David Cameron’s Big Idea, also known as Big Society, is anything but new. The idea of working people controlling the resources of society is a very old idea and ironically one that grew up in opposition to just the politics Cameron espouses.
Unlike one of his Tory forebears, Margaret Thatcher, it seems Cameron doesn’t believe that “there is no such thing as society”; rather he believes that it’s not big enough. His neo-conservative approach to politics is the undying belief that market competition and privatisation of the state’s assets is the best bet for improving the social good. It’s clearly not based on any empirical evidence since the latest round of market-inspired competition for profit led to the biggest financial crash anyone can remember. So it is definitely a gamble, a bet, and one which has a history of losses.
But it is interesting to see how the right wing ideologues have appropriated key words such as “radical”, “progressive”, “modernising”, and even “reforming”, to describe a project which involves a substantial transfer of control away from democratic bodies to private industry and their owners. And since the Tory party has been so committed to handing over more and more of the state assets to private companies, how do they square that with claims from Cameron that they want to see a shift of power to ordinary working people?
Of course, Blair, Brown, Mandleson, Alistair Cambell, et al, were masters of spin, redefining and using their own vocabulary to shift the political agenda to the right, so much so that the word “modernise” came to represent privatising, selling off, sacking people, but without evoking a public response to the carnage. Such is spin.
The radical left, as contrasted with the pretend social democratic left, has long given strong support to the idea of working people having control of the means of production. So where’s the difference between Cameron’s idea and the long-standing idea of workers’ control?
Are local neighbourhoods going to get the veto on the placing of yet another mega-market in their area? Are local people going to be able to decide that instead of building luxury homes for the rich, the property company will have to build affordable homes for working class people?
Of course not. Cameron is not talking about power, but about choice and even that is a very limited choice exercised in a market that isn’t controlled by working people at all. He doesn’t see working people exercising power to make decisions about the allocation of resources, but about choosing where to spend the money amongst a range of private companies.
His idea is really quite simple as he says, but it’s not what he says it is. His intention is to sell off essential parts of the state to private interests, and then to devolve the spending choices to local groups. From his point of view, this has all sorts of benefits not least being that it cuts spending. Since the state is no longer making the decisions, the responsibility also is devolved to local groups. And since the provision is no longer the responsibility of government, neither is the comeback when they fall short.
People are told they are being given power, given control over their local resources. In reality they are being taken for suckers. They are being given responsibility specifically without the power.
Exercising spending choices is not the same as democratic control. Take for example the health service. If there was actual workers’ control of a hospital they would be able to make changes in the priorities of how it was run. For example, they could insist that all private resources were scheduled for NHS use, that there was no fast track for those who could pay. They might decide that it would no longer use private companies to do the cleaning work, but would employ local people themselves with decent working conditions. That would be local democratic power. But that’s nothing like the same as Cameron is pushing. He really does not want local democratic power.
By conflating the idea of spending choice, so-called consumer power, with democratic control, the Tories are obscuring the complete lack of power that really exists in local communities. Local people, even if they can choose which company to buy from, do not exert economic power; they do not have the power to change the social priorities.
If Cameron was serious about giving power to local communities, he would be terrified of the results. People would be able to reorganise production to meet social need, take over derelict properties and refurbish them for social use, they would be able to eliminate the payment of unnecessary profits, and there would start to be planning to ensure social needs are met in the future.
Cameron has no interest in planning for social benefit: his view is that the anarchic market will sort out social benefit by letting those without the cash end up with less and less influence. That is very consistent with the Victorian attitudes about the “underserving poor”, the “feckless wasters”, and those regarded as a drain on society.
Cameron’s dressed-up rhetoric about Big Society is just more spin about the neoliberal agenda, that blind faith in the perfect justice of the market which even with the rubble of financial collapse all around us, is offered as some sort of panacea for all social ills.
Some may see more sinister developments in all this. The idea of generating local power elites able to tap into a state-sponsored bank for allocating social funding looks suspiciously like establishing a devolved corporatist state machine in which ideological allegiance, commitment to the power of the market, gets the attention of government. Embedding substantial power in the close relationship, or even integration between supplier companies and these local elites, provides a political force outside of parliament, which unites state-sponsored finance capital with a network of approved business interests.
This may suit the Tory party down to the ground, but it will suit the interests of capitalist firms even better. Instead of having to deal with forms of regulation which might insist on social benefits being considered, the task is simply to get the local elites integrated into the ideology of the market.
Cameron is right in saying that there will be a shift of power. But the power is being shifted to private capital and out of the control of democratically elected bodies. And that is consistent with the tenets of the old Washington Consensus, and the full-blown neoliberal agenda.
Social democrats who are tempted to go along with Cameron’s call for more People Power should think about how the People might exercise that Power, and how they might use it to constrain the unbridled competition between capitals. Those reformists who argue that parliamentary activity can ameliorate the worst excesses of capitalism (“politics is the art of the possible”, etc) might contemplate what happens when parliament no longer has the control over the important decisions any longer.
Beguiled by the redefinition of words like “progress” and “modernise”, many New Labour politicians will be shocked to see the Tories simply appropriating their own Blair-spun language and force it faster than ever in the neoliberal direction. No wonder New Labour is in disarray. The Tories are aggressively pursuing exactly the policies that New Labour themselves proposed; privatisation, removal of regulation, flexible labour arrangments, temporary contracts and easy firing, and the rest.
The financial crash has provided the Tories with just the ideological justification to pursue their neoliberal policies with no effective opposition. New Labour can hardly claim that it was neoliberal policies and the unbridled competition between finance capitalists that brought on the crisis because they themselves encouraged it. Indeed it was Blair and Brown that committed the UK to the neoliberal agenda without parliamentary approval.
And Cameron is now exploiting the popular belief that “there is no alternative,” to ride the crest of public sympathy for our apparently common economic plight. It will be a while before the mea culpa mood dissipates but in the meantime, capital will be rampant, working conditions will be worsened, profits will be pushed up, and the social wage will be slashed.
For those wanting to make a killing out of the sell-off of state assets, it will be a bonanza but for those who depend on them, it’s a return to Victorian times. People Power? Cameron’s claim is little short of an obscene joke.