The power of the people when they are included more of the time: we can do it much much better

Featured Image: A Vegetal City by Solar Punk architect Luc Schuiten profiled on Rob Hopkins blog

Since the introduction of the category ‘limiting long term illness’ in the census in 1991 we’re beginning to realise that it wasn’t ever used in the way people living in Britain expected.

Census data has been used to enable venture capitalist investment to predict and prefigure forms of institutional profit around the determination of the life chances of (mainly) people who live in working class neighbourhoods.

To most people, even those who voted for Mrs Thatcher’s vision for Britain, mass data was inextricably connected to understanding the way democracy was developing, statistics on life chances that we were working as a society to improve and change. 

With the election of the conservative government in 1979, the whole notion of collecting statistics for the good of the nation in the traditional ONS way was instead up for the grabs of the market in data and business information. 

What we gave away to global venture capital in 1979 though, were the keys to our identities, archives, histories. In these forty years we’re only now returning to the broken neighbourhoods, the people in rented and social housing and apologising to them for the things we’ve done to them.  The wrongs: legislation that we’re introducing now to reduce online harms creates echoes of a lost history of post second world war democratic participation and representation.

The mass implementation of agency working in working class neighbourhoods in the late 80’s, 90’s up to now with the background removal of local focal points in local working class schools, community centres,  meant that there was no evidence left of the kind of community accountability that had been the result of neighbourhood collaboration for better services. If you can’t see it you can’t say it.

Under the guise of cutting crime, improving education, housing, regeneration and opportunities, evidence that there’d ever been a thriving, industrious, skilled and educated working class was smashed: only shards left. In the new intelligence led policing, for example, there was no longer the sense that the police were people from and of the neighbourhoods or that they had any connection to wider values of community safety and protection for everyone. There was a sense that the police were on the side of the winners, never the losers. From Robocop to Boris’s water cannon the pieces on the gigscape chessboard normalised a dystopian brutality that was accountable to no-one.

It was setting a culture where you only got what you could pay for, nothing more, nothing else: what you could pay for was what you deserved. Everything was literal, black and white. Perfect for the accountant, a good fit for a man with an interest in IT or if you were an attractive woman from a good family. The stereotypes in this core worker and peripheral worker structure were simple and regressive: traditional and patriarchal.

There was no such thing as complexity, except in the big projects. For the police service that meant against organised crime where there was an acceptance of complexity to be able to function in a world that seemed so sophisticated. In reality the segmentation of neighbourhoods and crime had been a post war post colonial economic reform to move against the desire for representation and buy off sections of the working class, encouraging them into roles in their neighbourhood where they were collecting data: catalogues were badly paid jobs that created data and business information that was used to exclude the very people and neighbourhoods who’d paid for the new business information systems with expensive credit from those systems.

In many ways the police service reflected the general social and cultural prejudice of that time against working class people, anyone who was considered an activist or potential activist: women, single parents, people with disabilities, older people, anyone who wasn’t white.

The problem was that all the services that working class people began to be connected with in their neighbourhoods were concerned with surveilling and discrediting them, whether it was an agency vetting them for work, a landlord offering a short tenancy, a school that they had to compete with professional parents for their children to attend, even access to medical and dental and optical services became for these segmented categories, a very lottery.

All of these services began to be influenced by global venture capital and shareholding even though the money provided had come from taxation and the poorest paid more tax pound for pound, low income families in this high period of service privatisation found themselves routinely knocked off dental service lists, even GP and optician lists.

Behind that professional people were under massive pressure to perform to ever more demanding targets so the belief in the feckless poor, particularly the feckless single parent with unrealistic aspirations even became the focus of a conservative MP’s target list in the 1990’s. We now see all neighbourhoods to have been diminished by this exploitation whether middle class or working class as it has been nearly impossible for relationships between middle class and working class people to be sustained: the traces and evidence of the extractive processes are in the becalmed appearance of all neighbourhoods.

We need to refine that movement, process, sense of shared and collaborative journeys just experiencing conversations, friendships, walking and talking to gather, arguing, debating. Where aspirations and hope have been stolen by predatory landlords and agency employers we need to re-place that sense of purpose, enquiry, possibility and community health that has been stolen. We need to understand that you can’t build a safe society on lies and propaganda and the enemies within. In the last seventy years we’ve denied the existence of diversities, we’ve denied the desire for developing representation and a modern parliament responsible to the neighbourhoods of the UK. We’ve blamed victims for the harms that as a society we have to take responsibility for.

In the 1980’s, 90’s, Neighbourhood Watch didn’t belong to everyone in society. It was the moral province of middle class property owners working in partnership with the police, setting behavioural standards for the increasingly criminal working class who were blamed for their vulnerabilities to poor resources, poor education, poor job opportunities, poor housing and crime.

Middle class people were used by the government and the services generally to buffer the smash and grab against the poor and we started to think, as a culture about…Children In Need, whether it was here or in Bob Geldof format. The middle class foolishly, were blinded by connection with the possibility of connection to celebrity and/or the honours system rather than wondering what was happening to democracy.

In the late 1980’s, 90’s and up to today this shock and awe tactic of taking from the poor and then binding up the harm in charity has been as effective as a nuclear strike against the post second world war desire for a modern representative parliament. It ushered in and encourages a culture of suspicion, discredit, failure: giving up and despair in all its cultural forms: in neighbourhoods emptied out, disconnected, disenfranchised, there’d suddenly be the arrival of a project, a celebrity, a new way of solving problems underpinned by the kissing corruption of the honours system, of research, projects, social exclusion counterpointed with kindness, charity, foodbanks where the architects of this new neighbourhood, of structured homelessness, slept out and fundraised for shelters.

The most needy had their place in this status hungry competitive hierarchy: they’d become volunteers in yet another charity where the Chief exec would be earning an enormous salary perhaps?

This culture of doing voluntarism distracted us from the growing social inequalities and democratic deficit.

For students in the developer built luxury bubbles from the moment they moved into whichever UK student city they’d landed in, as soon as they arrived they were prey: to a fake economy that had been set up and structured by tech platfora just for them. From the beginning of the new exploitation of the taxpayer student pound in the 1990’s the cynical introduction of all day licensing what students did on their first day of college, the pubs, clubs and shops they went to would be the same pubs, clubs and shops they’d be going to three, four, five years later and they’d have been groomed into a consumer lifestyle that probably makes them ill.

What if instead of debt we thought of education, vocation and a job for everyone as the focus of the neighbourhood and the university. What if when someone has another ‘light bulb’ moment: they think instead of creating another charity why don’t I try and find out how I could create a meaningful process that could produce meaning full jobs, skills and training that would rejuvenate the becalmed, shocked and awed middle class, working class and rural neighbourhoods across the UK (and beyond)?

This is not so difficult: the people we need to include in the discussions, conversations, preparation, planning and resource gathering are already here: working class, middle class, technicians, professional people, people from ethnically and gender diverse communities. We just need to remember that we have to work hard to get those fires of collaboration, community, common interests burning again.

When we have parity and equality in the design and planning process we have the beginning of redressing the much wider inequalities and democratic deficit. We have to remember that there have now been three or four generations who have experienced mass economic exclusion combined with the active creation of illness, disability, race, gender, age and class as profit centres for providers but not their subjects. We have to remember how these technocratic instruments were, for the last thirty years, backed up by the whip of austerity legislation and the DWP employing agency recruiters to surveil rather than engage with neighbourhoods and this lack of connection, engagement, lack of genuiness has created mass ennui, mass mental and physical manifestations of illness, vulnerabilities and harms that are now so ingrained that we have to reverse the thinking. 

The answers aren’t in extreme sports and militarising our muscles so we don’t show our vulnerabilities in the old post second world war reconstruction way, the answers are in admitting we don’t know who lives next door, we don’t know anything about the history of the area we live in: we’ve been living in so much status anxiety for so long that even if we’re effectively performing we all wonder what is real and what is not. 

It reminds me of the woman who set up the Bet 365 gambling platform: she came from a family of gambling shop owners. 

When she went to Sheffield University to study Econometrics no-one from the academic faculties stopped her with any sense of ethics or any sense that she could have done something for the very socially divided Stoke On Trent where she came from with her first class Econometrics degree. For example: she could have created a local payment platform for the businesses where the benefits could go into community development: she could also have created innovative forms of retailing points across the area where all ages and backgrounds could have access to the products and services they want, need and aspire to. She could have created a local version of courser, of facebook, of instagram that worked to help redefine the brands of each neighbourhood in Stoke on Trent she could have given the people of Stoke on Trent back their sense of pride and heritage.

Rather than set up an incredibly addictive and profitable platform and then do a lot of charitable work to make good the harm that the platform had caused, if she’d been able to connect with live architecture, live economics: granular social planning for how tech could be used to help individuals, SMEs, micro businesses to be nurtured and supported to grow rather than be seen as jolly marketing for inward investment from those seen as more important global players she could have been part of the social transformation we need now.

The answer isn’t to offer more gig and gang labour work, more short term rented accommodation, or even more tools for online gambling. We need to move back into the reality of the neighbourhood, supporting the neighbourhood to grow: to collect granular data, to talk with people, converse with the whole community combined with people focussed use of Technology platforms as some of the housing associations and community orientated landlords are beginning to do.