Four Big Problems with the Big Society

As evidence from charities such as Save the Children grows ( ) that relative and absolute poverty in the UK are on the rise, I’ve been thinking about this Big Idea of the Big Society: the plan that in the face of austerity cuts, our collective love for one another as a species would step in and fill in the gaps. I think the problems with the concept in terms of its usefulness in developing us positively as a society can be grouped into four main issues.

1. The concept of Big Society is psychologically incompatible with the neo-liberalism it seeks to supplement

The idea of Big Society is based on the idea that humans have a great capacity for coming together and helping one another, sharing skills and resources. I believe this to be true, but it is not encouraged by the dominant ideology of neo-liberalism and the impact this has on the psychological mindset of the people needed to put in the social labour for it to work. In overt and covert ways, we are encouraged to be individualistic, a trait which has been on the rise since at least the days of Thatcher. This ideology is supported in at least three ways:

  • Firstly, in our socialisation process, which rewards competitiveness far more than collective behaviour from early on in the classroom and raises us to view ourselves as primarily consumers and workers.
  • Secondly in terms of the messages given out by the government about the need for valid contributions to be in place for a person to be deserving of support or care: this is implicit in the welfare reform which has been taking place and is also written into the language of mainstream political dialogue.
  • Thirdly, in the explicit language of the tabloid press, which uses the terminology of “benefits scroungers” “bogus asylum seekers” etc in a way in which valid needs are dismissed and need itself is programmed to be associated with selfishness in the collective consciousness.

2. The “Big Society” label is just terminology rather than action planning, and refers to social labour which was already in place

The concept of the Big Society is really just middle (or upper, considering its origins) class language for social labour and exchanges which were already in place prior to the arrival of the coalition. It is a nonsense to assume that people did not already give their time and resources to look out for others within their family and community others, and the sticking on of a new label to this process without serious consideration of what needs to happen (which as above should look at the rise of individualism if it is going to be thorough) to encourage those who don’t help others is just going to put more labour on to those who are already providing it, without giving them any extra time or money to do it with. As a business model, it is a nonsense.

3.The Big Society is at best a gap filler and will prove a false economy in terms of the long term social problems it will lead to and the financial impact these will have on society

By cutting the funding for social and care related labour in the community we are removing the experience and skills of existing providers and the impact these can have in terms of long term social change. Where charities and community groups and members are stepping in, they are doing so at a stretched point where they have to concentrate on short term need rather than being able to build for social change. An impoverished community which is delivered food parcels can survive, but for the individuals in the community to have the skills and opportunities to grow out of poverty, they need more, and stretched and sometimes untrained providers are not able to give it to them.

4. Big Society is implicitly Anti-Equality, and so hinders rather than building for a meritocracy

Big Society is implicitly anti-equality in at least two ways.

  • Firstly, it is regressive, an ideological step back which devalues traditionally feminine labour (care, provision of food, nursing, counseling) as something which people should be obliged to give as a (often gendered) social responsibility rather than a valuable skill which should be paid accordingly.
  • Secondly, the reliance on charity is a big issue in that it frames social care needs as “naturally” low priority: it is implied that funding for military defense programs, tax breaks for business  and other state spending priorities are in some way “essential” where as social care is an add on for a functioning society and something we can make our own minds up as individuals about whether to contribute or not. This culturally specific funding decision reproduces existing power imbalances within society.

Both of these issues are bad news for social equality, which is in turn bad news for the realisation of a meritocracy (where people fill social roles, professional positions etc according to their abilities).

The Big Society is proving to be a Big Waffle and essentially has only functioned to distract from the compassion still lacking today in modern conservatism.


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