Sunday, December 13, 2009

Community Philosophy?

The distinguished philosopher of language J.L.Austin remarked that “words are not …… facts or things: we need therefore to prise them off the world, to hold them apart from and against it, so that we can realise their inadequacies and arbitrariness, and can relook at the world without blinkers” (Papers 182). If ever there was a word that this statement is true of it is the word “community”. The concept of community is used almost ubiquitously in all areas of social policy as if by its very use alone, we are saying something true and good about the world. Using Austin’s theories of speech acts and perlocutionary utterances to analyse common uses of the term community shows up many fruitful ways of analysing the concept and confirms many of the concerns about both its ubiquity and its confusedness which I have expressed elsewhere in this blog.

In Austin’s view, language is not merely a passive way of describing or picturing a given reality, but rather a particular practice that invents and affects those realities. The words we use need to be seen as containing not just descriptive or propositional content (which can be either true or false) but also other elements designed to signify different types of activity and to affect and influence the listener. In his famous book How to do Things with Words, Austin outlined his theory of speech acts and the notion of performative language - in which to say something is to do something. He concludes that most utterances are actually performative rather than propositional in nature. When people say or write things like ‘I promise that x’ or ‘I now pronounce you man and wife’ they are not attempting to describe the world let alone make true or false statements about it. They are in fact creating new social realities within a defined social context. In the first case by promising something and in the second case by carrying out the action of marrying two people. According to Austin, once “we realise that what we have to study is not the sentence but the issuing of an utterance in a speech situation, there can hardly be any longer a possibility of not seeing that stating is performing an act” (139)

So what are we doing when we use the term community so promiscuously? In 1955 Hillery identified at least 94 different definitions of the term community in the literature over the previous sixty years. He then attempted to distil these down and concluded that four common components occurred in 69 of these cases: people, common ties, social interaction and place and that the only component common to all 94 was people. Other more recent commentators and researchers (Hamman 2000; Poplin 1979) have also tried to desperately shoehorn all possible definitions of the term community back into these four core components.

Community Capers (an “online community” concerned with “community building”) thinks that this performance will allow us to “get a snapshot of community that might be used to begin recognising it” ( Having conjured up this trick (ask the question you want so as to get the answer that you want), Community Capers then spends significant time and effort trying to define the term “virtual community” – which one might have thought veered towards being oxymoronic given their previous prioritisation of people, common ties, social interaction and place. Many paragraphs are then spent discussing how you might tell when online activity could be seen to have become a "proper virtual community". Howard Rheingold, the man who coined the term "virtual community" (and later suggested that that might have been a mistake!) offered in his book, The Virtual Community, the following definition "Virtual communities are social aggregations that emerge from the Net when enough people carry on those public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace." From a philosophical point of view this definition is complete rubbish. The definition has at its heart a hidden circularity: What makes these discussions "long enough"? What is this "sufficient human feeling" and how much of it do you really need? The answer is that this is what "community" does! In seeking to define one highly nebulous concept (the community bit not the virtual bit) he just substitutes a whole line of even more indefinable and unquantifiable concepts and thinks he has done something useful.

Community Capers’ attempts to set out a similarly strange kind of reductive definition ("it's about people") is blown apart just by looking at the first paragraph of Wikipedia’s current definition of the term community: "In biological terms, a community is a group of interacting organisms sharing an environment". Well it is clear that however these organisms may be interacting and sharing their environment they are not necessarily people. The word has already escaped from the clutches of the defining characteristic (people) that was supposed to have given it its meaning. This is what the concept of community does - like other words of power it is constantly shapeshifting! Community Capers' whole approach is redolent of the old argument (connected with the problems of inductive logic and falsifiability) that “all swans are white” (well they were until a black species of swan was discovered in Australasia!)

The trouble with the word "community" is that it can be applied like whitewash across so many areas of human activity that it is constantly over-reaching any attempt to give it a finite and final definition. The only question then is: why do so many people waste so much time trying to find an essentialist or reductionist denotation of community – “a snapshot so that we can recognise it again”? The only sensible approach is to look at the way the term is actually used. We can do this by looking at the way in which the word is used in the “language games” where it frequently occurs, rather than seeking its meaning by trying to find the thing out there that it pretends to refer to. We are then more likely to consider asking interesting and useful questions of particular uses of the term such as:
‘is this way of using the word community helpful?’
‘does it actually explain or help us explore social reality in the way we hoped (or does it merely confuse us even more then we were before)?’
‘What ideological and perlocutionary effects does this use of the term have in this particular context?’
‘why do we want to use the term “community” here, rather than another less emotive and ideological concepts like “locality”, “social group”, etc.’

In short we will be in charge of our usage of the term rather than it fooling and befuddling us into thinking that we are saying something more than we actually are.

The problem is that the use of the term community shares many characteristics with those other difficult and powerful human ideas such as “God” and “Love”. There is something inherently indefinable about these terms – indeed it is this characteristic that gives them their power - and the term “community” is no different in this respect. This is because (to use Austin’s approach) these words are not primarily descriptive (even if their grammar makes it look as though they are) but actually performative. They are usually used consciously or unconsciously to do something perlocutionary, to achieve an effect, intended or not, that is achieved in the listener by the speaker’s utterance of the word – to sanctify, to reassure, to persuade, to inspire etc. In short the use of the term is used successfully (Austin calls this a “felicitous” use) not when it describes something but when it achieves an appropriate psychological or even ideological effect – some object is sanctified, someone is reassured or persuaded or inspired etc.

Lets go back to JL Austin here: “Why should it not be the whole function of a word to denote many things?" (Austin papers 38). Quite so – and this is definitely true of “community”. However I suspect that the 94 different definitions or uses of the term community are rather more than even JL Austin would have countenanced (leaving alone those newer definitions that have surfaced more recently or were left out of the original search). This is because we are barking up the wrong tree. What we need to do is to analyse how and why the word “community” is used (or abused) in certain real contexts to convey powerful feelings about the world (and to try to get others to share them). Instead we prefer to pretend that by including the term community in a sentence we are actually adding something propositional that can be true or false. We use the word community to sanctify our talk about various aspects of society. The grammar of the word makes it look as though it contributes a weighty, scientific, descriptive content to the sentences in which we use it. In fact there is usally nothing in reality that actually corresponds to this. For example consider the difference between the two sentences:

The community in St Albans is against the building of a new Tesco superstore
People in St Albans are against the building of a new Tesco superstore

Why is there always a tendency, especially in campaign or political literature to use the first formulation rather than the second one? The answer is that the “grammar” of the term community makes it sound as though we are saying something general, unanimous and absolute rather than piece meal and particular. Unlike the first sentence, the second feels more tentative and less absolute – the residents, the people, may not all agree and we could go and ask a number of them. The “grammar” of the sentence makes us want to ask the question: “Is it most residents or all of the residents?” How does one actually ask “the community”? (We can only ask people) The first sentence carries with it the presupposition that there is some superordinate thing called a community in St Albans that is greater than and somehow different from (or “above”) the people who actually live there.

Central to my argument then is that we are allowing ourselves to be bamboozled and browbeaten by our own confused use of the term community. We think that by using it we are actually describing something important in the real world. In fact what we are doing is using language to do something which we are usually unaware of – to convey powerful ideological views of the world which are more about how we want it to be rather than how it really is. We have confused words for the World. We have managed to fool ourselves with our own conjuring trick.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Red Tories - Tall Stories

Recently there have been some weird new philosophical rumblings emanating from a group that have been dubbed “Red Tories”. This is the group that has been behind David Cameron’s oxymoronic declaration that what we need is “a small state but a big society”. An analysis of their arguments shows why the ubiquitous use of “community” as the primary and central (but ultimately unanalysed) explanatory concept can be so dangerous. As John Harris points out: “Red Toryism boils down to a slightly utopian belief in the revival of community spirit”. Yet again the nostalgia for “community spirit” raises its head as a kind of undefinable but utopian end-in-itself. The leading exponent of Red Toryism, Philip Blond, sees himself as providing a critique of modern secularism as well as the modern state. He writes in praise of the “medieval network of a predominantly horizontal communal and social order, exemplified by the church but also including guilds and agrarian communities organised around differential property relationships”. Sadly, he believes, this ideal condition of society was destroyed by the rise of powerful monarchs and states. Another way of characterising his beliefs would be: “In Praise of Feudalism” or (as the Independent 25/11/09) notes: “Back to the Middle Ages”. This is nostalgia taken much too far!

Blond believes that Labour’s post war welfare state destroyed the key components of working class “community cohesion” or mutualism – cooperatives, guilds, friendly societies etc. He believes that a fatal concoction of the permissive society and Thatcherism then took this process of atomisation even further, resulting in the “broken Britain” that the Tories love to trumpet at every opportunity (whilst they are still in opposition). His “radical communitarian traditionalist conservatism” thus rails against both the state and market monopolies: “Monopoly capitalism needs the state to disempower ordinary people’s institutions and lives……..We are creating an oligarchical elite structure where moneyed elites, the elites of industry cohabit with political elites and they move in each other’s regimes and spaces. So we have now produced what I would call a market state, and the market state really just exists for the benefit of those at the top”

It is impossible not to have some sympathy with his notion that individualistic capitalism is a central part of the problem. Thatcherism did smash up much of the working class social solidarity that she hated so fervently as the “enemy within”. However Blond’s argument presupposes that it is “both the unlimited state and the unrestrained market that have destroyed civil society”. But there is no evidence that civil society has been destroyed even if some parts of it have been under attack from both new Labour and Thatcherism before it. Civil society in Britain is a much more resilient animal then he tries to pretend. Indeed some have pointed out that it is probably more developed here in the UK than almost anywhere else in the world. Arguably under New Labour the state has shrunk considerably as large sections of it have been privatised or “voluntarised” by the growing encroachment of charities and social enterprises (which are usually understood to be a core part of civil society). The notion that the state has been “unlimited” is quite bizarre and sounds as though he believes we live in some kind of Stalinist state. The real issue is surely that the state has never been used to the full extent of its capacity to alleviate poverty or deliver opportunity. More egalitarian Scandinavian societies have made much greater attempts to redistribute wealth through direct taxation and these have been at least partly successful in bringing down levels of inequality. Surely he would not accuse societies like Sweden of being totalitarian?

Blond’s reification (even fetishisation) of community is perhaps preferable to the small state Thatcherite individualism that George Osborne seems to favour. However, it will never provide an answer to the real issues of power, poverty and inequality that are the actual causes of social breakdown. Attempts to bring in (or bring back) a world characterised by radical localism and community self-help are a classic case of mistaking a set of tactics (albeit sometimes useful ones) for an overall strategy. Such a “community centred” approach can only make any sense within a strong but flexible state system which has the power to regulate and redistribute – something which of course the Tories claim to hate. If there is to be only a shrunken and powerless state; if there are to be no effective overarching ties of social solidarity and common purpose beyond these localities, then we are back again at that old Thatcherite notion that “there is no such thing as society” by a different route. Instead of empowering localities, neighbourhoods or even “communities” within our most deprived cities, we would be setting up warring ghettos, left to 'stew in their own juice'. We would end up with a kind of medieval war between the cities and the countryside allied with a parochialism and communalism that really did characterise the worst of the Middle Ages.

Unacknowledged nostalgia can be a fatal component in bad social planning. This is another case where it is worth 'being careful what you wish for'. The notion of localism can so easily descend into parochialism just as community can descend into communalism – a war of tribe against tribe or even all against all. Only active and viable state institutions (in partnership with civil society) can provide a counterbalance and check on this tendency as well as providing the kind of material and monetary support for some of the most deprived neighbourhoods – without which they would collapse in ways that could bring everything else down with them. Parts of the US are already in this kind of catastrophic tailspin. Blond’s good intentions (if such they are) would only make this hell more likely to happen here in the UK. Only the state is able to regulate and redistribute resources away from the richest to some of the poorest areas. Without such strategic intervention a very different and even more dangerous atomisation would break out between different neighbourhoods or localities setting those with less resources in direct competition with each other as well as the richer ones. In this sense Blond’s approach is akin to a kind of communitarian anarchism.

It is no surprise that the key arguments underpinning Blond’s Red Toryism are more theological than logical. He is an unusual convert from Catholicism to the Church of England and religion is at the root of all his political beliefs – including his opposition to abortion in all but extreme cases and his rather stuffy critique of permissiveness.

The Anglican notion of communion can often be seen as underlying the English concept of 'community' even if it is sometimes in heavy disguise. Behind the use of the term community one can often discern a slightly desperate nostalgic desire for a supposedly authentic Englishness that has disappeared forever. Thankfully, life in modern multicultural Britain can no longer be reduced to or understood as Anglican parishes operating as they did in Edwardian times – “the rich man at his portal, the poor man at his gate – this is the way God made them, each to his own estate”. Everyone knew his (sic) place in this classless society beloved of John Major: “ the country of long shadows on cricket 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'.”

This notion of community is a like a fetish – the original power of the institution has disappeared but the tired old symbol is still wheeled out on special occasions to throw a veneer of importance and numinosity over proceedings. This type of communitarianism is the philosophical equivalent of Morris dancing or ‘Scouting for Boys’. It is a way of avoiding the real issues of inequality, discrimination, class and exclusion that continue to scar our society. It is certainly not the kind of theoretical background on which one might base any sort of sensible social policy towards dealing with the serious issues that actually face us in the real world.

Thankfully Cameron is no more likely to be able to get his party to adopt this approach then Blair was able to carry into power the similarly dangerous “communitarianism” that surfaced at the same early stage of his political trajectory.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Cameron’s “Big Society” the next Big Lie

Now lets get this right. It is not the Big State that has made inequality worse (as David Cameron suggests in his creepy Guardian article today). Actually it was New Labour’s refusal to use the state to make any serious redistribution of wealth away from the rich to the less well off that effectively stymied equality and social mobility during its term of office. Any attempt by the Tories to try and cut the role of the State even further than New Labour managed will hugely increase inequalities. Selfishness and individualism did not start in 1997 (as Cameron seems to claim), rather it continued under New Labour after Thatcherism had comprehensively and deliberately blown most elements of social solidarity apart. In this sense Blairism was Thatcherism by other means - with no serious attempts to undermine status, privilege and ever growing income differentials. Sadly the few good things that they did do (minimum wage, tax credits etc.) they seemed almost embarrassed about.
Cameron’s suggestion that it is the overweening state that has promoted selfishness and individualism is simply laughable. The real culprit lies in the realm of the market not the State. For Cameron to cite “the Spirit Level” (which suggests that the fairest societies are the happiest) is either breathtaking cynicism or complete naivety.
Sadly, Labour’s time in office was also characterised by outrageous attacks on “the undeserving poor” - asylum seekers, migrants, welfare benefits claimants and council tenants. At times this looked more like a war on the poor rather than a war on poverty. It is Labour’s catastrophic failure in this respect that has allowed Cameron to make his audacious attack on them from the left. As the Guardian’s leader says, Cameron is putting forward “a bold argument with dangerous consequences”.
An incoming Cameron Government will be able to use the fashionable rhetoric of community to undermine the state (and society) even more than New Labour has managed. As Michael White observes, whilst this is not Thatcherism in full cry it is “a more emollient formula for promoting local and individual responsibility, private and voluntary sector activity and shrinking big government”
There is a desperate need for leaders in the voluntary sector to start a discussion about whether we want to carry on colluding with this process under an incoming Tory regime. Do we want to be merely a mechanism for further undermining the State? Do we want to be used as a smokescreen disguising huge cuts to public services with a thin veneer of voluntarism, community and philanthropy? Do we want to bid for every contract going – charities running prisons and asylum detention centres, voluntary groups forcing people with disabilities off benefits etc.? Are we really prepared to so easily forego our critical and campaigning missions to rush headlong into the market?
If we continue to collude in this process then what will happen to the people (“the communities”) we were actually set up to serve? As Kate Green of Child Poverty Action Group quite rightly says: “all of society has a responsibility to end child poverty and charities have a role to play in alleviating the pain of poverty, but only governments can redistribute to the poorest”

Friday, November 6, 2009

"certain communities" to be targeted for surveillance

The recent speech by Nu Labour insider Kim Howells was truly worrying. Using the term "certain communities" (we know who you are and where you live!), Howells was able to get away with a deeply racist and dangerous suggestion that "the Muslim Community" should be targeted for a far more intrusive level of surveillance at the same time as we should pull troops out of Afghanistan. Rather than being clear that he meant to target Muslims he was able to use the term "community" to disguise any such suggestion. In doing so he has taken the (ab)use of the term community to new ideological depths. The term community is dangerous because it can so easily be used - as here - to mean much more (or conversely, sometimes much less) than it might seem at first sight. As Rizwaan Sabir says in the Guardian: 'at a certain point, turning "certain communities" into terror suspects becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy'

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Polly Toynbee sums up the danger of community nostalgia

Near the beginning of her book "Hard Work: Life in Low Pay Britain" (published in 2003), Polly Toynbee describes the "Estate" that she lived on whilst writing the book:
"The only place to be was inside the safe familiar, private space of your own flat. That's how it felt; safe up here looking out, but with a desert down below to cross to get to the streets and the bus stops of the outside world. Estates are curious places, locking the poor out of sight, their housing not arranged in streets like everyone else's. These were once architects' little utopias, designer fantasies of the good comunity life, fatally turned inwards upon themselves instead of outwards to join the bustling world beyond, little Alcatrazes remote from the swirling urban streets outside".
There are few better descriptions of the many disasters of post War local authority planning than that these estates started off as "little utopias, designer fantasies of the good community life".
Here again, the way in which the concept of community has been used can be positively dangerous - whether in architecture, town planning, youth and social services, race relations or social policy.
Later on in the book she also has a go at social capital/community cohesion approaches to regeneration:
"This target for community involvement struck me as an impertinence. 75% of the people must feel involved in this community? How and Why? It is strange that it is always the people with fewest resources, struggling hardest against the odds who are the ones who are expected to galvanise themselves into heroic acts of citizenship .... there is a curiously Victorian notion that 'community' activity is a good of its own or at least that it is good for the poor on council estates".
As I have said elsewhere, noone is likely to accuse Tony or Cherie Blair in Millionaires Row in Mayfair of having "low social capital" because they haven't been round to borrow sugar from their neighbours.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

continuing community conundrums

In an otherwise excellent letter in today's Guardian, Veronica Ward comments on Deborah Orr's argument that inequalities of income complicate the picture of diversity. She uses the word "community" three times in the letter and each time it would make much more sense if she hadn't. Sadly the letter is a great example of how the self-important (and yet ultimately empty) term leads us astray and makes us think we are saying something much more meaningful than we actually are. The letter is worth quoting at length as it rightly sets out how appalling everyday representations of the working class have become:
"what is shocking is the lengths some communities will go to ensure they are cut off from communities not comfortably like theirs. In education, particularly, they ensure that their children do not meet their counterparts on lower incomes. This avoidance and stereotyping of large sections of our community .... is insidious and shocking". This is absolutely right - but why has she felt the need to use the c word not once but three times here? What does it add? It would have been just as clear if she had used the term "people" instead of the first two uses of the term "communities". This would at least make it clear that this self-segregation is both potentially an individual as well as a collective choice.
Had she used the term"society" rather than "community" it would have been clear that this is actually a societal problem rather than one "within sections of a community" (whatever that means)

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The language of community has gone on holiday

In his Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein notes that "Philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday". Our frequent (ab)use of the term "community" seems to me to be a case of language being on permanent vacation or even a kind of "gardening leave". We become bewitched by our own misuse of the language of community in ways that I have tried to describe in this blogspot. At one and the same time it is both "cosy" and unquestioned as well as actually being "distancing" and discriminatory. It sounds as though it is an uncomplicated concept that points to a real set of social relations when in fact it is the intellectual equivalent of blancmange. It conveys a special, even "unified and holy" state of affairs even when it is actually only being used to describe the people who live in a particular area or who share a common and often arbitrary characteristic (such as ethnic background, type of profession - "the business community", hobby - "the golfing community" or disability - the"deaf community"). It is often used where it literally doesn't exist "a gated community", a "virtual community", "the Islington community" etc. In these instances almost any other term is less mystificatory - why can't we just say "business people", "golfers", "deaf people", "Islington people" etc.?

Not surprisingly any attempt to construct a sensible social policy based on this woolly nonsense(especially around "cohesion" or "regeneration") is doomed to both failure and incoherence.

"Community" is neither cohesive or coherent. There is a sense in which the concept is highly "adhesive" - it sticks around and cannot be got rid of . Like a bad penny it keeps turning up. It has a sort of cloying desperation when it is used by politicians. It gets stuck in almost any inappropriate situation so that it ends up becoming oxymoronic or tautologous. It is abit like getting chewing gum in your hair - the more you try and get rid of it the more tangled it gets - best to chop it off!

Confucius was once asked how he would deal with a particular problem for the administration of his government and instead of replying at the level of social policy he called instead for a "rectification of names" - a clarification of the langauge used to describe the situation: "If language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant. If what is said is not what is meant, then what must be done remains undone. If this remains undone, morals and art (ie society) will deteriorate. If justice goes astray, the people will stand about in helpless confusion. Hence there must be no arbitrariness in what is said. This matters above all." (Analects 13.3).

Well Amen to that!

Lets try and avoid this dangerous and ideologically loaded concept of community where we can, rather than bring it into every possible conversation as if to bless and sanctify the proceedings. Otherwise we are going to keep spinning around like Alice:

"Then you should say what you mean" the March Hare went on.
"I do!", Alice hastily replied "at least I mean what I say - that's the same thing you know"
"Not the same a bit!" said the Hatter. "Why you might as well say that 'I see what I eat' is the same thing as 'Ieat what I see'!" (Lewis Carroll)

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Mobility and community

In an excellent article ( about the difference between a conservative and a social democratic concept of social mobility, Karen Buck MP says the following in her first paragraph:

"Beware of concepts that seem, superficially, to have politicial endorsement from across the politicial spectrum. There will be something about that concept that is slippery and hard to pin down. A few years ago the cry went up for "community". The word became the subject of endless seminars and thinktank reports, was talked about with great erudition by Amitai Etzioni and Robert Puttnam, was deemed to be the holy grail for society, and specifically as an object behind various regeneration schemes ('New Deal for Communities') and then - vanished! Where today , is the rigorous new thinking, the big money and the government programmes geared towards community building? Nowhere, and primarily because, the closer we got, the less we could define a common meaning, still less a shared approach to achieving it. Did we want communities of people 'like us', familiar with a shared culture and history? Did we mean something that bound together those very different cultures, values and lifestyles? Did we want more mobility? Or less? Did we not, perhaps, want women the traditional nurturers of family and neighbourhood, back in the home to carry on that now neglected task?"

This is absolutely right and is music to my ears! In particular she points to a growing feminist critique of the notion of community which hides a deeply reactionary view of women's role in society. She also hints at the fact that community can be used as a concept that inhibits mobility and the breaking down of inequalities. Because of course talk of community heads us off from talking about economic inequalities (class) and makes us think we are describing a static structure rather than a dynamic process that is open to change. Right on the money!

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Charity and punishment

It is extraordinary and deeply troubling that some charities are so desperate to enter the market that they are prepared to run prisons. (Charity and Punishment, Guardian 4/9/09). I fail to see how punishment and incarceration could ever be a viable charitable object – as Libby Brooks says this is “a troubling step too far”. Such a move distorts any sensible meaning of the term charity.
I have other concerns too. If there is no part of the public or private sector that charities might not consider operating in, then in effect their claim to special treatment as charities starts to disappear. Some of the advantages that charities have hitherto rightly enjoyed in terms of tax and gift aid then start to look like unfair distortions of the market. Why should some types of agency competing in this open market have such unfair advantages if actually they are following the money like everyone else? The whole rationale for such advantages start to disappear when charities are so keen to sacrifice their mission for the market. This starts to endanger the whole notion of charity status itself. This is why the Charity Commission must take a stand on this issue and I urge them to rule that incarceration and punishment that are core aspects of any bid to run prisons should not be subsidised by an organisation’s charitable status.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Irony is dead! - Blair says unrestrained riches are bad whilst sunning on a yacht

So according to Tony Blair "without God's Truth at its centre, no community can fulfil its potential." The pursuit of maximum short term profit without proper regard to the communal good is, he says "a mistake and leads to neither profit nor good". If this is so than just where was he when his Government were making it clear that they "had no problems with people getting filthy rich"? Why was his government presiding over a continuing deregulation of the banking sector that nearly led to economic meltdown?
With his family circumstances now almost a byword for acquisitiveness this is taking his recent Catholic conversion much to far. When he finally appears as a penniless mendicant in sackcloth and ashes we might just believe him. No, after Iraq, probably not even then!
Interestingly as part of this "analysis" he distinguishes two different senses of the word community: "one to distinguish it from government, to emphasise civil society ... the other is just to describe the general community of public opinion". Both of these attempts at definition are interesting but ultimately facile. The former because it shows how in his mind the discourse around "community" is deliberately posed as being against government and the state and can then be used as a stick to beat public provision - as part of a discourse that pushes privatisation and is prepared to use the "voluntary and community sector" as a smokescreen or accomplice in this process - classic New Labour.
The notion that public opinion is itself a community sucks any possible meaning out of the word that it ever claimed to have in the first place.
And here he is making this humble submission whilst holidaying on a millionare's yacht in the middle of the Mediterranean!

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Way down in the hole

Now I’ve heard it all! The Tories quoting the Wire as their authority in arguing that British society is “broken” is just fabulous. Just where has Chris Grayling been if he thinks that anywhere in the UK approximates to life (and death) in the projects in West Baltimore? He has of course missed the whole point of the show whose central point is that the so called “War on Drugs” is corrupting and defiling US inner cities from the top to the bottom. Sadly this is a thesis that the Tories are unlikely to put their name to. Actually the Wire is a more sensible metaphor for where the Tories might take us if/when they come to power. If they continue to push their selfish and privatised view of society on us and increase even further the gap between those who have and those who have not then something like the Hobbesian world of Baltimore with its war of all against all could come to pass. Lets keep this devil way down in the hole

Monday, August 3, 2009

Giles Fraser on this morning's Thought for the Day (Today Radio 4) commented on the Catholic church's rather silly condemnation of social networking sites like Facebook and My Space. He introduced an interesting distinction between what he called "thick" communities and "thin" communities. Noting that the type of community prioritised in the Church and government's thinking is "thick" community - highly homogenous and exclusive "congregations"- he explicitly compared these to a rural village communiuty with a pub and a church where the village worships together. He saw cities as places with a thinner notion of community but where a much wider and more diverse population could still fit in, find their place and feel at home. Quite rightly he highlighted the need for both types of interaction with virtual communities and social networking sites being vital as part of the thinner type of interaction especially for those who feel excluded or who seek to interact with others in ways that do not centre on geograhical space or "neighbourhood" but rather on other facets of people's identities.

Monday, June 15, 2009

As Libby Brooks said in last weeks Guardian (1/6/09): “It is hard to decide what to object to most in the draft welfare reform bill. Perhaps it should be the clause allowing for the abolition of the fundamental state safety net of income support, or the privatisation of back-to-work services that will benefit only shareholders. Maybe it's the requirement that single parents with children as young as three should be available for "work-related activity" or face sanctions, with the adequacy of childcare provision to be judged by a jobcentre adviser. Others might choose the piloting of "work for your benefits" schemes, which will undercut the minimum wage, offering as little as £1.73 an hour to claimants who have been unemployed for more than two years.”
Brooks is right that this is an appalling attack on what remains of the benefits system at precisely a time when there are less and less jobs to bully claimants into. One might have thought that the Labour Party would still have some residual pride in its creation of the welfare state. However its attacks on legal aid and welfare benefits betray New Labour as a very different kind of animal to the traditional Labour Party of the 20th Century. Now that the architect of the draft Bill, James Purnell, has left the Department of Work and Pensions under such unhappy circumstances, we might have hoped that his successor Yvette Cooper might find more useful things to do with her time. No such luck – there is really no difference between Blairites and Brownites in their shared desire to destroy (or reform as they tend to call it) key elements of the welfare state.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

So here we have Nick Griffin using the old nostalgia about community to bolster his racist arguments (interview with the Independent 14/6/09). More worrying still he happily quotes Kate Gavron's book the New East End in support of these views. This confirms my earlier arguments that this book with its nostalgic and communitarian perspective would do nothing but give ammunition for racists (see previous posts):
"Historically, in the 1970s I spent a lot of time in the old east end with the old community, and it was a wonderful place: poor, rough and ready but extraordinarily hospitable and really good people with an identity of their own, most of those people, some of them are still there, and according to that book, the new east end by Katy Gavron, there's an enormous amount of really bitter hostility in the old white east end towards mass immigration they don't even vote for us. They're so alienated by the process they simply don't bother".

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Yes the Poison Dwarf has gone! Hazel Blears the so-called "Minister for Communities" has resigned and with characteristic chutzpah has attempted to project her resignation as an attack on Brown rather than the abject and embarrassing reaction to her expenses involvement that it really is. She says that she wants to return to political activity and community work in the Salford area. God help the people of Salford who have enough problems as it is

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

With tomorrow's elections and the feared success for the BNP it is worth thinking about how we might really get to grips with the underlying causes of racism. New Labour has for far too long colluded with Migration Watch and the the Red Top newspapers to blame racist attitudes on immigrants or immigration (Blame the victim - it is always popular!). This is of course because they refuse to take the radical steps to attack poverty and inequality which are the real predictors of racist attitudes. The rise in racism and support for the BNP mirrors the degree to which the Labour party and the wider labour movement has neglected or even betrayed its base by promoting inequality at both extremes of the spectrum - rich and poor. In a brilliant letter to the Guardian in January (5/1/09) Professor Peter Latchford shows how the terms in which we talk about racism often set it out in ways that actually "perpetuate the divisions between groups of people." We tend to "focus on semantic niceties, rather than on the deep rooted fundamentals". The rest of his letter bears being quoted in full:
"We do know this: that being poor is a better predictor of negative attitudes to other groups - including other races - than is being white (or black, or Asian). We know that people who feel unable to influence things in their area are more likely to feel resentful towards people they see as being different from themselves. We know that people who live among, and have friends from, different backgrounds are more likely to feel that society is cohesive. There may well be an issue with the disempowered, isolated and impoverished white working class and their attitudes to immigration, race and integration. But the facts are clear: the cause of the issue is not whiteness, or even immigration - the real challenge to a cohesive society is disempowerment, isolation and impoverishment as experienced by any ethnic group.
To describe the issue as "white working class" may be a necessarily emotive media and political device, but it runs the risk of perpetuating one key myth: the myth that breakdowns in cohesion result principally from differences between races."

Not only is this bang on the money but notice he has said such an important thing without any recourse to the blancmange term "community". Whereas alot of the communitarians (Young, Putnam etc) who love nothing better than to blame the victim would have used the word community in at least two conflicting ways here: the geographical sense - for the "areas" in which people live and the population group ("backgrounds") that they are defined as coming from.

It is worth noting again that community is a word that is seldom used to describe middle class areas or population groups. It is usually used as a subtle way of "othering" particular groups. Frida Pinto the star of Slumdog Millionaires makes this quite clear when talking about her native Mumbai society. "We don't call them slums we call them communities" she says.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Paul Cotterill has drawn the following quote to my attention:
‘As a political term,community - like freedom, equality and democracy - tends to mean what politicians want it to mean. ‘The community’ is invoked like a muse, to provide political cover, to imply democratic legitimacy, and to sweeten the pill….For socialists, the lack of a clear meaning for the term community is more than semantic. The confusion creates a barrier to devising policies which are in line with our values.’
Very nicely put, but you might be suprised by whom. ……big drum roll……..
Yes,it’s Hazel Blears (2003) Communities in Control: Public services and local socialism (London; Fabian Society).
Thanks Paul!
So why has she and her Department come out with such unadulterated rubbish about "community cohesion" since this quote was written? As she says the terms provides political cover. The cover provided by the term is impossible for New Labour to resist as it allows them to get away with facile discussions that avoid any real challenge at the level of class or inequality. New Labour has become little more than the Mandelson view (which is little different from Thatcherism) that the political and other elites getting filthy rich at the top is a good thing and that any attempt to rein in their wealth is a threat to "enterprise" and thus to us all. This is rubbish as the recent book Spirit Level shows brilliantly.

I'm with Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai (Observer 30/5/09) on this one:
"the elites have become predators, self-serving and only turning to people when they need them. We can never all be equal, but we can ensure that we do not allow excessive poverty or wealth. Inequality breeds insecurity"

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Sandi Toksvig says it all

The writer and broadcaster, Sandi Toksvig who chaired a panel on Gay Icons was quoted in the Guardian (27/3/09) as saying of the "Gay community":
"I sometimes think we're joined together not by our sexuality but other people's reaction to it". As the Guardian put it: she conceded that she was representing a gay community that did not exist, in the same way a straight community did not exist.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Women Against Fundamentalism have yet again been well ahead of the game in their analysis of the dangers of religious and "faith" involvement in public services and "community cohesion". Their latest summary of the situation could not be bettered:

"In Britain, as elsewhere, there has been a rise in fundamentalism in all religions which has been encouraged by a growing move to define complex and diverse communities solely according to 'faith'. Public funds are increasingly being handed out to religious bodies to provide services to 'their' communities on behalf of local and central government. WAF believes that this increases the power of religious leaders - often self-appointed - to discriminate against women and other groups and to exclude or silence dissidents within their own communities.Women Against Fundamentalism believes that public funds must be administered by accountable, democratically elected representatives and not by religious leaders, self-appointed or otherwise"

The toxic combination of religious orthodoxy and the confused use of the terms "community" and "culture" actually serve to head off and control elements within these population groups who are seen as dissident or difficult. In particular this means women (who might want to campaign against "cultural traditions" such as forced marriages, or honour killings) and sexual and political minorities. WAF traces this approach back to the colonial era:

"In the colonial situation, as in British multiculturalism today, the views of self appointed religious leaders were taken as 'authentic' and appropriate to all sections of the communities they claimed to represent"
For a brilliant analysis of how British colonialism managed to control the restless people's in its African colonies, Michela Wrong's brilliant new book "It's Our Turn to Eat" is a revelation.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Faith Communities often the problem not the solution

Why is it that New Labour and the Trevor Phillips of this world have got away with the amazing con trick of insisting that Faith and religion are issues that need to be treated the same way as other variables such as gender, class, race, sexual orientation, disability etc? At first sight this looks like it makes sense - after all one can be discriminated against for one's religion just as one can be for these other factors. We know this from Islamophobia and anti-semitism. The problem is that by insisting that Faith Communities should be at the heart of all generic equalities work we are endangering the whole enterprise. The new Commission for Equalities and Human Rights was launched in 2006 under the "leadership" of Trevor Phillips. This body claims to be an organisation "promoting equality issues across the full raft of ethnic, gender, sexual-orientation, disability and other minority interests". Under Clever Trevor this has resulted in equalities work challenging forms of discrimination being forced together with the so-called "Faith Communities". These so-called "Faith communities" are often the most resistant of any section of society to the most basic notions of equality, diversity, women's, LGBT and other minority rights. In fact this is a joke on a massive scale that serves to totally undermine the best of equalities work and involve us all in constant rearguard actions against some of the most obscurantist, fundamentalist and prejudiced individuals and belief systems on the planet!
If religious groups want to organise across their differences and campaign as such that's fine - but they shouldn't be encouraged to infect the rest of the equalities world with their appeals to their Gods or their Holy Books. These usually make a mockery of the one set of standards that can unite us in this diverse and muddled world - the notion of Human Rights as enshrined in the Universal Declaration.
Nu Labour - Nu Verbiage

Rather than really challenging the many inequalities and the different forms of racism and discrimination that abound in our society, New Labour merely prefers to change the words we are allowed to use to describe them. It wouldn't be so bad if this was just seen by them as the cheap verbal conjuring trick that it is, what's worse is that they manage to con themselves into thinking that by changing the word they have somehow changed the world. I have pointed out elsewhere in this blog how they will use phrases like "social exclusion" so as to avoid having to talk about poverty, "community cohesion" so as to avoid talking about class and discrimination. I have shown in some detail how they use fuzzy but feel good terms like "Community" so as to avoid having to confront the real relations, the real tensions and the real inequalities that scar our society.
Doreen Lawrence points out beautifully today (Guardian "Police failing us still") how Government and the Police have started using the term "diversity" so as to avoid having to talk about race and racism and thus confronting their own complacency on the issue. As she says: "Race is just wiped out of all the vocabulary, they use the word diversity, they seem to be more comfortable with it. I would not say they have given up caring about race, I just feel they believe they have addressed it" . She has rightly identified classic New Labour doublespeak in action!

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Now this is what I might be happy to call "community":

'I am a Woman in Black in Israel...'
Yvonne Deutsch writes
Dear all,
I saw this morning pictures of children from what the sender called 'Gaza Concentration Camp'.

This horror, this cruelty is done in my name, a Jewish Israeli woman living in West Jerusalem.
Israel's crime against humanity in Gaza is done in my name, a feminist peace activist.
These killings are done in the name of my loved ones.
This suffering is caused in the name of my community.
This crime against Palestinian children, women and men in Gaza is done in my name.
I feel deep shame.
I feel pain.
I mourn.
I feel rage.
I feel helplessness.
I am part of an activist community.
My community is active everyday to stop this bloodshed.
My community is active against the occupation for long years My community is active for a just solution to the Israeli Palestinian conflict My community acts in solidarity with the Palestinian people My community acknowledges that Palestinian people aspire to live in peace
My community is aware of the violent results of the occupation and the poverty and despair it brings.
My community is cooperating with Palestinians around ecological and economic empowerment projects
My community is active against racism My community is active against poverty and for social justice within Israel My community is active for women's rights
My community is active for solidarity among women My community is Jewish - Palestinian
My community is old and young
My community is active for human rights of the Palestinians My community is active for their economic, social, civil and political rights
My community acknowledges that our own security and well being is connected to the well being of Palestinians and their security and prosperity
My community is active against violence and war.
My community refuses to take part in war and the occupation
My community is active for justice, prosperity, ecological awareness and peace
My community is part of a global feminist peace political movement that links between war and violence against women and sees in them a base of patriarchy.
My community is active to stop bloodshed and cruelty in the service of super powers that combine militaristic, fundamentalist, capitalist and nationalist structures
My community is made of many close and far circles of activism and knowledge
My community is diverse, varied and rich in its colors
My community is of women, men and multi gendered
My community is hetero, lesbian, gay, bi, queer and transgender
My community is local
My community is global

I am a Woman in Black in Israel
The Israeli government is committing crimes against humanity in Gaza.
I feel shame.
I feel rage.
I feel helplessness
We did not stop the evil
We continue to protest in the streets everyday, to appeal to decision makers, to widespread the information, to sign petitions, to send humanitarian aid, to do direct actions, to write letters and distribute leaflets
In the south of Israel where they suffer of counter violence of rockets there are also voices for peace
Our voices are not heard
Our clear and loud voices are silenced
Our voices do not reach our sisters and brothers in Palestine
Our voices do not stop the fire and destruction
We will continue to act and hope.
We will continue to cross imposed patriarchal walls, borders and ghettos
We will continue to hear the cry of Gaza
We will continue to hear the cry of the West Bank
We will also listen to the cry of women and children in Congo, North Uganda, South Sudan, Columbia, Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere
The suffering everywhere is connected and part of the same patriarchal political culture
We are saying out loud NOT IN OUR NAME
We refuse to be enemies
We refuse to take part in oppressive relationships
We will continue to oppose war and militarism
We will continue to create a culture of non violence, justice and peace
We will continue to serve humanity
May we learn and teach that all is one
May we learn and teach that one is all
May we find transformation, justice and healing
May we all live in Peace
May we all live in Joy.
YvonneJerusalem, 8 January 2009

Thanks to Jews for Justice for Palestinians for this

Saturday, January 31, 2009

A virtuous "virtual community"?

I have just started using facebook (or is it using me!) and I admit it is quite addictive - though I wouldn't go so far as to say it is actually a digital or virtual "community". During the recent Israeli attack on Gaza I have started seeing what a powerful campaigning tool it can be. In this respect those of us who tried to campaign against Israeli war crimes on line were almost killed in the rush by thousands of zionist bloggers. Every comment spot was mobbed by hundreds of their volunteers coordinated by GIYUS (Give Israel Your Uncritical Support) a website that directs volunteer bloggers (and it is rumoured) some paid staff towards any Robert Fisk article, Guardian comment spot, independent blog site, BBC discussion forum etc. They organise mass complaints about particular TV or radio programme where any hint of unsupportive coverage raises its head. It is worth going to some of their websites to see how amazingly well organised they are. One of the delights of facebook is that although it is quite open and transparent it is possible to use it to bring together like minded people away from the zionist mob to share views and campaigning news and contacts quickly. The newly launched Friends of Jews for Justice for Palestinians could become a really useful tool if more of us use it regularly. Spiderednews has made key campaign materials available at the touch of a button including unbelievable video coverage of a pro-Israeli demonstration in New York at which zionist demonstrators were calling for Palestinians and other arabs to be wiped out - the zionist final solution to the Palestinian problem. On line petitions and appeals always feel abit irrelevant compared to more active involvement but in fact they are a vital way of starting to mobilise and change opinion. The zionists take them extremely seriously and we must ensure that they don't continue to completely dominate this terrain.

Lets share ideas, views and tactics as to how we can even now start to progress in the vital cyberwars for popular opinion.

Friday, January 2, 2009

In brief then, the problem with the term "community" as it is often used, is that people appeal to it as an absolute, as an end in itself, as a final justification or an answer to the question "why am I doing this?" or "why should I do this?" (answer :"for the community"). It is this totalising and final sense of the term community that is so dangerous as it allows us to avoid confronting the real struggles that go on in communities and lulls us into a false sense of security - a sense in which we feel we have actually answered a question by using the term rather than merely posed one. Communities can be bad as well as good. They are often non-existent: a "gated community", "the host community", " the ethnic minority community" are good examples of the oxymoronic use of the term.

We need to do some elementary house keeping on our use of such language in this area otherwise we will be beguiled by the dubious ideologies that lie behind many uses of the term - instead of being in charge of and responsible for what we actually mean we will actually mean nothing at all.