mute column

Welcome to the Big Society!

By ben, 24 July 2010

The first in an irregular series of Mute columns kicks off with some reflections on a very special week for the UK and its 'plabour' pool

Hello and welcome to The Big Society! This is the week that we officially entered the new Victorian order of voluntary servitude and self-managed devalorisation, courtesy of Uncle Dave Cameron. From now on public services that cannot be supplied by public-private partnerships or privatised outright will be self-managed by their users. It’s like a vast extrapolation from the ‘plabour’ economics of Web 2.0, except it’s for stuff you don’t actually want to do under any circumstances. What happened first in the social networks must now happen throughout the network society. To keep trillions in fictitious capital from total collapse we must cut our own reproduction in half. Wow, sounds great! When do we start?


As one would expect, one wasn’t kept waiting long. After Cameron announced the new dawn on Monday – passion, duty, service cuts repackaged as an explosion of opportunity and civic responsibility – I was already set to join the new nation of funky roadsweeper volk, collectively DIY-ing our way to an early (self-dug) grave. On Tuesday I received an email from the university where I teach. The author of this circular asked me if I would like to volunteer to read the college's electricity meters every month (in addition to my existing duties, that is). Awesome! The college’s estates dept was embracing the need to make cutbacks in a robust and realistic manner, and just a few minutes volunteering every week would be enough to make a significant difference. The college also wrote in a separate email asking if I would consider voluntary retirement. (Maybe I could just retire and come in occasionally to read the meters anyway? It's good to keep busy). I thought of the scene in the film about the complete collapse of human reproductive activity, Children Of Men, in which advertisements for suicide kits flicker on the windows of the tube trains. 'Quietus... For when you choose'.

Wednesday brought yet more Big Society type excitement and debate: In a departmental meeting the Head discussed the letter he was drafting in protest about the requirement for lecturers to monitor overseas students and report those who fail to attend classes to the UK Border Agency. A staff member objected to one of the sentences. Surely 'Orwellian' was a bit of a strong word? Surely. I mean, Orwell was writing about states that operated beyond or outside the law of value, right? Shabby pseudo-communitarian regimes which staggered from crisis to crisis on the back of austerity stricken hordes. No comparison there. Our totalitarianism is flexible, outsourced, and geared to immediate profits. They wont even work you over without an incentive, a clear mission statement, and a state approved manual on how to administer 'restraint' (see below). Having said that, the new Big Society model suggests we really will have to put the old graffitti into practice – 'support the police, beat yourself up'.


Is it a coincidence that this is also the week that European States seem set to follow through on France's innovative piece of repressive legislation and ban the wearing of burqas? Presumably the burqa must be banned because secular states – whether more or less private-public in structure – want a monopoly on neo-feudalism. Meanwhile the UK’s Big Society continues to tolerate the burqa. We are, after all, a world centre of bleeding heart liberalism and tolerance. As if to drive this fact home, Big Society week also saw publication of a secret State document which gives new meaning to that synonym of tolerance, ‘restraint’. Produced by HM Prison Service, ‘Physical Control in Care’ is a State-issued handbook for the abuse I mean control of child prisoners. For example: ‘Use an inverted knuckle into the trainee's sternum and drive inward and upward.’ Or, if this isn’t restrained enough for you, how about: ‘Drive straight fingers into the young person’s face, and then quickly drive the straightened fingers of the same hand downwards into the young person’s groin area.' And they call Islam medieval.

One begins to wonder once again whether it is not the supposed lack of freedom or low level violence involved in the wearing of burqas but rather their resistance to the full penetration of (State) control that makes them so obnoxious to some members of the Big Society. It’s as if the burqa were, along with the asbotic hoodie and the black bloc’s bandana, one of those obstacles to transparency that tests the limits of state tolerance – not to mention it’s restraint.


Still, the Big Society is a place for big ideas and blue sky – indeed sky blue – thinking. Nothing is not fungible if you look at it the right way. Perhaps if the burqa were put on a private-public, more fully integrated economic basis we could find a middle way between ostensibly antagonistic models of governance? The answer, surprising as it may seem, could lie somewhere on the sky blue strip of London’s brand (and I mean brand) new Barclays Cycle Superhighway. Somewhere between Barking and Bank, to be precise. Crowning this week of week’s mound of big social innovations, the Cycle Superhighway will criss-cross the city (a bit), and one of the first routes to be opened this week runs right through the East End’s not yet fully gentrified Asian ghetto, Shadwell. (Why is this the solution to the burqa question? Bear with me…)

In return for painting blue squares and white digits (stock market tickers?) on the road at regular intervals, Boris Johnson has officially handed Barclays the right to (re)brand London with the Barclays logo. Alongside a crap icon of a quiffed androgyne on an invisible bike, the Barclays logo is displayed on sky blue banners every ten metres along the route. This phatic prattle is complemented by bus stop type metal sign boards obstructing the pavement. These enhance the fiction that bicycles are now fully part of the public transport infrastructure (even though it’s up to you to buy and maintain them) and also serve to supply reified directives as to the speed at which one cycles from one Transport For London (TFL) designated location to the next. Thus according to the signs it now officially takes 3 minutes to cycle from the bottom of Mile End park to Limehouse. (It’s not clear if one is fined for taking longer).

At a stroke cycling has been subsumed – semiotically at least - under the Barclays/TFL partnership. You can now experience your bike as part of the infrastructure and rolling stock. Your journey, once replete with vagaries, detours, potholes, is now calibrated to within an inch of its life. As part of TFL's fixed capital you are enjoined to 'cycle responsibly' on the carefully demarcated routes. But the main contribution made by Barclays’ largesse seems to be one of nomination – the sections of actual cyclepath (those blue strips) are obnoxiously prominent when one encounters them, but fairly rare in the network as a whole. This is a visual and ‘PPPsychogeographic’ annexation more than a new piece of infrastructure. True to the logic of the Big Society, the innovation itself is quite slight (indeed some car and even bus and train fans, not to mention partisans of The Future, whatever that was, would see the shift back to cycling as a direct retrogression, but that’s another story). Yet as a technique for reducing State overheads and reproduction costs while ramping up the profile of a major private bank, it’s a winner. Barclays stock goes up, even if the streets are too expensive to repair properly.


Does anyone else feel troubled as London becomes a straight split between Barclays (roads), Tesco (housing) and Serco (child care, army, that sort of thing)? One senses it is all a grim rehearsal for the coming Olympics branding maelstrom. A hurricane Katrina of corporatisation which may make the Cycle Superhighway seem like a mere detail. I haven't seen a single word of complaint about this particular corporate-authoritarian coup in the media – except to register that, as with every PFI, it's late and the cycle paths, such as they are, are themselves frequently obstructed with summer (PPP) road works. This makes cycling in the corporate groove even more dangerous than braving the unmarked roads. It's almost as if... I think again of Children of Men, the ads for Quietus rippling across the glass of the Tube, banners flickering on the TFL website...

But no, surely not. After all, most of the cyclists I see zipping by me on the blue brick road through darkest Shadwell into the corporate Oz of Canary Wharf are plastic helmeted fluoro-jacketed corporate cyclons. No one wants to get rid of them (well, no one important). And cycling is not for producers of surplus value, not these days, not in the Big Society. Boris Johnson’s forthcoming rent-a-bike scheme will be prohibitively expensive (£3.50 a day, paid on your credit card of course). The poor needn't fear death on bicycle, but perhaps one day if they work hard their children will be able to afford it. Children of men...

So, apart from occasional blue strips and the re-subsumption of cycling under capital (this time as pseudo-productive farce), the main contribution of the Cycle Super Highway will have been the rebranding of the bicycle accident. Now when one is mown down by an SUV while negotiating a 10 foot pothole it will take place under the aegis of Barclays and Boris's blue. That brilliant blue which, Boris declares, is neither the blue of the Tories nor of Barclays but ‘the blue of freedom’ [Quote not made up].

This brings us circuitously (via a non-TFL approved route) back to the conundrum presented by the burqa for an isle of tolerance and ever-increasing restraint. Is the Cycle Superhighway, as it shoots through Shadwell and Poplar, not the perfect (cycle) path to a compromise? What better way to integrate those who persist in wearing farouche and unBritish garb than The Barclays Blue Bicycle Burqa? Whether as a colourful alternative to the standard issue get up for believers or even as a form of discipline for those who fail to meet or carelessly exceed the TFL’s stipulated journey times – unaerodynamic drag is a form of restraint after all – it would be a wonderful and throughly Big Social reworking of a well loved traditional form. A punishment which fits the crime so well you can’t even tell if there’s any stigma attached!

In fact, perhaps we should all adopt the blue bicycle burqa in the spirit of Big Society broadmindedness and bonhomie. What if people gave up just a little of their spare time over the next few weeks to cape up and zoom around the city flame-throwering those Barclays Blue Banners off their egregious poles? Every little helps (as our sponsors like to say), and you’d be surprised how many people would give up an evening for something like that…


The same newspaper that apprised me of the splendours of the Big Society also contained an article by its economics editor. Apparently arts organisations and other recipients of culture funding should stop whingeing and accept that from now on everything must be branded. Apparently if that means placing sponsors' names prominently in theatre productions and other performance arts (Waiting for Tesco?) then That’s How Its Got To Be. The author of the article’s name escapes me but hopefully the Standard will soon be making economies of their own...

As Jeremy Hunt slashes the Department of Culture Media and Sport’s staff by 50% and the government gears up to cut all culture funding up to 40%, it seems sensible that Mute should now consider seeking sponsorship for every page of their next issue. An orgy of private sector subsidy seems the only rational response to the cuts and is indeed directly in line with policy. Why not a SercoMute dedicated to Big Society self-help advice, diagrams showing 'how to violently abuse your inner child'? There’d be some blank 'self-publishing' pages sponsored by Barclays (of course), and a TFL cycling section - also sponsored by Serco (since, incidentally, they are slated to supply the racks for Boris's forthcoming bike-mortgaging scam. Perhaps they could throw in a set of Credit Default Stocks for the humiliation of debtors as part of the package)?

It will need a cover of course. I suggest a field of about 500 logos (like that entrepreneurial teen’s record beating webpage a couple of years back) punctuated with a smattering of images of dead cyclists, inverted knuckles ramming the ribs of incarcerated children, and perhaps a couple of women being liberated from the burqa by French police officers – draped in the freedom blue of the Tricoleur no doubt. The only question is, can we afford Thomas Hirschhorn, or will we have to bow to the spirit of the Big Society and Do It Ourselves?