The State is a Barrier Suppressing Community Engagement

Prior to concentrating on non-fiction I used to regularly write short stories and poetry and considered this my favoured medium of creativity. My passion for writing stemmed from several creative writing courses I signed up to eleven years ago at Formby college in the UK. Here, I was the youngest student in amongst men and women who were either middle aged or senior citizens. The course I enrolled on was classified as ‘leisure‘, which primarily meant two things. Firstly, it was not very well funded and, two, it required a full uptake of students to merit being run at all.

For around eighteen months I enjoyed what was a part time venture, until the moment came when we were informed that creative writing would no longer be offered at the college due to a lack of funding. The availability of writing courses, and anything pertaining to ‘leisure‘, were in general becoming more restricted. In 2017, these types of courses are even harder to come by. The City of Liverpool College offer a part time ‘Writing for Pleasure‘ short course that lasts just 12 weeks and costs a considerable £180. In Merseyside this appears to be one of the only opportunities available outside of full time A Level or Under/Post graduate education.

After college I found details of a local writers circle held inside a backstreet community centre. Again, this required strong interest to remain viable and depended on each member paying a few pounds a week into the kitty. Take into consideration also that the tutor overseeing the group was paid for her services. Any sustained drop in attendance would place growing pressure on the viability of the circle. In the end this is what happened. After a year or so interest started to wane, revenue began to dry up, and the circle was soon disbanded.

Writers circles in general normally convene at either a community centre or a venue which operates as a non-profit organisation. For example, the Southport Writers’ Circle in Merseyside hires a room at Parenting 2000 at a cost of £10 per hour. Parenting 2000 is a charity which, amongst other things, helps vulnerable children and families in poverty.

Without a sustainable level of interest, groups of any nature will quickly fall away and be unable to afford the costs of room hire and the fees charged by a tutor. All that stands between the success and failure of a local initiative is disengagement on an individual level. And as I have seen first hand, once one person drops out, another will follow, and then another until you’re left with more empty chairs than people.

A decade on from my creative writing exploits, I now live in Bootle just outside of Liverpool City Centre. When first familiarising myself with the area, I happened across ‘Linacre Bridge Community Hub‘. As with other community centres, there is a predominant focus on classes for yoga enthusiasts, lunch clubs and Weight Watchers.

Sefton Council describe the hub as a place for “the local community to come and enjoy the natural space, good company, and friendly community atmosphere. Regular events such as quiz nights, bingo, gardening group and pamper sessions can bring new friends together.”

Another standard feature of the hub is to open its doors for regional and national elections. From personal observation, this is when Linacre Bridge attracts the most amount of people through the door. As you can see from the picture below, the venue is no bigger than an average sized bungalow, and is really only capable of attracting the interest of a few dozen souls before it reaches full capacity. Whatever manifests from this venue has no room to grow and assume a greater role in the community.

Across the road from the community centre is the former Johnsons Dye Works, which closed its doors in 2007. The firm first came to Bootle in 1817 and was a source of employment for hundreds of people. But all the factory embodies today is a decaying monument for a time that has passed. As a building it no longer serves a purpose to the community besides nostalgia.

In 2013 it was reported in the local press that the site was to be regenerated into apartments. Four years on, warehouses surrounding the main Johnsons building have been demolished, leaving a flat bed of land which so far has yet to be built on. The boarded up main building, although of no practical use, has been preserved.

You have here a large stretch of land flanked either side by rows of terraced housing. Thousands of people live within a mile radius of the site. It was inevitable that the council would seek to build further housing rather than use the empty space to promote any meaningful contribution towards community engagement.

This is something you pick up on fast when living outside a major city. Not only is it a rarity to learn the name of your next door neighbour, it has also become a custom to keep your head down and make a concerted effort to stay out of people’s way. The one time when people do come together as one is when their putting the bins out. Oddly enough, this is relevant to the whole premise of the article.

I and everyone else down my street share a dependence on the state. Our monthly council tax payments fuel that dependency. When the bin men don’t turn up as scheduled, we collectively wonder what has become them and assume that they will turn up tomorrow. Only recently they were three days late with their collection, and in that time all we did was add to the growing pile of waste each day. The assumption being that at some point the council would turn up to take it away. On this occasion they did.

The problem is we expect the state to always be there. Because we pay our taxes, the attitude is that somehow this guarantees the perpetual functioning of the service. And when it comes time for a council or general election, the state opens wide its community hubs to once again reaffirm its dominance in our lives. As individuals, we possess no direct control over the service the state offers, yet dutifully we continue to fund their program as demanded.

The state has done an efficient job of dis-empowering all of us on an individual level. It derives its authority from understanding the nature of our dependency. Because decisions are made centrally and under the purview of the government, this creates the impression that the state and the state alone is qualified to run the services that affect the lives of millions of people every day.

Over time, the state has managed to convince a majority of us that dilemmas within our communities are insurmountable for the individual to overcome. In times of need and, in some cases, desperation, we turn not to our neighbours but to civil servants. Beyond that, we see no alternative. When institutions continue on the incessant path to centralise their resources, it serves to further marginalise the very public that is beholden to their hegemony.

By allowing this level of control to dominate our day to day existence, it’s natural that as individuals we end up possessing a feeling of helplessness. We convince ourselves of being incapable of contributing to the community and improving it for the better. Decisions are taken for us, not alongside us.

Unfortunately, the dependency we have on the state is such that relinquishing it from our lives would in the immediate term be to our detriment. And the reason for that is because we don’t have an alternative support network in place that could operate independent of state legislation and ensure the survival of people living in the community.

The idealist in me sees the barren land of the old Johnsons Dye Works as a venue for people to gather and assimilate. Not to some collectivist ideal, but as individuals seeking greater control over their neighbourhood. Taking Bootle as an example, disaffected residents here do not have a place in which to congregate, to air their grievances, to form alliances with fellow households, to generate communal power over state centralised jurisdiction.

Fear keeps us in this stranglehold. The fear of what will become us should we summon the courage to challenge state supremacy is what keeps us compliant. Our responsibilities and obligations – namely work commitments and personal reputation – are sufficient to prevent acrimony and stave off the threat of social disorder.

It is no surprise that Sefton council would seek to turn the waste ground of Johnsons into an apartment / housing complex. The state may go as far as funding a round of bingo or a chess club (which I am not denying can be a way to generate minimal community engagement), but as for providing somewhere for a large proportion of the community to gather and work out how we can detach ourselves from state dependency, that is never going to happen.

I won’t profess to have a ready made solution. No one individual can. The process of changing the current dynamic can only begin within our immediate environment. It has to start with knowing the people around you, understanding their strengths and vulnerabilities, and developing a strategy for survival beyond the state. As I alluded to, a vision of Bootle having a permanent home for people to formulate plans and build a community independent of the state is of no use without local residents building a camaraderie with one another.

After all, how can a disengaged community ever hope to find allies amongst strangers?

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