Cooperatives, chimpanzees and alcoholics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Challenging Dependency is no Picnic

First published in Huffington Post

Over the festive season, as I fattened myself on its culinary indulgences, I also tucked into two fascinating and agreeably slim publications. While I would differ with the authors of each, they were good pointers, respectively, to understanding the welfare state past and present, and to how we might rethink the politics of community. Michael Ward’s Beatrice Webb: her quest for a fairer society and Kevin Harris’s Picnic: order, ambiguity and community had much to offer those of us interested in escaping the ghosts of the past, and to begin to argue for a new relationship between state and society in 2012.

Ward is not just interested in telling us about the author of the Minority Report to the Poor Law Commission – the document widely regarded as the blueprint for today’s welfare state. He also, by reviewing what she and its architects set out to do, helpfully outlines its defining features and points to some of its related ongoing problems, too. While he is clearly an admirer of Webb’s and a defender of the welfare state, his contribution to the debate suggests that welfare reform might not be nearly enough. He begins with what he describes as the seven core elements of the welfare state: the contributory or insurance-based benefits such as pensions, sickness and unemployment benefit; and a commitment to full employment, a commitment which was ‘at the heart’ of the welfare state, and upon which the system of benefits would depend. But it wasn’t long before money was being ‘doled’ out rather than being earned through insurance-based contributions.

Indeed, it was the removal of this commitment, the continuation of universal, non-contributory benefits such as child benefit, and the ever-increasing burden of non-contributory, discretionary means-tested benefits in the depressed inter-war years, and today, that put an end to the welfare model as originally conceived. The ‘top ups’ to pensions, family allowances, etc have become its mainstay, and continue to bring into question the future of the welfare state not just as it is currently constituted, but in its very foundations. The provision of comprehensive education and health services free at the point of access, and of social care for children, older people, and people with disabilities or mental health needs, seem continually beset by scandals over standards. With the possible exception of Ward’s final element, the free provision of a number of goods and services according to need e.g. school meals for children, and free prescriptions, public travel and winter fuel payments for the over 60s, the only point of agreement today is that things need to change.

But until about a quarter of a century ago there was a broad welfare consensus, that would perhaps surprise us today. Welfare’s champions included Winston Churchill. He was responsible for the establishment of labour exchanges, forerunners of today’s Job Centre Plus. This Tory hero (though a Liberal minister at the time) declared, sounding more like a state socialist, that ‘the State should increasingly assume the position of the reserve employer of labour’. Indeed, he and fellow-minister Lloyd George, competed to claim responsibility for the national insurance model. To add to the confusion, Webb was a social conservative, supportive of child benefits so long as the mother ‘devote herself to the care of her children, without seeking industrial employment’. But there were differences too. Webb was opposed to the shift from trades union-based insurance, while, ironically, the labour movement were supportive. Says Ward, Webb ‘did not want to see the state in competition with unions for the money of the workers’. But it wasn’t just this. The ‘moralist in Beatrice’ also baulked at the unconditionality, the lack of an incentive to work, that she felt this would imply. Nevertheless, the principle of ‘less eligibility’ lived on.

Originally aimed at those who might think the workhouses an attractive proposition, it continues to deter the work-shy and the migrant from those allegedly generous benefits. Webb and her fellow founding Fabians were not radicals of course, ‘their links were with the Liberal imperialists, or Limps’, says Ward. They ‘had no prejudice against our views of social reform’ remarked Webb in her diary. Moral imperialism knows no bounds, after all, as today’s Limps amply demonstrate. Indeed, for Kevin Harris, even the humble picnic was once a pastime with imperial overtones.

Community is presented as the ‘endangered panda of our social impulse’, he argues. Not only by those who take fright at its prospects, but also in the ‘living-memory images peddled by the nostalgia industry’. ‘Our politicians and journalists invite us to do penance’ says Harris, ‘before the curling monochrome prints of streets where doors were always left open and everyone knew everyone else’. In reality, there was somewhat less of a social consensus when compared with the welfare one reached by the political class.

Harris’s rather unseasonal interest in the picnic is as metaphor for community. He is not interested though, in the uses and abuses to which picnic as vehicle is put. Indeed the tourism-led contrivances and politically prescribed spectacles of community, rightly come in for some criticism too. ‘Picnic is an exercise in portable sociability’ he says. Here, community is ‘in the gathering, it is not apparent until people mingle and spread the rug’. His is more than another contribution to the crowded literature on community development, it is too critical for that. Indeed, in its few short pages this delightful little object of a book, featuring illustrations by Gemma Orton, ventures into a history of the picnic, taking in Wordsworth and street parties along the way. While this makes his account all the richer, it is also where I begin to differ with Harris.

For one, he doesn’t seem to much like the Victorians, not least for not mucking in (that was for the servants) or entering into the spirit of things. I can’t help but like the Victorian appetite for ‘order’ and their sense of occasion, even if they were a little uptight for contemporary sensibilities. Harris is rather fonder of ambiguity. Also, despite his description of the increasing numbers of people newly able to transport themselves (by train, then by car) to the countryside, in the pursuit of picnicking pleasures, he isn’t entirely taken with what it meant to picnic when the nation was living off the spoils of Empire. The humble picnic became ‘a way of partaking in and asserting this extraordinary sense of dominance over the planet’ , he argues. In this sentence Harris collapses a distaste not only for colonial conquest, but of mastery of nature too.

His enjoyable musings on picknicking nevertheless leave the reader with some questions to answer. Is community as ‘contributory picnic’ really enough? While, like a picnic, it does ‘entail a little trouble and enterprise’, that we ‘invest something of ourselves and allow others to have a claim on the common result’ implies something more substantial and longstanding is at stake. The grass is already beginning to spring back’, says Harris, of the fleeting sense of community that picnicking necessarily entails when everybody goes there separate ways. But why celebrate the ephemerality of picnicking? Community, surely, needs to have more staying power?

While I share Harris’s optimism for the future of community, and am struck in Ward’s account by the comparative confidence and ambition of yesteryears political classes; I hope in 2012 that the grass doesn’t spring back, and that communities are able to break free of their dependency on the welfare state, and to start building themselves anew.

How about letting communities build themselves in 2012?

First published in Independent

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

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

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

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