Wednesday, 17 December 2014

On 'talent pools' and floods...

'"The Word" (of God) is "a flood which breaks the dam." ... One senses this in our community to some extent. Uneasiness, anguish, dis-ease, because something is building up to break the dam and this "word" is inscrutably different from the comforting platitudes of Superiors. But this sense pervades all society - is resisted by those who erect their word in to a dam and are determined to "hold" it at any price.' (Thomas Merton, Learning to Love, p.165)
These words of Thomas Merton were unearthed for me by friend and theologian Gary Hall. You can read Gary's reflections on Merton here (if you're registered with

But Gary's paper, and Merton's words, appeared on my computer screen just as I was settling down to write a blog on 'the Green report' or, to use its full title, 'Talent Management for Future Leaders and Leadership Development for Bishops and Deans: A New Approach' (you can read the full report here). And I began to wonder: how far apart are the so-called 'talent pool' of the Church of England, and Merton's 'flood which breaks the dam'?

In the days that followed the leaking of the Green report, the little corner of social media that I find myself following went a bit wild. Martyn Percy, Dean of Christ Church Oxford, wrote an incisive critique in the Church Times, highlighting the 'breathtaking' absence of any ordained women from the working group, nor any 'recognised theologian' or 'academic specialising in continuing professional or vocational education'. This was a report, said Percy, which offered 'a dish of basic contemporary approaches to executive management, with a little theological garnish', with 'a total absence of ecclesiology' or indeed any awareness of 'critiques of management, executive authority, and leadership'. Secondly, Percy highlighted the managerial self-perpetuation proposed by the report: ' a small "talent pool" of potential future leaders ... will be selected and shaped by a handful of executive managers' who control their selection criteria, and facilitate their recruitment and training. 'Potential' and 'performance' will be measured against 'growth factors', and 'if there is a decline in measureable performance or potential, an individual will be asked to leave.' 'We appear to live in an age,' says Percy, bitingly, 'in which all bishops must now fit the "executive mission-minded-middle-manager" paradigm.' And it is the rise of that paradigm itself, he argues, that requires 'some radical and imaginative responses.'

Financial expert Richard Murphy, a prophetic voice from beyond the boundaries of the church, raised serious questions about a report on a 'culture change for the leadership of the Church' written by a group chaired by someone who just happens to be the former chairman of HSBC, under whose leadership the company engaged in tax evasion in Switzerland for which it has been fined billions of pounds and now faces prosecution in a number of countries.

Among the flood of criticism - much from people, like Martyn Percy, who have either already received, or might well soon receive, an invitation to join the 'talent pool' - Archbishop Justin himself responded, reminding people that one of the purposes of the Green report was to get away from the 'old boys club' preferment system, to something more inclusive, more diverse, more supportive, with more careful discernment.

At which point I should, as the Americans say, 'check my privilege'. I happen to be a white, straight, middle-class, married man with a Cambridge degree. I am, at least within that description, the kind of person whom the old 'system' favoured. Who am I to resist a change which is all about making the system more inclusive and diverse?

But inclusion in what? That seems to be the key question, knocking its head against a brick wall of a whole host of unexamined, or unchallengable, assumptions about 'leadership', 'growth' and 'performance' - and even, as Martyn Percy highlights, the much more fundamental concepts of 'mission' and 'church' themselves.

I want to focus on two key areas that trouble me - or rather, two key concepts that seem to be absent from the Green report, the absence of which worries me deeply. One is contestation. The other is incarnation.

We live in a time that many are beginning to call 'post-democratic'. 'Democracy' has turned into a form of culture, a spectator sport, entertainment to be consumed, where the organs of the system profoundly shape our opinions and desires, all the while convincing us that we have freedom - and responsibility - to choose.

There are theologians out there - I'm reading one in depth for my PhD work - who suggest that one of the great gifts of the Church to the wider world at this time might just be the gift of contestation: of the art of creating spaces for the self-critical exposure of reality, and for the passionate argument over what is true and good. Spaces for 'good disagreement', we might say.

And oddly, that has been a phrase coined within the CofE recently in relation to such internally difficult issues as women bishops and same-sex relationships. Maybe it's an art we're even beginning to learn a little of, as a Church together. Maybe it could be one of our gifts to the wider world.

But in the Green report, and the process around it, there's little sign of that particular 'charism'. The report was leaked, early. But the advert for 'Talent Development Manager' is already out there, with a closing date of mid-January. There might well have been, within the working group, 'sparky and rewarding' and theologically 'stimulating' conversations, particularly over 'the place, in any proposed "system", of the maverick-prophet', as one member of the group, Pete Wilcox, suggests. But there is no sense of a wider conversation within the Church about this stuff. The working group has met. The job advert is out. It's happening. Deal with it. Quite a different approach to that on questions of gender or sexuality - as if this is something that's just 'obvious'.

Which brings me to my second major area of concern: that the thing we need to be working hardest on contesting, on creating spaces for 'good disagreement' about, is the mission of the Church itself.

I had repeated to me today, at 3rd or 4th hand, the suggestion, possibly originating from a senior cleric, that 'incarnational ministry is incompatible with senior leadership'. It's an interesting thought. I have to admit, it's something I've found myself pondering on for a little while. Maybe it is. But if it's a choice between the two, I know which side of the line I'd come down, every time. Perhaps I'm being naive and simplistic setting up 'Jesus' and 'institution' as polar opposites. But we need to take a long hard look at the latter and ask how much it reflects the former.

It's much easier to do at a local level, of course. Us parish priests can put down roots in our neighbourhoods, hang out with our neighbours, make friends, spend time eating and drinking and laughing and crying with our friends and neighbours, listen to stories, tell stories, provoke stories, get our hands dirty planting seeds, sweeping floors, helping people move house... get angry with systems that fail human beings, turn over the odd table, wrestle poetry and theology out of blood, sweat and tears, encourage the gifts of those around us to come out, share in hugs when it all goes wrong, watch and wait in the darkness, and kindle little flames of hope...

I'm sure that stuff's harder to do when you're a senior manager in the institution, watching the figures and the graphs and balancing the books and streamlining the deployment of clergy and the like. That's when 'strategies for growth' and 'targets' and 'performance' and the like seem to become more central.

But I worry that this shift, from 'incarnational' to 'institutional', does actually completely miss the point.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not ungrateful for my house, and my stipend, and my pension. The institution frees me up to do what I feel profoundly called to, and what I love. It creates stable space which enables me to be the person, the priest, that I believe God wants me to be - or at least to have a good crack at it.

But the tendencies to institutionalise and 'technologise' (as Ivan Illich might call it - creating the 'technologies' to 'solve' the 'problem', whatever the 'problem' might be defined as) - however well dressed-up in the language of 'the gospel' and 'evangelism' and 'confidence' - betray, I fear, a deep-seated anxiety. If we don't do this, we might not be around for much longer. We've got to keep the show on the road.

And I fear that this is a long way from what Jesus, and the New Testament, call 'faith'. That reckless confidence in the being and activity of God, that is utterly opposed to anxiety. That overflow of abundance, friendship, 'conviviality' (Illich's own counterpoint to the technologies of institutions), joy, love... that can't be contained by strategies and plans and institutional structures and 'talent pools' and the like.

I'm secretly - or perhaps, now, not-so-secretly - hoping that the arrival of women bishops will bring down the system from within. Feminist theology (and yes, I know, not all women are feminists, and not all feminists are women, but even so) has some sharp things to say about structures and hierarchies and, dare I say, the whole idea of bishops...

There is, I would suggest, still a hugely significant role for leadership, though. But it's leadership from the grassroots, 'up' (rather than from the top, down); leadership from the middle, and from the edge; leadership in the connections, in the cracks, in the questions, in the laments and protests and laughter and parties.

I'm tempted, as the Green report sees the light of day, to suggest an alternative movement for leadership in the Church of England. Not 'grooming' people for 'senior' positions, but finding ways of connecting the irritants and trouble-makers, encouraging the listeners and pray-ers, hearing to speech the poets and story-tellers, resourcing the connectors and community-builders, stretching the thinkers and theologians, unleashing the prophets and protesters...

When the 'talent pool' is separated from 'the flood which breaks the dam', then the water in the pool is in grave danger of turning stagnant. Why don't we let go of our anxiety, and our Promethean attempts to technologise and strategise with it - and just ride the waters of the flood. Who knows, we, 'the Church, might not be around for much longer - not in our current form, at least. But the flood continues breaking the dams, and the light still shines in the darkness, and the darkness isn't going to put it out...

For much more articulate reflections on the Green report, have a look at:
- Rachel Mann's "'These are not the leaders you're looking for' - talent pools, management & the C of E"
- Andrew Lightbown's "Open Letter to Advocates of the Green Report"

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

For now, I'm cursing the darkness

"In the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to give light to those who dwell in darkness and in the shadow of death and to guide our feet into the way of peace." ~ Luke 1:78-79

"It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness" ~ Ancient Chinese Proverb

Just a week or so back I wrote this brief blog post for the Church of Scotland Priority Areas blog, a response of gratitude for 48 hours sharing 'holy ground' with folk from some of Scotland's neighbourhoods labelled the most 'deprived' - a celebration of the wonderful gifts we find around us in communities like theirs, and mine, if only we look for them.

But today I just feel like cursing the darkness. The darkness that can be relentless, draining, despairing, hopeless.

In the last few days, following on from the story with which I began my last blog (on food banks, the shame of poverty, and our broken systems) I have found myself in conversation with solicitors and barristers, a District Judge, council officers, councillors and city cabinet members, and leading lights in homelessness charities and the Church of England in Birmingham. I've caught brief glimpses of compassion and humanity within the systems. And then some of those glimmers of hope have been rapidly extinguished, by another bit of the system behaving with either incompetence, stupidity, or inhumanity. And while it has been abundantly clear that there are good people working away within these systems, what's also been painfully obvious is that the systems themselves have evolved in ways that squeeze out people's humanity, erode their common sense, chip away at their compassion, encourage and often reward the more stupid tendencies that we all have within us.

So today I'm cursing the darkness. Because I can't help myself. Because I feel helpless to do anything else. And because the darkness keeps on being dark and keeps on snuffing out the candles of hope, moments after they've been lit.

And I will continue to insist that cursing the darkness is itself an act of faith. Because while I still have any energy to curse the darkness, there is something within me that insists that this is not how things should be, that things can - and should - be different.

And within my limited capacity as a human being who wants to keep going with all those I care about and who care for me, I will do my best to keep on sitting with "those who dwell in darkness and in the shadow of death", sometimes in silence, sometimes cursing the darkness with them.

And although I can't see where on earth it will come from, or even imagine how it can be possible, I will stubbornly refuse to believe that we must simply wait until the end of time, or the end of our lives, for "the dawn from on high" to "break upon us". Something within me - something from beyond me - insists that that dawn, that light, is closer to us than we often know. And that it shall break. And that things shall be different. Something holds open that space, that possibility, that insistence, within me.

But for now, I'm cursing the darkness. And I have to believe that that, for now, is enough.

are we really waiting for
and what are the things
we need more
than ever
and how
should there be a beginning
of what
and who
still hopes at all
for what
and when
will it break
this day
of light
and who
still believes in it?

(Carola Moosbach, in traces of heaven)

Thursday, 4 December 2014

'Emergency Use Only?' On food banks, shame, and broken systems

I’m angry. I’m also tired, frustrated, and have moments of despair, but most especially, I’m angry.

Yesterday, I spent a substantial part of my day in a cold, barely-furnished flat, with a woman who’s facing eviction in a week’s time. On Tuesday, we’d given her some food, because she had nothing to eat at all. On Wednesday morning when I visited, it was pretty clear that she had no money to pay for enough electricity to heat the food in the cans we’d given her. And then I spent about an hour on mobile phone (she didn’t have any credit, as you can imagine), trying to navigate the complex and over-stretched systems of Birmingham City Council, attempting to find out whether there might just be a new flat available for her in a week’s time, or whether she’ll be kicked out onto the streets, two weeks before Christmas. The extra irony is that Birmingham City Council are knocking down her block of flats next year, so it’s pretty much guaranteed that her flat will remain empty when she leaves.

On 19th November, a report was published, entitled ‘Emergency Use Only: Understanding and reducing the use of food banksin the UK’. It was quickly dismissed by the government as inconclusive, selective and not proving anything, with the DWP insisting “we have a strong safety net in place”. The DWP minister who was meant to be attending the report’s launch and responding in person, inexplicably pulled out at the last minute, leading one Church of England bishop to politely suggest – as perhaps only a Church of England bishop can – that “they possibly need to read the report”.

In case you missed it, the report – jointly commissioned by Oxfam, Child Poverty Action Group, the Church of England and the Trussell Trust – examined why people are turning to food banks, how food bank use fits with their wider coping strategies, and what might be done to reduce the need that leads to food bank use. Its key findings included:
  • that people turned to food banks as a last resort, and that they found the decision difficult, ‘unnatural’, ‘embarrassing’ and ‘shameful’
  • that most food bank users were facing an immediate, acute financial crisis – either a complete loss of income or a very significant reduction in their income, leaving them with little or no money to put food on the table
  • that those acute crises could be prompted by a sudden loss of earnings (e.g. losing a job, or loss of work through ill health), a change in family circumstances (e.g. bereavement), or homelessness – but for between half and two-thirds of people, it was linked to problems with the benefits system (e.g. waiting for payments, sanctions, or reductions in disability benefits)
  • that sources of ‘emergency support’ were insufficient, or so poorly advertised that people were not aware of what was available

In addition, the report found that food bank use is made more likely when individuals or families lived with specific vulnerabilities, including:
  • living in a local area where access to jobs, shops and services is limited
  • the impact of physical and mental illness on an individual or within the wider household (including caring responsibilities)
  • difficulty obtaining or proving educational qualifications or skills
  • problems with housing
  • isolation or lack of family support
  • large debt repayments

The report made recommendations, within its tightly-constrained remit, around improving access to emergency financial support, improving the effectiveness of communication and support within the systems (e.g. Jobcentre Plus), and mitigating the impact of gaps in payments around challenging and reconsidering decisions.

But there are glaring issues the report writers were not able to say in so many words, for fear of the kind of oppressive government retaliation against vital anti-poverty charities that, once upon a time, we might have imagined was the sole preserve of dictatorial regimes.

Like the fact that the systems that are supposed to ‘support’ people on the breadline are so complex, inefficient and unfriendly that either those in government have deliberately intended them that way, or those in government are so incompetent they are unable to address their fatal flaws. Take the ‘Universal Jobmatch’ website, for example – a place that all those on Jobseeker’s Allowance are expected to visit several times a week. If the frequency with which it crashes on me and my colleagues at our local Open Door drop-in is anything to go by, or the endless circular loops it gets into, preventing a user from registering, or having their latest activity acknowledged by the system – then the system is well and truly broken, and it’s certainly not the fault of the ‘users’. The idea that all benefits are going to be computerised through Universal Credit is a vision that should strike terror into everyone who has ever used a government website. And I can’t help wondering if terror is exactly what is intended. After all, it saves the government lots of money, doesn’t it?

And then there’s sanctions. The report could highlight the inefficiencies and failures in the sanctions process, but it wasn’t allowed to say that the whole sanctions process is utterly unjust. It is, to put it bluntly, the legalising of a penal regime of destitution, wielded almost on a whim by the functionaries of the system who are too scared about losing their own jobs to be in any position to challenge it. Some of my neighbours have been living on just over £4 a fortnight as a result of sanctions, whilst living with multiple disabilities, compounded by illnesses developed as a direct consequence of their financial circumstances. The privatisation of the welfare industry means multiple failures in communication between bodies involved in imposing and lifting sanctions, and claimants having to travel miles – with what? when a return bus journey is more than a fortnight’s income? – for appointments that make no difference to their situation, having to prioritise ‘compliance’ meetings over hospital appointments and family funerals.

One of the other publications on my reading list at the moment is an international study spanning Global North and Global South, on The Shame of Poverty (Robert Walker, Oxford University Press, 2014). It states the obvious, but – like Emergency Use Only – backs it up with hard evidence: that the pain of poverty extends beyond material hardship; that rather than being ‘shameless’, as the media often claims, people in poverty almost invariably feel ashamed at being unable to fulfil their personal aspirations or to live up to societal expectations due to their lack of income and other resources. Such shame not only hurts, adding to the negative experience of poverty, but undermines confidence and individual agency, can lead to depression and even suicide, and may well contribute to the perpetuation of poverty. Public policies would be demonstrably more successful, the book argues, if, instead of stigmatizing people for being poor, they treated them with respect and sought actively to promote their dignity.

Who knew? You treat people like shit, and on the whole they stay stuck in the gutter. You treat people with a bit of dignity and respect, and they begin to be able to make life better for themselves. We shouldn’t need hundreds of hours of research and report-writing to help us understand that. And, I fear, the hundreds of hours of research and report-writing will largely fall on deaf ears. Has anyone mentioned revolution recently? It’s time to get angry, together.

Other related stories:

Thursday, 16 October 2014

What if...? #Inequality & poverty of imagination

What if inequality wasn't inevitable? In a book that has been hailed as 'forensic', 'angry', and 'a brilliant analysis of the nature of inequality in the UK' , Danny Dorling sets out five 'myths', widely-believed and oft-perpetuated in so much of our collective imagination, that enable inequality to persist in our society, because they convince us of the 'TINA' principle, that 'there is no alternative':
  1. that 'elitism is efficient' - even though it turns 1/7 of all children into 'dropouts'
  2. that 'exclusion is necessary' - even though it leaves 1/6 of all people trapped in the grip of debt
  3. that 'prejudice is natural', a 'social Darwinism' that sees incentives as good for some (the rich) and punishments necessary for others (the poor) - even though it leaves 1/5 of all adults in what Dorling calls 'indentured labour' - doing everything they can, but paid barely enough to 'get by'
  4. that 'greed is good', the cult of celebrity and consumption - even though 1/4 of all households don't even have access to a car
  5. that 'despair is inevitable', that competition and insecurity are unavoidable - even though it leaves 1/3 of all families dealing with anxiety-related illnesses
(Daniel Dorling, Injustice: Why Social Inequality Persists, Bristol: Policy Press, 2011)
The myths go deep within us: as a society, and as individuals. Alistair McIntosh, a member of the Scottish Poverty Truth Commission, puts it like this:
"It is crucial that we understand the roots of what poverty is. First, it is structural, being systemic to the distribution of power, resources and educational opportunities in society. Second, it is a form of violence that comes from a deficit of empathy between those who have much and those who have little. Third, it is intergenerational, with its life-crippling seeds getting passed on in early childhood. And fourth, it is sustained by blindness to the full humanity of one another, showing it to be a pathology of the rich and not just a deficit of the poor."
What both Dorling and McIntosh highlight is that poverty and inequality are not just the result of 'faulty technologies', workings of our society or economy that need tinkering with to improve things for those at 'the bottom of the heap'. No, they are ultimately rooted in 'a deficit of empathy', a 'blindness to the full humanity' of others - and that this 'poverty of imagination' (especially among the rich) manifests itself as violence against the poor.

Anthropologist and activist David Graeber picks up on these themes. Violence is the resort of the stupid, he argues - and the securities of wealth make people incredibly stupid:
"violence, particularly structural violence, where all the power is on one side, creates ignorance. If you have the power to hit people over the head whenever you want, you don't have to trouble yourself too much figuring out what they think is going on, and therefore, generally speaking, you don't. ... Why is it that the folks on the bottom (the victims of structural violence) are always imagining what it must be like for the folks on top (the beneficiaries of structural violence), but it almost never occurs to the folks on top to wonder what it might be like to be on the bottom... [T]he downtrodden actually care about their oppressors, at least, far more than their oppressors care about them..."
(David Graeber, Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology, Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2004, pp.72-73)
And in his concluding observation, Graeber highlights the glimmer of hope in it all. The rich may be suffering from a pathological empathy deficit, a blindness to the humanity of others, a poverty of imagination when it comes to people 'not like us' - but among the downtrodden, the 'excluded', and those who live with the daily reality of poverty, empathy is less thin on the ground, imagination abounds. The Poverty Truth Commission in Scotland, with which Alastair McIntosh has been involved, is one brilliant example of making a space within which that empathy, that imagination, can be nurtured. This is about anything but mincing our words: it is, as Meg Wheatley puts it, about learning 'to talk with those we have named "enemy"':
"Fear of each other also keeps us apart. Most of us have lists of people we fear. We can't imagine talking with them, and if we did, we know it would only create more anger. We can't imagine what we would learn from them, or what might become possible if we spoke to those we most fear. ... I believe we can change the world if we start listening to each other again..." 
(Margaret Wheatley, Turning to one another: simple conversations to restore hope to the future, San Francisco: Berrett-Kohler, 2009, pp.7-8)
The way McIntosh describes it evokes echoes, very intentionally I think, of South Africa's 'Truth and Reconciliation Commission':
"To walk this path we must allow ourselves to be challenged by Truth - the truth of where we and our world stand, the truth of where we know we are called to go, and the many truths of how to bridge that gap. Truth is an active power for change. Reconciliation is what brings us back together again in our common humanity. Both spring from the sharing of community. Truth and reconciliation are about seeking that which gives life. Life as love made manifest."
But what if the rich and powerful aren't interested in truth and reconciliation? What if they can't be bothered to listen? Well, at the very least, the rest of us don't need to wait for them to change their hearts and minds. But we do need to turn our attention, our imaginations, in a different direction. Here's Dorling again:
"We see our history, our future, our nightmares and our dreams first in our fickle imaginations. That is where we first make our present. How we come to live is not predetermined. Geographically all it takes is a little imagination, a little 'wishful thinking', to see that a collection of movements will achieve the change we wish to see in the world; these are movements that need only exist in our imaginations in order to work, to have faith. These are movements to 'make our own world from below [where we] are the people we have been waiting for'. ... Everything it takes to defeat injustice lies in the mind. So what matters most is how we think." (Dorling, p.320)
So let's stop waiting for new ideas to tackle inequality to descend from 'above', from our so-called 'political leaders', whose imaginations are stunted and sight impaired by the hard walls of their wealth and insecure security. Let's crack on with making a new, more equal, more justice world without them. Because, as Andre Gorz put it, 'the exit from capitalism has already begun'. The end is already here, and in the midst of the death throes of the beast, new forms of common life, of sharing and reciprocity, of imagination, of mutual respect and equal dignity, are springing up all around us. Have a look for them, and you'll see them. And when you do see them, join in. Because it's much more fun than endlessly rehearsing the five myths of inequality. Another world is possible, and it's already here. We just need to get stuck in...

[This blog was written, in some haste, for #BlogAction Day #BAD2014]

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Let's #knitforBrooks!

"The important thing charities should be doing is sticking to their knitting and doing the best they can to promote their agenda, which should be about helping others."

Yes. Those words are from the first speech of the new Minister for Civil Society.

Just in case you didn't quite get that - this is the Minister for Civil Society:

"We really want to try and keep charities and voluntary groups out of the realms of politics. Some 99.9% do exactly that. When they stray into the realm of politics that is not what they are about and that is not why people give them money."

Which is interesting, isn't it?

Exactly what, we might ask, does the Minister for Civil Society think 'civil society' is? And what, we might also ask, does he think 'politics' is?

It seems he has a quaint notion - perhaps he's watched too many period dramas - of 'civil society' as a little bit like a crudely stereotyped Women's Institute meeting (I've met the Women's Institute, and they're not like this, honest) where lots of little old ladies sit around knitting, chatting, and perhaps sometimes going out and giving a poor, homeless person a cup of tea and a sandwich.

'Politics', on the other hand, is clearly a professional activity for highly-trained people like himself, making important decisions and doing the real work of running the country - interrupted every 5 years or so by a brief collective ritual involving the rest of us.

Or perhaps that's how Brooks Newmark would like it to be. But of course, it's not quite like that, is it?

'Civil society', if it's a 'thing' at all, is all of us. Citizens. Little old ladies and homeless people, the Brooks Newmarks of the world and irritated vicars, and many, many more. And everything we do is political: our choices at the supermarket, and our conversations online; which neighbours we make friends with, and what we gossip about at the school gate; our choices to conform with the rules, or protest against them; who we give our money to, and what we spend our time and energy on... All of it knits the social fabric - aha! - in particular ways, nurturing what we value, excluding what we don't, making its little ripples through our social and economic relationships as far as people we don't know and will never meet.

What arrogance from a 'professional politician' to think that only people like him do 'politics'! And what naivety - I'm assuming, generously, that it's nothing more sinister - from the 'Minister for Civil Society', to suggest that 'civil society' should shut up and not dare to ask questions, or make criticisms or constructive proposals, about the social fabric that entangles all of us.

A little while ago, many of us sent pants to Iain Duncan-Smith, after it was discovered that he was struggling so much with his MP's salary that he needed to claim for his underwear on expenses.

So why don't we knit something for Brooks? Why don't we, as it were, sock it to him?

A bit of banter with a Quaker theologian friend Rachel Muers this morning suggested a number of possibilities:

Rachel Muers How about everyone who volunteers or works for a charity knits a square and writes a piece to go with it -"in the time it took me to knit this square, my charity has/I could have..." It would be better if they actually stopped doing what they normally do in order to knit ("we went back to knitting like you said") - but then large chunks of the social fabric would fall apart. Social fabric. Ah, I think we have the metaphor...

Rachel Muers Alternative suggestions: some sort of knit-in protest in Parliament Square; knitted puppets turn up at his next event to talk about what charities and civil society organisations do...

So who's up for it? Brooks Newmark would be ashamed of me, but I'm afraid I can't knit, yet. But I know some people who can, and I'm up for learning.

What do you think? Squares or socks?

But I love Rachel's suggestion of what we send with it. Something along the lines of:

"Dear Mr Newmark. I work/volunteer for xxxxxxx. As you suggested, me and my colleagues/fellow-volunteers went back to knitting - for a bit. In the time it took me to knit this square, my charity has/I could have done xxxxxxx. We're part of your 'civil society'. And we can't help being political, even if your government's Lobbying Bill would prefer we shut up. So here's a chunk of the social fabric that would fall apart without us. Do let us know what you're thinking of doing with it. Yours sincerely..."

And we love a good hashtag...

#socialfabric #knitforBrooks #sticktoyourknitting #sockittohim #politicalfabric #stitcheduppolitics #uncivilsociety... The possibilities are endless! (Although I guess one's probably better than lots!)

Who's in?!

Sunday, 10 August 2014

"What are you doing here?" A sermon

(Sermon for 10/7/14, Proper 14A, Hodge Hill Church)
Readings:            1Kings 19:9-18; Matthew 14:22-33
For 9 days in the summer of 2004, on a strip of wasteland on the border of Hulme and Moss Side in Manchester, close to the home of Jamal al Hairth, a detainee of the American internment camp in Guantanamo Bay, a razor-wire perimeter fence contained a fully functioning replica of the American Camp X-Ray, complete with local volunteers acting as guards and prisoners. Every morning for the 9 days of the theatrical installation, the American flag was raised and the American national anthem was blasted out across Hulme from the guarded watch-tower.
This is Camp X-Ray, as it was called, made very visible, and for Jamal’s Mancunian neighbours brought unavoidably close to home, the stark reality of the Western world’s regime of everyday fear and ‘securitization’ which, for most of us on most days, happens around us without us even noticing. We have been trained to be suspicious and afraid, of so-called ‘terrorist threats’ and ‘radicals’ who destabilize the status quo, and we have been trained to accept restrictions on our movement, on our gatherings, on where we can walk and where we can sit and what we can question, in the name of ‘security’, ‘safety’, ‘protection’. We’ve been trained to accept the necessity of surveillance, of the arms industry, of ‘superpowers’ that could, at the touch of the button, destroy the planet we live on and all its people – and are in fact already, just more slowly, doing exactly that. And we’ve been trained then to forget about it – to not think of it as a crisis of democracy, of humanity, of the created world – but as normal life, as inevitable and ongoing, as the only world that can be, with no imaginable alternative.
Elijah too lived in a world where fear and force were apparently the only reality there was. He lived under the regime of King Ahab, supporter of the followers of the god Baal. The altars of Yahweh, who some once said was the one true God, are in ruins, and Elijah, Yahweh’s prophet and champion has, you might remember, been waging a valiant war against Baal and his prophets, culminating in a show of force on Mount Carmel where these rivals gathered to see which god could burn a sacrificed bull with fire from heaven. As the prayers of the prophets of Baal piled up, Elijah mocked them, suggesting, among other things, that perhaps Baal can’t put in an appearance because he’s busy with a bowel movement. When it’s Elijah’s turn to offer his sacrifice, first he rebuilds the altar of Yahweh, then completely soaks his bull in water, and Boom!, the lightning strikes. All present fall to the ground, crying: ‘Yahweh is the true God.’ And Elijah immediately takes advantage of this, pointing his finger at the 450 prophets of Baal, ordering that they be seized and killed. His order is obeyed at once.
After this triumph, however, Elijah falls into a bit of a depression. He goes off into the desert, and wants to die. God gives him the food he needs for survival, but not even that pleases him much, and an angel has to tell him to eat up. He does, eventually, and the food keeps him going for the 40-day, 40-night hike to Mount Horeb, like Moses had done before him. Once he gets there, Elijah hides in a cave, and God has to come and find him. ‘What are you doing here?’ he asks. And Elijah replies:
"I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away."
There is a tragic heroism in Elijah’s little speech, but not far underneath the surface are three little unspoken words: “and I’m afraid”.
Elijah is then ordered to come out of the cave and stand before the Lord, who is going to pass by. And you know the story: first comes a mighty wind, which splits mountains and breaks rocks in pieces, but the Lord was not in the wind. Then comes an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake, and then comes a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. After the fire there comes a still small voice – a sound of sheer silence…
And it’s at this point that Elijah goes out and stands at the cave’s entrance, and God speaks to him again, again asking him what he’s doing there, and once again, Elijah answers:
"I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away."
Word for word, the exact same speech. It’s as if nothing at all has changed.
And then the story reaches its extraordinary anticlimax. God tells Elijah to go off to Damascus to anoint Jehu king, and to find Elisha to be his successor as prophet. And, by the way, God adds, there are 7,000 Israelites out there who haven’t forsaken the covenant with Yahweh. Elijah’s story, and his ministry, is pretty much over – but there are plenty of others out there who have been, and will continue to be, faithful to Elijah’s God.
This is, in fact, a conversion story. When the story begins, Elijah’s God is a god like Baal, but bigger and tougher, and Elijah is his spokesman, confident, obedient, faithful – perhaps just a little bit arrogant with it. His God works wonders, and Elijah himself is in the centre of the drama.
But when it all goes quiet, as Elijah sinks into depression in the desert, he begins to doubt the value of all the dramatics of Mount Carmel. And on another mountain, the truth finally takes hold of him: his God is not in the earthquake, wind and fire, not in the impressive performances and theatrical victories – but in the still, small voice after the excitement has died down. And Elijah, rather than the heroic martyr he imagines himself to be, the only one to remain loyal as all around are faithless and hostile, is told by God, gently but firmly, that there are a good 7,000 faithful others up God’s sleeve, and that Elijah should get on with the mundane, unspectacular work of handing on his responsibilities to some of them.
There is, in Elijah’s conversion story, an invitation to conversion for us too. We are invited, with Elijah, to look and look again, to keep looking through the drama of smoke and lightning storms, through the destruction of earthquakes and missile strikes, through the apparent ‘protection’ of ‘security fences’ and firewalls, until we are able to recognise the faces of other human beings, like us, fearful, fragile, vulnerable, broken. And we are invited, with Elijah, to listen and listen again, for the still small voice that addresses us by name, and tells us to go, and join our hands with our neighbours, in the mundane, unspectacular work of building relationships of solidarity, friendship, and peace.
In 2001, the International Solidarity Movement was set up, under the guidance and invitation of Palestinian peace activists, to invite international volunteers to Israel/Palestine. ISM volunteers engage in non-violent direct action, intended to ‘dramatize the terrible conditions under which Palestinians live because of the Occupation, and to protect them from physical violence from Israeli soldiers and settlers’. Over the last 13 years, ISM volunteers from around the world have accompanied Palestinians to harvest olives in occupied territory; acted as human shields against Israeli military or settler attacks; delivered supplies to refugee camps under curfew; participated in peaceful demonstrations; dismantled roadblocks and observed the treatment of Palestinians at Israeli checkpoints. One motivation (among many) for inviting internationals has been the belief that faced with the presence of foreign bodies, the likelihood of human rights abuses would be decreased, and that some kind of media publicity would be generated. ISM volunteers are present in Gaza right now, many of them living alongside Gazan Palestinians in the UN schools and shelters. We know all too well, from the news coverage of the last few weeks, that that has not stopped terrible killings of children, women and men by Israeli forces, in what many observers are saying are not just violations of international law, but war crimes.
One British volunteer for ISM, Sharon, interviewed a few years ago, had been shot in the stomach by an Israeli soldier while on a demonstration in Palestine. Sharon insisted that the experience only confirmed her determination to ‘put her body in the way’ of violent attacks, to risk her life in solidarity with the most vulnerable:
“You’re essentially ... handing over your body to someone who has the power to damage it,” she said, “and, you know, for some people that’s the most fundamentally frightening thing you could come up with... OK, so I’ve been arrested and I’ve been in prison for a short time, and I’ve been shot... [but that] means, when all these things are threatened, to stop me doing what I want to do, I can think, well, I can handle that... that’s not going to stop me.”
Handing over your body, in vulnerable solidarity. Perhaps not without fear, but determined not to let the fear be the thing that stops, prevents, paralyses action. There is something strangely like walking on water in Sharon’s attitude, something that sounds remarkably like following in the wake of the christlike God. Exposing the forces of violence – that so often manage to hide themselves – for what they are, but also making visible, ‘witnessing to’, another way, another way of living in the world, a way of vulnerable, risky, solidarity, friendship and love. We have seen something similar this week, very close to home, in Shenstone, just north of Sutton Coldfield, as protestors locked shut the doors of a factory that makes engines for Israeli unmanned, armed drones, and kept vigil on its roof for 2 days and nights. A merely symbolic gesture, perhaps, but just as with the transplanting of Camp X-Ray to inner city Manchester, exposing the world we live in, and embodying a glimpse that another very different world is possible. In fact, there is the possibility that we as a church might join, in the days, weeks and months to come, with other Christians in a regular vigil at the UAV factory in Shenstone, as a continuing witness to the possibility of peace.
Today, at the end of our prayers of intercession, we’ll have a moment to use our bodies in a very small, but significant and symbolic way: for each of us to light a candle, for peace in Gaza, and across our troubled, violence-torn world. Please come and offer your prayer – but more than that, ask God to show you ways that you can be your prayer, living it out in your daily life in little actions of vulnerable, risky, solidarity, friendship and love.
I want to finish with a poem from Kathy Galloway, Christian, peace-maker, and a member of the Iona community:
Do not retreat into your private world,
That place of safety, sheltered from the storm,
Where you may tend your garden, seek your soul,
And rest with loved ones where the fire burns warm.
To tend a garden is a precious thing,
But dearer still the one where all may roam,
The weeds of poison, poverty and war,
Demand your care, who call the earth your home.
To seek your soul it is a precious thing,
But you will never find it on your own,
Only among the clamour, threat, and pain
Of other people's need will love be known.
To rest with loved ones is a precious thing,
But peace of mind exacts a higher cost,
Your children will not rest and play in quiet,
While they still hear the crying of the lost.
Do not retreat into your private world,
There are more ways than firesides to keep warm.
There is no shelter from the rage of life,
So meet its eye, and dance within the storm.

  • Elijah commentary drawn from James Alison, ‘Theology amidst the stones and dust’, in Faith Beyond Resentment: Fragments Catholic and Gay, pp.27-30
  • The stories of This is Camp X-Ray and ISM volunteers are taken from Stefan Skrimshire, Politics of Fear, Practices of Hope, p.157, pp.184-5
  • A couple of snippets of wisdom on ‘making visible’ lie in the background to these reflections too. They can be found at

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

"What I need is a good listening to"

“What I need is a good listening to”. That was the headline, a few years ago, of a powerful ad campaign run by the Children’s Society. Not the “good talking to” from a cross adult, more familiar to many children. But adults need “a good listening to”, too.

In Hodge Hill, we run a little drop-in place, twice a week, that we call Open Door. The name is quite deliberate – it’s a place where you don’t need to make an appointment, where you can come and go when you want to, and where you’ll find a warm welcome, a smiling face, a cup of tea, and a listening ear. It’s also a place where you can get help accessing the internet, writing a CV, searching for jobs, making phone calls, and all kinds of other practical support. “You feel equal in here” says Stefan, one of our ‘regulars’. And if people often come through the door very aware of their ‘needs’, we’re really keen to help them discover and unlock their gifts: the things they’re passionate about, the things they know about, the things they can do, that they could share with their neighbours.

And that’s where ListenUp! comes in for us. We were really keen to find opportunities to give people an opportunity for a longer, more in-depth “good listening to”. To help them become more aware of the resources and resourcefulness they have, the ways they have – even when things are really tough – to ‘make ends meet’, to ‘keep head above water’. And to give them safe spaces where they could also voice those experiences of being overwhelmed, of ‘going under’. In the process, relationships of trust, understanding and empathy are deepened, and friendships have a chance to grow, bridging differences of background, experience and nationality.

But ListenUp! opens up possibilities for even more. We work really hard in Hodge Hill to celebrate and nurture the ‘hidden treasures’ in our neighbourhoods – the networks of support and care, the groups where people come together around a shared interest or concern. The conversations we have with people through ListenUp! will hopefully highlight and uncover many of these, but also reveal some of the ‘gaps’: what kinds of local support are missing, that would make a real difference to people’s ability to ‘make life work’? And what can we develop together – with the people we’ve listened to potentially taking a leading role?

And then there’s the bigger picture. We know first-hand that the savage cuts to services and the so-called ‘reform’ of the welfare system are having a huge impact on many, many people in our neighbourhoods. But ListenUp! helps us get into the nitty-gritty detail: exactly what difference does the bedroom tax, or a sanction from the Job Centre, make to this household and its livelihood? And how do they manage to cope, and what might happen if they ‘go under’? ListenUp! builds up a real, lived ‘evidence base’, helping to challenge and undermine the easy prejudices, and building a rooted, shared authority to speak and act for change.

Listening seems to be a quiet thing. But it’s actually the seed-bed of revolution. As listening ‘hears others to speech’, it empowers them as new ‘hearers’ in turn. Those who heard Jesus cry ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ became the witnesses to, and agents of, resurrection. It’s a world-changing movement, and it begins with “a good listening”.

This blog was originally written for Church Action on Poverty in March. We've now completed our first round of ListenUp! conversations, and worked with the Church Urban Fund to write up the process and our early findings. The report and executive summary are available at:

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Beyond 'glass half full' - the politics of ABCD

For a couple of years now I've been a passionate advocate for asset-based approaches to community development (ABCD). I believe in ABCD partly because I'm a pragmatist - it seems to 'work' (slowly, with fragility, but surely, we're seeing evidence of 'community' springing up around us here in Hodge Hill, and that seems to be making all kinds of positive differences in the lives of those of us who live here, and are finding ourselves part of 'it') - and partly because I'm a theorist - ABCD resonates with some of my deepest principles, with the core of my theology, and seems to make a whole load of sense of some of the biggest challenges of the world that we seem to be living in today.

But I also have to acknowledge - and increasingly so, as I get increasingly passionate in advocating for it - the dangers that an ABCD approach brings to the surface, the tightropes it makes us walk. And a lot of those dangers, those tightropes, are political - with a small 'p', that is, beyond parties and voting and that stuff, to the way power is hoarded, distributed, channelled, at every level from the micropolitics of neighbourhoods to the macropolitics of the global economy.

These reflections have been brewing for a while, much of them in conversation with others. It feels timely to get them down in words, in the hope that the conversation draws in more voices, and the dangers and potential of ABCD can come to greater clarity.

1. The 'glass half full' is a statement of defiance

ABCD goes well beyond a kind of Pollyanna-ish, or Monty Pythnoesque, 'always looking on the bright side of life', but close to its heart is the image of the 'glass half full': approaching neighbourhoods and those who live within them not primarily as 'needs', as 'deficits', as 'problems', but as 'gifts', as 'assets', as holding within themselves huge creative power. For neighbourhoods like mine, this is powerful stuff - because people have, for far too long, both outside and within our neighbourhood, told the 'deficit' story: we're one of Iain Duncan-Smith's 'broken ghettos', apparently, 'workshy', 'scroungers', 'dependency culture', you name it. 'Can anything good come out of Nazareth?' asked Nathanael, brother of Philip, about Jesus. People have similar suspicions about neighbourhoods like mine. The labelling is so often stigmatising, and the stigmatising can - and does - crush and break people's spirits.

So an ABCD approach is, on a very foundational level, a gutsy, defiant, 'f*** off!' to those who would label and stigmatise us, and to that part of each of us that falls for those untruths. We have passion, knowledge, and gifts here, and we have each other, and in sharing our gifts together, we have so much more than we are told we have - and that is power! It was far from coincidental that the very first Firs & Bromford Community Passion Play, last year, reached its ending with a sung version of Maya Angelou's poem, 'Still I Rise':
"You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise."
2. ABCD is about community - and a dangerous vulnerability

It may sound obvious, but asset-based community development is first and foremost about building community. It needs to be said, however, because one of the risks of ABCD-language is it gets muddled up with 'asset-based', or 'strength-based', approaches more generally and, at its most simplistic, is seen as simply an expression of 'positive psychology'. At its worst, this confusion can seem to veer towards the politics of those who advocate 'individual responsibility', 'getting on your bike', and 'pulling yourself up by your bootstraps' - whether in work or financial security, health or education.

This is where the 'glass half full' can be misleading: beyond 'looking on the bright side', beyond looking for individuals' strengths rather than their weaknesses, ABCD affirms that we need community - we need each other, our neighbours, our fellow human beings. We need to share each other's gifts, but we also need to share each other's vulnerabilities, each other's wounds, each other's struggles. The 'half empty' half of the glass can also be, and often is, the thing that enables us to connect with those around us. And it is community, says ABCD, that enables us to do that connecting, that sharing, in a way that systems and institutions - let alone markets - fail miserably.

This invitation to community, to vulnerable sharing, is also somewhat political: money, as theologian Stanley Hauerwas is fond of saying, is what we rely on when we've forgotten what friends are. Those who live in expensive gated 'communities', secure behind their fences, are trying to protect themselves from the vulnerabilities of being human. Those of us who try our best to live a more vulnerable kind of 'community' challenge the rich and powerful to risk discovering their humanity. Who knows where that might lead?!

3. ABCD takes issue with the 'service industry' - public and private
"Perhaps, the major problem with public health’s uncritical adoption of asset-based approaches is that it fails to distinguish between a radical critique of welfare, one that is firmly linked to an analysis of neo-liberal economics and the neo-liberal attack on welfare, which by contrast, supports the further de-regulation of markets and withdrawal of the social rights of citizens. If the strength of the assets movement is that it has generated discussion about re-dressing the balance of power between the public sector, public services and local communities, its fatal weakness has been the failure to question the balance of power between public services, communities and corporate interests. As such, asset-based approaches sound the drum beat for the retreat of statutory, state provision of both public services and public health."[1]
Lynne Friedli, writing from a public health perspective (and addressing 'asset-based approaches' more generally than ABCD), offers a strong challenge to ABCD, highlighting one of its biggest dangers: it can be heard to be supporting, and indeed co-opted to support, the neo-liberal 'rolling back' of the State.

Rooted in the work of social critic Ivan Illich, ABCD does indeed shine a spotlight on the way institutions, once intended to help and empower people, have a habit of growing in size and complexity to the point where the 'service' that they 'offer' is, in fact, counter-productive in people's lives, reinforcing in people the very 'problems' that the institution claims to solve, sustaining people's dependence on the institution to feed the institution's dependence on a steady stream of 'needy' people. It is a dramatic, powerful critique, and, in everyday experience, it seems to hit home at least as often as it misses the mark. There is, in fact, much more that properly sits in the domain of 'what communities can do' for those living in them, than the 'service industry' has allowed us space to imagine.

But it is in the moves onwards from Illich's critique that the real battles are to be fought. It hardly needs stating that 'the private sector' does no better job of humanising the 'service industry' than 'the public sector' - in fact, when you add in the profit-seeking factor to the already toxic mix, the drive towards institutional counter-productivity - benefits for the institution at the expense of its 'clients' - merely accelerates beyond imagining. In fact, after years of neo-liberal, 'competition'-promoting government in Conservative, Labour, and Coalition flavours, it's now barely possible to distinguish 'public sector' from 'private sector' at all. However paternalistic in intent the post-war origins of the welfare state were, that sense of shared responsibility as a society for the welfare of the most vulnerable - and with it the acknowledgment that any of us might, at times, find ourselves living with such vulnerability and need - has been all but obliterated - and ABCD needs to position itself, and articulate itself, clearly as part of the challenge to that obliteration, rather than a colluding partner in it.

4. ABCD is about social justice

With Friedli's challenge ringing in our ears, we cannot possibly say that the State's withdrawal from communities, its withdrawal of its people, places and money, is somehow going to make everything better. To be sure, often what communities need to be able to function better is for the systems and institutions to 'get out of the way' - but the ideal of the 'Big Society', dreamt up in a cosy Oxfordshire village, with volunteers aplenty to 'man the pumps' of everything from the library to the fire station, has been shown to be a blatant cover for the accelerated redistribution of wealth, an 'asset stripping' which has enabled the rich to get even richer and forced the poor to get even poorer, abandoning the poorest communities to 'look after themselves'.

Edgar Cahn, the founding father of timebanking, expresses the point with a necessary sharpness. Lamenting the way the 'brilliant work' of ABCD (in the USA) was being 'circumvented and perverted, used to get money without really altering professional practice or changing who got the dollars, who defined the problem, and who defined the response', Cahn exploded with anger at the 'obscene' way 'in which we were throwing away, destroying, degrading, or denigrating the most precious assets we have: human beings'. The core values of ABCD needed to be intertwined with a fundamental commitment to social justice:
"Assets became: No more throw-away people.  
Redefining work became: No more taking the contribution of women, children, families, immigrants for granted. No more free rides for the market economy extracted by subordination, discrimination, and exploitation.  
Reciprocity became: Stop creating dependencies; stop devaluing those whom you help while you profit from their troubles.  
Social capital became: No more disinvesting in families, neighbourhoods and communities. No more economic and social strip-mining." [2]
An angry No, then, intertwined with a hopeful, creative Yes. Not disinvestment, then, but changing the way we invest. Not abandonment by the State, but the State - at least so far as it embodies society's 'shared responsibility' and power-in-coordination - finding new ways to be present within neighbourhoods, ways that are infinitely more receptive, connective, and creative, than the familiar models of 'delivery' which so easily modulate into 'control'.

The three questions at the core of ABCD approaches, then, remain vital:
i. What can this community do for itself, with local people power? 
ii. What can this community do for itself, with some help and support from external agencies? 
iii. What does this community need external agencies to do for it (or perhaps better, alongside it)?
It's crucial to ask all three questions, of course - something the 'roll back' advocates would rather ignore. But the order of the questions is also crucial, because the 'default position' is to proceed from (iii) to (i), leaving local communities with the left-over scraps of activity once the external agencies have delivered on their own agendas and taken whatever rich pickings are to be had. A third caveat is also necessary: the questions need to be asked in each and every neighbourhood, and repeatedly over time, because the answers will vary greatly from place to place, and from year to year. There can be no nationwide prescription, as 'Big Society' implied - investment needs to be determined by local power and local need, and that, in itself, will require a radical redistribution of resources, people, and energy.

5. ABCD and 'progressive localism'

Having said that, I am increasingly convinced that there is something inescapably 'counter-State' about the evolving ABCD tradition. In the seemingly innocent language of 'progressive localism', some UK geographers are beginning to argue for, and discover already present around them, a 'counter-movement' to the aggressively 'anti-public', neoliberal 'austerity localism'. David Featherstone and colleagues outline four significant dimensions of such a counter-movement:
i. 'place-based organising' can, and does, challenge 'neatly bounded' conceptions of 'community' which spill out beyond the obviously 'local' (they offer the example of Gate Gourment workers in West London who were able to forge links of international solidarity, through the aviation industry, with workers in Norway and Denmark who refused to load meals onto aircraft bound for London) 
ii. rather than seeing globalisation as something 'done to' local communities in a simply 'top-down' way, local communities, workers, citizens can be seen to be 'active agents in shaping and negotiating such [globalizing] processes', 'challeng[ing] rather than entrench[ing] inequalities between and within places and regions' 
iii. these global linkages and connections can serve to highlight 'diverse forms of actually existing multiculturalism' that are present in localities and shape 'everyday practices of localism', challenging the chauvinistic rhetoric of politicians and media around race and migration
iv. progressive localisms 'can feed into broader social and political movements that aim to transform national and international policy frameworks' (the mobilisation of the living wage campaign from particular local communities in London is offered as an example) [3]
More recently, Andy Williams and colleagues from Exeter have argued that 'in amongst the neoliberal infrastructure' of localism, 'new ethical and political spaces' of 'resistance and experimentation' can be discovered, which work 'strategically, and even subversively, with the tools at hand'. Citing Foodbanks as a now notorious example of the neoliberal State apparently co-opting the people power in local communities, Williams et al argue:
i. 'the visible presence of Foodbanks has enabled structural critique of the processes underpinning food poverty in the UK' (by publishing data on usage, narratives detailing the reasons for usage, etc.) 
ii. 'spaces of care such as Foodbanks present a practical device through which citizens from myriad ideological perspectives can potentially experience a more positive identification with, and understanding of, the issues facing people with low-incomes' (the possibility of vulnerability leading to change that I suggested earlier) 
iii. 'these spaces of care can facilitate wider ethical-political alliances across voluntary organisations and protest groups' (similar to Featherstone et al's argument above) as part of an 'emergent public', 'a body able to advocate and represent itself and hold government to account'
Williams also, secondly, highlights research that suggests that 'the rationalities and technologies of neoliberal government at work in public, private and voluntary organisations can be performatively subverted from within'. 'Inside every civil servant is a citizen waiting to get out', as my friend and ABCD colleague Cormac Russell puts it, but perhaps they are not patiently 'waiting' as often as we think!

Thirdly, Williams points to examples of localism policies being embraced by local communities precisely in the cause of resisting the trends of neoliberalism: 'community take-overs of local facilities and amenities as social enterprises', 'strategic use of Local Enterprise Partnerships to direct economic development towards the growth of renewable and sustainable industries', 'harnessing the more open and deliberative nature of policy-making' that accompanies devolution 'to reject neoliberal models of individualised commodified care in favour of a more locally coproduced system of care-provision', and so on.

Finally, Williams highlights the emergence of groups which have created 'autonomous spaces', intentionally distanced from 'regulatory or financial relationships with government in order to pursue prefigurative, oppositional, and confrontational stances towards neoliberal logics'. They cite the example of Zacchaeus 2000 (Z2K), 'a London-based anti-poverty charity which provides free social, economic and legal assistance for low-income households affected by welfare reform and debt' which, alongside such support, has also been at the forefront of organising protests outside magistrate courts and other anti-cuts activism. While not entirely autonomous, as a registered charity, Z2K 'ventures directly into confrontation with state policy through its marriage of provision and protest'. [4]

It may be that I've deviated somewhat from directly discussing 'the politics of ABCD'. But I see in the developing discourse of 'progressive localism' a textured argument that allows us to take on board Lynne Friedli's challenge, but to go beyond a simple 'for or against neoliberal localism' dichotomy. In starting with the messy complexity of the local, with the diverse gifts and contestations of 'community', we are by no means restricted to the local, or to compliantly carrying out the wishes of neoliberal government. When people discover the power of face-to-face relationships with their neighbours, the possibilities of solidarities beyond the local, of challenge and resistance and re-shaping of wider structures, become more graspable. This is what Cormac is arguing, I think, in his excellent piece on an ABCD approach to local democracy, 'power from the people - power to the people'.

6. ABCD as (post)anarchism...?

I'm not sure it's been explicitly acknowledged anywhere, but there is, I would suggest, a distinctly anarchist streak to ABCD. In its emphasis on direct relationships of mutual care; on horizontal, associational life over against the hierarchical relationships of institutions; and on the 'common wealth' of local neighbourhoods, there is more than a resonance or two with anarchist politics - the development of 'autonomous zones' and experimental 'micropolitics' which 'prefigure' (i.e. begin living out in the present) a different kind of social order, beyond the State. Perhaps, following Saul Newman, Todd May and others, we might say the resonances are strongest with what is being described as postanarchism, which 'sees the state as a problem, but not the problem; it rejects the logic that would make any single point of resistance primary or central' and instead 'assumes power to be multiple and fluid, requiring more creative responses', which might well involve 'working more and more outside the state rather than strictly against it'. Interestingly - at least for me - that seems to bring us back to a place where some of the social practices of the Christian community might make a significant contribution. [5] But that, I think, is a reflection for another time...


[1] Lynne Friedli, ‘“What we’ve tried, hasn’t worked”: the politics of assets based public health’, Critical Public Health, 23:2 (2013), pp.131-145

[2] Edgar Cahn, No More Throw-Away People (2000) p.29

[3] David Featherstone et al, ‘Progressive localism and the construction of political alternatives’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 37 (2012), pp.177-182

[4] A Williams, M Goodwin & P Cloke, 'Neoliberalism, Big Society & Progressive Localism', Environment and Planning A (forthcoming 2014)

[5] Ted Troxell, ‘Christian Theory: Postanarchism, Theology, and John Howard Yoder’, Journal for the Study of Radicalism, 7:1 (2013), pp.37-60