Tuesday, February 08, 2011

The bonfire of the charities

Stories like this one are becoming familiar, even mundane:

The government's spending cuts are "destroying" volunteering and undermining its "big society" vision, the head of a leading charity has said.

But there will be more of them, and they’ll keep mattering, because they embody the central flaw of Cameronism.

In economics, the government believes in the notion of ‘crowding out’: if there’s less state, there’ll be more growth. But ‘the state’ and ‘the economy’ are not intrinsically rivals, fighting a zero-sum game: they interact in a variety of ways, positive and negative. Indeed, they blur into each other in so many places that while we can talk of them distinctly they shouldn’t be thought of as wholly separate entities. Labour warns that cutting the state too far, too fast will harm growth.

The same applies to ‘the state’ and ‘society’ (the latter per se is a sprawling, amorphous concept; I’m focusing here on the more formal institutions of ‘civil society’). Here, David Cameron has for years been flogging the crowding-out doctrine: if government does less, civil society can and will do more. But the two are very interdependent, often supportively so. Charities, membership organisations and other community bodies operate in an environment shaped by government policies as much as by social norms, and in turn the work they do weaves the social fabric that serves as a context for government action.

And of course a good deal of voluntary-sector funding comes from the state.

The recession means greater demands on many charities and fewer public donations for them to work with, so government money becomes all the more crucial. But of course the government’s cutting its support for charities. This does not look promising.

“But there’s the deficit,” they say. “We need to make cuts, and those, alas, are going to hurt.” Plenty of people may accept that – and perhaps even that the speed and scale of cuts George Osborne has chosen luckily happen to be exactly right. What doesn’t really wash, though, is to simultaneously play the ‘crowding out’ card and argue that less government money for the voluntary sector will strengthen it.

Civil society minister Nick Hurd says:

This is a government absolutely determined to try and help a sector that has become arguably too dependent on the state, to manage through a painful transition into a future where we see a lot of opportunity for it, not least in terms of delivering public services.

He nods to the pain (which is certain and looming), but puts most stress on the sunlit uplands. I think he truly believes in them, but they sound vague to me. The basic assumption is that the state is (on balance) a threat to civil society. If I’m right, this is also the fatal flaw: a government programme based on this assumption will falter and fail.

Piotr Brzenzinski says that “Labour has yet to come up with an alternative to the Big Society, or even a substantive critique of the idea.” But that, in the end, may not be the point. Labour won power on the promise of providing social justice and a strong economy. It lost power because too many people judged that it hadn’t, and because Cameron promised to succeed where Labour failed. Likewise, to defeat Cameron, it may be better not to argue that the general idea of a more plural and decentralised public realm is wrong but to explain why he’s mucking it up and how Labour would do it better.

Showing that government cuts lead to a bonfire of the charities may help to do this. Arguing that the state can help voluntary and community organisations to flourish may help to rehabilitate it in the public eye.

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