Wednesday, 09 February 2011

'Communities! Seize your opportunities!' I try not to be negative all the time, honestly, but these are strange times. Here's an unfortunate post on the ResPublica blog which exemplifies the peculiar cultural gap in understanding that divides the country. Matt Leach comes straight out and admits that big society is top-down: but version 2.0 is emerging which will be - wait for it - 'the start of a transfer of responsibility for mobilising and leading the project from central government downward to our neighbourhoods and communities.' Stand well back, here comes big society 2.0 (or 'Big Society' as these people like to frame it: the initial capitals presumably intended to give some cred just in case it struggles to merit it). It strikes me that version 2.0 will probably accelerate the tendency to retrospective or lateral branding. Expect more desperate or subtle attempts (like this one previously) to capture and badge 'initiatives like Lambeth's Co-operative Council, emerging plans around housing in Rochdale...' as evidence of big soc. Among the give-away remarks in the article - Big Soc Two Dot Nought, we are told, is going to be 'an open source project defined by the extent to which communities are willing to seize the opportunities available.' I know it's just one throw-away piece of weak rhetoric but it does exemplify the problem I think. It's not nice to accuse people of arrogance but when they are in a position of influence it may be justified. I'm prepared to believe that much of BS thinking was conceived with good intentions and it's not all consciously politically manipuated. But are we to expect that 'thought leaders' will get any less arrogant in version 2.0? I've spent enough time over the past 25 years on the edge of London think-tanks, and in quite a few meetings in Westminster, in addition to time spent listening to people in community groups in various places around the country and beyond - people tryng to do stuff themselves against the odds. Those 'odds' don't just include overly-bureaucratic local government. They also include deeply-embedded class-based 'us-and-them' language breathed night and day by people in positions of power. We are the officer class, we govern, it's a tremendous responsibility you know. Your role is to be, well er, energetic, when we finally get the conditions right for you. The lesson I'm finally having to accept is that arrogance is inevitably found in positions of power and doesn't know itself. Anyone who can write 'the extent to which communities are willing to seize the opportunities available' without self-parody is so manifestly part of the problem, perhaps we just have to be patient until they go away.
Moving unconsciously in the same direction The other day I wrote a little about arrogance and power. This evening we had a masterful display from Hosni Mubarak, an awesome example of the patronising superior stupidity of someone inexcusably detached from ordinary life. Exceptional though his bizarre, tasteless speech was in that particular quality, its basics are hardly unfamiliar. The tone is not much different to what we are accustomed to from Westminster and many of our town halls: I know best, I have the power, you are young and enthusiastic, jolly well done in that respect, and it's nice to think about change, gosh yes quite right, but not just now. The style is characterised by patronising half-compliment, damning with faint praise, miserably-minor concessions, ignoring the real issues, selective deafness, and measured encouragement to keep on keeping on for the common cause - but on status quo terms, otherwise there could be recriminations, I think you know what I mean. More than once I have heard the same tone of unjustifiable, in-the-face-of-reason arrogance from the chair of a community group or residents' association, from a housing officer, once I remember from a senior council officer who thought she could play politics with everyone. How does this come about? Scientists, help us: where is the disempowering gene, can it be isolated? What is it in humans that drives them to demean others in this pathetic and incendiary way? What is it about arrogant people in power that fails to stop them behaving like History's Total Dickheads? I want to ask, is it really necessary to be detached from the everyday to have power? If you attain power, do you have to sever ties with the ordinary? Why? What could be more inapproriate? And let's just note that, as with the London disturbances in December, this is a network society moment. A moment focused by the democratising lens of technologies, with people able to network together in a way which is no longer inferior to the networking power of the Haves. One BBC correspondent said of the people in Tahrir Square, 'This is the twitter generation, they know what's going on.' Other comments I heard on the BBC's coverage: 'What matters in this is the street, the people on the street... These young people are too smart...' Of Mubarak's inner circle: 'They don't know what democracy is'. And from within the crowd, the crowd itself described as 'Moving unconsciously in the same direction'.

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