I’ve spent a lot of time and energy this week thinking about the Comprehensive Spending Review cuts, as well as the recent cuts to science and education in this country.
A lot of that time has been spent cursing under my breath at the Great British Public for voting in the Tories — did people honestly think they wouldn’t be horrible? — and at the LibDems for selling out and allowing their coalition partners to get away with this. A further chunk has been spent in fuming ire at the banking bailouts of 2008 and the various unpaid tax bills of large corporations. I find it hard to believe that the money so freely given away by the government is justified by the contribution the banks and large corporations make to the economy.
None of those are useful responses.
I think that the cuts to education and benefits are wrong, but I also think they’re very short-sighted. If my neighbour’s house is on fire, you can bet I’m going to be there with a bucket trying to help put it out, not only because of any love I might have for my neighbour but also because I know full well that my house is next. Poverty and lack of access to good education don’t work as fast as fire, but I know that the world is so interconnected that what affects the poorest in our society will have knock-on effects for the rest of us. Only the rich and very rich can insulate themselves from this with their money.
For the rest of us, I think it’s been clear for some time that relying on the government safety net of cradle-to-grave welfare is just not going to work. The government is far too beholden to a financial services industry with not enough regulation to prevent bubbles, and has forgotten about Keynesian economics or about any sort of duty to act on behalf of voters. Single-provider welfare doesn’t work because it is so vulnerable to abuse. This is just as true now as when the Church was the arbiter of assistance.
The idea of the “Big Society” that has been waved about is, in some ways, a solution to this. I don’t think the current government really believes in it: if they did, they’d be funding Big Society projects to get us started rather than removing vital support from the most vulnerable people in our society. But the lack of government support for the Big Society doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea in and of itself.
Imagine a society where everyone volunteers for something, or donates a substantial portion of their income to charities. Imagine a society where people can form meaningful friendships with people different than themselves. Imagine a society where if you fall on hard times, there is not just one route to get help but three or four; where everyone is concerned with the wellbeing of their neighbours (near and far — we are all neighbours), where people are involved in deciding how resources are used, where even the most vulnerable are valued as having something to contribute. Imagine a society where nearly nobody is on government benefits because their communities take care of their needs. That’s the Big Society, as I imagine it. I don’t think it’ll be easy to build, and there are serious issues of competence in relying entirely on volunteerism (but this could be offset by those who don’t volunteer but instead donate money). There will always be an element of waste in that there will always be people who game the system, even if that system is actually many systems which overlap. But I do think that the vision of a Big Society where people care for one another and the vast majority of basic needs are met is one that is possible and is worth striving for.
What’s interesting about this is that there are parallels in access to information. For most of the 20th century we had mostly one-way broadcast media; that is now changing to networked media. There are advantages and disadvantages of this and it is becoming apparent that the peer selection effect is very strong now compared to the days when one had less choice in one’s social surroundings. Rather than the internet being one huge network where everyone pays attention to everyone else, it functions more as a system of networks which sometimes overlap. I’m on the edges of at least two such networks that spring to mind immediately, one full of church folks and one full of geeks, but there are several more.
I don’t think the Big Society is going to happen overnight and I don’t think that we can expect the current government to lift a finger to help us, but I don’t think that has to prevent us working for change. I’ve been trying to say this on Twitter for a day or two and mostly I am getting compared to Boxer in Orwell’s Animal Farm, who, faced with each new difficulty in the fourlegs-led revolution, vows to work harder. I’ve been told that I shouldn’t be trying to take up the slack because that’s exactly what our rich Tory overlords want me to do. I’ve been told that asking Vodafone UK to pay their £6bn tax bill would be fruitless, because our government wouldn’t spend that money on benefits for the disabled but on police-state surveillance and guns to kill brown people.
The reason I think this is different is that, while network communication (rather than uneven broadcast) doesn’t guarantee democratization of information access, it does make it easier, in the same way that Gutenberg’s printing press and increases in literacy brought about huge changes in the society of the time. We have amazing tools for connecting to one another and people are recognising that it’s about relationships.
I also don’t think that my signing a petition is going to have much immediate effect. I don’t think that the risks of going ahead with creating a better society outweigh the need to get on and do it. Signing a petition or a statement will not give a homeless person a safe place to sleep. Volunteering with a homeless shelter will. Writing to my MP will probably not change how my high-street bank uses my money, but switching to something more ethical will. That doesn’t mean I don’t sign the petitions or write to my MP, but it means I do need to think about how my decisions affect everyone else, not just fob them off onto the government.
The government, as far as I am concerned, has proven that it cannot be trusted to help.
It’s up to us to build the Big Society.
The government won’t enforce tax laws, so it’s up to us to withdraw or withhold custom from the worst tax evaders.
The government won’t stop banks lending irresponsibly, so it’s up to us to provide debt counseling and aid to those who’ve been wooed into “cheap” credit they can’t afford.
The government won’t protect disadvantaged people from destitution, so it’s up to us to provide food and shelter for those who have none.
It’s up to us to teach one another the skills we need to survive.
It’s up to us to strengthen the weak. It’s up to us to care for the sick. It’s up to us to comfort the brokenhearted. It’s up to us to protect the vulnerable.
I’m not saying it should be that way, but that it is. Like it or loathe it, it’s up to us.
What are you doing to help?