Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Community organizing: Beyond sweat equity

Heather Watkins


Urban community organizations are a highly ambivalent form of local politics. “We’re not political,” I was told by almost every research partner – yet in the supposedly “post-political” times of New Labour’s “Third Way”, community participation was invested with unusual political significance.  For some, community organising was a way of turning older forms of solidarity into “social capital”, reviving civil society by drawing groups into a new network of public and private welfare providers.  The 2010 Conservative-Liberal Democrat government then seized a moment of public distrust to present the Decentralisation and Localism Bill 2010 as no less than ‘a new constitutional arrangement’, in which personal ‘responsibility’ replaced any guaranteed local state provision of services.  Yet for others, it was seen as part of a long tradition of experiments in social economies - Diggers and Ranters, Owenite co-operative villages, workers’ communities, Chartist Land Plans – most of which involved a degree of conflict with the state.
The main objective of the research was therefore to explore the relationship between contemporary urban community organizing in practice, and both “mainstream” and more contestational political discourses.  The most critical issue was to restore some structure and history to the study of where “social capital” comes from, and to investigate what happens when this engages with a consensus-based, market-friendly form of local governance. I was lucky to find three community action groups in the East Midlands as fieldwork partners: two of these (The Lenton Centre, or TLC, in east Nottingham, and North Notts Community Arena, or NNCA, in Worksop) arose from fierce campaigns to keep open formerly Council-run leisure and community services, while Sneinton Alchemy in west Nottingham had originated in a project to develop local economies supported by the New Economics Foundation.  What became evident was that for all three, their motivations were rooted in some degree of opposition to, or disaffection with, the state.  There was a championing of shared public space that came from a ‘bodged up’ poorly-planned environment and its deep social divisions (TLC); a fierce autonomy that came from the historic exclusion of the community from that planning (Sneinton Alchemy); and the assertion of a strong working-class identity in the face of the wholesale deconstruction of a local economy from coal, to low wage/zero hours distribution centres (NNCA): ‘In ... deprived areas you have to fight for yourself, don’t you?’ (Participant A, 30 April 2010). It was no coincidence that the community in Sneinton had adopted William “Bendigo” Thompson, a nineteenth century bare knuckle boxer who fought his way out of poverty, as a symbol for ‘standing up for yourself’ (Participant B, 10 March 2011). 

Statue of William “Bendigo” Thompson (1811-1890), bare knuckle fighter, above the door of the closed Hermitage Pub, Sneinton.

Participating in governance, however, subjects community organisations to processes which were often at odds with these shared roots. Under pressure to forget their collective pasts, accused of ‘hanging on to the past a bit too much’ (Council Officer, 16 April 2010), they are also required to “professionalise” – to have a business plan, a hierarchical structure, and Trustees with professional and managerial knowledge.  “Social capital” therefore seems to have conflicting meanings for community organisations: one rooted in internal relationships and values, and one external, fostered by the state – but they directly contradict; as one organiser protested: ‘Why is it that when you get into a position to help people, you seem to get further away from them?’ (Participant C, 20 October 2009).  

Using Antonio Gramsci’s ideas about how collective action develops and is practiced, I’ve argued that community organizing can be seen as a response to a “crisis of authority”, embedded in our most immediate experience of political economy – the changes to the populations, jobs, housing and social structures in the places where we live, which also provide the “good sense” (motivation and a credible alternative analysis) to stand apart from mainstream political framings of community.  Organisers were passionate in asserting that they did not want to be reduced to ‘sweat equity’ (Participant D, 10 September 2009), exploiting volunteer and low-paid labour to replace publicly-funded provision.  It is this “good sense” construction of social capital, based in both internal legitimacy, and difference, which gives groups the confidence to be radical, to avoid being co-opted back into the mainstream as part of a “shadow state”, increasingly resembling what they were trying to change. 


[1] Eric Pickles, The Today Programme, BBC Radio 4, 13 December 2010.
[2] The industry was still being literally expunged from the landscape: Welbeck Colliery, near Meden Vale, ceased production in May 2010, the surface plant being demolished during 2011.  (BBC 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-nottinghamshire-12918958).  Thoresby, the last pit in Nottinghamshire, closed July 2015.  Kellingley in North Yorkshire, the UK’s last deep pit, closed December 2015.

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