Colin Crouch once wrote a Fabian pamphlet called ‘How to cope with post-democracy’.
He was arguing that despite democracy achieving the very minimal criterion of free and fair elections, since the 1970s we have gone from a mass society to a shareholder democracy, whereby power has been transferred from the many to the few. Power taken from the people whose participation, triggered by war, once created a Keynesian welfare state where the general health of an economy was based on ‘the prosperity of the mass of wage-earning people’.
Where have we heard that? Ah, yes, Red Ed. His entire campaign was precipitated on the question ‘who is this country run for?’. Turns out, ending trickle down economics was rejected by the electorate. Instead, what has prevailed is small state Toryism.
In 2010, this took the rhetorical form of the ‘Big Society’. Big Society meaning, of course, cuts to the wider welfare state to be filled by ‘participation’ at a local level. This, Colin Crouch noted, is not the same as the mass democracy of postwar Britain. On the contrary, it is citizens turning their back on politics and political engagement and creating community projects that are non-political. It de-politicises potential opponents, and with great efficiency. Crouch notes the necessity of this:
“self-help groups, communitarian networks, neighbourhood watch schemes, and charitable activities trying desperately to fill the gaps in care left by a retreating welfare state.”
We once created the welfare state, but have decided instead -in a incredibly narrow and regulated debate heavily shifting blame to welfare for the ills of the fallout of a banking crisis- to choose to turn our backs on government as a doer, and politics as a means to an end. The Big Society is about to become the Bigger Society.
I feel almost guilty having to give in to this. But I am.
Me and a friend are setting up a local charity, ‘Benefit’ to do just what Colin Crouch speculated; filling in a gap left by a retreating welfare state. In this case, it’s the removal of housing benefit, and later extending to other social security, be it benefit sanctions or ESA. I do this reluctantly and with great sadness. I’d have hoped on the 7th May we could have voted away the Bedroom Tax. Used the ballot box for the welfare state. I feel like, instead, I’m giving in to taking accountability away from the Department for Work and Pensions and this government, in fulfilling its basic duties to protect its citizens -many of whom have to now rely on foodbanks to survive.
But it has to be done. Nevertheless, we go forward in this project with the quote from Clement Attlee engraved on it:
“Charity is a cold grey loveless thing. If a rich man wants to help the poor, he should pay his taxes gladly, not dole out money at a whim.”
Local people are going to have to rely on other local people. But this reliance shouldn’t give way for not holding this government to account. We can, as what critics might condemn this as doing, ‘weaponize’ what we have. This charity is situated in the heart of Iain Duncan Smith’s seat. While its primary purpose and concern will be to the victims of welfare cuts, we hope it will have the repercussions and effects of a pressure group. It will not only help but represent victims of welfare cuts. Reminding people right on IDS’s lawn exactly what is happening to their neighbours. We can turn the Big Society into a massive community project not just to fill in the holes left by a retreating welfare state, but as a reminder that those holes exist. The existence of charities in the place of the failures of the government to fulfill its duty should be a shame on them, not seen as a success as some have suggested.
So build your charities, support those left behind, and then make people aware that they exist and that they are a blight on, rather than indicative of, a good society. Create a hybrid of pressure groups and charities. Ask those you help to register to vote, to join protests, to write to their MP. Alert the local community via local papers that you exist. And that you shouldn’t have to.
Politicise your charities and community organisations. Engrave Clement Attlee’s quote on everything you do. We cannot let them de-politicise poverty.