Thursday, May 19, 2011

Second thoughts on the big society and the small state, while running through Ladywell Fields

In my post on the film clubs and Big Lunches of Lewisham, I wrote this:
In lots of ways, the Film Club, the Big Lunch and possibly even a community library are wonderful examples of local civil society and its potential to bring people together and create something positive: something we own because we made it, something totally outside the state. But when this sort of thing does the job the state should be doing and actually does better (e.g. when it replaces a municipal library), that's surely not such a good thing.
Jogo sent me an e-mail saying:
Should be doing? Hmm, maybe you should be doing. 
Maybe communities should be doing. Maybe Fuck the State. Doing it better is "surely not such a good thing?" I say it's a very good thing.
If communities "do it," then we can see which communities give a fuck, and which do not.
Lefities love Darwin. Except when the state does it better.
I have an immediate, instinctive, anarchic sympathy for the Fuck the state position. I experienced the Big Lunch I attended last year as a taste of utopia: a glimpse of a world with no state, no cars, based on everyone literally bringing something to the table and sharing it. So, why am I defending the state?

I thought about this at the weekend, as I struggled through my weekly run in Ladywell Fields, my local municipal park, running past the clumps of dog-walkers chatting to each other – as I watched Beryl from number 45 chatting to the lesbian couple with the border collie . I thought about this as I ran past the parents watching their toddlers on the slides and swings, past the bench at the station end where the guys drinking super-strength lager hang out, past the football team from the Islamic centre doing their weekly training, past the medical workers from the hospital stand in the sun for their cigarette breaks, past the teenagers on their BMXs in the skate park, past the kids in their Sunday suits playing while their parents are in the church on Ladywell Road. I thought about it more when I went back to Ladywell Fields in the afternoon with my kids and some other kids I was looking after, and enjoyed with them the wonderful new adventure playground and riverside play areas paid for by central government investment, and also noted that the new facilities are also already unpleasantly marred by graffiti.

I think it is a genuinely open question whether or not “communities” can run a library service as well as, or even better than, a municipal authority and the trained, professional librarians and building managers it employs, whether or not “communities” can equip and look after a park as well as, or even better than, a municipal authority and the landscapers, gardeners and construction workers it employs. In both cases, my instinct is that we probably can’t.

It seems to me that a library and a park are two of the most important spaces in a local area, spaces where people of every culture, colour, class and age come together and share space, probably the only places this occurs in a city like London. The fact that these are free, paid for by tax dollars, is part of what makes it possible.

David Cameron in his April speech on immigration made some interesting points about community, and how it takes time to emerge through common habits and a thousand small interactions in the pub and at the school gate. He is right about it taking time; community does not come over night, and it is a feature of new initiatives in the community that they take a while to reach the range of people that a library can reach.

And his examples of the pub and school gates are good ones. The traditional British pub, a sadly dying institution, brought strangers together, often across lines of class and generation, and replaced isolation with conviviality. But you have to spend money to go to a pub, and there are many pubs where women are not welcome, where children are not welcome, and where strangers are stared down until they leave. When I first moved to Brockley, pubs were segregated institutions, with white folks in the public bar and black folks in the saloon bar.

The school gate is more inclusive, and absolutely vital to binding neighbourhoods together. But the last few decades of education policies have created socially segregated schools, with kids of different classes and faiths travelling miles to attend schools with others of their own kind – and the likes of the Camerons never send their children to their local schools anyway.

There are all kinds of community, including communities of faith and ethnic communities. We are all part of several communities at any time. All communities involve inclusions and exclusions – whose face fits, whose face doesn’t – and even if for this reason only we should avoid romanticising and idealising them.

Faith communities – in the my part of London, that mainly means Christian communities, and only to a lesser extent Muslim and Jewish communities – are often more motivated to do the stuff I was talking about. Not just for their own congregants, and not just to win over new congregants, but out of a commitment to social action that is woven into most faiths. That is why so many of the Big Society initiatives, including Free Schools, are faith-based. That’s a source of concern for those of us who want a cohesive, cosmopolitan society. But it’s also why faith communities enrich local communities, and one reason I don’t go along with the militant secularism of some of my muscular liberal comrades.

On the other hand, communities of place might often, in today’s complex and multicultural urban world, be thinner and less warm than some other sorts of communities. But they are more valuable, because they include more people and exclude less people; they unite across lines of difference rather than divide. (Going back to the Big Lunch I was at last year, one of its defining images for me was the barbeque, jointly tended by a Pole, a Turkish Cypriot and a Greek Cypriot.)

Municipal spaces – parks, libraries – are the necessary infrastructure for communities of place; without municipal space, there is little or no local community. Without the municipal state, in other words, no big society.


This may be presumptuous or arrogant to think, but my last job, which involved working with community organisations in several parts of the UK, as well as my own involvement in and observation of Lewisham local politics, gives me a pretty good idea of “which communities give a fuck, and which do not”, as well as the factors besides giving a fuck that make for better functioning communities.

I think there are two types of communities which are less good at doing big society stuff. One is the leafy monocultural areas where the well off live. People commute in and out in cars, and have less need for parks and libraries and therefore less opportunities to meet and mix with other residents.  They send their children to elite fee-paying schools, and don't go to the local pub. They invest a lot of energy into voluntary activity, but generally in individualistic ways, for leisure and their children’s development: ballet classes, tennis clubs, swimming lessons. Here, the state has nothing to do with the lack of civic life: the state is largely absent here, except to keep the peace and remove the waste.

Outer city estates and post-industrial areas such as former milltowns have a similarly weak community infrastructure for very different reasons. There is a conservative “Broken Society” diagnosis for why this is so, which is partly true: intergenerational unemployment and total dependency on the state have bred a culture of alienation and low aspiration, fuelled by huge quantities of prescription drugs. But it is also a legacy of the devastation brought by neo-liberal globalisation and the disastrous economic policies of the Tory governments of the seventies, eighties and nineties, which ruined the economic infrastructure of such places, and the class war from above fought by Thatcher, which ruined the communal infrastructure. The state, specifically the welfare state left behind at social democracy’s’ high tide mark, does have some complicity in the absence of big society here – but only some.

The sorts of places, in contrast, where big society flourishes are our multicultural inner cities. This is partly to do with the need people there have for the stuff that community does, partly to do with the intense proximity of neighbourly life, and partly to do with the strong cultures of mutual aid and self-help brought by migrants and the commitment to social action brought by the migrants’ churches and mosques. In these areas, community entrepreneurs are skilled at working sometimes inside, sometimes outside, sometimes for and sometimes against the municipal state.

Exactly that spirit is what I think the left needs a little of. A century of statist socialism – reformist social democracy and revolutionary Stalinism – has been disastrous for the left. We need to reconnect with older traditions of libertarian socialism, based on the principles of voluntary co-operation, self-help and mutual aid. This means breaking with the default setting of defending the state from each and every attack. It means humility about recognising the problems and having the answers (the disrespect for the public realm signalled by the graffiti on the park’s new play equipment cannot be blamed on neo-liberalism or the Tories). But it also means being uncompromising in our defence of the institutions of the municipal state that provide the foundation for community action. 



Flesh said...

The Street That Cut Everything on BBC earlier this week was gripping viewing. For Tracy, state meant the dignity of not having to depend on neighbours who never let you forget their charity. That said, the impersonality of the state needs tempering or it seems to beckon dependency and also taking advantage. Helps to think of services and benefits as provided by family, friends, colleagues and strangers and use them with something like reverence.

Interesting. Lambeth Council is in the midst of a radical experiment to change its culture and have published a report called I think Cooperative Council. Seems to be aiming for this. I hear it's hard - council officer JDs had to change - but they're getting somewhere. The Co-op Party is quietly getting somewhere too.

brocklydave said...

just because you haven,t had that many comments on here dosen,t mean we arn,t interested.
Your walk in ladywell fields has too many ideas to comment on in one post.

just a quick point whoever we are likely to have as a government will be unable to satisfy our demands to have more money in our pocket and increased services.
The reasons why are too long to mention.

We have to create a big society despite Cameron .Sorry for the cliche but we have to turn less into more and we have to do it on our own doorstep.

bob said...

Thank you Dave for your kind and thoughtful response.

Rob Marchant said...

Liked it too. See we agree on potential for divisiveness in faith schools. Also, last para sounds a bit Blue Labour?