Thursday, 30 August 2012

Happy-clappy community engagement and the politics of disadvantage Two years and five months ago I attended the (opposition) Conservative Party launch of an idea called the big society. I must admit it took me a few days to appreciate what it meant. Since then I’ve heard people whose views I might once have respected, express enthusiasm for – even regret for the apparent passing of – this devious and snide attempt to theorise the demolition of the public, the suffocation of community action (manifestly not its liberation) and the justification for disempowering gestures of philanthropy. Today - thank you Patrick Butler - we have a bitter-sweet example of just what big society amounts to. Patrick reports on how Children North East, a long-established organisation with a sound reputation for serving disadvantaged young people against the odds, found that the erosion of public funding for what they do stopped, abruptly, at the pockets of the charity’s staff: They put their hands in their pocket and paid for the children's lunches themselves. The staff set up what in effect was a mini-food bank scheme. They bought ‘a little extra’ in their weekly family shopping trip, and used it to stock up the charity's new ‘pantry’. The article quotes tellingly from the blog of the charity's chief exec, Jeremy Cripps: So here we have a Government without the humanity to care for very vulnerable people until they are deported by giving them even a minimal amount of money to feed their children; a local authority providing shelter for those families but forced to cut back on its spending by the Government; passing that cut on to a charity which too has to economise; the buck passes to the charity's staff who cannot stand by and do nothing while in daily contact with children in basic need of food; so they take it upon themselves to make sure children do not go hungry. The problem I have is not that this could be any kind of surprise to anybody who has been paying attention. What bothers me is that the emergence of circumstances like these has been accompanied by a degree of encouragement among people in the new community engagement industry, who have been happy to promote a form of community development that ignores the politics of disadvantage: lots of jolly emphasis on happy-clappy ‘community’ but no recognition of the manifest and rampant social injustices that try to make philanthropy (and by extension, depoliticised community involvement) an acceptable substitute for social responsibilities. I have suggested before that the assimilation of selective-value community development into public policy could effectively neuter the movement and marginalise the voices of anyone who protests against political injustices that cause great need. Further, it seems to me that collusion in such policies amounts to subscribing to the demonisation of the poor. That is inexcusable.
'Your logic is a dog.' Systematically increasing exclusion ‘Genuine respect for the law is the result of possessing something which the law exerts itself to guard.’ George Gissing, The nether world (1889). This is a rum old business, this news about criminalising squatters. When I was a kid I used to pass a squatted block of flats in Harrow, the outer wall painted in large letters - 'Your logic is a dog. And so am I.' To try to be fair to the government: on the day the widely-decried regulation to criminalise squatters was publicised, they published sensible looking guidelines to help local authorities deal with 'rogue' landlords. Most of us wouldn’t have noticed. The determination of the Haves to hound, punish and brutalise people in poverty seems to be taking on its own momentum, albeit with familiar rhetoric. Here, in the Ministry of Justice press release, are some of the words of the housing minister: 'For too long, hardworking people have faced long legal battles to get their homes back from squatters, and repair bills reaching into the thousands when they finally leave.’ (I know, I know, the heart bleeds, sometimes some of them can’t decide which home to sleep in, it must be awful having to make your mind up). But what is the word ‘hardworking’ doing in that sentence? How does the minister know that all those people who, for instance, have more housing than they need, and seek to make profit from it, are ‘hardworking’? It doesn’t follow. Could he possibly be using the term in order to establish some kind of moral distance, as part of the nasty rhetoric of marginalising the unemployed and the poor? What struck me about the media coverage yesterday was that the government appeared to be more interested in publicising its bullying approach to the crime of squatting, so that people who have lots of property will feel there is justice for them (to go with the legislation they already have) than they were in offering a progressive approach to addressing problems associated with homelessness. Nothing, not a word, about bringing abandoned properties back into use, so that fewer people are forced onto the streets. Whether or not there is a satisfactory strategy on homelessness, the driving assumption is that ‘the public’ want to hear that people who experience exclusion are being dealt with ‘firmly’, and never mind the consequences. That’s scary. It feeds into the accumulating mood of povertyism, which I described here as ‘straightforward nasty prejudice against a large class of people who, by inconsiderately not having much stuff, manage to make others uncomfortable about their own greed.’

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