Raymond Tallis
Philosopher, Medical Physician and Clinical Neuroscientist

Civil society is a necessarily ill-defined social space – or a collection of nested spaces and interconnected spaces. It is an intermediate zone between the state – with its instruments of control, regulation, protection and most importantly provision – and the private and informal, concentric and intersecting, circles of affection, allegiance and support represented by friends and family, neighbours and colleagues, and a multitude of secular and religiously-affiliated voluntary associations, charities, and clubs. It is the interstitial tissue between the organs of the state.

The place of civil society has become more of an issue as in recent years we have seen the start of what may be a progressive and irreversible withdrawal of the state from responsibility for the welfare of its citizens. Since 2010, every public service – health, social support, benefits, child-care, education, maintenance of amenities such as libraries, drop-in centres, youth clubs, parks and gardens – has been diminished, precipitated into a state of crisis, or closed down.

This was not something for which the majority of the electorate voted. The shrinkage of state support for the most vulnerable citizens was, however, excused as a ‘difficult decision’ necessitated by the crash of 2008. Initially, this excuse met with little challenge. In recent years, however, mainstream economic opinion has veered from accepting austerity as an economic necessity to appreciating that it has been the ideological choice of politicians and others who have long been in favour of a small state. Martin Wolf’s summary of the central thesis of Adam Tooze’s excellent Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World captures this point:

George Osborne, chancellor of the exchequer in the UK’s coalition government, shifted the blame for austerity on to alleged Labour profligacy… Transforming a financial crisis into a fiscal crisis confused cause with effect. Yet this political prestidigitation proved a brilliant coup. It diverted attention from the failure of free-market finance they believed in to the cost of welfare states they disliked.

The consequences of austerity have been appalling. One outcome will have to stand for many: death. For the first time since the 1970’s the death rate, instead of declining, has risen substantially. There were 30,000 excess deaths in 2015, plausibly ascribed to cuts in social care and health budgets. The trend has continued. By the end of February 2018, the Office of National Statistics estimated that 10,000 more people had died than the average for the past 5 years. By the end of April, this figure had risen to 20,215. The rise is the sharpest since 1940 when Adolf Hitler was busy blitzing British cities. It has been estimated that there has been a cumulative excess of 120,000 deaths of our fellow citizens since 2010.

What has this to do with ‘re-thinking civil society’? A lot. If the scope of state responsibility shrinks, what will occupy the vacated spaces? Will there be an expanded role for civil society in delivering what were previously statutory services? This question has an especially contemporary significance because many of those who favour a small state have a tendresse – or profess to have one – for civil society.

There were harbingers of what was to come in the run-up to the 2010 election, when there was much talk in Tory circles of something called The Big Society. Behind it was an  ideological stance which advocated an increased role for neighbourliness, non-state actors,  and volunteerism – short for active citizenship – permitting a reduction in the part played by the state in meeting the needs of individuals who were in difficulty. Services funded out of direct taxation were to be supplemented and in many cases replaced by help delivered through the good will of individuals imbued with community spirit.

The cynical, among whom you may most certainly include the present writer, could see how this would appeal to those for whom lower taxation was attractive. The timing was excellent. With the assistance of a predominantly right-wing press, that was as shallow as it was toxic, the notion of the undeserving, scrounging poor being spoiled by a profligate state had fueled much resentment among some of the comfortably off. For those who could see through it, nevertheless, the moralistic idea of the Big Society expanding into spaces of civil society vacated by a receding state, was defined by its initial letters: BS.

It is against this background that we may judge the prominent Tory M.P. and conspicuously Christian Jacob Rees-Mogg’s response to perhaps the most striking manifestation of the expanded role of volunteers in recent years: the explosive growth of food banks. The use of food banks provided by the Trussell Trust alone has increased from 41,000 in 2009-10 to 1.2 million in 2016-17; and it is continuing to rise. Food poverty has been particularly marked among children and in people with disability, in part triggered by the introduction of the universally discredited Universal Credit. Multi-millionaire Rees-Mogg described this development as a ‘rather uplifting’ picture of a compassionate country.

It is hardly uplifting for those who come to food banks in desperation. It is no more uplifting than the hunger that underlies it, or, more broadly, the humiliation and progressive impoverishment of vulnerable people. Rees-Mogg, however, is a great enthusiast for the BS which he described as “working brilliantly” in his own constituency of North East Somerset. It is easy to see why eye-poppingly wealthy individuals who would prefer not to pay taxes – such as Rees-Mogg, whose wealth-extracting business Somerset Capital Management is registered in a tax haven a long way from Somerset – like the idea of the responsibilities of the state being picked up by volunteers. At any rate, BS has signally failed to humanize the spaces between the micro-society of individuals and their immediate circles and the receding state whose services are funded out of general taxation. Nevertheless, it remains for some a compelling narrative of an alternative way of how we might live together.

What is at stake is the post-war settlement loathed by many for whom the taxation that makes it possible is an imposition used to support idlers and parasites and is a disincentive to self-styled ‘wealth creators’. After the Second World War, the state took over a large part of the role hitherto discharged by non-statutory bodies such as charities, the church, and volunteer groups. It is worth looking back at the ethical context of that settlement, brilliantly encapsulated by Anne Leonard:

The aftermath of the Second World War saw a moment of political emancipation in Britain. A population, already united in a life and death struggle over five years, maintained the momentum of battle and a sense of social solidarity to establish the Welfare State. For the first time in history, the well-being of the whole population became the explicit concern of the State, through the will of the people.

The state had a statutory obligation to mitigate the lottery of life, and to pool risk, and to do justice to the sentiment that we are ‘all in it together’.

This was an extraordinary development, the climax of a long process, unfolding over centuries, by which the task of government, as Barry Allen (glossing Michael Foucault) has characterized it, had changed radically:

[It] was reconceived as the management of a complex resource; the population, its wealth, its health, economic and military potential… By the end of the twentieth century, the subjects of modern government are… accustomed to comprehensive care by professional agencies presumed to act with expert knowledge and benevolent intentions.

This is a development, as already noted, with which some have failed to come to terms. Their dislike of the Big State is sometimes complemented by a Rees-Mogg-like sentimentality about local communities looking after those who need help and somehow taking over many of the responsibilities of those institutions that presently form the scaffolding of what we regarded as civilization.

It is worth reflecting why, 70 years after the establishment of the fully-fledged welfare state, civil society is not in a position to replace what is (decreasingly) provided by the state. The most obvious reason is the intrinsic complexity of delivering high quality support equitably to all citizens. Consider the institution that addresses the greatest threat to our well-being: ill health. The NHS is required by its constitution to provide high quality comprehensive health care to all, irrespective of means, free at the point of use. This presupposes a wide availability of a high level of expertise, infrastructure and equipment, organisation on a local, regional, and super-regional level, and a secure source of trained staff, and of course revenue. There is no possible means by which any significant part of its responsibilities could be picked up by volunteers, doing their incompetent best. Even less could its running be left to the caprices of people’s unpredictable availability and intermittent generosity of spirit. A reversion to the Penny in the Pound, Voluntary Hospitals, and Cooperatives, would be a disaster for public and individual health.

The example of the NHS is, of course, extreme. But the same applies, if less obviously, to the provision of education, social support, and other services. The universal, high quality, complex, coordinated, strategically planned services we have grown rightly to expect in an advanced, and by historical and global standards, wealthy society, could scarcely be maintained by a coalition of the willing, of the good-intentioned, responding to the needs that speak most directly to their sympathies and often ill-informed kindness. The willing may not be able and the able may not be willing. Citizens volunteering to sort out the problem of litter on a beach – an example given by Niall Ferguson in his 2012 Reith Lecture on Civil Society, during the course of which he blamed the ‘cradle to the grave’ welfare state for the hollowing out of civil society – is hardly comparable to meeting the challenge of replacing shrinking public services.

Besides, the present is hardly an auspicious time to look to civil society to fill the spaces vacated by a shrinking state. While there are many who still give much to good causes, increasing numbers of people who would previously have been ‘active citizens’ now find their time accounted for by lengthening hours of work or care for children who expect more attention. What is more, many people, used to the certainties of services in a welfare state, see themselves primarily as entitled, though often grateful, consumers rather than dutiful citizens. And while greed is less often touted as in the Eighties as fundamentally good, ensuring the survival of the fittest and the unending ascent of the human race, the primary, even exclusive, focus on one’s self and one’s immediate circle remains a respectable aim in life. The secularization and the loss of the church as a focus of, and transcendental warrant for, the commitment to helping one’s neighbours is another reason for expecting less of civil society. And other sources of solidarity associated with trades, crafts, and industries such as mining have withered away or (in the case of the trades unions) have been diminished by legal constraints and changing patterns of employment to shadows of their former selves. Increasingly, we have not so much a Big Society as a Gig Society.

There is yet another reason, which may be less obvious: the changing standing of the professions. Professions were once at the heart of civil society. The doctor, the lawyer, the teacher, were leaders of their communities. This is more rarely the case. The professions have been deprofessionalised. The exercise of judgement has been replaced by closely prescribed daily activity that is regulated wall-to-wall. Professionals are skewered on targets and outcome measures. A doctor who has to see 60 patients a day, at fixed intervals, and who is subject to regular time-consuming inspections is likely to have little spare capacity to concern herself with improving the social conditions of the patients in her community. A teacher who is endlessly being ‘reformed’ by governments hostile to the profession will have little reforming zeal. More broadly, the professions have changed from being vocationally driven to contractually based. Consequently, they are less able to fulfil the role – particularly important in liberal democracies – of ‘intermediary bodies’, as Durkheim described them, interceding between the government and the individual, protecting the individual from the naked power of the state or government from being driven to passive populism.

There are other social trends that make the prospects for a Big Society to compensate for a shrinking state somewhat dim. There is the continuation of atomizing trends famously noted by Robert Putnam. Recent surveys have shown ubiquitous isolation and loneliness, of individuals eating, sleeping, and living in unbroken solitude. The scattering of families, the disintegration of public transport outside of large cities, the transformation of small towns into dormitories for individuals whose social capital is invested elsewhere, are just some of the many factors leading to disintegration of once-organic communities. We are all increasingly citizens of nowhere, belonging less and less to our neighbourhoods. This is exacerbated by a trend noted by John Harris, for shared spaces to vanish, ‘leaving a nation of cliques’ and civil society ‘splintering into ever smaller social niches’. What spaces remain available to the general public are increasingly degraded by litter, talentless graffiti, and by the neglect of impoverished local authorities having to prioritize other demands.

Perhaps the most important, intimate and universal threat to the civility of civil society is the extent, widely noted, to which we are becoming citizens of ‘e-lsewhere’ (sic). The hours devoted to following the ghosts of others in the anti-social social media are stolen from the flesh-and-blood presence of friends, family, and passing strangers. Those who are physically side by side are mentally remote. Ubiquitous ear-plugs testify to a populace insulated against the immediate outside by a cognitive balaclava – not so much windowless monads but windows opening elsewhere. Public spaces – cafés, pubs, buses, trains, pavements, places of assembly – are populated by individuals whose gaze is deflected to invisible locations in the boundless, all-enveloping internet. If glances are exchanged or smiles or greetings are offered, they are potentially a source of suspicion. And attention is not only diverted but dis-tracted into small parts. The hasty scrolling down an endless succession of tit-bits betokens a minutely divided attention – hardly the substrate for active citizenship.

Thus, the sustained collective sympathies and shared interests that support civil society may be attenuated and consequently ill-fitted to compensate for the reduction of the state. I say ‘may be’ because tracking trends in the collective consciousness is a hazardous business. What one sees may say more about one’s own prejudices than about anything that is happening ‘out there’, particularly as ‘there’ is ill-defined. Even so, the apparent unpicking of mutual attention in public and private spaces that is the ground floor of togetherness, and of our sense of being in communion with those who actually surround us, bodes ill for the hope that civil society will take up the responsibilities no longer addressed by a shrinking state.

The Big Society remains, however, a useful fantasy for those who would moralize their own greed – the very greed that created the 2008 crash which in turn provided the pretext for the austerity and the charitable action as a way of mitigating its effects. It is an irony of the present time that the need for an expanded role for local action, volunteerism, increased neighbourliness – in short, food banks and the like – is a consequence of the behaviour of those beneficiaries from global capitalism inaccurately described as ‘wealth creators’. Strictly, they are wealth extractors, electronic plunderers, and global citizens of nowhere whose political and extra-political power is eating civil society from within, and whose ‘tax-efficient’ wheezes result in underfunded state-provided public services, laying the foundation of an ill-fare state. It is these ‘citizens of nowhere’, their unimaginable wealth disconnected from any kind of society, who are causing irreversible damage to civilized life in advanced economies. They are behind both elements of the pincer movement on civil society: the greater pressures arising out of the defunding of the welfare state; and the emptying of the community spirit out of the community.

If we are to re-think civil society and consider how it might meet the increased demands made on it, we need to examine the hypocrisy of the ideologues who have brought us to the state we are in, arguing that episodic philanthropy is preferable to sustained, systemic social justice. If we don’t challenge the twisted narrative that turned the crash of 2008 into an excuse for sparing the wealthy their proper share of the tax burden, we may anticipate a widening gap between the unimaginably rich in their gated communities and the desperately poor in their degraded public and squalid private spaces, and, ultimately, a progression to an increasingly uncivil society.

Raymond Tallis – Philosopher, medical physician and clinical neuroscientist