Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Old story, for the English

I never thought I would agree on the a political decision with an Archbishop ( being Belgian is part of this anticlerical instinct) but the comment of the Archbishop of Westminster on the Big Society made me retract on my position. The Big Society was the English “Yes you can” of last year, a part ideology, part slogan generating ideas and debates. The opposition and the Conservative Party both outlined their points of view whilst the Liberal-Democrats stayed quite silent. The position of the libdems is understandable. The Big Society is the part of the conservatives' unenviable cuts program put forward, as it was the one that involved the least controversial ideas.

The plan is to give more powers to communities, encourage volunteering and relegate some of the government services to co-ops. Who could argue with that? People doing it for themselves, direct people helping people volunteering without any of those detached Whitehall “fatcats” involved. The conservatives partner in this dissolution Walz, the libdems, remained remarkably muted on the subject however. So do they prefer a distanced over-powerful central government preferring civil servants to engaged citizens ? It is hard to choose the later, it’s clearly more complex than simple ideology, the problem with the Big Society is in its application.

The Con-Dem coalition has started its governance by laying out their plans to cut government spendings. The Big Society is the safety-net for all the people relying on the soon-to-disappear public services. That is where we find the first problem for the creation of this Big Society. The government started by cutting public services first, posing a simple solution to those not wanting to see misery around them, get out there and help others.

It is hard to push people to be involved in their communities, so why not make it an inescapable moral obligation? Maybe an exaggeration but it's easy to see citizens will go down the road to help each other. People have already started marching down those same streets to acknowledge that the cuts are contraversial. We can say that the Big Society is slowly appearing, though probably not the way the Conservatives expected it to be.

The privatisation of the public services started under Thatcher and Cameron is following her lead. His proclaimed intention is to, when possible; transfer the power to co-operatives and mutualities. It is a better plan than to give the duty of the services to private companies driven only by the need to make profit rather than helping the collective.

Committees are preparing for a bank to help these communal organisations. The Bank funds will come from unused bank accounts. This idea is interesting. The details are yet very blurry though. The question of interests on the loans for example has not yet been debated. It would be another burden to charge interest on people trying to start a co-operative not only affecting those running the groups but for those that group provides for as well.

The transfer of powers to localities is an idea that could attract of lot of minds. Empowering localities mean that people would not feel as distanced to power as they feel now. Bristol is a good example of a local government having to decide on a controversial decision such as preferring Tesco over a co-operative. This was before the conservative pledged to back-up co-operatives. The point though is that local governments do not have to abide by the people's will until their re-election is challenged.

If the Big Society in the last months ( this article was actually written in Mars - and does not mention the resignation of the ' Architect' of the Big Society- due to lack of support from the Government - if that does  not prove the lack of faith of the Conservatives I do not know what does )  it is because Liverpool's council withdrew itself from the trial the government organised in partnership with the city and three other localities. Liverpool is led by a Labour councillor, so it might be a political decision to exit this test. The justification for not participating was that the cuts in services discouraged volunteers already on the ground. Attracting new, motivated people to the Big Society while simultaneously cutting and demotivating those already involved is not the best foundation on which to build an organisation fuelled by goodwill.

This is a point that has been outlined by a few research institutes. To build a cohesive society, there must be a balanced material equality between all its members. is an easy to access and understand research institute proving many times this point. The most interesting graph is the one correlating social trust and equality. The countries with the greatest ratio of equality, the usual Vikings, have the greatest level of social trust. Japan has a similar level of equality of income but not of trust. The difference might lie here in the fact that Japan does not have a history of social trust and has a very competitive educational system.

Comparative researches have also been done to observe the causal sequencing of trust and equality. The people arguing against a universal welfare system say that if people do not trust each other, why should we be obliged to help everybody. This puts us in a social trap. The proof against this argument though was outlined by a thinker called Bo Rothstein. He has compared Sweden and the United States social trust and welfare systems. The decline of the welfare system in some states of the United States correlated with their decline in social trust.

It is an important part of the conservative agenda: transforming the structure of Britain to make it more similar to the American. Charity is an important part of society. The Godfather showed that is how respectability is obtained in the new world. Charity is actually a very vicious instrument of class domination. A simple example is that Eton is one of the largest charities in the United Kingdom. Except for donating the current Prime Minister, I’m not sure how it benefits more to society.

Charity might be the main aspect of the Big Society. Any donation to charities are tax deductible. That is how tax evasion, or defending tax cuts, is legitimized: it is more money to give away. As said before, it is easy to make a charity that serves only private interests. Ikea is owned by a charity for example. So it does not have to share its profit to help everybody. It’s Obligation to society is to expand and make more tax money for the state, taxes that are rarely paid due to large tax loopholes, Boots for examples headquarter’s is a Postbox in Switzerland. Charity is actually far more vicious than the loophole of the rich to escape providing for everybody. Oscar Wilde explained it a century ago. Charity is the way for rich people to satisfy their guilt over poverty. Giving makes them feel good. It is purely selfish as the reason for misery is never questioned. Charity is solving a problem in appearance. Charity is not immoral, but should never have existed. Donating is only pushing on the problem for tomorrow and that is what is never said.

A few practicable alternative societies have been provided in the last twenty decades. Most of them do insist on localism. They do also insist on a sense of community. All these programs centre their attention to prosperity and eradicating poverty. If we do not pay attention to these alternatives we will reach a real crisis. Equality is of importance as growing income disparity leads to social unrest. A theory approached for the unrest in the middle-east is that the rise in food price has made the gap in income more observable and so more shocking than ever.

Equality of health, education, transport, information should be essentials provided to everybody for charities to disappear. Tim Jackson was asked by the previous Labour government to outline a way out of the economic crisis. He presented it and the government refused to acknowledge it, it was too good a solution probably. His point was that a neo-liberal economy fed on disparities and competition. Both these elements are though destructive to a Big Society. The only alternative is a deep structural change.

Here lies the irony of it all: the conservative did provide us with the goal but are working hard at making it unreachable.
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