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What can the ‘Big Society’ learn from history?

Governments can do little to build civil society directly but much more to strengthen the conditions in which civil society can build itself.

Michael Edwards
14 March 2011

One of the strangest things about the current ‘Big Society’ debate is the absence of any historical perspective, as though ideas about civic participation were invented in 2010 rather than two thousand years before when Aristotle launched the first conversation about the rights and responsibilities of citizens, a conversation that has been embellished by an unbroken line of thinkers and activists ever since.

As a US-based Labour Party supporter who has studied this stuff for thirty years or more, I’m quite impressed with David Cameron’s attempts to extend this conversation into the world of national politics. But this lack of perspective deprives the Coalition’s efforts of crucial lessons from the past, principally the lesson that governments can do little to build civil society directly but much more to strengthen the conditions in which civil society can build itself. Unfortunately, politicians and policy-makers on both sides of the Atlantic have consistently reached the opposite conclusion.

Historically, civil society has flourished under two sets of conditions. The first is made up of those tipping points against outright repression and the violation of human rights, when large numbers of ordinary people develop the courage and confidence to take to the streets and mobilize social movements, much like recent events across the Arab world, or after 1989 in Eastern Europe, or during the US Civil Rights campaigns of the 1960s. Recent student protests in Britain and ‘Uncut’ - born in the UK and now rooting itself in the USA - are smaller-scale examples, sparked by the obvious injustices of tax evasion and rising inequality at a time of wrenching public cuts.

Such movements can flame with great intensity, but they tend to burn themselves out pretty quickly after their immediate aims have been secured, which is one of the reasons why civil society is currently so weak even in the countries that spurred its revival after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The anger and closely-drawn identities that drive these movements are too visceral and narrow to sustain broader coalitions for change in which many compromises are required.

And that’s when the second set of conditions become so important. They occur when periods of widespread economic security enable the majority of the population, and not just the better-off, to take an active role in politics and civic life, and to reach out and make connections with people they don’t agree with in order to find enough common ground to force through some reforms in the broader public interest. Think of the twenty-five years after World War Two in America, for example, when nationally-federated, mass-membership groups like Parent-Teacher Associations, labor unions, Elks, Moose and others pressurized the US government to adopt landmark social legislation like the GI Bill of 1944; or think of the high levels of participation that characterize Scandinavian social democracies today. 

Both sets of conditions are important, with the first producing breakthrough moments of great intensity and the second producing lower-profile advances in long-term social welfare. By contrast, during times of rising poverty and inequality, efforts by governments to stimulate civil society through special projects have never had much effect. This is why America has experienced a systematic decline in most measures of civic life since the 1970s, despite the fact that governments of every political stripe have poured money into state-sponsored volunteering schemes, community-development corporations, faith-based initiatives, social innovation funds and the like. Such initiatives are too small, too transitory, and too driven by professional elites with no roots in the community.

This is the problem that now faces Cameron and his colleagues. Being too moderate to foment large-scale social protest and too conservative to sign up to large-scale redistribution, the coalition is trapped in a piecemeal approach that’s incapable of reproducing any of the conditions under which civil society has flourished. It’s an approach that’s akin to building a house while simultaneously weakening the foundations, and hoping that new wallpaper and other special touches will paper over the cracks that result. More community organizers, social enterprises and the Big Society Bank will never compensate for the erosion of human security that is taking place through budget cuts, the privatization of public services, and the changing structure of the economy.

The basic lesson of history is that citizens need their governments to guarantee the conditions in which civil society can be most inclusive and effective, but they don’t need Whitehall or Washington to tell them how to organize themselves for collective action. After all, if the Big Society means anything in the long run it has to be shaped and sustained by the energies of millions of ordinary people. Unfortunately, Cameron and his colleagues seem to have missed this fundamental point, condemning their efforts to failure in the process. If the coalition is sincere about its Big Society intentions, it should reverse its priorities now.  

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