Big Society or Good Society? Size Does Not Matter With Justice

The pace of change in our communities, as well as the uncertainties of the impact of public spending cuts, are more than many of us can make sense of, or indeed cope with. The only certainty in our monetary-led system that perpetuates materialism seem to be bankers’ bonuses.

It was therefore too tempting to miss the debate on justice, fairness and the idea called ‘Big Society’. Michael Sandel, an interesting and entertaining philosopher, was a welcome antidote to the more than usually gloomy January. The MRCF team was particularly curious to learn what other people think of the concept of Big Society during the recording of the BBC4’s program Justice – Fairness and the Big Society with Harvard professor and philosopher Michael Sandel. We were curious to learn what all the fuss is about in relation to the Big Society, as we have been doing it for years.

It was no surprise that during the studio debate, when polled, more than two thirds of the studio audience expressed scepticism about the concept of Big Society as used by Mr Cameron.

I suppose cynicism and caution is to be expected after a decade of spin that came after a decade of individualism (‘There’s no such thing as society’) which promoted a distorted value system in the relentless pursuit of profit.  Now that the world financial system is on the brink of collapse due to its own shortcomings, the time has come to think, talk and act with more integrity and sustainability. But who can we trust to deliver this new world?

Sandel suggests that the markets and the state are NOT the only instruments of the common good, and poses another challenge for all us: what does fairness mean in today’s world? He asks whether a Big Society can cross ideologies and classes, whether it’s fair for students to pay fees or for footballers to be paid more than carers.

Call me naïve, but I welcome the fact that our Prime Minister, who benefited from the privilege delivered to him by the profit driven Thatcherist  ‘non-society’, has discovered that there is such thing as society. And he likes it and wants it to be BIG.  I would also welcome more clarity on what a Big Society means in a world in which the free market has overreached itself, turning everything and everyone into commodities.

And I am grateful that I now live in the country where those civilised philosophical debates are possible despite all our cynicism and in the face of austerity.

At MRCF, we know a thing or two about justice and fairness, as many of our members have experienced persecution in their countries of origin and struggle to access justice in the UK. Many of them succeed despite all kinds of systemic obstacles and the main reason they do succeed is in their connectedness to others who provide support because they recognise the need for mutualism and common good as the foundation of a good society. One example of how we accomplish this is in the power of citizens organising on issues that are important to us and our communities.

MRCF members, supporters, volunteers and partners also know a thing or two about taking responsibility for ourselves-since we recognise the fact there is no such thing as static identity, static society or static community. We are evolving together as we organise to take care of issues around us. What makes that experience a successful one is how well we relate to each other and everything around us in the process. This connectedness works best when it is unconditional and driven by our deep desire to create something better for all of us.

We are citizens and neighbours to each other, rather than just customers.

The Big Society (or Good Society) concept is workable only if it is not about replacing services that are being cut, or about compulsory volunteering, but about equality and fairness. This is not about charity; it is about justice. If you are not sure where you stand in this equation, ask yourself if you would rather be on the receiving end of someone’s charity or a part of the solution in an organised way, as someone who is recognised and respected for your efforts, along with your fellow citizens.

The new, BETTER society, regardless of its size, needs to reflect an understanding of the world that we have today based on science, knowledge, logic, technology and all other available information about human development. Since the world is made up of collaborative communities, which are in turn made up of individuals with diverse identities, our society must value cooperation over competition.  And most importantly for us at MRCF, it needs to be an INCLUSIVE society, where new citizens can have a voice and be accepted and valued in a respectful way.

As we re-launch the MRCF website today showcasing the voices of our members, a long to-do-list awaits, starting with a campaign to prevent legal aid cuts and our concerns about access to justice. We invite you to join us and support our work with migrants and refugees and to help us face the challenges ahead, regardless of the buzz words that may be winning the day out there.


Justice – Fairness and the Big Society Debate was filmed  on 18th January at the Royal Institute and broadcast on Sunday 23 January on BBC Four at 9.00pm; programmes in this new season continue every night this week on BBC Four.


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