Well it’s been tough for the rich and powerful lately and they’ve started to get a little uneasy about the rate of return on their enormous investments. And really, one can’t help thinking that poor people just have to work harder, it’s not good enough, let’s see what else we can plunder from them. What’s this social capital they have, couldn’t we make something out of that?
The model’s straightforward: if only poor people would do more with their social capital – all those network connections made in clubs and pubs and community centres, my dear fellow, places where they laugh at stuff one simply wouldn’t comprehend – public services would become obsolete or cost less to run and profit would be easier to make at the top.
Yes, it could be deemed offensive for people with lots of money to describe the social capital of people on low incomes as ‘wealth’, and then to try to exploit it. Having said that, semantic niceties aside, it does matter how local social connections give rise to informal and formal participation; and how they in turn relate to formal governance. I’d subscribe to the view put forward back in 2005 by Paul Skidmore and John Craig in Start with people (an unacknowledged precursor of some elements in current policy thinking):
‘we need to create greater value from the connections popular participation creates between public services, civil society and our structures of democratic representation.’
But it’s taking so long to get policy recognition for the value of those interactions, while all the time the third places we need for this associational life are increasingly threatened. Even the stoutest defender of the current government, and they do exist, stout ones anyway, could hardly deny the assertiveness (some might call it wanton vandalism) of its deconstruction of the public realm. It doesn’t help.
Start with people explored the connections within and beyond civil society that are forged in community organisations. So, more broadly, does this recent report from ResPublica, Clubbing together, by Keith Cooper and Caroline Macfarland, sub-titled unfortunately ‘the hidden wealth of communities’. It explores the potential for a greater ‘club-culture’ in the UK. It offers a review and a very welcome discussion of the largely forsaken place of local clubs and community centres in associational life, mostly well-written, if clearly rushed.
Will this report push the pace among policy makers, to help protect and promote local civil associations? There’s a crucial section on page 31 which refers to social impact statements and cites a Public Administration Select Committee report, ending – you might almost think inspirationally - with these points:
‘A better recognition of the hidden wealth of informal activities [that’s more like it] requires this more sophisticated understanding of how casual connections contribute to our national social capital stocks… Leisure pursuits, as ‘crucibles of casual connections’ that are purposive, pooling, and encourage inclusive social mixing, should be recognised and promoted in policy implementation as vehicles for cultivating social value.’
Yes, more please. And among the report’s recommendations there’s a strong and much-needed case made for social value impact statements. Coming from this source, it may be heard, and if there’s anything left of the public realm by the time it gets processed, some good will come of it.
Meanwhile, back on page 31, the authors break down the category of 'casual connections' and point out the need
‘to distinguish between the kinds of connections we form when engaged in purposive activity from (sic) non-purposive types of chance activity, such as bumping into friends or family at the shops or striking up conversations with strangers at bus stops.'
They note that
'Purposive casual connections are forged and fostered in situations where people indulge in activities for a particular purpose and social outcome, when engaging in sport or team activities, other competitive games such as bingo, or educational leisure such as arts classes.'
Which of course has long been one of the arguments for adult learning, so wretchedly underfunded by recent governments. I merely mention. It doesn't mean that we can dismiss ‘non-purposive casual connections': we're told that these more informal encounters
'are unlikely to lead to social actions.’
The word ‘directly’, inserted about four words from the end, might have helped saved this sentence, otherwise it’s an unfortunate remark which weakens the whole approach. Non-purposive casual connections are fundamental – everything else would fall over without them. It would be difficult to describe or account for social life (adapting a phrase used by David Morgan which I quoted here) without passing and fleeting acquaintances. Apart from anything else, they give rise to a lot of other encounters and activities. In social relations, the trivial is massively significant. The 2008 CLG guidance on ‘meaningful interaction’ made the same mistake. We have been here before a few times.
That is not to say that casual connections in purposive surroundings are not important, of course they are. Just don’t diss the superficial, ok? You see why this paper is such a frustrating read, by turn informative and insightful, then inadequate and misguided.
As an example of the latter, and I’m really not worked up about this, there’s a shallow section on ‘From online to face-to-face interaction’ which embarassingly fails to grasp the extent or nature of local online interaction. This would not be a problem if the authors didn’t decide to pronounce on the subject with such assumed authority.
Local social technologies have moved on a long way from ‘cyber balkanisation’ – the phenomenon whereby online participation is perceived to cluster around interest not locality (and no, Putnam didn’t coin the term, it goes back at least to Van Alstyne and Brynjolfsson in 1996. I published something on this in New statesman in about 99. It's past).
Just a glance at Keith Hampton’s work, well-known as the leading researcher in this field, would have helped; or even some extensive, well-respected, ahem, home-grown UK primary research carried out a couple of years ago. After that, when chapter four begins on the premiss that 'individuals have adapted their group behaviours to changing socio-cultural and technological environments' without reference to Barry Wellman and networked individualism, it's hard to retain much confidence.
Where I feel this paper fails most, however, is at what may be the most difficult task, which is explaining what the traditional concept of membership means in the network society. Is association through membership, with or without the tradition of unionism, co-operatives and mutual societies, an anachronism or a social necessity? Personally I suspect it's a characteristic of hierachical societies dominated by organisations rather than networks, but I'm ready to be persuaded otherwise. In spite of an interesting section on ‘From consumers to members’, this paper doesn’t get near an answer.
My sense of disappointment in the squandered opportunity of this paper is barely allayed by the possibility that ResPublica's access to policy makers might have some effect. Perhaps shrewdly, they adopted a smart technique to promote the report among people in positions of power, while discouraging those in community development or community action from taking any notice – they got Eric Pickles to launch it.
But still, the unexpected attention on clubs is welcome. My excellent friend Ruth Cherrington, an authority on working men’s clubs, will doubtless be as pleased as the rest of us that at last some policy attention might be paid to the ‘untapped value’ of ‘membership environments’. But only a big society sleepwalker would overlook the likelihood that there would be attempts to capture and exploit a celebration of ordinary people’s community lives mutually-constructed against the odds.
With a couple of exceptions, the recommendations are disappointingly unambitious, characterised by the customary passing of the buck to local authorities, using the standard reality-blind formula of ‘local authorities need to consider [insert favourite topic] as an alternative to closure’.
Maybe that last phrase, ‘alternative to closure’, needs a little more reflection among right wing think tanks. Taking the right's approach to public libraries as an example - often offered as one of the key reasons for the tories to get a thorough hammering as soon as moderate middle class people can get to the polling stations – it’s worth noting that an alternative to closure is sometimes, ahem, keeping things open.
(My dear chap, why didn’t we think of that?)
And that's it really - arguing for investment in informal social networks is vital but seems pointless in a policy context dominated by the demolition of the public.
One last thought. I mentioned Skidmore and Craig’s Start with people, an uneven work but one that should not be overlooked. With all the recent fuss about the ‘innovation’ of localism as if it were an invention of this government, you might be surprised to read this on p88 – published seven years ago:
‘subject to certain safeguards, if local communities can demonstrate sufficient popular support they should be granted a right of initiative to propose a local intervention and require local authorities to bring forth a proposal and vote on it.’
Even their best ideas aren't new.