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.

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