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ignoring the RUSI report - the highest level of intellectual respect it deserves – she merely argues that the report is out of date and that the Government has already “fundamentally altered” its approach and asked local authorities to do the same.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 http://communityconfusions.blogspot.com/ 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: http://www.communities.gov.uk/corporate/publications/consultations/

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 http://communityconfusions.blogspot.com/ )

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 [mailto:simon.vincent@barnardos.org.uk] 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