The Big Society is the Parental Society

If there’s one good thing that has come out of the riots and looting in English cities this week, it’s that it has brought out the parent in society.

The shock, outrage, fear and heartbreak at the destruction did not result in a society that wallowed in self-pity and impotence, wondering when a paternal state was going to come and sort things out and make things better. In fact, if anything, society, local communities, found that there was very little point depending on the state, whether police or politicians, which only proved itself to be as vulnerable and fragile as a little child.

Instead, come Tuesday morning in London and later in other cities, members of local communities were out in force cleaning up the mess, offering support to victims and the emergency services, protecting neighbourhoods from further looting. A number of social media initiatives, such as @riotcleanup on Twitter, sprang up to work with councils and the police to find out where ordinary members of the public could go to help out. ‘Local’ didn’t just mean your neighbourhood or borough, but even your own city and, for some, county.

Next to the parental society, the vague pronouncements, unsatisfiable promises and unthinking diagnoses of a “sick society” and “broken Britain” from politicians seems absolutely childish. Indeed, I would argue that calling society sick or broken is an insult to every person who got knee deep in broken glass (literally and metaphorically). I might also add that the looters’ own justifications for their actions made them sound more educated than the politicians.

This is what the Big Society is about. The reference to size is superficial, in that parents are bigger than their young children. But it doesn’t mean a retrenchment or shrinking of the state. Instead, for children to be big like their parents means to take on the responsibilities of being an adult and being a parent, which includes holding their own young children to account. A Big Society is a Responsible Society, not one that is absolutely dependent on a childlike state.

It was ironic that the police were practically pleading for parents to find out where their kids are and to bring them in. Whether this worked or not is unclear but it perhaps it was an indication as to the proper relationship between society and the state.

From paternalism to parental society

Two days ago, I wrote about how the Tea Party’s resistance might be a good thing for America. Not necessarily because of the policies they espouse (that’s not what this post is about). The Tea Party in the US and the anti-cuts coalition in the UK are in fact two sides of the same coin, that coin being the rising up of society through mass grassroots movements to remind government where they come from and what their purpose is.

As I wrote before, the state has traditionally been seen as paternalistic, with responsibility forlooking after a childlike society. This view still resonates today, with current political philosophies such as libertarian paternalism. A father is still a father, no matter how easy going he is. In the feminist critique, however, the alignment of the state with one particular gender has created opposition. Most obviously, this has been between the sexes, but,  where the feminine has come to represent the uncivilised or irrational, this also means between races, socioeconomic groups and between man and the environment. These ‘others’ of the white male have always been subject to oppression. It is this inherent gender polarity, says Jessica Benjamin in The Bonds of Love, that is the problem.

By eliminating gender polarity, the question becomes no longer who is the mother or who is the father but who is the parent. But we are not talking about an ungendered parent, but one who is bisexual or bi-gendered – that is, one who has attributes that have traditionally been identified as male and attributes traditionally identified as female. The important thing is that it is the parent who begets the child. So, if the state is the parent, say, who does the state beget. Does the state create society?

Benjamin argues from her psychoanalytic feminist perspective that the child identifies with the father in order to differentiate itself from the mother. Before this, from the child’s point of view, the father essentially doesn’t exist. In other words, the child created the father  then gave up power to him. This is the obvious flaw with the notion of a paternal state.

Yes, the environment (Mother Nature, say) can be said to have ‘given  birth to’ human beings in an evolutionary sense – according to how God designed the system, obviously – but it is the forming of societies that led to the creation of the state to govern societal relations. So, in reality, society is the parent of the state, with the responsibility to make sure that state behaves well (whatever that means).

The problem in many Western liberal democracies has been apathy in society. Voter turnout has often been quite low and this has allowed to the state to get away with proverbial murder, whether it be the Iraq war, the undermining of civil liberties, massive over spending and borrowing, large scale public sector cuts and lax regulation of the financial services industry, to name a few. But what the Tea Party movement, the anti-cuts coalition, the ‘Stop the War’ protests in 2003, the larger than usual turnout in the UK General Election followed by the forming of coalition , show is the importance of a powerful society, standing up for what it believes to be right and keeping government accountable. This is the parent’s job in relation to the child. When the parent can’t be bothered , children think they can do anything they want or they live in a fantasy world.

The state is the eternal child.

This doesn’t mean that the state doesn’t lack any power at all. As any child knows, parents can be out of touch with the times, so children do need to ‘educate’ parents as well. But obviously a child cannot respond to the parent in the same way that the parent responds to the child. But what’s important is that there is a dialogue or dialectical relationship between the parent and the child, the society and the state, where anti-thesis and thesis come together to form a synthesis, but even if they don’t, both understand the other better.

But even more important is that parents cannot be like children and children cannot be like parents. The Tea Party caucus can be the parent as part of society, but it cannot play that role if it is in government. There is a reason why the government is made up of ministers and secretaries, they have to take the more deferential or submissive role of a child. But this redefinition of the state/society relationship also means that we must abandon the idea of Montesquieu‘s three branches of government. Really, the legislature and the judiciary should rightly be seen as the highest levels of society, since their role is to keep the executive in check and acting in accordance with societal values.

Perhaps the parental society is the true Big Society – big, because it’s about not being a child anymore, it’s about growing up and taking its responsibilities seriously. It has nothing to do with a retrenchment of the state in terms of services provided. No, a small state is one that acts with the humility of a child towards the society that created it and gave it life.

Additional thought

Perhaps the current democracy movements in the Middle East are also an example of the dialectic between paternalism to parentalism. In which case NATO’s intervention in Libya must be like the reality tv show Supernanny, who comes in to help the despairing parent. So, it’s still questionable then.

Big Society Libyan-style

One of the big question in British politics today is, what the hell is the Big Society?

Well, we only have to look at Benghazi, the first Libyan city to declare freedom, for a glimpse into David Cameron’s vision for the UK.

“Neighbourhood Watch-like groups, all armed with AK-47s, manned checkpoints in and out of all the towns. But every military and police post for 360 miles had been abandoned.”

The local community banded together and took on functions previously carried on by the state, even though every media report of the protests have made that point that “civil society is virtually non-existent and the business sector still young and weak”.

Then there is Misrata. One resident told Reuters that not only have “protestors overcome security forces and taken full control”, but also law and order did not collapse. Within a matter of hours, “calm return to the city…the people’s spirits here are high, they are celebrating and chanting ‘God is Greates’.” What’s more, it was the community, not the state, who are organising traffice, searching pedestrians for weapons and even placed some armed intruders from Tripoli under arrest.

I am instinctively against many of the cuts that the UK government is making and I am suspicious that they are using the deficit to disguise their neoliberal ideology. However, if the Big Society is alive and kicking in a place where there was allegedly no civil society, just think what can be done here!

The irony is that, according to Politicocoa, it was possibly Colonol Gadhaffi who put some of the structures in place for a Libyan Big Society.

“The people committees everywhere that Gadhafi espouses in his “Green Book”, with no one excluded from decision-making. A pathetic piece of window dressing for a dictatorship for the last 40 odd years, for sure. But something that has been drilled into Libyan minds routinely for over 40 years too. So perhaps they are now thinking, “ok, we’ve never actually done these participatory things mentioned in that book that had seemed like fiction until now, but now we are free to do so, we know how we’ve got to organise, let’s get on so things don’t fall apart.” I wonder if it will sustain, or if we end up with the usual representative democracy and its inevitable disappointments.”

Let’s hope Cameron doesn’t take any other leaf from Gadhafi’s book.

The Big Society – Does size matter?

I attended a workshop yesterday, organised by the Environmental Law Foundation, on how the concept of the Big Society could help local residents to achieve environmental justice. Of course, there is a still confusion about what David Cameron meant when he coined the Big Society. But I think I heard possibly one of the best definitions of it yesterday, from Steve Shaw, the National Coordinator of Local Works.

Local Works is an organisation that was specifically set up by the New Economics Foundation to campaign for and push for the parliamentary acceptance of the Sustainable Communities Act. This is what Shaw said:

“The Big Society has always been there. It is about the things you want to do but the rules are a barrier and they can only be changed by government. The Sustainable Communities Act comes in as a bottom up process to change. It is the only concrete example of the Big Society.”

I had heard of the SCA but didn’t really know what it about. Apparently, in a nutshell, local residents can submit ideas for local initiatives to their local council, who then pass it up to central government (via the Local Government Association) and the government has to seriously consider each before approving or rejecting. There probably is a bit more to it than that, but effectively it means that the people have a real say as to what happens in their local community.

Personally, I think the confusion arises more from the form of words rather than the content. I don’t think anyone is opposed to the idea of the Big Society – it’s a catchy, vacuous name for social responsibility, even though social responsibility is much more self-explanatory. In positing the Big Society, Cameron was trying to put forward an alternative philosophy to Big Government. The problem is that it is easy to understand Big or Small in relation to Government. But Society is not a specific entity. Big Society is just Society, the adjective is superfluous.

Arguably, the best definition of the Big Society, or social responsibility, comes from Margaret Thatcher (I feel so dirty now). In her autobiography, she clarified what she meant when she said that “there’s no such thing as society”: “My meaning, clear at the time but subsequently distorted beyond recognition, was that society was not an abstraction, separate from men and women who composed it, but a living structure of individuals, families, neighbours and voluntary associations. I expected great things from society in this sense because I believed that as economic wealth grew, individuals and voluntary groups should assume more responsibility for their neighbours’ misfortunes. The error to which I was objecting was the confusion of society with the state as the helper of first resort…Society for me was not an excuse, it was a source of obligation.” This is why you can’t describe society as big, because the obvious question would be: “how big?”

And then, if size really does matter, then everyone knows that nothing gets big by itself. If the government want a big society, it needs to masturbate it and in a controlled fashion, because there’s nothing messier and more annoying than premature ejaculation.