy Schools, but the authority would have no control over how the budget is spent (subject to the minimal standards set for the curriculum, competence in teaching, open and equal access, non-selection, etc.). The constitution of the school association must provide for the representation of teachers, parents, and pupils on the Board of Governors, and administrative staff must be answerable to them. But thereafter schools would be free to introduce new methods of teaching, new subjects, form partnerships with local trades to provide placements for older pupils, etc.

The problem with Michael Gove’s policy on Academies and Free Schools is not that it provides for the devolution of budgets to schools for self-governance, but rather that it sets schools up as businesses in competition with one another in a quasi-market. The most successful schools in terms of results and therefore pupil numbers will tend to be dominated by the children of the middle-classes, so the marketisation of the system is likely to reinforce rather than tackle existing class divisions in education by concentrating the best schools in middle-class areas.[iii]

Policies like these, which confuse marketisation for administrative decentralisation, compound the problem of the ‘postcode lottery’ – in other words, the unevenness of service provision from area to area and the potential to promote social inequality by diverting resources towards the middle-classes.

But an associational system avoids this problem in two ways. First, the minimum standards and expectations that are set out by national, regional, and local government may include measures such as the guarantee of equal funding for pupils, the provision of a minimum standard of resources in each school, or even the targeting of extra resources at poorer pupils and schools. The point here is that, subject to well-regulated minimum national standards, a radically decentralised system of public administration will not promote social inequality.

Secondly, associative governance must start off as a supplement to, rather than a replacement for, other forms of governance. It is unrealistic and unfair to expect that all schools could operate as self-governing associations from the off. To punish ‘failing’ schools that suffer from the problems of being located in areas with high levels of social deprivation by effectively transferring their resources to Academies and Free Schools, is to misunderstand the real source of such failure. But of course the option remains open to the electorate to choose a government that recognises the social and economic grounds of deprivation and is prepared to tackle it through wealth redistribution, job creation, and the targeting of public funds for local regeneration.     

Welfare and public services

If the associative society is to win backing from citizens, there is a crucial area in which associationalism must prove its credentials. Can an economy based on associative principles be robust and sustainable enough to support extensive welfare provision and excellent public services? The question presupposes, quite wrongly, that the economy would be weakened by its democratisation and associationalisation. Yet precisely the opposite is true.

Britain's deep social pluralism, for example, goes unreflected in the economy, overly-dependent as we have become on the financial sector. Today, five years into an unprecedented financial crisis, the damage wrought by that dependency should be clear for all to see. The coalition has paid lip service to the idea of economic diversification and the provision of public funding for economic innovation, but it has little understanding or appetite for the kind of fundamental changes in economic governance that are required.  

Associative finance

To begin to sketch what such a reformed economy would look like, how would an associative financial system operate? A possible model is one in which regional banks, via local branches, would allocate loans to businesses on the basis of an agreement between the bank and the enterprise about the viability of its long-term business plan and wider considerations about its contribution to the local and regional economy.

Such considerations would be informed by the bank’s policy on regional and local development, which would be drawn up in consultation with a variety of interested parties, including regional government, local governments, strategic planning authorities for transport and other forms of infrastructure, trade unions, business associations, residents associations, environmental groups, etc.

The representation of such groups would be formal rather than discretionary, with associational representation on the bank’s board. In this system, the line between the status of the bank as either a private or a public institution is erased. Funds for investment could come from both private investors, who could be issued with bonds, and from the state via a national investment bank.

General standards and social objectives for the release of public funds could be set by national government – for example, whether to encourage green enterprises or to discourage the funding of businesses that have connections to unsavoury regimes – but it would be up to the regional bank in consultation with its associational representatives to decide precisely how to implement these policies. That such banks would have overall social and economic objectives and would be subject to democratic control, would not forestall them from operating in order to make reasonable profits for their employees and to aid their client firms in making profits to be shared by their employees.

We are a very long way from such a form of associative finance in Britain. What is evident is that if we are to move towards it we need clear and determined action by government. This would involve, for example, the creation of a publicly endowed national investment bank that would be democratically governed with the same kind of associational representation on its board as on that of regional banks.

Strong regulation would also be required to protect public assets and ensure they worked towards public ends rather than private interests. Again, however, after legislating for measures such as the separation of retail and investment banking, regulations concerning the distribution of public funds would operate as minimum standards, and regional banks and local branches would otherwise have autonomy to determine how such funds are to be dispersed subject to their general policy.

This would have the benefit of allowing banks to be responsive to the circumstances of local areas and individual firms, encouraging a diversification of economic activity, while at the same time directing public funds to socially useful forms of production and consumption.

Complex modernity

Associationalism accepts that the modern world is characterised by complex and plural forms of social and economic governance. It seeks not to transcend the complexity and ubiquity of government, but to place its operation in the hands of citizens and make it work, as far as it can, to satisfy a plurality of needs and wants. It is a project for the radical democratisation of social and economic governance.

In contrast, the Big Society ostensibly seeks to retrieve a world of simpler, smaller government, in which idealised local communities and neighbourhoods look after their own affairs without the need to consider anyone else. It is a world that probably never existed and certainly does not exist today. Now and for the future, the only real Big Society is the associative society.

Retrieving the Big Society, edited by Jason Edwards, was published this August by Wiley-Blackwell in association with The Political Quarterly. More details can be found on The Political Quarterly's website.


[i] Paul Hirst, Associative Democracy: New Forms of Social and Economic Governance (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1994).

[ii] See Alan Ware, ‘The Big Society and Conservative Politics: Back to the Future or Forward to the Past’, in J. Edwards (ed.) Retrieving the Big Society (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012).

[iii] See Adam Leeder and Deborah Mabbett, ‘Free Schools: Big Society or Small Interests?’ in Edwards, ibid.


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