Friday 15 April 2011

Self-sufficiency with a ‘helping hand’

Hand Made: Portraits of emergent new community culture, edited by Tessy Britton (Social Spaces 2011)

Edited by Tessy Britton, Hand Made: Portraits of emergent new community culture is a snapshot of like-minded community projects in the UK and beyond. Whatever the projects’ respective merits – which I’ll come to in a moment – Britton’s enthusiasm and that of her fellow contributors makes for a refreshing change. In our age of CCTV-watched, CRB-checked anxious individualim and over-managed underwhelming public services, the contributors to Hand Made at least promise a practical can-do approach. The projects featured in the book are an attempt to ‘reconfigure and re-mix what is lying dormant’, and to bring out people’s sense of themselves as ‘talented, resourceful and self-sufficient’ says Britton. If the Big Society is to mean anything at all then it is this belief that people are more than capable of finding their own solutions to problems and bypassing official channels to get things done.

Britton sees the book as a championing of the work of those ‘single-mindedly creating imaginative new opportunities for people to come together and contribute’. According to Julian Dobson, one of the contributors to Hand Made, ‘Present communities with an issue and they’ll often devise a solution that’s more likely to work’. Sounds good, but what are we to make of the projects themselves? I rather like Nick Booth’s account of running social media surgeries in Birmingham, getting people online who would not otherwise be so, and helping them to start enjoying the benefits. A simple, quite modest idea well executed. The same goes for ‘Power of 8’, a much more ambitious project intent on pulling together ‘a collective expression of the future’ by ‘building a public discourse around the aspirations of ordinary people’. Nevertheless, in as far as these projects deliver something worthwhile for residents, or seek to go further by imagining a better way of doing things, they are – unfortunately – in a minority among the projects. 

Too often the volunteers, arts collectives and social entrepreneurs involved in other examples fail to resist the urge to remake communities in their own image. There is ‘Space Makers’, for instance, working on behalf of Lambeth Council to commission residents to come up with ideas to fill an empty Brixton Village shopping arcade. They were inundated with ideas but settled for shops ‘making and selling recycled clothes, a deli specialising in locally-sourced food, two vintage clothes shops and a Community Shop’. The self-styled ‘militant optimists’ of Camden’s People’s Supermarket (and of recent Channel 4 series fame) also extol the virtues of ethically produced and apparently healthy food. Their community supermarket is run by volunteers … with a little help from a membership scheme, a government employment scheme, a charitable foundation, an understanding landlord, the generosity of fellow enthusiasts and Camden Council. For a book that claims to celebrate people’s resourcefulness and working from the bottom-up, this sounds rather cliquey and donor-dependent to me. 

Perhaps this is what contributor Andy Gibson has in mind when he complains about ‘“grassroots movements” that have been designed from the top down’. According to the people at ‘Getgo Glasgow’, you should ‘[p]lace yourself in the middle and become facilitators of conversation between the community and local authorities’. Their take on community project work couldn’t be further removed from the interests of ‘the people’, however. When parents took to the school gates to fight the closure of a local school, we are told by Getgo that the ‘protests were intense and energetic, there was a visible community spirit’. Just the sort of thing you might expect to be celebrated, right? Well no, because ‘they were coming together behind a negative consequence. We realised that we needed to channel this energy into something valuable’. Presumably when they were getting their placards out the parents didn’t think they were being negative. Quite the opposite. They surely thought they were doing ‘something valuable’ by standing up for their children’s education. But what do they know?

You’d be hard pushed to find a truly ‘people’s’ project among the 28 featured in the glossy pages of Hand Made. At the risk of sounding like a cynic, too many of the projects lend themselves not to the interests of residents, but to the pet-prejudices of a bunch of trendy interlopers. ‘BikeLab’, a sort of cycle-recycling scheme to get hard-up residents in a small rural community in Alabama on the move, has a lot going for it. But they ‘not only believe in bicycles as a viable means of transportation’, and as an opportunity to share their knowhow of repair and maintenance. Bikes, we learn, are about so much more than just getting people from A to B. They can also help residents by ‘improving their own physical health, as well as promoting an environmentally friendly means of transportation’. And so a nice if somewhat limited idea – in the absence of a campaign for a reliable public transport infrastructure, or the kind of development that might make cars affordable – is undermined. A simple but apparently effective mobility scheme that responds to the immediate needs of local people becomes an example of healthy, sustainable living that locals have little choice but to go along with if they do indeed want to get from A to B.

What’s wrong with that you might ask? Let’s first consider other policy orthodoxies – for that is what we are dealing with – that figure strongly in a number of the projects. ‘Learning Dreams’, a community education programme in the USA more interested in ‘engaging’ poor parents than educating their children, will be familiar to followers of education policy in the UK. As will the ‘School of the Future’ in Brooklyn, a project committed to a policy orthodoxy masquerading as a brave challenge to the status quo, with its advocacy of ‘collaborative learning’ modules and mutually interchangeable students and teachers. There’s ‘Mind Apples’, based on the notion that we all need ‘5-a-day for the mind’. It too is an orthodox idea – that we all have mental health issues and that our continued wellbeing demands that they are addressed – presented as a ‘radical’ challenge to accepted thinking. The Australian project ‘Mensheds’ hardly goes against the grain of public health orthodoxy either, portraying garden sheds (a familiar retreat for a generation of men) as little more than a reflection of bottled-up masculinity. Using them as a vehicle to fix men’s relationships and to get them to talk about their health and emotions – an unwelcome intrusion, however well-meaning are those doing the intruding.

There are two remarkably persistent ideologies expressed in the pages of Hand Made – the therapeutic and the ecological – and neither bodes well for the autonomy of individuals in their communities. The ‘Transition Movement’, bent on weaning us moderns off our supposed addiction to oil through a community strategy of ‘engaged optimism’, is in fact rooted in the profound social pessimism that drives so many of the projects in Hand Made. ‘Green River’, in Utah, is a project borne of the disenchantment of young architecture graduates about a profession that has ‘devalued itself to work unapologetically for the socio-economic elite’. Behind the faux-radicalism of opposing big bad capitalism is a ‘run to the hills’ (or to the desert in the case of Green River) mindset, and a romantic attachment to pre-modern social arrangements. There is, for instance, a strange enthusiasm for ‘non-monetary exchanges’ such as TimeBanking. ‘Trade School’, a pretty inconsequential art project, ‘rejects cold cash transactions because barter fosters relationships’. ‘Mess Hall’, an ‘experimental cultural center’ in Chicago, is all about developing ‘alternative economies’. They proudly boast that ‘no money is exchanged’ there.

The difficulty these outlooks presents for a shiny new book purporting to be about exciting future-oriented community projects is that they are, in reality, inherently conservative. They look inwards – to our allegedly damaged selves – and backwards – to a mythical unspoilt past. The resourcefulness of individuals in their communities and their ability to impact on the world around them – surely the point of the book – is forgotten, as these social (and perhaps more to the point, moral) entrepreneurs’ put into practice outlooks that can only diminish the subjectivity of those they seek to engage. Having said that, any dogmatism is tempered by a continual celebration of indeterminacy in the pages of Hand Made, and only the vaguest of senses of what the point of many of these projects actually is. So while what Booth describes as his ‘zero expectations’ are wholly appropriate when it comes to social media projects that are too often over laden with the demands of social inclusion amongst other things, elsewhere this is just evasive.

Dougald Hine at ‘Space Makers’ tells us, for instance (and somewhat disingenuously) that his work is ‘not oriented to a preformed objective’. The account of the Big Society inspiring ‘Big Lunch’ tells us how the organisers – perhaps conscious of their greener than green credentials – were ‘careful not to spell out what’s meant to happen; it’s not our party’; and Andy Gibson says with some pride ‘I often refuse to define the goal of the project’. It is all too easy to hide behind notions of collaboration and participation when you are bereft of anything practical to offer, never mind an overarching vision that might frame your offer. Such things are shunned in this book. Britton is quite explicit in her rejection not just of the old politics. That much she readily admits. She, in common I suspect with many of her contributors, is against politics per se. The faintest notion of ‘exerting pressure to effect change’ (the very stuff of politics) is jettisoned in favour of a resolve to ‘demonstrate what is possible when you think differently’. The thinking, as I argue, is all too orthodox.

A number of contributors describe their approach as DIY. While there’s something undeniably positive about this ethic, there’s also an implicit accommodation with lowered horizons and stunted ambitions. While one or two projects threaten to break the mould, others are makeshift in outlook as well as methodology. For all the allusions to the contrary, the contributors are mostly loyal to a pre-determined script about the damage done to people and to the planet by the way we live our modern lives. This can only add to an already existing pessimism about the potential for social action. The abandonment of political argument in favour of mucking in may seem positive, but is it really a substitute for critical engagement and political contestation.

Hand Made is too breathless to pause for reflection, and too one-sided to entertain a competing worldview. Surely we can do better than just ‘make do and mend’ as the title of the book would have us do? While I applaud the ‘have a go’ ethos and the sentiment behind it, the book is too hamstrung by its orientations to really deliver. I wanted to be convinced that a new community spirit has emerged, and read about how people are resisting the petty interferences of officialdom. I wanted to hear about how communities are just getting on with it unencumbered – and sticking up two fingers to the meddling authorities. But maybe that’s another book. How about Self Made? If Tessy Britton doesn’t write it, maybe I will. 

Hand Made is available online at socialspaces


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