Monday, 20 January 2014

'Community Resilience' & its dangers

For the past 3 years or so, I've been playing around with the concept of 'community resilience' and its value for neighbourhoods like my own.

It's 'hot' language at the moment, popping up all over the place, from papers emerging from thinktanks, like DEMOS' Resilient Nation, and the much more 'earthed' and practical examination by the Carnegie Trust of resilience in rural communities, to policy documents published by the UK's 'Risk & Regulation Advisory Council' and the United Nations Development Programme. It's also fed - and this should ring a warning bell or two - by trends in philosophy (a shift from dealing in utopian ideals to a philosophical realism needed for 'coping in an intractable world'), politics (a 'localist' focus on 'what communities can do for themselves') and economics (what you can do when, so we're told, there's 'no money' for the kind of - supposedly - 'transformative' investment in 'community regeneration' that went on a couple of decades ago).

'Community resilience', in short, is about the 'personal and collective capacities' to survive and thrive in a world that is rapidly changing, unpredictable, and, in many different ways - from climate change to terrorism, from epidemics to austerity - potentially or actually hostile. It focuses on the 'assets', 'capitals' or 'resources' of local communities; it emphasises the positive 'agency' within communities in response to disruption and change; and, as a 'science', treats communities as complex, multi-levelled 'systems' including, in its broadest formulations, the ecosystems within which human communities are embedded.

In fact, the roots of 'resilience thinking' lie in engineering (how materials 'bounce back' from shocks, and resist under pressure), in social psychology (how individuals survive and thrive through, and after, stressing and traumatic life experiences), and in ecology and 'environmental management' (often deploying sophisticated mathematical modelling of a system's 'capacity to absorb disturbance and still behave in the same way').

There's a lot to commend a 'resilience' approach to communities:
  •  The systems approach of CR relates individuals and households, to the community itself, to the wider environment, in a complex and ongoing interaction
  • CR encourages an honesty about the potential ‘hostilities’ of the wider environment – particularly in the present time of international economic turbulence, severe government cuts, and global climate change
  • CR describes a neighbourhood not just in terms of its ‘indices of deprivation’, but pushes towards ‘a fuller understanding of the collective history of [an area]’ (including ‘how they have been affected by previous economic decline, the impact of in-migration, their connectivity to any remaining sources of jobs’)
  • CR’s positive, ‘asset’-focused approach, in contrast to prevailing ‘deficit’ models, values ‘what is’ in a neighbourhood, including the skills and gifts of local people
  • Rather than a ‘top-down’, ‘professionalised’ approach that encourages ‘passivity’ and ‘dependency’ among local people, CR looks for, encourages, and focuses on agency and participation by local people – and brings individuals’ stories of resilience into the discussion of the community level
  • As a move away from ‘regeneration’ language, CR makes it clear that communities can not be ‘made better’ simply by investing large amounts of money
  • CR is interested in more than ‘coping’ or ‘stability’, but in ‘flourishing’, often ‘despite extraordinarily tough experiences and environments'

But there is what one author has called a 'dark side' to community resilience, that I'm finding more and more troubling.

One aspect of this 'dark side' lies in what 'resilience' is often defined 'against': 'vulnerability'. The working assumption is that communities find themselves in a potentially - and often, actually - hostile environment, and that resilience is about reducing a community's 'vulnerabilities' to 'a broad spectrum of risks' (as the DEMOS report puts it), including 'threats like terrorism and organised crime', 'hazards such as flooding, heat waves and snow storms' and 'major accidents' such as the King's Cross fire. But, as Ulrich Beck has repeatedly reminded us, the general fear and anxiety of a 'risk society' allow some, in the 'security business', to profit. Risk 'is not synonymous with catastrophe. Risk means the anticipation of the catastrophe', and as such, shapes our imagination in a way that 'becomes a political force that transforms the world'. Who decides what is and is not a risk, and why should we believe what they tell us?

There is more to it than that, though, and it emerges from community resilience's origins in ecology. Resilient systems, the scientists, tell us, are those which have a level of diversitymodularity (where 'subgroups of components are strongly linked internally, but only loosely connected to each other') and tight - but not too tight - feedback loops (where 'the consequences of a change in one part of the system are felt and responded to in other parts'). There is much to learn from the science of resilience - for example, about decentralizing control within institutions and networks; an increased awareness in the developed world of the consequences of our actions in the developing world; and the vulnerabilities built in to the dependence of a town or estate on one supermarket's supply chain (and the 'efficiencies of scale' that it promises), contrasted with everyone growing their own fruit and vegetables and sharing between them. There is an element of redundancy in resilient systems (the exact opposite of 'optimised efficiency', in fact), a more-than-optimal 'surplus', which enables an 'adaptability so that life may go on living despite the fact that elements of our living systems may be destroyed'. Such 'redundancy' is not tragic when it relates to supply chains or a garden's vegetable crop - we can probably cope if the cabbages don't appear this time - but what does 'redundancy' - the tolerable loss of certain 'elements' of the system - mean when applied to a neighbourhood? Is community life to simply 'go on' as the lives of some community members are destroyed? As some human beings within the neighbourhood are ground down, pushed out, broken?

Of course this is never explicitly said when 'community resilience' is invoked, but the question must be asked: where is the 'cost' of resilience to be absorbed? The question is sharpened when the focus is widened beyond an individual neighbourhood to the society of which it is a part. When a government advocates 'community resilience', is it, in fact, demanding it of those deemed most 'vulnerable', and insisting that their vulnerability is an inescapable part of their condition? Resilience rhetoric has as its target 'the insecuritisation of the most at-risk which politically threatens the security and comforts of those who are sufficiently protected' [Brad Evans & Julian Reid, 'Dangerously exposed: the life and death of the resilient subject', Resilience (2013) 1:2, pp.83-98] and, at the same time, places the responsibility for 'resilience' squarely on the 'at-risk' themselves. As Zygmunt Bauman sharply puts it, '[l]eft increasingly to their own resources and acumen, individuals are expected to devise individual solutions to socially generated problems, and to do it individually, using their individual skills and individually possessed assets.' [Bauman, Collateral Damage, p.17] For 'individual' read 'or communal', and we get close to the heart of the problem of 'community resilience' rhetoric.

What we're witnessing here is, as Brad Evans and Julian Reid argue, neoliberalism's 'politically debasing reduction of resistance to resilience': '[b]uilding resilient subjects involves the deliberate disabling of the political habits, tendencies and capacities of peoples and replacing them with adaptive ones.'
'To increase its resilience, in other words, the subject must disavow any belief in the possibility to secure itself and accept, instead, an understanding of life as a permanent process of continual adaptation to threats and dangers which are said to be outside its control. As such, the resilient subject is a subject which must permanently struggle to accommodate itself to the world, and not a subject which can conceive of changing the world, its structure and conditions of possibility.' [Evans & Reid, p.85]
If resilience rhetoric functions to disable resistance among the most 'vulnerable', at the same time it effectively removes the social bonds between the endlessly vulnerable and 'those who have the ability to secure themselves', creating gated communities for some, who are able to 'outsource the need to be resilient to other elements within the gated system ranging from barbed fences, physical walls, surveillance technologies, catastrophe-proofed architectures, insurance premiums to armed guards patrolling the perimeters.' [Evans & Reid, pp.96-7]

Is 'community resilience' redeemable? Is it a concept even worth trying to redeem? Is it possible to highlight and strengthen a local community's social - and other forms of - capital, while at the same time building, and not disabling, its collective capacity for political - even utopian - imagination and active resistance to the structures of the status quo? These are the questions for next time...


  1. I've been working my way through a book called "Social Resilience in the Neoliberal Era" and feeling increasingly frustrated by the absence of the word "resistance" where it was clearly indicated in described responses to neoliberal policies and practices. Browsing Twitter at my daughter's suggestion, I came on a link to your article. And experienced a real "aha!" at the sentence: "...neoliberalism's 'politically debasing reduction of resistance to resilience': '[b]uilding resilient subjects involves the deliberate disabling of the political habits, tendencies and capacities of peoples and replacing them with adaptive ones.' Being more familiar with what peak oil writers and Transition communities envision as "resilient" I clearly needed to see how this concept has been re-worked in a social-spending-cuts era as an ideological transfer of social responsibility to "communities" of "neoliberal subjects." I'm reading Julian Reid's paper with interest. Thanks for a very thoughtful and enlightening article. - Elise Houghton

  2. I enjoyed reading this and agree - the resilience agenda is very much a distraction from political struggle - 'count your assets' and 'reflect on your strengths' - rather than joining the resistance. I've looked at some of these issues in relation to assets based approaches and the language of 'strengths' - which have some of the weaknesses of 'resilience' that you describe so well. The link to my paper is - I'd welcome your views - and thanks again for your thought provoking blog. Lynne