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In The Light Of Brexit, What Can Low Income Communities In The UK Do To Organise Themselves To Become More Resilient And Self-Sufficient?

07/11/2016 18:05

At last, the Brexit campaign came to an end, with a victory handed to the Leavers. Even with the bitter and toxic tone of much of the campaigning, and the electorate falling victim to phony promises, the referendum demonstrated nonetheless the strength of support within the British electorate for leaving the EU. It has given Westminster a mandate to begin pursuing policies untethered by the norms and rules of Europe, leaving many of us uncertain about where we are headed going in to the next century.

The reason this could happen - and why the populist right has yielded such an astonishing victory - is because the political establishment has, over the past thirty years, ceased providing solutions to a whole range of working class problems, specifically housing, low wages and job insecurity. It is convenient for them to promote a narrative which scapegoats immigrants, rather than accept the fair apportion of blame for creating the crises in which working class people now live (and which have provoked them to rebel against the elite in Brussels.) The xenophobic populism of the right has been allowed to command the political centre and the result has been an apoplectic, irrational mistrust of foreigners and foreign institutions.

It goes without saying that the left's priority must be to ensure that working people of all backgrounds are protected henceforth, that our rights and livelihoods are not forfeited at the expense of Brexit. We have to do everything we can to fight against those who see Brexit as a mandate to shill our democracy to big business - and make sure that working people don't bear the brunt of the fallout.

Voters were misled in to thinking that Brexit is a vote against the establishment; it's only a vote of confidence in its lies. Let's be clear. It's the Tories who called a referendum. It's the Tories and the hard-right media who have engineered Brexit. It's the Tories who will exploit Brexit to drive down working conditions. And it's the Tories who will ask us to blame our neighbours for the problems created by their parade of mistakes.

This is a time to be unified. Against the xenophobic populism of the right. Against TTIP. Against losses to housing, jobs and working conditions. It is a time to work together as positive conduits for change in our community to enhance our self-sufficiency and resilience against the continuing onslaught of Tory austerity.

So how, pragmatically, do we achieve this?

Let's begin with a report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which defines "community resilience":

"Community resilience is about how people living in a particular place deal with economic, social and environmental problems. Going beyond merely coping, resilient communities can actually become stronger and more adaptable over time as they adjust to the problems they face. This could be by acquiring new skills, strengthening social connections and developing new physical resources. This way of thinking about communities and resilience - their inherent strengths, flexibility and resources - implies that a resilient community might also be a more sociable, inspiring and sustainable place to live."

There are many practical actions which can build community resilience and self-sufficiency in the wake of Brexit. All it takes is a desire to be informed and educated about these options, coupled with a willingness to act on them. Let's begin with one illustrative example of direct action.

[b]Ending food waste[/b[

In recent years, community initiatives to reduce food waste and encourage more sustainable living have gained increasing public support. They also improve community self-sufficiency, allowing low-income neighbourhoods to make use of resources that would otherwise have been wasted.

CURB: The Real Junk Food Project was conceived as a practical intervention in to low-income communities, so it is a useful case study for our purposes. It aims to stimulate community self-sufficiency, encouraging residents to achieve a healthier, more sustainable community by putting surplus food to good use.

Every year tonnes of food suitable for human consumption ends up thrown away. Eight million tonnes of food is wasted post-manufacture in the UK. It is waste on an industrial scale. It is one of the world's great paradoxes that we throw away so much food on a starving planet.

Initiatives like CURB make sure that food that would have never been eaten gets given out where it is needed most. Let's look at lessons from a scheme they pioneered that helped residents of a Leeds neighbourhood to make their community more resilient and self-sufficient.

Remarkably, food waste campaigners from CURB opened the nation's first pay-as-you-feel food waste supermarket in Pudsey, Leeds. It has already helped desperate families struggling to feed their children. Without it, many would be unable to support their basic needs. They would be helpless.

It is a sign of a self-sufficient community where food that would have been wasted is used to feed hungry people. It is a sign of a resilient community where people have adapted robust food distribution networks to serve the needy. We would do well to learn from the formidable vision and organisation of CURB.

Not short of momentum, CURB aspires to opening a food waste supermarket in every city in the UK. It is a bold and ambitious vision of a waste-free future. It would certainly go a significant way towards the UN's goal of halving food waste by 2030. France has outlawed food waste, and Britain might follow suit, setting a standard for other states.

Accepting, of course, CURB's victories, it is nevertheless true that the greatest successes are yet to come. It is vital to continue work building support for efforts to reduce food waste nationally, and to replicate successful initiatives within our own communities locally.

So, with sustainable food covered, what else does our resilient and self-sufficient panacea require?

[b]Mutual Aid[/b]

The anarchist Peter Kropotkin made the idea of "mutual aid" infamous, with an incendiary 1902 pamphlet of that name. He dared, in an atmosphere of stifling intellectual conformity, to think out loud that the received Hobbesian wisdom about man's condition in the state of nature was a sham.

In other words, it is primarily through giving and altruism that life in the absence of government has survived; it is notwithstanding bitter competition that societies flourish.

Hobbesian man is a selfish individualist, a rational utility maximiser who prioritizes his own goals to the exclusion of others. Kropotkin's man (or woman) is a communitarian, who maximises utility for others.

It is clear which type is more amenable to the goals and values of a resilient, self-sufficient community. Communitarian man (or woman) of course. The phenomenon of co-operation is not a quaint historical anomaly but a deep-seated part of our co-evolution as human beings. We are human, and so we give.

Kropotkin felt compelled by his intellect to conduct a sociological study the mutual aid societies of Siberia, seeing them as an exemplar of the sort of co-operation that has enabled life to flourish throughout natural history. Ideologically motivated interpretations of Darwin had over-emphasized the role of competition in spurring evolutionary progress, whereas Kropotkin wanted to restore co-operation rightfully back in to the purview of science and sociology.

In the Siberian mutual aid societies Kropotkin saw a possibility for how other communities can develop resilience and self-sufficiency in the absence of government. He notes it is often in spite of the most misfortunate hardship that mutual aid societies are strongest. His cry of sympathy for "whole populations were decimated by misery" could easily be about our own society, eviscerated by Tory cuts.

In the sorry face of welfare state retrenchment, we are in need of ways to support people in our communities who are vulnerable to austerity policies. It is no exaggeration to say that austerity is a death penalty for the disabled, many of whom have committed suicide as a result of benefit reforms. Our panacea cannot leave them out. Our society is even bigger than (and is far more vibrant than anything imagined by) the coalition's Big Society.

On the one hand a pithy and precise summary of what it aims to do, "Mutual aid" is on the other hand a broad and all-encompassing term for a galaxy of different co-operative activities. The question we're interested in is: Which ones would be most beneficial to low-income communities in the UK aiming to strengthen resilience and self-sufficiency?

The most obvious mutual aid activity is trade. This is not trade in the traditional commercial capitalist sense - for profit - but in the most basic, visceral sense - for mutual benefit. On this view, something like your personal time is a commodity. One person may trade their personal time for something else. So you may offer to help a needy neighbour with an important task, in return for something else they deem valuable.

It is a classic bartering system. People decide the value of their resources and enter in to a moneyless exchange with another to engage in a transaction that benefits both parties. Perhaps ironically, given the mercantilist edge of much talk about the freedom of markets, mutual aid is the farthest logical extension of democracy in the marketplace.

Mutual aid doesn't just take the form of exchange, it can also take the form of plain giving, with no expectation of anything in return. The American schoolboy who crowd-funded hot dinners for poor children at his school is a fine example of this kind of mutual aid. And although it is done with no expectation of return, there is a kind of multiplier effect with altruism that means there will be returns, at least net returns for the community.

So hopefully that has given some indication of practical actions we can take to develop community resilience and self-sufficiency. Together, the development of robust food redistribution networks and mutual aid can put power in people's hands to strengthen their communities against the weathers of Brexit and austerity.

Of course, on paper, the answers seem clean, easy and logical, but building community resilience can be a complex process, entangled with the full messy spectrum of our humanity. It is clear, nonetheless, that local talent needs to be supported and harnessed to encourage people to take collective charge of developing community resilience. And inevitable conflicts have to be addressed mindfully, creatively.

Strong relationships are vital to maintaining resilience in the face of inevitable problems that arise, and the communities that will thrive and survive are those who have developed a diverse range of resources.

With the right kind of practical initiatives, namely food waste reduction and mutual aid initiatives, communities can take on more responsibilities, have a greater say in local decisions and encourage environmentally-sustainable and resilient development on a national and international level. That is the general direction in which we ought to be developing if we are to adapt to the challenges of the 21st century.

There is an absolute requirement for a positive vision at the core of the Brexit strategy, but it is not clear we can entrust politicians with this task. In fact, if there is one thing we have learned from the campaign, it is positive we can't trust them. In such circumstances, we must take power back in to our own hands to strengthen our local communities so that they may thrive, come what may. The remarkable pioneering of CURB and the long lost legends of anarchism might just go some way in telling us the next chapter in our collective story.

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