why Community Action is essential

In a talk he gave in 2007, (available from here: http://www.senscot.net/view_news.php?viewid=6781) Edgar Cahn, the founder of the Timebank movement (http://www.timebanks.org/about) described two economies: the monetary economy and what he describes as the Core Economy. The first is monetarized and has 2 major components: the private, market economy & the public purpose economy (government & philanthropy). The second is not monetarized and includes family, neighbourhood, community, civil society. It has been estimated that at least 40% of economic activity takes place in the Core Economy and is not reflected in GDP.

That economy, the Core Economy, uses a different production model and a different distribution model from the Market Economy

There is no family that I know where someone holds up a drumstick and asks: what am I bid for this – or divides the mashed potatoes based on the market value of the tasks performed (walking the dog, putting the garbage out.)

In a study of Chicago neighbourhoods (http://www.icpsr.umich.edu/PHDCN/) extending over more than 15 years, Dr Felton Earls found that the biggest single influence on the health and well-being of both individuals and neighbourhoods was the capacity of local people to act together on matters of common concern – whether improving a piece of derelict land or dealing with rowdy teenagers on a street corner. The term he coined for this is ‘collective efficacy’, a rather dry sociological term for an important concept. You can read more about it here: http://www.wjh.harvard.edu/soc/faculty/sampson/articles/2004_NewEc.pdf

A colleague working on the same project is Professor Robert Sampson. You can read more about him and directly access many papers here: http://www.wjh.harvard.edu/soc/faculty/sampson/

I don’t think anyone would dispute that successful community action of the sort described by Professor Earls adds value to the community and hence to the lives of the individuals in it, even if that value cannot be monetarised in any formal sense (although perhaps there is some impact in the form of property prices). What does this mean for community action? Edgar Cahn draws an analogy between this sort of activity in the ‘core economy’ and your PC operating system. When Windows fails,  no amount of fiddling with your word processor will restore your PC to health. So with society; when the core economy fails, no amount of experts – whether planners, police or politicians – can restore it. Massive professional service programmes, huge redevelopment schemes with capital investment for physical reconstruction may appear to be highly successful but almost always fail to deal with the real issues of the core economy. In Cahn’s language, what is needed is to rebuild the operating system.

What does this Core Economy do? What DOES any economy do? It produces and it distributes.

So what does this economy produce and what does it distribute?

Infants, Children, teenagers and peer groups, families, care for seniors.
It produces safe vibrant neighborhoods, community, democracy, civil society
It produces love and caring and coming to each other’s rescue and sharing 24-7.

If Cahn is right, what does this mean for action in the community and by the community?

Most of us at some stage will have come up against accusations that the community groups in which we work are ‘un-democratic’. I know I have, many times. While I suppose it is the nature of politicians generally to want to do things, there is too often general mistrust of any group trying to do things for themselves rather than waiting for the local Council. This is more serious than simple petty mindedness. It impinges on the legitimacy of community-based action – action by and for local people.

We can examine what is really going on by considering a simple example. When an organisation like say Marlborough Area Development Trust (http://www.madt.co.uk/) acts, what is going on? In what way is that action different when Wiltshire Council takes it? (The choice of organisations is purely for illustration purposes – please don’t draw any conclusions from my choice.)

There may of course be differences in the quality of the action and there may also be different choices made in the first instance – in other words local authorities may choose to act in different ways to local development trusts. However, common sense would surely say that for a given course of action there is no intrinsic difference caused by that action being taken by different organisations. So – is there anything in the idea that action by the local authority is in some way more ‘democratic’ than action by a community group? My belief is that there is not. Accusations of lack of democracy are almost always special pleading in favour of a competing organisation. The only valid criticism would address not the structure of the organisation, but what it does.

Is the possibility of a local community group getting it wrong, enough to give local authorities a monopoly of action in these areas? This isn’t idle philosophising. Local Government over the past 40 years has been subject to greater and greater control by central government, to the point where it could be argued that they are no longer ‘local’, but simply agents of the national state. In the circumstances therefore, does so-called ‘local government’ have the capacity to act in ways that meet the needs and aspirations of local people? Even if it does, if local people are willing to act for themselves, does the state – local or national – have a legitimate case for stopping them (assuming the action proposed is otherwise legal)?

Over the years there have been many who have argued for both positions. Some base their argument on the premise that the free market is a better tool than government for the delivery of services. Others argue from a perspective of social justice or equity, that the market will not meet the needs of those unable to pay and the intervention of the state is needed to redress that imbalance. It seems to me however that what we have now is neither of these cases. We have a market that is heavily regulated and controlled, while government increasingly tries to apply a market model in areas like health with conspicuous lack of success and a forecasting model to areas like housing and retailing with similar failure. To quote Richard Sennett yet again:

One technique of planning large human settlements developed in the past hundred years has been the device of establishing ‘projective need’. This means guessing the future physical and social requirements of a community or city and then basing present spending and energy so as to achieve a readiness for the projected future state. In planning schools, beginning students usually argue that people’s lives in time are wandering and unpredictable, that societies have a history in the sense that they do not do what is expected of them, so that this device is misleading. Planning teachers usually reply that of course the projected need would be altered by practical objections in the course of being worked out; the projective need analysis is a pattern of ideal conditions rather than a fixed prescription.

But the facts of planning in the last few years have shown that this disclaimer on the part of planners is something that they do not really mean. Professional planners of highways, of redevelopment housing, of inner city renewal projects have treated challenges from displaced community groups as a threat to the value of their plans rather than as a natural part of the effort of social reconstruction. Over and over again one can hear in planning circles a fear expressed when the human beings affected by planning changes become even slightly interested in the remedies proposed for their lives. ‘Interference’, ‘blocking’, and ‘interruption of work’ – these are the terms by which social challenges or divergences from the planner’s projections are interpreted. What has really happened is that the planners have wanted to take the plan, the projection in advance, as more ‘true’ than the historical turns, the unforeseen movements in the real time of human lives.

“The Uses of Disorder”; Richard Sennett 1970


This quote applies not just to what we conventionally call planning in the UK, but to all those other areas where the state attempts to predict what will happen in order better to work out how they – which means we – will pay for it.

It doesn’t mean that these predictive methods are invalid or wrong. However, at the root of such predictive thinking is an idea of perfectibility that runs counter to all we know of human behaviour. We will never have enough information; we will never have enough money to do everything. Expecting the state nevertheless to act as if it can do just that is surely dangerous. Civil society is built not on political prescription or ideology but on the day-to-day interaction of people, individually and in groups. A society built on the precept ‘they should do something’ is unhealthy and in the long run, unworkable. It implies unwillingness to take responsibility for our own lives and for those dependent on us while being willing to accept the imposition of a pattern of life on others that arises in part from our own inaction. There is a need for collective action in society, but that collective action must be taken in the light of an acceptance of our own responsibilities.

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