Big Thinking For a Big Society

Currently, the British government is pushing the idea of something called the “Big Society,” a response to the financial crisis in which markets are more regulated and the public sector is cared for, with a (hypothetical) resulting increase in both opportunity and access.  It’s the sort of social-program-heavy government intervention that most liberals were expecting from Obama, although the British have a few advantages on us in that regard: first of all, although the Brits are the most free-market-oriented of any European society, they also already have things like free, publicly provided health care and other basic social programs that we’re still struggling to establish; and, second of all, because England’s electoral system relies on proportional representation, their current, recently elected government is a coalition between two very strange bedfellows: the right-of-center Tories, including the current Prime Minister, David Cameron; and the far-left New Democrats, who are much more liberal than the left-of-center Labour Party.  It’s as though, instead of going to the Supreme Court, George Bush could only have taken power in 2000 by teaming up with Ralph Nader (and then had to keep Nader happy during his presidency, because as soon as Nader’s support disappeared, the whole thing would fall apart).  The upshot is that a conservative has become a mouthpiece for some very liberal policies (plus some conservative ones too).

Contrast that to the current mood in the United States.  Rather than (forced, but very close) collaboration, we are beset by constant antagonism between two parties whose policies aren’t even that radically different on many things — and at a time when it seems there is a tremendous need for dramatically rethinking the entire project of contemporary society.  I don’t mean that in a damning or a let’s-chuck-this-whole-thing-and-live-in-the-woods kind of way; I mean it as a form of design thinking, because the problems that we are currently facing are problems of systemic design, ones that cannot be solved by a little tinkering at the edges, and it seems on many fronts that we are at or fast approaching our tipping points, beyond which real fixes will be impossible.  There is health care, deficit spending, climate change — an issue of massive complexity that includes the way we physically organize ourselves — plus rising inequality and the continued struggle of marginalized voices, seemingly coming to a boil at present in the Prop 8 ruling and the debates (a more polite term than they merit) on racism and immigration.

In 2008, Obama seemed to offer an alternative to politics as usual, and in that potential a comprehensive narrative for comprehensive change: here was a guy from a non-traditional background, with a Kenyan father and a single mother, who came out of nowhere and relied on nothing but his intelligence and his principles to suddenly become the most powerful man in the world.  That, my friends, is a trajectory that takes balls.  This was a black guy who spoke frankly and intelligently about race on the campaign trail instead of trading in platitudes and wishful thinking — that’s a kind of courage that most political strategists would label suicidal to presidential ambition.  So that’s why, I think, there is disappointment and disillusionment on the left; not because Barack Obama actually promised he could fix everything, or offer a truly bold and corrective vision for America (for that, try Dennis Kucinich), but because the promise seemed implicit in his person and in the narrative of his life.

Certainly Obama has made some great strides.  Health care reform, no matter how ultimately watered-down, remains a major victory.  Financial reform is not useless.  But immigration reform is on hold, a climate bill is dead in the water, and the scare-mongers of FOX News and the far right have hijacked the national narrative: instead of a Big Society, newsmen remit to us tales of the Tea Party.  The premise of the Tea Party, and of the contemporary American right, is that if I can get mine, Jack, then screw you and everybody else; it is the notion that we are responsible only for ourselves and our families, and that this kind of get-off-my-lawn isolationism is what has made America great.  But I think Judith Warner sums up the fallacy of such attitudes nicely:

“What came out of the combined experience of the Great Depression and World War II — broad measures of quality-of-life equalization like a sharply progressive tax policy with rates on the wealthy unimaginable today, the G.I. Bill, government-subsidized home mortgages for veterans — permitted the easier, less-frenzied middle class family life that older Americans remember from the 1950s and ’60s and that younger Americans dream of. In other words, it wasn’t individual families that reformed themselves after the crucible of the Depression. It was our society.”

Once upon a time, we had the werewithal to dream of a Big — or at least a Bigger — Society, and then to make it happen.  We’re taking some baby steps in that direction again, but I wonder if they are fast enough.

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