Sunday, 6 June 2010

Transition, deep green thinking and the Big Society

As the Joint Coordinator of a Transition Initiative – Transition Belsize in North London - I am instinctively drawn to the concept of David Cameron's Big Society. It has a lot in common with the aims and ambitions of the Transition movement. Cooperatives, boosting social entrepreneurs, time banks, community-owned assets – these all fit neatly with Transition thinking and indeed a lot of deep green thinking.

The Big Society takes a lot of interesting ideas - cooperatives, boosting social entrepreneurs, time banks -
but what worries me about the concept is that I see little understanding of the real underlying problems of our society - materialism (ie capitalism), globalisation of production (as opposed to the spread of ideas) and an unwillingness to live in tune with nature leading to depletion of natural resources. The Big Society takes a lot of interesting ideas, but it never really grapples with the problem of Tesco (which I use as a metaphor for big business).

In an interview with Transition Culture the man credited with the Big Society concept, Red Tory Philip Blond, said that Tesco would have to change so that local businesses can exist cheek by jowl with Tesco:

“I think tackling the ‘Tesco-isation’, if you put it like that, is part of the answer, but also the dominant supermarket players are also going to be part of the answer. I think the point with supermarkets isn’t that they are going to be eliminated, not least because many people wouldn’t want that, but it is actually getting them to operate differently, and to operate differently in a way that works with locality and with other needs, diversification of the food supply, more localised provision, market making rather than market dominating, and I think everybody will have a role, and they will go from big to small.

"We don’t want to get in a position of just defending the small against the big, what we want is all modes present, in a way that one mode doesn’t dominate other modes, so we don’t have a purely local economy, because that isn’t sustainable, nor do we have a purely global economy because that isn’t sustainable. We need the inter-penetration of each order or each sphere by the other.”

Later in the conversation he said: “There’s no turning the clock back, no opposing globalisation. The point is rather to orient globalisation towards augmenting the local rather than eliminating it.”

I don’t see anywhere in that interview, or in anything Phillip Blond or David Cameron have said before or since, any convincing explanation of how you can make Tesco and local shops work well together. All the evidence is that out of store supermarkets destroy town centres, that supermarkets lead to money and resources leaking out of local economies, that town centre supermarkets lead to the closure of independent food shops. How would the Big Society prevent that? By educating residents to want to buy local? That’s a lovely idea but it’s naive.

Breaking up the banks and going back to small regional banks or mutual societies is another laudable intention, but how do you restrain 21st century capitalism and the destructive force that is maximisation of shareholder value so as to allow small financial institutions to thrive? How do you change the values of society back to something where "Small is Beautiful"? How do you prevent international capital from taking highly leveraged bets against countries and companies?

I’m all for smaller classes and smaller schools that are closer to where children live, and I’m a big fan of community clinics providing all but emergency services (as in much of France), but if all schools and hospital departments are set free to run themselves and charge whatever they like, then how is that different from the old Thatcherite approaches - privatisation, trickle down and get on your bike?

I don’t want to throw out the Big Society concept. I think there is something there. But at the moment it feels like a collection of ideas floating on the surface with no real understanding of why we are in crisis and no real framework for solving the crisis.

The problem isn’t a dichotomy of socialist big government versus rightwing libertarianism, which Phillip Blond says he’s trying to get away from - the problem is the underlying values of the consumer society. And the solution is not to give those who are at the margins of society more assets so that they can play at the materialist roulette table - the solution is to change the underlying values of society. Where for example is the Big Society analysis of the gap between needs and wants which has been created and exploited by the advertising industry in the modern capitalist era?

So this is, I think, where Transitioners and other deep green thinkers part company with the Big Society. We see climate change, resource depletion, globalisation of production, maximisation of shareholder value, industrialised food, debt overhang, asset bubbles, financial crisis, oil wars etc as symptoms of a society running out of control, whereas the proponents of the Big Society simply want to tweak the model to allow a breed of New Victorian social entrepreneur to take their place alongside the Murdochs, the Leahys and the Trumps of the world.

Let’s not throw out the Big Society model just yet. It has lots of good elements in it. But we need to be aware that it is far from fully formed. Therein lies the real challenge and opportunity – how to create a model that picks up where the Big Society leaves off and which deep green thinkers and Transitioners can agree with, a model which doesn’t simply mutate into a reworking of “sink or swim” Thatcherism wrapped in a shiny new language of community.


  1. As someone I know put it, you cannot solve 21st century problems with 20th century solutions.

    In fact, our legal and financial structures date back to the early 17th century (the joint stock company) and the early 18th century (deficit-based banking).

    I have a background of 25 years in market and enterprise development and regulation including six years as a director of a global energy exchange. With a little seed funding from Innovation Norway I have developed simple but radical partnership-based frameworks for the direct 'peer to peer' connections of the internet.

    This article may give you an idea

    While this presentation to the Energy Institute in Scotland went down well

    It is only through using new networked and non-hierarchical legal frameworks which lead to value-extracting intermediaries becoming service providers that the Big Society may be implemented in practice, I think.

  2. I agree that materialism is at the root of our society's problems. Far from that fact being recognised, materialism has become an Anglo-Saxon religion, propagated daily to toddlers through television, often replacing any other kind of ethos, values or responsibility in the vacuum of lazy and apathetic relativism.

    Our empire-rationalising liberalism is a uniquely greedy and individualistic ideology. Its creed: I have and I want therefore I am.

    The fetish of material goods is our cherished iconography while self-proliferating technology has become a kind of parental surrogate. The roots of this lie in our history and culture, its potential shift in our education system, media and governmental leadership.

    I believe most of all however the key to its end lies in the task of convincing each person to take a personal, moral responsibility for our communities, our children and our planet.

    The key challenge I believe: How to tap into the instincts of community, sustainability and solidarity in poor neighbourhoods, beyond the middle-class exemplified in north London?

  3. I don't think it's an either-or situation, Ben. I completely accept that there are fantastic examples of working class neighbourhoods showing how to do community, sustainability and solidarity, but that shouldn't mean middle class neighbourhoods can't do it too!