From Big Society to Meme Culture: from the Radical to the Performative
The slogan that advertised the flagship policy of the Conservative Party in the 2010 general election read ‘Big Society not Big Government’. A few months later in Liverpool, Prime Minister David Cameron reaffirmed his great passion for this powerful idea, ‘The Big Society is about a huge culture change… where people, in their everyday lives, in their homes, in their neighbourhoods, in their workplace… don’t always turn to officials, local authorities or central government for answers to the problems they face… but instead feel both free and powerful enough to help themselves and their own communities. It’s about liberation – the biggest, most dramatic redistribution of power from elites in Whitehall to the man and woman on the street. And this is such a powerful idea for blindingly obvious reasons.’
Cameron did not make explicit in his Big Society agenda what kind of power would be redistributed from the elites in Whitehall, focusing instead on “liberation” and individual power as ways to change culture. Big Society was an attempt to hegemonise culture through consent.
Successive and current UK and devolved governments have benefited from this method, themselves utilising cultural accommodation in an attempt to achieve hegemony of culture. Cultural accommodation relies upon consent, drawing from non-dominant cultures without allowing any significant impact to be made on central ideas and beliefs. From the ways in rural towns are experiencing similar aggressive gentrification processes as neighbourhoods within big cities, this can be seen across civic Scotland. As subordinate groups and their cultures see elements of themselves in the hegemonic culture, they do not confront a pure class culture. In turn, having co-opted cultural elements of the subordinate groups, the bourgeois culture stops being a pure bourgeois culture. By also co-opting lived experiences of the subordinate group, dominant groups can again gain consent to cultural hegemony via co-operation.
This for example, According to Stuart Hall, “It works primarily by inserting the subordinate class into the key institutions and structures which support the power and social authority of the dominate order. It is, above all, in these structures and relations that a subordinate class lives its subordination.”.
Ten years on from Cameron’s Big Society not Big Government, we find ourselves in a world where the commodification of grassroots and liberatory practices continues to be done by political institutions, movements and individuals as well as brands.
In recent times, the visibility of Black feminists such as bell hooks and Audre Lorde has undeniably increased. Though recognition of works by Black women thinkers are always welcomed, by reducing radical theory into mere catchphrases, this demonstrates an inability to take Black Feminist thought seriously. Whilst Francesca Sobande writes of brands as ‘not activists, altruistic or “allies”, despite their efforts to suggest otherwise via strategically crafted campaigns, social media content and corporate social responsibility agendas’, the same could also be said of political institutions, movements and individuals, whose engagement of works by Black feminists seldom go beyond a performance of wokeness.
Across political and personal lines, more time is being devoted to upholding inadequate (re)interpretations of identity politics – and intersectionality. Such interpretations are often rooted in the belief that identity consciousness is a selfish political theory – whose origins are usually located in the neo-liberal academy or marketing strategies of profit-making organisations – which seek to diminish ‘real politics’ and issue-based movements, as they are centred on the self.
Identity politics has its roots in an expansive and radical agenda. In the mid-1970s, a group of Black feminist scholars and activists began meeting in Boston to address the political concerns of black women, which they felt had been ignored by the larger feminist movement. They called themselves the Combahee River Collective and in 1977, issued “A Black Feminist Statement”. Having found that the feminist movement and other groups—including Black power and civil rights – were lacking in their approach to ending the oppression of Black women and women of colour, the collective wrote:
“We realize that the only people who care enough about us to work consistently for our liberation is us. … This focusing on our own oppression is embodied in the concept of identity politics. We believe that the most profound and potentially the most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression.”
The original intent of identity politics was to articulate Black women’s struggle at the nexus of race, gender, sexual, and class oppressions and then form strategies for dismantling each of these, both in black feminist spaces and in coalition with other groups. When we refuse to acknowledge the origins of a term – in this case, working towards being recognised as beings and collective liberation – we end up with the current narrative of identity politics. The type which believes it is highly individualistic and diminishing of real politics.
Leftist interpretations of identity politics and those which reduce arguments to economic causes and the economic struggle of class, do little to add to the debate. As A. Sivananadan puts it:
“Western working class movements have belied their own class experience by refusing to re-assess both their class instinct and their class position in the light of new historical forces, especially the forces of revolution removed from their own.”
Interpretations such as those highlighted, lack context and understanding in which the theory was formed by the Combahee River Collective and fail to engage with the political forces and interests – both state and ruling class – which continue to create and shape those identities.
Any movement – including the Scottish Independence movement – has to acknowledge we have varied identities and be able to relate to these specific experiences – including our own. We should seek to do this in the ways in which they were intended, or we remain at risk of pursuing, yet another powerful idea which refuses to liberate all people.