It was no surprise when David Cameron announced in his "big society" speech that the idea is a long-standing passion of his, regardless of the unpleasant duty to cut the deficit. The thing that remains somewhat harder to fathom is his claim that the "big society" is actually about the biggest redistribution of power from the elite in Whitehall to the man and woman on the street. He alluded to this at a meeting with representatives of voluntary and charitable organisations in Downing Street back in May, when he said that "the best ideas come from the ground up, not the top down".
One could be forgiven for thinking Cameron is proposing that grass-roots activists overthrow the government, resulting in an anti-elitist utopia. However, his hierarchical phrasing (despite its placating focus on those on the ground looking up) leaves little doubt as to who is really in charge. It's just the usual case of those in authority patronising subordinates by saying what a marvellous job they're going do, so that they can delegate responsibility to them at as little cost as possible, before going off to do whatever they please in the time the subordinates have freed up.
Cameron says the success of the "big society" will depend on people giving their time, effort and even money to causes around them, and that the government must foster and support a new culture of voluntarism, philanthropy and social action. Perhaps, in the current political climate, it doesn't matter if people get involved only because of the social pressure that such a culture will surely create. Indeed, it seems many people only really mind being controlled if it is done explicitly.
If they can pretend it isn't happening, all is well. As it is, this means that ultimately many see paying tax according to one's earnings as an absolute drag, while being aggressively harassed in the street by a pushy charity fundraiser for money that one may not have isn't commonly held in the same degree of contempt. The "big society" will surely spur such sentiments.
"Something really exciting"
Social control is certainly not to be celebrated. In my view, people should only ever be forced to submit to anything when it is deemed completely necessary for basic human survival. But what's worse? A better version of the tax system we already have, that is honestly but discreetly imposed on those of us who have the means to pay? This gives us all the right to expect that our basic needs will be met, but leaves us to do what we please beyond that. Or, alternatively, a gradual erosion of that system through interventions that offer fake freedom, and then use more insidious ways to control our lives persistently?
Cameron's voluntarism is precisely the latter. This is clearly reflected in his bluster about neighbourhoods which feel that if they club together and get involved they can shape the world around them. This brings frightening visions of communities where dominant, self-appointed busybodies are free to lord it over others and pour scorn on those who fail to fit in. Make no mistake: there is no room for outsiders or loners in a society without a welfare state that allows those in need not to be at the mercy of the mob's prejudices.
There are greater individual freedoms to be gained from socialism in the long run. Higher taxes for those of us who can afford them in return for decent public services and benefits for those of us who need them are a small price to pay for the basic right to food, shelter, health care and dignity for everyone (with no questions, and no ifs or buts).
The greater anonymity of giving through taxes gives both givers and receivers freedom from the reinforcement of power relations, and a better chance of going about our business undisturbed. In the case of the recipient, it also gives dignity and the freedom to live as an individual, without having to rely on other people's goodwill. Pragmatically, charity is sometimes necessary, but Cameron seems determined to create a situation where we are even more beholden to it, concluding:
It's my hope . . . that when people look back at this five-, ten-year-period from 2010, they'll say: "In Britain they didn't just pay down the deficit, they didn't just balance the books, they didn't just get the economy moving again, they did something really exciting in their society."
The mind boggles as to what this exciting thing could be. Get ready to be excited about gradually losing the National Health Service through back-door privatisation and for the welfare state to become a distant memory. Get ready for even more poverty on the streets that you walk through on the way to the full-time job you can't afford to lose because there is no safety net.
Oh, and don't forget to navigate those streets all over again at the end of the working day to reach that volunteer position you are duty-bound to take on top of your normal job. The elite are free to lock themselves in their castles and build their moats around themselves -- but not you, good citizen.
I'm not an economist and I am not going to pretend I have answers to the deficit problem. I accept that many of the proposed solutions will not be to my liking, and that there will be arguments for making cuts. What I resent is the attempt to hoodwink us into thinking that the "big society" has anything whatsoever to do with liberation.
Cameron says you can call it freedom. Nice try -- but, of all the things I could call it, freedom certainly isn't one of them.
Holly Combe has been a writer for the F-Word since 2002 and is also a TV and radio commentator.