Saturday, 12 February 2011

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'.
This is more like localism: a thousand flowers I’m not really interested in service-oriented models of localism. A resident’s view of being local tends to look different to that of a service provider. It's curious for example how policy has appropriated the word 'neighbourhood' in the last five years or so, to refer to a locality with typically a population of several thousand inhabitants. Now suddenly there are programmes of linked officially-approved local initiatives working on an area basis around the country. The Big Local Trust is helping to get things going in an initial tranche of 50 areas. Today NESTA announced sixteen local projects as part of the 'Neighbourhood Challenge' (Yes I know, the language. I expressed some doubts about the attitudes back in October). And in the next few days we should learn a little about how the government’s ‘community organisers’ scheme is to work (previously 5,000 of them: now, er, 500. Well done Dave, what’s a dropped zero here and there?) (Whether such a scheme is needed is another matter of course). It’s reassuring to think that these projects, legitimated by policy, will bring momentum to the age-old task of articulating localism from a local resident’s perspective. If we ask what’s new here, I think it’s that ‘bottom-up rhetoric’ – the language of local people taking action over local issues – is legitimated. In this sense some of our leaders are right: the shadow of government has dominated the local ecology and stifled growth. Now we all have permission to have conversations in policy contexts that acknowledge, even celebrate, the validity of the most local approach. As if no-one had been trying to have such conversations ever before. Now it’s fashionable. Of course, some agencies will continue to try to discredit those voices, out of habit, misunderstanding and addiction to power, but they already sound out of touch. So what about those localities where people haven’t had a sniff of these funding awards, and where residents haven’t had encouragement from their local authority to test empowerment, or haven’t managed to galvanise enough interest among others around them? What about those places where community groups may not have the resources to access and absorb the lessons from the fortunate funded few? There will as usual be inflated expectations about how the lessons from these large-scale programmes will be transferred. By all means the experience should be bottled, and disseminated in accessible form. But let’s not adopt a template mentality which implies that success is so readily replicable. In my experience, the awkward obstacles to community development are usually relationship problems, not about the mechanics of how you do this or that. Which is why the present culture change is so important. Worthy ambitions to transfer lessons and clone processes from one locality to another won’t be fulfilled. Community development is not carpentry; it's more like nurturing an ecology. Sometimes you need to leave things alone, sometimes you need to root things out or cut them back. And now that it's legitimate to challenge the dismissive dominant...

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