7/100: The Big Society

As David Cameron oversees a rapid dismantling of the Welfare State, that bastard child of Capitalism which won the Cold War but never got any credit for it, he must be hoping that something else will fill the void. Something else must, as Welfare State held the western societies together and its absence may mean a world full of despair, breakdown of social life and crimes and drugs and all the things noir. Cameron's big idea was to fill the void with 'Big Society', a sort of third sector utopia where the voluntary citizen organizations and social enterprises step in to fill the void, create opportunities and spread the word for self-reliance and creative thinking. The problem is - it is not working.

The reason it is not working, and it may not work in future, is because it is so utopian. There may be a lot of lament about the disappearance of community, but this is one thing that capitalism does: Removes the social markets. We would love to see things in pretty boxes: Society in the green box full of community and harmony, economy in the red box full of entrepreneurial energy driven by self-interest, but it is the same box. To get the economy at the cold, impersonal level that we desire it to be, we must junk the softie sentiments and fellow feeling that a community works on. In fact, the markets work best when it is taken out of the social control - this is something the Capitalist gurus have been saying all along. The sad fact is that you can't have your cake and eat it too.

But then, David Cameron must have seriously believed he can have the big society by supercharging Britain's third sector in the action. There are so many organizations, charities, social enterprises - so many good people! In the artificially enhanced years of labour administration, every third person you met had a voluntary engagement. Cameron wanted to take away the life support that this sector was living on - he had to, there was no money - and thought they would start walking. What he did not know that the Third Sector is completely incapable of doing something on its own.

This is because the people running these organizations are so incapable of thinking of their own. There isn't any lack of accountability, and more arguably, of commitment, but these social organizations have always been told what is to be done by other people. I have sat through meetings of some of the organizations in the middle of the great funding crunch, where the objective was to find the new opportunities: But instead of asking what can be done, the whole discussion revolved around where the funding will be. Despite clear signals that these organizations must start thinking themselves, they just can't.

David Cameron does not want to tell the organizations what to do, he just wants to facilitate them to do what is needed. It is a strange catch-22: No one wants to step up and decide what will be done. I am sure this is going to change and a new set of organizations, fit for purpose in the new social settings, will soon emerge. They always do. However, whether they would do soon enough, just in time to save Cameron's scheme from collapsing, remains to be seen.


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