8 February 2011

The Big Society and the resurrection of guilt-edged philanthropy?

The mystery of David Cameron's 'big society' is still bubbling along - from an ernest discussion of philanthropy on Newsnight a week or so ago to an erudite editorial in today's Guardian.

In response to the former, I was so unimpressed by the moralising waffle from the 'expert' guests that I tweeted something along the lines of "any first year sociology student could surely do a better job than this" on Twitter.

What I had in mind was that any first year sociology student will have been exposed to Max Weber's classic thesis on the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, which didn't get a mention from any of Newnight's 'experts' (at least while I was watching).

Weber in a nutshell
Central to Weber's argument was that Protestantism, especially the Calvinistic variety, was a powerful incentive to work hard, because work would keep you on the straight and narrow and protect you from sin. If this resulted in your accumulating wealth and spending it on yourself, you'd be veering back towards sin, so you'd better plough it back into the business - which would then grow further and offer yet more temptations, so you'd better plough that back into the business as well - and accumulate more wealth, etc., etc.

That, according to Weber, was what had spurred enterprise and capitalism to grow so strongly in protestant countries. But, as old age approached, the best way for the wealthy to avoid sin - and to save their offspring from the temptation of spending it all on themselves (i.e. sinning) - was to give large chunks of their capital away to worthy causes, as exemplified by famous English philanthropists like Lord Leverhulme and Joseph Rowntree.

Is British philanthropy a thing of the past?
One of the complaints being made by some of the pundits in the media (e.g. in the Newsnight programme mentioned above) has been that Britain's current generation of super-rich, unlike some of their counterparts in the USA, are much less philanthropic than their predecessors.

I have no idea how accurate a claim this is (as I could name at least one English billionaire who gives rather a lot of his money away - but does so without having his name attached to any of the benefits he pays for).

A legacy of the 1960s?
However, I am inclined to believe that there may well be fewer British philanthropists than there used to be, because I also happen to believe that the decline of the Protestant Ethic - i.e. a major motivation for philanthropy, according to Weber - may have been a hidden and lasting legacy from the 1960s.

I'm not suggesting that the sixties saw a sudden reduction in British puritanism in any particularly religious sense, but rather that people started to feel less guilty about enjoying leisure activities when they could/should have been working.

Work, leisure and guilt
My evidence is admittedly rather flimsy and personal, as it comes from noticing how some of my academic colleagues during the 1970s-80s, only a few years younger than me, seemed to have no qualms at all about taking whole afternoons off work to play golf or cricket - whereas I, along with others of a similar age, felt thoroughly guilty about taking as much an hour off to play squash, even though we had no particular commitment to Calvinism or any other form of protestantism.

In other words, when it came to feeling guilt about not working, there seemed to be a big difference between those of us born before 1950 and those born after 1950, perhaps because the younger cohort had spent more of their youth growing up during the swinging sixties than we had.

If there's any truth at all in this, more of today's British super-rich are also likely to have been born since 1950, in which case they're probably much less afflicted by feelings of guilt about spending their money on themselves than the wealthy once were. And, if the guilt factor has declined, it may also have weakened a key motive for graduating from entrepreneur to philanthropist.

The Big Society?
As for what such arguments have to do with David Cameron's 'big society', I don't know - unless the idea is to resurrect communal guilt in the hopes that it will motivate more of us to abandon some of our leisure pursuits in favour worthier causes...

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