The Spectre of Community and the Big Society

The Spectre of Community
Rebranded as the Big Society, notions of citizenship and community are back in fashion. To borrow and adapt Marx’s Manifesto (1848), the spectre of the community (not communism) is stalking contemporary society. For some commentators it is feared that an army of community organizers are poised for subversive warfare. Alternatively, the force is an awkward spectre awakened from the vestiges of a tired capitalist system.
That’s one side of the argument. The other is that a nostalgic return to the community spirit is just a cover for cuts to public services. Furthermore, there are no plans to limit or democratize corporate economic power, or the private enterprise and management structures. Isn't Big Society linked to less global corporate power? Can a big Society really be forged by simply adding together thousands of local activities?
The semantic force of community is oddly resurgent, even as we begin to trace its loss: the familiar lament for lost ideals and a ‘broken’ society. Let's admit that Times of Crisis are also opportunities for hope, as well as for practical action. But slippery, 'broken' language keep tripping us up. ‘Broken’ is confusing and perhaps also politically misleading. Society is not broken in the same way that a painted china plate or a bicycle can be broken. And our newspapers often use ‘breaking’ as a positive force operating against collective action – as in ‘breaking the power of the unions.’
Perhaps by some strange psycho-social force the pressing trauma of community’s retirement breathes life into the old monster. Dependent on your point of view the civil-political reconstruction it is timely, or, the time is out of joint, and political ideologies are hopelessly muddled.
Initial positions in the debate suggest the urgency of slogans rather than deeper reflection. On a practical note again it’s difficult to identify in any of the commentary so far a basic understanding of the community development praxis. Big Society is vacuity or it’s a farce; it’s our last best hope; it’s the cruellest cut beneath a cheery mask.
Big Society appears to be a muddle without a middle ground. Or perhaps it just is the middle ground; a sufficiently flappy banner to accommodate two political forces, with a tweak here and twitter there - let’s celebrate a mixed bag of tricks rather than a systematic, or a totalising, philosophy.
In so far as there is a potential for hope in the hype, may I propose that we seek clarity in that richly contested old-fashioned word ‘community’; in its relation to commons and commonality; to collaboration and co-operation; even, for those with spirited visions communion ? There are veins of gold and iron running through the rock of community, and they will still be there when the Big Society is looking rusty.
An increasingly unpredictable future embraces an insecure and contested sense of the past. There is nothing new in that. But Mr Cameron has said that the he wants the Big Society to be his biggest legacy, bigger than slaying the Monsters Deficit and War. it is absolutely the present, and it is the future too. But does the ethical and political urgency of the Big Society excuse the bewildering confusion about where the Big Society came from, and where it is going? Seldom has commentary been so critical from trusted right-thinking people.
A survey of current ideas and opinion indicates widespread confusion and a lack of intellectual coherence about the meaning of the Big Society. The gaping holes in community life; the broken ties and weaker networks suggest a variety of remedies coming from unexpected sources. But in this case the source of well-being is Poisoned by Lucifer himself. Gerald Warner was an early critic, writing a blog in The Daily Telegraph entitledDavid Cameron's Big Society is a grotesque fantasy inspired by leftist subversive Saul Alinsky
That’s just the first rhetorical canon. There’s a familiar fear which Burke best expressed in his Reflections on the French Revolution, that an artificial and manipulative state-funded programme is at odds with the organic and local community structures of civil society. As Gerald Warner asserts “Real communities have the WRI, the British Legion, bowling, tennis, cricket clubs – naturally evolved organizations.” The proposed 5000 strong army of community organizers is one fear. Another fear expressed is that the “community organizing movement” has been linked to President Obama, that it’s secretive and manipulative (conspiratorial), even that it’s Satanic.
“If you ever doubted that, under Cameron, the Conservative Party has become ideologically and culturally de-racinated, has lost its political compass and is occupied by an alien clique that has disfigured it beyond recognition, here is the incontestable evidence.
For Gerald Warner it’s a farcical invention, “the whole Heath-Robinson contraption” Repeatedly, one is reminded of Burke’s satirical notion of an artificial (French Revolutionary) constitution; an innovative disaster, and a monstrous assembly of parts that do not fit together, divorced from Nature. The new constitutional proposals are likely further to test the monstrous direction of ‘democracy.’
The oddly inspiring figure chosen by the conservatives is Alinsky. According to Melanie Phillips, ‘Alinsky was a ‘transformational Marxist’ in the mould of Antonio Gramsci, who promoted the strategy of a ‘long march through the institutions’ by capturing the culture and turning it inside out as the most effective means of overturning western society.’ She shares Gerald Warner’s fears for the future, and is in state of disbelief:
“The British Conservative party has signed up to the revolutionary Marxist politics of Saul Alinsky and his seditious strategy of using ‘community organizers’ to turn the people against the state and against the bedrock moral and social values of their country – and it is almost certainly too ignorant, lazy or stupid to realize that this is what it means.
Unbelievable.” (2 April 2010)
For left critics, the Big Society masks our corporate emasculation. As Hilary Wainwright comments in The Guardian:
“But control over what? His idea of the "big society" is pitched at minimizing the power of the state, while doing nothing to give people the power to control the private, "free" market and the inequalities it produces.” (14 April 2010)
“In Britain today, just 947 people – the directors of the FTSE 100 companies – control firms worth more than £1 trillion. (And those directors paid themselves more than £1bn last year into the bargain.)” (14 April 2010)
The Big Society, for Wainright, becomes a kind of infantilism, more Big Toys than Big Society:
‘Cameron's invitation to join the government conjures up a toy-town democracy, a patronising attempt to divert our anger from the real centres of power.”
For Jonathan Raban, reviewing Red Tory: How Left and Right Have Broken Britain and How We Can Fix it by Phillip Blond, the rhetoric of the Big Society is
‘shot through with plaintive rural nostalgia for the small, self-contained life of the village; for a world where ‘frontline services’ are ‘delivered’ from within the community by the church, the WI and the Over Sixties Club, where no one dies unnoticed by his neighbours, the pub serves as a nightly local parliament, ‘ethos’ is reinforced by the vicar in the pulpit of St Stephen’s and ‘mutuality’ flourishes in the gossip at the shop.” (London Review of Books (22 April 2010)
The time is indeed out of join when oxymorons proliferate. Red Tory is a case in point.
Specific plans will need to build on community development initiatives already underway and will also need to fulfil the political requirement for novelty and innovation. The perceived problem is that social capital (another oxymoron) is very weak in just those areas of deprivation, where it might have greatest benefit. In that sense the Big Society is a spectre haunting no-go areas, crumbling high-rises flats, closed shops, factories and abandoned call centres.
The Big Society, if there is such a thing, or spirit, or programme, will most likely emerge from the evolution of community, and community development, rather than the ideological urgency of a cutback-driven Little State.
If it all sounds conceptually confused, perhaps it’s down to the marriage of spin doctors and late postmodernity. They lead us to the lair and lure of the Big Society and seek to displace the old politics of Big Brother Business and Big Brother Governments.

See also "Wasteland: Europe stalked by spectre of mass unemployment" By Alistair Dawber. The Independent. 16 September 2010.


  1. You might like to look too at the supposition, explicit in early documentation and commentary from proposers, which underlies all this - that the BS will offer remedy for (quote) 'dysfunctional' (quote) 'communities'.... a coupling of notions which to my mind is sociologically meaningless, not to mention insulting to the people (umm, human 'social capital') who are actually trying to make their way as best they can in such 'communities'.

  2. Hilary, I'd certainly like to trace some of that early commentary on 'dysfunctional' community. Does community pre-suppose functionality? Or, is it a state and a process that defies any notion of functionality (in the same way that moral philosophers distinguish between 'means' and 'ends' in ethics?)
    'Social capital' appears to have more friends and enemies than I was first aware, as indeed does 'scoial enterprise' - oxymoronic! Ian.


  4. Did you find this information heplful?
    Did the ideas make sense?
    How would you improve it?
    Your opinions are highly valued and will assist me to improve my work - for the benefit of others too. Thanks.

  5. I was wondering if you could say anythinga about the interlectual origins of the "Big Society". Is there any backdrop to this in economic or political theory?

  6. The key figure would be Edmund Burke, historically, although he is a complex figure.
    Ancient Greek democracy suggest active citizen engagement in all areas of life.

  7. Riots: the elusive spectre of community? Operation #riotcleanup suggests community spirit is not dead. But greater fear now of role of digital networks for good or ill:

    David Cameron in Parliament today:

    "Everyone watching these horrific actions will be stuck by how they were organised via social media. Free flow of information can be used for good. But it can also be used for ill."

    "And when people are using social media for violence we need to stop them. So we are working with the police, the intelligence services and industry to look at whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality."

    "I have also asked the police if they need any other new powers."


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