Friday, 17 June 2011

Divine Wind

For centuries learned men would muse on the ineffable.  The harder it was to articulate the greater they would try to do so, and many tomes were written; and many a seminarian was lost amongst their strange and complex sentences.  Centuries went by, and the absolute remained unattainable; still a distant realm unknown to the human mind.  Meanwhile, whole libraries were written, but nothing new could be found; for none was possible: the ungraspable was the unutterable, and the learned could only kneel before it in wondrous ecstasy.

There was a quiet revolution in the 17th century.  The theologians became intellectuals and talked like artisans.  We must learn about this world! and not waste our time on realms we cannot reach, they said.  This was an odd idea, the monks behind the college walls found it so, but somehow it caught on; creating the vast universe within which we live today.

However, the learned men and women were soon bored with the simple things of life; always that ineffable calls.  That terrible urge to talk about nothing as if it was something…  Beginning from the 18th century God and his angels were fading out; but luckily new spirits could be found: Reason, History, Progress… and on it goes, until today, when the most powerful god of all, the Free Market, has conquered everywhere.

But it is not only the learned who want to commune with the absolute.  There are mystic folk amongst the general public; while many a would be businessman has seen dollar signs amongst the clouds.

Although, as we contemplate the heavenly simplicity, and the benign power, of our new divinity, we must not forget that the learned fulfil another, more earthy, role.  Even clerics have to eat and drink.  To do this, and to do it well, they need the support of kings or emperors; and rich lords who will build their churches and lavish them with sumptuous gifts.  In return our grateful priests bless them with divine authority.

Today there are more places of worship than ever before; the internet is full of them.  So let us open the door on a relatively new one, ResPublica, to find out what lies within.

[Philip] Blond writes a kind of polytechnic prose in which the various jargons of philosophy, sociology, economics and theology are churned together as in a concrete mixer. His method of argument is to connect strings of unrelated assertions with the words ‘thus’ and ‘then’ and ‘hence’… belabouring them with sentences like ‘Liberalism, then, paradoxically tends to promote a totalising unity within an overriding collectivist framework that nullifies opposition in the very name of negative freedom,’ and, on the next page: ‘Thus, the state is driven to homogenise individuality in the very name of individual diversity. Individual liberty becomes inexorably the “general will” of the social whole and the only truly [sic] freedom belongs to that individual writ large – which is the state.’ (A crushing review of the founder’s bible by Jonathan Raban)

This is much better than the old theology.  Then the services provided by the clerisy were just a little too obvious; to the cynics their godly pronouncements looked more like common bribes.  This new one seems much better, for it offers everybody a chance to partake of the ineffable; incomprehension is guaranteed to cover us all. 

Knowing a little of social housing I was curious to read what this new church would have to say about it.  After a little searching I found a character called Matt Leach amongst the aisles.  I wondered, and I could hardly contain myself: would he too be a master of the empty phrase and the meaningless paragraph?

Mercifully he is intelligible.  Not yet has he succumbed to the hieratic style of his master.  Though relief is quickly tempered.  For immediately we realise there will no thought in the coming piece: “Blue sky thinking, the sector and the Big Society” sits atop his article.

I look up in the air waiting for the planes to write their wonderful sentences.  I wait and wait….

I read his first three paragraphs, where he struggles to define something he calls the Big Society.  It kind of resonates…  where have I heard it before?  Big Brother, the Big Breakfast...  Usually I would be curious to find out more, however, his style does not fascinate – how bored the horse must be trying to get around that cart. 

Clearly there is something deep and meaningful here; something we can’t quite get our hands on; not even the OED has got it right.  Although, like the bars on heaven’s gates, that ancient theologians would once have discussed, it is also exceedingly trivial: it is, we are told, one of the words of 2010; I wonder what St Augustine would have made of that; though with his usual acuteness he would have identified the cause: the last general election; one month in which we are all promised salvation.

This concept is enormous, we are told, it is going to change our society.  Though it is never quite spelled out: no government programme, no time frames, no budgets are big enough to quite capture it.  What actually is this, we wonder, as read through the abstractions and vague promises?

Promises.  How we love them!  Who doesn’t want stronger links between individuals; more cohesive communities, and less state intervention?  Though with more of the latter there wouldn’t have been a financial tsunami, and no government demanding huge public sector cuts.  Dare I say, with more state action, particularly in the economy, we wouldn’t need ResPublica and Matt Leach?  But that is a little too earthy for learned men.

There is an extended tour around the public and third sectors; the latter, which has effectively merged with the former - much of their funding now relying on government grants - are warned that they are not the Big Society either.  I can see the CEOs going down: how they thought the state would be transferred to them.  The tension mounts, and we grow excited, who is this new messiah who to transform our country.  We wait for the revelation:

The growth of a new generation of community- rooted activity and organisations – some of them formal, some of them relationship-based, many of them emerging from opportunities created by the Localism Bill around asset transfer, neighbourhood planning and the Community Right to Build - lies at the heart of the Big Society vision.

The Localism BillAn act of Parliament?  What a disappointment!  We are promised an audience with God, but on arrival find out its the Bishop of Worcester.  The Localism Bill offers a number of things, many to local authorities, but one wonders how its provisions are going to create this new faith.  Where are the disciples who will bring our people together?  It’s most radical suggestion…

Enables voluntary and community groups to express an interest in running a local authority service and requires local authorities to carry out a procurement exercise for running that service.

… would indeed be welcome if it was possible.  Sadly it is not: a few fringe activities will be devolved, but most of our social services are too big and too complex to be run by volunteers.  Our learned friend, following the well-worn fashion, is communing with the heavens.  Let us leave him there and look at the likely consequences down here on the ground.  The reference to procurement gives us a clue.  What is most likely to happen is that our social services will be run by entities that can manage them; by large corporations, many of them from overseas; taking advantage of the various “free trade” agreements of the last twenty years, which allows countries to open their services to international competition.i  

I’ve been living in Ichikawa City, on the outskirts of Tokyo, since January. It all feels a very long way from Berkeley, California: my neighbourhood here has a public address system, for example, which quietly reminds us at 4.30 every afternoon that the children are on their way home from school and we should try not to run them over, and half an hour later plays a thirty-second excerpt from the New World Symphony (arranged for organ).  (R.T. Ashcroft)

Jonathan Raban noted in his review that Phillip Blond’s ideas are a throw back to the social credit movements on the 1920s and 30s, which in turn were a fantasy about the Middle Ages.  It is very hard to recreate the medieval village in a 21st century city.  Think about it.  You don’t need me to explain why it is impossible.

However, in the 20th century one substitute for the “organic” community was found: the state.  As the example from Japan suggests far from destroying communities it can help build them.  That is, there is no necessary connection between a strong public authority and alienation and anomie.ii  Think about the local area offices of a housing department where tenants become friendly with the staff; consider the support worker who builds up relationship with a client over many years; and think of the sheltered housing manager who knows all her residents by name; and sees them every day.  I knew one of these managers who turned the old people’s home into the hub of the local community: by inviting other groups to come for festivals, events and open days.iii  

There are many examples like this.  I myself have been employed to “build the capacity” of voluntary groups - millions of government money has been spent on this exercise.  Tenant participation, community development… the list is almost endless; and most of it coming from public funds.  Sometimes it has been successful.  However, behind all these efforts was the realisation that to create a community spirit there has to be an agency; it is rarely going to happen by itself; while it is only a major disaster can bring people together on a scale large enough to do the kind of voluntary work our churchman suggests.iv  To argue that a parliamentary act, and some amorous thing called relationships and networks, can miraculously transform the country by themselves, is to say absolutely nothing at all.  It is nonsense wrapped up in the language of sense.  What can a bill do, on its own?  Relationships can be good and bad; while community groups in both Norwich and Sheringham have recently lost long running battles against Tesco.  Here is the obvious omission.

The New Left had two targets: the state and the corporation.  Where, in our learned friend’s comments, do we find the present day equivalents of Guild Socialism and Syndicalism – workers control of the means of production?  This lacuna, his ignoring of the most powerful and pervasive influence in our society, suggests that he is doing his job properly.  He could, if the truth be told, do it better; for how dull is his style – full of the conventional pieties.  But it is good enough.  He is the provincial pastor who sends his congregation to sleep every Sunday; allowing the king and his court to rule comfortably during the rest of the week:

Cameron badly wants to win the election, and a big idea, however tainted its source, however underexamined and ill-thought-out, is a useful thing to brandish at the electorate, especially if it provides a cloak of nobility and ‘ethos’ for the old Conservative ambition to take a cleaver and sunder the connection between the words ‘welfare’ and ‘state’. Stripped of its obscurantist rhetoric and foggy sermonising, Red Tory issues a moral licence to government to free itself from the expensive business of dispensing social services and to dump them on the ‘third sector’ of charities, voluntary organisations, non-profits and the like.  (from Cameron’s Crank, by Jonathan Raban)

[i] When the personalisation agenda was first announced a couple of years ago I attended a number of conferences were directors of charities were getting very excited about the future.  They thought it applied to them.  However, my view has always been that while some parts will be transferred to these companies; a lot will go to the multi-nationals.  For the personalisation agenda is the mechanism by which the social services are to be broken down into its constituent parts, enabling them to sold on the market.  For an excellent analysis of the mechanisms by which some of our public services have already been privatised see Colin Leys, Market Driven Politics.  For a wider view of the WTO and “free trade” generally see Mark Curtis.
[ii] It is strange how ideas of the Sixties New Left have been watered down and repackaged by the New Right.  There is an explanation which I will discuss somewhere else.
[iii] She was an employee of a housing association; but there are many who will work for local councils.  Of course, as Mr Leach comments show, housing associations are also part of the state, albeit in a more indirect way.
[iv] For example the Kobe earthquake in Japan in 1995.  There is a fascinating discussion by Kenneth Oye here

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