Fear, Loathing and Community Engagement

On the plane from Paris back to Kuala Lumpur, I read Jacques Ranciere’s response to Gorgias, On The Shores of Politics. He raises a wonderful question: “…perhaps philosophy’s most intimate business: how to deal with hate and fear.” It reminded me of one of my favourite books, Graeme Gibson’s Beyond Fear and Loathing: Local Politics At Work. This is a must-read both for those working in local advocacy and for local government employees who want to see how things look from the other side.

It’d be easy to write Gibson off as a NIMBY but I don’t think that’s the case. He’s too articulate, not self-centred enough and his local council subsequently attracted the attention of ICAC. The book is a memoir of his attempts to work with his local government over development controls and local environment plans. It isn’t cheerful reading. Underneath the detail of LEP reviews and council meetings lies the grim realisation that democratic dialogue is easy prey to loud voices and easy answers. Gibson has an epiphany:

It seems any community, anywhere, that opposes what it sees as inappropriate development is likely to be quickly labelled anti-development, anti-jobs and, particularly in regional areas, anti-the future of young people […] As in most complex issues it is harder to refute a simple claim than to make it. “You’re anti-development” take just two words, while “We’re not anti-development we support appropriate development,” takes seven.

The rhetorical devices through which community advocacy is written off, sidelined or de-fanged are a topic of some interest to me. I’ve been reading Dallas Rogers 2010 paper, “Social Housing Renewal and the Private Sector: Tenant Participation as An Invited Space”, which is a study of the placemaking agenda. Specifically it looks at the use of ‘community engagement’ mechanisms within the redevelopment of an outer suburban housing estate. Rogers writes:

With housing authorities, developing strategies and policies aimed, in part, to reducing tenant ‘opposition’ to, by promoting tenant ‘participation’ in, public housing redevelopments… Activism is seen as an anachronistic response to addressing social problems and dealing with social change, and counter to the focus of moderate strategies and tactics such as community building, asset and capacity building, or consensus organising…

Like most academic work on the topic, Rogers article doesn’t really suggest any solutions, it just trails off into some truisms about “invited spaces might need to be theorised and created to accommodate these factors.” But the statement is apt.

I’ve seen a few community advocacy campaigns, and been inside a few others. There’s a common pattern, beginning when local advocates will rally around a cause for reform and establish a mandate. After that, the cause will be absorbed into the mechanisms of government, where it will usually be reduced in scope so as to limit its disruptive influence. I don’t think this is done with any necessarily vindictive intent. When you drop a rock into a lake, ripples roll outwards until they’re stilled by the passive resistance of the body of water they’re dropped in to. Much the same thing applies to dropping a new idea into the establish pool of governance systems.

Uniformly when I’ve seen this happen there’s been a single rhetorical device at the centre of it: the word ‘community’. The standard mechanism for stilling community activism, and the most effective, is to say, “We’ve heard your perspective, we care and we want to make change! But we need to listen to whole community!” This sounds rational, but it has the effect of siphoning those local advocates away from ‘The Community’ from which they emerged. This will usually happen at the point when the political power of the advocates begins to rival the authority governing over them. The device portrays advocates as represent a special interest group, and re-positions the local authority as the guardian of ‘The Community’ and it’s collective welfare. The advocates have just gone from voicing the concerns of their community, to being considered a potential threat to it.

Usually at this point, the power balance will shift back to which ever stakeholders hold the greatest weight and legitimacy within the status quo, and things will begin to re-balance themselves, returning to normal with whatever tweaks can be squeezed through whilst the ripples are still moving. Should the advocates attempt to resurrect the original mandate for reform, they will be either told there is no longer a mandate or written off as ‘difficult’ activists who are pushing their own agenda.

The paradox here is obviously that once a community begins to represent its own interests, it will cease to be a community and its voice will be seen as problematic. The argument I often hear in response to this is that ‘The Community’ needs to become more radical and should treat local authorities and government agencies as a hostile power. This seems like the same discursive device repackaged: it rests on the idea that one group of stakeholders illegitimately holds power over The Community and must be overthrown so that another, morally better qualified force can represent said ‘Community’ with greater authenticity.

I have a problem with both approaches to this problem in that it seems to assume power rests on a single, legitimate narrative and it’s impossible for any worthwhile dialogue to take place. Ranciere seems to have had the same problem, albeit looking at it with specific reference to the French working class. In On the Shores of Politics he writes:

The emancipation of the workers is not a matter of making labour the founding principle of the new society, but rather of the workers emerging form their minority status and proving that they truly belong to the society, that they truly communicate with all in a common space; that they are not merely creatures of need, of complaint and protest, but creatures of discourse and reason, that they are capable of opposing reason with reason and of giving their action a demonstrative form.

He finishes:

Self-emancipation is not succession, but self-affirmation as a joint-sharer in a common world, with the assumption, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, that one can play the same game as the adversary.

This makes sense, although it rests on the delightfully old fashioned notion that all people could act on their rights as equal citizens. Moreover, it also relies on a discourse in which no-one cites their capacity to speak for The Community, because at that point power would re-centralise, and it’d be an argument about who speaks for the common good, which seems to be more about proving one’s legitimacy than producing reform.

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