Big Society: a strategy of distraction?

Wednesday, 17th August 2011 at 8:00 UTC Leave a comment

I’ve been doing plenty of thinking about the Big Society idea lately, and how it uses language of mutual aid to both excuse cuts but also to redirect people’s volunteering efforts. There is plenty being written about the former, but lets think for a minute about the latter.

I realise at this point that its worth saying this counts as a “post-riots” blog post. Apparently we’re supposed to see this event as a massive seminal shift in how our nation is treated, akin to how September 11th “changed everything” in America. The power of the media to endlessly hold events like this fresh in our minds and prevent us from entering any process of forgiveness is as terrible as it is terrifying.

But this shift has been going on for much longer. I’m not, I should point out, simply referring to the shift towards increasing quantities of unpaid work in Britain. That has been going on for years, either in the form of internships or simply by replacing statutory services with paid council staff with volunteers. Ever since Cameron began his talk of a big society, he has been very selective in the examples he’s given of what a Big Society Volunteer will actually be doing.

I realise a lot of this lacks concrete examples, mostly because the Big Society lacks any concrete reality. But its worrying how many of the services volunteers are supposed to be fulfilling are essentially geared to one of two groups: the already engaged and the worthiest recipients of pure pity. The real grunt work of going out and finding those who are right at the margins or indeed have long since fallen off are completely ignored.

Take the example of libraries. We can assume that libraries are places where the children of educated parents hang out, or where children who are already engaged in the learning process will want to go. Helping run your library will help you contribute to their lives. Many of the clubs and activities we keep seeing highlighted such as sports coaching seem very much geared towards those children who’s parents will facilitate their involvement.

I do realise that there is inherently far more complexity in being a volunteer in the streets, befriending kids who are regularly moved on by police and who see the whole world as a threat. Staffing the children’s section of a local library is much easier going, I’m sure. But its the real front-line stuff we need.

It should be very obvious that people rarely engage themselves. By this, I mean that young people in particular often get involved in things that go out of their way to find them, whether gangs or youth groups. Detached youth workers throw hours and hours into getting to know young people before they will get involved in anything concrete. Some of this is not-unreasonable suspicion, and some of it is just a fact of modern life.

The problem with all of this is the model of society being invoked. Is this a society, a community, which is entirely inclusive? Does it attempt to reach out into the darker places and make contact with those who are less able to engage directly? Or is it tailored to looking after our own kind, to helping the kids who want to get ahead and to making life better for the middle-classes?

I realise I’m making some sweeping generalisations. I’ve met working class kids with determination and interest, some of whom have really made a home for themselves in places their peers find uninteresting or off-putting. Not all have had the kinds of parents who organise their lives to keep them busy on the road to perceived success. And by no means does every child who visits their local library once a week go out and riot at the first available opportunity in decades. As I said, this move predates the riots.

Its the nature of volunteering as “help your own community” as opposed to “help others” which appears implicit in the Big Society agenda. And it came to the for with language about “the real London” during the riot clean up. Commendable as the efforts of people sweeping up after the riot were, some of the language used seemed designed to paint those involved in the rioting as “Not-Londoners”. Add to this the wonderfully white crowds that the BBC managed to show in parts of London, and the brutally black crowds of rioters on show, and the racist clichés just kept on coming all day long.

This kind of “exceptionalism” is quite a dangerous mind-set, and will actually play into the hands of gang leaders as already-disconnected young people are left with nowhere other than gangs to turn to. In fact, the idea of a society based on who’s in and more specifically, who’s not ‘in’, is not a new concept. Its a concept that has pervaded not only fascist ideologies, but also much of our thinking about society and nation for decades, perhaps even centuries.

Twitter-user OwenJones84 commented that “in post-riot backlash, black people, single parents and people on benefits have come under attack. From the Big Society to the Ugly Society”.

My personal evaluation is that the two have always been much more closely connected than many of us wished to acknowledge, perhaps even as the two sides of a single coin. The great PR policy of the present government continues to paint over all manner of grubby stains.


Entry filed under: Britain, Community, Conservatives, Politics, Volunteering.

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