The Big Society, Christendom and Common Wealth

By Steven Shakespeare
13 Dec 2010

In the substance of his otherwise dismissive broadside against the Common Wealth statement of Christians offering a theological critique of British government policy, John Milbank - known for his pivotal role in launching the 'Radical Orthodoxy' school of theology - claims that the 'Big Society' promoted by UK Prime Minister David Cameron is more than an ideological fig leaf for the current round of huge public spending cuts.

The Big Society, he suggests, is Cameron's vision for country which no longer automatically turns to the central state to supply its needs. Instead, networks of volunteers and third sector organisations come together to address local needs in a much more responsive, rooted, holistic and personal way than faceless state bureaucracy ever could.

Milbank gives four reasons why this vision deserves the support of Christians. I will deal with each one in turn.

First, Cameron's own Conservative party are said to be dismayed by the Big Society idea, which shows that it must represent a radical turn from the laissez-faire free market economics embraced by the party in the 1980s.

The logic here is shaky. It is not surprising that Cameron's party is sometimes uneasy with his attempts to re-brand them as pro-environment social liberals, for example. The real question is what Cameron and his government do in practice. And if their beginning is anything to go by - regressive cuts, virtual privatisation and marketisation of higher education, a pro-nuclear void of green initiatives, subordinating foreign affairs to business promotion - we do well to retain our suspicions. The fundamental commitment to markets as the arbiters of social value has not changed one iota.

Secondly, Milbank points out that Ed Miliband, the new leader of the Labour opposition, has not chosen simply to oppose the Big Society. Indeed, he may be prepared to work on his own version of it, in a throwback to the idealistic days of Tony Blair.

This argument is almost comical, and reveals the extent of Milbank's co-option into the fatalistic status quo of British politics. Whatever their achievements, the Labour governments of recent years were responsible for the reckless embrace of financial deregulation which helped precipitate the current economic crisis. Miliband's merits can be debated, but the worth of an idea like the Big Society cannot be determined by the attitude of a Labour party so fatally seduced by neoliberal capitalism.

For Common Wealth, the point is not to advance the interests of any political party, but to awaken Christian imagination and action for a genuinely radical alternative.

The third argument we are offered is more serious. Milbank points to current social and economic trends towards the rise of "civil society," which represents a " personalist balance to the materialism of both market and state." The state and market are instrumentalist, and fail to embody the personal trust necessary to a good society. In their place, charities, voluntary agencies and social enterprises are transforming the way public goods are defined and provided.

The first thing that needs to be said here is that Common Wealth in no way endorses statism. We do not idolise the state any more than we bow to the marketplace. After all - as our founding document points out - the nation state is itself an instrument of capitalism. So we are certainly committed to building different forms of community, service and exchange.

But Cameron's Big Society does not offer this. His slogan when defining the idea was "Your country needs you" - the precise words used to recruit conscripts to the British army in the first World War. In other words, the point is that citizens are still cannon fodder, enlisted to sacrifice themselves for the state (the "national interest" as the government likes to present it).

It is shockingly naïve to disregard this, or ignore the fact that 'civil society' has always been a part of the capitalist state. As such, it should neither be simply rejected nor uncritically celebrated. It can be a genuine testing bed for subversive models of social exchange, or it can be the front for a system that leaves real inequalities of power and recognition in place. Civil society and the third sector are ambivalent, contested realities. It would be a failure of critical acumen to overlook this.

It is also absurd to suggest that Common Wealth and other government opponents stand 'against' participatory democracy or 'for' a fixation on the ballot box and big government. Such a wilful misreading of our position ignores the very real influences of grassroots movements for liberation, environmentalism and feminism which aim to transform our regimes of power and care. (Though the fact that feminism is ignored may not be surprising given that Milbank seems to want women to return to a 19th century Victorian model in which they give up the vote and pursue their aims in a "specifically 'female' way"!)

Such, however, is Milbank's dualism: either sign up to the Big Society, or you are dismissed as a free-marketeer-cum-Stalinist in Christian garb. Before such dualisms, ideological critique withers, and revolutionary Christian hope is translated into passive acceptance of the current world order. Personalism acts merely as a "balance" to an unyielding materialism. "Radical Orthodoxy" becomes "Timid Conformity."

What of the last argument in Milbank's arsenal? This is the claim that the participatory democracy represented by civil society is rooted in religious practice. The churches and the philanthropy they encouraged in Victorian times offered a holistic alternative to rabid capitalism.

Milbank acknowledges that Christians saw ultimately that private action was not enough without a welfare state, inspired by essentially Christian ideals. However, he still rejects this 'statist' approach for a 'Christendom' model, in which it is basically the church and the church alone that constitutes the setting for human community. As Milbank puts it, "Within this 'Christendom' perspective, it is the Church itself that is the real site of the redeemed society, of true human collaboration."

It is here that we hit the nerve of Radical Orthodoxy's position. It is a movement which rejects modernity, secularism and liberalism. It sees in these projects not rational enlightenment and equality, but an alternative, pagan religious myth.

In this secular myth, God is separated from the world, and the world becomes no more than the battlefield of human ideologies. The state is set up to monopolise violence and keep the capitalist show on the road. In the meantime, any notion of a common good, or a world received as divine gift, is left behind. Religion becomes a private matter, and political economy is reduced to the manipulation of material forces, without any higher purpose or value.

There is much in this critique that is relevant and forceful. Common Wealth also stands for resistance to the privatisation of faith and the worship of the dead hand of the market or state. The problem comes when Radical Orthodoxy claims its own monopoly of truth.

Notice that it is "the Church itself" which is held up as the only real locus for community. There is no recognition that this is merely an idealised Church. There is no accounting for the churches' historical acts of collusion with capital and sovereign power. There is no sense of a church divided (remember those pesky 'dissenting ministers'?). And there is an ideological bar against recognising that traditions and debates outside the churches could have anything liberating and true to offer.

The result is that the 'Big Parish' looks like the worst kind of parochialism: an inward looking (presumably Anglican) church obsessed with its own sense of superiority. What is truly dogmatic is not Common Wealth's critique of the Big Society, but this astonishing claim that one can only be human within the church. This is a vision of God's creative grace which is at once poverty-stricken and arrogant.

'Christendom' is a word closely associated with the churches' pacts with Empire past and present. It confuses the church with the highest good, and in the process makes it subservient to the state-approved order of things. Such is the aim of the Big Society, to get the churches to play nice while the government scorches the earth.

Common Wealth does not claim to offer any such totalising solution or blueprint. But it is fired by a hope that the voices of establishment do not have the last word. It draws on the scriptural subversion of free market and statist logics, and on a rich tradition of genuinely radical Christian egalitarianism. It calls for a space of exploration and activism in which Christians can work alongside other social movements for a new economics.

Of course, we recognise that Christian ministers and communities will be faced with hard choices. Money offered under the Big Society brand might make all the difference to people otherwise cut off from essential support. As ever in capitalism, compromises will be necessary.

However, nothing should douse the flame of critical hope within us. The awkward questions still have to be asked: about how we challenge the inevitability of widening inequality and the unsustainable abuse of the earth; about how we deepen economic democracy and break the hold of anonymous corporate and financial power.

The Big Society confronts none of this. Cameron preaches localism at home and then visits China to export Tesco supermarkets. Mutualism is held out as the olive branch, while government ministers admit that their policies are driven by faceless financial traders.

In the end, the Big Society is about distracting people from the bigger questions by making them spend their time fighting for the crumbs that fall from the government's table. It is market and state power in soft focus.

Our document begins by saying that Christians in Britain today are called to take a stand. As students march and occupy in protest against the marketisation of universities, Milbank's intervention only confirms that call. Is the Big Society the limit of Christian imagination? Is a suffocating, colluding Christendom where the way of the cross leads?

If I answer "No" it is not simply because I am cynical, but because I still have faith in a deeper affirmation. The paradox of God's "Yes" spoken to creation in Jesus Christ is that it throws the world into a crisis of judgement. It is spoken, not from the lofty heights of Christendom's power, but from the depths of dereliction, a cry of protest against all Empire.

Absolute and vulnerable, God proclaims life as a free gift. No market can buy it, no state can enlist it, no church can own it. It is common wealth.

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Common Wealth network: http://commonwealthnetwork2010.blogspot.com/

The full Common Wealth: Christians for economic and social justice statement can be found here: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/CommonWealthStatement

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(c) Steven Shakespeare is an Anglican priest and lecturer in philosophy in the Department of Theology, Philosophy and Religious Studies, Liverpool Hope University, UK. He is the author, with Hugh Rayment-Pickard, of The Inclusive God (Canterbury, 2006), of Radical Orthodoxy: A Critical Introduction (SPCK, 2007) and of Derrida and Theology (Continuum, 2009).

This piece is adapted from an article by the author on ABC Online, with thanks and acknowledgments. The original version is available here.

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