Full text of a talk given to the Opening Plenary of the MeCCSA conference on Communities at Canterbury,Christchurch University
Looking Forward, looking back: the avatars of modernity
It is that time of year when the commentariat like to look back at the year that has just gone, to award prizes to those who have lived up to their expectations and brickbats to those who have not, and also look forward to the year to come to find new principles of hope or despair. I guess we all do this to some extent. We look back in anger or regret,satisfaction or disappointment at what we have and have not achieved and try to glean from these memories some cause for optimism about ourselves and the world going forward. This can be an invitation to engage in counter factual speculation : what if, if only, what might have been. This is especially the case if we still hold to a Whig interpretation of life history, in which our lives are meant to unfold as a story of progress, of incremental steps forwards and upwards on some ladder of personal attainment and fulfilment;, then the failures, the impasses, the upsets,the mistakes come to constitute a repressed counterpoint, a hidden curriculum vitae which never features in the official accounts we give of ourselves to prospective employers or lovers.
[expand title=”Read More”]
For Generation Rent this disjuncture take on an especially acute form.[i] What cause for optimism can there be for this post-student generation, given that they have usually internalised career as a middle class life story grammar at a time when its structures of professional opportunity have all but disappeared except for the largely privately educated offspring of a professional and governing elite. Those whose aspirations to join the salariat are blocked, now find themselves having to explore the other sense of career, as a period of careering about, yet one which is no longer about a transient period of sowing wild adolescent oats before settling down to a secure job and home but continued dependence on family support and employment in forms of contingent or free lance labour that, however redescribed in the idiom of vocation, (ie as an inner quest for an authentic self), can all too easily harden into the chronic life long insecurities of the precariat. They are indeed trapped in a frozen or deferred transition between dependence on a world of the past that is no longer effective – the chronic prematurity of a precocious childhood, and a world of the future that is out of reach, a state of adult autonomy. In that sense this generational predicament dramatises the organic crisis of late modernity, caught between a dying culture of progressivism and the advent of a new world waiting to be born.
Under these circumstances looking back and looking forward can be a painful business. The Left and the labour movement in Britain has always been better at retrospect than prospect – it has largely advanced into the future looking back over its shoulder at the wreckage of its dreams like Benjamin’s Angel of History, which let us not forget was inspired by Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus. This was painted in 1920 at a moment when the political future of Germany was poised between two rival Utopias of modernity : communism and fascism. Klee was part of what has been called the ‘lost’ Weimar generation, young people who felt trapped between looking back to a pre-war world that had vanished for ever in the horror of mechanised warfare and looking forward to a world in which the application of science and technology promised emancipation from poverty and drudgery yet was seen as prefiguring new forms of alienation and subservience. Klee had long been fascinated by the biblical figure of the Angel of Death, with its dual aspect as a harbinger of doom and an instrument of deliverance and hope. In this painting he depicts the angel as a fragile figure poised between two different kinds of flight – his gaze drawn in fascination to something we are not shown, but his eyes also averted as if what is seen is too horrible to contemplate.
The British Left and labour movement’s attitude to modernity has been similarly ambivalent, if for more mundane reasons.Modernisation has so often undermined collective bargaining power of workforces, has brought deskilling or redundancy, while for the working class as consumers it has meant a more less magical liberation in terms of leisure and life style from the petty constraints and indignities of wage labour. This ambivalence is part of a wider attitude to the present, past and future, an oscillation between a proto-modernism that identifies modernity with progressive historical forces whether located in science, technology or the working class movement itself, and a retro- modernity which regards the condition of modernity not as something to be aimed at or achieved but as something that has never quite happened, is possibly unachievable, probably undesirable and in any case can only be grasped as a kind of retro-fit…….
Today the art and science of looking forward to the future, with its implicit optimism of the will- no one after all is likely to say that they are looking forward to illness, unemployment, or poverty- has increasingly become the prerogative of global capitalism. Corporate visionaries, armed with their mission statements which promise to deliver the best of all possible worlds, evangelical property developers and urban imagineers with their techno-utopias of the smart city, professional futurologists with their big data sets showing that, global warming to the contrary, life is getting better and better for most of humanity, these are the poets and prophets of New Dawn. It is precisely because we are living in such a globally unstable economy, because the routines and rhythms of everyday life, not mention life plans are increasingly disturbed by unpredictable events, because we find ourselves trapped in a space time compressed system of chaotic synchronicity, that these road maps to the future have such a seductive appeal.
Pessimism, Optimism and the Inoperable Community
Until recently the Left has had to make do with its well honed pessimism of the intellect, party poopers amidst the spectacular successes of Carnival Capitalism, with its prophets and poets of Doom. And then Doom suddenly and unexpectedly arrived with the Crash and the advent of austerity politics. The party it seemed was over at last. And yet no-one really got the message. It might involve some rearranging of deck chairs on the Titanic, but the band played on, albeit to a slightly different tune. The proverbial platitudes of common sense optimism– while there’s life there’s hope – came to the rescue, as did the puritanical accompaniment to capitalism’s pleasure principles : we all know there’s no gain without pain!
[expand title=”Read More”]
There is, of course, another sense in which the party really is over. The crisis of Social Democratic parties across Europe stems from the fact they have been unable to mount a coherent challenge to neo-liberal policies, have failed to find a mode of address that connects with the concerns of the salariat and the precariat and have instead presided over the dismantling or hollowing out of the institutions, agencies and narratives of collective aspiration which hitherto enabled working class communities to sustain struggles of long duration, and remain resilient in the face of set backs and defeats. With Labour’s long forward march seemingly permanently halted well this side of the New Jerusalem, the sense of belonging to a community that survives your own death, and whose continued existence guarantees some kind of posthumous identity, some place in the collective remembrance of struggle has increasingly been lost. No amount of oral historicising and memoryscaping by the Left heritage industry, however valuable as an antidote to the selective amnesia of mainstream popular culture, can create a living legacy of struggle once the material and cultural links between growing up, working and class have been broken. I will come back to the implications of this for current forms of working class politics and community activism, but for the moment I want to consider its impact on the Left intelligentsia and on the way we currently understand and practice our relation to class, culture and community.
In the early 1990’s in the aftermath of the end of the Cold War, and the collapse of Communist parties both east and west, Jean-Luc Nancy,a philosopher formed in the intellectual hothouse of Parisian post structuralism, wrote an influential essay entitled ‘The Inoperative Community’ which was recently the basis of an interesting exhibition at the Raven Row gallery in London[ii].
In an early passage of this text he wrote:
‘The gravest and most painful testimony of the modern world, the one that possibly involves all other testimonies to which this epoch must answer (…) is the testimony of the dissolution, the dislocation, or the conflagration of community. Communism, as Sartre said, is ‘the unsurpassable horizon of our time’… … if in fact it no longer is such a horizon, this is not because we have passed beyond any horizon. Rather, everything is inflected by resignation, as if the new unsurpassable horizon took form around the disappearance, the impossibility, or the condemnation of communism’. (Nancy 1991, 8)
Nancy is describing communism, or more precisely the French Communist Party as both a community of political activists, of working class militants, and as an intellectual community, a community of scholar activists. The memoirs of this generation, and more especially of their children bear eloquent testimony to just how much of a home from home these parties were for those who were formed within their orbit[iii]. Comradeship, before it became a corpse in the mouth, had the sweet taste of fellowship. It was this existential sense of belonging and the principle of collective hope afforded by membership of these parties, and also, by mass social democratic parties, that enabled their members to turn a blind eye to their flagrant lack of internal democracy, and their legitimation of policies and actions which ignored, traduced,or simply suppressed popular democratic struggles of every kind. Nancy draws a radical conclusion from the death of communism and the hope it represented in these terms:
‘Generations of citizens and militants, of workers and servants of the State have imagined their death reabsorbed in a community yet to come,. But now we have nothing more than the bitter consciousness of the increasing remoteness of such a community, be it the people, the nation, or the society of producers. The communion to come does not grow distant, it is not deferred: it was never to come; it would be incapable of coming about or forming a future. What forms a future, and consequently what truly comes about, is always the singular death …’
Klee’s Angel of Death here trumps Benjamin’s Angel of History, pessimism of the intellect over rides and destroys optimism of the will. Now this is perhaps a necessary response to the reverse effect of which we have seen so many terrible examples in the history of the 20th century; where optimism of the will triumphs over pessimism of the intellect, it becomes totalitarian, enshrined in norms of happiness and the common good imposed by the state whether in the name of the nation as an imagined community of citizens or the dictatorship of the proletariat, this lethal subsumption of civic and market economies of worth under the iron heel of political economy depends on marginalising or extinguishing intellectual pessimism and all forms of popular dissent whether by means of terror, incarceration and mass murder or simply through the administered spectacle of mass contentment and consumerism.
Yet once these two halves of Gramsci’s formula are split apart, we may find ourselves in the worst of all possible worlds. On one side an intellectual culture of endless solipsism, reflexivity and immanent critique, which puts in doubt its own heuristic procedures and knowledge claims and disconnects itself from anything outside itself. Whether it opts for a form of dialectical idealism or transcendental materialism, this culture remains imprisoned within its own academic devices, its specialised jargons and scholastic protocols. What underlies this culture is a profound pessimism of the will, the belief that now there are no teleologies, no laws of history or evolutionary logics to guarantee a progressive outcome there is nothing to be done except to observe struggles from the sidelines. And by a curious twist, this recognition of political impotence, leads to a style of armchair or rather desk top theorising which transforms itself into an omniscient optimism of the intellect, a belief that by keeping the pure flame of critical theory alive in the Academy, by separating a totalising analysis from the messy, compromising, contradictory particularisms of actual struggles, a potential space is created which at some future point, when somehow or other the tide of history turns, may serve as map or guide to revolutionary social transformation.
When this culture of subtle dialectics tries to come down from performing headstands on the high wire of theory and ground itself in the real world, it tends to produce a vacuous jargon of pseudo- radicalism which, at least in its post modernist idiom, fetishises subversive affect and ‘transgressive’ body politics, often focussing on aesthetic strategies which as one such advocate of this new avant garde puts it, aims ‘ to affect the contemporary political sensorium by refunctioning aural mediation, giving voice to contemporary performances of political intimacy,authenticity and resistence’ [iv]. Bookloads of kind of gobbledegook have been produced over the last decade by a generation of would-be scholar activists, radicalised by the contingent labour they are forced to perform within the Academy but desperate to secure a foothold within its career structure and hence to defer to its protocols.
This pervasive theoreticism has in turn provoked a reaction in the growth of a culture of hyper-activism, which takes its lead from its own lived experience of struggle, its experiments in direct democracy, and its grounding in a moral economy of community and everyday cultures of mutual aid, what David Graeber has rather mischievously called ‘actually existing communism’[v]. However necessary a corrective, this move tends to replace subtle dialectics with crude thoughts. A premium is placed on sloganised and reductive analyses and the ritual invocation of ideological catechisms : it is always capitalism, racism or patriarchy what dunnit. There is always a risk that the militant concentration of energies on a single issue or campaign, results in tunnel vision and what begins by trying to widen the range of political voices ends all on one note. As Kate Tempest puts it, if all you are is a hammer everything looks like a nail, to which we might add that even if you are hitting it on its head, the nail in question is often being banged into a rather large coffin marked ‘Democracy RIP’.
So the cold and warm currents of the alternative political culture, the cool objective analysis of structures and passionate engagement in the struggle to transform them are no longer dialectically linked at they are in Gramsci and Bloch[vi]. There are of course many attempts to bridge that gap, which I will discuss shortly but for the moment I just want to note that in my experience these projects often run up against the phantasmagoric relation of the Left intelligentsia to the working classes. This is a relationship made up largely of idealisations and projective identifications which have placed a heavy burden of representation on the shoulders of a putative proletariat, as the bearer of middle class hopes and dreams of social transformation. Then when they fail to live up these expectations, working class organisations find themselves the object of disenchantment, if not outright repudiation, condemned for their reformism etc. From being seen as the major part of the solution they are now regarded as the problem. And so we arrive at the current low estimation on much of the Left of the de-industrialised working class as irredeemably racist, sexist, homophonic bigots and worse still- Ukippers.
Double Vision: Bipolar politics and Labour’s Two bodies
This shift in perspectives in my view corresponds both to the bipolar character of Leftist political culture and to the dual positioning of working class communities as both the ‘backbone of the nation’ and a ‘race apart’. I am going to discuss each of these features briefly in turn.
The Leftist world view tends to oscillate between two subject positions : manic denial of political reality principles and a depressive, politically immobilising recognition of them. This is sometimes, though not inevitably, underpinned by a paranoid /schizoid view of a world divided neatly into good and bad objects, victims and oppressors. All this produces what Lauren Berlant has called ‘cruel optimism’[vii]. This is an optimism that attaches itself to objects that systematically frustrate or negate its emotional investment and yet continues to cling to them through thick and thin in the hope that next time, next labour leader, next election, next riot things will be different. Cruel optimism is essentially a sado-masochistic construct, which mandates a politics of conscience driven by a harsh, self punitive superego embodied in a Great Cause. It is one way that personal commitment to struggles of long duration can be sustained in the absence of external institutional or cultural support, albeit at great psychic cost. But this is not the only strategy of self delusion.
[expand title=”Read More”]
The persecutory nature of political reality is an objective fact; and just because it is, it also gives rise to conspiracy theories, and other phantasy constructs which provide a rationale for continual defeats without leading to defeatism or even the abandonment of belief in ultimate victory. For example there is ‘The Great Boot in the sky’ ( a favourite narrative in Trotskyite groupuscules). Every time the workers raise their banners high, a great boot, belonging to capitalists, and their trade union lackeys, comes down and crushes or betrays their hopes.
This brings me to the second part of my argument. The split perceptions of working class community, as a force for progressive change and as a reactionary obstacle to it, has a long history rooted both in material circumstances, in actual social and cultural divisions within the class, but also in how these have been represented. I haven’t time to go into this in any detail or depth, but let us say just recall that many years ago, Edward Thompson argued that what was unique about the English working class was that it was present at its own making.[viii] England had the first industrial revolution, and hence the first industrial proletariat. There were no historical precedents, no narrative templates laid down for how this social force should be represented, either politically, culturally, or aesthetically. The historical prematurity of its birth meant that the class had to invent its own myths of origins to explain how it had come into being, and what its destiny was to be.
One way this was done was by appealing to imagery and language that gave the emergent class a heroic, Promethean, and largely pre-industrial provenance.[ix] Elementary–or rather elemental–forms of labour, labour that worked with the elements of fire, water, earth, and air in various combinations, to transform nature into a productive force came to be regarded as occupying a special position in the ontology of labour power. Workers whose labour embodied these principles: miners, navvies, blacksmiths, farm workers, fishermen, foresters, mariners, dockers, foundrymen, and more recently, ‘roughnecks’ or ‘roustabouts’ working on oil rigs, steel erectors, and tunnellers–these all became privileged icons of a heroic form of working class masculinity, hailed as the backbone of the nation. At the same time the physical degradation and abject poverty associated with many categories of manual labour lead to their associated communities being treated as a race apart including by other sections of the labour movement as something of a ‘race apart’. [x]
Labour’s two bodies, promethean and abject, were not mutually exclusive. They could be two sides of the same story. The history of some social categories can be traced as a progression from one position to the other–and then perhaps back again. Cockneys, for example, started out life as an alien underclass whose moral physiognomy was compared invidiously to that of ‘hottentots’, but then turned themselves into music hall performers singing popular patriotic songs and cracking cheerful-chappie jokes, until by the 1940s they emerge as national heroes of the Blitz, only to fall from grace once more in the multicultural 1990s when thanks to Alf Garnett and the Pub Landlord they become a byword for in-your-face chauvinistic attitudes, or, alternatively, the sentimental ‘knees up mother brown’ schlockney of Chas and Dave.
My argument is that these distinctions were internalised and transformed within working class communities in a multiplicity of ways. Groups treated as a race apart tended to develop an ethnic nationalism of the neighbourhood, where prides of place were asserted through strong forms of territoriality, based on factory, street or home in a way that gave a positive value to their cultural and physical distinctiveness. Such attachments reinforced social insularity, the closure of solidarities around kith and kin and ‘ethnic’ loyalties and they also supported the growth of dense networks of mutual aid and shared resource. These labourhoods provided their inhabitants with a refuge from some of the more destructive forces of modernity, and supported a strategy of community stakeholding based on what Robert Putnam, in his theory of social capital, has called bonding, the capacity to claim privileged access and symbolic ownership over public amenities and resource by exercising customary entitlements. Community activism within this frame is primarily reactive and defensive, in a word NIMBYism.
In contrast working class communities that come to see themselves as the backbone of the nation, develop a sense of place identity based on civic not ethnic entitlement. These labourhoods offer a prospect on the world as a field of social opportunity and engagement, based on what Putnam calls bridging, the capacity to build alliances or partnerships with other groups in pursuit of political goals. These communities are in a stronger position to minimise the social costs of modernity, and maximise its benefits, and to correlate their own incremental gains ( viz in living standards) with wider progressive causes and forces in society. Their prides of place are much less dependent on rituals of territoriality, and rest on norms of public propriety, of what is in or out of order belonging to a distinctively working class, rather than petty bourgeois moral economy. Within this frame community activism is pro-active, not reactive.
To summarise these ideal types of labour’s two body politics:
Race apart Backbone of the nation
Ethnic nationalism Civic nationalism
Strong territoriality Weak territoriality
Some of these distinctions can, of course, subsume more familiar ones like rough/respectable but others cut across them; far from being fixed features they are continually being negotiated and redistributed. They pivot on the relation of class formation to its Other, i.e. to non-class signifiers, in particular race. Cultural identities are always eccentric to themselves, in the sense being formed in relation to the Other Within: other class, other sex, other race. Inside every proletarian there is a bourgeois struggling to get out. Inside every meritocrat, an aristocrat. And vice versa. The Marxist formula according to which each class- in- itself has a mission to become a class- for- itself, radically misrecognises the relationality of class consciousness, its psychological dimensions of projective and introjective (dis) identification. That is why those who live on the other side of the tracks are such an ambivalent object of fear and fascination.
By the same token the Other Within becomes an uncanny figure, at once familiar and strange, and an object of both political and personal envy or desire. Freud grasped this psycho-dynamic far better than Marx. In his essay on the family romance, he shows how children create imaginary genealogies for themselves, inventing biographies in which they are ‘in reality’ (i.e. in fantasy) offspring of the rich and famous, and have suffered the misfortune of being kidnapped by the utterly worthless people who happen to be their actual parents and impose regimes which restrict their freedom by insisting they brush their teeth and go to bed by 9pm[xi]. Equally those who actually occupy exalted positions in society often fantasise about the simpler and more authentic lives of the ‘common people’ and engage in a variety of practice, from slumming to transvestism to vicariously experience ‘how the other half lives’.
What has upset these games of trading places is the fact that the places themselves have become destabilised along with the communities of affiliation which hitherto gave them their anchorage in a moral anatomy of fixed class distinction. So for example the precariat is an agglomeration of disparate interest groups defined by a set of different insecurities : ontological, economic and social. The majority long for the security associated with the salariat : a steady, reasonably paid job with some element of progression; affordable housing with security of tenure; sufficient assets ,including pensions to withstand the vicissitudes of the life course. As for the salariat, their individualistic ambitions are plagued by the fear of failure, and they sublimate their desire for a more challenging, creative (and precarious) existence in a variety of subcultural activities. These are class formations which are simultaneously to and from themselves and are defined by their trajectories of relative im/mobility, not by membership of communities forged in struggle.
At the very least looking at the relation between forms of community and patterns of activism in this way helps to put the current disconnect between the political class and the electorate, and more specifically between labour party and its traditional constituencies of support, in some kind of broader perspective. But first there are other forms of community engagement, outside and sometimes against the culture of political activism, which we have to consider, whether originating from the Academy, public and private philanthropy and, not least, the Welfare State.
Community Studies :The cuckoo in the nest
Community has been a cuckoo in the nest of social science in Britain from its earliest beginnings, a constant empirical reference point yet one which has remained largely implicit and weakly conceptualised. In recognition of this fact and the increasing political salience of the topic, the AHRC and the ESRC recently got together to launch a major initiative under the title of ‘Connected Communities’. With a budget of over 30 million it was the single most expensive programme ever conducted under their auspices. The initiative involved partnerships with nearly a thousand community groups, funded nearly three hundred projects and involved over eighty research organisations. The first aim was to produce a comprehensive mapping of the field of community relations in this country- although strangely social cartography was conspicuous by its methodological absence. The second was to demonstrate that academic research did not have to be purely extractive, a means of making intellectual capital out of informants, but could actively contribute to the empowerment and well being of their communities. Nevertheless there was no mechanism in the governance of this programme which allowed community partners or informants to have any say in shaping its overall direction. The final aim was to connect the diverse communities of scholars who were engaged in what might be loosely termed ‘community studies’ and thus promote ‘inter-disciplinarity’.
[expand title=”Read More”]
Whatever intrinsic value some of the projects funded under this initiative might have, there is a general consensus that the overall impact was at best uneven, and the sum of its parts certainly did not add up to a holistic approach to community studies, but simply provided a platform for a diversity of viewpoints and narratives. In that sense it simply amplified the problematic status of community within British social science.
The first major attempt to construct a coherent framework for community studies was undertaken over half a century ago by Ronald Frankenberg in his book Communities in Britain[xii]. The book was an attempt to codify the approach of British social anthropology as developed at Manchester, under the direction of Max Gluckman; it drew on the work of classical sociology and anthropology to construct a system of binary oppositions for characterising forms of sociality associated with the transition to modernity:
FORMS OF SOCIALITY
Status Contract (Maine)
Ascribed status Achieved status (Weber/Parsons)
Community Association (Tonnies)
Mechanical Organic solidarity (Durkheim)
Concentrated Distributed network (Granovetter)
For Frankenberg these are ideal types which exist empirically in a variety of weak and strong combinations and have definite spatial correlations. As a Marxist, the transition to a modern capitalist society was for him a case of uneven and combined development of these forms, full of tension and contradiction, reversals and displacements. Yet the schema is still inscribed in a teleology. And the terms of the binaries are mutually exclusive. The affirmation of community is the negation of modernity. And vice versa.
It was in the work of the Institute of Community Studies that this one way ticket to modernity became established on the sociological map. In a series of research publications, centred on the post war transformation of the East End of London, the replacement of the slums with their close knit neighbourhoods by high rise tower blocks, and the move out into the suburbs was represented as a loss of community rather than a gain of amenity[xiii]. A rosy picture of family and kinship in the old Bethnal Green was contrasted unfavourably with the social alienation produced by modernist architecture and planning. It was not a feminist analysis, but still it counteracted the overwhelmingly masculinist perceptions of working class community that still prevailed.
One important insight from this work was the emphasis on women’s role in sustaining social networks outside the workplace. In particular the strong mother/daughter bond created a matri-local geography, with married daughters living close by their parents, and children being brought up within an extended three generational family network. However the relations between workplace, street, neighbourhood and domestic life were treated as separate self enclosed worlds, the workplace as largely the province of men, the street corner as the province of male youth and the great indoors as where women and girls rule OK. The fact is that however separately they are experienced in terms of gender and generation, these sites of community are structurally linked in the reproduction of labour power and constitute what I have come to call a labourhood, a habitus in which the dispositions that link growing up, working and class are transmitted and acquired..
The work of the Institute of Community Studies is perhaps best understood as belonging within the tradition of settlement sociology, and grounded in attempts by reformers of various persuasions to investigate the social conditions of the poor so as to provide evidence for policies and practices designed to ameliorate them, whether at work, home, or leisure. It is easy to parody the settlements as civilising missions, staffed by wealthy upper class do-gooders whose aim was to intervene and inculcate their values of muscular Christianity. There certainly were some like that, but it is not the whole story. Settlements in the East End pioneered community work and many of the early settlement workers were socialists as well as Christians; some like Beatrice Webb at Toynbee Hall were engaged in developing a form of participant observation within a framework of sociological enquiry. The reforms in work and housing conditions for which they campaigned were often espoused by the labour movement and the Left: they were about social justice not moral reclamation[xiv].
If the strong point of settlement sociology was its locally grounded theorisations of class and community, today its moral impulse finds expression within a globalised knowledge economy in the form of Public Sociology and the Citizen Social Science. This can typically involve the use of digital information technologies to crowd source and validate locally situated knowledge, and/or create platforms for participatory community mapping using a variety of creative media. The aim is both to generate situated accounts, whether from big or small data sets, to investigate for example of the local effects of environmental pollution or gentrification and, secondly, in and through the research process, to facilitate and empower communities of resistance to these effects. One thing CSS does is to blur the distinction between amateur and professional social scientist, the real challenge being not how to train up amateurs so they think and behave more like professionals, but how to get professional social scientists to recognise that they are first and foremost amateurs of the social, fascinated by its relays between things not themselves social. Whether CSS is genuinely redistributive of intellectual capital, or just a more subtle and democratic way of extracting information without paying for it remains to be seen.
The recent emergence of public sociology, of which the Connected Communities initiative is a rather weak example, seeks to validate the situated knowledge of marginalised communities, on the grounds that their very marginality, their lack of implication in power structures, gives them privileged access or insight into its workings[xv]. So we have seen community studies based on standpoint epistemologies linked to identity politics of gender, race and class, and aiming to provide these groups with a space of representation in which they can gain confidence and trust in their own ability to articulate their viewpoint without needing intermediaries. Yet if only the wearer knows where and how the shoe pinches, the actual pain of ‘feeling the pinch’ and the struggle for day to day survival can inhibit the capacity to gain the critical knowledge required to know why the shoe is made that way and what alternatives to ‘one size fits all ‘ policies might be possible. The well springs of the sociological imagination are not automatically nurtured by conditions of poverty and oppression. Political education, not propaganda for a particular cause, but shifting the grounds of common sense so that an accessible space for democratic politics and debate opens up, is a vital aspect of public sociology.
Running like a red thread through all these approaches is a concern with establishing a moral economy of knowledge, undermining its hierarchisation and fragmentation in the academic division of labour. This can take the form of developing a strategic inter-disciplinarity. Not just an intellectual mash up but the collaborative production of concepts and methods which accomplish a paradigm shift in the way a problem is addressed, both as a research topic and as focus of political intervention.
Alongside this there is a trend to create some kind of intellectual commons by building a more inclusive community of research practice and skilling informants so that they become more or less fully fledged members of it. These are almost always ethnographic projects because critical ethnographers have been at the forefront of attempts to create more participatory modes of research. The moral economy of knowledge certainly has implications for how community studies are done For example the voices of community informants have to be presented live, whether in audio or video, so that the full texture of their statements is made available for discussion. All too often ethnographers report using indirect speech to convey the gist of informant’s stories, merging or submerging their own interpretations in the flow whilst also substituting their voice for the informants. And then they talk about this kind of research as empowerment! The research stories we tell about the stories we collect, the interpretative meta-narrative we weave around the ethnographic data to give it a wider contextual meaning ( for example in relation to a particular theory of community in the human sciences ) has to be clearly distinguished from the primary source material. The best way to do this is to create parallel texts, so that a dialogue between the informants interpretation of their world, and the community ethnographer’s becomes possible.
If community work began as an adjunct to settlement sociology, it quickly developed its own professional momentum in the post war period as a branch of the welfare state. In fact throughout the 1960’s and 70s community development projects became a favoured platform for delivering key public services in deprived working class areas, especially those which were undergoing rapid de-industrialisation. The most radical and embedded of these programmes brought trade unionists, community activists and urbanists together within a framework of popular planning to devise strategies to address structural unemployment, especially amongst young people, and create a form of economic regeneration that was at least partially appropriate to the existing skills base.
In the arts too, ‘community outreach’ became increasingly mandatory. In the long boom years from 1994 – 2006 there was an explosion of community arts festivals in towns and cities across Britain, linked, of course, to the growth of creative industries and capitalism’s cultural turn. Much of this activity was carried out by professional artists, with a mixture or public and private funding and despite all the talk about ‘capacity building’ it seems to have done little to enhance the social and cultural capital of the most deprived populations. It was, predictably enough the usual suspects, the bridgers not bonders who made the most of these opportunities.
As with community arts so with politics. Community action became professionalised and developed its own theoretical practice.Saul Alinski’s Rules for Radicals, subtitled ‘A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals’ became the bible for many community organisers, including one Barack Obama, with its heady mix of populism, real politik and common sense prescription.
As a result of all these developments ‘ community’ became an ever more inflated and confused concept. It was used interchangeably with ‘local ’, was applied indiscriminately to an ever wider range of interest groups, and even became a synonym for civil society as a whole. As a portmanteau word, which could mean all things to all people what it gained in currency it lost in strategic application. ‘Community’ became both sentimentalised, reduced to any shared structure of feeling, and de-politicised as a moral, aesthetic or cultural good in its own right. This inevitably produced a counter-movement which sought to re-politicise community and make it into a platform for a new and different kind of agenda.
Communitarian Turns : Right and Left
The rise of communitarianism – that is of a political discourse about social cohesion in which the loss or lack of community is a central reference point, and of forms of theory and practice that attempt to redefine or reinvent what is meant by community in order to address and make good that lack or loss – communitarianism can be seen as a generic response across the ideological spectrum to the impact of globalisation and neo-liberal governance on the pillars of civil society, in including those pillars like the trade union, the chapel, and the multiform agencies of independent working class education and culture, many of which became mainstreamed, but which have now either become gentrified, like football clubs, or marginalised like trade unions.
[expand title=”Read More”]
The Tories communitarian turn, which coalesced around the Big Society initiative, was part of a wider strategy to dismantle the welfare state and put in its place voluntary action supported by private philanthropy[xvi]. It was also an attempt to strengthen the bonds of civil society which were seen to be weakened by the new social and economic insecurities, and,just as importantly, to dissolve the residual forms of resistance provoked by them.
The Big Society programme drew theoretically on the work of Amitai Etzioni in the USA. Etzioni was concerned that social bonds under capitalism were simply impersonal relations between strangers regulated by state or market[xvii]. He wanted to transform the social bond from a purely instrumental device into an expression of common values, a new kind of social contract which balanced civic rights and responsibilities. But he ignored the double edged aspect of the ‘bond’ which is implicit in its etymology – it is a promissory note which is a performative statement of trust (my word is my bond) and it is about externally imposed social constraint. Within the framework of capitalist exchange what connects people and frees them from their narcissism is also what imprisons them in relations of subordination[xviii]. Etzioni only considers the bond from its good side.
The Big Society rhetoric borrowed the language of mutualism and moral economy in order to rationalise the marketisation of both and accomplish the withering away of the State. The so called Red Tories tried to pass themselves off as born again Guild Socialists, but this was at best an opportunistic manoeuvre. Firstly the move was to split off the Guild’s organic model of the body politic from the class solidarities in which it was embedded and then re-insert it in a model of community based on the principle of Concordia Discors, or Order in Variety, first enunciated as an aesthetic principle by Alexander Pope in the 18th Century:
Not chaos like together crushed and bruised
But as the world harmoniously confused,
Where order in variety we see
And where, tho all things differ, all agree.
Concordia Discors was transposed into a principle of governance in which the political class provide the order, the over arching framework of representation and the others – other classes and ethnicities, the variety[xix]. It provided a single principle of social and political integration. There might be differences in cultural values and political ideology, but they were to be contained within a broader consensus ( an unwritten constitution) and parliamentary democracy.
However Left Communitarianism has its roots not only in the very home grown tradition of Guild Socialism, but in Council Communism and anarcho-syndicalism which emerged in opposition to European Social Democracy in the early 20th century[xx]. Common to both was the aim was to develop the direct democracies of the labourhood, and disseminate them as a generic principle of self governance for civil society as a whole. An altogether different approach to the withering away of the state. Now that the social architecture of the labourhood has all but disappeared, the move is to build new practices of direct democracy through the forms of dispersed sociality that have emerged in and against the deregulated city: communities of life style and leisure as well as livelihood, virtual communities of interest and affiliation as well as face to face and place to place.[xxi] Community becomes re-defined in and as a pop up moral economy centred on the gift, celebrating the symbolic value of the relationship between people in the act of exchange rather than abstract commensurability of the commodity; it is a figure of transience not stability, liminality rather than cohesion, a site of bonding but not bondage ( unless you happen to be a member of the gay S/M community in which case bondage is bonding). This is a vision of community in which cultural order emerges in and through variety rather than being imposed upon it. In a word community as commons.
This version of community has a complex structure, and contains it own internal tensions. There is a pull toward communitas or communion, to construct liminal spaces of ecstatic conviviality, in which people experience an oceanic feeling of oneness with one another and world. Think rave culture. Or mass street demonstrations. Or a football crowd. One for all and all for one. The workers united will never be defeated. Then there is the pull towards the natural symbolisms of imagined community and its neo-tribalisms, whether of nation, class, ethnicity, gender or generation, common humanity or the wretched of the earth: rallying cries to either celebrate or over ride internal difference. So here community is largely a site of projective and introjective identifications which may well promote a culture of inactivism. If community is simply a rhetorical construct or reference group then to claim membership does not require you to do anything. It is enough to performatively state your claim. Finally there is the pull to the more grounded realities of communities of practice, in which people are apprenticed into shared zones of learning, interaction and experience by peers who happen to be old hands at this game. Their function is to enable the novitiate to master specific skills and techniques, whether of work or play[xxii].Think skateboarding. This version of community has lead to a whole new array of activisms: for example in the field of environmental activism we have bands of guerrilla gardeners, eco-warriors, place hackers,do-it -yourself urbanists, squatters, housing campaigners, co-operative farmers and time bankers.
It is easy to see how these different forms of collectivity, real, imaginary and symbolic, might variously reinforce or undermine one another. The intense ‘high’ of communitas cannot be directly reproduced in organisational forms and practices, but nevertheless faith communities, whether religious or political, need to generate and contain ecstatic moments. Otherwise congregation dissolves into mere aggregation. Processionals and demonstrations both serve these purposes in suspending differences of internal status and power between leaders and followers, and magically transforming them into relations of reciprocity and equality between peers, whether under the sign of spiritual fellowship or political comradeship.
Intentional communities, like the hippy communes that emerged in the 1960’s are built from affinity groups, but develop their own rituals of initiation and myths of origin to articulate the introjected identifications which compose their collective vision. There are also unintentional communities, people thrown together by circumstances, often by a disaster or some other unexpected occurrence. Funerals, for example, often bring together a very disparate group of family, friends and colleagues, many of whom have never met or even been aware of each other’s existence but who come together in shared grief at their individual loss. The more attenuated and dispersed social networks become, the more unintended community.
The tragedy of the contemporary commons is not about how the ruthless pursuit of self interest destroys shared amenity but the fact that in order to be sustainable within a global rather than local economy the commons require abundance and even surplus, there has to be more than enough to go round; however in situations where scarcity obtains, and these are contexts where the privatisation of public assets is today taking place on an immense scale, the struggle to defend the commons as a democratic project of social inclusion founders on the need to protect exclusive rights over shared resource. Under these circumstances one group’s commons becomes another’s no go area.
So we need to think about the limits and conditions of the left libertarian vision of community. For example how far does it work to de-construct the local as an immovable object pitted against the irresistible force of globalisation ? Does its emphasis on collective self expression simply represent a shift from inner directed to other directed narcissism, a culture whose motto might be ‘ I before me except after we’? The mobilisation of community is frequently associated with processes of polarisation, Us against Them, but it can also be an occasion for what Freud somewhat ironically called ‘the narcissism of minor difference’ ( he was referring to the rise of anti-Semitism spurred on by the Nazi’s Volkish ideology), so that smallest differences in ideology produce splits within the political movement.
Equally the just- in -time production of community, with its flexible accumulation of social, cultural and intellectual capital would seems to belong firmly within the pop up moral economy of the precariat, and by the same token to have less to offer the salariat. How far do the new forms of apprenticeship offers a viable alternative to the self- possessed individualism of the political vocation ( amd the charismatic quest for the Ideal Society) ) or the competitive individualism of the political careerist (and mastery of the machinery of spin) ?
The search for common ground
There are no easy answers to these deeper questions of political organisation on the Left. But it may be possible to look at some of the more immediate issues which arise when we try and put this vision of community into practice. For this purpose I want to present a little case study of a community mapping project called Common Ground. The organisation itself was set up in 1983 by Sue Clifford and Angela King, with the support of Roger Deakin and other radical environmentalists. It was part of emergent movement to explore and rediscover a deep landscape of Englishness not compromised and indeed pre-dating the imperialism of Little Englandism, and which belong to a vision of England’s green and pleasant land that is embedded in a long history of radicalism and popular democratic struggle.
The Millenium mapping project run by Common Ground was premised on a highly original interpretation of the then popular rallying call of the green movement : ‘small is beautiful’[xxiii]. The maps which were produced by dozens of community groups in the towns and villages of Sussex were certainly beautiful statements about the importance of small scale attachments to place. The aim was to portray though an exercise in participatory mapping the historical individuality of these place, to show their particularity without falling back into particularism.
This is how Sue Clfford herself described the project:
‘Local distinctiveness is about the conspiracy of nature and culture to intensify variegation. it is about detail, patina, authenticity and meanings, the things that create identity. It is about accumulations and assemblages., about accommodation and change, not compartmentalisation and preservation. It must include the invisible as well as the physical: symbol, festival legend custom, language, recipe, memory are as important as street and square’
Making a Parish map can help people to come together to chart the things that they value locally, to make their voice heard amongst professionals and developers, to inform and assert their need for nature and culture on their own terms, and to begin to take action and some control in shaping the future of their place. Democratic mapping, maps by and for the people. Indigenous and parish mapping. Taking the map back into the people’s hands.’
[expand title=”Read More”]
The projects involved school children, residents, artists and researchers, and produced a rich diversity of maps, many addressing issues of redevelopment, environmental stress, pollution and traffic, and social/demographic change. It is certainly the case that a NIMBY strain can be detected in some of the maps. After all these are largely rural communities who want to preserve the countryside and village life against the destructive impact of globalised modernity. They do not want to be part of London’s commuter belt and lose their local identity. But are they proto or retro modernists or simply anti- modernity as such ?
In terms of cartographic models the project went back to the early 16th and 17th century topographic maps of the English countryside which featured little paintings of buildings and physical features as well as heraldic figures from local folklore and myth. The early maps depicted customary usages of space and place, they show a world of the commons prior to the enclosure movement, and offer an alternative to the cadastral maps which simply plotted landownership and private property. As such they offered a source of inspiration that looks forward to popular democratic struggles over access to the countryside in the 19th and 20th centuries. The edges of the Sussex Millennial maps often draw on this iconographic device for commentary or contextual interpretation.
In quite a few cases both proto and retro modernist elements are mingled in the same map. Perhaps the most interesting map in this respect and certainly the one which has aroused most comment was produced by the people of Copthorne. The village is on the borders of Surrey and Sussex and even more importantly is close to Gatwick airport. Copthorne’s oldest farmhouse has been converted into a luxury hotel to accommodate high flying business executives on their way to and from the airport. It is owned by the conglomerate corporate entertainment company Copthorne –Millenium which owns a global network of hotels and casinos. So in effect the village has become a dormitory for the international jet set. No trace of this impact is however allowed to intrude into the composition of the map which shows an oak tree, made up of roads and paths, and chosen not only because of its role as a natural symbol of Englishness, but because ‘colthorpe’ mean a pollarded tree. The intertwined roots of the tree are composed of all the names of the villagers, and the acorns contain images of the local community organisations. A map of organic community then, of roots, not routes, although as Sue Clifford notes Copthorne has certainly travelled across the world – there is a Copthorne Orchard in Penang and a Copthorne Anzac Avenue in Auckland, but again these links are not registered on the map.
Taken as a whole the Sussex atlas exhibits a strong preference for iconography that air brushes council houses, and other ‘inorganic’ -i.e. modernist- features out of the picture. This is a defence of the commons that is inevitably A properly critical cartography requires a different approach. We need a map that shows the relationships between the picturesque English countryside ( and country houses) and the forms of wealth creation linked to the colonies and the exploitation of native populations. Franco Moretii’s world map of the novel shows the location of colonial sources of wealth featured in English sentimental novels ( viz Africa India and the South China seas) [xxiv]. We need to trace the intricate networks of trade and exploitation that connect consumers in the affluent West to producers in the impoverished East. This is what Rebecca Solnit does in some of the maps in her San Francisco Atlas[xxv]. And which Caroline Knowles does in her ethnographic account of globalisation from below.[xxvi] Frederick Jamieson was wrong to think that these links are unmappable from the vantage point of everyday perceptions [xxvii]. They are not only grist to the mill of radical cartographers, they have become common knowledge in many diasporic communities[xxviii].
Certainly it was Sue Clifford’s intention to make these kind of translocal links, but choosing the Parish as the unit of reference, as she did, while it was meant to simply signify the scale, inevitably over determined the scope, and encouraged a mono-cultural perspective. Her project was also rather defeated by the demographic of the areas she chose – the villages and market towns of Sussex are not exactly hot spots of multiculturalism! If the project had been located in hyper diverse inner city neighbourhoods, or in the new multi- ethnic suburbs it would have told s a very different story. There is nothing in the methodology itself which pre-empts this – quite the contrary and we are currently building on this approach in a participatory mapping project which will be working with groups in areas of London on the front lines of re generation and gentrification in the next ten years but which have no tradition of community activism.[xxix]
From Dead Labour to Living Labour
The broader issue raised by this project is how common ground can be build and sustained between different groups in areas undergoing rapid socio-demographic change and increased population churn. In these situations people need routines and ritual, fixtures and fixity of purpose if they are to get their bearings; we need to defend and extend places of congregation and commemoration within the space of accelerated flows, and we need to build diachronic structures that give meaning, purpose and direction to the unfolding of lives in the midst of chaotic synchronicity. We need to build platforms for the sociological imagination of an alternative future to that offered by the corporate visionaries. And for this to succeed we need a different kind of politics, and that must mean different kind of Labour Party.
The Labour Party we all grew up to love to hate was a party of dead labour, a party designed and largely run by technocrats and bureaucrats, whose phantasy was to create and administer a quasi Fordist machinery for the mass production of votes and who held to a narrow productivist model of labour power. Political capital was largely made by bonders establishing ideological power bases within and by means of the party machine. The transition from old to new Labour brought a shift to a post-Fordist model, the just- in- time production of policies for niche marketing to specific sub-electorates and this meant that political capital was most easily accumulated by bridgers, who were good at creating opportunistic partnerships. There was a new emphasis on growing the knowledge economy and creative industries although a purely productivist approach to innovation remained in place.
[expand title=”Read More”]
In contrast a Living Labour party would locate technical and social innovation within the moral economies of workplace and community, in the forms of co-operation and mutual aid through which the collective aspiration and creativity of working people have always been expressed. This would mean that political capital would be accumulated by those who could combine bonding and bridging, the former through involvement in local community campaigns, the latter through building coalitions around specific policy agendas, within and across social movements. As for the culture of internal democracy and policy making, debates should indeed be ‘harmoniously confused’, and governed according to the principle that ’ tho all differ, all agree’ so that minority opinions do not find themselves ‘crushed and bruised’ in the name of party unity and members do not find themselves in the invidious position of being mere cogs in the machine if they toe the party line, or else throwing spanners in the works, if they do not. The importance of social media in this context is that their use as discussion forums and mobilising devices weakens the tendency of political affinity groups to harden into sectarian groupuscules. While there is always the risk of ‘pop up’ activism, i.e short term enthusiasms that melts away as soon as more sustained commitment is required, it is less dangerous in my view than the sclerotic self justifying cultures of the far left sects.
As a simple but concrete example of the approach I am suggesting consider how a Living Labour Party might have intervened in last year’s celebrations of the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta. In contrast to the official approach, which simply iterated a safe message about law and property being the foundation of civil liberty, an alternative reading would focus on the struggles for enfranchisement and empowerment that have used Magna Carta as a rhetorical reference point.[xxx] Working in collaboration with local artists, the WEA, schools, youth projects, senior citizens, civil liberties and campaign groups plus a wide range of community organisations the aim would be for each constituency area to produce its own pictorial/narrative map of liberties and commons, past, present and future, incorporating local places and events associated with popular democratic struggles. Carta is after all Latin for map! Whether in the form of a physical or digital map, a tapestry or banner, each constituency would add its own distinctive features to a deep cartography of the limits and conditions of Popular Democracy. Not only would this activity bring together different elements of the precariat in a common project with members of the salariat, but it c ould provide a platform for a nationwide public debate about the relation of civil society and the state, creating the grass roots conditions for the formulation of a new constitutional settlement enshrined in a bill of rights. Evidently the Labour party which Corbyn has inherited is currently in no state to launch a Great Chartist movement, but there will be enough opportunities in the coming years to engage in this kind of venture, and to transform Dead Labour into Living Labour, without the need for any second coming of Blair Brown. That, I think, is a cause for hope. So Happy 2016.
[i] Isabel Lorey (2014)The State of Insecurity: Government of the Precarious; Guy Standing (2014)The precariat: the new dangerous class
[ii] Jean-Luc Nancy (1989) The Inoperable Community
[iii] Phil Cohen (1995 ) Children of the Revolution
[iv] Cited in Lauren Berlant (2009) Cruel Optimism
[v] David Graeber (2001) Towards an anthropology of value:the false coin of our dreams
[vi] Antonio Gramsci (1974) Prison Notebooks; Ernst Bloch ( 1989) Principles of Hope. For a general discussion of contemporary principles of hope see Phil Cohen ‘The Centre will not hold :changing principles of political hope’ Soundings 60 2014
[vii] Lauren Berlant op cit
[viii] See E. P. Thompson (1980) The Making of the English Working Class.
[ix] In much of what follows I am indebted to the work of B. Gulli (2010) Earthly Plenitudes: A Study in sovereignty and Labour; A. Rabinbach(1992) The Human Motor: Energy, Fatigue and the Rise of Modernity; A. S. Rethel (1978) Intellectual and Manual Labour; and S. J. Charlesworth (2000) A Phenomenology of Working Class Experience.
[x] See Phil Cohen ‘ Labouring under whiteness’ in Ruth Frankenberg(ed) 2004 Dislocating Whiteness and Chapter 5 of Material Dreams: maps and territories in the un/making of modernity (forthcoming 2016)
[xi] Sigmund Freud (1985) The Family Romance in Art and Literature
[xii] Ronald Frankenberg (1976) Communities in Britain
[xiii] See Michael Young and Peter Willmott (1957) Family and Kinship in east London; Family and Class in a London Suburb (1971) The Symmetrical Family (1973);Peter Willmott (1974) The Evolution of a community :Dagenham 40 years on; Adolescent Boys in East London (1966)
[xiv] See Joyce E Williams et al (2015)Settlement Sociology in the Progressive Years
[xv] See Philip Nyden et al (2011) Public Sociology :research,action,change
[xvi] See Marianne Scott (ed) 2011) The Big Society Challenge; Jesse Norman (2010) The Big Society : the anatomy of new politics; Jason Edward (2012) Retrieving the Big Society
[xvii] See Amitain Etzioni (ed) 1998 The Essential Communitarian reader; The Spirit of Community: rights,responsibilities and the communitarian agenda (1995)
[xviii] Martijn Konings (2015)The emotional logic of capitalism : what progressives have missed
[xix] See the discussion in Chapter 8 of Phil Cohen On the Wrong Side of the Track?(2013)
[xx] See Antonin Boekelman(1980) The Development of the social and political thinking of Anton Pannekoek: from social democracy to Council Communism; Karl Korsch (1970)Marxism and the Philosophy. On Guild Socialism see G.D.H.Cole (1922/2010) Guild Socialism Restated and Jack Vowles (1980) From Corporatism to Workers Control : the formation of British Guild Socialism
[xxi] For recent debates on the Left see Jeremy Gilbert (2013) Common Ground :Democracy and Collectivity in an age of Individualism; Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (2009) Commonwealth; Girgio Katsarbekis (2014) Radical Democracy and Social Movements Today
[xxii]Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger (1991) Situated Learning ; Phil Cohen ‘Apprenticeship a la mode’ in Pat Ainley and Helen Rainbird (ed) (2004) Apprenticeship towards a new paradigm of learning
[xxiv] Franco Moretti (1999) Atlas of the European Novel
[xxv] See Rebecca Solnit (2010) Infinite City : a San Francisco Atlas
[xxvi] See Caroline Knowles (2014) Flip Flop : a journey through globalisation’s back roads
[xxvii] Frederick Jamieson ‘Cognitive Mapping ‘ in Nelson and Grossberg (1999) Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture
[xxviii] This is discussed in Nora Rathzel and Phil Cohen (2007)Finding the Way Home
[xxx] See Peter Linebaugh ( 2014) The Magna Carta Manifesto