Some type of shared utopian view is beneficial to a society, as it paves the way for large-scale coordinated reform. This view has to be positive in order to be truly motivating and empowering. Big Society has the potential to become the utopia of the 21st century, but only if two key concepts are included: mutual respect and open dialogue.
The archbishop of Canterbury recently denounced David Cameron’s Big Society as aspirational waffle “designed to conceal a deeply damaging withdrawal of the state from its responsibilities to the most vulnerable.” The response is understandable, as the ongoing austerity drive doesn’t show much of the responsibility, mutuality or obligation that Cameron underlined in his 2009 Big Society speech. On the contrary: cutting social benefits with the excuse of balancing welfare budget seems irresponsible and short-sighted – especially when billions of taxpayer pounds and euros flow to keep financial institutions up and running.
Big Society, as I understand it, refers to the joint effort and common responsibility in the society, and moving away from politician-centered and hierarchical government towards multilateralism and networked cooperation. The historical context of the Big Society is, of course, the crisis of the welfare state. An essential question in this ongoing crisis is: How to make the transition to socially and environmentally sustainable economy while remaining competitive and maintaining the living standards of most people?
This question has no answer, which refers to the fact that in the current crisis, we are dealing with one huge wicked problem:
A wicked problem is a social or cultural problem that is difficult or impossible to solve for as many as four reasons: incomplete or contradictory knowledge, the number of people and opinions involved, the large economic burden, and the interconnected nature of these problems with other problems.
Wicked problems of the society are rife with conflicts of interest, anxiety and fear. This is what has preserved them for centuries. Currently, however, they are getting out of control (see the news on Euro crisis or climate change), so new approaches are needed. Big Society is a utopian mindset with the aim of promoting a change in the culture – our patterns of thinking, feeling and potentially acting – that is at the root of these wicked problems.
The Big Society mindset is promising, but currently it has one big problem: it lacks a solid view of mutual respect – the cornerstone of social stability -, and open dialogue on policy decisions. The lack of mutual respect is deeply intertwined with antiquated party structures which manufacture dissent while maintaining the phenomenon of ‘preaching to the choir’. The absence of dialogue, on the other hand, enables decisions to be made quickly but at the expense of the wider social context.
So what should be done to promote mutual respect and open dialogue in the society? I set an open challenge to all citizens and parties, in Britain as well as in Europe. Together we should try to answer the following questions:
- What is good in the Big Society mindset, and what is lacking? If you fundamentally disagree with the concept, what is your alternative utopia?
- Big Society has the potential to guide global social policy efforts. Could it be the British approach to the crisis in Europe? Could the approach even be spread to development cooperation?
- Reducing the power of central governments also leads to gradually moving away from the war economy in which national politicians manufacture and support armed conflicts abroad for political and economic purposes. What kind of Big Society institutions encourage the use of soft power in global networks and make the use of violence unviable?
When we learn to maintain respectful dialogue throughout the society, we are much better equipped to face the long-awaited social reforms. At the same time it is essential that we find the fine balance between cynicism and idealism. In this process, approaches such as Theory U and participatory design may prove beneficial.
PS. I wrote this text Comment is Free in mind, but as they refused I decided to publish it here. (I guess it was too intellectual for the general reader.)