Saturday, 18 November 2017

Memories of what once was haunt our politics


OK this is about about Youngstown, Ohio but the same sentiment could pass for a thousand other places across the USA, Britain and Europe:
In places like Youngstown, many people still remember what life was like when employment was high, jobs paid well, workers were protected by strong unions, and industrial labor provided a source of pride – not only because it produced tangible goods but also because it was recognized as challenging, dangerous, and important. The memory of what it felt like to transform raw ore into steel pipes and to be part of the connected, prosperous community that work generated still haunts the children and grandchildren of those workers.
These memories of what once was haunt today's politics and the minds of economists. The problem is that those economists know only the dry, utilitarian core of their discipline - free trade works, economic liberalism makes the world richer. And all this is undeniable but what it reminds us is that utilitarianism and Benthamite consequentialism should not be the only drivers of what we do and how we think about the world.

I don't think we can get back to those halcyon days of factories, unions, strong men and robust communities in places like Ohio, South Yorkshire, Livorno or Roubaix - this is, if you like, the mistake of Blue Labour and Red Tory analyses. But what we should do, rather than peer in faux-concern at the poverty consequential on the loss of those days, is ask what is needed to find again the ties that bound those communities together and made them strong.

John Sanphillippo writes brilliant photo-essays about America's suburbia and, in a recent piece about Orange County, California, he started with what I think is a really important remark:
There are things that we can do as a society to work through our big structural difficulties at an institutional level. And there are other things that can be done independently at the household level by individuals. I don’t have the technical skills, political skills, social skills, credentials, patience, or desire to engage the large scale systems. To be honest, I don’t think most people do. But there are all sorts of things that ordinary people can and should do on their own that can make a huge difference on the ground at room temperature. Collectively all our separate choices create the world we inhabit.
To do this we have to break with those memories of what once was, to forget pretending large factories with their unions, job security and dominance of a community will ever return. We've also to stop seeing the answer lies with holding out a cap to national government crying "fill it with money, we're hurting" - it's not that redistribution is a bad thing but rather that it stops things getting worse it doesn't make them better. The starting point is where Sanphillippo is pointing - outside our front doors.

Right now the neoliberal elite (apologies for calling them that but it's all I've got) are in denial. They know that their world view is challenged by folk struggling in Youngstown, Oldham or Fosse De Sessevalle and they know also that the voice of far-left and far-right echoes round these communities as they search for what they lost when the steelworks, cotton mills and coal mines closed. The problem is that the populists, whether rightists like Farage, Trump or Le Pen or leftists like Mélenchon, Corbyn or Sander, don't offer anything that works - all these would-be demagogues offer is a false hope and strong words of blame.

It seems to me we've to offer people two things - hope based on empowerment and control, and the idea of aspiration. Maybe if we start with those neglected local things - the fallen walls, the crumbling highway, the kid who needs a lift (or a bike) to get to an apprenticeship, the local school looking for readers, the doctors wanting help getting folks to and from hospital, a thousand things too small to get the notice of big government but important to you little place. Forget about grand national schemes and think instead about our neighbourhoods - because it really does work:
The Knight Foundation, an American charity that supports journalism and active citizenship, ran a programme called 'Soul of the Community' that showed how there is an "important and significant correlation between how attached people feel to where they live and local GDP growth" and what "most drives people to love where they live (their attachment) is their perception of aesthetics, social offerings, and openness of a place". If people love where they live, that place will succeed - it's Sam Gamgee going round The Shire planting a grain from Galadriel's garden in every corner.
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2 comments:

Sobers said...

I'm afraid the elephant in the room is immigration - how can (or will) immigrants love their new home towns to the same way a native could, and to what extent can social networks be restored when so many of the inhabitants are 'other'? The thing about the communities that are being mourned was not just the stable employment, it was all your neighbours looked like you, had the same life experiences as you, had a shared culture, even if you didn't know them personally you had a shared life experience. That has also gone, again never to return.

The Stigler said...

"Maybe if we start with those neglected local things - the fallen walls, the crumbling highway, the kid who needs a lift (or a bike) to get to an apprenticeship, the local school looking for readers, the doctors wanting help getting folks to and from hospital, a thousand things too small to get the notice of big government but important to you little place. Forget about grand national schemes and think instead about our neighbourhoods - because it really does work:"

A lot of this does happen. There's immense amounts of activity linked to people getting together, and those bogeymen, Twitter and Facebook, are enabling a lot of it. A local charity is having problems with their computer. Someone posts in a local group. Some wife asks her computer expert husband if he can help. He pops down for an hour or two and fixes it.

I started getting involved with the local air ambulance because of a regular Twitter local thing that happens. They wanted a leaflet distributor. I was near their office (20 miles away) that week. There was no urgency, which suits me. So, I did it. I don't want any commitment, but I have a box in my boot and if I'm in a strange bit of town, and I spot a hairdresser, cafe or vet, I drop a few newsletters off. And I like the people, so I'm now offering to help out with selling Christmas cards.