The ever-interesting CRESC is holding a debate on the Big Society, in Manchester on 6th June, which I'll be speaking at. Full programme and registration details are here. I'll probably be arguing something along these lines. Come along!
Short notice, I appreciate, but next Tuesday afternoon we are hosting an event which is open to all, on the topic of 'public administration'. It features three excellent speakers, Libby Schweber (Reading), Kathryn Janda (Oxford) and Paul Du Gay (Copenhagen Business School) and one mediocre respondent, William Davies (Oxford).
Through a variety of case studies and analytical perspectives, the three speakers will examine the role of expert professional communities in demarcating policy from politics, the boundaries of the state vis-à-vis the market, and the heterogeneous meanings of ‘public administration’.
I took part in a seminar a couple of months back, organised by Open Democracy, dedicated to exploring the relevance of Paul Hirst's work on 'associative democracy'. This was partly framed in terms of developing a leftist rejoinder to the 'Big Society'. Contributions at the seminar have now been turned into an e-book, which you can download here or read a summary of here.
The Battle of Ideas happened at the weekend, and I was all primed to scoff at it. I'd already taken a weak pot-shot. The controversy-chasing aspect of it seems stale, and when one of the first speakers opened by saying "I love this conference because it's the only place where anyone can say whatever they like", I was tempted to start screaming my head off with gibberish, a la the moment in Waiting for Godot where Lucky is implored to think:
Given the existence as uttered forth in the public works of Puncher and Wattmann of a personal God quaquaquaqua with white beard quaquaquaqua outside time without extension who from the heights of divine apathia divine athambia divine aphasia loves us dearly with some exceptions for reasons unknown but time will tell and suffers like the etc etc
Surely 'say anything you want' must be a disastrous norm for any intelligent debate, especially one organised by a think tank that claims to be holding the mantle of Francis Bacon and every Enlightenment rationalist that came in his wake. I did, however, at least exploit the 'freedom' to check my blackberry whenever the whim struck me, even during my panel, on the basis that a) I could do whatever I like and b) to refuse the temptation of technology would be a form of anti-Enlightenment irrationalism, possibly akin to Islamo-fascism.
And yet there is something quite marvellous about the whole occasion, which got me wondering what academia might learn from it. Firstly, and somewhat prosaically, academic conferences are not really chaired. They have chairpersons, but they rarely do anything except sit there and occasionally make bad jokes about technology while one of the speakers is on all-fours behind a computer, struggling to locate the USB port.
Why is this? Why is it that when a speaker is already 15 minutes over time, and seemingly oblivious to the fact that there are other papers still to come, the chair is usually to be found sitting at the side of the stage trying to get the speakers attention by chewing nervously on a biro? Why is it that when a windbag questioner (who tends to announce themselves by standing up, immediately turning their backs to the panel, and facing the audience) has concluded a 10 minute 'comment-not-a-question', with the horrifying words "so that's my first point", the chair responds by adopting the apologetically expectant facial expression of a polite grandmother standing next to the 'Please Wait Here to be Seated' sign in a restaurant?
The first thing that the Battle of Ideas guarantees is that the nutters and the windbags will have their say, but then be ruthlessly silenced. This includes panellists. The chairing is pre-meditated and mindful of the paying audience.
Secondly, academia has too rarely found a good language or set of norms with which to address the power of science and reason in society, in ways that engage the public intelligently. There are positivist science writers in the media (peer reviewed journals are right, and everyone else is wrong) who effectively act to close down public debate. And then there are constructivist sociologists, in the tradition of Latour and Foucault, who are too easily mis-read (either as believing that 'reality doesn't exist', or as just too theoretically dense). I would recommend this book by Bent Flyvbjerg as a way of analysing expertise and power, in ways that is political but not anarchistic or surrealistic. But it is hard to do and to communicate.
Maybe pitching things as 'battles' for truth, reason and Enlightenment isn't such a bad thing, if it engages and energises. I've never seen such a diverse audience cram into so many rooms, with so much note-taking and questioning. Maybe framing discussions as controversies can be productive, as long as one of the possible outcomes is that there is in fact a consensus, and not a controversy at all. Certainly it is better to seek out controversy and find none, than to affirm consensus for fear of controversy.
Standard think tank speak about 'leading the public conversation' implies a certain amount of closure and control. It smacks of lethargy. If the only way to frame the basic Enlightenment idea of the public sphere - equality of access, presumption of rationality as an innate human capacity, judgement of argument not social status - is to pose this as radically inclusive, as radically sceptical, then so be it.
If a debate is pitched as 'Technology' versus 'Fundamentalism, it appears that only two options are on the table or, even more absurdly, as if these are in fact the only ideal types or essences of all more moderate positions (and thereby suggesting that the critique of scientistic reason is theocratic). Maybe, instead, we should view these as the boundary positions, the limits to which it is acceptable to go, but also acceptable not to go anywhere near.
I was in the beautiful city of Coimbra last week, for an intriguing conference, The Revival of Political Economy: Prospects for Sustainable Provision, organised by the multi-disciplinary Centre for Social Studies there. 'Political economy' is a peculiar term these days, that always summons up more than a reference to mere academic discipline. Either it means something normative, or political, or historical, or inter-disciplinary. I offered some sort of vague definition here: "political economy is a field of study that refuses to separate politics from economics, but on the other hand does not believe that one can be collapsed into the other". But that's scarcely good enough.
As far as the conference was concerned, it seems that there are three ways of considering the meaning of 'political economy', each of which has different implications for its 'revival' (and hence alleged death).
1. Bringing the state back in: Peter Hall gave one of the keynotes, entitled 'The political origins of our discontents', which examined the electoral preconditions of the historical and spatial transformations in the institutions of capitalism over the last 50 years. Hall offered a good deal of evidence showing that the shift towards neo-liberalism in the UK and US (what his famous 'varieties of capitalism' approach terms the Liberal Market Economies) did not benefit the majority of voters, by most measures of wealth, income and wellbeing.
The question is then posed: how did this work politically? To which his answer was that it relied on the post-68 fragmentation of class voting patterns. As far as the Coordinated Market Economies (France, Germany, Holland) were concerned, he argued that they had devolved the tasks of neo-liberalism upwards to the European Commission. I put it to him that maybe he was over-stressing elections anyhow, and missed the importance of disciplinary apparatuses to the political sustainability of neo-liberalism - New Public Management, surveillance, prison - and he generously agreed.
Robert Boyer was another notable keynote, offering his classic Regulationist approach to the financial crisis, focused more on internal contradictions in a mode of political-organisational regulation. Boyer argued that 2010 has turned out to be a key year in the crisis, the moment at which it shifted from a crisis of private debt to public debt, thereby ensuring that (and this is the regulationist definition of a 'major' crisis) available policy solutions were part of the problem, and not the solution.
What is striking about Boyer's analysis is the importance of complexity in the current crisis. It was (and remains) a crisis of credit, in which the core relationship of credit and debt was bundled up, moved around and sold in ways that thereby destroyed its defining characteristics. The trust and belief that is essential to the notion of credit were thereby lost, in a miasma of enthusiasm and salesmanship, focused initially on credit itself.
2. Reversing marginalism: One of the pleasures of these conferences is to learn from the history of economics. For some of the speakers, the task of 'reviving political economy' involves working out where and how it was lost in the first place, that is, what became of the tradition of Smith, Ricardo, Marx and Mill. In this respect, 'political economy' means economics that engages with institutional, political and sociological questions, as it did for almost a century after the publication of The Wealth of Nations.
The paper borrows an approach from the French convention school of Boltanski, Thevenot et al, to consider different ways in which experts have set about trying to save core fundaments of neo-classical economics from the apparent catastrophe of the financial crisis. These are defined as rival normative ways in which the same technical apparatus is defended as justified, and rest on rival claims to authority on the parts of the economists concerned. As I argue, if the crisis can be effectively contained and explained within the neo-classical project, broadly understood, then it will be prevented from disrupting it or causing any significant paradigm shift (as, for instance, stagflation led to the demise of Keynesianism).
The first derives from English welfare economics, and suggests that the crisis was a 'market failure', that is, it occurred due to inadequate third party or government intervention. This seeks to bestow regulatory authority upon the economist. The second derives from Chicago neo-liberal economics, and suggests that the crisis was a problem of incentives and arguably too much regulation, or at least insufficient attention to the agency problems within regulation and credit-rating. This seeks to bestow critical authority upon the economist. And the third derives from behavioural economics, and suggests that the crisis was a problem of excessive complexity and systemic risk, ultimately caused by the inadequate calculative capacity of the human mind. This seeks to bestow therapeutic authority upon the economist.
I wouldn't pretend that this is an exhaustive list. What's interesting about these three traditions is that they are all seeking to prop up the same core claims about human rationality and economic value, but in very different ways and for very different reasons. And they have all had to go into overdrive in order to rescue their discipline over the last three years. If you want to hear more, come to the seminar!
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.
This coming week sees CRESC's annual conference, The Social Life of Methods, in Oxford, which looks set to be a great summit for all things culturally and epistemologically sociological. The programme is here.
A couple of friends and I have put together a panel on Thursday at 1.30pm, The State and Numbers, on different varieties of quantification and measurement enacted by governments. I'll be speaking about 'subjective wellbeing as commensuration device', that is, the entry of this psychological category into the discipline of economics, such that objects, assets, practices and distributions can be evaluated and compared in terms of their psychological effects.
The concept of 'commensuration' is one that I'm getting quite excited by. For anyone who is curious, check out the work of Wendy Espeland and this paper in particular. There is much to say on this, and at some point I'll be submitting the CRESC paper somewhere.