what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

seminal reading and experiences

Honore Daumier

Watch him when he opens
his bulging words – justice
Fraternity, freedom, internationalism, peace,
Peace, peace. Make it your custom
to pay no heed
to his frank look, his visas, his stamps
and signatures. Make it
your duty to spread out their contents
in a clear light

Nobody with such luggage
has nothing to declare

Norman MacCaig (1966)

So continues the account of my life and lessons - a modern Candide

The 1960s presented – through books, articles and official investigations - a tremendous critique of British society. The most famous book of that era was one by Michael Shanks called “The Stagnant Society” (1961). The title said it all – but it was also official Government Commissions in the late 1960s which concluded that our civil service, local government and industrial relations systems, for example, were not “fit for purpose”[1]. My university degree in political economy, sociology and politics had given me the arrogance of the iconoclast – although reading of people such as Tony Crosland[2] and Karl Popper[3] had made me an incrementalist rather than a hard leftist which was in fashion. I was, however, an avid reader of the New Left Review[4] and active in the Young Socialist movement.
After University, I worked briefly and unhappily in both the private, central and local government and consultancy sectors until I was appointed Lecturer in social studies at a polytechnic in 1968 – the same year I became a Labour councillor – on a town council which the Liberals had recently taken over. The rump Labour group was somewhat demoralised and - as an energetic middle class graduate - I immediately became its Secretary – thereby skipping the normal “apprenticeship” which new boys normally serve.
The student riots of 1968 may have passed – but the literature which was coming from the anti-poverty programmes[5] on both sides of the Atlantic painted an ugly picture of how systems of public administration treated the poor and marginalised. Books such as Future Shock[6], Beyond the Stable State[7]; Dilemmas of Social Reform[8] and Deschooling Society[9] were grist to my mill – sketching out, as they did, the impossibility of the bureaucratic model of organisation continuing. Robert Michels’ “iron law of oligarchy” and Saul Alinsky’s work also made a lot of sense to me! The first – written from Austrian experience at the beginning of the 20 century - showed how power corrupts trade unionists and social democrats; the second – from a mid century Chicago base – showed how the powerless could change things.

Management theory was beginning to percolate through to us – but in a rather simplistic way. These were the days when Drucker had it all his own way in the bookshops[10]. Better management – in both the public and private sector - was seen as necessary although initially this was seen to come more from coordinating structures rather than new skills or perspectives.
I was in the system – but not part of it – more a fly on the wall. The title of an early paper I wrote – “From corporate planning to community action”[11] reflected the attempt I was making to ride the 2 horses of internal reform and pressure group politics (always uncomfortable!).

I was beginning to understand how we all play the roles we are given – how the roles are masks we put on (and can take off). A cartoon I had on my wall during university years from the left-wing New Statesman said it very well – it depicted various stern figures of power (judges, generals, headmasters, clergymen etc) and then revealed the very angry and anguished faces beneath.[12].

1970/71 was a seminal year for me. I took on my first serious public responsibilities – becoming chairman of the Social Work Committee for a poor shipbuilding conurbation of 100,000 people. Scottish legislation had just given social work authorities an invitation to “promote social welfare” – and to do so by engaging the public in more strategic work to deal with the conditions which marginalised low-status and stigmatised groups. And the area I had represented since 1968 on the town council certainly had more than its fair share of such people. An early step I took with my new authority was to institute an annual workshop of community groups to identify and help deal with key problems of the town. I find it sad that this approach is still being discovered in Britain as “cutting edge” stuff!

The community groups I worked with were very effective in their various projects concerned with adult education and youth, for example, but one of the most powerful lessons I learned was how much many professionals in the system disliked such community initiatives[13]. It was also quite a shock to realise how suspicious my own Labour colleagues were of the people they were supposed to represent and support - working class people like themselves! Instead they echoed the reservations and criticisms of the officials. One of the things I was learning was the subtle and often implicit ways those with power made sure they kept control – whether in the formality of language used or in the layout of meetings. A national programme set up by the Labour Government (the Community development Programme) was beginning to produce radical critiques which chimed with my experience - although labour politicians (national and local) found this work threatening.

One of the most interesting individuals in the UK trying to help community groups was Tony Gibson[14] - who developed simple planning kits to level the playing field. Suspicious even of the community development work we were doing as part of Social Work, I negotiated Rowntree Foundation support for an independent community action project in one of the areas I represented. At that stage I forged a curious alliance with the Leader of the national Liberal party (Jo Grimond) who was also a Rowntree Trustee and who would faithfully attend the project's Steering Committee meetings in a desolate council flat! At one and the same time I was the Leader of the local social welfare system and also part of a system which was challenging such systems. I immersed myself in the literature on community development and was seen as a bit of a maverick by my labour colleagues.

[1] The Royal Commissions set up by the 1964 Labour Government played an important role -looking at such problematic areas as Civil Service (known as Fulton after the Lord who chaired it – ditto for other Commissions); Local Government (Redcliffe-Maud in England and Wales; Wheatley in Scotland); Broadcasting (Annan); Industrial Relations (Donovan); Local Government Finance (Layfield); Devolution (Kilbrandon) etc[2] The Future of Socialism (1956) and The Conservative Enemy (1962)[3] Although first issued in 1941, it was not until the 1960s that “The Open Society and its enemies” became well known in the UK  [4] www.newleftreview.org
[5]  In UK the more sedate language of “community development” was used.[6] Alvin and Heideh Toffler (1970)[7] Donald Schon (1973). This was the book which followed from the 1970 Reith lecture he delivered on BBC. Along with Gaitskell’s defiant Labour Conference speech (of 1961), this was the most riveting piece of media broadcasting I have ever heard.[8] Marris and Rein (1973)[9] Ivan Illich[10] Now, its a real challenge to recommend best buys for (a) understanding organisations and/or (b) challenging and changing them. But I do attempt this in one of the key papers on my website.[11] In the series of ruminations from my local government work I published under the aegis of the Local Government Research Unit which I established at Paisley College of Technology. The most important of these was a small book in 1977 "The Search for Democracy – a guide to Scottish local government". This was aimed at the general public and written around 43 questions I found people asking about local government.[12] Georg Grosz gave these figures (in Weimar Germany) an even more savage treatment – see http://www.austinkleon.com/2007/12/09/the-drawings-of-george-grosz/
[13] Education, police and leisure were the worst offenders – as is clear from the small book about work in one of the communities - View from the Hill by Sheila McKay and Larry Herman (Local Government Research Unit 1970) See David Korton’s example...page 11 The Great Reckoning (Kumarian Press 2006)[14] People Power

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