In the debate at yesterday's launch of nef's paper on big society there was a lot of confusion about philanthropy, mutual aid and community action. Each of these at some point seemed to be implied by speakers and comments from the floor in using the short-hand but inadequate term 'charities' (or 'small charities'); and sometimes covered by the term 'volunteers'.
Each of these forms of involvement tries to compensate for the shortfall in formal support or otherwise complement the role of the state, and is assumed to be unpaid. However, they may differ very markedly - in political ideology for example and obviously in the degree to which they aspire to empower or in practice disempower. It's also obvious that they are unevenly distributed in localities across the country. As I've suggested before, in some places it will be relatively easy to mobilise philanthropic volunteering while in others it could prove very hard to sustain even the proudest tradition of mutual aid.
Guardian Society editor Patrick Butler was the only one to come close to unpacking this in his short talk, sending me back to a seminal paper by Gabriel Chanan called Taken for granted, published in 1991.
Taken for granted was important because it revealed the distinction between volunteering based on a philanthropic tradition (ie something which comes from the surplus that 'well-motivated people' donate to others who they see as less fortunate than themselves); and community action which arises from people's own life-support needs, being
occupied in looking after children, elderly people, sometimes people with disabilities, and in doing the whole range of unpaid work which is taken for granted in the running of society - cooking, shopping, cleaning, maintaining social networks, 'emotional housekeeping', protecting local interests and the many other forms of essential activity which we take for granted as the basis for our common existence.
Gabriel went much further, locating the cause of the confusion over the community and voluntary sectors in the economic value placed on unpaid work:
All this tends to confirm the conventional definition of economic activity and to reinforce the image of the 'inactive' half of the population as being passive dependents of the 'active' half.
Sounds sort-of familiar. Twenty years on, here we are contemplating a forced revision of that conventional definition of economic activity against a cacophony of complaints about the economically 'inactive'. It's not a good time to be blurring our understanding of the different agents who can bring about that revision.
Patrick Butler warned yesterday of the possibility that before too long
'many of the charities that the big society will rely on will be dead, dying or missing in action.'
This brings an urgency to the necessary examination of that word 'charities', and perhaps we have to move the big society emphasis away from philanthropy that disempowers, to mutual aid and community action that drives and makes possible the development of skills, confidence, trust, tolerance, co-production, and local economies that include caring.