2012: The year of the all new old-fashioned society

2011 feels like it was the year of BS – in many forms. Certainly the Big Society agenda loomed large in the last 12 months, manifesting itself in all manner of initiatives (the Social Action Fund, Community First, the Community Organisers programme, National Citizens Service, the Work Programme, Big Society Capital and the Localism Act). And then there was also a lot of the other kind of BS as well (in many of the same programmes and initiatives; and in the form of disproportionate and ill-thought-through cuts and austerity measures, anti-competitive tendering processes favouring private providers of public services, and talk that the charity sector as we know it is dead). It’s not that the Government has got this Big Society thing all wrong. In fact there is an awful lot that’s right about it, but yet it still feels frustratingly far away from achieving what it could. The aims of Big Society are laudable. Need we even list them? Well, probably yes, because it seems there is STILL a great deal of scepticism and misunderstanding about them. So, as the Coalition puts it, the BS agenda’s aim is: “to create a climate that empowers local people and communities, building a Big Society that will ‘take away power from politicians and give it back to the people’”; or as DSC say, it’s: “about getting individuals to take responsibility for themselves, each other and their communities.” (CIPFA South East spring conference address, 22 March). All well and good in a world of mass democracy where people want to be seen and treated as individuals with the power to affect their own lives rather than a nanny state where nobody is trusted to know what is good for them.

However 2011 was a year of deep financial crisis in the UK and across our nearest neighbours in Europe in which we saw further fallout from the failure of our banking system. It was also a year of unprecedented rioting and the upsurge of the Occupy Movement (although we should not make any real linkages between these two which, in my opinion, would be to dignify the former with any of the intelligence of the latter). Both reactions however spoke in different ways to a deep malaise in our society. A deep unease about inequality, about the widening gap between the haves and the have nots – in Occupy parlance: the 1% and the 99%. Granted, in the rioters’ case it seemed to be just a case of not having a bigger TV or some more designer gear, but at its heart even then we must acknowledge something deeper than most of those involved would be able to verbalise.

What of 2012 then? We are still in economic crisis, with low growth and rising unemployment, homelessness and poverty in the wider economy and a raft of austerity cuts hitting the voluntary and community sector particularly hard – those ostensibly charged with helping to bring about the new Big Society. And the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement could do little to reassure us that it would end anytime soon. However, all should not be seen as doom and gloom. As some commentators have pointed out, historically times of crisis can also be catalysts for change.

As referred to in a previous blog on the links between the Arab Spring and civil society (http://catwalkerdsc.amplify.com/2011/07/06/big-society-and-the-arab-spring-making-the-connections/) Michael Edwards, the writer and activist, said recently that there are two sets of conditions which act as catalysts for a flourishing civil society: one is mass protests in the face of ‘outright oppression and the violation of human rights’; and the second, widespread economic security (http://www.opendemocracy.net/michael-edwards/what-can-‘big-society’-learn-from-history). Clearly in the UK right now we appear to have precious little economic security and increased levels of mass protests – although thankfully here we do not have that kind of oppression and violation of human rights. It is questionable however whether the level of protest seen in the Occupy movement is enough at this stage to promote real change unless in 2012 it evolves into a more widespread and effective force for change. Interestingly Edwards suggests that civil societies nascent during times of protest tend to flare up and burn out quickly, unless economic security follows swiftly, and surely Big Society’s fate hangs just as much in the balance of economic growth since it certainly requires some investment to succeed.

Psychologically though there could be some light at the end of the tunnel. The relatively recent emergence of the discipline of positive psychology tells us that even optimism that things will get better is enough in many cases to turn things around. One of the deepest issues in our society today is our loss of trust. Through various events and crises, and very much led by our national press, we have lost trust in politicians, the church, the police, bankers, celebrities and sports figures and eventually, in a glorious own goal, the press itself. The financial crisis has called into question the very system of capitalism upon which our whole economy and thereby society exists, with the inequalities and widening gap between super rich and growing legions of poor. And as any psychologist will tell you the one thing which makes us more unhappy than anything else is comparing ourselves unfavourably to others.

What the Occupy movement could do in 2012 then is to provoke a profound rethink of not just our society but our economic and political systems in the process. Already Ed Miliband is challenging David Cameron’s Government over the very nature of capitalism – the system on which our society has been built since the demise of feudalism and the Industrial Revolution. Miliband is testing the waters of Cameron’s so-called “free-market fundamentalism” (Metro, Tuesday, January 10, 2012). Not since Blair’s failed attempt at a “third way” has there been so much questioning of fundamentals that we have become so accustomed to that we seldom think to ask why.

There are other fundamentals in our system which need addressing if Big Society is to succeed. One of these is the increasing acknowledgement that positive psychology, well-being and happiness are important factors in a healthy society and form a good basis for BS. As an economic psychologist I’m all for this. We’ve been shouting from the rooftops since the 1950s that economic measures of a nation’s success are not the be all and end all, and that in a postmodern age of relative wealth our psychological needs become more important to us. Only this month the New Economics Foundation’s Happy Planet Index highlighted yet again that economic growth and GDP are not the be all and end all economists and politicians once thought they were for a nation’s wellbeing. Lower growth can lead to greater happiness. A rethink of what really matters to people is in order.

As an illustration of this, the Charities Aid Foundation’s groundbreaking World Giving Index, now in its second year, found that:

“Happy nations are more likely to give than wealthy nations: The link between the giving of money and happiness is stronger (a coefficient of 0.69) than the link between the giving of money and the GDP of a nation (0.58).”

(http://www.cafonline.org/pdf/WorldGivingIndex28092010Print.pdf)

The launch of the second part of the national consultation on the ONS’s well-being measures in October underlines the Government’s continued push in this direction, however there are those who think there is still a long way to go and that a deeper rethink in Government policy is needed before we can turn things around. Never has the Schumacherian approach of ‘economics as if people mattered’ been more needed.

Increasing numbers of respected academics from the field of human psychology are touting theories which call for a radical rethink of the traditional economic, political and social view of mankind as primarily selfish and life as nasty, brutish and short. Modern descriptions of individuals in society tend more towards a view of us as motivated to be fair, kind and cooperative. There are now decades’ worth of social and economic psychological experiments proving this, and these form the foundations for such popular works as “Yes!”, “Influence”, “Nudge” and “Bowling Alone” – a whole industry based on the exploitation of our better nature! The Enlightenment embodied this way of thinking with its focus on the fundamentally good nature of human beings with rights and responsibilities towards each other. We need to promote an ethical and moral approach to society and each other.

The whole cooperative movement is based on these principles and to prove a point has significantly outperformed the wider UK economy over the last few years, growing by 21% since the beginning of the credit crunch in 2008 (REF: Ed Mayo, “Making Life More Meaningful”, Resurgence magazine January 2012?? (www.resurgence.org/magazine/article3551.html)). The cooperative movement is also more sustainable (The Co-operative Bank was recently named the most world’s most sustainable bank) and more ethical (The Co-operative Food commits to stocking Fairtrade produce wherever that alternative exists).

Cooperation is built on relationships of reciprocal trust, on foundations of believing that others will honour their commitments, on believing the best in others. Cooperation not competition is the basis of a happy and productive society. We need to realign our thinking. Anthony Seldon recently argued for a new ‘Politics of Optimism’ based on the principles and presumptions of optimism, trust and goodness combined with more proactive policy-making (“The Politics of Optimism”, Anthony Seldon, Policy Exchange, January 2012).

Some of the thinking behind the Big Society agenda reflects this, showing that there is ahope of it transcending traditional Left and Right political boundaries. Certainly such radical thinking about humanity goes against conventional Conservative thinking. For example, David Cameron’s original statements on the topic::

"The contention is that just as we can create the climate for business to thrive - by cutting taxes, slashing red tape and so on - so we can create a climate in this country that is more family-friendly and more conducive to the good life." (my emphasis)

Chris White’s Public Services (Social Value) Bill could be thought of as epitomising this new way of thinking. The Bill requires all public bodies to give consideration to the improvement of “economic, social or environmental wellbeing” whenever they procure any service. Nick Hurd said it when he says that: ‘Big Society is about "a profound culture change"’ (http://www.bigcivilsociety.blogspot.com/). Phillip Blond said it at a recent ResPublica event on Big Society: “Ask yourself this question – what kind of society do we want to have?”We all need to ask these questions to push this thinking over the tipping point into a new zeitgeist. “Society is not a spectator sport” Cameron avows. He’s right there. It is our society. We need to reclaim it and rethink it in a more positive way. We can do it together!

In a world where we are daily faced with bleak warnings of the biting cuts and austerity measures to come, of continued low growth and concomitant societal ills and a charity landscape forever blighted, it might do us good to look on the bright side. Not in a Pollyanna, muddling along, kind of way, as some seem determined to see it; but in a positive, proactive, deeply thought-through attempt to see better, do better, and be better. As Roosevelt said, in his inaugural address in 1933: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”. There, that’s better!