Friday, 15 April 2016

The divide Here’s a short message. The Divide, a film about the damaging effects of income inequality, is about to be released and there are screenings scheduled up and down the country. The sub-title is ‘What happens when the rich get richer?’ There’s an intro clip here. Get your eyeballs on it, encourage others to do likewise, and encourage screenings wherever possible – here’s the how-to info for community screenings. I was lucky enough to see it last night and was hugely impressed. Given that the film was inspired by The spirit level I was expecting a kind-of glossed-up Richard Wilkinson lecture (not that there's too much wrong with that) – but it’s reassuringly accessible, a cleverly woven mixture of human stories combined with some raw political and economic context. It’s essentially a mini-exposure of the devastating effects of the neo-liberalist project. It’s also superbly, sensitively made. When you’ve seen the forceful monologue from the imprisoned man (seen in the image above) you will not forget it, either for its artistic power or for its moral and socio-political resonance. Here’s a longer message. Last week I was at a conference on ‘the future of community work’, arranged following the announcement of the closure of my former organisation, Community Development Foundation (and before that, Urban Forum). In between the organising and the event itself, we heard the announcement of the closure of Community Matters. Despite the sense of crisis given the collapse of so much community development infrastructure in England, one of my former colleagues was arguing with fervent optimism that the battle is not lost. I must admit that - without analysing what any of us means by ‘the battle’ (was it just a skirmish? Some skirmish) – my sense has been for some time that the neo-liberals have won. There’s a lot of wound-licking and dazed regrouping to be done. Then following the premiere last night, in discussion with Kate Pickett, Richard Wilkinson and the film’s director Katharine Round, someone asked if The Divide represents the beginning of the end for neo-liberalism. And again I confess that, like a few others in the theatre, I chortled momentarily at what seemed like naïve optimism. But I wonder. It’s hard to detect the beginnings of things, perhaps the seeds will take. Neo-liberalism was quite strategic, as Noam Chomsky emphasises in the film. And it’s not that we need an alternative vision. We now have our sustainable development goals and as Kate Pickett pointed out last night, they include ‘Reduce inequality within and among countries’. The Divide website includes a Take Action section. We need roles that we feel we can play. As I crossed London on my way home, a squatting figure asked me if I could spare some change. I gave him roughly the value of the glass of wine that I had been given at the reception after the film. ‘Good luck,’ I said, feeling immediately how pathetic were my gesture and words, in the context of what I had seen,...
Boaty McBoatface and William Shakespeare: two cheers for democracy The curious tale of Boaty McBoatface may soon be forgotten, but it might possibly mark a significant moment in the history of participative democracy. The Natural Environment Research Council invited members of the public to put forward and vote on names for its new polar research vessel. Someone suggested ‘Boaty McBoatface’ and I guess lots of people thought, that’s a laugh. Through digital media, endorsement is almost effortless, and it easily topped the poll. Personally I’d have favoured one of the alternatives, ‘It's Bloody Cold Here’ – but anyway it doesn’t look as though the vote-winning suggestion will be adopted. This modestly silly saga reminds us of the manifest lack of wisdom of crowds, which is effectively what Stuart Heritage seems to be on about in this recent Guardian piece. More pointedly I think, it is a little reminder that the ways in which organisations push notions of ‘public engagement’ and democratic participation can lead them into difficulties: and in so doing, perhaps they are exposing the limits of democracy. As Sophie Blake noted on the Involve blog, ‘engagement that hasn’t been thought out can damage the reputation of public engagement as a whole.’ Meanwhile, there’s been much ado about today’s 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, a man who understood clearly that crimes (or sins) and their forgiveness or payment of dues are often not equalised. In this respect, I do wonder with what forcefulness he might have written about the ways in which global corporations can buy and sell the right to pollute. Here I just want to draw attention to further, and more powerful, insights into the evolution of democracy, with reference to Gabriel Chanan’s marvelously lucid and readable book Shakespeare and democracy. Gabriel explains how Shakespeare played a fundamental role in building the culture that underlies modern democracy: he also argues that that contribution ‘continues to be essential to its survival and further progress’. This point is well worth pondering on the day when Barrack Obama visited the Globe Theatre in London. At its conclusion, the book offers a delightful reading of The tempest, first performed before King James and his courtiers. Gabriel suggests that perhaps the playwright is saying: ‘As for me, Shakespeare, all I have done is write harmless plays and given free rein to my imagination. You kings and nobles, on the other hand, have made aggressive wars, oppressed the poor, condemned the innocent and killed helpless people.’

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