Cameron’s “Big Society” and its Discontents

by Pete Peterson on April 9, 2010 · 46 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Culture, High & Low,Economics & Empire,Politics & Power

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It was during a recent visit to see my father in Far North Queensland, Australia, that I learned how the Commonwealth understands subsidiarity. In a local radio call-in show, an area citizen attacked the Mayor of Cairns (pop. 100,000) for not preventing a spate of late night crimes. In true Aussie fashion, the Mayor dismissed the caller: “Sorry, mate, that’s not my job. All the police are State Police. You need to take that up with the folks down in Brisbane.” Brisbane is Queensland’s capital, of course, and a 22-hour drive south. In the fundamentally local policy question of public safety, decisions in Cairns and surrounding communities are being made at a distance comparable to that between the Empire State Building and Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Nebraska.

The Brits never understood federalism.  Governing today that small “blessed plot” it could be argued that this fact is just the result of its limited geography. After all, even when one takes in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, the UK is only slightly larger than Oregon – why would you need that subdivided in to states or provinces, much less other institutional levels? But even in the days when the Kingdom possessed real political meaning – where “the sun never set” – the British government was immensely centralized. Lost is the genius of the American Constitution, which allow for different levels of government to both customize policy for varying cultural contexts and to be accountable to the public at the closest proximity. This fact impinges on communitarianism: after all, how viable is a “community” if it is left with few public problems on which to decide for itself.  Suffice it to say, there is nothing like the 10th Amendment in British governance. For communitarians a discussion of federalism should be of primary importance, as once local policy issues from land use planning to education are becoming increasingly regionalized and federalized.

I think, at root, this is the reason why I greet with suspicion the thought of Phillip Blond’s “radical communitarian civic conservatism” (his words) being translated into American.  I am arguing here that without a deep commitment to mediating political institutions – not just civic ones – Blond’s policy prescriptions border on universalist, or at least statist (at the highest level) in their application. Throughout his speeches and policy suggestions, a question gnaws: “A National Government is going to do all this?” From his call “to break up all the big-box retailers” to his push for controlling local government purchasing policies, communitarian ideas that would sound fine to me if carried out by a state government or a town planning commission suddenly appear oppressive.  I can’t seem to get the Orwellian thought of a “National Department of Bigness” out of my head – where everything is kept small and local…except the Department.

Most know that Blond and other Red Tories have been advising the Conservative Party candidate for Prime Minister in the UK, David Cameron. Cameron was present at the launch of Blond’s thinktank, ResPublica, and while he did not attend the release of Blond’s latest book, Red Tory, Cameron’s speech last week, which follows on a similar talk last November, announcing the framework for his domestic agenda – entitled “Big Society” – shows Blond’s unmistakable influence. As Daniel Johnson wrote recently in Britain’s Standpoint magazine: “There is no doubt about Blond’s debt to Cameron. Much more important is: how much does Cameron owe to Blond? On the strength of the Big Society speech, the answer is: quite a lot.”

I invite you to watch last week’s speech as well as reading the eight-page “Big Society” white paper. While I have followed Cameron for the last couple year’s, and liked him – even to the point of proposing him as a candidate to be our next Governor – I find the “Big Society” proposal to be a profoundly disturbing and internally inconsistent policy document.  How else can one describe a memo by a Conservative Party that celebrates Burke, Saul Alinsky, and John F. Kennedy’s first inaugural address (“Ask not what your country can do for you…)?

Broken up into three sections – public service reform, local community empowerment, and creating “culture change to support the work of neighborhood groups” – I want to focus here on these last two as they relate somewhat to the work I do, consulting with local governments and non-profits on deliberative policy-making processes. Here are some of the highlights from “Big Society’s” goal to “stimulate the creation and development of neighborhood groups in every area”:

  1. “We will establish National Centres for Community Organising.” Setting a target of training 5,000 independent community organizers (a “neighborhood army”) during the next Parliament, this part of the “Big Society” proposal will “help communities establish and operate neighborhood groups.” To be more specific in what kind of “neighborhood groups” we’re talking about here, Cameron qualifies: “In the US, the community organizing endowment established by Saul Alinsky has trained generations of community organizers, including President Obama.”
  2. The “Conservative government will create a National Citizens’ Service to bring together sixteen year olds from across the country in a two-month programme where they can learn what it means to be socially responsible, to serve the community, and to get on and get along with people from different backgrounds.”
  3. The Conservative government will “establish an annual national ‘Big Society Day’ to mark the end of the week of social action, with national and local events…Making the ‘Big Society Day’ a success will require a national and whole-government effort. A Conservative government will use all the levers at its disposal to ensure that the ‘Big Society Day’ becomes a mass-participation event.”
  4. “A Conservative government will encourage more civil servants to play an active role in their local communities…we transform the civil service into a national ‘civic service’. We will drive this behaviour change throughout the civil service by making regular community service, particularly in the most deprived areas, a key element in staff appraisals.”

And, finally, a call from our next Conservative leader: “Our ambition for the UK is clear: we want every adult in the country to be an active member of an active neighbourhood group.”

I’m not making this up. To be fair, there are some interesting policy proposals having to do with devolving funding to local civic organizations, improved accountability for public services, and turning over schools and libraries to civil society.  But as one who works with local officials regularly, several glaring lights – red of course – to these proposals appear.

One wonders if Cameron, et al. has ever read Alinsky.  I speculate when I see this later in the memo: “As in the US and countries around the world, these community organizers will help bring communities together…to address common problems.” Really? This is the man who once wrote, “If you have a vast organization, parade it before the enemy [aka, City Hall], openly show your power. If your organization is small, do what Gideon did: conceal the members in the dark but raise a clamor that will make the listener believe that your organization numbers many more that it does. If your organization is too tiny even for noise, stink up the place.” Will this be the mantra of the cadre of 5,000 to be turned loose on England’s towns and cities in the next few years? You want to do your civic duty and become a mayor or councilperson when 45 Nationally-trained, and initially, Nationally-sponsored “community organisers” show up in your shire? No thanks.

The “civic service” reform idea also sounds oxymoronic. The British are going to pay administrative staff to “volunteer” on local projects and evaluate their job performance based on this participation? Cameron seems to think that it is important that these “civic servants” set an example for the public, but I fail to see this result. If the fireman works in a local homeless shelter, who could be blamed for thinking that he’s just doing this to make chief?

At one time, Cameron called himself the “heir to Blair”, and reading through the “Big Society” paper one can see this continuity. Some might remember Blair’s ties to the left-communitarian, Amitai Etzioni, in the mid-90’s, which led to the creation of a similar sounding “Big Tent” domestic policy. In a 2000 speech, Blair said, “At the heart of my beliefs is the idea of community. I don’t just mean the villages, towns and cities in which we live. I mean that our fulfillment as individuals lies in a decent society of others. My argument to you today is that the renewal of community is the answer to the challenges of a changing world.” Blair, like Cameron, and Clinton for that matter believed in the “third way”, but Cameron has more fully defined it as nationally coordinated communitarianism.

Etzioni, too, finds federalism problematic. In his books From Empire to Community and The New Golden Rule, Etzioni seems to allow devolution of policy-making responsibilities only as a step towards greater centralization within a country or as a method of creating a “supranational communities”.  The “National” or “Federal” government always appears to be his default.  While celebrating the capacities of “communities” and civil society to promote the “common good”, the only other governing institutions that seem to exist in his philosophy are either national or supranational. Multiple levels of elected institutions with separate policy-making powers appear to provide unnecessary hurdles to Etzioni’s quest for the “civic state”.

Which brings us back to Cameron and his “Big Society”.  Left unsaid in Cameron’s prescriptions is whether directions like the “National Citizens’ Service”, and “neighborhood group” membership will be compulsory or just recommended. In reading this entire proposal, I am reminded by Tocqueville’s words: “A government can no more suffice on its own to maintain and renew the circulations of [associative] sentiments and ideas in a great people than to conduct all its industrial undertakings. As soon as it tries to leave the political sphere to project itself on this new track, it will exercise an insupportable tyranny even without wishing to; for a government knows only how to dictate precise rules; it imposes the sentiments and the ideas that it favors, and it is always hard to distinguish its counsels from its orders (ital. mine).”

To Tocqueville, it matters whether “Big Society” is coming from the top-down or bottom-up – and from what level of government. Contrary to the left communitarians like Etzioni, a robust federalism could improve communitarian policy by allowing for local flexibility, and ease its acceptance by allowing it to originate in more local (and often more trusted) governing institutions.  Cameron and the Red Tories are right to decry the evils of monopolistic capitalism, but without some federalist considerations, “Big Society” appears to attack it with monopolistic communitarianism.

{ 46 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Wessexman April 9, 2010 at 7:13 am

Excellent article, there is most certainly a need for intermediate levels of public gov’t to foster a truly communitarian society. Britain does have these, even aside from the nations of England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Cornwall there are the locales, counties and also historic regions like Wessex and Mercia. It would be perfectly possible, at least gradually, for Britain to have something of federal structure. It once was relatively decentralised, in the early 17th century the great Earl Clarendon’s mother could boast of never having been to London and in the 18th century Whigs and Tories from different counties could come together to support each other for various positions like speaker of the commons.

I’m unsure why anyone is putting much faith into Cameron though, he is seems unlikely to deliver from where I’m sitting. He seems to combine Thatcherism and Blairism in a nauseating mixture, I fear almost as much for the effects his gov’t on my country as I do New Labour(or heaven forbid the Lib dems!). Like Peter Hitchens I almost want Labour to win so that a 4th defeat for the Tories might have the slenderest chance of creating a genuine conservative rejuvination in the party.

avatar Bruce Smith April 9, 2010 at 11:14 am

I think you misinterpret Philip Blond’s intention which is more in the nature of a “set a thief to catch a thief” initiative whereby local, or central, state financed facilitators set out to wrestle control and development of services from the state, be it local or central, and return it to the members of the community with the hope that a sense of direct ownership will improve pride and harmony within the community. There is no reason why if successful the number of facilitators cannot be reduced over time. Of course, up will jump the Agency Theorists who will tell us that the facilitators will have no incentive to work themselves out of a job but you could say that about the police or a business that manufactures goods of poor quality so that their built-in obsolescence forces further early purchase of replacements. Of course, if the issue of ensuring adequate income levels was tackled by recognizing that an internal drive of capitalism is to depress income in order to accumulate capital and consequently a means of achieving better balance is required then perhaps the volume of ameliorative services required in a community would not be so high.

avatar Marchmaine April 9, 2010 at 12:43 pm

I’m not sure that it is misinterpreting Blond’s intention so much as staring wide-eyed at Blond’s intention.

It is certainly true that distributism has assumed that reform of government policy could open doors to the growth of distributed ownership; but even Belloc worried in _The Servile State_ that the loss of the customs and habits of ownership would make such policies irrelevant.

97 years further down the road, not only are the customs and habits gone, so too are the underlying communities and social supports… owing, of course, to the relentless attacks of the centralizing state.

On the one hand, Blond is correct to recognize that without resurrecting community, devolution and/or distributed ownership is impossible… but the task of rebuilding community via government efforts is what shocks one when one unpacks the Blond proposals.

The diagnosis is correct, but this is well beyond the debate on incrementalist state sponsored distributism… we’re in the la-la land of community building… and that is what strikes me as folly: to think that government can re-build community.

avatar Bruce Smith April 9, 2010 at 1:44 pm

I think if you’ve ever been involved in wresting control for a community out of the hands of the state whilst being paid as a facilitator by the state you will understand that it’s possible. Of course there’s likely to be resistance from die-hard socialist politicians on the grounds of some faux democratic accountability argument that doesn’t actually work very well in practice but they are on the way out just like the neo-liberal capitalists.

avatar Russell Arben Fox April 9, 2010 at 4:00 pm

Mr. Peterson,

An excellent, thoughtful post. Allow me to express a couple of deep disagreements, however.

To Tocqueville, it matters whether “Big Society” is coming from the top-down or bottom-up – and from what level of government.

I don’t think this is quite correct–it may very well accurately describe what Tocqueville would have thought, but I’m not sure one can so easily stipulate that this is what he thought, because “Big Society” simply wasn’t a topic of thought in the early 1800s. Which is just another way of saying, I suppose, that one cannot get around how human affections and interactions–our “associative sentiments,” to use Tocqueville’s own words–have changed over time when one ponders the proper remedy for improving social relations. Technology, equality, mobility–all of these have transformed what individuals feel and do. There was no “mass society” in Tocqueville’s day, but there is now–which means that social concerns arguably have to be treated, at least sometimes, if they are to be treated at all, in mass terms as well. Are we certain that Tocqueville’s warnings about the enervating power of an overweening, overly attendant, centralizing democratic government apply with equal force to any government attempt to attend to social concerns? Perhaps they do, but if so, I’m not sure it’s something we can conclude from Tocqueville’s reasoning alone.

Cameron and the Red Tories are right to decry the evils of monopolistic capitalism, but without some federalist considerations, “Big Society” appears to attack it with monopolistic communitarianism.

If monopolistic communitarianism simply means the concentration of all power into one hands, then obvious that’s simply more statism, and is to be avoided. But I’m not sure you’re being fair in describing it that way. There seems to be a basic confusion here. Is “Big Society” to be attacked solely because it is big, or because, as something that is “big,” it will in fact not be able to do anything about the social concerns it purports to address? That is, is the problem the brute fact of size–that fact that Britain, to say nothing of the United States, is now basically a mass society, and assumes/demands that responses to mass society will be worked out on a similar scale–or is it that the track record of responses to mass problems is less than impressive?

As someone who occasionally describes himself as a left communitarian, I’ll confess that my concerns focus on the latter. I assume–perhaps wrongly–that since much of that which modern people orient themselves towards (economically, culturally, and politically) exists on a broader than local scale, then there is no necessary reason not to orchestrate responses to human orientations of a similar scale. Now obviously, much of which happens on the national scale is terrible. But if someone has the right ends in mind–community empowerment, local sovereignty, general civic republican–I don’t see any principled reason not to take it seriously. To be sure, there can be plenty of practical objections; the lack of federal and/or subsidiarity structures in Britain perhaps being one of them. But there are some who think that any “monopolitic” expression of community is by definition flawed, and I just don’t agree. (After all, can’t small, intimate communities also be “monopolized” by their own local tyrannies?)

avatar D.W. Sabin April 9, 2010 at 5:20 pm

I would hope that the uniforms for our new Celebration of Cadres might be a little more martial and colorful than what the Bolshys and Mao concocted for their “Big Society”.

Something with flame stitched cowboy boots, epaulettes and a nice baseball hat would be great with a “have a nice day” emblem stamped on the personal baton’s leather grip.

If they can make it all happen via the buttons on a remote control, we’ll be set.

As to the chance that small intimate communities might be monopolized by their own local tyrannies…sure, check in on any town run by the Mob or some degenerate Good Old Boy network but at least when they are small, moving out of it aint such a big nor impossible trip. Neither is mobilizing an effective opposition.

This is not a trick question. Has there ever been a truly moral State? Have there ever been a people who selected their government to be moral arbiter see this faith in State-controlled morality long prevail? Somebody please surprise me.

avatar Wessexman April 9, 2010 at 7:43 pm

I understand Marchmaine. As TS Eliot puts it in his essay on a Christian society we cannot create a Christian society but we can at least remove the obstacles and set up the necessary playing field. So certainly we shouldn’t use the state too much but it has its role and and it seems to me we might as well try and gradually use it to set up a playing field and remove the obstacles.

avatar pnpeterson April 10, 2010 at 12:23 pm

@ Russell (if I may, and please, Pete):

Thanks for your comments. In part I could have addressed them in a longer version of this piece (something I was advised to write), so now the rest of the story…

I stand by my Tocqueville quotation. Of course there’s always some leap in applying his 1833 words into a 2010 context, but to posit, “There was no “mass society” in Tocqueville’s day, but there is now–which means that social concerns arguably have to be treated, at least sometimes, if they are to be treated at all, in mass terms as well”, I think argues for a further emphasis on subsidiarity and federalism not less. I argue that, without federalist considerations, there is no such thing as governing in “mass terms” – just centralized decision-making with mass implications.

What does this look like in “Big Society”? How about this gem from p. 6 of the policy document: “We intend to define a neighborhood group as follows[4 bullet points, here's one]…have a named leader who is willing to supply their contact details and address for enquiries – required to abide by a neighborhood ethical code (to be developed through consultation). This code of conduct will protect neighborhood groups against extremist causes.”

What government supports it also regulates. Again, this would mean less if the mediating political institutions I propose were handling this, but to coordinate this from some “Department of Neighborhood Groups” in London only contributes to centralized, and clumsy, policy prescriptions: a “neighborhood ethical code”? “extremist causes”?

You allow, “To be sure, there can be plenty of practical objections”. “Big Society’s” policy implications are central to my essay. I note that you didn’t raise the great name of Saul Alinsky in your post. I reiterate that to place him in the same company with Burke is either ignorant or arrogant, and it strikes at the practicality question. It is the difference between “little platoons” and “little dragoons”, between “community building” and “community organizing”, between self governance and other governance. I can certainly concede that Alinsky’s work in places like Chicago and Rochester helped to gain more responsive government, but his work was not about supporting the Boy Scouts in a park clean up, it was about protesting City Hall so they would clean up the park.

Concluding, “Big Society” isn’t problematic because it’s “big”; quite the contrary, it’s problematic because the actual policy-making bodies are so small relative to their nationwide jurisdiction. Again, the central political science question addressed through federalism.

avatar Bruce Smith April 10, 2010 at 1:29 pm
avatar Christopher Carr April 11, 2010 at 2:59 am

Yeah, the Federal Drug War has done wonders for local communities.

avatar John Gorentz April 11, 2010 at 8:55 pm

“There was no “mass society” in Tocqueville’s day, but there is now”

Russell Arben Fox, could you explain this? I am not familiar with the term “mass society.” Your statement sounds like something I might disagree with, but that’s just a wild guess.

avatar Wessexman April 11, 2010 at 10:58 pm

The mass society refers to an atomistic society where there is just a heap of autonomous, impotent individuals given form simply by mass culture, like consumerism, and mass politics like modern statism. It is almost the state we have reached.

avatar Russell Arben Fox April 12, 2010 at 6:54 am

John,

Wessexman’s answer is essentially correct, though I wouldn’t want to load too much baggage onto a term I came up with simply to respond to Pete. I just wanted to get across the idea that 200 years ago there was comparative very little of the sort of wealth, technology, and mobility which would allow people the freedom to choose (and, frequently, disregard) their own affections and associations they way they can today. There was no “mass” basis for anything; modern notions of individualism were nowhere near as extensive as they are today. Hence my reluctance to grant that Tocqueville’s observations can be broadly applied in every particular.

Peter,

Thank you for a generous, thoughtful response; it is much appreciated. Let me see if I can continue to tug on a couple of thread’s of your argument, though.

I think ["mass society"] argues for a further emphasis on subsidiarity and federalism not less. I argue that, without federalist considerations, there is no such thing as governing in “mass terms” – just centralized decision-making with mass implications.

Now here, I see you advancing a stronger claim than you consistently seemed to be in your original post: that mass society is, fundamentally, ungovernable, or at least ungovernable in anything like a democratic manner; that any such society must be divided and apportioned out along federal lines. Is this, in fact, your claim? Or am I taking you too far, and you would actually maintain that mass societies can get along well and democratically with some matters centralized and some matters left to federal/subsidiarian institutions?

[These neighborhood regulations] would mean less if the mediating political institutions I propose were handling this, but to coordinate this from some “Department of Neighborhood Groups” in London only contributes to centralized, and clumsy, policy prescriptions: a “neighborhood ethical code”? “extremist causes”?

Again, maybe I’m misreading you, but with this passage you seem to go against your earlier claim, and retreat to the position that the problem with a mass society is that mass decisions are likely to be “clumsy.” And I admit they often are, and perhaps that clumsiness is more than enough to argue against nearly any kind of central decisionmaking entirely! But if your concerns center on the inefficiency/unresponsiveness/whatever of centralized operations, as opposed to some principled belief in the absolute impossibility of imagining such, then you’re obligated–or so it seems to me–in allowing other, somethings different goals and aim, to play a balancing role in the mix. An obvious example from the United States: the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The EEOC is a prime example of a bureaucratic regulator which operates without much respect for local considerations or federal bodies. Yet, do those women and minorities who have benefited from its protection of their rights really complain about such? Would they have trusted state agencies to do the same for them? Doubtful.

Now, that doesn’t such complaints aren’t warranted–they are! But they have to be balanced against other goals–other, you might say, “egalitarian” communities which said national regulations are designed to build. If Cameron’s “Big Society” is designed to similarly promote certain communitarian goals (call them “British” goals, if you like, including such things as more equally robust and economically secure neighborhoods throughout the length of the country), do we assume from the outset its means will always poison the ends? Maybe it will–but I’m not sure Tocqueville proves that.

Great comment about Alinsky; I agree with you completely there. Community organizing is all about getting your community recognized by and responded to by the state, not necessarily strengthening the community on its own terms (though there is some evidence that organizing can have that byproduct, sometimes). And in the end, I wouldn’t disagree with you at all about the need for federal institutions. The only real theoretical difference between us then, I think, comes down to what we think should be done in the meantime, a meantime during which, for a variety of sociological, economic, and cultural reasons, the real affective community support for federal institutions has been (in many Western democracies, anyway) mostly replaced by expectations and assumptions which are better met by institutions designed for mass bodies. (Witness the way the U.S. Senate has increased come to act like, and increasingly been expected to behave like, another House of Representatives.) I’m not a huge fan of Cameron’s ideas; but I am curious about them, and don’t think they are necessarily compromised in their worthy intentions by the problem of bigness entirely from the start.

avatar John Médaille April 12, 2010 at 8:57 am

I think it is a stretch to say that the people of “The United Kingdom of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland” do not understand Federalism. They may not understand American Federalism, which would put them on the same plane with most Americans. But Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales each have their own Parliament; certain functions have devolved to the local parliaments, so that devolution is more of a reality there than here.

When I hear the complaints against Alinsky, I suspect that the complainers haven’t read him. Reveille for Radicals is mostly about building local self-reliance, about the community handling its own problems, and gaining the power to do so. There are certainly things in Alinsky that are objectionable, but who could object to that? Is that not the Front Porch ideal?

One can smile at the idea of the national gov’t trying to organize local communities, yet this is not as crazy as it seems. In a society that has a long tradition of rule from the center, it may take the center to revitalize the local institutions.

avatar Bruce Smith April 12, 2010 at 9:18 am

Well said John. Innovation comes from ideas which are then implemented by individuals, groups and institutions.

avatar John Gorentz April 12, 2010 at 9:44 am

In a society that has a long tradition of rule from the center, it may take the center to revitalize the local institutions.

Is there a historical example that we could learn from?

avatar pnpeterson April 12, 2010 at 12:31 pm

@ Russell:

Thanks for the opportunity to clarify. To your questions…

“I see you advancing a stronger claim than you consistently seemed to be in your original post: that mass society is, fundamentally, ungovernable, or at least ungovernable in anything like a democratic manner; that any such society must be divided and apportioned out along federal lines. Is this, in fact, your claim?”

I wouldn’t say “mass society is, fundamentally, ungovernable”, I’m making much more of a specific point about this specific national government and this specific policy proposal. Back to the original Tocqueville quotation, I’m agreeing that there is a “political sphere” as well as a social/associative “sphere”, and while there isn’t a “wall” between them – obviously our Federal and State governments deliver services through non-profits all the time – I am arguing here that “Big Society” crosses that line towards engendering and, possibly, regulating the associative sphere. I say “possibly” because Cameron’s actual policy proposal leaves that question unanswered – again hearkening back to Tocqueville’s point about government’s inability – because of its inherent and rightful police powers – to be an instiller of associative mores.

This leads to your next question:
“An obvious example from the United States: the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The EEOC is a prime example of a bureaucratic regulator which operates without much respect for local considerations or federal bodies.”
To equate the EEOC with “Big Society” relates to my point above. The EEOC is an enforcer of Federal laws that have been passed by representative bodies. As such, I see that it exists wholly within the “political sphere”. Even after reading Cameron’s speech, reading the policy proposal and several commentaries, I’m not exactly sure what “Big Society” is…he “defines” what a “neighborhood group” is…does this mean it will be regulated? He proposes that all Britons should be a member of such a group…will this become law? We don’t know. Now when he proposes to create “National Centres for Community Organising” and change civil (or “civic”) service job evaluation, “Big Society” moves directly into policy, and, I am arguing, policy that is either naïve or much worse.

I would say a better institutional analogy than the EEOC, would be ACORN. This organization would not exist without Federal funding…and, apparently, isn’t. But worse, imagine a Federally mandated ACORN that had the “full faith and credit” of the Federal government, training “neighborhood armies” to be sent out to a town near you? To me, this is scary stuff.

@ John M.
You posit: “But Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales each have their own Parliament; certain functions have devolved to the local parliaments, so that devolution is more of a reality there than here.”

I join Wessexman (above) in disagreeing with you here, but, even if you’re right about comparative federalisms, you’re helping to make my point: If “Big Society” contained those considerations for local parliaments, I wouldn’t have such a problem with it. But Cameron’s speech and the policy proposal demonstrate no devolving policy-making/customizing powers here to these more local institutions. Wait ‘til that “National Centre for Community Organising” shows up in Belfast or Glasgow or Swansea; there is no allocation for local parliamentary control of these institutions.

Again: ”When I hear the complaints against Alinsky, I suspect that the complainers haven’t read him. Reveille for Radicals is mostly about building local self-reliance, about the community handling its own problems, and gaining the power to do so.

You’re being a little slippery here. As I’m the only one who’s mentioned Alinsky (aside from Cameron himself), I’m assuming you’re accusing me of not having read him. In fact I have read Rules for Radicals, but, more importantly, I work with city governments that have been attacked by Alinskyite groups. To say that Alinsky is “mostly about building local self-reliance” is just not true. I certainly allow in my last answer to Russell that Alinsky’s IAF did help some local communities to gain concessions from corporations and governments, but Alinsky’s framework is far more comprehensive and, in further practice, far more destructive of self-governance principles.

Alinsky’s tactics are based fundamentally on deception and condescension. In Rules he writes, “Tactics must begin within the experience of the middle class, accepting their aversion to rudeness, vulgarity, and conflict. Start them easy, don’t scare them off.” In words we heard echoed by Van Jones, Alinsky writes, “To escape their frustration they grasp at a last hope that their children will get that college education and realize those unfulfilled. They are a fearful people, who feel threatened from all sides.” Of the “organizer”, Alinsky defines: “While the organizer proceeds on the basis of questions the community leaders always regard his judgment above their own. They believe he knows the right tactics, that’s why he is their organizer.”

The problem for Alinsky – the Rousseauian – is never the self, but the institutions – both corporate and governmental. People must be “awakened” to this “reality” by the all-knowing, all-seeing organizer. As for some of the local institutions most conservatives espouse, Alinsky is less than complimentary: “They [the Have-Nots] hate the establishment of the Haves with its arrogant opulence, its police, its courts, and its churches. Justice, morality, law, and order, are mere words when used by the Haves, which justify and secure their status quo.”

All of this could be allowed on pragmatic grounds if Alinsky’s community organizing methodology actually worked, but I direct your attention to a recent story by Heather MacDonald about how the results of community organizing in President Obama’s old South Side neighborhood in Chicago. It is a depressing illustration of how Alinskyite efforts have resulted in near total dependence on government institutions with “youth advocates” work with truants to make sure they are surrounded by an array of “wraparound social services”. As MacDonald adds, the program “represents the final stage of Alinskyism: its co-optation by the government-funded social-services industry.”

MacDonald goes on to state that this “final stage” goes on to become the “tutelary power” of which Tocqueville warns: “Obama came to Roseland and Altgeld Gardens with the fanciful intention of organizing the ‘community’ to demand benefits from a hostile power structure. But here’s that same power sturcuture not just encouraging demands from below but providing the community with its own government-funded advocates to ‘broker and advocate for each youth and family…thus ensuring constant pressure to increase government services.”

This is what the Conservative Mr. Cameron wants to spread across the UK? No wonder he’s foundering in the polls.

avatar John Médaille April 12, 2010 at 1:46 pm

Pete, my comments were not directed at anyone in particular, but at the general level of comments about Alinsky. You tell me you’ve read him, and I have no reason to doubt you. But I have reason to quarrel with your interpretation. For one thing, if Alinsky is concerned with the nature of instituions, rather than just individuals, doesn’t that find its echo on the Front Porch? And if offending certain middle class standards offends you, then many writers on the Porch must give you equal offense. But to the point, Alinsky was very aware of the debilitating effects of being dependent on the government. In fact, he quotes Tocqueville on the point: “It is vain to summon a people which has been rendered so dependent on the central power, to choose from time to time the representatives of that power; this rare and brief exercise of their free choice, however important it may be, will not prevent them from gradually losing the faculties of thinking, feeling, and acting for themselves, and thus gradually falling below the level of humanity. (45)” I also think you ought to check out chapter six, “Community Traditions and Organizations.” It is not for nothing that Jacques Maritain said of him, “I consider him to be one of the few really great men of our century.”

My disagreement with Alinsky is that he usually uses the term “democracy” where a Front Porcher would use the term “community.” He seems to view community as growing out of (local) democracy, whereas I see it the other way round. But that is not to dispute his goals.

As for Cameron and Blond, they actually advocate giving local groups control over their own resources, allowing them to spend their own public monies. This is the essence of devolution, for without monetary power everything else is a sham. If the local power is limited to passing petitions to the central authority, it is no power at all. Only if it can spend its own money does it have real power.

avatar pnpeterson April 12, 2010 at 2:17 pm

@ John M.

So your “comments were not directed at anyone in particular”? I think I do “have reason to doubt you”, but, anyway…

It’s all well and good that Alinsky quotes Tocqueville (even the one to whom Alinsky dedicates Reveille can quote Scripture), and, again, I allow that some communities have taken some “power” from corporations and governments, but my dispute is more about the long-term policy effects of Alinsky’s work. I invite you again to read Heather MacDonald’s City Journal piece about how these policies “work” over several decades. After reading, I’d be happy to have another discussion about Alinsky’s caution of the “debilitating effects of being dependent on government”.

Ideas have consequences, and I’m not so hung up on what Alinsky says as what his policies mean in practice. And, again, to compare Alinsky to Burke – as Cameron, and, by inference, Blond do – is, again, either ignorant (they don’t know) or arrogant (they don’t think we know).

To your, “As for Cameron and Blond, they actually advocate giving local groups control over their own resources”. Have you read the 8pp policy document? The National Government will define what a “neighborhood group” (is this a title? If so, why not use capital letters?) is. They will determine what “extremist” groups are, and make sure that all “neighborhood groups” abide by an “ethical code” established and tracked by them. Ah, Liberty! This appears to combine the worst of ACORN and the Patriot Act in one policy.

This from a Conservative? Brilliant…as they say.

avatar John Médaille April 12, 2010 at 2:23 pm

Pete. People who disagree with your interpretation of Alinsky are “ignorant” and “arrogant.” Okay. Get it.

avatar Bruce Smith April 12, 2010 at 2:48 pm

Also to be born in mind is that community groups becoming service stakeholders may not wish to have full responsibility for that service but want to partner with the state, non-profit or private enterprise.

avatar pnpeterson April 12, 2010 at 3:01 pm

Got to throw a flag there, John: cheap shot, and not what I said.

It is Cameron/Blond’s connecting, nay, conflating the philosophies of Burke and Alinsky that I find so offensive. As I’ve said, there is a difference between “community organizing” and “community building”.

I guess you can square that circle, but I can’t.

avatar John Médaille April 12, 2010 at 3:51 pm

Pete, It seems to me that is precisely what you said. But then, you say a lot of things and throw a lot of flags, and I am somewhat busy right now, it being tax time and all.

avatar pnpeterson April 12, 2010 at 4:04 pm

@ John:

Are you practicing Alinsky’s Rule #5?

(“Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon.”)

avatar John Médaille April 12, 2010 at 4:18 pm

Pete. Naw, it’s Rove’s Rule #1: When a man’s working hard to appear foolish, it’s best to leave him to his work.

avatar Russell Arben Fox April 12, 2010 at 4:18 pm

Pete, I’ve read the McDonald piece, and I don’t think she makes the case she seems to think she’s making, or that you hold her to have made. Perhaps I missed some chain in her argument, or perhaps it depends upon a familiarity with Alinsky that I don’t have, but on my reading, what she consistently, thoroughly shows is that Alinsky’s approach to thinking about the problems of mass unemployment and the underclass depended implicitly upon intact family structures and community associations–the absence of which renders what she refers to as “Alisnkyism” or the “Alinskyite mindset” as simply irrelevant to the needs of Chicago’s poor families. I don’t see the connection between Alinsky’s organizing and the cult of dependency which she describes as the “final stage of Alinskyism”; I see, at most, an inability of Alinsky’s methodology to prevent broken families from gravitating around and becoming dependent upon the organizations which that methodology employs.

But this is a rather small, side dispute in the larger argument that you are making. I can see your point about the political sphere arguably being a distinct animal from the “associative sphere,” though how one would articulate that point doesn’t seem entirely obvious to me. (How would we characterize, for example, AmeriCorps?) But you are touching on something important; I’ll have to think about it a bit for whenever I get around to my own post on all these debates involving Cameron and Blond.

avatar John Médaille April 12, 2010 at 4:48 pm

Russell, it seems to me that any community organization that has goals one doesn’t like is labeled “Alinksyite” no matter how tenuous the connection might be. I would be more impressed with such arguments if they could quote something of Alinsky’s which leads to a culture of dependency, or that they should concentrate on getting rewards from the govmint; but then, that would mostly describe corporate lobbying, not community organizing. As it is, the usual quotes quarrel with his methods, mainly on the grounds that they are successful.

Alinsky dealt mainly with city gov’ts which were loathe to allocate resources to poorer sections of cities, and corporate interests which preyed on the poor. Sounds pretty Front Porch to me. I recommend that Front Porchers actually read Reveille for Radicals; it may come in handy one day.

Soon.

avatar John Gorentz April 12, 2010 at 7:23 pm

In a society that has a long tradition of rule from the center, it may take the center to revitalize the local institutions.

Me: “Is there a historical example that we could learn from?”

The silence on this question is informative. Thank you.

avatar pnpeterson April 12, 2010 at 7:46 pm

@ Russell: Thanks for reading the MacDonald link and your follow up. To your response:

” I don’t see the connection between Alinsky’s organizing and the cult of dependency which she describes as the “final stage of Alinskyism”; I see, at most, an inability of Alinsky’s methodology to prevent broken families from gravitating around and becoming dependent upon the organizations which that methodology employs.”

You are saying a lot here. The point I’m arguing is that “Alinsky’s methodology” is fundamentally unable to answer most, if not all, of the moral issues that underlie self-governance. Alinsky’s Manichean framework of “Haves”, “Have Nots”, and the “Have a Little-Want Mores”. Alinsky is careful to remove any responsibility for social ills from the “Have Nots”. He quotes William James at one point in Rules: “Life is, in fact, a battle. Evil is insolent and strong; beauty enchanting but rare; goodness apt to be weak.” He begins Chapter One of Rules with this quotation from Job: “The life of man upon earth is warfare.” There is little doubt in the 200 pages that follow the James’ quotation where “Evil” lies – corporate/government institutions – and why communities of “Have Nots” must be organized (because “goodness [is] apt to be weak”, of course). To paraphrase Churchill, “We are all worms, but the ‘Have Nots’ are certainly the glow worms.”

Now, of course, some of the blame for the youth violence issue addressed in MacDonald’s piece can be laid at these institutions, but there appears in every interview (except for that one pastor), an inability to call out the one issue related to self-governance that research has shown – more than poverty, more than educational attainment – is related to youth violence: the absence of fathers in the raising of children.

Through protesting governing institutions – from police to social services to education – all have, in fact, responded by increasing their service levels. You’ll notice that one demand from community groups was even to change the lines of school districts to conform to gang lines – assuring that students would not have to cross from one neighborhood to another. All this blaming of the institutional “Haves” – a central Alinskyite tactic – with hardly a note of introspection – always outward and upward-focused.

This is what makes John’s request to “show me the quotation” ring hollow. Alinsky’s “Haves”/”Nots” framework, is inherently dependent: to gain “power”, I naturally have to have you give it to me, or I will take it from you. Lost, too, in Alinsky’s rhetoric is any definition of what a “Have” actually has. Obviously bourgeois/middle class values are to be dismissed, but Alinsky deceptively skirts the question. When the African Americans (“Have Nots”) in Rochester, NY who bring Alinsky in, protest and get middle class jobs (“Have a Little, Want Mores”) at Kodak (“Haves”), did a good thing happen here or not? Alinsky doesn’t say.

Alinsky decries the bourgeois value of social mobility, but he continues to fight for the same economic opportunities held by middle class whites. Should “Have Nots” ever become “Haves”? The City Journal article shows that Alinskyite tactics of demanding more from the “Haves” hasn’t changed the situation on the South Side. Even now that African Americans assume almost every leadership position (“Haves”) in the city, which is continuing to tailor and customize public policies to support these victims of the “Have” system, still, we have escalating youth violence.

Lost in the Alinsky Manicheanism is a thought of self-governing creationism (yes, I think I just made up that term). As an illustration, I direct your attention to Kauai. I wrote a piece on this amazing event last year. Faced with a State government that would not (they might argue, “could not”) act in response to a natural disaster, a group of citizens took matters into their own hands and took over what was forecast to be a $4MM/1 year public works project, and finished it in less than a month with all donated manpower and materials. Faced with this same dilemma, Alinsky would have organized residents and had them protest the State Capitol with stink bombs in tow. In Alinsky’s narrow view, obviously the State was the only one “Having” the “Power” to remedy the problem. These citizens never protested, they just…did it.

This is the difference between “community organizing” and “community building” – between Alinsky and Burke. This is self-governance that builds community. Let’s pray that it has not been pushed to the western coast of Hawaii’s westernmost island.

avatar Wessexman April 12, 2010 at 8:09 pm

“I think it is a stretch to say that the people of “The United Kingdom of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland” do not understand Federalism. They may not understand American Federalism, which would put them on the same plane with most Americans. But Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales each have their own Parliament; certain functions have devolved to the local parliaments, so that devolution is more of a reality there than here.”

Now I certainly think Brits could understand decentralism and some sort of federalism(I’m a Brit who supports these things!) but I wouldn’t use devolution as much of an example. Firstly the English, who are most Brits do not have their own parliament and aren’t too happy about some of the arrangements of devolution. Secondly the devolution schemes were hardly masterpieces of statecraft. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the nationalist movements in Scotland and Wales seem intent on leaving the UK simply to throw themselves on the support the EU. Call me old-fashioned but I personally think more autonomy should be linked with more self-sufficiency and responsibility not with claiming the right to more self-determination and then trying to get others, even claiming it is their duty, to fund you.

avatar John Médaille April 12, 2010 at 10:36 pm

Wessexman, what you say is true, but that only says that the English are no better at federalism than we are. I say, if Scotland wants to be Greece and whore itself to the EU, than that’s their choice. They’ve surrendered to larger powers before, and if they want to do it again, it is not my place to say them nay. Scot wha hae wi Wallace bled, can find themselves in Brussels’ bed.

John G. I didn’t realize I was under any obligation to research for you, but since you insist, I think we can cite the medieval crown setting up local and circuit courts, which are certainly important local institutions. Indeed, most local institutions exist in a wider context and are part of a chain of hierarchical institutions. That seems to me to be the normal order of gov’t in history, once you get outside the purely tribal institutions. Am I wrong?

avatar John Gorentz April 13, 2010 at 12:33 am

John M, I didn’t think I was asking you to do any research. It is inconceivable to me that a person could make a statement like you did without first weighing it against the historical record. But I’ve been starting to wonder, given all the abstractions that have been propounded on FPR the past several days without reference to specific places, times, and events. (Places. Hmmm. Maybe somebody needs to start a blog about Place.)

If you’re talking about Henry II setting up courts, my understanding is that he wasn’t creating new communities ex nihilo. He was trying to bring existing institutions, including local communities and the church, under the control of the crown. (I’m going here by memory of stuff I’ve read several years ago — mostly a long essay in American Historical Review, I’m not sure which issue.) My understanding is that a parallel movement was taking place on the European continent at the same time. But England ended up with a less centralized judicial system than France, not because Henry was trying to create vibrant local institutions, but because he just didn’t have the resources to bring the legal system under more direct control than he did. So he had to make use of what was already there.

The fact that most local institutions exist in a wider context and are sometimes subject to control from above does not in any way seem to justify the idea that one can revitalize local institutions from the center. I haven’t exactly been racking my brain trying to come up with an example of something like you describe having taken place, but I am not at the moment aware of any historical evidence to support the idea.

Well, I suppose someone might make an argument that the revitalization of Native American communities has come about because of support from the center. And there has been some support in the form of dollars. But there has also been a lessening of control from the center, allowing Native communities to exercise a kind of sovereignty over their remaining lands and communities, and keeping the state governments from interfering with it too much. I guess if I was trying to defend your concept, I would look there. But I would question where the initiative for that revitalization came from.

Sometime I should finish reading David Priestland’s book, “Stalin and the Politics of Mobilization : Ideas, Power, and Terror in Inter-war Russia” (2007). It seems Joe Stalin was trying to revitalize local communities by taking action from the center. But people didn’t respond as he had expected them to. I wouldn’t call it a success story.

Well, that book is mostly about communities of workers in industry –questions of the degree to which communities of workers could direct their own work and the degree to which they had to be controlled from elites above. But there are also kommunalki. I don’t know how intentional it was, but by forcing people into shared communal apartments, the Soviet Union ended up creating communities of a sort. Many thought such arrangements were a hell to be escaped as soon as possible, and not only because of informers. But some still exist, and some people are still nostalgic for them, not without reason. (There is a web site devoted to them at http://kommunalka.colgate.edu/. One of the persons interviewed is a single mother who appreciated the way the other residents of her kommunalka would help watch out for her daughter when she was at work, making sure the girl did her homework, etc. I would recommend that anyone who is interested in the concept of community should become familiar with them. There are a lot of Russian movies that feature both the good and bad sides of living in kommunalki, and there is much to learn from them that applies to more than Russian kommunalki. There are samples of a few of the movies on that web site.)

avatar Wessexman April 13, 2010 at 1:39 am

“Wessexman, what you say is true, but that only says that the English are no better at federalism than we are.”

Well the issues with England and devolution are complex. There is a “Tory unionist” element that wants to preserve UK unity(not just the UK but a centralist version of it.) but these exist in the Celtic nations as well, the SNP is the only major party in the Scottish party to be definitely for “independence”, and are not primarily what I’m talking about.

A lot of the problems stem from two main factors:

The first is an general perception that the current system of devolution is unfair; its gives the Scots more autonomy but doesn’t exclude them from intervening in areas which only impact England(New Labour has used Scottish labour MPs to carry bills which only effect English and Welsh Universities and healthcare for example.), there is also the perception that the funding is disproportionate and Scotland and Wales get subsidised by England(the tartan tax as it has been called.).

There is both truth and some inaccuracies in these perceptions particularly in the latter one however they are mixed with the second main reason for English annoyance which is a perception of Celtic whining, unreasonableness, anti-Englishness and championing of dubious “Braveheart” versions of British history where the English are the bad guys and everyone else the tragic oppressed. Again this perception is not completely true or false, there is certainly this element among the Celtic nations and their nationalists, I have met Cornish who like to talk about the “Cornish genocide”, but they are far from universal of these categories.

At to this common perception of the links between the main Celtic nationalist movements and Brussels and you can see why the overwhelmingly Eurosceptic English(the rest of the British nations are more Eurosceptic than most EU nations but except for Cornwall they are not quite as much so as England.) are not devolution’s greatest fans.

All in all, as someone supportive devolution(though not independence.) in general, I think us English have a right to be a miffed at the current system and the attitudes of some of the Celtic nationalists but not to the extent some English nationalists like to paint it.

“I say, if Scotland wants to be Greece and whore itself to the EU, than that’s their choice. They’ve surrendered to larger powers before, and if they want to do it again, it is not my place to say them nay. Scot wha hae wi Wallace bled, can find themselves in Brussels’ bed.”

Like so many Englishmen and Brits I’m both British and a man of my nation(not to mention my region, County and locale.). Though no old-fashioned Tory Unionist I still have feelings for the entity known as the UK and personally would not like to see it broken up if it doesn’t have to be, particularly just so Scotland, Wales and Cornwall can throw themselves into the hands of the despotism in Brussels. Plus England is trapped within that despotism itself right now,despite the clear wishes of its people to the contrary, so I’d be a little annoyed if the Scots et al want to break with us and we still have to pay to up-keep them.

avatar Wessexman April 13, 2010 at 1:45 am

“The fact that most local institutions exist in a wider context and are sometimes subject to control from above does not in any way seem to justify the idea that one can revitalize local institutions from the center. I haven’t exactly been racking my brain trying to come up with an example of something like you describe having taken place, but I am not at the moment aware of any historical evidence to support the idea.”

I think both sides in this central versus bottom up debate as well as the anti-state versus more pro-state debate tend to the simplistic side. Isn’t it quite clear there is a role for the central and higher(ie than the very local level) levels of gov’t but that this has its definite limits as well as that is must be cautious and measured?

TS Eliot puts it well in his Idea of a Christian society, where he describes what can be done to remove obstacles to this society but then states this is just the bare minimum. Surely this is how we should treat the state’s relationship with traditionalism and decentralism, it can clear obstacles, it can do its limited role but it must be kept in its place and it’s role is just a minimum groundwork, the rest is up to small-scale social associations and other non-state institutions.

avatar John Médaille April 13, 2010 at 8:34 am

John G., fair enough. But my recollection (admittedly sketchy) of Henry’s judicial reforms was that he was assigning the high, the middle, and the low justice to the various levels. And I think it will be always the case of assigning rights, or at least recognizing such rights formally. It is rarely, if ever, a question of ex nihilo creation of communities (how would that work) but of a proper ordering within a hierarchy of rights and powers. Localism implies subsidiarity, which necessitates a hierarchy of powers. Pure localism would be tribalism, would it not? But how are we to get there? We don’t want a central authority assigning powers and we don’t want local organizing. What’s left? There is always a problem in recreating a lost or weakened ideal. I think your Indian example is good, even if it leads to the revitalization of the ancient Indian arts of blackjack, craps, roulette, and cigarette marketing.

avatar Bruce Smith April 13, 2010 at 10:00 am

When you sit back and try to analyze what FPR occupies itself doing most of the time it seems to be mainly a bunch of people recommending, or attacking, dominance or counter-dominance activities within our society. Within the last week, for example, we have had two attacks on Big Government. They weren’t very good in the sense that most Americans are intensely proud that it was Americans who put the first man on the moon and they are right to be so. Achieving this though was a Federal government led initiative working in collaboration with private enterprise and based on laws being passed not least being the budgets to undertake the mission. Yet in the first attack we are told Tocqueville declared “laws are almost always defective or unreasonable” so I guess putting Tocqueville in charge of the race to the moon wouldn’t have worked and here as the gist of this particular article we are told that Federal government can’t successfully innovate anything, presumably like getting a man on the man! Clearly these two attacks on Big Government are more in the line of emotional rather than reasoned attacks.

The truth of the matter is that we have an individual fear of being dominated and try to elicit collective dominant action to resist it. We are therefore psychologically ambivalent creatures with regard to dominance. In Rousseau’s treatise “The Social Contract.” the famous opening sentence is “Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains.” Rousseau, of course, believed that man could break those chains by submission to the “general will.” What he failed to understand was the impossibility of ever breaking any chains or restraints by the very contradictory aspect of our human nature with regard to dominance. Thus on FPR we have the chains of capitalism, government red-tape and even where Phillip Blond tells us we need to produce an Account of the Common Good as well as an Account of our Rights it produces what even Phillip would probably humorously acknowledge as Blond’s Bonds, the bonds of mutual obligation.

Instead of all the squabbling that FPR engages in the task it ought to really set itself is to produce an Intentional Ethos with regard to the type of dominance it would permit and from whom and how it ought to be restrained should it get out of hand. The ethos would be like a kind of prescription and proscription of the way we’d like our society to go about doing things. We can look back at the history of the human race’s development with regard to this and see what went wrong. For example, we can see that with hunter gatherer societies whilst there might have been a high level of egalitarianism there was also a price to be paid with restricting conformity and with our own current society how Neoliberal deregulation and a tax payer bail-out back stop plus Greenspan’s put encouraged Wall Street irresponsibility. Accordingly at the forefront of this task of creating an Intentional Ethos should be that of combining Fairness with Incentive and both with Sustainability.

avatar John Médaille April 13, 2010 at 8:39 pm

Instead of all the squabbling that FPR engages in the task it ought to really set itself is to produce an Intentional Ethos with regard to the type of dominance it would permit and from whom and how it ought to be restrained should it get out of hand. Indeed, an ethos requires restraint, first and foremost self-restraint, but also some social and political restraints. It used to be that social restraints were the most powerful; to be known as a piker was to be rejected by every place worth going to. Now, it gets you invited everywhere, and only the restraining hand of gov’t remains in a world of self-interest.

avatar John Gorentz April 13, 2010 at 9:10 pm

_It used to be that social restraints were the most powerful; to be known as a piker was to be rejected by every place worth going to. Now, it gets you invited everywhere, and only the restraining hand of gov’t remains in a world of self-interest._

The government restrains people from self-interest? That’s not what those taxpayer-paid census ads on the TV were telling us. They were encouraging us to greed up and get “our share of federal spending.”

avatar John Médaille April 13, 2010 at 9:30 pm

John, I thought your original complaint was that they were restraining us in seat belts.

avatar John Gorentz April 13, 2010 at 9:36 pm

Yeah, restraining us in our seat belts so we can stay alive and beg for our share of federal funding. What a life!

avatar Wessexman April 14, 2010 at 12:07 am

I must say Bruce that the space program is pretty un-porcher-like, imho. It was is massive, expensive and largely pointless centralised, bureaucratic exercise.

avatar Bruce Smith April 14, 2010 at 10:24 am

Wessexman. I don’t disagree that it’s possible to take the viewpoint that landing on the moon was pointless but that is irrelevant to my argument and it should be born in mind that after Sputnik there were military connotations in the whole of the space adventure, Reagan’s Star Wars and all that. Also you can argue that the private sector might have done it more efficiently but then although we have primarily a privately supplied military why do we not have a privately run military? Could it possibly have anything to do with secrecy? The reason for raising the moon landing is that a main thrust of this article was yet again in FPR the usual boring right wing argument that government is totally ineffective in implementing or innovating anything. In fact I’m sorry to have to tell all you Neoliberals and Libertarians who pound the keys so emotionally on FPR that the very means you are using to communicate, the Internet, started out life as a public project ARPA. See the History section of the Wikipedia article on the Internet:-

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internet#History

If the Internet has been a pointless exercise then I guess we can say we wouldn’t be bothering to argue our viewpoints out with each other on it! Also if government is that ineffective why does the right wing continue to field so many political candidates for it and why are such vast amounts of money spent corrupting the politicians and lobbying them? I have worked for both public and private sectors and quite frankly it has been the quality of management leadership that has often turned out to be the determining factor for success not the nature of the institution. The average life expectancy of private corporations is only forty years and this rather startling figure is entirely due to the final poor quality of leadership that doesn’t know how to lead and adapt to changes in the market (Read “The Origin of Wealth” and “The Fifth Discipline”). At least it can be argued up to a point that regular election for public sector bodies provides some measure of accountability. The recent disasters on Wall Street suggest that accountability to shareholders is a problem. On the issue of accountability though I’m personally actually not a huge fan of government delivering services through the current bureaucracies we experience because of the difficulty in maintaining consistently high quality management. I apply the same argument to the current elite form of private sector formation and governance. I prefer the use of mutals in line with the implications of the arguments Eric D. Beinhocker and Peter Senge make in their books I named and also the ownership and hence governance arguments made for Distributism.

avatar Bruce Smith April 14, 2010 at 12:02 pm

Wessexman. Your question provoked me to start talking about the average 40 year life expectancy of private corporations in relationship to our expectations of public and private organizations. Here is an interesting expansion of this by Arie De Geus in describing the origins of his book “The Living Company”:-

http://www.businessweek.com/chapter/degeus.htm

Arie De Geus in the Amazon.com book reviews is described as the person who inspired Peter Senge to do his work on “the learning organization”.

avatar Wessexman April 14, 2010 at 8:52 pm

I think the private sector would have utterly failed to fund the space race. I’m a “Carson-ite”(a follower of Kevin Carson’s economic analysis linking the very existence and origin of capitalism and corporate-capitalism to massive and ongoing state intervention.) on corporate-capitalist economics, so to speak. That is very far from neoliberal. Nothing so inefficient and centralised could have occurred without massive state intervention, imho, just like Wal-Mart or corporate-agribusiness would not either.

Personally I’d remove all corporate welfare as well as corporate personhood and privileges.

When it comes to the internet I think it has its pluses and its negatives to be honest and it must be seen within its place in the current socio-technical matrix.

avatar Bruce Smith April 15, 2010 at 6:37 am

Interestingly Obama has canceled Bush’s Federal funded return to the moon program and declared America will rely upon the private sector to launch satellites now that the space shuttle has been put into retirement. The cost savings are said to be enormous. We will have to wait to see. The thought does occur to me whether the military here did consider the dark side of the moon (the part that’s always turned away from our sight) at one stage as a military asset from the Star Wars point of view. For example, were transporters with satellite blasting ray guns to be tucked away out of sight over the moon’s horizon ready for some super-power nuclear war. Presumably Obama’s cancellation of a manned revisit to the moon might indicate that idea was dispensed with.

The Carsonite analysis is the only rational one given that a primary drive of human beings is to secure natural resources for their use. Unfortunately, the deviants believe they can secure those resources for their narrow exclusive use regardless of the needs of the rank-and-file. The rank-and-file then fight back and you have today’s proxy war between the Neoliberals and Libertarians and their Republican and Tea Party proxies and the oppositional social-democrats.

avatar Bruce Smith April 15, 2010 at 10:58 am

Here’s part of your answer with regard to abandoning revisiting the moon and terminating the manned space shuttle. Government initiative again but Boeing the private partner:-

http://news.yahoo.com/s/space/20100412/sc_space/airforcesmysteryx37bspaceplanefuelsspeculation

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