Politicians don’t live our lives: DIY social action

Where can communities find support and inspiration if they want to establish alternatives to the status quo?

Dan Silver
21 March 2016

Credit: SARF/Beyond the Echo Chamber. All rights reserved.

“We need to understand the causes of injustices that we see in our everyday lives, challenge them, and build alternatives through social action in our communities.”

This is Gabriel, an activist and leader from M13 Youth in Ardwick, a working class community in the British city of Manchester. M13 is a project in which young people come together to understand how the struggles they face are shaped by structural inequalities, and to develop strategies to counter them. The group is driven by a strong internal ethos—‘we need to do it ourselves’—or what the Social Action and Research Foundation calls “DIY Social Action” in a pamphlet published today.

Working with 11 organisations across Manchester and Salford, we aimed to identify the causes of injustice and document how local groups like M13 are responding to them in powerful and creative ways. Three common themes emerged: a series of damaging myths perpetuated by the media; the ways in which the economy functions for the few and not the many; and the disconnect that exists between formal politics and marginalised communities.

Most of the stories reported by the media miss out on the realities of working class life, and the stereotypes they reproduce about working-class people can make them feel as though they’re not part of society. As a young woman from M13 told us at an event last year, “I didn’t know I was ‘deprived’ until Blue Peter came and did a programme about Ardwick, and told everyone we were.”

The mainstream media doesn’t value working class culture and places blame on individuals for poverty and unemployment—stigmatizing people as a way to justify austerity. But our research with another group called the Open Society Foundations in Higher Blackley, a neighbourhood in north Manchester, found strong evidence to correct these stereotypes.

The idea that people enjoy living life on benefits as a conscious choice is not one that emerged from the interviews we carried out. Instead there’s intense frustration, as articulated by a 45 year old mother on benefits who told us that “It’s not a life of luxury being on the social. You get fed up. You just live day by day. Everybody wants to work.”

Our interviews in Higher Blackley revealed a community with a strong work ethic that’s facing economic difficulties as a result of the proliferation of low-paid and insecure jobs. The barriers are especially high for women who are reluctant to travel long distances to work in case their children get ill and need care. Higher Blackley was once full of industry. At its peak in 1961, for example, the chemical giant ICI used to employ 14,000 people, but now the factory has closed and the main employers are the supermarkets that are situated at either end of the neighbourhood.

The legacy of de-industrialisation in the area continues to have a significant impact on working-class communities because secure, higher-paying jobs at companies like ICI no longer exist. As Paul said in an interview, a thirty-five year old man who has always been in paid work, “Working class nowadays, you’re struggling anyway.” This was a consistent view across the groups we worked with. “The jobs market churns people out. There are loads of jobs, but not much proper work for people” as local activist Tony Wright put it.

The third common theme we found was a declining faith in politicians as a force capable of addressing these problems. Jane Fearns, one of the participants in another project called Everyday Life in Salford, told us that “politicians don’t live our lives and have no intention of living our lives…they just make the decisions about our lives, even though they know nothing about it.”

This sentiment reflects what many people feel: that politicians don’t represent the communities that elect them and don’t understand the consequences of their decisions. It sometimes seems as though politicians are governing from the moon, so there’s little point in getting involved in formal politics as a means of improving people’s lives. In that case, where else can communities look for support and inspiration?

The answer from the groups was clear—we should look to ourselves and the organizations we create. For example, the Seedly and Langworthy Trust (SALT) in Salford is transforming empty properties into homes for people to live in, ensuring that they have a decent landlord and using the revenue derived from rents for social projects that benefit the wider community. This challenges the conservative consensus that the housing crisis is caused by a lack of new housing, and that the profits that are generated from housing need to be privatized.

As Edinburgh-based geographer Tom Slater argues, the problem is not inadequate supply but the way in which housing is distributed. SALT is showing that such alternatives are possible in both theory and practice—an example of ‘dissensus’ as articulated by the French philosopher Jacques Rancière. He argues that politics begins and ends at the moment when a dominant discourse and way of doing things becomes disrupted by voices that are often excluded. By building confidence, power and understanding in concrete ways in working class communities, the groups we work with are well situated to do this—to support actions that create alternatives to the established order.

SALT, M13 Youth and others can help people to re-imagine things at a conceptual level that have become deeply engrained in the collective imagination, and so continue to perpetuate discrimination and inequality. Another example is the Mums’ Mart project, which is connected to United Estates of Wythenshawe, a housing project in another part of Manchester.

Mums’ Mart was started by a group of mothers who came together after speaking to each other in the playground at their children’s school. Through chatting, they realised that they shared experiences of feeling isolated, and that their kids weren’t getting to take part in activities that were available to more privileged children like going out for the day to the cinema, or to a football match.  

To address these problems the mums now meet every other week to have a meal while their children play, and they organise ‘market days’ to bring people from the estate together and raise money to take their families away somewhere fun for a day or a week. The group has brought women together to improve and use their co-operative skills, to become more connected with each other and to develop a collective approach to childcare. They also have ambitions to extend support to more people in need in the area.

In these ways Mums’ Mart is disrupting and reinventing ideas around work, social support, care and equality, demonstrating alternative ways of organising social relations in the process. The academic Davina Cooper writes about ‘everyday utopias’ as places where—instead of just dreaming about a better world—people are actively seeking to create one.

Mums’ Mart and the other groups showcased in our pamphlet are doing this on a daily basis in Manchester and Salford, but the significance of what they’re doing isn’t just confined to the local arena. Once people begin to see that radically different approaches are working in their neighbourhoods, it becomes easier to re-imagine the much deeper structures of politics, political economy and social relations. In the process, the lie that ‘there is no alternative’ to the status quo becomes untenable.

In this sense, although DIY social action can have an immediate impact in communities, it also has considerable value beyond them. It enables people to challenge business-as-usual by seeing and doing things in different ways. As a result, established conventions around work, care and mutual support are shaken up and potentially re-ordered. And that is the basis for social transformation. 

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