Wednesday 7 November 2012

deconstructing the beast

Ye Gods! declared Sally at Green Drinks as we conducted a go round on our September topic, So what is Transition?

She was describing what it was like as a newcomer to join the local council and how amazing it was to be sitting here at the Green Dragon, unconstrained by the death-like vice of parish protocol. We all laughed. All of us have been there. In fact the first Transiton meeting I ever went to was in the Town Council chambers. Mark leapt to the chair and banged the hammer on the polished table. Bungay will be Sustainable! he cried. The portraits on the wall stared down at us disapprovingly, as indeed their living counterparts would in the years to come. Our fellow Transitioners, busy designing a food conference at the local Emmanuel Church, smiled and welcomed us. That's how it is sometimes in Transition.

But not always.

This week was suggested by two excellent posts this year: the first by Jo Homan Leaders, Figureheads, Talking Heads and the other by Steph Bradley, Are we who we think we are? - A Personal Journey Through Rank written after a Network "away day" on a subject, which is as vast and hard to contain as the ocean. That equality makes for a happier people is something we know from experience and from documents like The Spirit Level, and yet we live in one of the most socially stagnant societies on Earth.

We like to think, as Transitioners, we are classless, but we are not: we might not identify with our backgrounds, and get on famously as a result, but the outside world in which all our meetings take place is held entirely in the heraldic grip of the ancien regime. It presses us to conform on all sides, from the council chambers to the local pub, to the church hall to the community centre. It comes through people as they impose the dominant authority of their education, their profession, their religion on our small endeavours. Sometimes I swear I can feel it like a cage entrapping me, separating me forcibly from my companions, making our conversations peter out or go nowhere, as we flare up antagonistically for no reason. Afterwards I often feel cold and out of joint.

"Is that just me?" I have sometimes asked Mark. "No," he says. "I felt it too".

how beastly the bourgeois is!

I'll start with Mark, the one who holds the hammer. Compadre and fellow Transitioner we have been having this converation for 20 years. He is working class, I am upper middle class: that's the way you could pigeon-hole us according to our backgrounds. He says no-one ever mentioned class in his house, I tell him people never mentioned anything else in mine. We were acutely aware of everyone's status, depending on your father's work, the part of London you lived in and the schools you attended.

Until I was 19 when I found myself living in the slums of Birmingham I had never encountered any class except my own. I was bred not to. Even though my parents were perfectly friendly to the au pairs and dailies and workmen who streamed through the house, to all the commoners they worked amongst as criminal barrister and hospital volunteer, PLU was who mattered in life.
The coalition government are made up of the kind of people I was brought up amongst: proud, ritualistic, acquisitive, obsessed by form, terrified of losing face, with a horror of the masses, all fellow feeling having been ruthlessly bullied out of them. In order to hold its superior position, the ancien regime needs to continually push others down. The more equality and fairness exerts its pressure within the collective, the harder they push. They are, as George Orwell points out in his peerless study of class, Road to Wigan Pier, terrified of losing control and falling. In this they are as much at the mercy of this heartless system as anyone else. (Confessions of a Class Traitor, OneWorldColumn, 2011)

Here is a snapshot: Kent 1958 A child looking out of the door of a cottage. My father is taking the picture. He is about to rise to the top of his profession. Unlike him, his four children will be provided with private education and all the material benefits of an haute bourgeios upbringing. To one of them he will recite the stories of the French Revolution and teach to love nature. Although he will always vote Tory, drink claret and play the game, his heart is on the side of les citoyens. His daughter will grow up and betray her class. She will leave the city, and one day return to live in this cottage and eat the humble vegetables he once grew. Sometimes someone gives you a key to a door they cannot open. Sometimes it is your destiny to go through that door.

Here is another snapshot Suffolk 2009. A woman reading to children in the garden of a large house. You can't go over it, you have to go through it, the children chorus (they know the book by heart). She is teaching the children on a three-month work experience (unpaid) as a penance for being unemployed.

Tonight she will stand up in front of 50 people and exhort them to confront the challenges of climate change and peak oil and everyone will cheer. It's the beginning of Transition Norwich 2.0. You have to go through it. Afterwards someone will stand up, as they always do, and say that "the trouble with Transition is it is middle class" and then declare how they will take the news to the underprivileged part of the city. They won't of course, nor will they join Transition. It's one of those interventions that makes the energy go down in the room and keeps the status quo in place.

How does it do this?

- By upholding patronage and "good works" that offset the guilt of the bourgeiosie
- by sidelining the fact that it's the middle classes who will have to do most of the downshifting to reduce carbon emissions
- by paralysing those people engaged in Transition and engendering self-hatred already institutionalised by all our upbringings.

Afterwards I will go back to work and tell my employer at the eco-centre about the launch of our new incentive. "We've been doing Transition in the church for 20 years," he says dismissively.

"You haven't been part of an initiative," I will reply. And he will be outraged. Because I am in the down-there place on a lower rung and shouldn't speak to a superior like that. But I am speaking like that because I've got nothing to lose. Because I wil spend the next hour writing down exactly why the middle class slur is a trap, even in the most enlightened, diverse, open, inclusive Transiton groups. Somehow we have to get out of it.

The law of the chicken house

We are constructed socially to fit into tiers. No matter what class we are born into, there are always people above us and people below us. And every transaction we make or thought we have is tempered by our conditioning: to keep ourselves on that rung, or climb the ladder, and for that we have to push others down. Them, Her, that district, those people. Not PLU. We are told we do not belong to the earth or the people, which is our true heritage as human beings, but to the production line.

Disenfranchised from life, the chicken house makes us touchy, arrogant, undermining, opinionated, offended and inflexible. Non-receptive to new ideas and other people's experience and skills.

There are two positions you take: let's call them officer and men, rank and file, line-managers and workers, us and Them. Let's call them leaders and followers, professional and amateur. We are coded to give or take orders, command or obey. Our parents teach us this stuff by example, our teachers by rule. By the time we are grown we know our place: our every gesture, word, where we go on holiday, what food we eat. Every time someone comes through the door we know subliminally where they are in the pecking order. I once earned my living by documenting the shifting nature of society in all its 80s subsets - yuppie, foodie, Sloane Ranger . . . Pasta is OUT, Polenta is IN. You wouldn't be seen DEAD in Gucci this season. Oh, yes, it's mean and its stupid and it loves no one. Especially not your ego.

The class system with its elite few and its despised poor is a machine that drives civilisation, and if we are serious about being egalitarian we cannot go forward unelss we deconstruct that machine. The reason the high-carbon Western lifestyles are so hard to change is because we are terrified of losing our position and suffering the fate of the failed and the fallen, which is to carry the collective shadow and be pecked to bits. If you want to experience this firsthand, go to your local job centre and sign on. Then try and talk about it in polite society. Then you'll know why the elite want to hold on to their power and privilege, and everyone else wants the lights to stay on.

For some of us this deconstruction is a life-task. We have crossed the tracks, slept with the wrong people, gone to the wrong university, gone travelling, gone native, and god, worst of all held on to our true vocation. No one in the middle class really moves downwards, wrote the columnist, David Aronovitch, in the Times, because they have so many connections. There is always someone who can help them out. Except writers, he added.

In London, as a fashion journalist, it was easy to be fluid: you could be bohemian in a world where style and beauty and talent mattered more than class or money, where the son of a Spanish steamstress could rise to be the designer at the house of Dior and the most important friend you had was the doorman at the Cafe de Paris. But out of the city, without connections, living in the feudal English countryside, where everyone is judged by the property and the car they do or do not own, that's a different story.

That's my story. I'm not a worshipper of gods, devas, divas, gurus, teachers, leaders, queens, stars, champions or heroes. I know there is intelligence and love in all beings and that our postion in the chicken house is entirely a matter of upbringing and education. There are no "good families". No class is conditioned to be kind. I have been outside in the fresh air and know life can be otherwise with our feet on this earth and among our companions. I realise giving people a break is what we need to do and what needs to come our way. Transition is one of our great breaks, if only we could recognise the fact.

Why? Because it has an ability to bring all kinds of people together in a new configuration. It has an ability to pull together a culture that has an entirely different axis and value base. But for this work we have, as community activists, to engage in a work of inner engineering. We have to deconstruct the beast that is our class system and not default into our learned positions. We have to open and not close down. The passive have to take charge, the initiators and creators have to let go. The managers have to work on the shop floor and the labourers have to run the farm. We have to do this without rancour, or bitterness, blame or self-pity, we have to go against all our conditioning and head out of the chicken house. And we have to do this together, because evolution is not a self-only task.

 non hierchical groups

So our challenge is a personal one and also a social one. We have to look at our legacies, and then we have to put what kind of world we desire into practice. And keep practising. To end this post, I'd like to look at the inner structuring of Transition groups I have been part of. As Mark wrote on Monday the Sustainable Bungay core group operates like the heart within the body. It is open to anyone, and all the minutes published on our website. But not all the projects have this fluid inclusive shape. They take several forms, revolving around 1-5 people:

1) Core partnership, with 1-2 fluctuating helpers and 20+ members (Bungay Community Bees)
2) Planning group, with 10 fluctuating volunteers (Happy Mondays)
3) Single organiser, with as many volunteers as possible (Give and Take Day), or none needed (Plants for Life, Sewing Sundays)
4) Temporary organising group, with single co-ordinator, occasional volunteers (Library Courtyard garden, SB newsletter)

All closed and non-transparent groups, no matter how generous and skilled they are, run the risk of rank problems and control. Closed groups often have an entropic effect on the whole and invite (mostly unconscious) power play. Once people learn to play chief, they rarely want to play indian. In fact they would rather not deal wth the tribe at all. Transition Norwich, for example, had a self-elected oligarchy of a core group, who didn't publish their minutes and retained control of the outer affairs of the initiative. As the group didn't communicate with the people who made up the initiative and deal with the problems that inevitably arose in the storming period of Transition, it eventually imploded. Norwich, though there are successful projects still going, now suffers from having no central governance, or community cohesion.

The configuration I know most about is Number 4. The community blogs I've helped create and edit have all been founded on the principle of having a creative director aka editor and an editorial team (usually designer/producer and sub-editor), all of whom work on a peer-to-peer basis. After the set-up period this team has usually dispersed, leaving the founder/editor to become a lesser being, known as The Co-ordinator. Unlike real-life media, the editor role is not well understood or respected in Transition (in fact "comms" generally is not). It is seen as a power position, instead of a creative function much like a conductor of an orchestra, or a director in a play. As a result, the old chicken house rules come into play as soon as any "demotion" takes place. No feathers in your tail anymore? Serious pecking for you!

Nevertheless, built into the design of this blog when it was created, was that it would become a co-operative, "owned" and managed by the people writing for it. So after the 2011 pilot, which was edited in a more-or-less traditional way (though no-one's copy was ever changed), we all became fully-fledged captains of the ship and took turns to man the bridge.

This worked brilliantly above deck. But below deck was a different scene. Editing is not just about copy. It's about being there for people, advising them, negotiating with the organisation in which the publication sits (here the Network), and dealing with production. The devolved role of Co-ordinator - which as anyone famously  "holding the project" in Transition knows - puts you in that unlovely position somewhere between nanny, secretary and Aunt Sally. People in a Number 4 set-up can come and go as they please whilst not bearing any responsibility for the ship or its tedious admin. However I was determined to pass on my skills and not carry the can. My challenge lay in the fact I was the only one who knew about the tech. I was still the one on the end of the phone, standing by, in case anyone didn't show up for their watch.

When Ed Mitchell, the project's original producer, returned after his sabbatical, an exit door opened. He organised the blog so all the reporters could do all the small tasks that had fallen on me for the last year, yay! Liberte, egalite, fraternite.

So dear reader, you are now reading a real community blog, steered this week by Mark. I am now just a reporter like everyone else, taking my editor skills over to the Transition Free Press where they are needed. We are now a fully-functioning non-hierarchical Transition group. We had some struggles and exchanged a LOT of emails in the changeover, but we are still writing - thanks to a very determined crew and a small trick I learned long ago called Keeping Up the Tempo aka Having a Rota and a Deadline. Some rigours and structures are worth retaining for a beautiful and creative life.

Hierarchy is just not one of them.

Images: Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell; poster for Occupy Norwich; cottage at Finglesham; initial meeting of Transition Norwich 2.0; cover of Vogue's Modern Style; recording a general assembly (in red), Occupy Norwich;  Mark and Kate at Lowestoft anti-cuts rally, 2011: Social Reporters at Transition Conference, 2012.

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