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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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In their infamous post-World War II, post-holocaust tract, the Dialectic of Enlightenment, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno set out the central premises of the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory. In this work they made two key and inseparable claims. The first: “We have no doubt -- and herein lies our petitio principii -- that freedom in society is inseparable from enlightenment thinking. We believe we have perceived with equal clarity, however, that the very concept of that thinking, no less than the concrete historical forms, the institutions of society with which it is intertwined, already contains the germ of the regression which is taking place everywhere today”.(Horkheimer and Adorno xvi) The second, which is hard to summarise in any meaningful sense to those who haven't read the First Excursus, is that in their reciprocal structuring arrangements, Enlightenment is myth and myth is already Enlightenment.

While it may seem curious to begin a piece of contemporary social criticism with a hard-line, problematic, perhaps outmoded, highly theoretical work of neo-Marxism, the Conservative-led coalition government of the United Kingdom has recently introduced one of its key, yet nebulously-defined concepts, the “Big Society”. The Big Society, as understood at large, is a volunteering effort. Those on the Left, wherein my own affinities lie, see this as a cynical move to exploit community goodwill in the face of massive cutbacks to public service spending, devaluing the efforts of those who should, if we accept under duress any form of neo-liberal logic, rightly be compensated for their time. Yet, the Big Society is not a volunteering effort. It is not actually a concept, it does not stand in any form of contra-jour clear silhouette, it does not have clarity. It has an altogether different structure.

That structure is one of in medias res myth. The first usage of the term “Big Society” was given by David Cameron in his 2009 Hugo Young lecture. At this point, the term was not explained, but merely used. People all around wondered what it meant. As anybody who has been in a lecture will tell you: most of the time, one assumes oneself to be at fault or ignorant, not the speaker. In fact, it was not until May 2010 that any policy document was put forward in an effort to define the Big Society. Opening this document, I was prepared for a detailed trawl through a lengthy and probably tedious political work. Imagine my delight when I found it was only three pages long! Of course, this delight soon moved towards despondence when I realised that the sum total of the “flagship policy” could be laid down in three pages. Given the brevity of this document, allow me to quote a large portion of it:

We want to give citizens, communities and local government the power and information they need to come together, solve the problems they face and build the Britain they want. We want society – the families, networks, neighbourhoods and communities that form the fabric of so much of our everyday lives – to be bigger and stronger than ever before. Only when people and communities are given more power and take more responsibility can we achieve fairness and opportunity for all.

Building this Big Society isn’t just the responsibility of just one or two departments. It is the responsibility of every department of Government, and the responsibility of every citizen too. Government on its own cannot fix every problem. We are all in this together. We need to draw on the skills and expertise of people across the country as we respond to the social, political and economic challenges Britain faces.

This document outlines the already agreed policies that we believe will help make that possible. It is the first strand of a comprehensive Programme for Government to be published in the coming days, which will deliver the reform, renewal, fairness and change Britain needs.

The document then moves to propose four key points that will be addressed by this "policy". "Give communities more power", "Encourage people to take an active role in their communities", "Transfer power from central to local government", "Support co-ops, mutuals, charities and social enterprises", "Publish government data".

It is not my intention, here, to make the obvious critiques of these points. I do not want, for instance, to stress the ways in which supporting charities can degenerate into a dereliction of duty towards the disabled and vulnerable. I do not want to lay too much emphasis upon the tautology of “giving communities more power” and “transfer power from central to local government”, or likewise of “encourage people to take an active role” and “support co-ops, mutuals, charities and social enterprises” and it would be beyond my scope to highlight the ways in which, in actuality, power – in the ways it is most commonly understood – is predicated upon trust and, therefore, non-transparency and yet, in this devolved power model, because it is local government who have the power, they become accountable not to the populous, but instead to the central authority, which can then be used to justify further cutbacks to spending.

Instead, I want to focus on a small segment which perfectly illustrates the mythical dimension of the Big Society: “This document outlines the already agreed policies that we believe will help make that possible”. Think back to the Pirates of the Caribbean film series. When plunged directly into the first scene, the makers deftly deployed the mythological strain; they assumed that we would know the back story and did very little to explain it. They assumed that we would infer Jack Sparrow's character from his current behaviour and then be able to work out how he had got there. The myth, or the lie, as another way of phrasing it, is that there never was a back story. In the future construction of the individual, the back story was created as an entity that was still always open to future revision. The same goes for the Big Society. There never was, and still isn't, a definition. It was introduced as a term in which meaning was implied. This was cemented when the “policies” were marked as “already agreed” (you voted for them, after all) and, in the present advancement of this scheme, at every turn the myth proceeds to retrospectively modify itself.

Indeed, the examples of this woolliness abound, from Big Society values in the snow (http://www.communities.gov.uk/news/corporate/1789190), in fire safety (http://www.communities.gov.uk/news/corporate/1779719) and the general will of the populous (http://www.communities.gov.uk/news/corporate/1647385) to decentralisation (http://www.communities.gov.uk/news/corporate/1634947), we are expected to know what it means, when it actually doesn't mean anything. If anything, at its core, it means people helping one another. The logic that is deployed, however, is an attempt to conflate this morally tenable stance with neo-liberalism; the only way to behave decently is to expect people to work for nothing, decentralise government and allow the supreme arbiter of all value, competition, to reign.

The Big Society is a mythical entity, deliberately poorly defined with no true back story, and it brings with it, in its Epic-like ordering function of Enlightenment, one sense of freedom. It is only, however, the “freedom to” variant, allowing the freedom to 1.) oppress others; 2.) starve. Assuming that we live within a capitalist paradigm of regulated competition, the role of government is also to champion “freedom from” these aforementioned ills. The Big Society is an abdication of that responsibility under the guise of devolved empowerment. It is never mentioned that such a scheme also confers, with that power, more responsibility upon each individual for their own survival. In the case of certain groups, they have no way to meet that responsibility, which is why, as decent human beings, we should share it with them; that is when we are truly all in it together. The Big Society is an exemplar of and already contains, to appropriate Adorno, “the germ of the regression which is taking place everywhere today”.

References and Acknowledgements

My thanks to Lianne de Mello for her references and insightful discussion that led to this post.

Horkheimer, Max, and Theodor W. Adorno. Dialectic Of Enlightenment. 1st ed. Ed. Gunzelin Schmid Noerr. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002. Print.