Thursday, November 20, 2008

Phil Woolas, New Labour's odious new Immigration Minister bases his borderline racist views on a constant reiteration of the term "community". Woolas was previously "Minister for Communities" during which time he fuelled tabloid headlines by making unsupported remarks about inbreeding causing birth defects in the Pakistani community and calling for the sacking of a Muslim teaching assistant who wanted to wear the Niqab. (This is what New Labour means by "promoting community cohesion")

A quote from Woolas in a recent Guardian article ("You can't come in" Guardian 2, 18/11/08) shows how easy it is for politicians to (mis)use the term community for deeply xenophobic purposes: " A large part of the reason why we had riots and we were targeted by the hard right was because we hadn't talked about it (immigration) enough and we didn't reflect what people in communities were saying and thinking and worrying about. The body politic was cut off from the communities". By "the communities" it is quite clear that he means his white constituents rather than his black ones - though the way he uses the term allows him to avoid saying this. Woolas' pronouncements on race are actually no different from those of Enoch Powell in that they both accept without question that large numbers of white people are being entirely right and sensible to feel threatened by newly arriving refugees and migrants.

Surely a responsible politician (especially one in the position of Immigration Minister) should try to lead opinion rather than just reflecting and reinforcing the dirty and dangerous views of the red top newspapers. The job of an immigration minister is not just to "reflect what people in communities are saying and thinking and worrying about". This is exactly what pandering to racism means!

Saturday, November 1, 2008

The End of New Labour

Jon Cruddas is right that "collective political action and the power of citizenship have been traded in for the ownership society, in which all were assured a small piece of the capitalist dream" (Guardian Nov 1st 2008). This process has taken place just as firmly under New Labour as it did under its original sponsor Margaret Thatcher.

After the recent credit crash this property-owning "stakeholder" democracy is looking incresasingly threadbare. It is important to ask how New Labour managed to take so many followers (who once knew better) down this now bankrupt route. It was not just that collective political action was given up for private "ownership" - an illusory stake in the dream. It was also the case that New Labour was able to use an ultimately empty notion of "community" to substitute for and mask its move away from solidarity, mutuality and collectivity. As Cruddas says the real question is "who will pay for this recession - capital or labour?"

Monday, October 6, 2008

How about this for a crap argument:
“During adolescence and adulthood, the individual tends to develop a more sophisticated identity, often taking on a role as a leader or follower in groups. If an individual develops the feeling that they belong to a group, and they must help the group they are part of, then they develop a sense of community……If community exists, both freedom and security exist as well. The community then takes on a life of its own, as people become free enough to share and secure enough to get along. The sense of connectedness and formation of social networks comprise what has become known as social capital.”

OK so this is an extract from the Wikipedia definition of “community” but it illustrates all that can go wrong when the phrase is bandied around so freely. “If an individual develops the feeling that they belong to a group then….(etc.)” But what if the group is a gang, a criminal enterprise, a secret jihadi group or a fascist party? Does the author really intend these to be evidence of “the development of a sense of community” on a par with joining a local community centre or volunteering with a local self-help group? Of course not.

The next part of the definition reminds me of what used to be known as “the ontological proof of God” (with whom the notion of “community” shares rather too many characteristics!): “If community exists, both freedom and security exist as well”. Why? This is either a disguised tautology (community just IS freedom - which thus says absolutely nothing) or complete and utter nonsense.

How can we distinguish between the strength of the “sense of connectedness” felt by the average member of the Waffen SS and a member of a local scouts group? Both of them feel strongly (often even messianically) that they are part of a group and that they “must help that group” . Of course we can tell the difference by looking at the purposes of the group but not their sense of or degree of commitment or connectedness to their "community" group.
This is why Putnam’s argument starts to unravel – after all it was precisely his argument that areas with high levels of social capital and involvement in associations lead to more democratic, transparent societies. For Putnam social capital = social trust + associational membership. But associations can be bad (the Camorra, the Mafia, Hizbut Tahrir, the BNP etc) as well as good. Furthermore the degree of trust within these communities or associations has nothing to do with their goodness. Bad or corrupt associations can be hugely damaging to societies as Putnam himself points out in the case of Southern Italy with its numerous Mafia-type groups.

Letki and Evans in their recent study "Social trust and responses to political and economic transformation in East-Centre Europe" throw further doubt on the notion that social trust is necessary for political and economic success: "in countries where citizens positively evaluate the workings of democracy and the market and perceive themseleves as influential, they have less need to rely on networks of informal relations with others than do citizens who live in countries where the state and market institutions are largely inefficient". As Coleman pointed out in his "Foundations of Social Theory": trust is an effect rather than a cause - "trust is a result of an institutional setting, not its source".

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Richard Sennet in today's Guardian shows how the American Right has beguiled the working class with two "cultural substitutes" for real change - nationalism and nostalgia. This is also a common device of anti-progressive parties and movements in Europe and a whole gamut of concepts and ways of speaking are employed by them to achieve this effect. The term community could hardly be more dangerous in this respect as it is so often coopted by the Right to signify both of these aspects.

It is in this sense then that unquestioning use of the term "community" is often so dangerous and reactionary. We must move away from the notion that "community" is in itself an unalloyed "good thing". Many reactions to change or to outsiders by "communities" can be deeply xenophobic, parochial and conservative. Community responses to change are as likely to be defensive and dangerous - gangs, exclusive groups or clubs, (the BNP after all calls its activists "Community Champions") as they are to be open and progressive.

As I have argued elsewhere in this blog the term "community" is often used as a disguise for a kind of internal orientalism. "Community" is something applied to them (whether by class or race) rather than us. It actually fetishises difference rather than accentuating areas of reciprocity and mutuality (let alone solidarity). Ted Cantle's approach to the disturbances in a number of Northern towns posed the notion that there are two segregated "communities" (white working class and asian) that have been encouraged (by "multiculturalism") to lead entirely separate lives. Such an analysis presupposes that both of these "communities" are somehow homogenous and of course the very term "community" serves to delineate both this spurious internal "cohesion" and exacerbate the alleged "self segregation" between them

The well known and appalling book "The Arab Mind" which was published in the 1970's is still being used as a training manual by the US army and diplomatic elite in the Midle East. It asserts that Arabs only really recognise overwhelming and awe-inspiring force and this because they are ruled by a fear of shame and dishonour. Such clearly orientalist (indeed racist) conclusions about hundreds of millions of arabs from Morrocco to Sudan and Lebanon to Yemen are quite obviously both suspect and dangerous. They are only different in degree from some of the daily outpourings about Chavs, Muslims, Travellers and other "communities" in the right-wing British press - and sadly to a growing number of academics who ought to know better.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

"Community gun"

The Independent reports on 23rd September that:
'"Community Gun" used in murder after pub row'. A .22 calibre rifle used to kill a Bristol man was hidden in bushes as a "community gun" to use as needed. This gives a whole new meaning to term "community asset"

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Arun Kundnani in his tremendous book "The end of tolerance: racism in 21st Century Britain" sets out the new relationship between the individual and the state better than I have seen it done anywhere else.

If there is a breakdown of society (as Cameron as well as New Labour so often claim) it is because of the ascendancy of a globalised capitalism which fractures the remaining semblance of a welfare state and systematically excludes individuals by creating an underclass who are then blamed for all the ills of society: "the well being of social groups is no longer the responsibility of the state: its responsibility is to maximise the choices available to individuals. Market states engage in a Dutch auction for foreign investment, offering ever-worsening protection for their populations in the name of 'competitiveness'. Public servives shift from welfare provision to a focus on 'enabling' individuals to re-enter the labour market, through 'welfare to work' programmes ....... Welfare rights are diminished while the responsibility of welfare recipients to adapt themselves to market demands is increased... and if markets cannot find a use for an individual, then neither can society. Insecurity and vulnerability are the hallmarks of this new order, in which entire communities can be socially abandoned by the state to poverty, low-level violence and disorder. In Britain, these abandoned communities - whether marked out by race or class - are entirely disenfranchsed by the market-state and can no longer be held together by traditional working-class or immigrant culture. It is the children of this underclass, disdained as 'chavs' and 'hoodies', who are being imprisoned in their thousands under powers to tackle 'anti-social behaviour'.

It is here that we can see why attempts by New Labour and others to make these so-called "communities" cohesive simply miss the point at best and end up blaming the victims at worst. Community development work that (as it so often does) fails to confront the real causes of this fracturing of society ends up with the half baked analyses of "the New East End" where recently arrived migrants and their alleged dependence on a welfare state that preceded and 'was not designed for them' are identified as the cause rather than the result of the problem.

The language of New Labour - substituting "social exclusion" for poverty and setting forward "community cohesion" as a balm for all the (now) unspoken and unmentionable issues of class, racism and economic inequality - may have worked in a time of relative affluence but will no longer wash as we move decisively into a serious recession.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Atlantis revisited

Ever since the Ancient Greeks lamented the loss of the mythical state of Atlantis, humans have been looking to the past with rosy tinted glasses and indeed "harping back to a golden age". Current discussions of the "broken society" (as Mark Lawson points out in todays Guardian) are riddled with this kind of nostalgia for a utopian past that never actually existed. Much modern sociology and political discourse is permeated with this notion that society and community is declining as we lose contact with the essential values of this perfect past.

It is not just Tory thinking that is riddled with this nostalgia for purity or "community". Michael Young's descriptions of the East End of London are a prime example of this tendency. Far from being a forward looking and emancipatory approach to society his approach harbours a deeply conservative ideology (or even theology) similar to that commonly expressed in the Tory hatred of the "permissive society of the 60s". This approach can easily descend into a disdain for all aspects of modernity and a desire whether in Christianity or Islam for a return to the fundamentals.

At its worst this essentialist yearning for a pure and perfect past becomes the engine driving racism and xenophobia. Indeed it is arguable that in Michael Young's last book, the New East End (which I criticise earlier in the blog) this tendency to blame the new-comer is manifest even in a book which purports to come from a liberal left position.

The notion that there is something inherently modern about current issues like knife or gang crime or "social breakdown" (as it is often called) is arrant nonsense. The notion that poor parenting has only suddenly and recently created a generation of children without moral boundaries shouldn't be able to survive even a cursory reading of Dickens or Dostoeyevsky. Were it not for this desire to decry the hard and contingent facts of the present and to prettify and idealise the past we might actually begin to see more of what is actually going on in the world now. Instead politicians and pundits are busy creating a fantasy world where even nostalgia isn't what it used to be.

The notion set out in Maggie Jackson's book "Distracted: the Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age" is as Mark Lawson points out riddled with this "invocation of a lost, and by insinuation better, society". The internet, emails, iPods and other convenience tools are just this - tools. They can be used do a huge range of things, some positive, some negative, some neutral. The notion that it is these tools that are robbing us of the ability to think, converse, concentrate and create is a confusion of the tools themselves and how we use or abuse them. After all, the Catholic Church said exactly the same about the early printing press. Rather it is how we use them and what we use them for - how we organise and understand their (and our own roles) in society that really matters.

I wonder whether the point of this nostalgia, this lament for "community" is that it is a superbly effective way of diverting our attention. It stops us addressing the real relations of power and privilege that provide a rather more sensible explanation for the way in which different societies actually evolve and develop, whether in positive or negative directions.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

For a fascinating discussion from a Muslim perspective on the notion of community and Ummah (the global Islamic “community”) see the blogsite Indigo Jo for Feb 12 2007 “an attack on the idea of community”. Having said that one of the punchiest posts in response to the discussions was presumably from a non Muslim:

“What is a community but a bunch of people with a common contempt for people who don't share their common delusions or prejudices?”

Saturday, June 7, 2008

John Pitts, the eminent criminologist throws interesting light on the proliferation of youth crime and gang culture (Watching the boys in the bands – Society Guardian 4/6/08). He rightly shows that these developments are actually the result of increasing inequality rather than any fanciful notions of a lack of social capital. Characteristically he abjures cosy talk of a breakdown of communities – indeed he asserts that communities are part of the problem not the solution: “in a society with growing wealth inequality, the disenfranchised are not simply going to lie down and do nothing.” But “who in New Labour dares to say that it requires massive state intervention and may indeed need a redistribution of wealth”? Giving people skills and returning them to the market is not going to work – after all it was the market that caused the problem in the first place. Offered the alternative of pulling in £100,000 a year or more in the crack business or working in McDonalds or even as a lorry driver is hardly an enticing prospect.

The Government’s recurring pledge to “empower” communities to help solve their own gang problems is treated with healthy disdain and as a way of blaming the victim yet again: “I’m not a great fan of community … I think it’s a bad idea. If you live in a community where everybody knows each other, it’s one of the reasons you get shot. The places where I’m doing my research, everybody knows each other. Jesus, that’s part of the problem”. Building social capital is therefore far from the answer and tight nit communities are certainly not the panacea for gang violence that politicians would like to pretend. Pitts argues that the least troublesome places to live – leafy, middle class suburban enclaves – are good places not because of strong community ties but because they are populated by “lightly engaged strangers”.

As Pitts says: “the invocation to community is always about the restoration of … some golden age – but when was that?” Young people who are embedded in the local status and reputation-driven world of gang culture (which sadly gives them more value than they get from the “market”) find it increasingly difficult to get out of their predicament: Pitts tells of interviewing kids who say “I want to do that but I couldn’t round here. I want to step out but can’t”.

Yet again, New Labour’s attempts at answers for these problems lead in entirely the wrong direction because of the way they fetishise this notion of community and seek to avoid any real challenge to the status quo. Inequality and wealth distribution as the real causes are edited out of the picture by virtue of the language of community and cohesion.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Well I'm sorry to say I told you so! If you want confirmation of just how toxic the notion of "community" can be in the wrong hands, just look at the nine BNP councillors recently elected in Stoke-on-Trent who are using classic "community development" approaches to establish themselves in the area. Says Alby Walker the BNP Group Leader: "the BNP Councillors are good hardworking grassroots councillors who are real community champions". according to the Guardian (Labour's lost ground 28/05/08) "community champions" is Walkers favourite piece of vocabulary. Says Michael Tappin, the former Labour Group leader and MEP: "the men and women of the BNP look like your neighbours... they are respectable. It's impossible to demonise them. They wear suits, they look tidy". On the estates where the BNP has established itself, there are to all intents and purposes virtually no black or ethnic minority residents (census returns show just 1.9% from BME communities). Nevertheless in the last twenty years "some say that Stoke's white working class has become and underclass". Labour has effectively abandoned the residents of these areas. As Tappin says: "Labour has not offered people a vision of how to get out of deindustrialisation, how to get its 42,000 residents on benefits back into work. It's put sticking plasters on instead of wholesale reform".

It is the nostalgic and idealised sense of community that has been such a gift for the BNP and that has allowed them a way of "getting into communities". Walker, says the Guardian, "offers a pungent mix of nostalgia and conspiratorial claims about immigrants and Islam". The BNP's most effective leaflet says Walker proudly reads "Hanley 70 years ago" above a montage of photos of the church tower, pottery kilns and smiling housewives. "Is this what you want for our city centre?" its says below, next to a silhouette of mosques and a picture of three women in niqab" etc. etc. Walker confidently expects the BNP to come to power in the city in five years. Tappin from Labour thinks it will be more like three.

It is not easy to see quite how communitarian notions of "bridging social capital" are going to be of any use here - there is virtually no different or minority group to bridge with. What is needed instead is a political camapign that challenges inequalities at national, regional and local level: that seeks to build real and positive solidarity rather than BNP tribalism. A reawakening of the progressive Labour movement of the past might be difficult but at the very least an attempt by local and national Labour to create real jobs allowing for a serious union-based alternative to the currently moribund Labour Party might be the only thing that could succeed. What chance of this under New Labour?

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Community cohesion is a con! They don't even believe in it themselves!

Community cohesion is a deeply ideological notion. It is the soft side of the Government's war on terror. However when New Labour tries to explain what they mean by it - vague notions of trust and social bonding and bridging, "the glue that holds communities together", "meaningful conversations for at least 15 minutes with people of a different ethnic group", community anchors in each neighbourhood etc. - the only thing that becomes clear is their own lack of clarity, coherence and consistency.

If New Labour really believed in what they call these unifying and empowering "social anchors" where people can meet as a "community" then how can we explain their mania for closing such spaces down? In fact the only explanation is that they don't really believe in community cohesion themselves - or at least not to the degree that their own definition of it has a real place in their wider policy direction. Simon Jenkins sees this clearly in his Guardian article ("Closure mania ignores the real cost of axing post offices" 19/3/08) where he points out that "the state's pursuit of shortsighted savings is ripping the heart from communities. No wonder Britain is up in arms". He traces the importance of the rural Post Office directly back to that nostalgia for a vanished world, a "sense of community" which is so quintessentially Middle English: "The village post office evokes the age of Hovis and prison mailbags, of bicycle clips and little red vans. It is the Miss Marple public service, the acceptable face of nationalised industry". Whatever one thinks of his nostalgia for a disappearing world or his views of nationalised industries, he has a point about the contradictory approach of the Government. It is not just post offices. In the past 10 years the number of police stations fell by over 20% and a further 40 are threatened, including 13 in London. Local "community anchors" such as district and cottage hospitals and local schools are disappearing faster than ever before. Changes to legal aid funding are about to decimate local advice agencies such as Law Centre and CABx. As Jenkins says: "there is no way of measuring the impact on communities of thus ripping out their institutional memories and meeting places. It must be savage". The Government, he says, is turning communities "into bleak, car-reliant dormitories, devoid of places of casual association". Local people buy into the notion of community even more than the Government do and are quite capable of using this notion against New Labour who are so confused by where they stand on this all. He notes that: "Hazel Blears, the so-called communities minister, has not lifted a finger in protest. Yet having voted for hospital closures, she herself turned tail and campaigned against them when they hit her Salford constituency".

So much for "places of casual association" as a vital part of community cohesion. There are other even more fundamental inconsistencies which New Labour so hates to have drawn to its attention. Quite how private and religious schools promote community cohesion is a question that half frightens them to death. How such "cohesion" can survive the increases in relative inequlity between the poorest and the richest in our society and the increasing death of social mobility is a question that they refuse to discuss. Of course they are very happy to blame this breakdown of "community cohesion" on too many immigrants who refuse to integrate. And here lies the latent xenophobia and racism that lies at the core of this incoherent and dangerous view of the world.

And above all DON'T MENTION THE WAR. You can level as much bile and blame as you like against violent and fundamentalist muslim jihadis. What you are not allowed to say is that the radicalisation of so many muslims (and the "breakdown of community cohesion") is a direct response to our Foreign policy and the millions of dead, injured and displaced muslims in an illegal war.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Community Cohesion is completely incoherent (Part 1)

In a recent letter to the Guardian (16/2/08) Hazel Blears, the Minister for State for Communities, revealed the real thrust of the government’s community cohesion policy. Not only is the policy a comprehensive attack on multiculturalism but also on local or national state support or funding for independent self-organisation by black people and BAME organisations. Indeed worse than this, the whole of the so-called community cohesion agenda is a thinly disguised way of blaming migrants and refugees for a break down of trust and cohesion in society and thus blaming the victims rather than the racists who prey on them. Blears’ letter is an attempt to rebut a bizarre “report” by the Royal United Services Institute which argues that undue “deference to multiculturalism undermines the fight against extremism”. Instead of ignoring the RUSI report - the highest level of intellectual respect it deserves – she merely argues that the report is out of date and that the Government has already “fundamentally altered” its approach and asked local authorities to do the same. New Labour has thus already caved in to all of the xenophobic and jingoistic assumptions of the RUSI without so much as an attempt at a defence of the many positive aspects of multiculturalism.

According to Blears, “the government rebalanced its community cohesion strategy more than 18 months ago, ensuring a new focus on promoting shared British values and integration.” She claims that the Government now puts “far greater emphasis on everyone speaking English” (though not enough emphasis to ensure that there is adequate resourcing for English classes where and when they are needed) and calls for an end “to automatic translation of all public information” (as if this was happening anyway). Lastly there are “proposals for new information packs, so all migrants understand and sign up to shared values”. What she does not mention is the Government’s fullscale attack on migrants and asylum seekers. It is not clear quite how community cohesion (whatever this means) is advanced by forbidding asylum seekers from working and starving out those whose cases have failed but who for whatever reason cannot return or be deported to their countries of origin. Given these quite disgusting and morally repugnant “shared values” of the government we should take anything the Secretary of State for Communities says with the equivalent of the Dead Sea’s amount of salt.

But where does this so-called policy of Community Cohesion come from? (Actually I would argue that it is more of a prejudice than a policy). It is based on a poisonous confection of highly questionable social “science” mixed with a nostalgic notion of “communities”, a circular and mystifying definition of “cohesion” and several dashes of thinly disguised racism and xenophobia.

The fullscale attack on multiculturalism first came about as a response to two very different events. First of all the attack by “home grown” Islamist jihadis on London and more latterly Glasgow. Secondly the disturbances in a number of Northern towns between largely Muslim young people and a number of both organised and disorganised white groups and then subsequently the Police. In the immediate aftermath of the disturbances Ted Cantle, without much of an enquiry, wrote his report “Building Cohesive Communities” (2001). As John Rex has rightly shown, Cantle’s report was “a thoroughly ideological analysis of the situation” that lacked the rigour and thoughtfulness of the previous Scarman and MacPherson enquiries. “Housing and Educational segregation is seen as responsible for the breakdown of social or community cohesion and what is sought is an overcoming of segregation, though there is little in the way of detailed recommendations as to how this is to be achieved.”

There were many things that could also have been analysed but Cantle seemed to miss most of them: the behaviour of the Police; an inquiry into the historic inequalities and racism in housing allocations that led to Asian families getting the worst housing in specific areas of the towns (and then being blamed for their own self-segregation!) or any real comment on the growth of the BNP and other racist groupings as a result of a breakdown of trust in local New Labour by the White working class. Instead of this (as the Institute of Race Relations has rightly pointed out) by blaming the Muslim community for their own “self-segregation” and failure to “integrate”, Cantle began the now widely accepted practice of blaming the victim that is known as “Community Cohesion”. In starting out with a complete misunderstanding of the situation in Oldham and other Northern towns it then proceeded to set out a set of entirely wrong-headed conclusions.

In my blog at I have pointed out at length the dangers of a nostalgic and idealized notion of community that is another key component of this dangerous new ideology. However there are a number of immediate issues which follow from the discourse of community cohesion that all anti-racists and local activists should now organize against and confront. One of these is the move to cut funding from the more radical and challenging “single issue” community groups – of which Southall Black Sisters is a good example - by arguing that they are divisive and damaging to community cohesion by favouring one group against the majority.

Some of these arguments surface in a recent publication by the Department of Communities and Local Government called “Cohesion Guidance for Funders”. This document claims to be a consultation paper. However it seems clear from Hazel Blear’s letter above that the Government’s direction of travel is already firmly decided whatever we may say in response.

The document is a quite astonishingly vacuous, circular and ultimately dishonest piece of work. The quality of the writing and the lack of any rigour in its argument would only just about be acceptable in a GCSE English exam. The conclusion of the document is that local and national Government should reconsider any funding for groups engaged in “single issue or single identity activity” (by which they mean in particular racial or ethnic groups – though characteristically they don’t say so). By contrast, elsewhere in Government guidance, faith groups (whether single or bridging) seem to become the model of good practice.

The argument (such as it is) is riddled with inconsistencies and breaches two absolutely cardinal rules of logic. Firstly it is completely circular and tautologous. In defining (or actually failing to define) “community cohesion” as “meaningful interaction between people of different backgrounds” it then goes on to assert without any further debate that “we now have strong evidence for how meaningful interaction between people of different backgrounds can directly build cohesion”. This looks at first sight as though it might be saying something important but in logical terms is equivalent to saying cheese = cheese. Again here is another example: “We know that cohesion is higher amongst those who bridge for almost every ethnic group. Analysis of the Citizenship Survey shows that having friends from different backgrounds is a strong predictor of community cohesion, even when other factors are taken into account. Bridging can therefore reinforce cohesion”. This argument follows the form of most tautologies:
C = B (because cohesion is effectively seen as the same thing as bridging)
F = C (Having friends is effectively the same as cohesion)
Therefore B = C (and C = F) Well what a surprise! But this is not an argument it is just a set of interlocking definitions that actually tell us nothing at all and certainly are not enough to allow us to conclude what the Guidelines say in their next sentence:
“For this reason, we are particularly keen for funders to use resources to promote bridging activities wherever appropriate”. The next sentence is even more bizarre: “Those who have bonding social capital are more likely to bridge BUT when this is broken down by ethnicity this only holds for White and Chinese people”. In so far as this makes any sense, how’s this for heavily disguised ethnic stereotyping? It also appears to make social capital a predicate of individuals rather than communities which seems very strange – if I have lots of friends who are like me then do I have lots of bonding social capital? If a high proportion of them are from different ethnic groups from my own then do I have lots of bridging social capital? (I wouldn’t mind knowing how to spend all this capital). Quite what happens if (as is the case) I am married to someone from a different ethnic group and my family includes children of mixed heritage the Lord alone knows!

All this nonsense about bridging and bonding is an explicit reference to the work of Robert Putnam and his notion of bridging and bonding social capital. As I have argued elsewhere in this blog, this notion of “social capital” is increasingly being questioned both in terms of its own effectiveness as an argument and in terms of the underlying assumptions and ideology that it covertly imports.

The second crime that all this commits against elementary logic is the failure to see that correlation is not the same as causality. The notion that in localities where neighbours are less likely to interact with each other (“low social capital”) there may also tend to be a high degree of “social breakdown” (what ever this means) does not necessarily mean that one phenomenon has to be the cause of the other. There are many middle class apartment blocks where the neighbours neither want or need to know each other – one would hardly describe this as leading to social breakdown. Tony and Cherie will hardly be accused of having low social capital if they decide not to visit their new Mayfair neighbours on a regular basis. Indeed I argue elsewhere in this blog that the whole purpose of the discourse about community cohesion is to lead us away from confronting the real causes of social breakdown – poverty, inequality, discrimination, racism etc. This is why discourses about community cohesion spend so much time expressing trite and vacuous truisms about “social glue that binds us together”, “the bonds of trust that make community possible” and the vital importance of having “meaningful conversations of over 15 minutes a week with people of a different ethnic group.” Don’t get me wrong, these things are all to the good in themselves in so far as they make any sense (in the US they would be described as Mom and Apple Pie). However, in terms of explanatory power – let alone the power to help us change the real relations of power and inequality that really do blight our society - they are actually worse than useless.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Southall Black Sisters under threat in the name of "Community Cohesion"

Ealing Council is threatening to cut funding to SBS in the name of the government's misguided policy of single issue funding and "community cohesion". Here is Pragna Patel's statement:

'It is of great concern to us that across the country, at the local and national level, a number of policies and initiatives are being instituted which will have a profound impact on projects such as ours. We are witness to a redefinition of the notion of equality in the delivery of services. Equality no longer appears to be linked to the needs of the most vulnerable and deprived, (traditionally this has included black and minority communities). Instead it is linked to the view that all services must reflect the needs of the majority community because it has been traditionally ‘excluded’ from regeneration and developmental policies. In other words, equality means providing the same services for everyone. Under this misguided ‘one size fits all’ approach, unequal structural relations based on class, gender and race are ignored. So, for instance in our situation, due in part to budget constraints, Ealing Council has decided that only one service provider of domestic violence is needed and minority women will be able to access it if they wish. The fact that different groups cannot access the same service precisely because of their unequal social context is conveniently ignored. At the same time, in a somewhat contradictory fashion, the implementation of ‘cohesion’ strategies are resulting in the promotion of single faith (Muslim) based groups who are provided the funds to build capacity to address a range of social issues including domestic violence. For a number of reasons, this is an extremely worrying development. It also spells the death knell of secular groups like SBS. Our main concern however it that in faith based groups, social issues will be addressed from within a religious framework which will be disasterous for women’s rights within minority communities. There is already mounting evidence that this is the case. The controversy surrounding the remarks made by the Archbishop recently is yet another indication of where the faith based, cohesion approach will lead. It will close down the options of the most vulnerable in our communities including women and sexual minorities and will violate their fundamental human rights.

As you can see, the current funding threat to SBS is the result of all these often contradictory developments. It is a very worrying development not just for progressive women’s projects but for all progressive and secular groups. We must formulate strategies to challenge these complex but dangerous developments. The fight for the survival of SBS is not just about SBS but about all of us. If we don’t challenge these developments, we will be guilty of colluding in the very structures that seek to silence the most marginalized in our society.’

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Council tenant shared flat with dead lodger for eight years

An inquiry is now underway iin Bristol into how the body of a dead man could lie on a sofa for eight years while an elderly tenant continued to live in the same warden-controlled flat. According to the Guardian "Members of the community said they were shocked by the news and upset by the lack of community spirit in the area". The circumstances that gave rise to this tragic tale are not clarified by this wierd use of the term community. How does one become a "member" of this community and why would one bother if there is so little point - if there is "so little community spirit in the area"? Why did the journalists and local authority not just use the term "local people" or "neighbours" - why this convoluted phrase when there is clearly no community in the area (whatever this means) and therefor clearly no "members" of it either.

The problem with this strange use of language is not just that it makes little sense. In fact it also starts to hint to us that the problem in the area is a lack of community spirit (whatever this is), a lack of "buy in" by local people to "the community", rather than issues around poverty, local mental health and other public services and the effectiveness of the wardens who are presumably expected to prevent such situations. If only we could get "these people" - local tenants - to generate some "social capital", some community spirit then it will all be allright. A former local Labour Councillor said "I do think that these tragic events reflect the lack of community spirit we see in some high rise flat blocks" - here we are again in danger of blaming the victims. I think I prefer the approach of the spokesman for Help the Aged who said: "this was an older person, and the local authority, who have a duty of care, should have responded to concerns from neighbours. The Council has some dificult questions to answer".

Thursday, February 7, 2008

With the publication of the Dept for Communities and Local Government's "Cohesion Guidance for Funders" we see why the Community Cohesion debate is such a dangerous one. The dangerous notion of "community" coupled with the incoherent notion of"social capital" is being used against the more radical grassroots BAME organisations who serve particular "communities" on the grounds that they call attention to difference and discrimination rather than bringing us all together into a cosy samosa-consuming world of "cohesion". I would urge all radical anti-racist and activist groups to challenge these assumptions as part of the consultation on the paper which is open till 26 May. The paper and a form for responses are available online at:

At the same time in the news, Caroline Flint's disgraceful attack on tenants living in social housing is a classic example of the hard-faced, less touchy-feely end of the communitarian approach. Coupled together these two approaches; community cohesion as soft cop and "bash the chavs" as hard cop show the janus face of new Labour. Far from being a challenge to poverty and injustice these are both part of a massive attack on the welfare state, the "undeserving poor" (Council tenants, asylum seekers etc) and many organisations that stand up for them.

Further analysis of the DCLG paper and hopefully more discussion of caroline Flint's outrage will follow on this blog. If ever you want to see the dangers of a communitarian approach this is it. Overall the Government is set fast on an approach that aims to blame the victims, hide the real inequalities, attack the welfare state, downplay racism and other forms of discimination.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Is there a Community Development community? - Reflections on a Community Development Exchange event in London 31st January 2008

I attended the CDX and Change Up London Regional Consortium’s Workforce Development Sub Group meeting to see if London Community Development workers could clarify for me just what they mean by community.

The meeting confirmed three concerns of mine that can be summed up as follows:
The problem with the term community is that most of the time when we use it we don’t really “mean” it
Community Development workers frequently refer to “the community” when no such community exists
If these real communities did exist then we wouldn’t need community workers.

Now don’t get me wrong. I am not against some types of community development work, especially where it sees its purpose as to explain and confront inequalities in the structural, economic and power relations of a locality or a social group. I am, however, left totally mystified by the woolly, hazy and cosy sense in which “the community” gets referred to not as something contested and difficult to achieve but rather as something essential and given. Community development workers often use the term community as though it is an unalloyed good thing. The word is clearly a “word of power” for some activists who seem to use it with a high degree of numinosity. There is an almost religious assumption by activists that appeals to community actually describe reality and that we all understand in some basic, shared and unconscious way what we mean by it.

Participants at the CDX event seemed to find no problem describing the area around the conference venue (the Nags Head area in Islington) or other similar inner urban localities as “the community” when anyone who knows the area knows that they can’t really mean this. There is no one “the community” in this area and it is not even accurate to say there are a number of different “communities” in the locality - the sense in which the different people in the area interact (if at all) is not in any practical way determined by a notion of community or communities.

Community is a very meaningful word. It does indeed have a powerful force and it carries with it an inherent sense of approval in such a way that the use of it bestows a force of approbation on what it purports to describe. In other words using the term “community” is not (just) descriptive it is actually performative. The use of the term (quite literally) commends itself.

Unfortunately “reality out there”, the state of affairs that “community” is normally used to describe (or misdescribe) is usually not in such a good, happy and cohesive state. For the many years I have known the Nags Head area I would never accuse it of this! In this sense then we almost always use the term in such a way that we do not really mean it. “The community” is often the site not of inclusion and coherence but of exclusion, inequality and discrimination. (See a longer discussion posted at )

A Community of community workers?

One of the purposes of the day conference was for community workers to discuss the need for better and more standardized training for community development workers in London. Currently there is very little opportunity for community development learning in the capital. Accredited training would allow the discipline to be properly recognized and improve its quality and outcomes as well as its career pathways. It was clear that participants thought that such a conference was long overdue and many were happy to declare that they felt empowered and validated by such a meeting.

An interesting sub text of the meeting was around the issue of whether community development workers employed in and by local authorities should actually be considered sufficiently independent to be considered bona fide activists and therefore eligible to be members of the “network” or “collective”. Criteria for admission to this “community” of community development workers was left open for further discussion, but the strong feeling was given that there was a core type of community activism which had to be independent of local power structures and authorities. Those without this level authenticity must have felt rather excluded from this inner community.

At this point it struck me forcibly that I might be witnessing the birth of a new “community”. This emerging group wanted to define itself more clearly and have some potential say about who is in membership and who isn’t and who has or can get power within the group. All of the other characteristics used by communitarians to define “a community” were also present. Clearly the group allowed its members to gain status and resources and to network so as to develop bonds of reciprocity. There was a palpable shared interest and identity – their profession. As far as I could discern the group’s beliefs it was clear that “community” is a thoroughly good thing and that we all need more of it. Indeed there was a powerful sense at times that the group needed to “commune” more actively and often so as to further the interests of “the community”.

However, I rather expect that the participants would have been somewhat wary of being described as a community. After all, describing a group of people as a community is what they do – they don’t like it so much when it is done to them! Community is something that tends to be ascribed to others rather than oneself – and here lies another danger in the way the term is often used. Community usually has to be something to do with the people “out there” (see above blogspot for a further discussion of this). Indeed it is often used to exoticise and objectify others from a privileged position - a bit like the one that I have myself so arrogantly been adopting in this paper!

Responses from other participants:

From: Simon Vincent [] Sent: 04 February 2008 15:29To: Andy Gregg: RE: Community Development Work and Leanring in London - conference notes

Hi Andy

I agree with most (if not all) of your paper. In my experience these kind of points are regularly made in discussions between community workers, but a kind of shorthand assumption that we know what we mean by ‘the community’ tends to take over in gatherings such as last Thursday’s – though personally I didn’t hear much of that. I wouldn’t assume that community workers don’t recognise both the contested nature of many geographical (and identity/interest) ‘communities’, nor that they aren’t aware of the negativities inherent in most if not all real communities. I’m sure most of us bemoan the way the word ‘community’ gets co-opted as a ‘hurrah’ word to tack on to (national and local) government initiatives… and then we go on to do the same! Community is an aspiration rather than a reality, and a dynamic term rather than a static, closed one. As such we need to spell out what this community is that we aspire to. And yes… I think there really is a spiritual/religious dimension to it, as there is to anything that relates to what it means to be fully human!!

All the best

Hi Simon

Thanks for this. I really liked your statement that community is “an aspiration rather than a reality, and a dynamic term rather than a static, closed one”. The problem is when it is used by communitarians like Tony Blair or Hazel Blears it becomes very much part of the problem rather than the solution

Also I have no problem either with the notion that there is “a spiritual/religious dimension to it, as there is to anything that relates to what it means to be fully human!!” After all, one of the most totalising expressions of a religious community is the Muslim notion of the Ummah – the transnational, transracial "community" of believers. This clearly is a powerful motivating concept (in positive as well as negative ways).

It is clear that the term community does harp back to (or at least is redolent of) the notion of “communion” (cf Schmalenbach). However the baggage carried along with this use is a bit cumbersome when applied to a local authority estate!

All the best

Andy Gregg

Friday, January 25, 2008

So what the hell is "social capital"?

Many commentators (including me elsewhere in this blog) have called attention to the many ideological and political dangers that this term brings along with it. Quite apart from these uses of the term and the discourses they arise in, it is worth pointing out a number of obvious things about the term itself:
1. It quite literally doesn't exist. Capital as it is usually understood could hardly be a more concrete term meaning money and wealth and the means to acquire more of it as well as other goods and services (especially in "a non-barter system" - Wiktionary). "Social capital" cannot be spent or banked in any normal sense (and if it is used - whatever this means - you can be left with as much or more of it than you had when you started)
2. The word "capital" has a number of key features that the word "social" just cannot be appended to. It is a quite extraordinary example of a category error on a par with "thoughtful cheese" or "colorless green ideas" (whether or not these "sleep furiously")
3. Any useful sense of the term could just as usefully be replaced by the term "solidarity" (except that this is far too political a term for those communitarians who tend to use the term social capital).
4. Whilst solidarity hints at an activity or disposition towards activity as well as situating itself within a discourse of struggle and difference, the term social capital is a reification - a thing word rather than a doing word. It is a concept (if one can even call it that) that encourages merely a passive and apolitical stance.

-----Original Message-----From: Paul Cotterill [] Sent: 03 February 2008 12:11To: Jon Griffith; ceri.hutton@gmail.comSubject: Re: Fwd: Discussion documentandyI sense in sixth sort of way that you (and don flynn) may be interested in this new article from Natali Letki (she being polish) challenging view that diversity in itself reduces trust in neighbourhoods (in the UK). Also, here's a Putman thing and an American view as ? counterpointsI've not read them yet but will this week sometime. Never mind the detail, I agree with Letki on the basis of the abstract......................

From Jon Griffith:
hello again
A quick skim of Letki and Stolle et al suggests that, not for the first time in this extraordinary 'debate', both are fatally undermined by treating social capital as if it actually exists.
It doesn't, it's a product (in the sense it's referred to here) of Robert Putnam's fevered sociological imagination, and therefore nothing has an effect on it, nor does it have an effect on anything - it's not there.
The only way to bring sanity back into the this type of discussion - about real people living in real places - is to abandon this concept and say what one actually means - black people, white people, behaviour, money, physical resources, how people spend their money, what they do to each other, legal and illegal drugs, illness and health, inequality of wealth, education etc etc, ie all the usual old fashioned contents of political debate.
The idea of social capital, and the discussion of this idea, turns all this into apolitical mush.
I don't understand why so many otherwise intelligent people seem believe in it, but you're right about the Sixth Sensiness of it - as if the discussion is being conducted by people who don't know that they're dead.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Both Cameron and New Labour exhibit the dangers of communitarian approaches to crime. In a speech in Salford Cameron declared "we are collapsing into an atomised society, stripped of the local bonds of association which help tie us together" - bonding and bridging social capital rear their heads again! (I have described this elsewhere as - it will all be allright if we learn to eat samosas together). There is indeed an atomisation that is ocurring throughout Britain and it is precisely because of the market driven policies that he and his party have always supported. Increasingly we seem to know the price of everything but the value of nothing. Status and self worth is increasingly defined by conspicuous consumption. It is the inequalities of status, power and income that have done so much to breakdown social solidarity ever since Thatcher declared that "there is no such thing as society". The fact that he makes so much of this atomisation without seeing that it is increasing inequality - a serious dose of affluenza - that fuels resentment and anger between different individuals and groups and results in the very demise of the sense of "community" that as a conservative he is so nostalgic for.

John Rentoul argues (Independent on Sunday 20/1/08) that New Labour and the Cameroonians are conducting a rhetorical dutch auction using precisely the nostaligia for an imagined past that we have noted earlier: "it is the human condition to believe that everything was better in the good old days , and to be swayed by plausible rhetoric promising a future that resembles a misremembered past." Of course this is not the human condition at all - but it is a very powerful and dangerous ideology. Just as Blair promised to be "tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime" (and then forgot about the second part of this aphorism as society became even more unequal under New Labour), so Cameron is promising far more than could conceivably be delivered by any government. If, as Cameron asserts, the breakdown of society is a consequence of the breakdown of community (which itself is a consequence of the breakdown of the family) it is dificult to see what any government could do about this. Cameron in the same Salford speech is reduced to an appeal to the public to "imagine what it would be like if we had the will and the determination to change. Imagine a society where families are living together rather than being paid by the state to live apart". This imagined community is not just a cheap rhetorical device, it is a powerful and reactionary appeal to a concept which both leads us away from an analysis of what is really going on and simultaneously promotes a full frontal attack on the welfare state which still provides support for the poorest and most deprived people in our unequal society. We are back to blaming the victim again.

Whilst conceding that Labour has done some good things (at the level of tax credits as an alternative to a more thoroughgoing redistributiveattack on poverty), nevertheless Labour's facile promotion of "community cohesion" has spawned what Rentoul calls the "ludicrous situation of setting targets" for (as the Government puts it) "the percentage of people who have meaningful interactions with people from different backgounds" - with 'meaningful interactions' defined by the DCLG as "engaging in conversation or some other form of social interaction" not at work, school or college "at least once a month". This is samosas on a truly industrial scale.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

In an interesting article in the Guardian (Inequality is closing down our concern for others, Friday Jan 18th) Jenni Russell shows how it is that perceived and actual feelings of inequality and lower status in our increasingly stratified society are the real threats to social and community cohesion. "Everyone is aware that as the rewards for reaching the top have grown exponentially, so the penalties for failing have grown more savage. As one Labour-voting father said, inequality eats away at the spirit of community. He feels he can't risk his children falling to the bottom and he wants to use what he has to help them, rather than contributing more to the common pot".

An approach which starts with an analysis of actual capital (rather than a lack of "social capital") would surely be a more fruitful way of analysing the reasons for the breakdown of social solidarity that the communitarians and others spend so much effort decrying. Their attempts to blame the victims (cf the New East End - see previous posts) rather than looking at the real economic causes can all be tracked back to the increasing feeling that they themselves would lose by any concerted attempt by the state to redistribute wealth and get the rich to pay even an equable proportion of their wealth to the common good. Certainly the old Labour notions of redistribution through direct taxation have lost their salience with New Labour's disgraceful panderings to the wealthy. Blair's obsession with his super rich friends and Peter Mandelson's remarks about not giving a damn about people becoming filthy rich are only the most obvious examples of this trend.

What is clear is that the wealth of those at the top does matter to society as it becomes the benchmark by which even the well off middle classes assess their own status. Taxing the rich is important not just for the revenue it would raise for the exchequer.

At the other end of the spectrum Lynsey Hanley's poignant descriptions of how local authority tenants on many large Council estates (Estates - an Intimate History, Granta 2007) are made to feel like social pariahs should have more to tell us about the breakdown of "communities" and the growth in anti-social behaviour than so many of the recent attempts to blame the "undeserving poor" for their own situation. As Hanley says, we must get back to a situation where social housing is seen as an integral part of the national housing stock, and not something that is seen as shameful.

Kids going to school to be bullied for not having the right £100 trainers is not at all just a remark about fashion. Status markers are increasingly important as constitutive of self-respect in our increasingly unequal and marketised society. Local authorities decrying young people "hanging around and causing trouble" on estates where there is nothing for them to do and nowhere to go no longer seem to notice their own inconsistency - when as so often they have allowed youth and community services to atrophy.

Communitarians have noticed that in some European states there is noticeably less social breakdown. Rather than concluding that this is because these are higher taxed and less unequal societies where differentials of abject poverty and super wealth are less marked, some of them (Goodhart et al) have claimed that it is because they have less immigration. There is now a constant and appalling denigration of "chavs" and those living in council accommodation. Attacks on welfare benefit recipients and refugees as scroungers and the attempts to portray an increasing underclass as the authors of their own downfall are all ways to stop us looking clearly at the real relations of power, wealth, status and inequality that are the real causes of social breakdown. Blaming the victims has now become a leading component of social policy.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Reply to Don Flynn

Hi Don

Thanks for this which was really helpful and most of which I very much agree with. Particularly your views on the role of politics in community action. I think though there is an issue about what sort of politics – the term has been eviscerated down to the notion that politics locally is done by political representatives – Councillors or even community/regeneration workers rather than being “the lynchpin of activity” in the way you describe. This of course is not helped by the tendency of some Councillors and the orthodox political parties that they represent seeing representational politics as somehow more authentic and real (and therefore their own powers as more legitimate) then the involvement that grows from the grassroots through local or interested people’s involvement in what are sometime called “community organizations” . Yes of course such communities do retain the potential to be self-critical and oppositional – at precisely which point they very often lose their funding or are sidelined by the local Town Hall or its inhabitants!

My point was not that we should never use the term “community” but that we should be far more suspicious and alive to our almost ubiquitous use of the term which actually devalues it as a currency. We should use it more judiciously and avoid facile or tautologous uses such as “the local community” when we mean local people or “the black community” when we are thereby lumping together such completely different groups as 3rd generation African Caribbeans, recent arrivals from the Congo or the Horn of Africa and the growing number of mixed race people in the capital. My objection is not to the term “Black” , especially where it is being used (as it was in the 60s and 70s) as a political term, but rather to the notion implied in the term “community” that there is some substrate that unifies and homogenizes black people apart from their collective struggles
From Don Flynn (Migrants Rights Network)

Thanks for this interesting paper Andy - I hope it's sparked off the discussion you want to see underway.

I entirely agree with your central argument - that the constellation of terms and concepts about 'community' and 'community cohesion' has given rise to a set of apolitical, bureaucratic practices which, at their worst, close down the space which might otherwise exist for actitivites which provide a critical apprasal of the real power structures which underpin concrete, actually existing communities. Where I think you might be creating a hostage to fortune is in centring so much of your criticisms on the word 'community' itself - almost to the point of suggesting that it be jetisoned in favour of another term, or group of terms, which better convey the fluctuating and contingent nature of actually existing communities. The problem is there isn't an obvious candidate for this role, wihch conveys what we know is relevant to this discussion, about those incidents where the features of geograpthical location or sectional interest do generate a sense of 'community' which is reasonably coherent and has the potentional to be self-critical and oppositional. The position of the mining communities in the mid-eighties is a case in point.

For me, the nub of the issue is what you describe as the need to see "the creation of community as an active and political process." The real setback of the last three decades has been the reduction of the capacites which had once existed for critical political appraisal of the processes of community formation. This loss is largely connected to the decline in working class organisation, which had once connected a sense of local otrganic solidarity with a wider consciousness of the place of class in the grand narrative of national, and sometimes international life. The practices generated around labour party and trade union branches, cultural associations (the WEA, etc), even chapels and church halls, had once provided local 'community' leaders with a mirror in which they were required to judge the reflection of the image they were cutting in the wider national, imagined, community of national and international life. The hollowing out of all of these organisations has led to this opportunity for critical reflection being lost, and for the grievances which initially motivated the formation of common identity to become a permanent howl of visceral protect against the lousy hand life had dealt them, with little or no capacity for moving beyond the sence of victimhood and injustice.

This decline in local politics has created the vacuum into which all the bureaucratic, professionalised forces of the social cohesion industry have rushed. Being bureaucratics, and not organically connected to the social forces that have produced dissonnance and tension, they thresh around looking for ways of acquiring traction in the array of problems they spread out before them, and that has tended to mean reifying categories which once where used in a fairly easy fashion into a hardened set of concepts which refer to hardened social facts. The problems for the poor old term 'community' is that it has suffered precisely this fate, and via the mechanistic thinking of functionalist sociology (of which communitarianism is just one species) has been reinvented as an iron law of social existence.

From our standpoint I think there is little we can do,for the time being, about the wretched state of organisation amngst the working class. I personally will proclaim my commitment to trade union activism and a democratic system based on mass membership political parties, but all of that is an investment for another day.

What can be usefully done in the here and now, I think, is to insist on the relevance of politics to the business of being activity in the domain of community action, regeneration, etc. The presumption that the task of building cohesive communities is essentially a technocratic one, involving the building of social capital and improving networks, has to be challenged and replaced by a stronger sense that activism, if it means anything, requires an assessment of the balances of power and interest which local societies into hierarchies of inclusion/exclusion, frank and open debate about the implications this has for policies and strategies, and the formation of commitment to one side or the other in battling forward with solutions. All of these things make politics the lynchpin of activity, rather than a rather embarasing fact of life that we try to push into the corner as much as possible.

So, the discussion I think we ought to be founding is one entitled 'the politics of community action', which requires the legions of officials and consultants to appraise the positions they occupy against the matrix of power relations, and to give a pulic account of themselves as people who are changing what; by which means; in collaboration with who; and to what ends?

Tha's my tuppennyworth. How are you planning to take this discussion forward? Looks like a Facebook community forum to me (sic).....

All the best,
From Rob Gregg Dean of Arts and Humanities, Richard Stockton College, New Jersey.
In reply to the community Confusions discussion paper:

Actually, a lot of the issues you raised are ones that have concerned me over the years — particularly in my earlier guise as an African-Americanist (both in my book on African American migration and my on-line book about migration more generally). Two things occur to me, off the top of my head — I believe there are a lot of other things in there (just thought of a third).1) There’s a degree to which I wonder whether the notion of community can ever be simply the positive attributes as opposed to the negative ones — i.e. Radical rather than reactionary. As a force for change for bringing people on the outs into power, or of increasing the power they might have, then it surely takes on a more progressive aspect. But, while it is doing this, it is nonetheless also (simultaenously) manifesting the reactionary part in its very definition. It is creating “fictions” about the community and inventing histories of its nature in order to mobilize people, and in so doing it is silencing (to borrow from Trouillot — Silencing the Past) narratives that hinder such mobilization — aspects of differentiation, class, gender, color, age, etc., that might fragment the “community” from within. As such, community can be turned into (or realize) its more reactionary form by its own success and the establishment of community institutions that entrench elements who then jealously guard their privileges (either from internal threats, or new external ones — i.e., newer immigrants); or it might realize this form through increased pressure from without and its lack of “success” to gain power (one of the things that I argued in my first book was that increased segregation of African American communities led to increased fragmentation and inability to unite in opposition to oppression — contra the Marxist assumption, I suppose). So in terms of a synchronic scheme the division in your definition works, but as soon as movement occurs both elements of community are always present — making it such a hot potato politically.2) Related to this, your passive/active dichotomy is something that I was wondering about. I think this dichotomy serves an important purpose to get us beyond old sociological (Toennies — gemeinschaft and gesselschaft and all that) notions of community that place it in a modernization framework of community (passive and traditional) and society (active and modern). Clearly community is always more active than this old theory suggested, but I wonder if it is ever really passive. In other words, there are things that people did in the past, but are they really expressions of “community” and “culture” until they are no more, or are, in a way, threatened with extinction, at which point they become actively created and invented. Is this what Anderson is talking about in Imagined Communities? Again, this means that community is never simply a reflection of a historical reality (though this will be the claim), but is instead a political intervention made for other purposes. It either becomes the reactionary claim keeping certain people in line (e.g., immigrants to the United States who frequently repressed advances for women in their communities because such things would threaten the ethnic group and would be mark it as potentially dysfunctional), or it becomes an argument for blaming the victim for claiming that the reason that others have failed to adapt/assimilate, etc. is because of the nature of their community (i.e., that it is dysfunctional and attempting now to help it would be “throwing money at the problem”).3) I loved your description of the community organizations of the 1980s and it reminded me of the impact of money that was put into American cities in the 1960s (the Great Society) and the impact it had on inner city African American communities. What such community organizations tended to do — better funded as they were with better resources than other local, community groupings — was move people out of their churches and other such places into the community/recreational centers. This was fine until all the money ran out (Vietnam war/OPEC) and the communities were left with neither the rec centers nor their own organizations, at which point others could then say that the problem with them was that they were weak communities (dysfunctional) and so should be written off — thus the Great Society ironically ended up weakening the position of many. Which reminds me — I hope you have been watching The Wire — definitely the best show ever produced on American tv.

Rob Gregg (Dean of Arts and Humanities) Richard Stockton College, New Jersey

Monday, January 14, 2008

Even the Guardian agrees that community is a "mush" word

Peter Preston in todays Guardian 14/1/08 page 30:
"So, goodbye "community". You have been the political mush word of the last year, the word that turns political grit into benign vacuity. But too much community saps the spirit, and suddenly as 2008 gets a grip, other challengers finally burgeon".

Interestingly, the next article to the right "Scousers are the culture" on Liverpool's creativity also uses an interesting sense of the term community:
"A well-run capital of Culture could involve and reward the city's creative community in a project that would last way beyond the end of the year".

Though I am not sure what a creative community is I find myself less antagonistic to this use of the term community than many others. Firstly it implies a group of people actively developing ideas - and "instead of importing culture, creating it". Secondly it is not as simple as it usually is with the term community to find alternative ways of saying this without using the term. What do you think?

Friday, January 11, 2008

Today's Guardian on Lee Jasper. Brixton rapper Marvin the Martian says "He (Lee) is out of touch and he's missing the mark every time. He claims to speak for the 'black community' ... There is no 'black community'. There are poor areas in which black people predominantly live"

Discussion paper

This is a longer discussion paper. It is very much a work in progress and does not have any great theoretical rigour but I wanted to blog it so as to get your views and start an active discussion about "community"

Community – ambiguous, confusing and dangerous

The word “community” sits at the heart of all that we try to accomplish in the Third Sector (or as some prefer the Voluntary and Community Sector). Such is the power and centrality of this word that we characteristically presume that we know what we are talking about when we use it. In fact the word is used in so many senses, and so much associated baggage comes with the term (which we seldom analyse), that serious inconsistencies and incoherences are often imported into our thinking in a dangerous and reactionary way.

Of course these confused and lazy uses of the term should not lead us to argue that we could or should try to give the term up completely. Discourses around “community” have been used in some contexts to unite social or minority groups around an active, even resistant, challenge to existing power structures and inequalities. Too often, however, the term is used in a passive sense to distance, stereotype and mystify both the people it purports to include and to make challenges to racism, inequality and discrimination more rather then less difficult. In other words if we are not careful about how we use the term, or how we allow others to use it, then it will control us rather than us controlling it.


It might be sensible to start with some definitions:
Wiktionary defines the term as:
Group of people sharing a common understanding who reveal themselves by using the same language, manners, tradition and law
Commune or residential/religious collective
The condition of having certain attitudes and interests in common
(Ecology) A group of interdependent organisms inhabiting the same region and interacting with each other

Community Development Exchange defines community as:
The web of personal relationships, groups, networks, traditions and patterns of behaviour that exist amongst those who share physical neighbourhoods, socio-economic conditions or common understandings and interests

There are however two key features or connotations of the way the term is commonly used that are usually left out of these definitions
The first I label its “cosy” or “nostalgic” use. The term community is usually used as a term of commendation – it is assumed that the term denotes something that is inherently good. As Raymond Williams says Community has been “the warmly persuasive word to describe an existing set of relationships; or the warmly persuasive word to describe an alternative set of relationships. It seems never to be used unfavourably and never to be given any positive opposing or distinguishing term”[1] This use of the term implies a connection such as kinship, cultural heritage, shared values and goals. Community is thus felt to be more “organic” and “natural” and therefore stronger and deeper than a rational or contractual association of individuals such as the market or the state.
The second I label its “distancing use”. Paradoxically, alongside its “cosy” use it is often used to differentiate or define groups of people who are in a minority, and who are often disadvantaged or discriminated against in some way. Whilst this sense of “community” as describing minorities has been used to challenge some of the oppressions these social groups encounter, more often however it has served to confuse and conceal such oppressions. From the perspective of those with power the term “community” often connotes “the other” – “them” but not “us”[2].

I will provide evidence for and discuss both of these two key features later and will argue that these accretions of meaning actually import unspoken assumptions which are dangerous when applied to complex discourses around such vexed subjects as community cohesion, community care, community policing and multiculturalism. Government policies now encourage or enjoin service providers and local authorities to “involve the community in each stage of the process”. Without a clear notion of the term community this makes little practical sense and often gives rise to the worst forms of local clientism and “community leadership” which often empowers the wrong people in localities as well as further disempowering groups and individuals who are already excluded

ROTA (Race on the Agenda) recently declared that “a cohesive and integrated community is a feeling of connectedness and a celebration of individual differences. By continuing to define community in official geographic and governmental terms, we lose sight of the most important ingredients of community cohesion: respect for the individual, equality and dignity”. I think this is quite right as far as it goes and it does help us clear the ground somewhat by clarifying that any adequate sense of community has to be more than just about the people who happen to live in a particular locality or local authority. It shows that any sensible notion of how we should live together and develop social capital has to incorporate and deal openly with the multicultural nature of most localities in the UK rather than pretend that “Community Cohesion” is the answer to the problems caused by “multiculturalism”. With this quote ROTA clearly sets its approach firmly against most current notions of “Community Cohesion” that are either explicitly or implicitly assimilationist.

I also like it because it brings to the fore the notions of rights, equality and dignity. Increasingly these are things that we have to struggle for in the neighbourhoods and localities, the organisations and the institutions that we find our selves in. “Community” can then be seen for what it is – an active process rather than a passive state. Community is something that we have to make happen rather than something that just happens to us.

Whilst ROTA’s definition rightly challenges the dangers of geographical or governmental definitions of the term, I think there needs to be a further critique of a number of other serious ambiguities and dangers that are encompassed in the term. The term “community” is so ambiguous, so misused and so riddled with implicit (and sometimes explicit) assumptions that I believe that it very often does more harm than good and mystifies more than it clarifies. Worse than this confusion, however, is that the term is frequently used (sometimes deliberately and always covertly) so as to avoid discussions of and challenges to the discrimination, inequality and racism that still riddle our institutions, neighbourhoods and “communities”.

Community Development and Community Cohesion

Valiant attempts have been made by some parts of the community development movement to define their profession as inherently active, progressive and challenging. The Community Development Exchange for example defines community development in the following somewhat circular way:
“Community development is about building active and sustainable communities based on social justice and mutual respect. It is also about changing power structures to remove the barriers that prevent people from participating in the issues that affect their lives”. Whilst this is an active definition that describes the process and practice of many community development workers, it takes us no closer to a clear notion of what these communities are that the “development” is supposed to happen to. It is my contention that one of the barriers that prevents people from participating actively and that mystifies the relationships that they need to challenge to do this, is enshrined in the way in which we so commonly use (or misuse) the term “community”.

Elizabeth Frazer in her powerful feminist critique of both liberal and communitarian models of community, reaches a similar conclusion:
“conceptual and theoretical problems with ‘community’ are very far-reaching. They undermine the validity of models. They resonate in discourses, and have particular (not progressive) rhetorical effects. They impact in policy and practice in perverse ways”[3]

It is not for nothing that the neologism “Community Cohesion” is now a favourite of New Labour local and national politicians who do not seem to want us to look at and challenge the real relations of poverty, racism, class and inequality that infect so many of our institutions, our neighbourhoods and our “communities”. It has been rightly said that the earlier neologisms “social inclusion/exclusion” operated as a convenient way for Labour politicians and other opinion formers to avoid having to talk openly about poverty and inequality. This of course allowed them a smoke screen behind which they were able to start to give up previously totemic Labour notions of economic redistribution. The term “Community Cohesion” is, in my view, an equally cynical and obscurantist way of deflecting us from seeing the world as it really is with the result that we feel that we can do little or nothing about it.

This is because the sense in which the word “community” is being used here is utterly idealised. The confusion of senses of the term “community” so as to stress locality, interest, identity, inclusion, commonality then combine in terms like “community cohesion” to draw our attention away from and stop us articulating and engaging in processes of struggle, of opposition to racism and inequality. The “cosy” connotations of the term serve to instil in us a passivity that sees “problems in the community” only as issues for the local Council bureaucrats, politicians or “community leaders”.

For many people in Britain today the “community” in which they live does not include and empower them but rather is actually the site of their own oppression and exclusion. Just as feminists have correctly located kinship and social structures as the site of women’s oppression[4], communities whether of locality, identity or interest are often the sites of oppression where inequalities and discrimination can be most damagingly expressed. Communities are just as likely to be “communalist” (defining by exclusion, objectifying differences) as they are “communal” (defining by inclusion and encouraging association)[5].

Although most communities do not have formal criteria for membership, nevertheless membership of a particular community can be difficult to obtain, dependent as it usually is on acceptance by the existing members. It has been seen as an important characteristic of communities that their members tend to draw very clear distinctions between outsiders and insiders.[6] It is this feature that allows individuals to be actually or symbolically expelled from the community. It is often very difficult to be “the only gay in the village” and this common experience of alienation from their “original communities” that is faced by gay and lesbian people often results in movement to larger cities where there is a substantial and organised gay and lesbian population. Jeffrey Weeks gives an account of how such a “sexual community” arises: “in the face of political and social disadvantage, and crises like the HIV epidemic, gay people have felt that community should exist – a diasporic consciousness results and constructs it”[7] This is clearly an active use of “community” around which a social group is able to organise and which can be used to empower and emancipate. Most uses of the term are not active in this sense. This is easy to see in those uses of the term that are associated with locality or geography (where those people the term purports to describe may have nothing more in common then that they are inhabitants of a particular geographical area – a housing estate or a local authority for example). In this sense, I would argue, the term is actually dangerous because it seeks to pretend that there is some underlying or latent source of shared social capital in localities (in fact this is often identifiable only by its absence).

There is a common notion that many neglected urban localities are actually potential communities if only they can be “regenerated” with the correct policies from the local authority “in partnership with the community” and other local agencies. It is sometimes held that the process needs catalysing elements which are characterised by communitarians as ‘community entrepreneurs’ or ‘community activists’ – individuals who play the role of builders in the process of the construction (or reconstruction) of community. An underlying stock of potential trust and goodwill (“bonding social capital”) lies there ready to be unearthed if only we discover how. Somewhere behind the despair there lurks a potential community which we have somehow lost but which we can rediscover through the intervention of community development workers or regeneration programmes. The problem with these catalytic elements, these ‘activists’ is that they seldom live in the locality and often represent agencies whose interests may run quite counter to the individual or collective interests of those who do actually live there. Equally the regeneration programmes are often run by agents who are not located in the community and frequently, (sometimes for good as well as bad reasons) resist the involvement of local people or local interest groups in the real decision-making stage.

Rather than seeing the creation of community as an active and political process, this beguiling (but often dangerous and mechanistic) notion of community takes us further away from a real analysis of the forces and conditions that need to be challenged if any positive sort of social change is to emerge. The mystification and circularity of this approach frequently diverts our attention away from and avoids any need for a more fundamental challenge to the wider set of social relations which bear down on those people who live in the locality. It substitutes a fascination with subjectivity for any notion of activity or agency[8]. In addition crucial issues of inequality, wealth distribution and discrimination can thus be deftly avoided or ignored. These are usually far too threatening to “the powers that be” who consequently prefer the facile approach enshrined in much of the Government’s Community Cohesion strategy with its “indicators of meaningful interaction” and attempts to “develop a sense of belonging”. But belonging to what? This approach has been rightly characterised as “trying to get us all to eat samosas together”. As Elizabeth Frazer says in critique of the communitarians, the ‘spirit of community’ or ‘fostering a sense of community’ is insufficient fuel to stimulate the action and organisation that is actually needed to accomplish their aspirations to social power: “Organisers’ and theorists’ focus on the absence and longed for presence of a ‘spirit of community’ precisely diverts attention from the material conditions that might generate this agency”[9]

Alienation in community

Alienation from community rather than cohesion inside it is not just a characteristic of many communities of geography but also of many of those defined by ethnicity. If we think only for a moment of the difficulty some Asian women can face challenging “their own community” about issues such as forced marriage, domestic violence or honour killings. If we then remember the relativistic bleatings of some social and “community” workers (who have given multiculturalism a bad name) that these are things that we and they can’t and shouldn’t do anything about because it is “their culture, their community”, we can then see how easily discourses about community can tend to privilege the status quo and lead away from real empowerment and emancipation. Such empowerment will only be actualised as part of a discourse about human rights rather than about “culture” and “community”. As Helena Kennedy says “the holocaust shows us that states and governments are not the only abusers of rights; our neighbours too can abuse us. So can our partners, our spouses, our parents.” In other words the site of much of this abuse is “the community” or even closer to the bone, the family. Despite these crucial challenges to the communitarian approach – that community can “encompass vicious xenophobia and hostility, cultures of criminality, indifference to the suffering of outsiders, the prevention of exit by disadvantaged insiders and so on” [10]– the term still keeps coming back to haunt us with “its warm and positive connotations”[11]

It is no surprise that under New Labour to the same extent that neologisms like social inclusion and community cohesion have crept up on us, at the same time there has been a full frontal assault on “rights” (whether these are welfare or other legal rights or the more encompassing “human rights”)[12]. It is also no surprise that in the vanguard of this attack are the so called “communitarians” with their war cry of “no rights without responsibilities”. Rather than an idealised notion of “community” describing our social relations, in fact as Helena Kennedy says; “human rights is the language for shared living, the grammar of our interconnectedness. We have collective responsibility to ensure that all people can flourish in our society free from discrimination, hostility and harassment”[13]

The Government’s Community Cohesion website defines community cohesion as “the attempt to build communities with four key characteristics:
A common vision and sense of belonging
The valuing of diversity
Similar life opportunities for all
Strong and positive relationships are being developed between people from different backgrounds and circumstances in the workplace, in the school and within neighbourhoods.”

As Jenny Bourne puts it in her excellent comment paper “The Baby and the Bath Water: community cohesion and the funding crisis”, Hazel Blears and the other government proponents of Community Cohesion “start from the premise that lack of cohesion, not racial justice, is the social problem that needs tackling. If they started from the other premise, then the concept of self-segregation becomes self-organisation – a riposte to injustice, not its cause, and community cohesion would emerge as a by product of a joint fight for social justice”. This important notion sees real Community Cohesion as springing from something that we do together (communing or associating together) to challenge the status quo rather than something that “happens” to us by virtue of our being defined as part of a “community” on the basis of a few salient but often arbitrary features that we exhibit in common.

Communities as subcultures

At the same time as it is used in its cosy sense, the term “community” is often used with a strong undercurrent of “otherness” – as part of a subtle discourse that distances or exoticises certain social groups. At the same time as the term is one of commendation it can also be a term of disguised condescension. One can see this best if one analyses the occasions on which the term is used and the specific social groups that it is used about. The use of the term is often riddled with hidden cultural assumptions – community is something that they have rather than us – something inherently to do with minorities and their “subcultures”. There is a kind of “orientalism” contained in the way in which the word community is often used. The gaze is that of a white anthropologist describing the strange customs and cultures of “their communities”[14]. This use of the term community often amounts to a subtle attempt to define certain social groups so that they can be “kept in their place”[15] Community as a term can thus combine in a fairly toxic way with discourses around identity politics. Although such discourses may have been developed so as to empower certain social groups they can also be coopted to disempower or marginalise them.

Take for instance the expression “host community” and look at the assumptions that underline the use of both the terms that make it up. How does one get to be a member of this “community”? In fact there is no “communing” or associating here at all and it might better be described as a vacuous “commonality” rather than a “community”. An analysis of the term “host community” could lead us to ask about the nature of those who seek to enter such a “host community”. The answer to this neatly displays the two senses of the term that I describe above – the cosy and the distancing. At first sight (cosy[16]) presumably those who enter the host community are “guests” (cf a similar use of the term guest to describe gastarbeiter or “guest workers” in Germany). A secondary (distancing[17]) meaning of host would however lead to the darker sense that tends to accompany use of the term in discourses about race relations where the “others” are seen as “parasites” or “aliens”.

In the US this dual aspect of the term has also been noticed. In the Encyclopedia of Contemporary American Culture[18], the editors note that: “While community has … entered the sacrosanct mythology of mom and apple pie for many Americans, these usages also betray certain negative aspects that demand attention. First, community may be used in an exclusionary fashion. Preserving “community”, for example sounds better that resisting integration or newcomers. Appeal to “community standards” also has a long career in censorship of American art and literature….. Second, community can also be an imposition on others. To speak of the ‘black’ or ‘Asian American’ community (avoiding race) or ‘gay and lesbian’ community implies a unity of action and experience, much less volition that does not reflect the lives or politics of individuals and groups that constitute these segments of American society”

An active notion of community is seldom articulated in contrast to the reactionary and passive notions of community to which people are often assigned without choice and which can then serve to stereotype and stigmatise them[19]. How rare it is that community is used in the sense of “community of resistance.” The use of the term community is at its most dangerous when it is used (explicitly or implicitly) to suggest something that they (not us) are located in and defined by, rather than choosing to locate themselves in.[20]

Of course a sense of community can be lived and experienced in emancipatory ways. For example the struggle of gay people during the last 30 years, the struggles of black and asian people against racism and police brutality have used a positive, inclusive and active sense of the term community to describe and indeed to live their struggle. The notion of “the community” here has been used as a defensive and organising term around which campaigning groups could unite against attack. Even here though it is interesting that many of these campaigning organisations do not describe themselves as primarily “community” organisations. Some like Southall Black Sisters are explicitly critical of reactionary notions of community that seek to override the human rights and freedoms of those who are coopted into them.

Ideal Communities

By contrast to these active (or at least defensive) uses of the term, “community” is usually a hegemonic, essentialising and totalising term that leads us away from a real analysis of the actual conditions in which people live. The word community is usually used as though the natural or default state of communities is to be placid, peaceful and passive (ie “cohesive”). Behind this “cosy” and “nostalgic” notion of “community” lurks an idealised notion of community which can sometimes almost be glimpsed in its original purity. It resembles a pre-Industrial English country village with everyone knowing their place and any potential conflicts of class or privilege kept buttoned up and stiff upper lipped. Around the village green and cricket pitch are a number of thatched cottages and a quiet pub. The vicar and his congregation all attend the ancient Church (communion) and second home buyers from London have not yet moved in and priced the farm workers out of their cottages[21]. Of course I parody, but there are times when the communities that politicians harp on about (or harp back to) bear more resemblance to Ambridge than they do to reality.[22] This “Hovis village” notion of an ideal community emphasises spurious cohesion rather than discontinuities of power, discrimination, racism and inequality. All is well in this best of all possible worlds.[23]

Of course this reactionary and pre-industrial idealisation has at times been mirrored by equivalent idealisations or nostalgias from the old left where the paradigmatic communities are the dwindling number of “occupational communities” – mining, fishing, steel etc. This latter form of “community” has been so disrupted during the 1980s that it can no longer really bear the weight of idealisation that is still occasionally put upon it.

There is one important study of the East End that does bear closer analysis in this context, and which shows the dangers of an idealised and nostalgic notion of community. Geoff Dench, Kate Gavron and Michael Young published “The New East End: Kinship, Race and Conflict” in 2006. It is based on many years of interviews with East Enders[24] and is a follow up to Willmott and Young’s seminal book “Family and Kinship in East London” (1957). The New East End is highly controversial in arriving at a view (from the Left) that the welfare state has itself given rise to an increase in racism and a breakdown of community in the East End. The authors argue that racial tension has been caused by large numbers of Bangladeshi families being awarded preferential treatment and priority for council housing due to a misguided rights-based welfare state which dispenses its largesse on the basis of need rather than past contributions. By contrast, since the 1950s, white working class extended families (the “original community”) have been broken up as their younger members have been relocated elsewhere for housing. In this scenario, those who have suffered most have been women, who have lost their social status “as the arbiters of family and neighbourhood life”. The book acknowledges the decline of the docklands local economy in the 60s and 70s as a causal factor, but it is notable that the blame for the breakdown of this community is levelled squarely at a “well intentioned welfare state” and, by implication, those who have benefitted from it – the incoming Bangladeshi “community”.

The original white working class community is held to have been broken up by government policy on housing and welfare rights, and supportive networks of kinship and neighbourliness, mutual-help and solidarity to have disappeared.[25] As Madeleine Bunting said in a review of the book,[26] “The minutiae of who you turn to in a crisis has been disregarded in government policy, but it is precisely those relationships of support that prevent an estate being overrun by thugs, or a young mum taking an overdose. So the tricky question for the policy wonks is: how do you devise welfare policies that reinvigorate the relationship networks and stimulate the ethic of mutuality that is so vivid a memory among the elderly white East Enders, whereby no one ever locked their front door and everyone watched out for the kids who played on the street?” But is it really just relationships of support and kinship networks that on their own can stop an estate being overrun by thugs or a young mum taking an overdose? This idealised version of a white working class community is certainly more “Queen Vic” than Ambridge[27] but it doesn’t leave much space for the existence of an extensive gang culture (remember the Kray twins?), the poverty and degradation that have been vividly described by contemporary writers, nor the fact that there was even in the 1950s a growing community of Somalis and Yemenis who were joining the longer established Jewish community (for some of whom Yiddish was still their first language). The welfare system is not only deemed by the authors to fuel white racism, but such racism is also seen to be a rational and understandable reaction to it. The book goes on to argue that these antagonisms are exacerbated by state welfare professionals who are “stoking the flames of communal tension by favouring newcomers against ‘local’ people”[28]

The whole approach of both these studies is predicated on the authors “discovery” of a widespread nostalgia by those interviewed during the 1950’s. They mourn their memories of the earlier homogenous white working class communities during and after the experience of the blitz and before the slum clearance schemes that broke up their communities and moved many of them out to Essex. The criticism that this is a highly sentimentalised version of the case was levelled at Family and Kinship fairly soon after its publication[29]. The more recent New East End study not only fails to grapple with this critique but ends up doubling the nostalgia by asserting that the white working class community now feel that they have lost even the sense of community that they were claiming at the time of the first survey. As John Marriott puts it:[30] “Bethnal Green, we discover, is not the place of 50 years ago. In those days its residents displayed a ‘warmth and conviviality’ which helped to compensate for the material privations many suffered. That golden age is now over, and a sense of bitterness and betrayal prevails among the indigenous white population, most of it directed toward the Bangladeshis who in the past 30 years have settled in significant numbers….. In extending the rights of citizenship to migrants, priority is now decided on the basis of need rather than as it was in the past on the basis of claims to membership of the community”. Marriott goes onto argue that (with the exception of the Bangladeshi incomers) the New East End’s authors fail to note any other significant demographic changes in Bethnal Green such as the emergence of the fashionable artistic community and the fact that many Bangladesh families have themselves (in time-honoured fashion!) moved east across the Lea and out of the area and have been replaced by other migrants, most notably Somalis and East Europeans, “none of whom appear in the pages of the book”.[31]
Contrary to this doom and gloom, another study of two estates in East London found a picture of a “vibrant and complex community life”. The study focused on the views and experiences of local people, their perceptions of neighbourhood, social networks and involvement with the community. The research, by Vicky Cattell and Mel Evans[32], illustrates both variation and consensus within and between two neighbourhoods in regeneration areas and explores the underlying influences. Crucially, whilst the study did find evidence of some tensions between longer term residents and newer immigrant arrivals it also found substantial evidence of networking and neighbourliness across different ethnic groups. It did not seek to idealise the community (past or present) and found that:
· The local neighbourhood remains central to the lives of East Londoners. The friendliness and good humour of local people, their patterns of reciprocal aid and supportive networks strengthen residents' sense of attachment.
· Formal organisations involve older age groups more than younger. Past experiences of clubs, trade unions, or campaigns are influential motivators for older residents on both estates. Younger residents are less likely to share these experiences.
· The disaffection of young people and their perceptions of powerlessness are causes for concern.
· Local resources and facilities are key influences on the neighbourhood's store of 'social capital'. They can help in developing supportive networks and relationships of trust, and encouraging participation.
· Social activities and "having a laugh" are important to East Londoners. Residents want community facilities to consolidate this aspect of their identity.
· Residents' perceptions of their neighbourhood and degrees of attachment to it vary. One understanding of the 'good neighbourhood' is based on the interaction of similar people: another embraces co-operation between different groups.
· Past, recent and future regeneration initiatives have influenced perceptions of the neighbourhood and the forms that community life takes. As well as strengthening communities within neighbourhoods, regeneration activities have also caused some divisions.
· The researchers conclude that cohesive and vibrant neighbourhoods require: opportunities and facilities for both localised socialising and wider social cohesion; organisations which encourage effective participation through training and prioritise the involvement of newcomers; the involvement of young people in regeneration; and a holistic and flexible approach to regeneration.
In another study Katharine Mumford and Professor Anne Power[33] report the experiences of 100 families living in Hackney and Newham. They argue that despite the potentially fraught arena of inter-racial communication, the idea of neighbourliness is extremely important to 90 per cent of local families. Almost all the mothers interviewed had friends from other ethnic backgrounds. They concluded that despite all the real problems and tensions, it does not appear to be true that attachment to community disintegrates in a global age, in a global city, with fast changing populations, strong cultural and ethnic differences and many alienating pressures.
By contrast, the pessimistic and nostalgic direction of the New East End’s argument fits in a most uncomfortable way with another major left-wing critique of Multiculturalism. This is the communitarian argument that too many immigrants with markedly different cultures threaten any community’s ability to generate bridging social capital.


Community and Government

By analysing some of the problems with the use of the term “community” we can see how there is something inherently self-defeating and paradoxical about the way in which Community Cohesion is currently defined and practised. By defining and reifying the notion of communities (defined by their “cultures”) as what makes people different, the Government is actually reinforcing the concept of separate linguistic or cultural minority communities which at the same moment they say they want to integrate (or assimilate) minorities out of. If community cohesion is understood as the attempt to create “bridging social capital”[34] then it hamstrings itself by its own definition of communities. Defining communities in this reactionary way as passive, homogenous groups who tend to ghettoise themselves around purities of language and culture is part of the problem rather than a definition that helps us find a solution. It is “communities” understood in this way that local and national politicians then seek to manipulate through the use of community leaders (who can sometimes represent the most backward, conservative and chauvinistic elements of that group). This notion becomes even more nonsensical when we consider the Government’s recent campaign against single ethnicity funding. As Jenny Bourne has pointed out, the Government is reversing cause and effect by “blaming those whom society has excluded for their own self-segregation.”

Certainly both local and national government from the 1980s on have sometimes made serious mistakes in thinking that they can coopt or placate particular ethnic minority groups by the provision of funding for cultural or community purposes and have thus created a class of “community leaders” who often claim to speak on behalf of their entire communities. This sort of divide and rule has always been a feature of the colonial mindset in British government attitudes to minorities. However, as Bourne says, the danger now is that many of the smaller, more challenging, grassroots groups will lose out on funding. “And we will, if we are not careful, be back to the anodyne ‘racial harmony’-style tea parties of the 1950s which offend noone and achieve nothing.” More Samosas anyone?

Community Care

Whilst associated with many positive developments around independent living, notoriously the term “community care” lulled both politicians and people in the 1980s into the notion that there actually was a “community” outside long stay institutions where “care” would better take place. (In practice of course this often meant little or no care or that caring arrangements would devolve back to family members with little support). Active terms like “independent living” capture the positive aspects of the approach but the use of the term “community care” can be seen as both a cause and at the same time a way of hiding some of the negative consequences of the policy - especially since it is increasingly underfunded to the extent that it is almost bound to fail.

Frazer points out that the term “community” becomes even more mystificatory when it is (so often) coupled with that of “family”: “the meanings of family and community are mutually constitutive[35]…. The terms’ constant reference to each other obscures how social institutions and social processes are actually related. In public policy this really matters ….. for instance the social policy ‘community care’ is actually family care.” There is also, as she points out, a suspicion that the way in which one term seems actually to act as a code for another amounts to a disguised discourse about gender, about the respective roles and resources of men and women which are then covertly differentiated and essentialised.

New Localism

The ambitious attempts by some Labour local authorities in the 1980s to “decentralise” largely fell down because of their inability to analyse and critique the idealised notion of community or neighbourhood that they were actually employing. There was a prevailing notion just that by “bringing people together” through the good offices of community development workers and “community centres”, shared commitment and social capital could be (re)generated. Whilst such vitally needed resources may be a necessary condition for improving people’s lives in a locality, they are very seldom a sufficient condition.

In Camden where I was working as a community worker (1983-1987) there was substantial funding in the early 1980s to establish community centres within easy walking distance of every resident of the borough. Whilst this development did coincide with the first thoroughgoing and laudable attempts to introduce equal opportunities and anti-racist policies in funding and service provision (both from local boroughs and the GLC), nevertheless there were only infrequent attempts to mount sustained challenges to the relations of power and discrimination in these localities. Some Community Centres actively resisted the establishment of local campaigns to challenge racial harassment on local estates, others were suspicious and obstructive to projects operating locally for disaffected young people, gays and lesbians, travellers and users of mental health services. Whilst there were a number of positive gains as well as serious concerns about this approach, such provision was largely demolished due to constraints on local authority funding and attacks on these local authorities by the authoritarian Thatcher government. The attempt to use what we would now call “community anchors” to develop a new sense of community spirit (let alone one that would stand up to and confront Thatcherism) had largely failed. Indeed since the 1980s a significant number of these community and youth centres have been closed down or sold off.

The experience in Islington (where I subsequently worked in the Council for Voluntary Service 1989-96) was marked by the establishment from 1985 of 24 decentralised Neighbourhood Offices each with their own Neighbourhood Forums. The experience of these forums were mixed, whilst some did develop in vibrant and inclusive ways, many of them became little more than fiefdoms for unrepresentative and sometimes xenophobic local community (residents or tenants association) leaders. The attempt to empower members of the “local community” resulted in some cases with a further entrenchment of prejudice and exclusion at the local level. In some cases such fora systematically excluded minority ethnic and other disadvantaged social groups. Having established neighbourhood forums that purported to encourage neighbourhood participation, councillors and local authority staff then tended to recoil when “troublesome groups” gained representation within the local political system. Of course the key decisions about resources had always been taken elsewhere, but there was in some cases a noticeable movement to circumscribe and limit the responsibilities of neighbourhood forums and to relocate powers and decision-making away from them if they started raising issues that were uncomfortable for those in the Town Hall.

At the same time funding patterns also encouraged the establishment of a number of community centres and organisations for minority groups. Many of these (including the emerging refugee community organisation sector) did provide excellent services and reach groups who felt they had little purchase on mainstream provision. Nevertheless this pattern of funding also had a tendency to encourage competition between and even within different ethnic groups. Whilst the emergence of community leaders and a growing number of Black and asian councillors changed the face of some localities, in some cases there was a tendency by the local authority to “buy off” different groups rather than encourage their involvement at all levels. The prevailing ethos at the time was a kind of lazy multiculturalism. Significant sums were spent on community festivals and local cultural events and while much of this was extremely positive it became clear that there was little appetite to challenge entrenched racial harassment (especially of local Bengali families), gangs and vandalism let alone the endemic poverty and other inequalities that scarred the area.

Multiculturalism and community

Currently there is a full frontal attack on ‘multiculturalism’. Ironically the government seems increasingly determined to adopt the more integrationist or even assimilationist approach that has failed so disastrously in France and elsewhere across Europe. Community cohesion is now being seen as a panacea for the ‘problems’ caused by multiculturalism. In the words of the Chief Rabbi these are deemed to be that “it encourages people not to integrate and creates social exclusion” As the Institute for Race Relations has pointed out, attacks on multiculturalism usually reflect a disguised assimilationism: “what they actually mean is that they are not happy with the weight being given to other cultures and customs. They essentially want British culture to be more traditional and/or Christianity to prevail over other faiths”[36]. This critique of multiculturalism and the development of ideas around social cohesion grew up as response to 9/11 and the London bombings of 2005 because of the perceived militancy and “self-segregation” of sections of the Muslim community and the reaction to increasing numbers of asylum seekers. Not only does this approach serve to blame the victim, but it also as IRR points out, moves the debate away from racism and inequality and situates it back in culture – in the notion that we somehow need to create a kind of cultural glue (bridging capital) that can hold society together and that ensures positive integration.[37] Samosas again!

In fact both the government approaches of multiculturalism and now community cohesion are actually so infected by the same problematical definition of “community” that they create more problems than they explain. As Sivanandan argues, multiculturalism originally grew out of community-based fights for equality and justice – struggles emanating from below. Local and national government policies sought to introduce a very different notion of multiculturalism or communalism from above by reifying communities and rewarding (or in some cases punishing) community leaders through funding and other political mechanisms. This level of “culture” as expressed in and by “communities” heads off and diffuses challenges to power and inequality at the local and national level in the same way as does the community cohesion approach. Only when we develop a more challenging understanding of community as an active process rather than as a passive state can we start to overcome this contradiction.

Of course we should immediately dispense with any form of multiculturalism that claims that the cultural traditions of minority ethnic groups should be immune to criticism on grounds of human rights. Human rights should always trump culture – this is an easy thing to say when it comes to issues like Female Genital Mutilation, forced marriage or honour killings. In practice however there are still many progressive community activists who are equivocal about some of these issues. For example City Parochial Foundation has recently been criticised for its imaginative and welcome decision to allocate substantial funding for work around faith-based child abuse, especially within parts of the African diaspora in London.

The Grammar of community

The “grammar” of the term community – the way it is used - reveals much about how humans are and how we see ourselves in our part of the developed world in the early 21st century. The danger with terms like “community” is that they often help us pretend that we can do more than this. We are often lured by such terms to think that we can describe an ahistorical, unchanging and somehow essential human condition rather than ways of living that are conditioned and mutable. Like Wittgenstein I would suggest that there can never be a final and complete empirical definition of a concept like “community” and that all we can therefore do is to explore how the concept is used in a number of different contexts. Its meaning is in the way it is used. We can also attempt to carry out some basic “housekeeping” when it comes to our use of the term. Where we are using it in a way that is systematically unclear or so that it carries unwanted or damaging connotations and ideological implications, then we should limit our use of the category or try to find other ways of expressing ourselves without using the term in an unanalysed and idealised way.

As Frazer points out, “certain sorts of groups – shopping crowds, theatre audiences (members of which have something in common which distinguishes them from other groups) – are not included in the category whereas villagers, tribespeople, religious and linguistic groups are”[38] As she remarks, it is not immediately clear why this should be the case. The leading communitarian Amitai Etzioni tries to answer this sort of conundrum with an appeal to “commitment” – in community “we care about each other’s well being” in such a way that “the community can lay moral claims on its members”.[39] He does not explain why this does not apply as much (if not more) to gangs as it does to communities. Yet again we see the term automatically (but covertly) assumed to be describing good rather than bad forms of association. Commitment is not enough of a defining characteristic to allow us to make a distinction between community (good) and criminal/gang subcultures (bad). Indeed the confusion of senses of the term that involve spatial location, real or imagined “commitment”, ethnicity, interest, identity (whether externally or self defined) make the term systematically confusing and complex rather than explanatory and simple.

It is interesting for example that there are some social groups that the term cannot be applied to in the same way: we do not usually say “the women community”, “the male community”, “the young community”, “the middle-aged community” or the “community of older people”[40]. This is because these are all terms that describe states that the majority of people will inhabit and which we all therefore have an interest in (as opposed to those other uses of the term which almost always explicitly or implicitly imply that they are minority interests or conditions, often outside the mainstream). In most senses of the term, age and gender are presumed to inhabit, even constitute all communities whereas other distinctions such as race, sexual orientation, profession, location etc. stand in a different relation to the term.

Another feature of the way in which the word is used, is that for almost every social group that community is applied to there is usually a perfectly feasible way of using a name or phrase to denote the group that does not use the term “community”. Why call business people “the business community”? Why call a neighbourhood or locality “the local community”? Frazer again points out that “for many theorists….., community is the site of the realisation of communion, and communion – connectedness, the meeting with another soul to soul – is the ideal for social relations that can be more nearly realised in community than anywhere else.” This idealisation, this empty aspiration to community is an aspiration to a kind of connectedness that “transcends the mundane and concrete tangle of social relations”.[41] But, rather than seeking this transcendence to an idealised realm of community, it is at the level of reality (where the muddle of relations and differences of power and status, discrimination and inequality operate) that we need to become active if we are to develop processes and politics that really construct active and progressive ways of living together.

The nostalgia for past communities does tell us much about our own attitudes to the past and the future. “The past is more comfortable, or there is a strong tendency to create it as more cosy than it was. At the risk of being equally one-sided, it was a harsh and parochial world that we are well rid of, except of course, we are not sure that anything better has replaced it.”[42]

Whereas the experience in imagined or pre-industrialised “communities” may appear (to our nostalgic eyes) as cohesive and stable, certainly in many C21st inner urban areas this is far from the case. In terms of spatial location, community in the context of the contemporary urban environment is at the idealised end of the spectrum set out below:

GOOD ↔↔↔↔↔↔↔↔↔↔↔↔↔↔↔↔↔↔↔↔↔↔↔ BAD

Community ↔ Neighbourhood ↔ Locality ↔ Territory

Here community can be seen as an ideal form of neighbourhood which itself carries strong connotations that the space or area is at least capable of “neighbourliness”. Locality is a neutral term and territory has a distinctly negative connotation of defensiveness. Territory is what armies and gangs (or indeed animals) inhabit and defend. As Frazer puts it “we are better off theoretically speaking, with locality than with community – for there is in this concept no suggestion that a single or any particular set of values, norms, preferred social identities, patterns of relations or tastes is privileged. Within the framework of social justice , the needs of existing users (residents, workers, visitors) in a place would all have to be considered.”

As we have seen, the problem for communitarians is that their central notion of commitment, shared values etc. as definitive of community fails to identify only forms of association that are good or “communal”. Commitment can lead to destructive, exclusionary or communalist forms of association as well as those they approve of (to which they want to append the term “community”). For gang members of course, their territory or “manor” fulfils all of the roles of community that the communitarians see as defining what is good about community – commitment, mutuality, solidarity, self-empowerment, strengthening of feelings of self-identity and status etc.

Recent knife and gun murders in London have drawn our attention to so called “post-code” gangs where “it doesn’t matter what race you are, what religion you are; to join you just have to live in the right area. It’s all about territory”[43] The prevailing response to this defensive form of association is usually a despairing cry of “why has this started happening?”[44]. If we are so far away from a clear understanding our own “communities” it is surely no surprise that we don’t understand why our young people sometimes live out the desperate parody of community that is gang culture.

Community is a word which we commonly resort to when we can’t bear the real relations of alienation, inequality, fractiousness and complexity that confront us everyday in the urban environment. It is a largely ideal and imagined space that can be magically transformed by the “grammar” of the term into a realm of cosy and harmonious communion. The problem with imagined communities, however, is that we do not always watch who does the imagining.


I have argued that there are two forms of social analysis that are particularly prioritised or presumed by talk of community. The first is the traditional conservative picture of an organic and cohesive but authoritarian social order. The second is an old Labour and traditional socialist view of organic, unalienated and homogenous working class life. I have tried to show that both these approaches are not based on real relations of power and inequality and the real emancipation and empowerment that can arising from challenging these structures. Instead they both rely on an imagined or idealised nostalgia for some essential state of “community spirit” that somehow needs to be rediscovered or regenerated. This form of analysis tends to hide the real relations and conditions that are at work in the world rather helping us undertsnad them

There are two other possible forms of analysis on the left and the right. The first is that of the Thatcherite new right which believes that “there is no such thing as society” and whose elements of analysis are individuals, families and the state mediated only through market relationships. This social market approach gives little value to the ways in which people form associations and challenge the local and national state as a way of empowering and defining themselves through their activity other than those that are assumed to be derived from their existence as economic units. Here there is not only no society but very little community either.

There is another possibility – a more radical view which focuses on social movements and local and global challenges to existing structures of inequality, racism and other forms of discrimination. This notion of community needs to be understood more as a process of empowerment than as a passive state. It mirrors the activity of people and the social movements and associations that they generate to make sense of, improve and sustain their localities, and their economic, social and environmental circumstances. It tries to understand people as agents rather than merely as subjects.
To the extent that the term community can be used in furtherance of this last model then we may want to continue to use it. However we should remain vigilant of its power to express reactionary, nostalgic, quiescent and exclusionary forms of life and ways of living together. We must guard against its constant power to divert us from dealing with the real relations of power and inequality that so disfigure our world.
[1] From Raymond Williams’ “Keywords: a vocabulary of Culture and Society 1976”. I think a possible candidate for an opposing term to “community” could be Durkheim’s use of the ancient Greek phrase “anomie” - a state of alienation or social instability caused by an erosion of standards or values.
[2] Interestingly, Raymond Williams notes that the word can also mean “the commons or common people, as distinguished from those of rank”(Keywords)
[3] The Problems of Communitarian Politics, Oxford 1999
[4] Elizabeth Frazer
[5] There is an important parallel here with Puttnam’s distinction between bonding and bridging social capital which I will argue later is itself so imbued with a nostalgic and idealised sense of community that it is frequently useless and/or dangerous. Nevertheless in terms of this perspective “communalist” social groups are clearly inward looking with high degrees of “bonding” capital and “communal” groups have a high degree of “bridging” and “linking” social capital.
[6] Crow and Allan, Community Life, A.P.Cohen , The Symbolic Construction of Community
[7] Jeffrey Weeks ‘The idea of a sexual community’ 1995 (quoted in Elizabeth Frazer, ibid)

[9] Elizabeth Frazer, ibid, p. 84
[10] Elizabeth Frazer, ibid p.82
[11] Raymond Williams, ibid.
[12] Indeed significant parts of New Labour are now leading the attack on the Human Rights Act that it itself introduced in one of its few radical moments
[13] December 15th 2007
[14] Alan Hudson makes this point eloquently in his discussion of the New East Enders study which I refer to in detail later in this paper: His word for this exoticisation of the working class community in East London is “culturalisation”: “When I read the descriptions of white working class life….. I hear the awed whispers of a naturalist describing the patterns of life and the habitat of a favourite animal species: ‘See how the mum entrusts the care of her young to the next female in line as she prepares for the trip to the laundrette’….…. – the inimitable voice of David Attenborough….. The circumstances, outlook and habits of a historically specific and ephemeral working class become not only cultural norms but also cultural and ahistorical absolutes”
[15] An interesting sense of “place” which can imply both geographic space (ghetto) or position in a hierarchy of status or power.
[16] Wiktionary defines this sense of the term as: A person who allows a guest, particularly into the host's home
[17] Wiktionary defines this sense of host as: A cell or organism in which a virus replicates.
[18] Encyclopedia of Contemporary American Culture, Ed. McDonogh, Gregg & Wong, Routledge 2001
[19] Alan Hudson in his critique of the New East End says that the objects of its study (the white working class community) “are passive beneath the concerned, investigative gaze of the observer. But the observed are soon to vanish from history and we are asked to be sorrowful for them as victims and then become nostalgic for that which is lost”
[20] Even that old stalwart of Empiricist philosophy John Locke saw the world clearer than this in 1690: “The only way by which anyone divests himself of his natural liberty and puts on the bonds of civil society is by agreeing with other men to join and unite into a community” (2nd Treatise of civil government). Community is thus seen as relying on an associative process rather than a preordained state.
[21] This vision of the perfect community (England) could not have been expressed better than in John Major’s nostalgia for a world of “long shadows on county grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers and - as George Orwell said 'old maids bicycling to holy communion through the morning mist'.” (John Major’s speech on St George’s Day 1993)
[22] Elizabeth Frazer is surely right when she concludes that “the aspiration to community is an aspiration to a kind of connectedness that transcends the mundane and concrete tangle of social relations” indeed she draws comparison to use of the religious term “communion”
[23] “The rich man in his castle
The poor man at his gate,
God made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate”
(from the hymn “All things Bright and Beautiful” by Cecil Alexander, 1848)
[24] Indeed some of the interviews were completed well over 10-15 years before the publication of the book – a point which Alan Hudson makes as explicit criticism.
[25] In contrast to this view there are a number of studies showing how much positive social capital there still is in areas of high diversity in London
[26] Guardian, February 13th 2006
[27] Actually rather than resembling the BBC series “East Enders” or the Radio 4 series “The Archers” what this perspective really does remind me of is Alf Garnett’s character in “Till Death Us Do Part” for those of us old enough to remember it – somethings never change!
[28] Quoted in New Myths of the East End, by Chris Jones Socialist Review April 2006
[29] Jennifer Platt’s devastating critique (1971) is the most cogent of these. She concluded that Willmott and Young sentimentalised poor working class life. For the two middle class researchers “the quaintness and exotic unfamiliarity of the subjects of their research throws a glamour over behaviour patterns which might otherwise be regarded as constituting a social problem”
[30] Rising East Online May 2006
[31] This is hardly surprising if – as Alan Hudson notes – so many of the interviews were conducted 10-15 years ago
[32] A summary of the research published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation 1999
[33] East Enders: family and community in east London, 2003
[34] This notion stems from Robert Putnam’s theory of social capital. He makes a spurious and essentialist distinction between “bonding capital” (when people interact within their own ethnic group or “community”) and “bridging capital” (when people interact with groups outside their own community)
[35] Frazer p 173-4. She points out that for communitarians, “families are, ideally at least communities, and conversely the idea of community is analysed as ‘family writ large’”
[36] Not even that well disguised if the recent disgraceful remarks of the Bishop of Rochester, Michael Nazir-Ali in the Sunday Telegraph (6/1/08) are anything to go by. The Bishop asserts that Muslims have created no go areas for non-muslims. A previous article by the Bishop (also in the Telegraph 15/8/06) claimed that “multiculturalism is to blame for perverting young Muslims”
[37] Jenny Bourne in her defence of multiculturalism (IRR Feb 2007) sees community cohesion as: “the idea that the nation somehow had a deficit of glue, which would have to be artificially manufactured and injected into British institutions.”
[38] Elizabeth Frazer, ibid
[39] Amitai Etzioni, “The Spirit of Community: Rights, Responsibilities and the Communitarian Agenda” 1993
[40] Though I have heard the term “pensioner community” occasionally – whatever this means
[41] Elizabeth Frazer “The problems of Communitarian Politics” p.71
[42] Alan Hudson, Whitechapel Road Revisited, Rising East May 2006
[43] Observer newspaper 30/12/07 “Stabbed to death at 16 – a victim of the teen gangs’ postcode lottery” by Caroline Davies and Jamie Doward.
[44] Even a brief reading of Oliver Twist or a glance at Hogarth’s cartoons of Beer Street and Gin Lane should convince us that there is little that is inherently new about forms of social behaviour that the tabloids often see as proof positive of the breakdown of community since the 1960’s. Gang culture and binge drinking have been a part of our culture for much longer than this.