A stimulating day spent in search of evidence for the Big Society at NCVO left me feeling that rather like the term “social enterprise”, “Big Society” will end up being another interesting contradiction in terms that feeds the intellectual interest of policy advisers but leaves the ultimate beneficiaries – i.e. taxpayers, citizens, etc – rather cold.
Perhaps it is worth a minute to consider the view from the other end of the telescope. We have spent the last two decades embracing individualism, (and the twin trends of personalisation and consumerisation of everyday life) both fueled and enabled by the equivalent of a consumer contraceptive pill of the 1990’s, the credit card. The liberator of your money, because in your heart of hearts you know that it isn’t your money. At the same time, technology has enabled us to live increasingly independent lives of personal choices and freedoms which hitherto were both unthinkable and unworkable. I look at my own freelance career, seemingly living without the need of a nurturing corporate body, constantly shifting from project to business, following my own interests in money, consumerism and sustainability and at any moment able to say “tomorrow, I will do something else” on the basis that my time, as a freelancer, is not sold in advance for a salary but paid by the day or even the hour.
Of course, the alternative to this narrative is the atomised individual cast adrift from the institutions and communities upon which previously we had relied and tyrannised by endless choice and so-called consumer ‘liberation’.
And, Ok, I am probably not typical. (Although my work for zopa showed that such lifestyles, which we called ‘freeforming’, were emerging as a significant trend which would foster new forms of social and economic activities and collaborations). What is evident is that compared even to when I started as a freelancer, 11 years ago now, technology has leapt ahead to make living a ‘liquid modern’ life more accessible, more efficient and cheaper than ever before. And perhaps more importantly, more ‘solid’ or ‘tangible’.
The same goes for the businesses which seek to harness such technologies for the creation of new low cost business models. A business really can be built from your bedroom, something reminiscent of what started the rot in the music industry at the end of the 90’s when anyone with talent or an ear for a mash up could produce professional sounds from a laptop.
Into this context comes the ‘Big Society’ which when understood from this liquid modern perspective appears to be an assertion of some of the very vested interests and traditional institutions which individuals have sought to subvert and undermine. But I think this is perhaps just one interpretation of just what the Big Society is and a real danger sign that if it is isn’t defined in a meaningful and practical way (or as praxis) soon then the vacuum will be filled by the status quo which adopts BS as a new brand ‘marque’ of legitimacy for their public and private demands for power and resources.
As someone who is essentially optimistic about the ability of liquid individuals (or “freeformers”) to produce meaningful and moral outcomes through new forms of collaboration, the opportunity of the Big Society is to encourage individuals to become ‘big’ rather than replace one set of institutional interests with another. At Zopa we used to talk about the ‘individual revolution’ of which zopa itself was at the vanguard of new ways of individuals getting together to achieve personal and social goals. If Big Society is going to be more than a badge, then government needs to adopt a whole new set of beliefs about the potential of the individual and trust in their ability to shape their futures in a way that does not just maximise their pleasure but makes for a more sustainable and fundamentally human response to the needs and challenges of being a good society.