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May 11, 2010

Citizens UK have pulling power

During the weeks leading up to last week’s election, a civil society group that attracted a lot of attention, not least from the three main party leaders, was Citizens UK – all three of them turned up to address a Citizens UK rally which was attended by 2,500 supporters.  They must be doing something right to command that kind of attention. The group places great importance on its training of community organisers.  Perhaps those responsible for community work training in Scotland should take a look

CitizensUK five-day leadership training programme explicitly makes the connection between conflict, relationship building and politics, teaching as it does that the word “confront” is derived from the Latin for bringing people face to face.

CitizensUK argues that politics involves face to face encounter in order to settle disputes and that such conflict can either be creative, generating new relationships; or destructive, leading to violence. A central commitment of community organising as a practice is that politics is the non-violent way through which to settle disputes.

A second challenge to liberal conceptions of “good” politics is that community organizing is committed to substantive visions of the good life – hence its reliance on religious institutions.

Most liberal political philosophies favour procedural accounts of justice and are very nervous about religion precisely because religions are committed to “thick” conceptions of the good life. This is seen to be inherently oppressive of individuals and the enemy of tolerance.

Yet it is the experience of community organisers that to motivate people to act they need deep convictions and shared moral values.

The craft of the organiser is to build relationships across different traditions so that instead of working against each other, local congregations and institutions work together to address the real, mostly economic needs of their members.

For this to happen the organiser must not only build relationships but also help identify goods in common: a living wage, safer streets, affordable housing, better schools and the like.

Here we encounter another paradox for liberal politics. Liberalism tends to make equality its ruling principle. Community organising clearly demarcates between leaders and followers, suggesting that when it comes to engaging in political action and public life, not everyone is equal.

Moreover, it works with often very hierarchal and in some cases patriarchal institutions. Community organising as a form of politics is not against equality – most of its campaigns are precisely about demands for greater equality of outcomes.

But it holds that the pursuit of equality without due attention to “fraternity” is the enemy of democracy not its fulfilment. When equality becomes the only organising principle of social and political relations it undermines the forms of relational power that genuinely protect individual freedom.

The dominance of equality focused contractual relations over what we might call covenantal and corporate forms means that in practice, non-contractual forms of life – kinship, neighbourhood, profession, and creed – are dissolved since they are viewed as a restraint on individual freedom.

Liberalism emphasises empowering the individual and the need to free him or her from the “constraints” of religion and tradition.

However, the analysis of community organising suggests that under conditions of economic globalisation the enactment of democratic citizenship by individuals requires traditions and institutions to sustain the possibility of such action. In short, individual freedom is premised on the pursuit of collective freedom.

Without the institutions and the modes of associative power institutions enable, the individual is left utterly naked before the power of the market and the state.

The demos is not an ochlos or crowd in which each does their own bidding; rather it requires coordinated and common action in pursuit of shared goods. Community organising embodies just such a way of moving from a crowd to a demos.

Luke Bretherton is Senior Lecturer in Theology & Politics at King’s College London and writing a book on community organising in the UK and US.