The inestimable Simon Hoggart, parliamentary sketchwriter for The Guardian, has a neat test which he applies to political rhetoric, to check whether or not it means anything: if it's impossible to imagine anyone demanding the opposite of what is being argued for, then you know it's hot air. Hence, much of what Tony Blair claimed to stand for - 'more money in your pocket, less crime on the streets, better public services' - wasn't actually a set of policies or political values at all, seeing as nobody could sensibly disagree with any of it.
I feel that the same may be true of David Cameron's 'Big Society'. It's not that the idea is too bad to be helpful, but that it's too good to be helpful. Everybody already wants to live in neighbourhoods that are thriving, where people look after each other, where the state is not relied upon. There's nothing remotely controversial about this aspiration. It's why house prices in Stoke Newington are more than double what they are a few miles east in Leyton. Of course the state would rather let us look after one another, as would we. This doesn't go any way to explaining why it is that we don't.
I was minded of this when I saw this advert for the P&G Capital Cleanup on the tube earlier:
Down the right-hand side are the logos of various household cleaning product brands and Procter and Gamble itself. In case you can't read the text, it says the following:
You know when your mum's coming round to your flat and you give the place a quick tidy? Well that's exactly what we're doing. Except our "flat" is London and our "mum" is the rest of the world coming round. So we're cleaning London in time for the London 2012 Olympic Games. But that's a big job so we're asking people like you to lend us a hand. We have litter to pick [sic], graffiti to scrub, and flowers to plant. To help London look its best go to P&GCapitalcleanup.com. Come on. Make your mum proud.
This isn't going to turn into another curmudgeonly anti-Olympics rant (read this if that's what you're after). Nor do I have any objection whatsoever to people donating their time for free to cleaning up London, which strikes me as an excellent idea, rather like having "more money in your pocket, less crime on the streets, better public services". The problem with this advert is the huge vacuum of justification at its heart. When Procter & Gamble invites ordinary members of the public to clean up a viciously unequal financialised city, where services of this nature are typically outsourced to private contractors, to prepare the ground for a vast splurge of securitised and brand-controlled two-week corporate entertainment, we might be entitled to respond to our 'mum' with a somewhat adolescent response: why the hell should I?
This response is far from inevitable, universal or praise-worthy, but it has a logic to it in this context that shouldn't be ignored. If, for example, the advert had appeared without the very prominent backing of a large corporate sponsor, or was not linked directly to an extremely complex and expensive act of megaproject management, then it might appear merely as a 'nudge' towards greater public spiritedness. I'm always rather charmed by the ads that London buses have, in which a cartoon teenager says "I won't play my music loud" next to a cartoon old woman saying "and I won't put my bag on the seat", in an effort to encourage slightly greater conviviality on public transport. But the fact that those ads are innocent of any strategic economic interests (beyond the 'consumer satisfaction' of bus users), and are simply branded with the reassuring Edwardian logo of London Transport, surely contributes to their efficacy. By contrast, the P&G Capital Cleanup is demanding uncalculated acts of generosity in pursuit of private profit. This is clean-up work that would otherwise be paid for.
The central problem of voluntary or community action in a neoliberal society is this: it is far easier to move from the realm of gift exchange to the realm of calculated exchange than it is to do the opposite. Where calculation and a calculating mindset is pushed further into the realm of informal social relationships, via audit, managerialism and social media, it becomes extremely difficult to suddenly appeal to the power of 'society' to reverse this or alleviate its malign effects. Simply arguing that it would be nice for people to act decently and public-spiritedly is not enough of a response, to a 30-year policy and management project built specifically on the claim that people can not be trusted to act decently or public-spiritedly unless kept under audit and surveillance.
This isn't to say that economisation and calculation are inevitable, irreversible or irresistable. Relationships and exchange surely can be returned to the realm of uncalculated gift-giving. But this won't come about by simply demanding that we all stop counting the costs or calculating the price, especially not in a society where cost-counting and pricing are still such dominant forces in public life. Right now, being nice does not appear to pay, either in a monetary or a non-monetary sense. To change this requires some form of strategy, which must firstly be built on a more sophisticated understanding of the problem.
The economistic fallacy, which only dates back to the late 19th century and not the whole way back to Adam Smith, is that 'social' uncalculated exchange is a derivative or even deficient variety of 'economic' calculated exchange. This assumption is present in the term 'externality', as employed by welfare economists since Pigou (1912), which treats the public as an accidental side-effect of the market, rather than vice versa. Economic anthropologists, dating back to Marcel Mauss, have challenged this very successfully, by demonstrating that gift exchange is primary, and market exchange is secondary. Georges Bataille's work on 'general' and 'restricted' economy also explores it brilliantly, starting with the recognition that all value originates in the immeasurable force of the sun. The same critique of calculated exchange has been made more recently by David Graeber in relation to credit relations.
Neo-classical economics therefore turns the world upside down, by assuming that calculation is 'normal' and that altruism is unusual. Game theory develops this problem and tests it experimentally. But eventually, as I argued in relation to the riots last summer, this inverted worldview becomes realised as a normal way to think and to interpret relationships. Once prices have been put on certain goods, they cannot simply be removed simply because it would be nice to remove them. But that seems to be the extent of the Big Society's logic.
The only alternative is to develop new practices, norms and techniques of valuation, to replace those of price. Time-banking and alternative currencies are clear examples of this. New types of credit, which are not entirely fungible (in strong contrast to credit securitisation) can be developed, in which norms of reputation, trust and shame are actively involved in how they bind people. This needn't simply be a form of conservatism, if new instruments can be invented. There is both a modernising and a conserving spirit to how something like the Big Society might actually be pursued.
Finally, this would also require the deliberate dismantling of corrupt forms of market exchange and calculation. If prices are to be removed from certain areas of public and social life, then there must be a clear political strategy to undermine those institutions which benefit from such pricing. This includes much of the current banking system. It also includes FTSE100 companies urging us to donate our time for the benefit of their media circus and shareholders.