I was at The Young Foundation last week, to listen to Geoff Mulgan speak about their new report, Investing in Social Growth: Can the Big Society be More than a Slogan? There is something quite canny about this - with admirable brevity, the report sets out various tangible actions that the Coalition could take towards their declared goal, and which it can therefore be judged by.
There is an emerging consensus, which Mulgan adheres to, that if The Big Society does mean anything at all, that it transcends left and right. Various former and non-former Labour thinkers have stressed that they must fight for this territory, and not dismiss it merely as state-shrinking rhetoric. But during the event, it struck me that there is one very notable schism within this agenda, which may not be a conventional Left-Right divide, but is still a (small c) conservative-progressive divide.
In theoretical terms, this is between Schumpeterians and Durkheimians. Or in more intuitive terms, between people who think we are inspired to engage with one another out of excitement, and those who think we are bound together by obligation. Larkin tells us that "life is first boredom, then fear". In which case perhaps the Schumpeterians can target the first, and the Durkheimians the second. But I wonder how much the Big Society enthusiasts have really considered the latter.
Mulgan himself is an unabashed Schumpeterian, fascinated by innovation and institution-building, though not so much so that he overlooks the need for long-standing institutions in incubating and supporting this. He pointed out the paradox of Tory political rhetoric, that it claims that 'society' is both broken and the answer to all our problems. Something surely has to endure (or be added to the mix, such as the state) if the embers of civic activism are to be reignited.
Then there are the government's own cheerleaders for The Big Society, such as Nat Wei, whose authority to advise on civic action derives from their own high levels of energy and entrepreneurial zeal. They possess, in Weberian terms, charismatic authority. They come to motivate, to build, and to renew, offering youthful dynamism to lure people away from their televisions and out into their neighbourhoods. The contrast with the bankrupt traditional authority of the leader of the biggest society of all, who visits London this weekend, is dramatic.
But there is a foundational sociological question here which needs addressing, and which entrepreneurs are uniquely ill-equipped to address: to what extent can society be held together out of volition?
Social bonds, if that's what we want more of, are just that - bonds. They constrict, oblige and demand. The primary bonds that people experience in a modern society are provided by three institutions, the family, religious institutions and (as Durkheim explored) the division of labour, resulting in work. It also transpires that these institutions, along with physical health, are most crucial in generating the 'wellbeing' that the Young Foundation report suggests we start to measure.
If we are to use the paradigm of wellbeing, there is one very indicative finding that it points us towards. As Daniel Kahneman and others have explored, there is a major difference between 'experienced' happiness and 'life satisfaction', where the former is a moment in time, and the latter is a reflection based on a narrative about oneself. And the finding is this: that being at work is an unpleasurable experience, but that being unemployed has an extremely negative impact on life satisfaction.
Most policy-makers would read this and say that the latter is a higher priority. But then they need to follow the logic. The reason work is so important is precisely that it structures social relations without depending on pleasure and on life satisfaction. It is repetitive, predictable, often dull and often demanding. Richard Sennett views this as a quality of sorts. This is a (small c) conservative insight, namely that what people find fulfilling is often less choice - and certainly less upheaval - not more. To put this in more positive terms, they want to feel needed, valued and capable, but in ways that don't require them to reinvent themselves or their environments.
It stands to reason that a conservative, and maybe even a (big c) Conservative, government would do anything it could to defend families, religious institutions and, above all, work. From the perspective of The Big Society agenda, it appears like a historical quirk that the first two of these have ended up as rightwing ambitions, and the third as a leftwing one. Every time policy-makers are celebrating some social innovation, charismatic entrepreneur, or optimistic individual who bucked the trend towards ennui, they should also ask the following question - how much bigger would society be, how much more well would we be, if only we could all have reliable, honestly-rewarded work?
It is not, then, so much that The Big Society is being used to disguise a shrinking state (although the jury's still out on that), but that it is likely a poor substitute for relationships of obligation and sustained reciprocity, especially within the economy itself. Why is it that 'social capital' is only ever found outside of markets and firms? Or as Marxists (e.g. Ben Fine) would say, why is volunteering or tweeting considered 'social', but production not? And this brings me back to the Schumpeterians and the entrepreneurial blindspot.
Entrepreneurs, by definition, find it plausible to that things can be built out of nothing. They find the creation of new social ties a doddle. But they also get easily bored, and want to then move on to something else. If there's one thing they get most bored by, it's that the rest of us struggle to keep up. "But it's easy", imply the public faces of The Big Society. "Just be a bit more like me". The entrepreneur shares something with the situationist: artistic, disruptive, mildly solipsistic. And the situationist attitude to the repetition of capitalist labour is well known.
When David Willetts suggested that young people who fail to get into university should go out and volunteer, he implied that institutions and volition can be substitutes for one another. The difference between being inside an institution (be it a university or a workplace) and outside of one could be dealt with through a little more will-power. The sad fact is that it is probably those who are already inside institutions that also have the greater degree of volition, energy and desire to use in their free time. The notion that unemployed people can view free time as their resource is economistic in the extreme.
All of this suggests that there is something wrong with the word 'volunteer', and which the Schumpeterian worldview might cloud. Action that is unpaid or uncoerced is considered 'voluntary', but we then leap to the assumption that it has bubbled up from within, either through an economic preference or a psychological urge. But has it? I wonder how much civic action is experienced this way. Certainly those fund-raising posters on the tube ("text 'disaster' to give just £1 and save this child's life") operate on our volition in this way, reducing gift-giving to the twitch of a neuron followed by a few prods of a thumb. But sustained, bonded, repetitive civic engagement cannot rely on a wellspring of desire and charisma, which is by its very nature explosive and unreliable. Duty and sustained recognition motivate when desire is absent.
The question of whether 'society' can plug the gap left by a shrinking state is one thing. But the question of whether it can compensate for a reduction in reliable work is a whole other problem altogether. The production of an entirely new sociological category, neither 'work' nor 'welfare' but as solid and binding as either, may be required. I can't even imagine it, but then I guess that's because I'm not an entrepreneur.