Three years after he “stormed” to an underwhelming minority victory against a discredited government, UK Prime Minister David Cameron is facing attacks from Left and Right within his coalition. Liberal Democrat Secretary of State for Business Vince Cable assailed the austerity-based recession being created by his own government, in a 4000 word essay in the New Statesman (the Australian equivalent is Paul Howes tweeting the word “f-cknuckle”), while former health secretary Liam Fox attacked from the Right, calling for a three-year spending freeze.

The Tories are polling five points behind Labour, which has stayed quiet for six months, to let the coalition parties tear each other apart. Given the Lib-Dems in the middle, Labour only needs to take 30 seats from the Tories (in a 650-seat Parliament) to win power (in a coalition). Though Cameron has growing into the role of prime minister, his government is not even remotely comparable to the sense of command and purpose that New Labour had in 2000, or Margaret Thatcher had in 1983. It’s weak, purposeless and barely competent. So what better time to borrow one of its key policies? Yes, the “big society” is coming to Australia!

God, the “big society” — it’s like one of those false nostalgia effects, where something a fortnight old seems like it happened 20 years ago. The idea — that volunteer networks, co-operatives and the like could replace areas of the state — was something Cameron and Co ran on in the lead-up to the 2010 election, presenting themselves as post-Thatcherite one-nation Tories. The idea was allegedly drawn from the work of Philip Blond, of the Res Publica think-tank, and championed by Steve Hilton, the bicycling new Tory guru, basis for The Thick Of It‘s hapless Tory spinner Stewart Pearson (“I’m a human transponder”).

Blond has perhaps done what various Brits do when they can no longer get an audience at home: come out here to spruik. Perhaps he has been attracted by Tony Abbott’s religious conviction and the belief that he will draw on influences other than neoliberal market worship. If so, he is likely to be disappointed again, for Abbott simply does not recognise a critique of the market that is anything more than marginal or incidental.

Coming from the Catholic Right tradition — which, via other tributaries, led to Pinochet and Franco — Abbott is happy to have a state that enforces the market, guards “traditional” values and does little for its victims — a disabling state. This gives Labor one advantage from the timelag — it can go in hard on the “big society” as WorkChoices by other means and a denial of the fair go.

Some in the UK said the “big society” idea was a spin-exercise itself — unlikely, since it was received with bewilderment, which fortunately did not last, being replaced with derision. Most people considering switching their vote to the Tories simply wanted to know that Cameron wouldn’t do a full Maggie — when he announced that he would “ringfence” the NHS and pensions from cuts, he won the election. Those in work and dealing with long hours and declining services barely noticed the call to volunteerism. Those with little or no work saw it as a prevarication.

Nevertheless, various initiatives went ahead, including a “big society” bank to make social investment loans and a community organiser training scheme. These were the genuinely positive proposals, and Cameron — a soft-handed man who probably reminds Baroness Thatcher of the huge vats of Mr Whippy she made up in her days as a food chemist — seemed to have a commitment to them.

But there were other proposals that were contradictory at their root. The drive to “localism” and “empowerment” reduced complex planning laws to a dozen pages and “empowered” people to come up with community plans. However, it also vastly reduced the scope for objections to planning applications. Wanting to preserve your village rather than extend it wasn’t the big society. That was NIMBYism. Developers took free rein (though they are still sitting on millions of hectares of land, refusing to build), and many people felt cheated. Beyond that, of course, there were the pure con jobs — the “welfare to work” programs in which giants like Tesco got dole recipients for free grunt labour laughably labelled as “training programs”.

“Any right-wing party that takes on a ‘big society’ concept based on co-operativeness and volunteering has conceded a great deal of ground to the Left.”

By this time, Cameron’s coalition’s cuts were starting to hit local services such as libraries and hospitals, and the second and more visible part of the big society idea kicked in — that local state-provided services would be run by volunteers. This was what the public latched onto, as the move gave evidence to arguments by Labour and the unions the that “big society” was just a way of taking over services many would now regard as essential, using unpaid labour.

By 2012, both the coalition and the press had stopped talking about it altogether, not because of anything new, but because the notion of any sort of dynamic or liberatory politics had been replaced by a grey, miserabilist slog-through, a cynicism and all-embracing governmentalism. The final, absurd touch was when the outsourcing of health services to vast combines — Devon had to choose between Virgin and Serco to provide children’s services — was chalked up as part of the “big society”. By that point Steve Hilton (or steveguruhilton as a fake Twitter account styles him) had been shipped off to a think-tank in, of course, California, while Philip Blond (unkindly and hilariously caricatured as a figure called “Mr Bollocks” by cartoonist Steve Bell in The Guardian, and accused of styling his hair with goosefat) disowned Cameron in 2012, saying he had abandoned a “one-nation” conservatism and “retoxified” his own party.

What is there to say about the “big society” concept? Let’s begin with one big fact — any right-wing party that takes on a “big society” concept based on co-operativeness and volunteering has conceded a great deal of ground to the Left. Why? Because while its visible focus is the state, its implicit argument that community connection is built through volunteering, co-operation and often forms of intentional connection, is really an admission that the market is an alienating and antisocial institution. For Thatcher, coming out of classical liberalism, the big society was created by creating a big market, a catallaxy of virtuous buyers and sellers building trust between strangers. To say that there has to be a third process to build society is to give the game away.

That wasn’t a problem for Blond, a theologian by training, whose book Red Tory, from which much of the “big society” stuff was taken, was as critical of the market as it was of the state. Blond drew on a variety of Left and Right influences, from writer G.K. Chesterton and the Catholic social movement through US sociology to the critical-Marxism-Freudianism of the Frankfurt School, to argue that UK society had taken a double whammy over the years since 1945.

The statist semi-socialism of 1945-1979 had sucked a great deal of autonomy and self-reliance out of British life; the Thatcher revolution handed social power to the market, producing powerlessness and alienation. For Blond, what passed for contemporary conservatism (and New Labour) — a mix of “free-market” capitalism and a soft authoritarian state presiding over an evacuated social space, a wilderness — is the worst of all possible current options. Parties of both sides had to curtail both state and market, in order to create an enabled society.

Trouble was, when this was taken up by the Tories, one half of it was left off. Hahaha, guess which. Both the Tory party and the press focused almost exclusively on the idea of an energy-sapping state and barely talked about the market at all. So the argument became transmuted into something more like American libertarianism — the state that was a sort of vampire, adding no value, sucking the life out of everything. Many of the Tories who had adopted the “big society” idea were genuine about it — and genuinely clueless about its dual focus.

They were, as Cameron remarked in an unguarded moment, “Thatcher’s children”, kids who studied philosophy, politics and economics at Oxbridge, read The Economist and then went into banking, management, PR. They lacked Thatcher’s conception of an epic battle between good and evil — it just seemed obvious to them that private and market solutions worked better than state or social ones. They saw the mutualist and co-operative notions of a “big society” through market-tinted spectacles — markets without money — missing its appeal to the collectivist nature of tradition and locality, and the implicitly anti-capitalist attitude of the social movements it drew on.For Labour the “big society” malarkey was both a godsend and a temptation. It gave them a chance to assail the Tories about cutting basic services while also suggesting that they were taking people for mugs — which took attention away from the deficits Labour ran up in its last years, which served as the occasion for Tory cuts. It was a temptation because it meant Labour could just fall back on the heroic story of post-WWII prime minister Clement Attlee, the welfare state, all in together, etc — and ignore the fact that the big state must unquestionably share some of the blame for the evacuation of British social life.

Indeed, Ken Loach’s just-released film The Spirit of ’45 makes this point from the Left — that after the Attlee era, there was little attempt to go beyond the bureaucratic statist form of social democracy to genuine self-management. Today, that survives. Institutions like the NHS and housing authorities are still vastly better than the sheer absence of such in a place like the US — but they frequently treat their users and members like a lumpen mass, to be pushed and prodded around for some eventual and unspecified common good.

“If you want people to start doing volunteer, co-operative and non-commodified labour, you would need more flexibility around working time.”

That was fair enough in 1948 — Labour was recovering from a war, dismantling an empire and reconstructing the economy and society in a single five-year term, and there wasn’t much time for niceties. But that attitude was never really surrendered — it is, in its own strange way, a piece of WWII nostalgia, which dominates British life. That goes also, it must be said, with charges of malingering and lack of moral fibre. There is no question that unemployment is high in the UK — with the story of 1700 people applying for eight jobs at a new Costa coffee shop in the Midlands becoming famous — but it’s also true there are areas where positions are  sometimes go unfilled, or going unfilled until EU migrants drift in and fill them.

I don’t blame the Brits — these are often crap jobs in an expensive country, migrants are motivated by the desire to send money home (where it’s worth more), they’re glad to be out of even shittier shitholes, and there are now a lot of employment agencies that bypass British job applicants altogether and just take Poles, Romanians, etc. But it’s a self-mutilating process for many Brits to avoid work, one that does lead to passivity and isolation. Since everyone knows someone who is taking the piss as far as benefits etc go, it’s not convincing for Labour to simply pretend there have not been large areas of disengagement — or that all that is required to abolish them is more jobs.

The point about a big society is it would take a broader social change to make it possible than either party is willing to suggest. If you want people to start doing volunteer, co-operative and non-commodified labour, you would need more flexibility around working time, both when and how many hours you work, so that big society activity is not just squeezed in round the edges by exhausted people. There are numerous areas where genuine big society involvement would cost more rather than less. If you want people to be actively involved in their local school or hospital, you not only need their time, you need to have an interface with expert knowledge, which means doctors and hospital administrators need to factor into their working time, some hours to explain the factors that have to be considered in different budget and management choices — unless you want your hospital run like the local op shop.

Overwhelmingly, what would make the big society is for key public resources — utilities, etc — to come back into social and public ownership, without the old business of state bureaucracy running them. That, safe to say, is not contemplated in the big society model.

But there is a deeper problem, and that is that even the most sincere attempts to reconstruct society on this model is harking back to an earlier social form, in which social connection was built up around less mobility, more horizontal interconnection (friends, social groups, etc), less media, less of a hyperindividualistic way of life. Hoping to glue things together by a somewhat compulsory volunteering thus becomes an authoritarian approach, cutting against the grain of social life. God knows, most people can recognise by now that, with all its advantages, our current hypermediated world has created vast powerlessness, loneliness, isolation and atomisation — much of which people are not willing to admit to.

Paradoxically, in Australia, and elsewhere, what would create more sociality — and shift costs and tasks from the state to society — would be more flexibility, not less: more leave, from parental leave and study leave to carer’s leave and volunteer leave, affordable housing options, better urban design for ease of living, more job sharing and access to higher education and training at various life stages, quite aside from the bigger question of social ownership. To get a big society, you are going to have to tell the market that it cannot occupy every inch of the proverbial public square — we need some of it for free life activity. Labor would have been well-placed to open these policies up, offer them as part of as part of a new deal, based on a fair share of the new prosperity, and set the political agenda — if it were not now dominated by free marketeers and robotic idolaters of “growth”.

Whether the party can produce an actual alternative remains to be seen, but Labor will most likely find itself about as far from the state as possible come September, so it will have a lot of time to fail to come up with new ideas.