Grounded response to a Big Society

On the New Public Thinkers site, Dougald Hine wrote a really useful analysis of the criticism that has been flying around about the Big Society. It was a great example of cutting through the agonistic culture of politics, where something like the Big Society idea is used as an arena for two-sided contest. Dougald suggests that whatever your political colour, the necessity for social reform to reduce alienation and increase agency is being forced on whoever has any power to make change, by the erosion of economic security and social fabric. I commented on Dougald’s piece but as I was doing so, Paul Kingsnorth sent some provocative tweets about arts funding which I wanted to respond to in relation to this Big Society debate. So, here’s a  post to explore this further.

I’m not a political theorist so, although I appreciate structural analysis of the Big Society and think it’s essential, I can’t contribute greatly to it. What I can do is to advocate for persistent and pragmatic action in communities. Eleanor Saitta commented that we need to develop alternative organisational structures that skirt both market and state, but that without large-scale wealth distribution all these efforts will still leave us as ‘starving peasants fighting in the gutters over scraps of food puked up by the rich’. While I’m shocked by wealth inequality, I’m not sure the scenario is currently quite as stark as this. Because, for me, hope lies in imaginative participatory strategies to grow nourishment so that we don’t have to scratch around in the gutters of the rich.  By nourishment, I mean food but also all the other goods that will help us eat, help others eat, and otherwise allow us to stay well. By ‘us’ I mean all life, not just humans.

While we must talk about capitalism, we must also eat and help all the places where eating is going to be increasingly difficult. The way to do that is to harness technology to art in the service of ecological innovation. Note, technology is just a tool whereas art is the force that generates ideas, motivates people to participate and helps spread spores of ideas. Here are a couple of examples:

Farm:Shop is an urban farming project led by artists in an empty shop in Dalston. It uses hydroponics, aquaponics and other technologies to grow food indoors. Some may this isn’t art, it’s growing food. Partly the art comes through the creative social activities they are doing with visitors. But fundamentally, this is the kind of art we need to develop. Francesco Manacorda calls it an “emerging kind of art…that is interested in cycles, natural materials, growth and roots rather than ‘original’ creations that hang disconnected, in time and space.”

Another example is the vision of ‘bioregions’ to replace the outdated idea of developing places through ‘high-entropy knowledge hubs’ and ‘iconic cultural buildings’. These ‘bioregions’ can still be cultural without a new build major art museum. John Thackara writes hereabout how artists are working on such projects in the Basque Country. An example in the UK is Heartlands in Cornwall, a new bioregion which is also a cultural centre.

The triad of sustainability where economic, social and environmental capital are held in balance has to be challenged, and it is by these examples. If you focus on generating ‘biosphere capital’, then prosperity, social wellbeing and biodiversity can ensue. The Big Society discourses have not easily admitted talk of ‘bioregions’ or ‘biosphere capital’. That, I think, is because in order to develop such capital you need to bring both techne and poiesis into play together, both technology and the imagination. UK society is profoundly technocratic, and is extremely uncomfortable with metaphor being applied in arenas of work and public planning. On the other hand, the cultural elite are profoundly resistant to art being instrumental to social and environmental wellbeing.  The two domains of culture and public services resist porosity with each other (while there are many examples of partnership experiments of course).

Back to Paul Kingsnorth’s challenge. Yesterday, ACE issued its funding news, and many organisations had 100% funding cuts, some lesser percentages and some had an increase. So, there were a lot of hurt feelings at the unfairness of it all. Paul asked “Is there any cut to our services which we in the rich world would be prepare to tolerate? And if not, isn’t the Earth screwed?” and said “the arts, like all human industry, rely on an economy fed by a dying planet. We have to live with less.” This is a fair question and a good one. But I do profoundly believe in state funding of experimental and participatory culture.  Public funding doesn’t have to mean salarying middle class artists and discounting the purchase of culture by middle class audiences. However, ACE made decisions yesterday which cut many of the organisations, like Proboscis, who are doing the kinds of work that is most likely to generate biosphere capital and most likely to bridge the gulf between public planning and culture. Moreover, almost invisible in media coverage of culture cuts is the devastating reduction of museum and archive services, especially in education and outreach. These services directly help with community cohesion and place-making. If their funding is cut, then we need to show philanthropists and corporations that their future prosperity depends on collaborating with creative thinkers and creative communities to generate biosphere capital.

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