‘Pints are up two quid
The staff are beautiful and bored
You think it’s coming up ‘round here?
It’s falling on its sword.’
Kate Tempest, Perfect Coffee.
When local campaigns organise in defence of city ‘spaces,’ what are people protecting? In whose name do they speak and what values underpin something as abstract as space? Can we ringfence community, and if so, how do we tell communal from commodified spaces?
There is a long and entrenched folk memory of battles waged to develop and protect affordable housing, parks and community hubs. At its best, such infrastructure provides a visible measure of the political economy of ordinary people. Historically, municipal socialists committed to forging the social bonds which characterise all thriving communities assembled an architecture of collective provision which removed basic utilities from the clutches of big finance.
Over the decades, local activists have bequeathed legacies of struggle imbued in bricks and mortar. Redoubts where people gather far from the demands of commerce create not just places to meet, but unoccupied space where imagination, creativity and history can breathe. Such places provide a silent testimony to the small but critical victories people have over the decades carved into the arteries of their lived spaces.
Whether delivered by progressive administrations or the independent efforts of communities themselves, physical environments can work to solder otherwise atomised individuals to common goals. In doing so, we escape the deregulating mania of a neo-liberal order which has long denied the existence never mind desirability of collective agency and experience. Such spaces can act as circuit-breakers. They are living proof that people can live, work, meet and create outside the strictures of marketised relationships.
Our horizons tell a tale
The ebbs and flows of the struggle for autonomy and power between communities and capital can be observed by stepping outside our homes and taking a long look at our immediate surroundings. Walk the streets of your neighbourhoods and city centres. Our horizons tell a tale. They also paint a picture of conflict, political priorities, power and agency.
In the 1950s, Chicago School academics undertook an experiment into what they called a ‘socially disorganised zone’ of inner-city Chicago. Crime rates increase, they argued, when communities become ethnically heterogeneous and shared values fracture. The experiment did not meet with success. The imposition of community from above, particularly at the hands of social scientists mostly unfamiliar with the eco-systems they were attempting to remake, seldom finds traction. In fact, as studies in the US and Europe have shown, ethnically mixed communities often boast the highest levels of tolerance between widely differing groups. Interaction begets empathy. On contact with proximity, former suspicions evaporate like street puddles on a summer’s afternoon. From that moment on, social bonds take root.
The broadcaster and journalist Paul Mason has described his ’10 things a perfect city needs.’ Amongst his ergonomic wish-list is a ‘democratic political culture the inhabitants are proud of, that calls them regularly to the streets, to loud arguments in small squares, keeps their police demilitarised and in check, and allows them to assimilate the migrants that will inevitably flow inwards.’ They ‘must be ethnically mixed and tolerant and hospitable to women.’ As with George Orwell’s favourite pub – darts, piano and staff who know your name – no one city can capture every quality necessary to the building of cityscapes reflective of the inevitable and welcome diversity of modern life. What appears key is autonomy. As the post-Covid reckoning approaches, who is going to ‘own’ the rebuilding of services, community capacity and employment to which both UK and Scottish governments are formally committed?
Another Edinburgh is Possible
The Another Edinburgh is Possible survey carried out by a coalition of community campaigners and trade unionists may offer some guidance. Hundreds of respondents lamented the decline of services across the city, and the remoteness of a Council Chambers that rarely connects to the daily orbits of inhabitants. Amongst the responses a wider narrative emerges.
Time and again, respondents yearn for control over the services which make life liveable. On this reading, people see key amenities as providing a buffer against the exigencies of life. They are not intrinsically meaningful in and of themselves. One consistent complaint is the lack of public toilets available to commuters, walkers and shoppers. The provision of services free us to pursue extrinsic goals. They are a condition of self-determination, the cheque which allows us to cash in desires many of us out of necessity are obliged to forgo.
Many accounts looked forward to a city where council staff are available to communities, and services over which they have a measure of agency are widely and uncomplicatedly present. They describe a future where freedom is defined not by the individual’s right to do as she pleases, but as the collective right to build lives in tandem with others similarly unleashed from the corrosive uncertainties local government should be in the business of relieving.
Social justice needs monuments too
‘Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.’
The Black Lives Matter movement provide an additional insight. Their demand that statues commemorating the exploits of racists made fat off the forced labour of enslaved peoples be toppled was frequently derided as the clamour of social vandals. But it was precisely BLM’s framing of the debate as one preoccupied with what our future should physically symbolise – an ossified past in thrall to histories of oppression or cities which look like the people who inhabit them – that was key to their re-imagining of the future. Social justice needs its monuments too. Sometimes, shrines can be the empty spaces we reclaim from the past and leave vacant for future generations to step into.
Despite the relentless Serco-isation of state infrastructure, and while Edinburgh’s every nook and cranny are caught in the crosshairs of predatory developers, there are still choices to be made. The future can be seized from the streets up and re-purposed by communities resourced and empowered by political structures committed to delegating agency downwards.
As Frederick Douglas remarked, ‘Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.’ A feudal elite is looking forward to a post-pandemic world whose systems look much the same as those which preceded a crisis where the centrality of solidarity to human experience has once again been confirmed. This time, let’s remember what we have learned. When the profiteers tell us that our lived environments are best left to the imaginations of the money men, can we please just ignore them?
Leslie Cunningham says
An excellent article!