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(en) Britain, Anarchist Federation, Organise! #75 Tories! Tories! Tories! Have we seen it all before? : New Conservatism and the Big Society

Date Wed, 17 Nov 2010 15:36:12 +0200

‘The authoritarian...is inclined to place heavy emphasis on Order when in reality (they have) only the limited imagination to visualise a kind of sublime Tidying Up. The effect is that, while the apparent Chaos is halted, the various channels of possibility which operate in a less restricted social climate are blocked even as conventional solutions are patently seen to fail...The reactionary Left is quite as capable of stifling possibilities as the reactionary Right...Each is divorced from actuality but determined to impose its dream, however ludicrously ill-fitted, upon our world’ ---- (Michael Moorcock, The Retreat from Liberty, Bee in a Bonnet Books, 1983, p. 9). ---- The anarchist science fantasy writer Michael Moorcock wrote this in late 1983 in response to Thatcherism and British military victory in the Falklands War, but before the epoch-defining Miners’ and Printers’ strikes and the anti-Poll Tax insurrection. In this new Tory Age, with all the rhetoric and bluster it has ushered in, it seems useful to recall an anti-Tory analysis that is less sloganeering and more nuanced in its understanding of ‘Conservatism’ and ‘Socialism’ than the opponents of Toryism would become. With Moorcock, Tory ideology is well-understood for what it was: a feature of authoritarianism, but just one feature of it.

Certainly his understanding is subtler than that of a modern Left which hasn’t skipped a beat between “Maggie! Maggie! Maggie! Out! Out! Out!” then, and “Tories! Tories! Tories!, blah blah blah” now. This parroting of old approaches says more about the poverty of the Left’s analysis than about the genuine similarities between the two eras. In fact, the more obvious similarity is with New Labour, because before too long it stopped feeling much ‘better’ than it did under Old Tory, even to many in the Labour Party. If one thing was clear, it was that nothing was clear. New Labour was just a shade of grey. It took some people a long time to work out what ‘non-socialist Labour’ meant, for party members to realise that they were collaborating with something almost as sinister and culpable as Thatcherism. It took them less time to go into denial about it.
So does the return of the Tories make it simple again? Can we pick up where we left off? After the confusion of ‘right’ and ‘left-wing’ meta-narratives that was Blair and Brown, not at all.

Getting what you voted for

It isn’t only that things went so far under New Labour that the tide cannot be turned back; that much of what has taken place is dystopian. In terms of the economy and its centrality to human life, we have experienced attacks on the public sector so savage that they could not have been anticipated and can never be reversed. That doesn’t take much analysing.
The private sector has taken us by surprise though! Recently it has impoverished even the first world, and all behind Gordon Brown’s back too. That was bad for business. But even before the current crisis, Capitalism had drawn a blank as to where to go with the ‘respectable’ Capitalism we thought we knew (someone with a dream makes something useless and shiny that they can convince us we want, and sells it to us). Where were the new markets to be had? In what we already owned, that’s where. So, now the basics of what we need, what we pay the state to provide for us - schools, healthcare, care homes - are carved up and sold at cut price by politicians to their business buddies, who sell them back to us at many times what they paid.
But the profits still weren’t big enough and so they generated them out of thin air. So now the fat (that’s us) has to be trimmed: hence ‘The Cuts’. And let’s not allow the Left to forget that this didn’t happen under the Tories. It happened under Labour. The ConDems have barely had time to continue what Blair and Brown started.
But whoever started it, we’ve heard both the public and private sector stories before and seen the world carved up by tyrants, incompetents and the greedy many times over. What we haven’t seen so much of yet is attacks on the final sphere of human social-economic activity: ‘Mutual Aid’, as anarchists call it! Or the ‘third’ or ‘voluntary’ sector, both formal and informal, as it manifests itself in a non-revolutionary context. Somehow, voluntarism slipped under the state’s radar previously as something it could use against us. It’s a tricky one for the State though. It will need to dismantle it and re-build it in its own image, because currently it’s what makes the World go round.
This is what Moorcroft had his eye on; the fact that, left to ourselves, we can sort things out pretty well. In fact this kind of activity is essential where centralist tendencies fail even in their own terms. But Moorcock assumed that the state is stupid in not realising this. Maybe it was, in the days before think-tanks and all-pervasive political cynicism. Now, voluntary activity – choosing to do something to contribute to the health and happiness of other people, with only itself as reward - is itself being commodified. And they want to sell it back to us too...

The ‘Big Society’

Anarchist ears pricked up recently, because the Tories seem to be quoting our own canon at us! The state – ‘Big Government’ - is to be ‘rolled back’. We can set up any number of community-initiated projects in response to social issues and priorities as identified by ourselves. “Get on the blower! Into the streets! It’s time for the working class to take over!”
Nah...you can’t have both autonomy and a state, however hands off it wants to be. Instead, the ConDems’ ‘Big Society’ means the commodification of already existing mutual solutions and collective invention, to make sure that we don’t forget who is really in charge. Cameron said at the Big Society’s launch, “The Big Society is one in which we all try and do more. We don’t just look to Government to solve the many problems that we have, we actually look to ourselves, to voluntary bodies, to companies, to charities, to all of those things, to build a bigger, richer country.” (Maybe Scotland, Wales and the north of Ireland will be exempt?!).
Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ speech was, on the face of it, so vague and insubstantial that it was actually difficult to work out what he really meant, let alone to find anything objectionable in it from anything other than an anarchist perspective. It isn’t entirely clear to what extent he knows himself what his Big Society and some of its lovely sub-categories actually mean in practice. But it is clearer what ideology it values and what it actually masks. Let’s just call it ‘B.S.’ for b*** sh**t.

Here’s our interpretation of the B.S. briefing document:

B.S. Communities: The state displays it’s benevolence towards four, hand-picked compliant communities in the country, ones that might have actually done OK with good public services in the first place.

B.S. Bank: Dormant bank accounts to be seized to help fund worthy projects. What about seizing some very active massively fat bank accounts?

‘Communities First’: Supporting selected, compliant community schemes.

Pathfinder mutuals: Again, projects that might have been OK with some funding get micro-managed as potentially profitable ‘social enterprises’.

B.S. deregulation taskforce: OK that just sounds scary...and centralised, ironically...

Decentralisation and Localism Bill – this will devolve greater powers to councils: to the same idiots that have ruined our communities, using our money, in the first place.

‘Big Society Network’ - These vacuous losers came up with the idea in the first place and the Tories pinched it: http://www.thebigsociety.co.uk/.

National Citizen Service: Young people must ‘volunteer’, or else!

Let’s look at the last one of these in more detail, and suggest a way to fight it.

A rock and a hard place: National Citizen Service
From July 2011 pilots of Cameron’s ‘National Citizen Service’ will start. He observes, “There is a tragic waste of potential in this country today. The young people of this country are as passionate and idealistic as any generation before – perhaps more passionate. But too many teenagers appear lost and feel their lives lack shape and direction. National Citizen Service will help change that. A kind of non-military national service, it’s going to mix young people from different backgrounds in a way that doesn’t happen right now. It’s going to teach them what it means to be socially responsible. Above all it’s going to inspire a generation of young people to appreciate what they can achieve and how they can be part of the Big Society”.
Although authoritarians in government have argued vaguely for the re-introduction of National Service since the 1960s, for at least a decade it has been clear that an attempt to make this ‘military’ would likely result in a civil war! Instead, the state has worked towards tying up our time and energies on projects that it defines as socially useful. Again, Cameron cannot take the credit. Gordon Brown was working with the sinister-sounding company simply called ‘v’ (sic, for ‘volunteer’, presumably) to realise his vision of compulsory ‘national youth community service’ for the under-19s. Brown was actually planning to force us to be good citizens!
The Tories, wisely, pulled the plug on that partnership. They have gone solo and softened the ‘compulsory’ element slightly. In the NCS briefing document Cameron says: “My original idea was that it should be compulsory, like national service was, to make it something the whole country could do together. But youth leaders told me that would have been the kiss of death”. No shit! Nonetheless, the message is confusing and the voluntary sector is talking about ‘voluntary pilot schemes’, as opposed to the compulsory real thing?
But is legal compulsion the issue anyway? What would actually have happened to people refusing to take part? Prison? A fine? What? But the ‘black mark’ on the school or college reference could make or break you by the age of 19. So the result is the same, ‘compulsion’ or otherwise: what will happen when employers look at the CVs of young people who don’t take part? This scheme is set to make an even clearer distinction than ever between compliant youth and those who are disenfranchised or subversive.
But defiance or non-co-operation on the part of individuals is only a partial solution, because even when you leave school or college their power over your reference remains. The only solution is mass-refusal by young people with the support of their communities, their parents and even their teachers. Anarchist youth organisations have never been more important than they are right now!

What is really going on?

One thing is immediately clear and it doesn’t take an anarchist to spot it: Big Society is an attempt to conceal Big Cuts. Even the liberal-minded intellectuals and ‘think-tanks’ are naturally responding with the obvious objection that none of this will work without funding; that communities where there is money don’t have as many problems to solve in the first place; that communities that are poor have seen state support withdrawn under New Labour and the local state, and won’t see it see it coming back under the Tories, ‘Big Society’ or otherwise. Without funding and support, any amount of good will and any number of willing hands are not enough to address most of the social and economic problems ordinary people would identify as the ones that they face.
Not all the catches are as easily spotted though. Central is the concept of mending what Cameron famously calls our ‘broken society’. The problem here is, in what way is society ‘broken’? Certainly not in that people don’t do things for each other already, and for no quantifiable reward either. In fact, the voluntary sector’s first response was to positively fume at Cameron’s claim to have worked out how to fix something that would have fallen apart long ago if it wasn’t for the millions of hours of voluntary work undertaken in Britain each year.
But there are so many things wrong with the most formalised and ‘professional’ elements of the third economic sector. Like the world of work, the ‘formal’ voluntary sector is dominated by middle class professionals, building careers on other people’s graft and telling working class people what to do. Not least is that many of the roles it plays let the state off the hook for under-funding the public sector. One new volunteer at what used to be a hostel for vulnerable women, which has had its funding slashed, worked out that she was doing what used to be someone’s job, and with only six-days training. Such stories are commonplace already.
If the voluntary sector won’t stand up to the Cuts in the same way as the public sector and its users must, Cameron will win ideologically. More than ever we need to make explicit the connections between the three economic sectors – public, private and voluntary - and the combined power of workplace and community activism. That ‘informal’ voluntary sector – where people respond to each other’s needs spontaneously and with unmeasured reciprocity, in a self-organised way – cannot be sold out by the unions, local councils and petty-politicians, self-made community leaders, philanthropic business people, and the churches and mosques.
This is vital because it is with the latter groups that Cameron actually wants to place the ‘Big Society’s Money’ (OK not with the unions, but with other bodies that mediate between the working class and the state and neutralise the real threat we pose). The think tanks haven’t flagged this up, because they are part of this problem. The state will be very picky about who within a community gets to dominate. This has to happen because the state does not want to turn the informal power structures that govern many communities on their heads at all. This is in part about vested interests but also about something else. The middle class is worried about what might actually happen if you remove the state from working class communities. Cameron’s vision is still the nanny-state, but a small nanny-state. He will never turn control over to the working class. It is about playing on, rather than not addressing, the middle class’ fear of ‘Chaos’, as Moorcock put it.

Disorder! Disorder!

Deprived communities left to their own devices – even empowered to make decisions for themselves – are terrifying to the middle class. The New Economic Foundation states: ‘(W)e do need a strategic state that is democratically controlled, and that becomes an effective facilitator, broker, enabler, mediator and protector of our shared interests. Without a properly functioning state, society collapses’. The Young Foundation says of schemes like the B.S. internationally, ‘(o)ften the spaces left by government were filled by organised crime or gangs...the countries where civil society is strongest are also the ones with active government’. Brendan Barber, the TUC’s General Secretary, said at the TUC conference that cuts would make Britain a ‘darker, brutish and more frightening place.’ Sorry...what, or who, exactly are they afraid of?
This fear is of what Moorcock meant by ‘apparent Chaos’. This means state fear of autonomy, of people living outside what it prescribes for us, coming up with their own solutions. Instead, the Left and the centre-Left want an over-regulated, micro-managed nanny-state to stop us looking after ourselves, because we can’t do it properly. The Tories also think we can’t look after ourselves, but won’t allow what we really need to be independent of it. They just fund the police, to force us into compliancy.
This is not to say that our communities would thrive if the state pulled out and left us to our own devices. Some of us might have said differently in Thatcher’s ‘80s, when class politics resurfaced in the anarchist movement convincingly again. We celebrated our communities. Only anarchists realised that the workplace had been defeated as the major arena of struggle and that the ‘community’ was where the power lay. At this year’s TUC conference Bob Crow spoke of how the unions must lead the working class as they did against the Poll Tax. Was he actually there? The unions failed the working class entirely, too afraid in the main even to ask their members not to co-operate with the tax.
But the truth is that working class communities are mostly in tatters. Trying to address this on a practical level takes up so much of anarchists’ time that we have to think hard to remember why we are doing this: to make a new world, not fix the old one. But we deny that there is genuine ‘chaos’ in the first place. What exist instead are the very predictable and inevitable social problems that are the result of poverty, the fear of poverty, and of shattered dreams. It will take more than being allowed to run the services we already pay the state to run, to change that.

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