I have some sympathy for some of the philosophies in the “Big Society” mix; I believe in a small state, self-help, mutual aid, decentralisation and active citizenship. BigSoc ideologues like David Willetts and Phillip Blonde talk eloquently of exactly the kind of thick civic culture that I refer to in this post. But I remain unconvinced that the Big Society in reality is anything more than an alibi for fiscal ultra-conservatism, or that Cameron’s attempts to imagine it into existence will do anything to mitigate the social devastation that is already being caused by his government’s slash and burn social policies.
Ken Livingstone a couple of years ago made one of his typically pugnacious and offensive comments to the effect that global capitalism had killed far more people than terrorism. Of course, capitalists do not set out to kill people, so cannot be judged against the same moral calculus as terrorists, who do set out to kill people. But the substantive point is undoubtedly correct. Neo-liberalism – that is, the abdication (whether forced by unaccountable institutions like the IMF and World Bank, or chosen by tax-cutting politicians) by the state of its duty to provide basic care for its citizens – kills.
In this post, though, I want to focus on one very small aspect of the evil of neo-liberalism: the assault on civic culture through decimating the universal services provided by the state. I believe that the foundation of a civic culture is universal entitlement to certain key services, equitably delivered according to universalist values. Inequality of provision implies inequality of civic status, while equality of provision provides for a shared experience of the state that can be the basis of a shared citizenship, an equal stake in a community of citizens.
Neo-liberalism is the rolling back of the state in its care for the citizenry. We are now not citizens but consumers, faced with a ‘choice’ of providers in the marketplace. Sometimes, of course, the new provider can be a community enterprise, deeply rooted in a neighbourhood, empowering local citizens through its provision of services. The state is not necessarily the best provider of services.
More often than not, of course, providers enter the marketplace to make a profit, and the best service consumers can choose is likely to be the one few can afford – either because few have enough money, or because few have enough resources (‘social capital’ in the jargon of today) to navigate the obstacles to accessing it. For example, the Roman Catholic London Oratory School, where Blair’s offspring were sent, interviews prospective students and their parents to test their piety – and their middle class dispositions.
It is into this vacuum that faith-based initiatives, as Bush called them, have stepped. In India, the neo-liberal abdication of the state’s responsibility to provide decent education has meant some 30,000 madrassas teach Muslim children who live below the poverty line. But what do they teach them? A curriculum – Dars-e-Nizami – that has remained unchanged for three centuries. Even more poor children go to schools run by voluntary sector organisations which are part of the Hindutva machine – the ‘saffron fascist’ Hindu right. Here, according to various investigations, “the texts taught… are exclusivist, even violent, distort history, and are driven by prejudice and rancour against particular sections of the population.” (Setalvad).
Europe and America don’t face exactly that challenge – though the Blair government’s neo-liberal Academy programme gives control of curriculum to the philanthropists who buy the Academies, such as Peter Vardy, the Creationist second hand car salesman who runs several schools in the North East of England. Faith schools thrive in Britain’s cities because the so-called choice of a secular state school is an under-resourced disaster that parents will do anything to avoid their kids going to. If everyone had access to a decent neighbourhood school, hardly anyone in Britain would choose a faith school – just as the Indian poor would not send their children to madrassas or their Hindu nationalist equivalents.
Like Bush and Blair, and unlike most of my fellow ‘muscular liberals’, I have great respect for religious faith and the sacrifices people of faith will make to contribute to the communities. I am not against faith-based initiatives as such.
But my worry is that the universal values of public culture – values such as free inquiry and tolerance for different faiths – are under threat from the marketisation of public services. While the rich can choose quality, the children of the less than rich are segregated along lines of faith or community, and many placed in the hands of the some of the most reactionary, authoritarian, bigoted people imaginable, to the detriment of a culture of common citizenship.