Deconstructing David Cameron: Universalism and Particularism

England’s present Prime Minister who heads a liberal-conservative government is a man of many contradictions. I am going to take a brief look at one of them: Namely the ideological contradiction engendered by his criticism of state multiculturalism voiced in Munich on the 5th of February, 2011 and his ongoing espousal of ‘The Big Society’ – An idea which I believe can be linked to a decades-old discourse of communitarianism.

Communitarianism

Put briefly: Communitarianism is a political discourse which emerged in 1970s Anglo-American academia. It is driven by a critique of a perceived tendency amongst liberals to privilege the universal over the particular: Firstly, in the sense that proponents of liberalism can claim that theirs is the best, or even the only viable political system available. Secondly, a claim can be made that liberal states have become more centralised, top-down and bureaucratic; denying ordinary individuals and communities the self determination which is supposed to be so central to liberalism. For a more detailed summary, please consult this essay.

I will be focusing on the the latter point as I feel that a criticism of a bloated, monolithic state bureaucracy ties in well with Cameron’s notion of a ‘Big Society’. As he said during his speech on the 15th of February, 2011: ‘we have got to devolve more power to local government, and beyond local government, so people can actually do more and take more power[…] we have got to open up public services, make them less monolithic. (source) This rhetoric is highly communitarian. In an article for the Guardian he writes: ‘the Conservative programme for government is founded on such a radical revolt against the statist approach of the Big Government that always knows best. (source) Cameron, it seems, has created his a new binary opposition with the Big Society privileged over the Big government – Mirroring that of the particular over the universal.

As a man with PR experience, Cameron has the nous to re-brand a potentially intimidating ‘big word’. It is also a good move in that the new label is fairly vague and is not loaded with meaning to begin with, making its meaning easier to dictate as it entered widespread use. Perhaps his decision not to drag the word ‘communitarianism’ into the current political forum is that it has, in some cases been used to refer to theories which, according to the following, excerpt were critical of free market capitalism:

‘Libertarian solutions favoured by the political right have contributed even more directly to the erosion of social responsibilities and valued forms of communal life, particularly in the UK and the US. Far from producing beneficial communal consequences, the invisible hand of unregulated free-market capitalism undermines the family (e.g., few corporations provide enough leave to parents of newborn children), disrupts local communities (e.g., following plant closings or the shifting of corporate headquarters), and corrupts the political process (e.g., US politicians are often dependent on economic interest groups for their political survival, with the consequence that they no longer represent the community at large). Moreover, the valorization of greed in the Thatcher/Reagan era justified the extension of instrumental considerations governing relationships in the marketplace into spheres previously informed by a sense of uncalculated reciprocity and civil obligation. This trend has been reinforced by increasing globalization, which pressures states into conforming to the dictates of the international marketplace.’ (source)

If he had simply appropriated the term, he would have had to deal with the cultural baggage which it had accumulated. He is, in my view at least, attempting to construct an ideology which suits his purpose as a proponent of privatization and marketization; while borrowing from other ideologies and glossing over any contradictions that this bastardised new ideology might contain.

‘Muscular Liberalism’

I now will analyse a transcript of the speech Cameron gave in Munich on the 5th of February, 2011.

Midway through this speech, Cameron says: ‘Under the doctrine of state multiculturalism, we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and apart from the mainstream. We’ve failed to provide a vision of society to which they feel they want to belong. We’ve even tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways that run completely counter to our values.’ Here, he is clearly espousing a universalistic view of liberalism, where all cultures must conform to a ‘mainstream’; in other words: a monolithic culture. In recent article for the Guardian, we can observe his familiar privileging of the particular over the universal: ‘[I]f neighbours want to take over the running of a post office, park or playground, we will help them. If a charity or a faith group want to set up a great new school in the state sector, we’ll let them. And if someone wants to help out with children, we will sweep away the criminal record checks and health and safety laws that stop them[.]‘ (source) While he opposes us living ‘separate lives, apart from each other and apart from the mainstream’, he is abundantly permissive when it comes to faith groups setting up public schools.

Conclusion

It seems that in terms of general English culture, he is willing to privilege universalism. But when it comes to the distribution of public funds and services, he’s all for particularism. Why not? It’s the cheapest and easiest position to hold. New labour can arguably be said to have held the opposite but equally contradictory position of privileging the universal when it came to the public sector and the particular, or plural in more general cultural matters. In this day an age, what is the harm of ideological contradiction? Personally, I think there are more pressing matters at hand, such as this government’s preferential treatment of larger banks and corporations, some of whom are to blame for the recession over the young and the poor, who had little to do with it.

Finally, and on a more personal note, I’d like to express my anxieties over one potential outcome of the Big Society: Neighbourhood watch organisations taking on the roles of fully fledged police. Policing is one area where I want public servants to be as impartial as possible – the idea of being policed my my neighbour scares me frankly. It’s not just that, I have moved around a lot over the course of my life and feel no particular connection to where I live. I don’t feel locally driven services would benefit me at all, and I don’t feel I have much to offer my community.

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