Posted by: Jon | 11/01/2010

Resilient Communities

The big freeze continues and the roads and pavements outside my front door are still treacherous with ice. In the first snow fall before Christmas I cleared the path in front of our row of terraces, but this time around I confess I have not bothered as thirty yards of ice-free pavement is of little use when it leads only to skating rinks beyond.

My friend Chloe from Brooklyn says it is a finable offence in New York not to clear the pavement in front of your property. Meanwhile, as accident and emergency units have been inundated with falling injuries, we Brits mostly complain about inadequate local authority gritting plans, sigh at health and safety rules that prohibit us from clearing the ice, and keep on slipping and sliding about the streets.

Can we take the precarious state of our pavements as a measure of our social concern and community spirit? It’s hard to say. When severe flooding recently hit Cumbria we learned from media reports that everybody pulled together to help out. And I don’t doubt that there are many who throughout this freezing weather have been checking regularly on their elderly neighbours. But many other less cared-for pensioners and homeless on the streets will have died during this cold spell than in our usual mild winters whereas only one tragic fatality resulted from the Cumbrian deluge.

It’s not as though we’ve not appreciated the consequences of a long freeze. Where I live the supermarkets quickly emptied of milk and bread and fresh vegetables as we raced each other to stock up with provisions before they ran out. But we seem to be willing to keep on slipping up on our public paths because clearing them is someone else’s job that we pay our council taxes for. Maybe a couple of weeks of snow and ice is too slight and commonly shared an inconvenience to mobilise us to break the rules and clear our frontages. Perhaps if the adverse weather lasts for months, not weeks, we will all come together to make the pavements safe for our less able neighbours. Without actually experiencing it, its difficult to know.

I’ve been thinking about all this because working to build community and understanding of how we might most effectively pull together in tough times is high on my list of resolves for 2010. I said in my last post that I would not be ‘coming back again to all the messes we made in our lives’. And I meant this for top of my New Year list is moving on from spelling out impending disaster to trying to do some constructively optimistic things about it. But for these to be of any practical value, it is still necessary to evaluate what might be only token actions and what might realistically be effective.  

Yesterday, confined by the wintry conditions, I caught up with the BBC’s serialisation of Cranford.  This recent production achieved tremendous popular appeal as a heart-warming tale of community. It is the story of a little Cheshire country town coming to terms with C19th industrial progress in which the residents overcome their community divisions, rise above parochial pettinesses and invariably settle their differences amicably.

Unfortunately I spoiled its feel-good effects by re-watching another BBC production afterwards. My son, who has researched post-conflict communities in the Balkans, left a DVD of the 1999 film Warriors after his Christmas visit. This portrays the ‘peace keeping’ experiences of a British UN contingent in Bosnia in 1992 and, set against the now familiar atrocities of that strife, tells a different story of how seemingly peaceable communities can react when under pressure.

I have some long ago personal experience of divided communities in Northern Ireland and, more recently, of factionalism in Scotland. This perhaps colours my view, but sadly it seems to me that the story depicted in Warriors is truer to life than the fictional Cranford. But accepting this is all the more reason to want to work to build cohesive and resilient communities in anticipation of increasingly pressured and socially divided lives to come.

I know that my sometimes harsh view of things can be off-putting. But it does not seem to me to be bleak to consider worst case scenarios as a starting point for purposeful action. Of course, our worst behaviours are not the only reality and there are far more examples of human goodness in the world than there are of human darkness. It is simply that, in order to construct communities that are genuinely resilient and do not implode when they come under sustained external pressure (such as climate impacts or food and energy shortages), we need to understand the conditions that engender both sides of the same coin.

It is not as if we don’t have plentiful examples from quite recent history to choose from. The writer, Gitta Sereny, for instance, has devoted a lifetime to investigating the psychology behind the worst excesses of Nazism and how children like Mary Bell and the barely teenaged murderers of James Bulger turn into psychopathic killers. She is far from an easy read as she examines the damaged side of the human soul that most of us would prefer to avoid. But such researches as hers are a crucial contribution to understanding how people can behave when under stress and her work has not prevented her from being an optimistic and cheerful human being.

Similarly, the healing of fractured communities through conflict resolution and ‘truth and reconciliation’ cannot succeed by simply brushing past unpleasantness under the carpet. We would of course be made miserable and deeply pessimistic if we were compelled to reflect on such brutal realities all the time. Thankfully we don’t have to because life is actually much brighter than that. But neither should we seek always to avoid them.

Community building is probably the most urgent and constructive response we can make in preparing for social and economic uncertainties to come. But for communities to remain intact in times of upheaval, genuinely mutual connections must exist across broad and representative cross-sections of populations. This was much easier when we lived in small self-reliant communities with each of us performing the clear roles and responsibilities that enabled them to function. But now that most of the goods and services that sustain us are supplied by specialists from a distance, the everyday bonds of community have become largely only social, the icing on the cake of our daily needs and existences.  Whilst we might pull together in times of extraordinary crisis such as the Cumbrian floods, in everyday life we have become more individualistic and our community ties seem often only superficial.

To rebuild genuine community in our lives is an enormous challenge that entails reaching way beyond the middle-class sensibilities and values that underpin most grassroots efforts at participatory democracy in Britain today. It is a fact of modernity that the means and motivation to be locally communally active rests mainly with the educated white middle-classes, often professionals supported by modest but manageable early retirement pensions. Wider spread direct action responses have tended to be the preserve of younger white middle-class campaigners who can operate outside of – but often dependent on – mainstream systems. Self evidently neither of these groups are wholly representive of the diversity of the UK’s local populations.

Even with the best of intentions, the impact of both of these groups (who form the largest make up of the environmental and climate justice movements) is limited. We do not intend to be exclusive in our campaigning activities but often are inadvertently made so by our social presumptions and beliefs. How many of us, for instance, invite a true cross-section of our suburban neighbourhood to our pre-Christmas drinks party. Do we invite the Poles at no 12, the Nigerian family with the noisy kids three doors down and the bed-sit dwellers from the end of the street? Or do we tend to invite people who are just like us? Well, being a social occasion and not a community meeting to plan our next summer street festival, of course we invite those with whom we feel most at ease. And perhaps we wonder later why the Poles and bed-sit dwellers do not attend the street party.

Creating community cohesion in an increasingly economically divided Britain where individualistic self-interest reigns supreme is clearly an immense challenge. If we hope it will occur through council sponsored town-centre galas to bolster ailing high street traders, we are much mistaken. For people forge the strongest bonds when we genuinely reach out to one another in times of personal hardship and need, not when we congregate to spend money and indulge ourselves. Each time we slip back into default mode and confuse community with consumer leisure culture we alienate those who can’t afford locally-reared organic sausages or fresh-pressed apple juice or quaintly named local brews. And we often forget that we are probably excluding Muslims and struggling mothers and people on benefits without access to social media from our Transition get-togethers in the pub as well.  

Of course, some social groups are probably quite unreachable anyway. It seems unlikely even in these recessionary times that avid watchers of Top Gear, or those bedazzled by X Factor celebrity, or the affluent living in gated communities, or perpetually youthful 16-45 year olds who exist only for hedonistic holidays in Magaluf are ready candidates for community engagement. But there is another side of society already experiencing oppressive conditions with neither the agency nor inclination to attend community meetings or to participate in debates about what community really means. These largely invisible populations across Britain (and indeed Europe and the wider world) are already resilient and community minded by definition.

In our cities and, to a lesser extent, in towns and countryside as well, there are large numbers of people other than bankers and tax accountants who survive on undisclosed income. They work for cash-in-hand often at more than one job. They inhabit illegal and often overcrowded housing. And they form close family and communal networks to fall back on in emergencies. They exist at the bottom of the social pile amongst all colours and creeds and ethnic backgrounds. Many are newcomers although some have lived here for generations. They daily challenge and subvert the complacent status quo not out of any acquired political ideology but from necessity. They remain hidden because they live in communities within communities that seldom inter-relate but share a common interest in sustainable living that compels them to ignore statutory laws and live by their own social conventions. They do not lead a comfortable existence but are not necessarily unhappy with their lot because they form closed but supportive community networks. Although amongst the lowest paid and least protected in our society they display a communal resilience in the face of adversity that we might all learn from.

My daughter, born and brought up in rural Scotland, has survived in London for five years without once finding a legal rent she can afford or qualifying for state benefits despite being minimum waged, repeatedly made redundant and permanently in debt. As parents, L and I have fretted and supported her as best as our own limited means have allowed. She started out by sharing a secret single bedroom with twelve Poles above her restaurant workplace in this upmarket town where I am now living. Since then, she has lived in illegally sub-let social housing in Islington, Clapton and Stratford. She has worked in hotels and restaurants and, latterly, in privatised social care for employers who neither check papers nor provide contracts, who cut working hours on a whim, demand unpaid overtime, hire and fire at will, and pay with cheques that not infrequently bounce.

The middle-class sensibilities with which she was brought up have entirely disempowered her for the bottom-of-the-pile urban world that she has found herself inhabiting and her stress has resulted in ill-health and bouts of depression. Never receptive to schooling and without academic qualifications, she was ill-prepared for her self-determined but solitary immersion in the multicultural city and found no easily accessible community networks to support her.

The likelihood of meeting a partner from her own cultural background amongst London’s shifting population is now one in twenty. For a while she formed a fated relationship with a Muslim boy with a false passport who opened her – and my – eyes to the hidden community networks that sustain life in the subterranean city. And she is learning social resilience the hard way as she forms associations and friendships amongst an underclass who understand life beyond establishment conventions and regulations far better than I ever will.

Of course there has always been a hidden side to subsisting in any hierarchical society. In the olden-times countryside it was the tax-avoiding barter and poaching and smuggling that were tolerated because the whole community benefited. In our modern service industry jobs, it’s expense accounts and paper clips and phone calls and other unauthorised but widely accepted perks that we collude with not because we benefit from someone else’s fiddling but because it permits us to do so also. And in France L and I quickly learned that undeclared taxable earning is all but enshrined in the culture because without it self-employed enterprise could not exist.

But as stressful times have hit many more of us in the form of recession, how are we pulling together as communities? Amongst the newly redundant and the longer term unemployed, benefit fraud and shoplifting are reportedly on the rise. But those are solitary and secretive survival responses, brought about by isolation in hard times, not communal solidarity.

So what is my point? It is that to build genuinely resilient human bonds and interpersonal connections we need to look beyond our cosy assumptions of Cranford to what really constitutes community. We need to examine life on the seamier side and discover how communities naturally emerge and evolve and adapt in conditions of deprivation and adversity. We need to put aside our received scruples and prejudices to discover how those who live more exposed and vulnerable lives than our own engender mutual trust and communal interdependence, irrespective of statutory laws and institutional conventions.

In preparing for the even more severe social upheaval that some of us anticipate, it is undoubtedly a very good thing to organise celebratory gatherings and communal festivities amongst like-minded people who naturally gravitate together.  But when push comes to shove these might amount to no more than well-meaning efforts to paper over the void that we sense exists at the core of many of our communities. We need to learn from how other communities evolve spontaneously from necessity too. We need to become able and willing to forge connections and common ground amongst social peer groupings who might well be hostile and protective and suspicious of our motives.

It is a challenge that will take us well beyond our habitual comfort zones – quite possibly into the realms of civil disobedience. But without approaching it with clear eyes and open minds, all the optimistic community celebrations in the world will not remake the flawed institutions and self-serving regulations that have already brought us to the point of social and environmental disaster.


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