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Big society is no society at all… May 16, 2018

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.

There’s a real truth at the heart of this piece in the Guardian by Phil McDuff. McDuff notes that:

It may be hard to believe, in the midst of a benefit sanctions regime that sees one in five universal credit applications turned down, and a “hostile environment” that directly led to the Windrush scandal, but most of the current Conservative government also stood at the 2010 general election with a campaign that centred on something called the “big society”. The idea was that the state, massive and overblown as it apparently was after years of Labour profligacy, was taking up too much space in people’s lives. Move the government out of the way and communities would step in to fill the gaps, giving it some of that old British blitz spirit, reinvigorating civil society along the way.

And continues:

As with many Tory policies, this was based on the fantasies of people whose only interaction with the realities of the private rental market was checking the yields on their property portfolios. It’s a philosophy that contains a toxic mix of soft-focus nostalgia for a time that never was, and quasi-religious moralising that sees poverty not as a scourge to be eradicated but a tool for disciplining society’s undeserving into better behaviour.

Predictably, this experiment in social engineering did not reveal a hidden population of people with the time and money to spare who had just been held back by the stifling provision of basic public services. The gaps left by the slash-and-burn policies of the Cameron-era coalition were filled not by an army of cheerful local volunteers, but by predators who saw other people’s vulnerability as an opportunity for profit.

And this makes sense. Social security, in all meanings of the term, stands or falls on the ability to empower people to make it through the week and the month and the year without having to fall back on ad hoc, often sketchy, all too often informal and unregulated, financially perilous resources.

And this, because by definition poverty means a lack of resources of ones own, means that from the off those in this position are on the back foot. The voluntary can never make up, whatever the intrinsic virtues of those involved (or not), for a broad state wide approach (which doesn’t have to be uniformly delivered by the state – municipal, cooperative and other forms are equally good, but does have to be underwritten and funded by the state). Because those who step into the breach aren’t functioning with any concept of social obligation or duty of care. Anything but.

As Jennifer Williams reported in the Manchester Evening News, the city’s homelessness crisis has provided a rich opportunity for unscrupulous landlords offering “temporary housing” facilities that are often neither temporary nor really housing, except in the broadest possible interpretation, with people living for years in squalid, dangerous buildings. Vulnerable people are given a stark choice – live in a rundown, dirty, unmaintained and insecure environment, or risk life on the streets. The charitable organisation Justlife estimates that there are tens of thousands of households in the UK living in unsupported temporary accommodation, over and above the official homelessness figures.

And this raises an important question – why was regulation introduced. Those who talk about ‘big society’ seem to ignore the realities that brought about much stronger forms of state intervention. The truth was that matters were so abysmally bad that only regulation would make any significant change. And McDuff notes:

The existence of a forgotten and neglected underclass of people is not something unique to the Conservatives’ time in office. Vulnerable people and those who prey on them are not new. The safety nets in the UK have often been badly maintained and easy to slip through, but the Tory solution has been to blame the safety net itself rather than its design, and then to work to make it even worse.

And as McDuff says, this requires work…

Tory policy can – and should – be reversed, but to truly make a difference we have to see through the bankrupt ideology that tries to reimagine letting economic predators off the leash as being socially progressive. Rather than sanctions or deportation targets, we should be setting the target that everyone should have access to a life worthy of living. There should always be an alternative to the loan shark and the slumlord, but it won’t just appear because rightwing theorists say it should. 

In comments btl there’s a great Terry Pratchett quote which sums up one of the myriad hypocrisies in all this: “While it was regarded as pretty good evidence of criminality to be living in a slum, for some reason owning a whole street of them merely got you invited to the very best social occasions.”


1. EWI - May 16, 2018

As with many Tory policies, this was based on the fantasies of people whose only interaction with the realities of the private rental market was checking the yields on their property portfolios.

Not fantasies, cover stories. The classic illustration of this was the Bush II attempt to privatise Social Security in the US, with transparently invented/manipulated numbers to provide an alibi for a smash-and-grab on the US public purse.

They know EXACTLY what the effect will be, this is just nonsense to confuse ordinary voters on a simple issue.


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