What place for protest in a big society?

Posted on December 6, 2010 by


When David Cameron launched his vision of a Big Society back in March and again in July, it’s fairly safe to assume he didn’t think its torchbearers would be crowds of protesting students. Yet he and his courtiers should take a close look at the activists who are starting to oppose his policies, because they are building exactly the kind of civic engagement and social capital the Big Society advocates say they want.

Much of the conversation around Big Society has been about the role of the state and the future of public services. These conversations have aroused plenty of debate and strong feelings, which in itself shows how much engagement in society we find if we only scratch the surface. And we’re now seeing how anger about the future of specific public services is generating self-organised, spontaneous action.

Consider the protests organised by students (and increasing numbers of parents) against tuition fees in the run-up to next week’s parliamentary vote. Or have a look at the demonstrations that have snowballed around the #ukuncut theme. As one observer commented, the TaxPayers’ Alliance wanted Britons to stage mass Tea Party-style protests against taxes. Instead people took to the streets against tax dodgers. George Osborne should congratulate these champions of civic responsibility who are urging others to do their bit for the Exchequer.

The protestors don’t just exemplify civic engagement. They are also paragons of self-help.  They get off their butts and get things done, using their time and resources for causes they care about. They share food and money. And while some of the slogans are tired, there are also examples of imagination and creativity.

Of course you don’t change the world (at least in the short term) by staging sit-ins and occupations or marching on parliament. But you can change the most important thing, which is your own willingness to get involved. Mr Cameron is a great fan of nudge theory – Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s idea that you can get people to act pro-socially by making it easier to make a small positive choice than a negative one. Perhaps he should reflect on the effects of shove theory – that if you implement policies that push people hard enough, they will react against them. If you want to build social capital quickly it may prove remarkably effective.

The arguments against protest are familiar. Some of the goals may be naive; protestors can be easily led astray by those who simply want to be destructive. But that energy can be channelled into positive action for social good. Above all, protest is a channel for speaking truth to power – confronting those in positions of authority or influence with the consequences of their actions. That’s why, whether or not we think the tactics right or the objectives achievable, we should be glad this is happening.

Government ministers have already made it clear to those bidding to train community organisers that they want to build on the principles of Paulo Freire and Saul Alinksy. It’s worth remembering one of Freire’s famous sayings:  ‘Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral. ‘

And here’s one from Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals: ‘…we are concerned with how to create mass organisations to seize power and give it to the people; to realise the democratic dream of equality, justice, peace…. Better to die on your feet than to live on your knees.’

Now it may be that David Cameron and his advisers have never read any Freire or Alinsky, or have been given bowdlerised versions of their works by frightened civil servants. But if they are serious about community organising on such principles – and they say they are – then they should look at where society is organising itself already and the issues around which momentum is gathering. And they should take the business of self-determination very seriously indeed.

For my part, I hope the Big Society idea will become inclusive enough to start engaging positively with those who are waking up to social action through the current wave of protests. I hope the Big Society Network will start to feature some of their campaigns. It would be good if some are nominated for Big Society awards.

I suspect, though, that ministers will struggle with such a generous and welcoming vision. It’s another reason why we need a space outside government where we can  explore the full potential of these ideas. And it’s another reason why protest is likely to play an important part in the events of the next few years.