Thursday, 6 October 2016

David, Goliath & ABCD

At Hodge Hill Church's 'Messy Church' last Sunday morning, our children got stuck into the story of David and Goliath. The big scary, armed-to-the-teeth giant (left) and the brave small boy with the catapult, '5 smooth stones' and a decent aim. The kids thought about what the 'Goliaths' were in their lives, and how those Goliaths might be defeated.

I've been reading a book recently, for the PhD research, that also plays with the David and Goliath story as a metaphor. Romand Coles' 'Visionary Pragmatism: radical and ecological democracy in neoliberal times' (Duke University Press, 2016) uses it 'to glean insights into how underdogs and social movements can alter the spacing, timing, and practices of encounter in ways that change the conventional contestation - or game - to enable victories deemed highly improbable' (p.9). While much of Coles' book is hopeful in tone, he is also realistic about the scale of the challenge: '[i]n the form of global neoliberal capitalism, Goliath is no longer a dumb giant but a dynamic malignancy that has developed transformative powers of an alternating current that are nearly unfathomable. ... It is not enough to learn from David in our efforts to initiate the game-transformative practices of a radical democratic habitus. We must also learn from the Goliath who has learned from David, without becoming ourselves what is horrendous about Goliath' (p.27). The 'Goliaths' of neoliberal capitalism have become adept at 'co-opting' our best modes of radical resistance for their own ends, says Coles. As 'Davids', we need to learn something of that same skill of co-optation, for very different ends - and by a very different means. I'll come back to this shortly.

As these things sometimes do, the Messy Church session and the PhD research coincided with a third event, a blog post by my friend and fellow community-builder, Cormac Russell. In the blog, Cormac reflects on a recent critical article from two academics in Scotland: Neoliberalism with a community face?: A critical analysis of asset-based community development in Scotland (MacLeod, MA & Emejulu, A, 2014), which accuses the movement often called 'asset-based community development' (ABCD) of a capitulation to the 'individualization, marketization and privatization' at the heart of the neoliberal agenda. Drawing on reflections from John McKnight, one of those who first coined the phrase 'ABCD', Cormac highlights how far this particular academic critique 'misses the mark' - but also acknowledges some important challenges that the article raises, including the over-population of the ABCD movement by 'the voices of white, middleclass men'; and the danger that ABCD language (watered down often to 'asset-based approaches') too easily gets co-opted, 'misappropriated', for neoliberal ends, justifying the removal of state support for people and communities because, so goes the argument, they have their own strengths and can therefore cope on their own.

I want to offer just two additional 'wonderings' into this conversation, which emerge from my own mix of practice and reflection here in Hodge Hill, and my current PhD research.

Firstly, I want to highlight Rom Coles' suggestion that what he calls the 'quotidian practices of radical democracy' - the patient, receptive, arts of paying 'full-bodied attention', 'listen[ing] deeply', 'exercis[ing] hospitality' and weaving the web of community between people (in a neighbourhood, and wider) - needs to 'oscillate', be 'interwoven', with what he calls 'evanescent' forms of 'countershock politics' (the Occupy movement is a good example) which 'block' (even if only temporarily) the malignant 'mega-circulations' of neoliberalism and 'dramatically prefigure alternatives that open and reconfigure the hegemonic common sense of our times' (p.163-4). 'Radical democratic countershock politics, when separated from the lively energies and agencies of quotidian political practice done well, tends to fall in love with itself in ways that can quickly leave it clueless about how to organize to generate more transformative waves, broader and more durable assemblages, and radical effects.' On the other hand, the 'patience' needed for day-to-day community building can easily turn into 'narrow complacency'. '[T]here are no guarantees. The best we can do is become very mindful of the risks involved in such politics, carefully work in both dimensions, reflect critically after each action, and learn as we go' (p.172). This 'oscillation' is, perhaps, something ABCD needs to attend to, lest those of us who advocate it vocally turn down the cul-de-sac of 'narrow complacency' of which Coles warns.

Secondly, and very briefly, I want to underline the concern that the ABCD conversation - like so much else in the world - is dominated by white, middle-aged, middle-class men. Cormac and John self-consciously inhabit that category. So does Rom Coles. So do I. What do we do about it? When we are vocal, we are doing our best to speak up for something we believe is deeply important - not just for our own self-interests, but for those of our neighbours and friends, and also the countless others who as yet are strangers to us. But we do not - I hope - only speak. At the heart of ABCD approaches (at least as I understand and seek to practise them) is the importance of listening, of inhabiting spaces that are not 'ours' and under our 'control', of seeking to 'hear others to speech' and into fullness of expression, connection and life - of being radically receptive to the gifts and challenges of others. That, when done at all well, involves a large amount of 'dispossession': something white, middle-aged, middle-class men have not been well-known for, across history. It is a practice 'we' (and the 'we' here is much more specific than universal) need to keep learning, developing, returning to. It means letting go of stuff, of status, of power, of definitive claims to truth - of language, even. Maybe part of our radical resistance to the co-optation of 'ABCD' is to let go of the language of 'ABCD'? Another part of it is to identify when it is we need to shut up and listen to others speaking. And one of those moments, for me, is right now...