Was just re-reading my old article on the history of neighbourhoods in England for the Young Foundation's inaugural Porcupines in Winter collection.
In brief: tradition and institutions matter; openness and collective action matter even more.
Here are a few highlights --
Neighbourhoods have a lot to do with the ideal of organic community, but they should never be confused. Neighbourhood means something at once less nostalgic and more practical: living together in a particular place…
When change inevitably struck, Bethnal Green could not shape it, any more than the un-enfranchised English could prevent the eighteenth-century enclosure of the commons. The community was disassembled by slum clearances, people scattered into estates and high-rises without consideration for social ties. Mid-century Bethnal Green was acutely vulnerable. Lacking architectures for common purpose and action, it couldn’t organise to survive.
In this age of ‘BBC Neighbours from Hell’, we may feel we’ve lost the neighbourhood of the past. But we can’t just resurrect it. We have to find new seeds for neighbouring…
We can learn from our history. ‘Natural’ identity is a potent brew, in particular when organic community starts to fragment. By nature it shuts people out. But it is not the only starting point for togetherness in neighbourhoods.
Instead we can begin from the living realities. We can explore neighbourhood’s social patterns, the common threats and opportunities, the spaces where conflicts flare and accommodations are reached. Understanding and building on the common ways a neighbourhood shapes residents’ lives can provide practical grounds for coming together to transform it…
“Love thy neighbour as thyself” is followed in Leviticus by a less-remembered challenge, “love the stranger as thyself”. Are they so different today?
Revisiting Georg Simmel’s description of the stranger, I am struck by its relevance to contemporary neighbouring. Simmel finds the stranger not outside but within the local group. At once near and far, he is a “potential wanderer: although he has not moved on, he has not quite overcome the freedom of coming and going.”
The vital foundations of neighbourhood in today’s Britain are proximity and commonality. A more open kind of neighbourliness between people who begin as strangers can be hard – in particular should unfamiliar sights, smells and noise assail the senses. But it is starting to look increasingly relevant and viable. It involves recognising that alongside the friction of immediate proximity, we share with our neighbours something absolute and human and something locally common. (Often also something small and surprising: a love of geraniums, a TV soap, high blood pressure.)
When the possibilities of commonness stretch to the horizon, the emerging human way of coping is to identify and affirm a handful of those possibilities. The choice of neighbouring proves both appealing and practical.
About two-thirds of us say we feel a real sense of belonging to our neighbourhood, meaning also that we owe something of ourselves to it. A similar majority say they want to participate in making their locality better.
Community can be built afresh, as this testimony about Telegraph Hill indicates: “I love it here. I had a rootless childhood, and I love the very strong sense of community that the children have. It’s like a village in the centre of London, it has that kind of support system.” (I live there now. It's true.)
Almost forty years ago, researchers described Sparkbrook in Birmingham as a twilight zone. But in Balsall Heath (one of its ethnically diverse neighbourhoods and for long a prostitution hotspot), campaigning, mutual aid and governance have built common norms and institutions over two decades. Through neighbourhood wardens, community gardening, volunteer street-cleaning and reopening the front desk of the local ’nick’, people are starting to take responsibility for their proximity. (I saw it for myself. Extraordinary.)
As we start to explore our interconnectedness, a kind of "individual solidarity" may be emerging - a far side of individualism, with real strengths in comparison with the past. "You asking me what I think of Bethnal Green is like asking a countryman what he thinks of the country... I suppose when you've always lived here you like it," said one Family and Kinship interviewee.
Today we may be less rooted in our neighbourhoods; but like Simmel’s stranger, we are more inclined to query. Residents praised the Walsall neighbourhood offices because they “started people asking questions”.
Rather than organic communities tied together in a ‘small corporate life’, we can aspire toward welcoming neighbourhoods home to a kaleidoscope of individuals and groups, each with the opportunity to come together and shape what they share for the better.
In neighbourhood two exciting possibilities are writ small: peaceful co-existence, and systems of public authority that are genuinely public, meaning swift and effective response to the hopes and interests of society. We find ourselves on the first rung of a long ladder. Recognising what they have in common, neighbourhoods can live together in a neighbourly fashion. Nations live in neighbourhoods too, from border conflicts to cooperating regions.
Ideals of welcoming, mutual aid, respect and shared stewardship all have purchase on the global stage. But we can start by just sorting out the muddy local common.
Were the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia simply a consequence of the internet and its mysterious powers? Or was New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell right to argue, in a widely read piece, that today's networked activists are trivial and ineffective by comparison with the courageous sit-in organisers of the civil rights movement?
As someone who has spent much of the last decade harnessing the internet to organise networks and movements for change, I find myself taking these questions personally. But they also miss everything that is really interesting about the ferment of social change today.
What is really going on is much richer and more interesting. It has seismic implications for the organising models of NGOs and political parties – and even corporations and governments. It heralds both danger and promise for the future of global justice and human development.
In a time of turbulence, the lessons that a rising global generation of activists draw from recent events – and the movements they build – matter. Let's begin with some basic common sense.
First, social change is made by human beings, not by Silicon Valley. Anyone relying naively on technology is likely to find themselves isolated. The disciplines that matter most are timeless: spotting unmet needs or injustices, working with the social grain, and coming up with an effective, empowering and sustainable response.
On the other hand, by making new things possible, visible or attractive, technology has repeatedly inspired changes in how we organise our societies. It all depends what we do with it. Different things work in different contexts. The challenge is to learn, innovate and adapt, combining the experience of the past with the reality of the present and the promise of the future.
It was 2000. The beginning of a new millennium. The last flourish of the dozen-year interval after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
A transatlantic West was telling itself stories about a new world order. The dotcom boom was approaching its bust.
I was 25. Working as a strategist in a government agency, moonlighting with friends in dotcom incubators, playing with the design of online communities and networks. It was four years before the birth of Facebook.
That was when, at the suggestion of a friend, Anthony Barnett came to me with a proposal. “Power and Democracy”. An online magazine called PAD.
So I started talking to him about networks.
A year later, after what began to seem like an endless round of business plans, pitches and brainstorms, with the words “this will never work” ringing in our ears, we decided to launch openDemocracy anyway.
It was a lesson I will never forget. The best way to show people that the impossible is possible is by doing it.
There are three possible scenarios for the future of campaigning:
- The undertow of individualising social trends could slowly triumph over civil society organisation, leaving campaigning at best fragmented into marginalised interest groups.
- Existing institutions could be renewed through energy, innovation and collaboration, as has happened with some churches and with the Service Employees International Union over the last two decades in the USA and Canada.
- New civic mediating institutions could emerge and provide fresh roots for sustained campaigning.
In fact, all three scenarios are unfolding in parallel today. Human action through social dynamics will determine their ebb and flow, establishingwhich scenario is most prominent and when, where and how.
The undertow of social individualisation cannot be dismissed. On average across Europe,membership in trade unions and political parties has been dropping steeply while membership in voluntary organisations has also declined. This isparticularly the case for public issue organisations which are likely to engage in campaigning. Levels of religious affiliation are also declining overall in Europe, despite countertrends such as the rise of Islam.
There is evidence that the rise in campaigning is due disproportionately to the activities of the middle classes, and the organisational capacity of a socially excluded and disenchanted underclass may actually have been declining. Sentiments of global solidarity and local community provide only a weak countervailing force.
Although we have seen a boom in campaigning, its most prevalent practices from the late twentieth century to the present day have been celebrity-endorsed or media driven campaigning, professional efforts by organisations, and occasional massive and spectacular mobilisations of discontent. The overall effect may be extremely dangerous.
If social campaigning fades and fragments, it can risk degenerating into conflict and interest group politics, making it more easily dismissed or marginalised by centres of power in states and corporations, in turn breeding widespread dissatisfaction and hindering social progress. State and market institutions suffer too when their credibility and responsiveness are not renewed through social challenge and debate.
Civil society challenges the very power of the state by calling for the reallocation and re-distribution of resources (such as debt relief), or challenging attitudes and“received wisdoms”(for example wider social movements suchas feminism). The success of these campaigns will often find expression in legislative changes, even though a series of checks and balances exist in most democratic systems precisely to defend the state from such challenges and to uphold parliamentary democracy. As a result, tensions between the state and such movements have always arisen.
Furthermore, as the historical narrative shows, these tensions will always occur – mainly because the campaigning work of civil society is never done, due in part to the fact that democratic institutions will never be fully responsive to people’s needs.In short, the limitations of state democracy explain why we will always need the creative energies that are found at society’s political edge.The innovations described in this report in consensus-building, coalitions and network campaigning are of considerable interest, not only because they can accelerate the gathering and exercise of popular will on key issues of social concern, but also because they can help to consolidate it through lasting civic infrastructure.
Civil society organisations pioneered the consumerist model of campaigning. They may also play a crucial role in developing and implementing campaigns that centre more effectively on the needs and priorities of citizens and communities. Like other organisations, they will need to consider how to evolve to take advantage of these opportunities. Unless they do, their social position is far from assured.
Here's something I wrote in November 2006 for the journal of the Institute for Public Policy Research, in an edition about empowerment. It tells some of the story of the "double devolution" local government reform process in which I was involved, from a partial standpoint. Mostly a positive experience, but the difficulties we encountered struck me as just a symptom of a larger British malaise, and stimulated me to think a bit about how power actually begins from below, with us. As a wave of speculation rises about Gordon Brown's constitutional plans, I thought it was worth re-posting here.
(Blackwells appears to own all rights, but as the author I am allowed to post it with acknowledgement.) The most widely applicable excerpt follows - the rest is for the local democracy fiends...
In his party conference speech in autumn 2006, Gordon Brown said, “In the new century, people and communities should now take power from the state.” This was a remarkable statement, giving credence to the idea that this is a man who has been thinking hard about the alternative legacy of the 1906 Liberals and reopening the state. While David Cameron is playing in this space, Brown has been purposefully shaping it. But the direction of the rhetoric jars with the actual pattern of how Whitehall, Westminster and local authorities and agencies are operating today. The challenge we face if we are to realise this aspiration is therefore not a small one. As Brown implied, empowerment cannot be achieved simply top down by the state – it is also a task for us as people, individually and together at once.
Britain has an ancient, powerful story of sovereign Parliament. But parliamentary sovereignty need not be opposed to popular sovereignty, just as representative democracy need not be opposed to participatory democracy. In each case, the former can provide a solid core to the latter, broader process, while relying on it for sustenance... Power begins with people, and is then delegated up to Parliament; legitimacy is prior to legality, and Locke trumps Hobbes. This is the strongest foundation for new alliances between citizens and their legitimate representatives. As Elaine Applebee (an inspirational activist who became, as director of Bradford Vision, a social entrepreneur par excellence) says: people have the power, through their actions and inactions, to make all things work – or to block them.
Power, once concentrated in the state, can blind its wielders to its limits and origins. That is one of the lessons of Iraq, where the deep sources of legitimacy – popular sovereignty and international recognition – were treated too cavalierly. The next phase of reforms we take forward in our country should reverse the current of double devolution, beginning with people and communities. We need to take on big challenges about the way our political parties and other institutions and processes operate; constitutional tasks from the shape of the second chamber to striking a new balance between executive and parliament, and central and local government; and the fine-grained questions of how public services work and people self-organise. All of this can be done beginning with communities and the wider public good. It can be done through trusting the people, rather than resorting to the contorted hallways of royal commissions – as Power’s Lazarus-like revival as campaign may shortly propose.
Finally, and uppermost in my mind after a troubling recent visit to Jerusalem: we need urgently to tackle the catastrophe of Britain’s place and action in the world – a problem composed of structures, personalities and policies together. As citizens, we need to take advantage of new avenues to tackle global collective challenges...
(Yes, like Avaaz.org.) Read the whole thing below, if you're locally-minded, or interested in the intricacies of British public services...
And here's our new campaign: Stop The Clash at AVAAZ.org.
Does it chime with you? If so, please add your voice to the campaign. We're going to deliver the message in some big and surprising ways over the coming months.............
(and if it isn't playing for you, shout now!)
Avaaz.org is what I've been wrapped up in since the New Year as campaign director, focusing so far on the Middle East - and already we've launched a Global Peace March to end the war in Iraq that had over 90,000 participants, in solidarity with a half-million US citizens on the Washington streets:
a climate change campaign with TV ads on three continents:
Finally found people I wanted to work with on the global campaigning front - combining burning spirit with sharp judgment and effective delivery. Avaaz.org could just have the people, the links and the resources to make it happen (and I'd been issuing cries in the wilderness in this direction for too long, from openDemocracy.net to Personal Democracy to the Fabian Review...!)
The forerunners include MoveOn.org and the Ceasefire Campaign during the 2006 Lebanon war, which raised over 300,000 signatures in 5 days that were delivered to the Security Council. Avaaz.org will be our own creation, of as many of us round the world as join in - almost a million so far in different ways, from over 200 countries, in 11 languages. The mission is a simple one - to ensure that the views and values of the world’s people shape global decisions.
I agree with Micah Sifry's diagnosis that more interactive elements would help make Avaaz fly, and am keen that we rapidly boost our participation and engagement frameworks - seeds of social networking soon... so watch this space! (Actually, that space.)