The psyCommoner: Private Grief

November 14, 2018 § 2 Comments

Eve Drawing

Thomas Allan

Are you a little girl I was meant to get to know? Or was your journey complete after only 17 days? You left us a while ago, but I’m still standing proudly beside your incubator home, watching each breath you take. I’m still holding you, searching for you, trying to get to know you at the point of losing you. Your fingers don’t grip. Your eyes don’t see. You’re still warm to touch. Dad is here – can you feel me?

You were born very little: 1.08kg and over eight weeks early. Perhaps never meant to be born alive at all, you were born into trauma, stress and nightmares on ultra-sound and heart-rate trace monitors. I still thought you’d grow. I was waiting for you, but you seemed to disappear into a vacuum, lost inside the repressed nightmares of your parents, and some inner wilderness our culture is so blind to and fearful of.

You passed away after a short struggle with life. I still don’t know if you were real or a dream. Each set of bad news seemed to displace the last, making the previous prognosis seem perversely desirable. From your prematurity to your heart defect to your birth to your myriad ‘complications’. Too sick for the most advanced medical science. Too small for their interventions and operations. No happy ending. No words could explain.

Now you rest motionless, barely covering my hands, somewhere between human presence and human absence.You are our baby daughter. A girl, free from plastic tubes, breathing masks and hospital wards. Free from anaemia, syndromes and illnesses. I’m told I must eventually let you go. You are going back to nature, supposedly the sunshine and the rivers, the wind in the leaves and the bluebells in the spring. But right now you sit in empty car seats, lie in empty Moses baskets and dance silently with your sister around our home. You reach into every shattered hope, nightmare and contradiction in my being.

This message is for you. It is about your life and it is about my grief. I offer you my grief as I don’t know what else to do with it. I have no map for this territory. I’m told grief might let go as time goes on but I don’t think it will ever truly leave. You will always be there, innate to my life.

My grief both awakens and paralyses my senses. I wonder if it is actually real, as I can’t see it, touch it or manage it. I can’t get beyond it, over or around it. I can’t soothe it, forget it, distract it or leave it behind. I can’t pretend it isn’t there. It is with me everywhere I go. If I move, it follows me. Grief colours my outlook, troubles my being and renders my usual routines meaningless.

My grief is at odds with the realm of the private. It moves beyond my private troubles and extended family and does not stand apart from community, society and culture. It does not sit comfortably with the instrumentality of ‘real life’, leisure and work; at odds with an unforgiving labour market, unsupportive employers and stressful, poorly paid working conditions.

My grief is at odds with the market. What is the value of grieving? My grief is not desirable, nor is it desire. It is not romantic, nor seductive. My grief cannot be monetized, bought or sold. It cannot be measured, commensurated or counted. Grief holds no value that I am aware of. There is no demand for grief that I know of. I cannot use grief. Grief does not follow the apparent certainties and laws of market economy. Grief is an uncertainty that follows me; a sharp reminder of impermanence, uncertainty and mortality.

My grief is at odds with the neoliberal state. It eschews the mystifying tangle of pseudo-public and public-private institutions; many of whom only reluctantly offer only the thinnest layer of support to human beings for fear of damaging competition, productivity and efficiency. In a patriarchal society whose still-face is frequently unmoved by the needs and ‘weaknesses’ of others, it is left unrecognised, invalidated and unreciprocated.

My grief is at odds with science. It can fester and escalate into distress; patterns that come to be seen as a property of the individual that must be owned, managed and overcome. Grief becomes reified into a ‘thing’, congealing into the familiar categories and dispensations of expert discourses or consumer society. But my grief is not linear, nor is it rational. It cannot be paused, nor can it be ‘processed’. My experience of you is timeless, imprecise, formless and immeasurable. It is neither subject nor object.

Grief assumes many diverse forms. It evolves intangibly through connection, disruption, discontinuity, decay and growth. It spreads within me, like the search for roots. It moves to great depths before surfacing at unpredictable moments: painful, confusing, cathartic. Grief and transition is not only about linear continuity – moving onwards or forwards – but as much about discontinuity: radical breaks and irreversible change. It is in chaos as well as order. In silence as well as noise. In indecision as well as decisions. This is something still poorly understood or even considered valueless in many areas of traditional, liberal-individualist culture.

Grieving is the loss of connection, intimacy and reciprocity. It is the loss of experience, meaning, community and livelihoods. It is the broken bonds of friends and family, the loss of homes and the loss of truly public and green spaces. It is the vacuum in our lives where supportive institutions should be. How many get the time and the space to reflect our losses? Time and space themselves are a commodity, at a premium.

We are not only unprepared to deal with loss and grief, more that we appear to be trying to deny it, suppress it and dismantle it. Grief, loss and endings something we should avoid or resist, overcome and beat. The experience of connection to self, others and place disrupted by the relentless dictates of the markets and the still-face of modern institutions of improvement, expansion, power and coercion.

I see us grieving a little bit each day. Grief is not only about the loss of a loved one. Grieving is the end of the day, the setting of the sun, the changing of the seasons. It is about indigenous patterns of life. It is in those we pass each day on the street without acknowledgement, or the people, places and broken conventions we have to accept we may never be able to return to. It is in the habits of our hearts and patterns of our being. Where are our cultural spaces for caring and transition, if not to be found here?

Maybe you have found your home now after only 17 days. Maybe we are not very human, or maybe I just can’t use palliatives or clichés right now. Maybe life will gradually twist around your loss like an old gnarled, lightning struck tree. Today, I think of all the conversations and fun we never had and the care I couldn’t give. Tonight my sleep is broken not by your crying but by the crushing memory of your passing. Tomorrow you are with me in the memory of the hopeless hope, the desperate sadness and the courage of your mum and your sister, who wished for you to get better.

I wish you had been meant for our home, here, sharing in our care, our compassion and our warmth. I wish I had felt a squeeze from your tiny hand as you held on to mine for comfort; joining me in this wilderness of life, love and loss.

This blog is dedicated to Eve, and to NICU staff at the Royal Devon & Exeter Hospital, Princess Anne Hospital, Southampton, and St. Michael’s Hospital, Bristol.

 

Inclusion and the Commons

May 1, 2018 § Leave a comment

inclusion-and-the-commons

A discussion paper from the Centre for Welfare Reform

Thomas Allan’s short article is an important one because it helps to map out the territory we need to rediscover between the State and the Market. The post-war period has been dominated by the conflict between these two forces and the result is a No Man’s Land where community, citizenship and most of the good things in life wither.

How we bring this warfare to an end will involve, as Thomas Allan suggests, three different strategies:
1. Recognise and respect the limitations of the Market, not by treating it as the enemy, but by recognising that productivity and efficiency give no measure of human worth.

2. Recognise the role of the State in ensuring our common welfare, but help it redefine its role as Partner, not as a substitute for community life.

3. Identify, reclaim and start to cherish the Commons, the space we all share, the space in which we meet, grow, learn, worship, take care of things and foster the sense of community, belonging and action without which human life becomes empty.

Read and download the free pdf in your browser here.

 

 

 

The Commons of Life, Love and Loss – the psyCommoner

November 23, 2017 § Leave a comment

Winchester Avenue

The Commons are not only resources. They are about the ways in which we live, survive, love and interrelate within our material and social worlds. They are infused with life, love and attachment; pain, loss and resentment.

Too often we are displaced, defined and alienated by the powerful enclosures and pathologies of the market and its state partner. Our real needs and experiences captured and reshaped by powerful cultural narratives of the ‘natural’ social order of things; by the relentless dictates of homoeconomicus, free markets and state bureaucratic systems. Blinded to the deeper connections between us, we are defined in ways we haven’t consented to or don’t understand. Too often our fundamental needs are left unmet and we are left with a lingering dissonance and fractured social world; a sense of distress and the unexplained and unresolved.

More than resources and production, the challenge of enclosure weighs heavy on our mind, body and spirit; where the commons of love, caring, intuition and the possibilities inherent to our social worlds come up against structural limitations.

Below is a passage of experience from the psyCommoner that depicts some of our often turbulent and confused responses as we try to make sense of experience; often in search of rebalancing, renewal and a more inter/subjective rationality:

The One Stop I carry our silent final terms past the one stop on my way to bed each night then dream of Sea Pinks in June over St Ives with peacocks in my wake, with headland chapel overlooking the Celtic sea and commemorative benches dedicated to those who loved the sea views; were reclaimed by the ocean spray and were loved and missed dearly by their family=========>>>>

Come morning I’ll reach with bleary eye for two cups then remember with a wrench of the heart this morning I’ll only need one and ponder what science is this that separates time from place and ends all my many beginnings – I’m homeless, rationalized and alienated. The riches; the slums of abject failure. But regardless I carry on with this stuff inside towards the end of your street, Winchester Avenue surrounds me like enclosure as if to prohibit my going back then lights dim, scenes fade and hope is still-born to the memory – and what business here now?

With wrought Iron neck and leadweight limbs I ache to prove those days meaningless through the ever changing oil paintings and charmed landscapes of my mind’s eye – so onwards to autumn and renewal in the dying of the year: Things that I remember today – by day, waterfall and mossy boulders, over beck grassy bridge with clear water pools swollen by the rainfall, overtures, a crescendo of sound, we conduct an orchestra of awakening now new born in this amphitheatre in the mountains.

By night, secluded beneath the trees and awoken by early birdsong tucked up behind modern fort – yellowed plates hang from the walls and comedic candlesticks lilt sarcastically from one another, hope emerges in crevices, musty carpets and crushed flowers found within book pages; in contradictions; three once-were armchairs face one another in silent communion, onwards to Autumn, the dimly lit industrial streetlamp struggles against darkening skies in ignorance to its’ grave warnings — stave off my early winter warning dreams with colourful crimson leaves in turmoil before leaving muddy incisions on the margins, soon to be frozen; leaves pile high against either side of the curb, red wine, reduced to clear, warmth, now I forget and thaw but I’ll wake within my fear again.

 

The psyCommoner: Nature vs. Civilization – Thomas Allan

July 15, 2017 § Leave a comment

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  1. The Wild

The Summer solstice marks the longest day of the year. The days are long and hopefully full of sunshine. And around about now it’s common to see newspaper and magazine articles celebrating the wild: wild swimming, wild gardening, wild food, wild camping and wild running.

These representations of a variety of human activities are usually set against backdrops of rare spaces of seemingly scarce natural beauty. Ancient woodlands, beautiful lakes, wooded dingles cut into hills, meadows with spectacular spreads of wildflowers where Owls and Kestrels hunt, hidden beaches and lost lanes. Fertile landscapes that awaken our senses, helping us get back in touch with our selves, with nature and leave the real world behind.

In fact, according to Community Psychologist and researcher Carl Walker, much research demonstrates the curative impact of green and waterside environments on mood, where regular use of the natural environment reduces the risk of mental ill health (1).

The wild, or ‘Nature’, however, is often represented as much by what it is not, as it is by what it is. It is places of natural beauty: countryside and rivers, mountains and creeks. It is not production or social organization: towns, roads, cars, offices, airports or factories. One, the profane, is ‘expressive of concepts of unfreedom’ (2); mundane individual and societal problems. The other, the sacred, carries ‘a promising but unspecified sense of an alternative’ (3). Manufactured objects, landscapes and the negotiation of social relations are not part of ‘nature’.

Nature, as noted by Environmental Historian William Cronon, is here seen as ‘an island in the polluted sea of urban-industrial modernity, the one place we can turn for escape from our own too-muchness’. Seen in this way, he continues, ‘wilderness presents itself as the best antidote to our human selves, a refuge we must somehow recover if we hope to save the planet.’ (4)

Still, it is reasonable to suppose that our capacity to access ‘nature’ depends on social opportunity and a range of contingencies embedded in everyday socio-economic life. You’ll need physical health, mobility, cognition and psychosocial wellbeing (or otherwise access to social support). You’ll need communication such as a phone, and affordable transportation such as a car, bike or public transport. You’ll need entitlement to time (paid or unpaid leave), money, food, clothes and equipment. You’ll probably want somewhere to stay and perhaps some company.

The point being that in our familiar notions of work, production and value, ‘nature’ is produced and repackaged as ‘leisure’ or ‘recreation’, apparently free time spent away from our work organizations, career building, formal education and domestic households. Yet this is a separation that ignores the economic and social forces that capture free time from an individual and sell it back to them as a commodity (5). Today, zero hours contracts, endless workplace restructures, austerity, reduced wages and social welfare cuts, anxieties, insecurity and a crisis in public health have left many without the means to traverse ‘real life’ into ‘nature’.

And if you are serious about leaving it all behind? You will need to consider other issues of accessing nature. According to an article in the Guardian, the UK has 60m acres of land; two thirds of which are privately owned by 0.36 percent of the population. The project of living within ‘nature’ is subject to the rules and exclusions of private or state land ownership and management. Historically, Simon Fairlie describes how the enclosure and privatization of hitherto common land in the UK has over a number of centuries led to extreme levels of land ownership concentration, depriving most British people of access to agricultural land (6).

Seen from another perspective, many decades living afloat on the Thames in London led to author, activist and group therapist Denis Postle’s extended experience of the wild. For Postle, ‘Wilderness’ serves as an integrating notion for the split between ‘nature’ and ‘civilisation’ (7):

Intimate appreciation of the dynamics of this wilderness led to the realisation that the city surrounding it and urban civilisation in general was also a wilderness and that the split between ‘nature’ and ‘civilisation’ was a major category error. Cities, the Internet, aircraft, washbasins and supermarkets are also ‘nature’.”

Here, nature and civilization are two inseparable spheres in symbiotic relationship. One may be described as the natural environment, not altered by human intervention. The other perhaps analogous to what Critical Geographer Noel Castree and colleagues have termed ‘social nature’, referring to how societies physically re-constitute nature ‘intentionally and unintentionally’ to the point it becomes institutionalised and ‘internalised into social processes’ (8).

The natural environment: climate, weather and natural resources, impacts social nature: human survival and economic activity. The ‘economy’, originally conceived of as household management and by extension the commons, relies on nature in the form of resource extraction to produce commodities that we buy and sell in private markets for profit or use; while traditionally the state has harnessed ‘nature’ through investing in infrastructure such as roads, bridges, airports, railways, buildings and power stations to facilitate expansion, employment, taxation and growth. The idea of what became known as ‘The Welfare State’ developed in the 20th Century as a form of arrangement between market and state to provide for human need, giving the state new responsibilities for the social and economic welfare of citizens.

In summary, different forms of production and social organization for survival are not unique to the modern era. But the endless drive for market strategies of growth in the era of industrialization has fundamentally transformed human geography such as through extensive urbanization and agricultural land conversion, disturbing the ‘metabolic interaction’ between humans and the earth. In myriad ways, one ‘nature’ has modified, displaced or diminished the Other.

Interestingly, it was from within this false dichotomy and the ‘Great Transformation’ that followed that is said to have given rise to the subjective experience of the poet John Clare.

  1. John Clare

    NPG 1469; John Clare by William Hilton

    by William Hilton, oil on canvas, 1820

John Clare (1793-1864) has been described as ‘known for his celebratory representations of the English countryside and his lamentation of its disruption’. He is said to have written powerfully ‘of nature, of a rural childhood, and of the alienated and unstable self’ (9).

Clare was from the village of Helpston, Peterborough; a village affected savagely by enclosures. According to author, economist and corporate policy advisor Fred Harrison, Helpston and its inhabitants were subjected to a social reconfiguration designed to maximise the rent of landlords; a transformation that crushed the customs and the values of people who had innovated throughout the ages by cultivating and tending nature until it became fit for human habitation (10).

These values and customs were significant, as Clare’s formative years were shaped by his personal relationships, situated ‘within the interplay of a topography of spatial openness and the aesthetics of his temporal awareness…his aesthetic senses tuned to the rhythm of the seasons’ (11):

In Clare’s world, there was an intimate relationship between society and environment. The open field system fostered a sense of community. You could talk to the man working the next strip; you could see the shared ditches. You could tell the time of the day by the movement of the common flock and herd from the village pound out to the heath and back. Once a year everyone would gather to ‘beat the bounds’, that is to say, walk around the perimeter of the parish as a way of marking its boundaries. The fields spread out in a wheel with the village as its hub…”

The customs and values of the commoner would not withstand the onslaught. The culture of economic improvement, a feature of John Locke’s political theory and English property law was cited as justification for the changes that followed. Court decisions on property rights followed in favour of exclusive private property rights and the dispossession of small producers (12).

Guided by the doctrine of classical liberalism, markets were recast as self-regulating institutions designed to fit humans supposed natural tendencies to maximise profit and exchange. Social progress was seen as best achieved by the unbridled power of self-regulating markets and self-interested entrepreneurs.

The rise of market norms and relations were ‘marked by ongoing attempts to commodify both labour and the biophysical environment’ (13) – what Karl Polanyi later termed ‘fictitious commodities’ (14) – and subject them to the demands of the market. Rather than understanding economic relations as embedded in society, and by extension between society and the natural world, human-environment relations became inverted as social relations were reengineered to serve the needs of self-regulating markets.

Insisting on markets as self-regulating institutions, free market ideology became the handmaiden of the new industrial interests (15):

Promoted as ‘progress’ the fields were enclosed and the circular configuration ripped apart in favour of a linear landscape. Where people once roamed, now there were restrictions. Families which for years had traversed the landscape as free people were now outlawed from the places that were cherished by their forefathers. But this was more than an exercise in redefining property rights and economic practices. Mind and bodies were compressed in an unrelenting process of confinement.” (16)

Insightfully, Harrison points out how Clare was recognised as a poet who ‘registered the rupture at the interface between the commons of people’s culture, and the commons of nature (resources that they shared)’ (17). Within these ruptures, Claire suffered from a number of physical and mental health problems that, according to Harrison, would represent what today is called ‘Bipolar Affective Disorder’ or ‘Post Traumatic Stress Disorder’. The commons had helped shape his identity; interconnected with a web of relationships and experiences with land, love and community. Yet by the end of the 19th century, these had been ‘compressed into legal and social abnormalities that redefined people’s status with each other and with the land’ (18):

The separation of a population from its natural and social commons under the laws of the land created stresses of a schizophrenic character. These were evident in the decision makers, who had to balance the need to satisfy their ‘stakeholders’ – the landowners – with the need to keep the system operating. Rents had to be generated. The tensions were palpable in the paradoxes that tested the mental and moral landscapes”

Today, these beliefs and the complex interlocking of politics and economics still provide the organizing template for large parts of contemporary social and economic life. Private ownership, patriarchal forms of social organisation and market forces are seen as conducive to the ‘proper’ conservation and management of human and natural resources; while for most of us, our daily lives revolve around the continuous displacements and insecurities of the labour market – what Polanyi called ‘the pernicious nineteenth century dogma of the necessary uniformity of domestic regimes within the orbit of world economy’ (19).

Yet we are being stretched. As the forces of free market globalisation accelerate, inequality deepens and new demands are placed on individuals, social relations and communities. In submitting to the anonymous power of the market, people suffer structural unemployment, reduced wages and welfare and reduced entitlement to social assistance; continuously forced to adapt to new and shifting threats to develop new forms of coping strategies. As a number of studies have now shown, in today’s ‘turbo-charged and austerity-ravaged’ economy, anxiety, depression and insecurity have become the new normal (20).

Could what we have taken for so long as improvement and progress actually be damage and destruction of the psyCommons, as well as the social and natural commons? Despite extraordinary advances in science and technology, cultural critics, academics, artists, activists, concerned citizens and demonstrators alike have long drawn attention to the social consequences, ecological destruction and now ravaging psychological impact of corporate globalization.

What Clare’s experiences and poetry show us is that this Great Transformation was not only the recasting of economic orthodoxy and political power – associated primarily with the production, use and management of resources – but of the alienated self, and the destruction and reconstruction of subjectivity. It represents the psychological pain generated by the gradual devastation of people and place (21):

Inclosure came and trampled on the grave / Of labour’s rights and left the poor a slave … And birds and trees and flowers without a name / All sighed when lawless law’s enclosure came.”

Still, the beautiful landscapes, lanes and secret beaches remain, yet more as a ‘reflection of our own unexamined longings and desires’ (22), rather than as an escape or antidote to real life. Wilderness, as Cronon points out, is not at all what it seems.

References:

  1. Cunningham, L. & Walker, C. Building a New Community Psychology of Mental Health

  2. Linebaugh, P. Enclosures From the Bottom Up

  3. Ibid

  4. Cronon, W. The Trouble with Getting Back to Wilderness

  5. See Situationist International, Questionnaire: Section 12 (1964)

  6. Fairlie, S. A Short History of Enclosure in Britain

  7. Postle, D. Nature Vs Civilization: End of Life Notice

  8. Castree, N. & Braun, B. Social Nature: Theory, Practice & Politics

  9. Summerfield, Geoffrey. An Introduction to John Clare

  10. Harrison, F. The Traumatised Society

  11. Ibid

  12. Wood, E. Liberty & Property

  13. Davis, R. & Pinkerton, E. Neoliberalism and the Politics of Enclosure in North American Fisheries

  14. Polanyi, K. The Great Transformation

  15. Stiglitz, J. Foreword to The Great Transformation (2001)

  16. Harrison, F. The Traumatised Society

  17. Ibid

  18. Ibid

  19. Polanyi, K. The Great Transformation

  20. Taylor, JD. Spent? Capitalisms Growing Problem with Anxiety

  21. Monbiot, G. The Poet of the Environmental Crisis 200 years ago

  22. Cronon, W. The Trouble with Getting Back to Wilderness

Notes and Fragments from a ‘Leadership’ Day The psyCommoner

April 28, 2017 § 1 Comment

mgp131

 

Today I attended ‘leadership’ training. Yet strangely, there is no context to our work. No mention of social welfare cuts, care worker’s low wages, endless organisational restructures or organisational penny pinching; this is all off the agenda. Something we must ‘park’.

We must also implicitly ‘park’ other messy realities that may not generate ‘value’: the anxiety, stresses, strains, impulses, pressures, incontinence, medication errors, poor judgments and living conditions – and instead try to stay focused on suffocating the human, social and political being within and instigate ‘positive thinking’. ‘Polly-Annas’ are here preferred to ‘Eeyores’.

I subsequently spend the most part of the day trying to reconcile this with what we intuitively know to be true about the current social and political moment. The austerity agenda obscured by the so-called ‘efficiency’ drive and the incumbent organisational actors, practices and processes that remove senior managers and policy makers from seeing or being truly responsible and accountable for the human consequences of their decisions.

This is being physically, socially and psychically absent. Disembodied decision makers. Facelessness, alienation and obscurity, a symphony of life under neoliberalism. « Read the rest of this entry »

Beyond Efficiency: Care and the Commons Thomas Allan

October 16, 2016 § Leave a comment

Current welfare policy is dominated by a pair of narrowly defined and contrasting concepts: the ‘public’, which is usually equated to the state, versus the private, which is treated as equivalent to narrow economic self-interest. This is an unhelpful framework for thinking about the welfare state as a whole and social care in particular. Thomas Allan, in this important essay, challenges the current thinking about care and asks us instead to return to an older and more useful conception of care – as part of the commons.

‘Care’

Care is something intrinsic to being human; a part of the human spirit that doesn’t lend itself well to the institutions we have created and the norms to which we are accustomed. Take its management, for example:

  • How would we measure care?
  • Can care be efficient?
  • Can we optimize care or maximize returns on it?
  • How can we incentivise others to care?

This is an economic or managerial representation of care; one that sees care as a transaction or economic process, and questions that revolve around policies that construe citizens as rational economic beings in every field of life – something that is profoundly misleading (Habermann 2012).

To care is to be intuitive; to perceive the intangible and experience the imprecise, formless, confusing and the painful dislocations; as well as the warm, comforting and reassuring. Care cannot be categorized, counted or separated for purposes of analysis, and includes attachments to time and place, patterns of life and thought, reproductive activities and habits of the heart (Harvey 2007) – something Denis Postle has termed a “Wilderness”(Postle 2016).To understand this wilderness is to perceive complexity and adopt a fully holistic approach.

Yet trying to care in a system that doesn’t is a thankless task. Bureaucratic systems legitimise poor standards (Jackson 2015). The marketization of care leads to repressed wages for frontline staff (Jackson 2015). Thoughtless and inhuman policies are leading to “a new wave of institutionalised practice,” and the ongoing managerial drive for cuts and ‘cost efficiency’ leads to organisational failures as well as personal crises (Jackson 2015; Griffin, McGrath & Mundy 2015).

The government pays lip service to ‘Big Society’ and ‘Strong Communities’. But in truth, our capacity to organize networks of mutual care is being endangered by the pursuit of economic power and political goals about which there is no real debate beyond the palliative consultation.

Part of this is that, as managers or employees, we seem to have fallen foul of the McNamara Fallacy: making decisions solely on the basis of what can be measured – something a management colleague once described to me as “looking through the wrong end of the telescope.” Seeking to reduce care to manageable proportions, we have become blind to the more intricate patterns of human interaction that are subtle, qualitative, long-term and complex (Bollier & Weston 2012).

In health and social services, management and professional services resemble a closely related exercise in the art of gate-keeping: extracting information from people who need support and their families to populate over lengthy and technical assessments, before data inputting into vast IT systems to ‘evidence’ preordained decisions on cost savings. Can you communicate the bad news nicely to the distressed and the disenfranchised? We speak of the person centred principle in our work, yet people are made to fit the system rather than the other way around.

The tendency has been to reduce care to the measurable and the technical, targeting the isolated individual. This thinking reduces personal experiences such as mental distress and social marginalization – challenges relating to the social environment in which people live (Griffin, McGrath & Mundy 2015) – to technical tweaks, ameliorative revision or, most perniciously, resorting to deficit based thinking and victim blaming (Ryan 1971) – problematic or maladapted individuals. It is blind to the social contexts in which personal and organizational issues arise. This is especially problematic when we are trying to promote a more caring, inclusive society.

In many organizations, foundational and much fetishised principles of management such as efficiency have taken on turbo charged and fanatical proportions, reinforcing the view that improvement in care is a question of ever more efficient resource allocation. Social economist Mark Lutz wrote presciently:

“One could see the present age as dominated by a religion of economic efficiency. Everything is to be interpreted in its light. Institutions must justify their existence in the name of efficiency, the state itself being no exception” (Lutz 1999).

Principles such as market competition and optimization dominate the debate, leaving little space for democratic decision-making, or critical reflection on the lived experience of people in their everyday lives; two vital considerations in the satisfaction of human need (Doyal & Gough 1991; Gough 1994).

In public, private and even nonprofit sector organizations, cost savings, cost efficiency, rapacious downsizing and restructures have become common sense and good business; or, for those less inclined, unfortunate side effects of economic downturn but necessary for survival.

Displaced and bewildered staff are the ‘engaged’ subjects of ‘necessary’ change in response to the ‘inevitabilities’ of economic globalization, managed through faceless systems of performance measurement to deliver efficiency, productivity and profitability to the market. Precarious employment, reduced wages and welfare, stress, anxieties, insecurity and a crisis in public health are all inconvenient ‘externalities’ to the mainstream economist’s efficiency models.

Contradictions and confusion reign. Human bonds are broken. Huge sums are invested in vast data systems to collect information for ‘efficiencies’ in the market, while poorly paid and over-worked care staff leave to be replaced by expensive agency staff or unreliable technology. On reassessing disability welfare entitlement, meanwhile, academic David Stuckler points out that  “the government’s own estimates of fraud by persons with disabilities is less than the sum of the contract awarded to the company carrying out the tests.”

Most disturbingly, while evidence traces the actual human cost of austerity (Basu & Stuckler 2013), key decision makers press on, offering policies based on an impoverished conception of human welfare. Whether constrained within organisational hierarchies or blinkered by free market ideology, we are unable to find a way out of the impasse.

There is inevitably a human consequence of such organization. This political rationality – the logic of the market – imposes itself on our values, shapes our identities and our perception of ourselves and others, in a manner French Philosopher Foucault called governmentality. It extends its influence into our minds, our personalities, and inhibits empathy; isolating us from others (Meretz 2012; Verhaeghe 2015). It threatens the public ethos and reconstructs notions of citizenship in its image. The impact of austerity, belief in free markets and the doctrine of balanced budgets are undermining our human relations: the very bedrock of our free civil society.

But how can we make visible the human relations that underlie care? Is there a more caring alternative? The answer, I believe, lies in the notion of the commons.

Reconceptualising care and the commons

Social activist and author John Restakis points out it is profoundly false to refer to care as a product, or to the recipients as clients. Says Restakis:

“It is the unthinkable urge in a market society to commodify human and social relations. Neither state bureaucracy, which depersonalizes social service recipients, nor private sector firms, which instrumentalize recipients as a source of profit, can ever be suited to the provision of relational goods.” (Restakis 2011).

In this sense, care is not a ‘thing’ that we produce and distribute through standardized state systems or impersonal market mechanisms, but connections that are made on the basis of our natural predisposition to love, empathise, reciprocate and share meanings. As Restakis makes clear, both state and market take as its starting point an economistic assumption of deficit or scarcity of care in society, ignoring that care is an intrinsic human response to others in need.

As a set of free market policies dismantle the welfare state and privatise public services, the burden weighs heavy on the public sphere to provide the fix. This is the sphere – an often overlooked and taken for granted sphere sometimes referred to as the ‘commons’ – where community organizes and provides its own services: family carers, civic and voluntary associations, cooperatives, ‘user’ led advocacy or parents organizing their children’s playgroup.

Massimo De Angelis, author and Professor of Political Economy at the University of East London, explains:

We find commons in community organizations and associations, social centers, neighbour associations, indigenous practices, households, peer-to-peer networks, and the reproduction of community activities organized within faith communities. (De Angelis 2012)

But De Angelis urges us to be wary of the always ‘revolutionary’ management strategies we are exposed to, instead asking us to understand commons as an informal social activity from the bottom up known as ‘commoning’. This is where the real ideas for change are conceived and grow.

The Commons – “a vision of empowered citizens taking charge of their lives and their endangered resources”(Bollier & Helfrich 2012) – is a field of possibilities and new social practices, based on sharing, cooperation, reciprocity and socio-cultural change. These practices are providing pioneering solutions to the challenge of how to reproduce our livelihoods beyond market and state.

Yet a ‘commons fix’ (De Angelis 2012) is not a replacement for properly funded public services, so we can turn a blind eye to the social and ecological disintegration around us. To avoid being co-opted into neoliberal narratives of the ‘Big Society’ or ‘Strong Communities’, the act of ‘commoning’ also involves asserting our political rights, writes Brigitte Kratzwald:

Rethinking the social welfare state from the perspective of the commons means stepping out of the private sphere and reclaiming the state and the public sphere. In this context, “state” includes all levels of government, including the federal states and the municipalities. This means that commoners need to consider themselves part of the public sphere again, the sphere of politics. (Kratzwald 2012)

Can these commons really happen? They already are. According to recent publications by the Commons Strategy Group we are already showing an intrinsic desire as citizens “to collaborate and share to meet everyday needs as a powerful strategy for building a more fair, humane social order” (Bollier & Helfrich 2015); from people “organising to defend their forests and fisheries, reinvent local food systems, organize productive online communities, reclaim public spaces, improve environmental stewardship and re-imagine the very meaning of “progress” and governance” (Bollier & Helfrich 2012).

In health and social care, the Dutch Homecare organization Buurtzorg is a managerless network of 7,000 nurses formed by Jos De Blok in 2006. This not-for-profit organisation is drawing interest both in the Netherlands and elsewhere as a genuinely person focused and democratic organizational form, born out of former District Nurse De Blok’s passion and frustration with his profession falling foul to managerial principles of productivity, protocols and administration – losing its social value.

With District Nurses “alienated from their profession,” they had become “imprisoned in administrative tasks;” their skill and expertise “barely called upon anymore.” Tellingly, De Blok also felt the drive for efficiency was undermining the essence of what care is:

“The cause of the malaise is the product-oriented approach that first appeared around ten years ago in the homecare sector and is, by now, widespread. In this vision, care is seen as a product that you can chop up into various activities. You then try to carry out these activities as cheaply as possible.”

Restakis meanwhile presents a model of the social cooperative with improved accountability to people who need support; one that doesn’t compromise the obligations and prerogatives of government, while moving “beyond defensiveness” of the traditional political battles between supporters of either public or private delivery models.

This model is based on an experiment with new ways of funding social care by the foundation Fondazione del Monte di Bologna e Ravenna. It involved 6 key principles, abridged below from his book Humanizing the Economy (2011):

  1. Shifting the production of social care delivery from government to democratically structured civil institutions, with government retaining its role as prime funder to these services.
  2. Government funding should flow direct to people who need support who would then select services they need from a choice of accredited organisations. Independent consumer cooperatives should be funded to assist people (e.g. without mental capacity) and their families in the identification, evaluation and contracting of care services.
  3. Social care organisations must have the legal ability to raise capital from members and civil society more generally on the basis of social investing.
  4. Surpluses generated by these social care organisations with public funding would need to be held as social assets and a reserve held for the expansion and development of that organisation and its services.
  5. The primary role of government would be to continue to provide funding for social care and establish the rules of the game, in partnership with service providers, caregivers and people who need support.
  6. Service design and the assessment of need would take place at the community and regional level of delivery. This decentralisation must include the democratisation of decision making through the sharing of control rights with people who need support and care givers.

These are some examples and a brief introduction to different ways of thinking about care and the means for its provision. In truth, it is unclear what the future holds. We often talk about ‘risk’ in care – risk to vulnerable individuals, groups or organisations – and to some these solutions may seem unnecessarily risky. But what is clear is that we can no longer talk only about risk to one individual, group or piece of the system, but of the failings of the system itself.

When we take a longer term view and understand the consequences of bureaucratic and free market thinking on human welfare, it is arguably more risky to leave things the way they are. Rethinking care should be a priority.

Given the certainty that we will all need care and support as we move through life, we should be very concerned about our leader’s willingness to accept the social consequences of economic ‘improvement’, and the modelling of our care delivery systems on decision making frameworks such as those designed to maximize efficiency in large For-Profits, such as Sports Direct.

The commons gives us a framework and generative power to take affirmative individual and collective action ourselves now, holding decision makers accountable and looking at how we can create, organize and manage our common resources as communities of free people.

References

Basu, S & Stuckler, D (2013) The Body Economic: Why Austerity Kills. New York. Basic Books.

Bollier, D & Helfrich, S (2012) Introduction: The Commons as a Transformative Vision in The Wealth of the Commons: A World beyond Market and State. Amherst, MA. Levellers Press.

Bollier, D & Helfrich, S (2015) Patterns of Commoning. Amherst, MA. Levellers Press.

Bollier, D & Weston, B (2012) Green Governance: Ecological Survival, Human Rights and the Law of the Commons in The Wealth of the Commons: A World beyond Market and State. Amherst, MA. Levellers Press.

De Angelis, M (2012) Crises, Capital and Co-optation: Does Capital Need a Commons Fix? in The Wealth of the Commons: A World beyond Market and State. Amherst, MA. Levellers Press.

Doyal, L & Gough, I (1991) A Theory of Human Need. New York. Palgrave Macmillan.

Gough, I (1994) Economic Institutions and the Satisfaction of Human Need. Journal of Economic Issues Volume 28 Issue 1 Pages 25-66

Griffin, V. McGrath, L  & Mundy, E (2015) The Psychological Impact of Austerity: A Briefing Paper. Psychologists Against Austerity. Published online at https://psychagainstausterity.wordpress.com

Habermann, F (2012) We Are Not Born As Egoists in The Wealth of the Commons: A World beyond Market and State. Amherst, MA. Levellers Press.

Harvey, D (2007) A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford. Oxford University Press.

Jackson, R (2015) Who Cares? The Impact of Ideology, Regulation and Marketization on the Quality of Life for People with Intellectual Disability. Sheffield. The Centre for Welfare Reform.

Kratzwald, B (2012) Rethinking the Social Welfare State in Light of the Commons in The Wealth of the Commons: A World beyond Market and State. Amherst, MA. Levellers Press.

Lutz, M (1999) Economics for the Common Good: Two Centuries of Social Economic Thought in the Humanist Tradition. New York. Routledge.

Meretz, S (2012) The Structural Communality of Commons in The Wealth of the Commons: A World beyond Market and State. Amherst, MA. Levellers Press.

Postle, D (2016) ‘Nature’ v ‘Civilisation’: End of Life Notice. Published online at https://wildernessweb.org/2016/04/21/nature-v-civilisation-end-of-life-notice/

Restakis, J (2011) Humanizing the Economy: Cooperatives in the Age of Capital. Gabriola Island, BC Canada. New Society Publishers.

Ryan, W (1971) Blaming the Victim. New York. Pantheon Books.

Verhaeghe, P (2014) What About Me? The struggle for identity in a market-based society. London. Scribe UK.

The publisher is the Centre for Welfare Reform.

Beyond Efficiency: Care and the Commons © Thomas Allan 2016.

Posted here by permission of the Centre for Welfare Reform

The psyCommoner: Nature vs Civilization

August 9, 2016 § Leave a comment

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Guest post by Thomas Allan

Around this time of year it’s common to see newspaper and magazine articles featuring the wild: wild swimming, wild gardens, wild food, wild camping, wild running, hidden beaches and lost lanes.

These representations of a variety of human activities in the wild are usually set against a backdrop of rare spaces of natural beauty. Ancient woodlands with spectacular spreads of bluebells, beautiful lakes and wooded dingles cut into hills, meadows where Owls and Kestrels hunt. These exuberant and fertile landscapes awaken our senses, helping us get back in touch with our selves, with nature and leave the real world behind.

In fact, according to Community Psychologist and researcher Carl Walker, much research demonstrates the curative impact of green and waterside environments on mood, where regular use of the natural environment reduces the risk of mental ill health.

‘Nature’, though, is often represented as much by what it is not, as by what it is. It is places of natural beauty: countryside and rivers, mountains and creeks. It is not production or social organization: towns, roads, cars, offices, airports or factories. One, the profane, implies ‘contemporary sources of unfreedom’; mundane individual and societal problems. The other, the sacred, carries ‘a promising but unspecified sense of an alternative’. Manufactured objects, landscapes and the negotiation of social relations are not part of ‘nature’.

Yet, to a large extent, an individual’s capacity to access ‘nature’ depends on a range of contingencies embedded in everyday social and economic life. You’ll need physical health, mobility, cognition and psychosocial wellbeing (or otherwise access to social support). You’ll need communication, and affordable transportation such as a car, bike or public transport. You’ll need entitlement to time (paid or unpaid leave), money, food, clothes and equipment. You’ll probably want somewhere to stay and perhaps some company.

In our familiar notions of work, production and value, ‘nature’ is produced and repackaged as ‘leisure’ or ‘recreation’: apparently free time spent away from our work organizations, career building, formal education and domestic households. Yet this is a separation that ignores the economic and social forces which capture free time from an individual and sell it back to them as a commodity. Today, zero hours contracts, endless workplace restructures, reduced wages and welfare, anxieties, insecurity and a crisis in public health have left many without the means to traverse ‘real life’ into ‘nature’.

And if you are serious about leaving it all behind? You will need to consider other issues of accessing nature. According to an article in the Guardian, the UK has 60m acres of land; two thirds of which is privately owned by 0.36 percent of the population. The project of living within ‘nature’ is subject to the rules and exclusions of private or state land ownership and management. Historically, Simon Fairlie describes how the enclosure (privatization) of land in the UK over a number of centuries has led to extreme levels of land ownership concentration, depriving most British people of access to agricultural land.

However, many decades living afloat on the Thames in London led to author, activist and group therapist Denis Postle’s extended experience of the wild. For Postle, ‘Wilderness’ serves as an integrating notion for the split between ‘nature’ and ‘civilisation’: “Intimate appreciation of the dynamics of this wilderness led to the realisation that the city surrounding it and urban civilisation in general was also a wilderness and that the split between ‘nature’ and ‘civilisation’ was a major category error. Cities, the Internet, aircraft, washbasins and supermarkets are also ‘nature’.”

Here, nature and civilization are two inseparable spheres in symbiotic relationship. One may be described as the natural environment, not altered by human intervention. The other as what Castree (2001) and colleagues have termed ‘social nature’, referring to how societies physically re-constitute nature ‘intentionally and unintentionally’ to the point it becomes institutionalised and ‘internalised into social processes’.

The natural environment: climate, weather and natural resources, affects social nature: human survival and economic activity. The ‘economy’, originally conceived of as household management and by extension the commons, relies on nature in the form of resource extraction to produce commodities that we buy and sell in private markets for profit or use; while traditionally the state has harnessed ‘nature’ through investing in infrastructure such as roads, bridges, airports, railways, buildings and power stations to facilitate expansion, employment and ever more production and accumulation (market growth).

Different forms of production and social organization for survival are not unique to the modern era. But the endless drive for strategies of growth in the era of industrialization has fundamentally transformed human geography such as through extensive urbanization and agricultural land conversion, disturbing the ‘metabolic interaction’ between humans and the earth. One ‘nature’ has modified, displaced or diminished the ‘other’.

More reflections from The psyCommoner to follow…

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