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Welfare & Subsidiarity

UK/ The 'big society' needs religion

The 'big society' will not work unless it is informed by religious ideas of free and reciprocal giving. The task for a genuinely new politics is to transform state and market according to the principles and practices of gift-exchange  

David Cameron (Photo Ansa)David Cameron (Photo Ansa)

David Cameron's "big society" speech on Monday called for more "people power" and "a new culture of voluntarism, philanthropy, social action". The trouble is that this requires not only an end to top-down, command-and-control state sovereignty but also civic limits on free-market capitalism. By viewing human associations and intermediary institutions as more fundamental than either state or market, religious traditions are indispensable to a vibrant civil society.

Much of secular politics still views the voluntary sector either as extension of the state or a sub-section of the market. This subordinates social bonds either to uniform state law or to proprietary market relations or both. Indeed, state and market collude by subjecting the whole of society to formal standards that abstract from real, embodied relations of family, friendship, community, habit, ritual and celebration – as Archbishop Rowan recently argued.

Moreover, the purpose and scope of voluntary, civic activity is severely constrained: it merely compensates for state and market failures, rather than supporting the autonomy of the communities, groups and associations that compose civil society.

Even when this autonomy is acknowledged (as with Cameron), voluntary action, philanthropic giving or social enterprise are often seen as a "third sector" separate from secular politics and for-profit business. If austerity is not just about retrenching government and expanding private delivery of public services, then both state and market must be radically reformed to support rather than undermine civic institutions.

Religions are central to an alternative vision that seeks to transform political and economic practices in line with gift-exchange and strong notions of the sacred. Linked to this is the inalienable dignity of persons and the intrinsic worth of our shared natural habitat. For life is ultimately a gift bestowed upon us and not a matter of legal entitlement or individual possession. For Christians that means a divine source creating the universe out of love and goodness – hence the sanctity of life and land.

From a religious perspective, the voluntary sector is about fostering and nurturing gift-exchange in society. The giving, receiving and returning of gifts is the most universal mode of human interaction. By providing the basis for social bonds of trust, reciprocity and mutuality, gift-exchange cuts across tribal, national and religious divisions.

Critics will object that gift-exchange either locks people into relationships of dependency or else is utopian and unworkable in modern societies. In turn, the reason is that gift-giving (like charitable giving to the poor) is unilateral and not really reciprocal at all.