Finding commonality for the public good

Posted on November 20, 2011


The Occupy Movement continues to surprise.  Today in London, the Occupiers carry on evolving their concept of the Bank of Ideas.  The building is to be a place open to all those communities who have lost their community centres and other spaces under austerity measures.  This is a magnificent idea.  Why not?   A vacant building in the centre of the City that has been vacant some time: why not put it to good use?  Why not put it to the dedicated use of communities who have already lost services as a result of the global financial crisis.

Is this such a radical concept?  Well, as I write, communities right the way around the UK are setting up community shops, community libraries, community farms and picking up where the private sector and the government has been unable or unwilling to step in.  Big society?  Maybe.  These community efforts are run by veritable pillars of our society – and one assumes, not the ‘crusties’ so labelled of the Occupy Movement, or so the Tories would have us believe.  But rather than get into an ideological battle with the Tories over their 1984 double-speak, perhaps it is best to interrogate the limits of community engagement for the common good.

What can community action do well and where does it falter?  In Martin, Hampshire, an innovative community farm grows vegetables for the entire village.  The need arose through the lack of a local grocery store.  The concept has taken five years to get to the point where the farm is now running a vegie box scheme and a community shop.  Who wins and who loses out of this arrangement?  From this perspective it is very hard to see any losers, except perhaps the nearest supermarket and the petrol companies who are missing out on all those extra miles that people are now not obliged to travel in search of fresh vegetables and eggs.  But we must also consider whether communities really can step into the breach when it comes to libraries and other essential services.  And of course it should not be a choice of either or.  The Occupy Movement, if nothing else, serves to demand our attention.  It demands that we ask questions afresh about what next and how will it be different.  How should it be different?  It cannot simply be corporate: BAD community: GOOD.

Let’s see what comes next from this brave, and innovative movement.