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Bread and circuses

Andy Gregg contrasts Johnson's 1960s progressive Great Society with Cameron's Big Society camouflage for cuts.

The Big Society might seem at first sight to carry echoes of 'The Great Society' - the massive attempt by President Johnson in the US during the 1960s to address urban poverty and racial discrimination. What is becoming rapidly clear is that it represents its exact opposite. The notion of the Big Society is best understood as the death-knell of the Welfare State as we know it. In seeking to reduce the deficit over only four years by making massive cuts the Government is subjecting the UK to round two of the shock doctrine, otherwise known as Thatcher's unfinished business. In the process it will seek to break up any remains of the solidarity that still resides in our political culture and substitute for it an impoverished and attenuated notion of 'community'.

The Big Society looks at first sight like a harmless, cuddly and rather vacuous concept. Far from it. On every index the idealism of the 1960s in the US or of the Welfare State in Britain from the late 1940s is to be replaced by its opposite in the Big Society whether in terms of fairness, income distribution, gender and racial equality, investment in the arts and sciences, access to legal advice, spending on health, on education and so on.

The Great Society was an ambitious and partly successful attempt to move the US out of a looming slump by seeking to address inequality and stimulate demand. The only similarity between the Great and Big societies is that the US is currently embroiled in an unwinnable foreign conflict in Afghanistan just as it was in the 1960s in Vietnam (the UK was sensible enough to keep out of Vietnam whilst it is now hemorrhaging blood and treasure in fighting the Taliban as America's junior partner). Sadly it was the increased expenditure on the Vietnam debacle that hobbled and then reversed much of the Great Society.

Expenditure on schools and other public projects was a key feature of the early welfare state as well as of the US in the 1960s. Contrast this with the current demise of capital spending on school buildings by the ConDem government and its refusal to support industrial employers such as Sheffield Forgemasters. The Welfare State, particularly the NHS, was introduced at a time when the country had a national debt quite as large as today's. In the US, Medicare and Medicaid, whilst not perfect, were at least launched as a safety net for the old and the poor. By contrast the coalition government is now smashing up the National Health Service despite its pre- election promise that there would be no more major upheavals in the health area. Access to the Law for all was a pivotal part of the Welfare State. Similarly, the first attempts to fund legal services for the poor as part of President Johnson's 'War on Poverty' were launched in the US. Currently in the UK we see the final death-throes of Civil Legal Aid, as well as cuts to Housing and Welfare Benefits on a scale that could be described as defining a new 'War on the Poor'. Even the US 1960s investment in the Humanities and the Arts contrasts with huge planned cuts by the ConDems to Museums, Libraries and Arts organisations. The demise of Regional Development Agencies as a way of stimulating employment and economic growth as well as the destruction of regulatory bodies like the Audit Commission will make any serious attempts to share the pain across the regions and between localities impossible.

Affirmative Action in the US in the 1960s resulted in a more than halving of the numbers of African Americans defined as living in poverty. This was mirrored in the UK in the 1960s by the Race Relations Act and real advances in a climate of multiculturalism. By contrast the Big Society has taken no firm steps to ensure that massive public sector cuts won't systematically damage the employment of women and hard pressed ethnic minority communities. The prospects for social cohesion in this new “Big Society” are dire. Consider the proposal to cap Housing Benefit in London which seems likely to result in an even more comprehensive social and ethnic cleansing of the richer parts of the City than that achieved by Shirley Porter's corrupt 'Homes for Votes' scandal in Westminster during the mid 1980s.

The localism agenda that might look attractive at first sight will on current indications merely magnify the differences between those neighbourhoods that are doing very well thank you and those poorer localities that are already far behind in terms of resources (whether in social or real capital). Spouting about empowerment without a real redistribution of resources is a lame joke rather than a viable policy.

Its cheerleaders consider the Big Society initiative as 'a progressive, innovative strategy based upon the principles of empowering communities, redistributing power and fostering a culture of volunteerism..... (sharing) the government's vision of a society where volunteering and community spirit become second nature'. The Big Society Network describes its attitude as: 'We feel anger and frustration at the recent behaviour of both the City and Westminster and we are relatively powerless to change them. We are often anonymous tax-payers without a real sense of how our money gets spent. Most of us try to be reasonably good citizens but our influence seems very small'. This is of course the same anger and inchoate anti-state rhetoric used by the Tea Party movement in the US.

The Big Society is nothing more than a rather polite (very English) version of the Tea Party that is sweeping the US. It starts from exactly the same basis: Private = Good, Public = Bad. It believes that we can only be free if we are in competition with each other in a free market and therefore all regulation is inherently bad ('socialism'). Far from being a Big Society this is a recipe for an eventual 'war of all against all'. A dreadful Hobbesian dystopia.

Big Society is the Tories way of using 'the community' (including voluntary and community organisations) to dismantle the welfare state. It achieves this directly by getting Third Sector organisations to join the private sector feeding frenzy as the NHS and public services are forced to sell themselves off to the lowest bidder. The voluntary and community sector is simultaneously being used as a smoke screen to make it look as if this is a cuddly and humane process rather than a selfish and destructive pillaging of the real social capital that we stand to lose - our welfare state.

The Big Society represents a further atomisation of our society and could easily descend further into an anomic and chaotic locality-based version of the devil take the hindmost. The state and localities need to be kept in some sort of balance. Whilst it is true that many aspects of the UK state were too centralised under New Labour, the pendulum is about to swing so far to the opposite extreme that there will remain no effective mechanisms to allow for equitable distribution or redistribution between rich and poor families, communities and regions.

The Tories and their Liberal Democrat quislings have successfully managed to deploy an impoverished notion of 'community' to mount a direct attack on both the state and society. The notion of community they seek to impose and they consider the locus for involvement and voluntary activism is a notion of community that may make sense in Witney or even parts of Notting Hill. In Hackney or Tower Hamlets, Workington or Wigan it is likely to be seen as a largely middle class joke – cutting local services on which poor people rely (both as recipients and producers, clients and workers) whilst encouraging local people to compensate by getting together to volunteer to provide them for free. It amounts to little more than a kind of glorified neighbourhood watch scheme and is being used as a smoke screen to hide the withdrawal of resources and public service from the hardest pressed neighbourhoods. Of course the one sort of cohesion that they clearly don't want to stimulate is the kind of collective action which people in their localities and work places are likely to take when they realise what a con-trick this Big Society nonsense actually is.

At times Big Society proponents even proffer the weird and naive view that somehow if we all got together in our local 'communities' to share festivals and have 'Big Lunches' then divisions of class and race may mysteriously be overcome. Don't get me wrong. I'm not against street parties, festivals and cultural shows as such. I am just not convinced that by eating samosas together we are really going to build sufficient 'social capital' to overcome the real differences in power and status that do so much to injure our fractured and unequal society. The notion that a society in the middle of being blown apart by huge market forces can be put back together by 'a bit of shared quiche and a few games of pavement Twister' is just a silly conjuring trick to amuse or bemuse the revellers even further. Bread and capital circuses for the 21st Century.