Pop-up communities: here to stay?


This is an edited version of my contribution to a debate on Saturday, part of the After the Riots strand at the Battle of Ideas festival held at the Barbican, London.

I didn’t see the previous debates in this strand. My wife is expecting our first child so I have been in Antenatal class all day. I wouldn’t have mentioned it except that being a parent – or being a ‘good’ parent – seems to have more than a personal significance these days. Especially after the riots. Bad parents, problem families, or the ‘troubled families’ discussed this morning, were quickly blamed. Or else patronised by those claiming to want to ‘support’ them.

I don’t know what he had to say this morning, but I was pleased, shortly after the riots, to hear David Lammy say what a number of us had been banging on about for a while. Parents feel undermined by a political class that tells them how to bring up their kids; or in the case of smacking, how not to. Sadly he went and spoilt it all a few weeks ago when he blamed knife crime on absent fathers. Or was it absent fathers on knife crime? It doesn’t make much sense either way.

The tendency to indulge young adults’ very violent tantrums no doubt came up this morning too. But it is this notion that grown-ups just aren’t very grown up any more – that the previous debate focused on – that is a good way into this debate on communities. Adults don’t seem to have the authority they once had: whether it’s bringing up their children or holding the line against riotous youth. It is this crisis of authority that in my view created the conditions for last year’s riots, and continues to make an effective community response so very difficult.

I’m no localist but I was none too pleased to discover that my adopted neighbourhood of Walthamstow had been destroyed. Not by the riots – there was a bit of looting, but nothing too serious – but by the Boundary Commission. While the places we live – they are hardly communities really – tend to be anonymous and disengaging, especially in London, most of us still don’t like unwanted interventions and impositions from outsiders. So, while we barely talk to each other, I still resent the prospect of me and my fellow Stowians being divided up between neighbouring Leyton and Chingford as is proposed. On the non-parochial plus-side I also get a kick out of people sticking up for their communities.

So when around 1,000 residents of Clapham Junction arrived on their riot-hit streets armed with their brooms this was rightly celebrated after the events of the previous nights. It made a nice change to see communities taking the initiative where the authorities had failed. They were out there all big society-style and without the usual complaint about the impact of cuts that we’re used to hearing from the so-called community sector. The organised chaos of the rioters was shocking, but it was heart-warming to hear how those residents organised their own response quite literally overnight. Where the rioters used their blackberries, these residents used Twitter via #riotcleanup.

But there was still something not quite right. This ‘sense of community’ lasted only as long as the riots were deemed to be a threat. Once the police had regained what was left of their badly diminished authority on the streets of Tottenham, Hackney, Croydon and elsewhere; everybody went back home and got back to their socially detached lives. Still it was nice while it lasted and it wasn’t another consultant-led initiative claiming to be community-centred and bottom-up, when it is nothing of the sort.

I have in mind, for instance, the response to the burning down of the House of Reeves in Croydon. A family-run furniture store that had stood there for 140 years became one of the iconic burnt-out images of the riots. A year later the Reverse Riots campaign – run by the state-sponsored youth volunteering outfit vInspired – decided to plaster the remaining building with what The Guardian describes as ‘more than 4,000 images of young people holding positive statements’. That’s it. I have no idea what those positive statements were, because even The Guardian (a newspaper that tends to like this sort of thing) couldn’t be bothered to read out any of those messages. It was just another vacuous and uninspired ‘lets say nice things about young people’ initiative.

But there are good examples too. Personally I like pop-ups that don’t over-claim or take themselves too seriously. The likes of Sing London and Ping! England. Pianos and table-tennis tables just popping-up for no particular reason in public places. Really fun ideas that trust people not to nick the table tennis bats or the pianos for that matter. Table-tennis tables popped-up in Walthamstow during the Olympics; and last time I looked they were still there and being used. But the connection with The Games meant that they also became associated with the desperation for a ‘legacy’. Not just an East London legacy, but a feel-good legacy. In a way, the Games themselves were treated as one massive ‘pop-up’ response to the riots. According to The Independent they were an opportunity to regroup around a ‘common purpose’. But as Zoe Williams, who also spoke earlier today, put it: ‘We can’t hold an Olympics every year’.

The world of the pop-up community is very different to the cloth-capped communities of old. In the absence of a sturdier or more deep-rooted solidarity, we seem to be scrambling around to capture what are manifestations of a very impermanent sense of community. From the riots of 2011 to London 2012, every event becomes a pop-up vehicle. Every genuine sentiment, whether it’s that of the clean-up volunteers or of the Games Makers, is deadened by officialdom’s desperation to capture it.

In an interview with BBC News, Nick Hurd, Minister for Civil Society, talked about the importance of the response to the riots, of the Jubilee and London 2012. With remarkably frank cynicism he said the government wants to ‘tap-in’ to these events. He was being interviewed about the recently launched We will gather website. Built by the people who brought us #riotcleanup, and paid for with £100,000 of government money; it is only the latest attempt to bottle that community spirit. While I wish them well I think this is an impossible task, especially when officialdom gets so eagerly involved.

But we needn’t be so cynical ourselves; there is still life in the pop-up community. I’ll leave you with an example. Last week I read about the Battle of Barnet. (This has nothing to do with the Battle of Ideas, by the way.) In contrast with the vInspired House of Reeves pop-up, this Guardian story featuring a ‘hotchpotch alliance of squatters, retired booksellers, local bloggers and international anti-capitalist activists’, is genuinely inspiring. Not the sort of people that I would ordinarily have much time for admittedly. But this was different. They had just succeeded in preventing Barnet Council from closing a library. They had turned the big society tables on the infamous no-frills ‘Easy Jet’ Council. It is now being run, reportedly, by a ‘volunteer staff of guerilla librarians’ and supported by residents who have ‘donated 5,000 books to restock the shelves’. Now that’s my kind of pop-up community. And the volunteers even run ‘children’s story sessions’. Maybe I’ll move to Barnet.

In defence of hierarchical community


This is my contribution to Post-Riots, One Year On: Is there space for an individual response to community? at Union Chapel, Islington earlier this evening. The debate was inspired by Dixon Clark Court Symphony, a dual-site exhibition and collaborative project by Artist in Residence, Sarah Strang.

We were asked to say something about the ‘meaning of community today and how it can be meaningfully engaged with’. There is no end of projects tasked with engaging communities, but whether this is meaningful or not is a moot point. And what is meant by ‘community’ is something else again. I’ve spent the last couple of years or so running this sort of project myself. And at the risk of doing myself and lot of other people out of a job, on balance communities would probably be better off without us. If we stopped trying to engage communities, and instead disengaged, they might have a chance to breathe. There may be some good engagement projects out there. Like my own of course! But on the whole, whatever their good intentions, their impact on communities are likely to be a negative one.

To get an idea of what I mean, try Googling community engagement and see what you get. My top results included NICE guidance about ‘involving communities in decisions on health improvement that affect them’. This, for the lay person, means fostering anxiety about the alleged health impacts of decisions people make about how they live their lives, to ensure they are the ‘right’ ones as far as we think is healthy for them. Then there was the Joseph Rowntree Foundation report on Community Engagement and Community Cohesion which recommends not just community engagement but ‘community engagement support’. This is to manage the supposed hostility that the white working class inevitably visits on vulnerable ‘new arrivals’. It’s hard to know what to object to more, the portrayal of the natives as Neanderthals or of immigrant communities as inherently vulnerable and helpless.

There is even a Centre for Community Engagement at the University of Sussex. Their ‘Citizenship Research’ focused on how ‘adult learning might play a part in developing the skills and attitudes people need to engage as citizens’. This isn’t just community engagement either. This is community engagers wanting to engage with ‘adult learners’ about how best to engage as citizens, in much the same way that children are taught citizenship at school. Which rather reminds me of Matthew Taylor of the RSAs desire to create more ‘active’ citizens. This, he thinks, is the job of the state via a bit of nudging and behaviour change.

Either way, whether we’re to be ‘active’ or ‘engaged’ citizens, you kind of get the sense that what is really meant is pliable. They want to build – while involving us in the decisions of course – communities of compliant citizens. The sort that don’t ask awkward questions, but do put the rubbish in the right bin, eat the right sorts of food, get enough exercise, turn out to vote regardless of what’s on offer, and hold the right sort of views about immigration. They want to create healthy communities of healthy citizens, cohesive communities of citizens that are always nice to each other, and sustainable communities of citizens living sustainably. But, as we all know, thankfully, real citizens and real communities just aren’t like this. We tend to have minds, and ideas, of our own.

The panel were also asked while the ‘idea of community is widely discussed in policy terms’, what of the ‘subjective experience of community’ which is ‘more nuanced and ambiguous’? ‘Is there space for an individual response to community?’ It seems to me, as I’ve already indicated, that a meaningful response to community is being crowded-out by a hyperactive and actually rather damaging state-led communities agenda. Consequently the individual experience of community is one that remains hidden or else processed in terms that fit with this official version of ‘community’. The instinct to intervene, both on the part of the state and the state-sponsored voluntary sector, is so great that it has co-opted even the initially permissive rhetoric of the Big Society. Such is the contempt in which ordinary people are held that our self-appointed defenders insist that we need their ‘support’ to even take part. Whatever the problems that communities face they are never truly regarded as capable of solving those problems themselves. The ‘enabling’ state is built on the notion that people are not capable of solving their own problems. Why else would we need enabling? And why else would we need the state?

This was perhaps most striking following the riots. An unprecedented and unexpected episode of violence directed mostly by young people against their own communities was first met with an impotent and panicked response by the authorities; and then – along with belated tough talk by politicians and over-the-top sentencing in the courts – by a reverting to the old familiar and wrongheaded social policy agenda that arguably played a part in creating the conditions for the riots in the first place. And as if nothing out of the ordinary had occurred after all. The problem, we were told in all seriousness, was ‘problem families’ – apparently there are exactly 120,000 of them. They were ultimately to blame for the riots and could be expecting a multi-agency visit from the authorities.

But not only were parents told that the state knows best how to bring up their children – no doubt having done such a good job of looking after so-called looked after children. Those residents, who decided, in the absence of an effective police presence, to police their own streets, were also blamed. In fact it seemed that everybody and everything except the rioters were blamed for the riots. So while, we were told, it was nice to see them take to the streets with their brooms as part of the spontaneous riots clean-up, the allegedly-EDL supporting folk who took to the streets of Enfield were just vigilantes. While I have no sympathies with the EDL, indeed genuinely-EDL supporting saddoes took to my own streets of Walthamstow just a couple of weeks ago; in both cases they had every right to do so. And whatever their politics they were a more real expression of their community than anything imposed by community engagers from without.

The response of the authorities and illiberal commentators that we can’t allow people to just walk up and down their own streets like that, illustrates both the fearfulness of, and contempt for, real living communities and what people really think. The meaning of community is today so distorted by patronising assumptions about how both pathetic and potentially thug-like we all are, that it is hard for other takes on community to get a word in edgeways. Both an inability to project their own authority and an undermining of ours – both as parents, and as citizens concerned for the neighbourhoods we live in – is at the heart of both the difficulty with getting to grips with what community is all about, and with the reasons for and best ways of responding to what happened to those communities last year.

In my view this government’s and the previous government’s communities agenda tends to undermine communities rather than help them. The very language of community building and of supporting its ‘vulnerable’ members denies any space for more considered reflections and – I hesitate to use the word – engagement. This is because the obsession with community is a projection of the state’s own problems onto society.  The political class long for community because as a distant, cut-off elite they crave the sense of belonging they think it promises; making an unconscious analogy between their inability to connect with us, and the very real breakdown of some of our communities. They see the politics of community as a way of overcoming their own loneliness. After all, we can barely bring ourselves to vote for them, never mind join their parties or get worked up about their petty politics.

And I’m not just talking about the coalition. For all his ‘this government is out of touch’ rhetoric, Ed Miliband’s New Blue Labour is doubly cut-off both from the labour movement and from the working class communities in which it was, long ago, so firmly rooted. The liberal left – who I might add are neither liberal nor what I would regard as on the left in any historically meaningful sense – blame the 1980s (and Margaret Thatcher in particular) much as conservatives have long blamed the 1960s for the breakdown of community. They accuse those of us not willing to indulge the rioters’ excuses of being very right wing and blaming individuals instead of ‘the system’. The truth is that left liberals are forever individualising what are in fact social problems. Blaming greedy bankers and sleazy politicians for society’s problems may sound radical but makes no more sense than blaming The Pill or The Beatles.

Of course community, like the family, is not all good. Indeed, so anxious have we become in the absence or decline of the kinds of institutions that once helped us make sense of the world and each other, be it the Church or the TUC; and with no little encouragement from the supposedly ‘enabling’ state, we tend to think community’s problems are much worse than they really are. We refuse to believe that crime is falling and believe all to readily that ‘behind closed doors’ one of the neighbours is abusing their children while another is plotting a suicide attack.

We are so estranged from each other and so encouraged to think the worst, that the extension of the state’s remit and the erosion of our own is barely noticed. Which also makes communities increasingly unknowable not just for politicians, commentators and artists, but for those of us who loosely-speaking live in them. Our relationships with each other, no longer mediated by institutions in which we might invest our ever-diminishing trust – are increasingly reliant on weak and fleeting encounters, and prone to the kinds of individuated anxieties that weaken them further.

But while we should defend them as havens from officious intrusions; they shouldn’t be settled for, or regarded as in any way ideal. Not because they are hierarchical – which I’ll, finally, come to now – but because they can be parochial and inhibiting. We were asked ‘how hierarchical power structures within communities can provide and also fail to provide space in the public realm for individual and collective responses of both belonging and loneliness’. As I’ve tried to argue, it is not hierarchy but it’s erosion in our communities that we should be most worried about. The legitimate authority of parents in families, and by extension of adults in communities, is fundamental to their effective functioning. The undermining of these relationships, can only further the evacuation of authority from young people’s lives.

The riots and other social problems associated with communities today are in large part the consequence of too much engagement not too little. If community is to have any meaning worth engaging with, beyond that created for it by social policy wonks like me; then real living communities need to begin asserting their authority and rejecting the patronising assumptions that the communities agenda and the interventions it deems necessary are built on.

The real social glue is politics, not civility


First published in Spiked Review of Books

Together is the second in a trilogy of books by Richard Sennett, university professor of humanities at New York University and professor of sociology at the London School of Economics. It is part of what he describes as his ‘homo faber project’ – that is, man as his own maker. It was in writing his first volume in the trilogy, The Craftsman, that Sennett says he found himself thinking about ‘cooperation as a craft’. He wanted to look at how it ‘oils the machinery of getting things done’ and how ‘sharing with others can make up for what we individually lack’.

Sennett uses the example of the workshop through the ages. This is partly literal – to describe the cooperative ends to which craft has been put. But it is also used metaphorically, to illustrate the making and remaking of relationships and how we need sometimes to repair these relationships. The rituals and gestures that people have evolved over the centuries need to be worked at, and consciously shaped, if we are to reacquire the skills that enabled previous generations to get on with each other. So says Sennett.

Where other commentators reduce everything to demeaning comparative psychology and cost-benefit models, Sennett sets the scene with a rich historical account of how the creation of secular rituals has succeeded in ‘turning people outward in shared, symbolic acts’.

Sennett describes the Reformation’s challenge to the undermining of the cooperative rituals of the mass and the ‘spectacular theatre’ performed by the priest. (Sadly, he goes on to make a rather unhelpful analogy with ‘groomed and spin-doctored’ politicians playing to the supposedly duped and passive masses today.) There is the advent of printing that would ‘unsettle the authority’ of the medieval church and workshop alike. There is also the shift from chivalry to civility and the codes of courtesy that would impose an ethic of restraint on courtly behaviour and beyond. And there is the emergence of the ‘professional civility’ of business and of diplomacy in the imperial age. The fleeting ‘encounters with strangers in cafes and coffee houses’ of late eighteenth-century London and Paris is contrasted with a nineteenth century when ‘strangers would not speak to one another freely… unless expressly invited to do so’. Finally, there is the modern world where, for all the anxieties about how we relate to each other, we have an ‘insistent demand for intimacy’.

The key moment, though, as far as Sennett’s argument is concerned, is where he begins – in a late nineteenth-century Europe and America of rapidly industrialising cities. It is at this point, he observes, that two distinct traditions emerge: the social left and the political left, in response to the upheavals of the time. Advocates of the former – community organisers – called for ‘sociality’ and ‘mutual awareness’, particularly among emerging emigrant communities. The latter, trades unionists and the political representatives of labour, concerned themselves with workers’ solidarity. Like their modern-day counterparts in the community-building industry, the former pursued ‘cooperation with others as an end in itself’ and would ‘focus on immediate experience’. They realised, explains Sennett all too sympathetically, that the ‘big picture is likely to root even more deeply someone’s sense that it is hopeless to get involved’. It is good to ‘rouse people from passivity’, but not too much; to enable and assist, but never to ‘direct’ them. He thus finds history’s backing for his own leftish version of the UK government’s policies, an amalgam of the Big Society and ‘nudge’. In reading history backwards, he makes a case not only against the ‘political’ left but against politics itself.

Instead of drawing on his considerable insights into the way people have developed the secular rituals of cooperative behaviour in the past, to shed some light on what we lack today, Sennett opts for a familiar leftish prejudice. It is, we are told, inequality that is driving a wedge between us. Despite the historical gains and our apparently biologically given urge to cooperate, the ‘capitalist beast has crushed these promises’ and turned us against each other. The ways of the existing social order actively ‘repress and distort our capacity to live together’. But why now, you might ask? Surely even in our own austere times we’re much better off than earlier generations, never mind as compared with the era when this social system was created more than two hundred years ago? Sennett, though, is not concerned with the material impact of ‘capitalism in the raw’ so much as the ever-widening ‘spread between richer and poorer sections within a society’. This relative inequality encourages ‘invidious comparisons’, he says, that begin in childhood and that are felt particularly acutely in the UK and the US where the social bonds of cooperation are at their weakest.

This is not a new or especially convincing argument, but Sennett at least develops it in an interesting direction. During a study conducted in 1970s Boston, he was surprised to find that assembly-line workers would cover for underperforming, burdensome alcoholic colleagues. The trust between them, he recalls, established itself on the ‘shoals of weakness and self-damage’, a therapeutic theme he returns to a number of times. More likely, it was a collective strength derived from an appreciation of their shared interests that enabled workers to care for their weaker colleagues. Still, by contrast, Sennett’s interviews with back-office workers in today’s post-crash Wall Street revealed what he describes as an ‘absence of a countervailing culture of civility’. In place of the camaraderie of old he found a ‘thin, superficial’ connection between workers, however ‘embittered’ they may have felt about the threat to their jobs.

This shift in the experience of working relationships is a consequence of how ‘people’s experience of one another and knowledge of their institutions has shortened’, says Sennett. But by blaming ‘finance capitalism’ for this tendency towards incivility, he both ignores more important long-running and contemporary trends, and tends himself to drift from his broad historical account toward a narrow, psychosocial analysis.

For all his talk of the evils of capitalism and the psychic damage it inflicts, he doesn’t seem to want to do much about capitalism itself. While Sennett is appalled by the levels and persistence of unemployment in the UK, he sees the dole queue as an ever-lengthening fact of life to be accommodated to rather than challenged. The most important job of all, he declares, is that of the job counsellor. Skilled in ‘indirect cooperation’, he is best placed to manage the emotional impact of worklessness. Sennett even offers his own advice to job seekers, advising them not to ‘hammer home’ their desperate need for a job – reverting once more to the workshop analogy – but instead learn the rituals of the job interview.

He thinks this sort of thing necessary because increasingly people are unable to ‘manage demanding, complex forms of social engagement’. ‘Faced with a weak, lightweight and unreliable social order’, he argues, ‘people retreat into themselves’. They become narcissistic and self-absorbed. But rather than try to explain the emergence of this withdrawn character type by completing his historical account – or with reference to his rightly acclaimed book, The Fall of Public Man’ – he succumbs to it himself. He returns a number of times to his own childhood growing up in a public-housing project in a poor neighbourhood of the same city. Sennett describes the ‘littered streets and broken-windowed tenements’ of his own time as ‘disorders’ and those who got out as ‘survivors’ of a trauma. But this projection of a therapeutic imagination onto the messy business of urban change tells us more about Sennett today than Chicago then.

He conforms to the predominant view that we have too much individualism – but Sennett’s individualism is the fantasy, grasping kind – not the real, anxious kind. The officious over-regulation of everyday life, and the rise of vetting regimes to protect the ‘vulnerable’, is an ongoing feature of contemporary society and testament to this more troubling reality. This political culture of fear and restraint – and the anti-individualism of the new communitarians of both left and right – remains the most formidable obstacle to people cooperating with each other. Even the modest ambitions of getting involved in your neighbourhood – never mind the world beyond your doorstep – can seem like a pipe dream today. The ‘economic wound’ described by Sennett means that he ‘doubts that such communities can sustain themselves economically’.

Having said that, only a fool would pretend that all is well. Last summers English riots, not to mention wider concern about anti-social behaviour, suggest that there is a serious problem that we need to get to grips with. But Sennett’s interpersonal lessons in ‘everyday diplomacy’ are not going to help. That ‘ordinary people are driven back on themselves’ is made explicable not by the evils of contemporary capitalism, but by the defeat of the political left and the emergence of an ideas-lite and enfeebling political culture. The problem is not that people have become more selfish or unequal, but that the kinds of ideas and values that are conducive to civility – and to the very notion of ‘man as his own maker’ – are being actively undermined by a profound social pessimism found in the arguments employed by Sennett himself.

While there is much of value in his retelling of the history of civility – and we might all benefit from a more thorough grounding in civility’s historical making – he does not begin to tackle what is really getting in the way of building a better and more civil public life today.

Welcome to the Big Nudge


First published in Huffington Post

The Big Society has been in the news once again only to take another beating, this time from the Archbishop of Canterbury. Rowan Williams has waded into what should be a debate about state and society, but is instead a wholly predictable moan-a-thon by the left-liberal commentariat. There’ll be more on him later but suffice to say that I for one would have welcomed the input of the supposedly cerebral Williams, if he could have got the discussion beyond the petty politics of the parish pump.

Quite literally in the case of London’s first parish council, in Queen’s Park, since they were abolished half a century ago. Not that this throw-back to the parochial past is all that different in content to the municipal mumblings of their big borough kin. Like every other local authority mission statement those behind it promise a ‘safer, healthier and happier’ time for their new residents. One Westminster councillor, nevertheless, has welcomed the parish as the ‘start of a brand new era in localism‘.

Sadly, he could be right. This sort of thing, bizarrely, tends to be lauded as an example of the Big Society. In fact there is nothing ‘big’ never mind new about the local approach. Add to this the substituting of the long-forgotten notion that it might have something to do with people not depending on the ‘support’ of the state in favour of the politics of the top-down Nudge, and things get very confusing. For all the protests to the contrary – this, the policy-makers’ favourite new buzzword, in fact describes essentially the same paternalistic, nannying, top-down, ever encroaching Big State that it is supposed to do away with. In truth the enthusiasm for Nudging is for something little more than a contracted-out, behaviour controlling, and consequently even more autonomy inhibiting version of the same thing. So not only is the Big Society not big, it has nothing much to do with ‘society’ either.

But the coalition shouldn’t get all the blame for this. As Caroline Slocock, director of Civil Exchange says: ‘The idea has long roots’. As does the community organising movement that Amol Rajan gets so excited about. But why are they in the ascendant now? Could it be that until relatively recently they were eclipsed by the more substantial stuff of politics? The convergence of Blue Labour and Red Tory on this narrowest of middle grounds is not something to be celebrated. It is the logical outcome of the Third Way anti-politics of the post-cold war period. Little has changed in the over nearly quarter of a century since. I suspect Slocock, principal author of the Big Society Audit, is a secret Nudger too. In much the same way that Rajan thinks communities need organisers, she wants charities and other small voluntary sector groups to fill the ‘big society gap’ where society-proper – that is, you and me – should be. It should be ‘given more power’ says Slocock to, like that old lager commercial used to say, get to the poorest, most deprived parts that other openly state-sponsored programmes can’t.

The Big Society was never meant to be a government programme or the long list of bullet-pointed initiatives that Patrick Butler details. The one-and-only point was that it was supposed to get rid of the stifling culture of a meddling illiberal state and let us – the people – get on with it! In practice, for all the anti-statist mythology encouraged by its supporters and indulged by its critics, the coalition has if anything done the opposite. Even if one were to accept the low horizons and modest ambitions – which I don’t – it seems that few have any faith in communities themselves. Trade unionists think that they are so feeble that public spending cuts are ‘destroying‘ them. A rather self-serving argument if ever there was one. And now, far from raising the discussion to a higher plane, the Archbishop of Canterbury has also intervened on behalf of the meek masses. The Big Society is, he says, ‘designed to conceal a deeply damaging withdrawal of the state from its responsibilities to the most vulnerable’. The vulnerable – a group that the great and the good ill-define the better to hide behind them. You get the Big Society you deserve I suppose.

Cooperatives, chimpanzees and alcoholics


Commentators are competing like never before to share their views on the importance of being co-operative. There is, after all, a revival of the cooperative and the mutual, of co-production, timebanking and social enterprise. While I’ve been far from uncritical of the big society, and official volunteering and ‘participation’ campaigns, I have also been an enthusiastic participant in my own right. I coordinate Neighbourhoods Connect, a volunteer-led social media project in North London, and I’m also a member of the proposal team for a new free school, East London Science School. (We’re still looking for prospective parents and sixth formers to sign up!)

So, allowing for a little bias, I am the first to argue that at first sight there is much to recommend this vogue for all things cooperative. A recently published IPPR report, It’s cooperation, stupid, declares:

… we should jettison the assumption that humans are selfish, first and foremost. Instead, we should start from the assumption that most of the time, most people want to be cooperative.

Which is hard to argue with, you have to admit? Likewise, David Sloan Wilson thinks that being cooperative and ‘society-oriented’ rather than competitive or selfish is the norm not the exception. But here is where the trouble begins. Wilson is an evolutionary biologist who thinks that studying the ‘behaviours’ of people in neighbourhoods is much like Jane Goodall studying chimpanzees. Despite, or perhaps because of, his rather demeaning assumption Wilson and his ‘evolutionary toolkit’ are very much in demand. He was in the UK recently at the invitation of the Co-operative Group. According to Bibi van der Zee at The Guardian:

… his theories are now finding favour with politicians and policy thinktanks on both sides of the Atlantic who are desperate to engage communities in their own neighbourhoods to work together at solving intractable social ills more effectively and cheaply than the state.

Which in itself – for all the short-sightedness of austerity politics, and the bleating on about cuts – is not a bad sentiment. Deborah Orr, also at The Guardian, thinks we need to ‘focus on the things that we all have in common, that bind us and make us human; the things that make co-operation both crucial and sensible, beneficial to all involved’. Can’t grumble with that. Or can I? Orr recalls her own experience of working at the now defunct City Limits magazine, a self-styled workers’ cooperative that was, she says, most uncooperative. But it is the model she professes to prefer – Alcoholics Anonymous – that concerns me. She is apparently oblivious to the therapeutic authoritarianism of the 12-step programme, concluding that it is ‘good to stop listening out for, and holding fast to, the things that make us individual and different’. I am no fan of identity politics and the divisiveness it fosters – no more, indeed, than I am of Wilson’s genetic determinism – and I subscribe rather more than she to old-fashioned collective ideas like socialism. But Orr’s enthusiasm for cooperation seems to amount to a desire to submerge the robust individual – who would surely shun the dictates of AA in favour of a little genuine ‘self-help’ – in a ‘soothing’ sea of collective therapy.

Her commentary is inspired by a new book, Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation, by sociologist Richard Sennett. I will be introducing a discussion about it at the Future Cities Readers’ Group next month. I confess I haven’t started reading it yet – or that IPPR report come to think of it – but the omens aren’t good.

How about letting communities build themselves in 2012?


First published in Independent

Communities took quite a hammering in 2011. There were the riots, of course, in which the opportunism of the apologists for them among the commentariat was more than a match for the rioters themselves. Instead of an honest appraisal of what went on, there were shameless projections of prejudices onto those actually quite unprecedented events. I even found myself in the unusual situation of agreeing with Theresa May when she said the rioters ‘weren’t trying to make any political or social statement; they were thieving, pure and simple’. But even before the riots, those self-same commentators had been anticipating the damage to come from economic crisis and the government’s austere response to it. From rough sleeping, to wife-beating and rioting, no doubt, communities would begin to descend into all manner of deprivation and depravity, we were told. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation warned early in the year that ‘fortunes may nosedive’ for the poorest as community-builders lost their foothold (not to mention their livelihoods).

More recently, as the well and truly hammered were being picked up by the seasonal booze bus, the emptying out of the high street (of shoppers at least) met with dire warnings. Mary Portas, author of a government-commissioned report on the subject, talked of how they would ‘give a sense of belonging and trust to a community’ if only they could be revived. As if to confirm that all may not be lost, the organisers of Britain in Bloom (the UK’s largest voluntary campaign), reported that their tens of thousands of amateur gardeners still ‘built strong communities’. Nevertheless, the government’s flagship Big Society seems to have sunk without trace, living on only in a tiresome spat about cuts to public services and the voluntary sector; and in ongoing complaints, most recently by the public administration select committee (does anyone actually know what that is?) Without a Big Society minister, the select committee concluded, how could they (or we?) build a Big Society?

In its absence, Baroness Hanham rather pinned her hopes on the Localism Bill currently passing through the House of Lords. She thought it might help bring an end to a public sector culture that has ‘fostered dependency, with top-down targets, smothering bureaucracy and heavy-handed guidance’. But I continued to wonder whether localism – a creed that ‘attracts support across the political divide’ according to Hanham – was ever really going to make a difference. The consensus that localism is a good thing had done nothing to rebuild communities to date, and there was little reason to believe that more of the same would do any better. Having said that, I welcomed the deputy prime minister’s ‘very serious offer of more economic freedom and more political freedom’ to the nation’s core cities. There is a world of difference between advocating better local democracy and greater autonomy for cities and resorting to the petty parochialism that only tends toward a dismembering of the body politic.

Our communities, after all, are not blighted by distant political structures, redundant community-builders or deserted high streets, anymore than they were brought to ruin by the seasonally inebriated, horticulturally indifferent or riotously uncivil. They continue to stumble along despite community-worriers’ diminished view of their members as dependent, incapable of running their own lives and finding their own solutions to their problems. Perhaps instead of hammering communities into submission, we might be best to leave them to build themselves in 2012?

Why the big society should prompt a clean-up in the charity sector


First published in Guardian

The charity sector has lost its way and seems to have given up on its founding notions. We are seeing a rather unseemly scramble for funding as charities seek to retain what they can of their state hand-outs while public services are cut. Or fundraisers, particularly those pesky chuggers, seemingly unacquainted with the causes for which they are apparently campaigning. Volunteers are expected to be as interested in their own employability as they are in helping other people. And the sector is apparently more interested in contracts and compacts than campaigns and causes.

I don’t think we should blame the cuts or the “big society”, as many in the sector do, for the problems charities face. The whole point of the big society – and the reason why I welcomed it at first – was that it proclaimed itself to be against an overbearing big state. We were told it was for the idea that people are able to do things for themselves, and to run their own lives without being “supported” all the time. But it seems that the charity sector doesn’t see the big society in quite the same way, and the inference that it would not play the starring role in the coalition’s big idea really rankled.

“We are the big society”, it screamed. But is this true? At the same time that the sector has been claiming to represent us – to be the 99% (to borrow a phrase) – it has also boasted of its special relationship with the state. There is little pretence from sector leaders that it has any real independence, or indeed that this should be a problem. This “dual role” as both campaigner and service provider is described as a positive boon, allowing it influence that it wouldn’t otherwise have. But it also means that charities don’t stand for anything much anymore. The sector has no identity of its own, straddling both state and society. And so the promise of the big society, already held back by the prejudices of a parochial political culture, has become just another argument about funding, rooted in the charity sector’s historical sense of entitlement.

To the extent that charities have increasingly focused on providing services rather than campaigning, no matter how good a job they do they are no longer charities in any meaningful sense. The Shelters, NSPCCs and RSPCAs of the charity world bear little resemblance to their former selves. They struggle with their dual identity as very sizeable public servants, on the one hand, and rather compromised campaigners, on the other. Is it any wonder that public trust in charities is reportedly “second only in volatility to its trust in banks“? Nobody knows what they’re for any more. By shifting the focus of their work from tackling a social problem to managing their relationship with state bodies, they neglect what it is that gave them their reason for being in the first place.

My experience working with local government and the charity sector in one of the areas most affected by the August riots has been instructive. People have been coming forward, wanting to do something. The authorities have been going on about how uninterested and disengaged people are, and yet when they have come knocking on the door, are at a loss as to what to do with them. This has been interpreted by charity leaders as a problem created by the cuts – about not having the resources, and in particular the volunteer managers – to respond to this unexpected outpouring of community spirit. But I’m not so sure. I think it is their disjoint from the communities they claim to represent and serve that gets in the way of capturing that spirit.

The authorities – and I include the charity sector here – were taken aback that communities were rather more capable of building themselves than they’d imagined. That much-sought-after “sense of community” did what big society advocates and critics alike said it couldn’t – it emerged of its own accord. The clean-ups were organised overnight on Facebook and Twitter by impromptu “pop-up” community groups. Volunteers got their brooms out before the smoke – both metaphorical and real – had settled, and then went their separate ways. Some wondered whether we were finally seeing the big society in action, but not in a good way.

One way or another, the big society is doomed. The charity sector doesn’t have the resources to deliver it. We ordinary folk are not to be trusted with it. And, as some have noted, Cameron and his government have been talking a lot less about it anyway, as it has increasingly been seen as a byword for the cuts. This is a shame, not only because the big society preceded the cuts, but because its prospects should never have hinged on the cuts in the first place. It should have been a project for freeing up society, and creating a new culture of self-reliance, not a programme for government and its friends in the extended state sector to argue over. And yet, despite a sector seemingly intent on digging its own grave, we might try to breathe new life into the idea of charity. One more suited to today. And we might still resurrect some of the more appealing aspects of the big society, whatever we decide to call it. Maybe that way, rather than it being a clean-up for the charity sector, we can claim it for ourselves.

This is an edited version of a speech I gave at this weekend’s Leeds Summat