The Great Big Society

David Cameron is crystallizing his agenda. We’ve all been wondering what a post-Thatcherian Conservative PM would look like, and now he’s giving us something to connect the policy dots with a broader political philosophy: a plan.

Among the defining points of this vision:

  • National civilian community-organizing corps of 5,000
  • Mandatory public service for civil service employees (“civic service”)
  • A public bank for funding community projects
  • 2 month volunteer (and voluntary) civic service program for 16 year olds

In the media, I have so far seen comparisons to American Presidents Kennedy, Reagan, (W.) Bush, and Obama. Part of this amalgam is simply the media affinity for comparison with greater things, to make a more florid point. But part is the general terminological confusion of this kind of vision, which is relatively new on the political scene, if we discount continental Christian Democratic schemes of the last half century … which is an important point. That is, the Anglophone political world does not really have the political language and pre-set value determinations for communitarian policy in action.

Secondarily, the American will immediately notice an important name missing from this list: Lyndon Johnson. It is impossible to say “Big Society” to American conservatives without evoking some mutation of “Great Society” with the epithet “Big Government,” so Cameron’s play on the latter phrase is mostly lost on this side of the Atlantic.

Now, we’ve already had an introduction to these ideas through Philip Blond, and we already knew Cameron is in sync with some of those. Clearly, both men are more nuanced and more disenchanted with centralization than Johnson. But, just as conservatives did not have a full vocabulary for resisting and countering “big government” until Johnson, it is still hard to evaluate fully Big Society communitarianism without recourse to the language we have employed for other purposes (ie by other American presidents).

Blond himself affirmed that he was not opposed to the early W. Bush push for an “ownership society,” per se. And likewise, the moralism of Kennedy on responsibility plays into Cameron’s desire for a more self-sufficient, civically responsible society. Both, actually, have recourse to the language of civic republicanism, which is intensely moral, and at the same time ambiguous on where the ultimate virtues lay. Pure virtue (the purely moral act, in Aristotelian terms) is not reliant on external influence, but it must also be expressed in a public way, in view of the public good over the private.

The trouble with this language is that it is not actually based on the same foundations as that of communitarian conservatism, of the Wendell Berry or perhaps Robert Nisbet type, where the community is loved for its particularity, for its undetachable connection to individual personality – in other words, the virtue of not being universal. This type of society can be associated with other cities, but universal values often end up being subordinated to particular, and the “nation” becomes impossible, replaced instead by an associative federation, or perhaps increasingly large concentric circles containing increasingly general commonality.

The public virtue of civic republicanism takes its pride, and its virtue, in presiding over the ecumene that is contained in the national political unit. Not that this has to be Big Government, which was known by Cato, whose devotion to the land contained the internal paradox of this virtue – learned and maintained in its connection to land and individual responsibility, but expressed publicly. What I am proposing is the difficulty in reconciling the epistemology of a virtue that is at once Stoical and Aristotelian in its way of being public, and the truly communitarian virtue that is more of an extension of the idea of home (oikos) than it is civic.

More concretely, this problem comes out in Cameron’s newly-proposed policies, which try to build back the “broken” community using the means of the now-powerful, and now-sacrificial, state. On the one hand, I am sympathetic to the epistemic impossibility of recreating community on the same old conditions by which it formed before the state, industry/alienation, and mass media. On the other hand, the Left has talked about Community in similarly government-based terms for years. But some on the right would simply prefer to leave cities alone, in hopes that they will organically evolve into communities. This alternative is ideal for its organicism, but it ignores the Stoic/Aristotelian virtue in which the public community actually comes into being through it political organization (and, ironically, possibly destroys itself by continuing to remove the community into government structure – the degeneration and development of Roman Republic into Empire).

I wish the best to Mr. Cameron, but I also wonder how he would hold together these values, and whether the Big Society will be as cannibalistic as the Great Society.

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