Bigger state no answer to 'Big Society'
David Cameron’s crusade for the 'Big Society' should compel its opponents to question and reconsider the role of the state in our corporate-owned, profit-driven society. Unfortunately, it has done nothing of the kind.
Though difficult to pin down, the BS project could be understood as Cameron’s libertarian response to a top-down, bureaucratic state that vast swathes of the population despise and want nothing to do with.
Perhaps Tory prime minister Cameron understands that should this attitude to the state continue unchallenged, there’ll come a time when it loses remaining legitimacy. And that point, anything could happen, as events in Egypt have shown.
So the Coalition’s plan is to shed the state’s responsibility for things like forests and invite the unelected, unaccountable 'third sector' of charities and the like to bid for services currently provided by local councils. Other community projects will be able to access funds from a BS bank and the rest of us simply have to volunteer.
Labour and trade union leaders like Brendan Barber have simplistic responses which reveal much about their fondness for the capitalist state and litle else. Labour crudely says the BS is a “cover for the cuts”, which is a bit rich for a party implementing the government’s draconian policies at local level without any resistance.
Just for the record, the previous New Labour government contracted out huge chunks of formerly state-provided services at vast cost to the taxpayer. Private Finance Initiative (PFI) schemes became a licence to print money for companies building hospitals and schools while Londoners are weighed down by the cost of rescuing a failed Tube modernisation contract.
Now it turns out that 25 for-profit Independent Sector Treatment Centres created by New Labour to do non-essential operations on behalf of the NHS have been overpaid by up to £250 million in the five years to 2010. This is because they were paid a fixed sum, even though the centres carried out fewer operations than the contract specified.
So the Coalition is deepening a trend set by Blair and Brown, which makes the claims that Cameron wants a “smaller state” more than slightly ludicrous. Barber, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, who bizarrely says the BS will create a failed state like Somalia, favours the Scandinavian approach, consisting of a massive (and oppressive) state apparatus and a welfare system paid for by taxing ordinary workers at around 50% of their incomes. (If he cared to check he would find Scandinavia is moving towards market states).
But should we allow ourselves to be placed in a position of defending the role of the existing state (Scandinavian or otherwise) in opposition to the BS project? The present state reinforces the capitalist status quo, with its gross inequality and exploitation. It sanctifies profit by legally obliging corporations to put shareholder interests first. The 'welfare state' in turn legitimises the notion of the deserving poor, forever dependent on the charity of the state.
Other parts of the state apparatus supply judicial and police powers to control the population lest they resent what passes for democracy, fitting up activists where necessary as they did over the Nottinghamshire power station action. So who’s for a bigger version of this wretched state? Only Ed Miliband and Barber because access to the state gives them privilege and limited power without ever having to challenge how things are.
We are obliged to develop concrete ideas for an altogether different system of ruling, one that does not sit above society while operating on behalf of the powerful and the rich. What is wanted as an alternative to the BS and Labour’s love of the state is a thoroughly democratic system based on a network of People’s Assemblies as a transition to real self-rule. At the heart of such a democratic system would be co-ownership and control of all society’s resources, including land, banks and corporations. Then we could truly say that society was much, much bigger than it is today.
15 February 2011