There was interest in my introducing the concept of class struggle into the Living Wage debate, as it occurred in a provincial town; to see in fact, councillors representing a class interest. Let me extend the concept, to see if the much-used paradigm of ‘community’ also has a class struggle component.
Summer Festival, Blackball
Community is almost universally seen as a good thing (only being questioned for a period by identity politics activists who saw community as often rejecting difference). And of course, community can take many shapes: geographic, ethnic, gender, special interest to name a few.
When I was a kid you didn’t hear the word much. There were no community centres or community programmes. People sometimes talked of there having been a strong sense of community during the 1930’s Depression; that was about it.
Yet everyone who worked belonged to a union, there were lots of sporting clubs and church groups, the Communist Party existed, the Methodists in the district ran a dance for teenagers every Saturday night, Friday night shopping saw everyone in the town centre stopping to chat, the watersiders got through 1951 and draconian emergency regulations only through community support, pitching the family tent at a communal campsite was the common thing to do for a holiday, Saturday night saw eight hundred people in the picture theatre and family doctors really were family doctors; so in reality, there was a stronger community than now. But there was a nasty homophobia, the Maori were still living in the sticks and married women mainly stayed at home.
Then, in the 1960s, community became a buzz word. Living more communally was a way to challenge consumerism, war, nuclear threat and environmental degradation. Being involved in a community, smoking the occasional joint and learning from indigenous cultures would lead to a change of consciousness. So, communes, community centres, community art centres, and community health centres sprang up as a way of challenging the capitalist system. But the impulse could degenerate into a lifestyle.
Then neoliberalism arrived and government services were privatised. Unemployment grew, the regions were hard hit, a whole lot of people got hurt, and community groups had to form to try and pick up the pieces. For a while they did so critically, understanding where the problem lay, but then funding mechanisms quietened them down and community became a buzzword for helping those who weren’t making it, who were falling through the cracks, individuals who weren’t setting and achieving goals, who were not getting onto the success ladder. An underclass of such people developed (over-populated by Maori and Pacific Islanders) and the helping became more and more targeted. The little community helpers disappeared and the big corporate ones grew, with ever larger portfolios. The charitable scene truly arrived with multinationals and the super-rich dispensing some of their wealth to the poor. It all became globalised, while still mouthing community, when, in reality, it constantly attacked community relations and continues to do so.
Like consumerism, while huge in scale, this pattern is nevertheless still operating at the grass roots level. Take a village on the Coast. The extractive industries which once were the lifeblood have all but disappeared. People survive by doing some paid work and a bit of hunting and gathering. There are a couple of local businesses. The hotel is somewhat marginal in the off season. Then a great walk or a cycle way is proposed. Economic possibilities surface. Who’s going to take them up and in what manner?
The Ministry of Social Development arrives with a buzzword: community-led development. The community is like the individual. It must set goals and then achieve them. Council join in the game. A leftie activist, supported by the unions, sees the possibility of a co-operative of locals operating. MSD and Council don’t understand the concept so support the more normal business model. In fact they lead the development, using the local community organisations as a front, a disguise through which they open up the community to the commodity relations of tourism. A class struggle begins to occur and parallel systems exist.
Projecting into the future, development gets dumped on the town, more and more visitors arrive, the price of property rises, locals can’t afford to live there any longer and the precarious and badly paid jobs are taken over by young people on working visas. The community is, by now, fragmented and new community groups are required: addiction counselling, suicide prevention… The school is collapsing because of lack of numbers; young people on working visas don’t have kids in tow. The big tourist operator moves in and buys up the place. Has the co-operative managed to survive?
This class struggle at the community level has taken place most formidably amongst the indigenous people of Chiapas, Mexico’s poorest state. There it’s been the Zapatista against the government and NAFTA. But it is also taking place in less articulate fashion in every village on the globe. We just don’t see it happening.
photo: Dorset Chiapas Solidarity