Labour, phronesis and the Big Society

February 1, 2011

Today I attended a rather fascinating discussion at the Green Alliance conference on the subject of the Big Society. Paul Twivy, Chief Executive of the Big Society network, laid out in relatively clear terms the shape that the Big Society is intended to take; or at least the policy levers the Government is using to try to implement it.

Broadly, the Big Society is going to be a patchwork of geographical areas known as Square Miles – you’ll  be hearing more about Your Square Mile in the near future. They’re a construct intended to represent the fact that the actual inhabited land area of the UK is around 8,000 square miles – a relatively small proportion of the entire land mass. These will form the basic unit of Big Society initiatives, and will typically be around the size of a couple of council wards in urban areas. To these will be allocated community organisers, whose role will be to enable residents to identify how they wish to shape their area, and to provide them with the tools and expertise they need to do it. On a voluntary basis, of course. They’ll work to identify community ‘anchor’ buildings that can be used as hubs for volunteers who need a space for particular purposes, and build on those anchor buildings to ensure that people are aware of what they can achieve in a given area.

So far, so non-specific. I haven’t really given the discussion justice, but there’s something here that I’d like to elucidate. The aim of this is to develop communities, promote social cohesion and give people a strong sense of responsibility for their local area – and generate happiness on the back of this. You can, from the above, begin to see how this will be achieved – not by asking people to do something for their area, but by asking them to think about how they want their area to be and giving them the tools to achieve for themselves. The obvious example in the short term will be community green space – after cutbacks, if you want nice neighbourhood gardens, you’ll be able to organise a gardening team with your neighbours and sort it out for yourself. It’s not about saying that services have been cut so volunteers should step in to replace them – but rather asking people what they want and getting them to take ownership of that vision themselves.

Of course, this all sounds a bit wanky, but there are important parallels with something I’ve been banging on about for a while now, which I’ll discuss in a moment. It’s something with important political consequences, as it’s becoming rapidly clear that Labour, at least its statist variants, do not understand what the Big Society is about at all. This was brought up by a question from a representative of Oxfam, who argued that our present individualised, atomised society is not suitable for this sort of endeavour, and it would require a society-wide change in our values towards a more collectivised society, a more co-operative society, and a society more focused on the common good in order to achieve it.

The gentleman was correct – the Big Society does require a shift in our values, but not in the way in which he expects. This is because of a hidden assumption I’ve seen evidenced on left-leaning blogs for some time, which is that a common good can only come out from values which prize collective work and the sublimation of the individual  to the group(okay, a slight exaggeration for effect). Broadly, it’s the claim that such public spirit can only come about from us all working together. This is a mistake.

Transcendental Liberalism, the thesis that the role of society is to facilitate the development of excellence in judgement by the individual by removing the chance-based barriers to their achieving such, is something I’ve been pushing for quite some time now. It has bearing on this subject, as it identifies that a clear goal of the individual is to develop phronesis, or practical wisdom, as it leads to happiness. This practical wisdom doesn’t simply cover employment, but social interaction and all spheres of life – it is excellence in judgement of the particular borne of self-identified principle. It’s clear that the scope for doing so is diminished in contemporary society –  if your scope to employ your judgement is limited by the fact that your job is repetitive and mindless, then you’ll be less happy. It is the role of the State to ensure that individuals have the space necessary to develop phronesis.

Now, it’s clear that the output of developing excellent judgement is excellent judgements – great decision-making, great endeavours and great art, to name a few. It’s also clear that the individual who works towards this is of benefit to society. If one has scope to practice judgement, one will benefit anyone who engages with instances of that judgement. If, say, one wishes to develop excellence in gardening, anyone who encounters that garden will benefit. We can therefore say that the Big Society provides space for the individual to achieve that – without requiring a commitment to collective action. That’s not to say that collective action cannot be an output from developing good judgement – there will be many cases in which you correctly identify that working with others will achieve a greater excellence than working by yourself. Excellence in social judgements – e.g. sharing the proceeds of work appropriately – will facilitate the achievement of excellence in an appropriate task.

It is this space for individual phronesis (individual virtue one could say, if one wished to take the Aristotelian content of Transcendental Liberalism all the way) that the Big Society will facilitate. Mandated collective action is not necessary, and indeed would be anathema – mandated action removes individual judgement. It is this facilitation of phronesis and the rejection of state control it engenders which will prove telling on a Labour Party unable to handle such a move – indeed, one could argue that it is the whole point.

Such a move is not without risk. The true threat in value terms to the successful implementation of the Big Society (perhaps better labelled as the Phronesis Society) comes from the pusillanimity engendered by decades of excessive state control – people now wait for Government to take the initiative rather than viewing their own development as their responsibility. This is evidenced by phrases like, ‘The Big Society is about Government shirking its responsibility’  – to do what? Tell you how society should look? It’s evidenced by a reluctance to make judgements about others beyond legal guidelines – the insidious nature of Anti-Social Behaviour Orders was evidenced by their name, as they called on the Government to validate individuals’ judgements of others rather than asking the individual to have the confidence of their own position. It is this kind of abrogation of the relationship between the self and others in favour of the State taking responsibility that leads to an atomised society – why deal with others, why co-operate with others, when the State does it for you?

However, it remains a strong theme in British public life – later in the debate, someone genuinely asked how people were supposed to volunteer without a framework being given to them. These were middle-class, well-educated people, and they were afraid to act on their own judgement without guidance. This is the risk attached to the Big Society, and by extension the Coalition’s political project.

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5 Responses to “Labour, phronesis and the Big Society”

  1. You’re not explaining how individual excellence links to good group behaviour.

    It’s difficult to see how these organisers are going to be excellent throughout the 8,000 square miles.

    You don’t seem to take into account how much the market has destroyed local communities (John Gray’s point).

    Also, I don’t think the Tories are really interested in this kind of localism at all – it’s just a convenient veneer on their hard right policies.

  2. declineofthelogos said

    @Alistair:
    Groups are made of individuals, and social interactions are something one can achieve excellence in. You’ll have to provide some evidence of a strong distinction between group behaviour as an aggregate of individual behaviour and group behaviour per se.

    It’s not that the organisers will be excellent – they’ll be the enablers of excellence. The distinction is important. Some will be bad at it, others will be good.

    I have no idea who Mr Gray is – link please? I’d agree that exposing old industrial communities to market forces has mostly been to their detriment, but it’s certainly enabled the formation of new communities in the developing countries that benefited from it. There’s definitely a role for the state with regard to the former.

    Assuming your opponents are genuinely evil is something of a fallacy, I fear; assuming that they’re well-intentioned has far more explanatory value.

  3. A link for the first point, A group is its own worst enemy:
    http://www.shirky.com/writings/group_enemy.html

    Given that I’m responding to you, technically you must make the link between individual excellence and group excellence. It’s not a given by any means.

    The relevant book for John Gray is False Dawn:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/False_Dawn:_The_Delusions_of_Global_Capitalism

    But he’s a fairly well known (if pessimistic) modern philosopher as you quoted Aristotle, I assumed you’d heard of him.

    I didn’t sat the Tories were evil not that they were my opponents – I doubt Cameron’s good faith (no top down re-organisations of the NHS, being his classic example of bad faith) – they’re just ideologically driven to prefer market based solutions.

    • declineofthelogos said

      Ah, I think we’re talking about slightly different things. The kind of study of group behaviour you have in mind is what informs good social judgements – for example, one can demonstrate excellence by being an effective meeting chair. Seeking to work within an entirely unstructured group would be a bad judgement, seeking to develop a suitable structure for a group would be an exercise in judgement. That exercise can be carried out by the individual or several individuals ex nihilo, and does not necessarily require external supervision.

      Haven’t heard of John Gray at all, although I’m not entirely concerned as the book appears somewhat populist rather than academic. I may be misjudging it from the impression the Wikipedia article gives, however.

      I’m not convinced that ‘ideologically driven’ is a useful phrase – both sides use it equally accurately. Everyone’s convinced their approach is the pragmatic one.

  4. An excellent article, it is a pleasure to read such thoughtful commentary from the ‘left’ of the divide.

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