The global is local and the local is global
Resurgence magazine May/June 2003
In constantly striving for a participative society in which both decisions and responsibilities are devolved as far as practically possible to the local level, we need to rethink strategies for building basic communities: local communities are not innate organisations. In order to respond to top-down initiatives, there needs to be proper analysis of local dynamics and relationships, enabling local people to get together and start to participate in shaping initiatives alnd resource allocation. In a culture driven by fear (and fear of violence) -concepts of ‘stranger danger’, the constant reiteration of the risk of adults abusing children, the culture of crime, the gap in understanding between the old and the young -it is no surprise that no one dares approach the stranger or the newcomer to the neighbourhood and say ‘hello’. We may even need to employ friendly ‘neighbourhood introducers’ to get people out of their homes and put them in touch.
‘Building-up’ from the neighbourhood is a means of nurturing the roots of cross-fertilisation, enabling new groups and cultures to flourish -like fireweed in the wasteland. In the absence of traditional extended family support networks (particularly in urban settings of high mobility as people frequently move out of and into an area), building community in this way is especially important. The key units of street, close or neighbourhood have to be the location of these new developments. Thomas More, writing in 1516 in Utopia, suggested that the optimum size of a neighbourhood community would be attained by combining thirty large households into units of about 500 people. He said, ‘Thirty households, fifteen from either side, are assigned to each hall and take their meals there.’ This seems to be a kind of prescient vision of a street in modern urban society, remarkably close to the cast of a street-based soap opera.
Nor is it simply a case of building up neighbourhood organisations to meet with representatives of a more responsive local councillor primary health care trust. We need to move much further and get away from neighbourhood organisations watching out for intruders to street groups of people who watch over each other. Why can’t such small communities provide care of the sick, the housebound, the elderly, care of children, nursery and day care provision, meals for those who need them locally? Can we not reshape our investments – pool our private house insurance, for example, to set up a neighbourhood fund to pay one of our neighbours to act as a neighbourhood introducer, to arrange meals on wheels (delivered from the kitchen next door rather than from a centre seven miles away), organising child care in a neighbour’s home rather than driving two miles to a time-bound centre? Funding local services for local needs could be radically re-shaped using the resources and investments already coming from the locality and utilised elsewhere.
Rethinking the economics of local communities could offer some real breakthroughs in neighbourhood support and provision. The philosopher Ernst Block, in his great work The Principles of Hope, proposed: ‘Everything comes down to this: that we have to learn to hope in order to see the development of the wealth of human nature.’ He wrote, ‘This human wealth like that of nature in general lies solely in the latent tendency in which the world finds itself before everything… The real genesis is not at the beginning but at the end and it begins when society and existence become radical, that is, take hold of themselves at their very roots; but the roots of history lie in work and creativity of the person transforming and surpassing that which is given. If we take hold of ourselves and establish that which lies in real democracy without remuneration or alienation then there arises in the world something which everyone saw in childhood but no one really inhabited -home.’
John Battle is Member of Parliament for Leeds West and a member of the International Development Select Committee.