Alternative Editorial: The BIG Question
What is society? Of course, that is a question that has been asked and explored ad infinitum by scholars and commentators, largely in abstract terms. But politicians have a poor record in trying to capture its meaning or its function.
Margaret Thatcher tried to dismiss the ‘idea’ of society in order to replace it with the marketplace, made up of economic rather than social relations. This caused such backlash that her successor, David Cameron, was forced to reclaim the idea of society – which, in his words, was “just not the state” – as a means to detoxify the Party. But his Big Society project never got off the ground for want, ironically, of including people on the ground.
Tony Blair made his own attempt with "social-ism" – aka communitarianism – as did Ed Miliband’s advisor, Maurice Glasman, who made communities the bedrock of society: but neither succeeded in making a flourishing society the focus of politics.
Maybe the more important question is: what does society mean to you?
You may respond with something like the dictionary definition – ‘the aggregate of people living together in a more or less ordered community’. And if you do, as I did, let’s ask ourselves where it sits in our list of priorities? Should we think about society more? Or should we not think about it at all, let it organise itself?
I’m thinking about it today because society is the context – the environment - within which so much else happens: politics, the economy, families, communities. Yet we have no objective sense of it and no direct means to develop it as an integrated whole.
While business and the economy are consciously built, with leaders and institutions, society has a loose collection of rules and regulations that prevent it from becoming too dangerous (eg, rules on free speech, weapons carrying, etc), but very little to actively enhance it, other than in a piecemeal way.
Schools play a part – each with leadership teams and boards of governors. Churches too, but for dwindling numbers of adherents. And, of course, families are the smallest unit of effective social development: but they are increasingly under threat and never had a means to work together for the bigger whole.
Why, for example, has our society given rise to a party-political system that only 2% of people want to buy into – through membership - but the rest don’t actively question? (I should add here that membership of trade unions, was way more than parties – in the UK, 13m in 1979.. Solidarity movements, and socialism itself, implied ‘the people’, but articulated itself mostly in terms of labour, not the multiplicity of forces and agents that constitute a society).
Coming back to the present, to think about that 2% statistic logically, would suggest that politics – how we govern ourselves and distribute our shared resources – is only of interest to the very small numbers. But we are all directly affected, often in ways that define our daily lives. So why this disconnect?
We might go further and suggest that society – the widest context for all of our activities – is also self-organised in such a way that very few people end up participating in discussions that affect us all. Each of us has our own domain – friendship groups, workplaces, care structures – but few feel responsible for the bigger picture. Just as we all might look afer our household economy, few feel they can grapple with the national or international economy or the state of the planet. But in those cases, there are mechanisms of relation – from micro to macro - that can be studied in theory and practice.
Not so for society. Has anyone successfully articulated society in a way that includes all the elements the term implies? So the mechanisms for relation are only spasmodic and partial, such as the new Minister for Loneliness announced today, simultaneously in Westminster and Hollyrood.
(It’s not entirely for want of trying: in the 80s a magazine called New Society took a weekly look at the challenges and changes within this ‘aggregate of people’ but only regularly sold about 40,000 copies. Was it maybe that the language was largely abstract and not accessible to most of the society it described?
While all of this may sound obvious - politicians refer to non-participation as apathy, others refer to it as inequality – the bigger question here is, should we be more attentive to the society that gives rise to this anomaly? I am not proposing a formal inquiry - it’s a question to be explored in as human and open a way as possible - as we will be doing in our political laboratories.
Meantime, here are some first thoughts.
Unlike any other organisation, society implies both public and private domains. For this reason, it cannot be ordered like a machine, even like a complex computer. If it is to thrive, its order must reflect human experience in the home and other personal and private domains as well as in work and other public institutions. Might that imply then, that any such an inquiry should be thoroughly gender-balanced? And if that is so – might that go some way to explaining why it has not yet occurred?
One might find, even in the early 21C, that the divide between public and private is changing in ways that matter to us all. For example, if the public domain has traditionally been dominated by men, that would explain why women find it hard – even today - to reach prominence in the public space. Not because of inequality, but because the structures and culture of the public space was established by 20th C men.
In politics, this looks like competition, hierarchy and a material rather than emotional literacy. It’s often said that women have to adapt to succeed in politics – but is that getting the most out of what they are bringing for the first time? Rather than think of this profound shift as one that can be progressed simply with equal wages, should we be thinking also of the evolution of politics at this time?
Feminists have certainly tried to short cut this process with their incisive phrase ‘the personal IS political’. But we see little evidence that such a fusion makes any headway in the palaces of Westminster.
There is some evidence too, that as women increasingly enter the public domain, men are entering into positions of new and different responsibility in the home. More stay-at-home fathers, au pairs, care workers than before. Do they experience a female culture there that proscribes their behaviour, practices and structures? How do they articulate and develop that?
And what of the new genders arising to our attention: are they bridging these gaps in some way or offering us new co-ordinates?
Those of you reading this who now feel this is a bit off the beaten track regarding The Alternative, consider how a new politics might arise - not just as a niche interest but with lasting, transformational effects for all of us? If society was developing itself more deliberately - aiming for a good integration of the public and the private, more equal participation in both domains across the multiple genders, more co-creation of all these domains by all of us – would that not start to stake out a different territory for politics to occupy?
What are the best practices for what we might call a socio-political inquiry? That’s an open question being asked in our political laboratories. Are intellectual, or even talking exercises the best starting point, when we are so set in our alliances and conflicts?
Our committment to the arts as vehicles for change is precisely because they can transcend the public/private divide. Music, dance, sculpture and imagery can reach deeply into our psyche – our souls even – as we stand together with others in a street or gallery.
The best art poses profound questions, linking our current certainties to the unknown – taking our minds to places they haven’t travelled before. In that age-old conundrum, how do you lift a table while you are standing on it? The arts offer the tools to do so. That’s why we use art at every stage of our process – before, during and after. The arts bind and lift people together, as a preparation for the talking and creating to come.
This is not doing politics as we know it – it’s more like doing society, but maybe only the best of it. But if we can pay proper attention to our society – whether we meet it locally or otherwise – there’s every chance we could use that new experience and awareness to forge a politics. One that more - far more - people would feel inclined to take part in.