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.