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Introducing this week's debate: the struggle for a common life

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Our three debate editors provide you with a guide to this weeks debate: The struggle for a common life

Claire Blencowe Tehseen Noorani Julian Brigstocke
29 August 2013

This week’s debate editors introduce, ‘The struggle for a common life’:

“The articles this week are all inspired by the pursuit of participatory democracy – or, as we have come to think about it, ‘the struggle for a common life’. They are the outcome of a collaborative residential workshop held in Teesdale last summer, which brought together scholars and practitioners of applied theatre, participatory governance, community development, social science and political philosophy to reflect on the role of aesthetics, art, drama, trust and education in successful participatory practice.

We talked about participatory processes in government decision making, health-care, development practice and science, as well as community work towards political engagement. We were united by a strong commitment to participatory democracy – but also by a strong sense that there are major problems associated with participation, not least its appropriation in the service of ends that are far from democratic. We think of these problems as challenges and opportunities, not as reasons to reject the participatory ideal.

One problem of participation is that participatory democracy needs authority; it’s not possible to empower different people without creating different forms of authority, and there is a need to address issues of authority and hierarchy within participatory practice. This comes as a challenge to many practitioners of participation who think of themselves as avowedly ‘anti-authoritarian’.

Another problem is that participatory practice is a ‘craft’. Despite all the ‘tool-kits’ and ‘handbooks’ that claim otherwise, the work of creating common life involves forms of appreciation that can only be learnt through practice and shared experience. The final problem, which seems ever more pressing, is that common life is constantly under threat and undermined by processes of privatisation, be that the marketization of public services, spaces and practice, or the individualisation of life and experience. Our aim in publishing these articles is to open up conversation and creativity about the nature and meaning of ‘common life’ or participatory democracy today.  

On Monday we launched the ‘Struggle for Common Life’ series with two articles that search for possibilities of democratic renewal in the wake of the financial crisis, and in the face of a global situation in which bankers, economists and big business sometimes appear to have a monopoly on power. Patrick Bresnihan’s ‘Participation in (a time of) crisis’ takes inspiration from Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath – set in the dustbowl America of the 1930s – to draw hope for the rediscovery of public space and a politics of alternatives. Claire Blencowe’s ‘How to redistribute authority’ argues that different knowledge practices can contribute towards democratisation. On the one hand, processes of participatory science and participatory budgeting can widen access to forms of authority that are powerful in our societies; on the other hand, new ways of thinking about (‘knowing’) the nature of creative processes and human relationships can have radical effects in terms of changing the types and sources of authority.

Tuesday's articles explicitly discuss the importance of authority in work towards participatory democracy. Jenny Pearce, in ‘The end of authority’, tackles this issue head on. Whilst authority has had a bad press amongst those who want to change the world, she argues that participation needs to (and in fact already does) engage in a creative process of ‘remaking’ authority. Naomi Millner’s ‘Involving others: from toolkit to ethos for a different kind of democracy’ argues that a profoundly egalitarian ethos of trust is central to democracy and that trust is bound up with authority. She goes on to discuss the often amazing and always exciting effects of such trust in the realm of critical pedagogy and empowerment.  

Both of Wednesday's articles contribute to understanding why participatory practice should be seen as a ‘craft’ activity – something that is learnt through experience, experimentation and slowly cultivated forms of understanding. In ‘Opening participatory democracy’s black box’, Tom Wakeford and Michel Pimbert draw on their experience of working as facilitators in Prajateerpu (Peoples’ Verdict) in India to argue that facilitation is best understood as ‘creative bricolage’. Tehseen Noorani’s ‘Participating with objects’ explores the implications for participatory democracy of our relationship with objects. He argues that if objectification lurks at the heart of power (as so many studies of the ‘iron cages’ of modernity, or of the denigration of women, have argued) then it must also be at the heart of our practices of empowerment. 

Expanding on the theme of ‘participation as craft’, Thursday's articles explore the poetics of participation and the struggle for common life. Both highlight the role of place, memory and imagination in creating common life. In ‘On visiting forgotten tombs’, Helen Nicholson discusses her search for a poetic pedagogy that understands that ‘the growing good of the world’ is an organic process, experienced both intellectually and in the unreflexive practices of everyday life. We join her on a visit to a graveyard, and reading George Elliot’s Middlemarch. In Julian Brigstocke’s ‘Futures of an unlived past’ we return to the aftermath of the blitz in Plymouth and the utopian urban rebuilding that followed it. His essay on the mingling of past and present in urban spaces explores the question of the role of the past in participatory struggles for common life. 

Friday’s articles explore the issue of the commodification of life and whether – and how – we can work towards common practice within the context of contemporary capitalism. The problem of time emerges once again as an important focus. Patrick Bresnihan and Leila Dawney’s essay, written in the form of a dialogue, explores the anti-democratic implications of the pervasive sense in contemporary societies that we do not have enough time to engage in political activities. Enlivening democracy demands new ways of organizing and imagining time and its relation to politics. Samuel Kirwan takes up this challenge by drawing out the ways in which giving up time to participate in the life of the community, city or nation might be viewed as a gift, offered through love and valuable for its own sake, rather than as a duty or responsibility, as Big Society rhetoric conceives of it. 

Further reading

The ‘Struggle for Common Life’ series has been drawn from an essay collection called Problems of Participation: Reflections on Democracy, Authority and the Struggle for Common Life. A PDF of the complete collection is free to download here."

The original workshop was organised by the Authority Research Network, a group of early career academics who are working to develop new approaches to the study of power. It was funded (via the University of Warwick) by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, as part of its Connected Communities Programme, which encourages academics to engage with wider communities and to explore the importance of arts, humanities and social science scholarship in protecting, creating and enhancing social life. The workshop drew on interview data, research reports, academic papers and participants’ own experiences.  More information about this and other ARN projects can be found on our website.

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