Thursday, 26 January 2012

Jobs, a ‘local economy’, improvisation and… church?!

I am perhaps the last person qualified to write about jobs. I have one – of a kind. I have also spent a small fraction of my life on Jobseeker’s Allowance. But to have been ordained to an, inescapably ‘vocational’, ‘job for life’, with no career structure to speak of but large amounts of job satisfaction – well, I guess that puts me in a tiny and rather curious minority of the ‘labour market’. Nevertheless (and partly because it’s what I’m paid for), I want to attempt some reflections on ‘work’ from this rather odd position…

Here on the Firs & Bromford, the Daily Mail very kindly labelled us, a while ago, the 7th most ‘workshy’ neighbourhood in the country, with a very neat bit of short-circuited logic that somehow ‘not being in work’ means ‘not wanting to work’. One of the facts they neglected to mention is that, round here, a hell of a lot of jobs have vanished in the last 10 or 20 years. Lots of people worked in factories, and the factories have gone.

So what we need is jobs. We need to create jobs. We need to have create local businesses and industries, or attract businesses and industries, that will offer local jobs. That much seems obvious.

But let’s just allow ourselves to be stopped in our tracks, for a moment or two, by the words of one of your local young people: “I don’t want a job. I want a career.” More than just something which pays some bills (and often even paying the bills is a struggle). But what’s the ‘more’? This is where I want to traverse some unfamiliar territory…


Let’s start with the basics. Making ends meet. To be housed, to be fed, to be clothed, to be warm (and the same for those ‘dependent’ on me). And here’s where ‘local economics’ must surely challenge some of our normal assumptions. Do we need money for food? What if there are some people in our community who are good at growing fruit and veg? What if there are things we can do for them in exchange? Would money need to be part of the equation? What if we as a community had invested in ways of generating local energy? What is it about the bricks and mortar of a home that demands thousands of pounds a year, for life (and yes, I write as someone who lives in a house provided free by the community of which I am a part)? Are there other ways of meeting our basic needs, that ‘keep it local’? The network of ‘Transition Towns’ suggests there might be – in ways that are sustainable for us human beings, and the earth’s resources.


What else do jobs normally do for us, though? How about the network of relationships we have through work – at best (although it seems to be getting rarer and rarer), a relatively stable community of friendships that provides mutual support. And there’s the relationship that ‘working’ gives us with the wider community (and wider society), of having ‘value’, perhaps bound out with a sense of reciprocity – that I, by working, am making a valuable ‘contribution’, and I am being given back something (normally in the form of money) for doing so. But again, let’s just unpick this a little. Does money have to be the key currency of exchange in these relationships? Do we absolutely need to be ‘employed’, in the conventional sense, to be part of a stable, mutually supportive, community of friendships, where I have a sense of making a valuable contribution, and am given a sense of being valued in return? As a vicar, it strikes me that church might surely be one example of a place where all of this should happen – and not a penny changes hands (well, not as a necessary part of the community’s ‘currency’, at least).


But there’s yet more to ‘work’. That ‘career’ that our local young person talked about, surely has a lot to do with a sense of ‘journey’, of ‘going somewhere’ – a sense of purpose, and of meaning, to my existence and my labouring; of learning and growing and developing. Of course I’m a fine one to talk about vocations. But why shouldn’t everyone have their own sense of vocation? Why should some people have to be content with a sense of ‘going nowhere’, doing meaningless, repetitive chores day after day? Even if, as you’ll no doubt argue, the world needs lots of people doing persistently repetitive tasks, who says that is the only task they are allowed to perform? Who says they have nothing to contribute to design and development, to sales and marketing, to care for fellow employees, to making their environment, and the world, more beautiful, more happy, as well as more well-equipped with whatever…? And again, why should ‘vocations’ be limited to only those things someone expects to pay us for? Why do we value the vocation of child-rearing, for example, so much less that we refuse to pay for it? Why can’t every community have its poet, its artist, its head gardener, its jester, its singer – and for these to be their occupations, and for their livelihoods to be met by the community, in whatever way the community is able to do so, in exchange for them occupying that role?


I was away overnight last week with friends and fellow-clergy from Birmingham’s ‘Strengthening Estates Ministry’ group. Among many earthed, passionate and stimulating conversations, we spent some time playing with the metaphor of ‘improvisation’ – something I’ve written about here before (just after the August 2011 riots, in fact):

“In improvised jazz, the musicians in the group are practised at listening carefully to each other. Anything any of the musicians play we might call an ‘offer’ – a snippet of tune, a clever harmony, even a wrong note or two. And the other musicians make choices, in every moment: to ‘block’ an offer – ignore it, write it off as a mistake, or simply pursue their own thread of music unaffected by the other musicians; or to ‘accept’ an offer – to echo it, develop it, creatively run with what they’ve heard from their fellow musicians to make something more of it. The best improvisers are those with the daring and creativity to ‘overaccept’ all offers – to take even what might have been a mistake or a crashing discord, and develop into something musically new, different, beautiful, exciting.”

I’m going to try, in 2012, to stop using the word ‘empowering’ – or at least to cut back considerably – with its suggestion that somehow it’s all about ‘us’ giving power to ‘them’. I much prefer the idea of ‘overaccepting’ – starting with the assumption that those around us have always, already, got something to offer; and just working out how we can be daring and creative enough to receive it, draw it out, be part of a relationship that enables such offers to become more than any of us can ever intend or imagine. I reckon it’s what church does with people, when it’s at its best. Maybe it’s something we might even be able to offer to the wider communities of which we are a part (or indeed discover as already present within them!). Maybe it’s what we’re all crying out for. It’s got to be more than just a job…

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Benefit caps, the housing market, and Jesus

Of course, common sense says it’s crazy that someone can be on benefit payments of more than £26,000 a year. The trouble is, common sense gets a lot wrong.

Firstly, let’s get these in perspective. As Andrew Simms put it so well yesterday, they’re really small beans compared to city bonuses – with 1,200 senior staff averaging £1.8million in bonuses each last year. Where should we really be expended heat and light on ‘capping’ debates, hey? But blaming the victims of economic crisis is so much easier than blaming the perpetrators, isn’t it?

But as I understand it, one of the principle reasons for these rare, highest-level benefits payments is that people who were once in social housing have ended up (through policies of previous governments, both Labour and Conservative) in private rented accommodation. And the areas that they may have lived in all their life have, through ‘market forces’, found house prices (and rental prices) driven sky high. And a debate that began with the proposed housing benefit cap in November 2010 continues. For David Cameron and his mates, apparently the solution is simple: the poor should move out of expensive areas. Social – and often inevitably ethnic – cleansing.

All very convenient. An economic crisis caused by the rich, in which the rich still end up getting richer, targets the poor, slashes and burns the benefits safety net, and tells the poorest that they have no right to live near rich people anyway. Demonising, marginalising, displacing, disappearing. Out of sight, out of mind – as well as out of public finances, out of pocket, out of long-standing homes and communities…

So maybe benefit payments of £26,000 are crazy. But what’s the root of the madness? It’s easy to pile blame on ‘indolent’ individuals – and again, very convenient, so that we don’t ask questions about the system itself. But what is the morality of a ‘market’ that allows house prices to sky-rocket in areas that, thanks to the choices of the rich, have become ‘desirable’, pushing out the non-rich in the process? If instead we valued stability and diversity of relationships and community; if we genuinely believed in knowing, and loving, our neighbours (and not just those who look, and sound, and earn, like us); then we would turn our attention to ensuring a mixed economy of housing provision, outside or beyond the socially destructive forces of the ‘free market’. Housing affordable for all, where rich and poor can live side-by-side, and where, as neighbours begin to look into each other’s faces, even those inequalities of wealth begin to break down.

Jesus’ parable, the one about ‘the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate’, doesn’t end well for the rich man. And it’ll be no use blaming the poor, or the market, then…