We are, though we may not be aware of it, taking part in a social experiment. It's called the Big Society and formed a key part of the Conservative electoral agenda. But is it what it promises: an enlightened "devolution of power to the man and woman in the street", or is it an offloading of governmental responsibility?
Yesterday in Bungay a small band of people gathered in the Library courtyard and began to shovel earth into raised beds made from recycled bricks. We were laying foundations for a "Living Library", a garden that will showcase "Transition" principles ranging from carbon reduction to the restoration of the honeybee. This is one of many community gardens that have sprung up in towns and cities around the world. All of them made by people who know that engagement in neighbourhood projects brings social cohesion. And that in challenging times, the ability for people to hold together, is vital.
This is an entirely different scenario however to the one David Cameron envisages. Most self-organising initiatives work towards creating a new, fair and sustainable world. The dismantling of the public sector in favour of charities and volunteer groups is framed within an old philanthropic paradigm. It pays no attention to urgent planetary issues such as climate change or peak oil. It hands over decision-making about energy and planning to local people without regional or governmental strategy or resources to back them. It does not seek to reorganise society along more equitable lines, let alone ecological ones. Because the real power structures, steered by the interests of big business, are guaranteed to continue. It is localism firmly set within the global economic growth model.
Although this experiment clamours to dispense with State bureaucracy, its main function is to mask the public sector cuts already underway and devalue the meaningful nature of work. Our corporate-shaped world has already reduced workers to replaceable “human resources”, giving them almost no say in their destiny. Our civil liberties have been eroded - our rights to strike, to protest, to stand up for ourselves. We have been told to work harder for less money. Now we are being told: work for nothing.
Like "Care in the Community" the Big Society presupposes there are local people who are willing and competent to take on the skilled work of librarians, teachers and healthcare workers. It presumes anyone can do your job. And though there is no doubt that grassroots activism can unleash enormous potential both within individuals and communities, it is another thing to rely on volunteers for essential services within a top-down framework. Volunteers can be notoriously unreliable, having no obligation to turn up or consider their fellows. Within a hierarchical structure, volunteers are sometimes esteemed more highly than workers. This puts a huge strain on the "real" staff who often have to carry their load.
This may seem a small thing to consider, but it is these everyday working relationships that make for happiness in a society. The fact is without respect for what you do, you falter. Depression and defeat set in and this affects the mood of homes, workplaces and enterprises everywhere. For the want of a happy librarian, the whole town was lost. A real Big Society would cherish its workers and be empathic towards the unemployed. Fellow feeling unites us and makes us resilient. Divided we fall big time.
So the Big Society would make sense if it included everyone in its remit. If it were designed by people who really cared about the community. But the reality is it's a decree from on high, declaimed by millionaire politicians who do not depend on public services - a hazy piece of marketing that opens up the organising structure of the collective to further privatisation and fragmentation. The idea is Big, but its not much to do with Society.
For more information about Bungay Library Courtyard Garden www.sustainablebungay.com.