Notes from a short provocation for a workshop on Informational Inequalities at the University of Manchester Policy Week day conference on Education Policy and Educational Inequalities.
I was asked to contribute one of five brief scene-setting interventions, mine being to offer a broader context on access to information. So here is what I said prior to the wider discussion.
Our interest in Steady State Manchester is in promoting a shift to a more viable Manchester: economically, socially and ecologically. In doing this we draw on insights from the field of ecological economics and from critical social sciences more generally, as well as from the practice of activists.
A key aspect of the shift required is towards a more resilient and self-sufficient Manchester – less dependent, for example, on inward investment, on global supply chains and decision-makers elsewhere ,and less vulnerable to the major systemic shocks that our broken economic system and damaged ecosystem have in store.
That also implies that the communities of Manchester need to be more resilient and more self-sufficient: not in some ultra-localised utopia (or dystopia), detached from the support of the wider society and its State, but less vulnerable to systemic shocks and more capable of collective social action.
So, what informational and cultural resources are needed for this?
Let’s first think a little about the nature of community. Communities are contradictory, being both contested and shared. Contested in terms of meaning, definition, boundaries, power relations internally and externally, but variously sharing spaces, interests, values, resources, identity and ties.
A broader understanding of information is required to live in this context as a cultural being, where (as Raymond Williams put it) “culture is ordinary” but also also constantly constructed. It is the informal, unstructured kind of cultural information that interests me here, information that is transmitted interpersonally in a variety of ways, drawing on tradition and custom, as well as allowing innovation. Yet culture in this sense is being continually eroded through the action of certain dominant Ideology-Action-Structure complexes (1), three in particular:
The dominance of exchange and possession,
The primacy of exploitation, and
Mono-culturality, and the suppression of other cultural systems
They work together, systemically, so that the fabric of everyday life becomes dependent on the consumption of commodities (artefacts and services), not just to meet basic needs but to structure interactions and relationships, to construct and display identity and status, to fill free time. The saturating totality of this consumerist mode of culture means that escape and the construction of alternatives is extremely difficult. So, for example, when the British government proposed that each school child should have 5 hours per week of cultural activity the rationale was so that they would be prepared to work in the cultural industries: economic rationality has precedence over any notion of culture for its own sake. Even the subaltern cultural practices of counter-cultures and marginal peoples get transformed into profitable commodities.
So, can we construct an alternative, where people and communities have a bigger hand in shaping, producing and reproducing their culture? We can look back to earlier traditions in this city for some clues, for example to the vibrant and multi-faceted socialist culture that flourished from around the 1830s to the early years of the 20th Century. We can also learn from small scale initiatives as diverse as the Moston Small Cinema or the many Arts for Health groups. Finally we shouldn’t neglect majority world innovations that build on rich cultural heritage, or develop novel methodologies for participatively capturing implicit knowledge to inform collective actions (2). The challenging question for me is how we can knit these together with and into a wider political project for social and ecological justice.
1) My concept of Ideology-Action-Structure complexes is explored further in this article with Carolyn Kagan, along with some of the other ideas in this short piece. Kagan, C &.Burton, M.H. , (2014). Culture, identity and alternatives to the consumer culture. (In dossier: Educação, Cotidiano e Participação: desafios e contribuições para a formação). Educar Em Revista (Brazil) 53, 75 – 89 http://ojs.c3sl.ufpr.br/ojs/index.php/educar/article/view/36583
2) In the context of a presentation on mapping community informational resources in the city of Manchester, I specifically mentioned the New Social Mapping (Nova Cartografia Social) approach developed in the Brazilian Amazon region. Almeida, A. W. B. (2013). Povos e comunidades tradicionais nova cartografia social. Manaus: UEA Edições.