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Stronger communities – reasons to be cheerful!

Saturday 4th February 2017, 17:02

“For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow”. (Ecclesiastes 1:18) 

“The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear” .(Antonio Gramsci,Selections from the Prison Notebooks

“I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will”. (Antonio Gramsci, Letter from Prison , 19 December 1929)

“Before you diagnose yourself with depression or low self-esteem, first make sure you are not, in fact, surrounded by assholes” (William Gibson)

As I sit here at my PC, looking out on the snow, with my bad back tweeking away (thanks for asking) and listening to a CD (compact disc) of the American protest singer Phil Ochs, I decide to put my thoughts in order about the current crises facing us all. I want to re-affirm how Community Development  can still be part of the solution and how everyone of us can make a new world out of the shambles. And how back-pain is only a passing phase before I get up and stand up again.

Listening to Phil Ochs talking to a Vancouver concert audience in late 1968, I hear the world-weary confession of a beaten-down campaigner, reeling from his disillusionment after the Chicago police and the US Democratic party machine colluded in the violent attack on the anti-war demonstrators outside the Chicago Democratic Convention. For Phil Ochs, this represented the final death of the American dream of change being possible from the grassroots-up.  Here’s his words to the audience before launching into a tired replay of his earlier defiant song, “I Aint Marching Anymore”:

“I’ll do for you now a protest song. A protest song is defined as something you don’t hear on the radio, as they play the s**t that they play these days... They have the media syndrome where they control everybody’s minds by use of the mindless and mind-distorting distortions of the facts which led us all into the Vietnamese War and the Kennedy assassinations. So what can you do? Here you are, a helpless soul, a helpless piece of flesh, amid all this cruel, evil machinery and terrible, heartless men. So all you can do is turn away from the filth and hopefully start to build something new here’s a turning-away song”. And that was the low point for Phil, which got lower as his hope was crushed by personal and political grief, until he took his own life in 1976.

Blimey, reasons to be cheerful, eh? Let’s counter this despair with the final lines from a poem by John Cornford, written in 1936 to his lover Margott Heinemann before his death at 21 in the Spanish Civil War where he had voluntarily enlisted (and was branded as a “premature anti-fascist”): it’s called ‘Heart of the Heartless World’ and ends:

“Remember all the good you can;
Don't forget my love.”

(The whole poem is quoted and put into context here:

Why would I want to share all this with you? Surely "humankind cannot bear too much reality" (TS Eliot) and we should just accentuate the positive to keep us keeping on? Here's why:

We face a set of huge challenges in the current economic and environmental catastrophes,  and yet we have to find the positivity to go forward optimistically and together. This week I initiated an ‘Activists Welfare Centre’ discussion group on the online social network for the National Community Activists Network (NatCAN: While it has an element of gallows humour and tongue-in-cheek teasing about the self-pity of frustrated radicals, it also reveals  a very real despair we face as thwarted idealists and occasionally self-doubting activists. How can we make a difference to the big stuff? Is the little stuff enough? How can we live in a bubble of hobbies and distractions when the system is imploding around us?

The balance of intellectual despair and humorous defiance on the Activists Welfare Centre discussions made me laugh out loud and gave me the spirit to think hard about our collective plight. Yesterday I started reading Paul Gilding’s book on the economic and climatic challenges, “The Great Disruption”, and found myself wanting to put it down and turn away, overwhelmed by the enormity of the challenges we face as a species. But this book also has a chirpy heart beating away in the chest of its author,  inspiring us all to face the worst and start to act now because there is no alternative. He is a great tonic after reading John Gray’s deep pessimism about human- beings- as –absurd- killer-apes, incapable of living in nature.  So while despair is perfectly reasonable when we are facing hard reality without illusions, it is only one response: we can use the insight to affirm life and action.

So here are my reasons to be cheerful! Hurrah, etc...


  1. There is a growing awareness in all of us that the era of never-ending growth and rampant materialism is over. The earth is a finite resource and we have milked it beyond its capacity, and now it is biting back, making future never-ending growth impossible. So it’s not propaganda from a small elite to a bemused public: it’s becoming the lived experience of so many – at last we are waking up.
  2. The symptoms (economic mess, climatic disasters) are clear to all, whether it be in the price rises, floods, transport fiascos, loss of jobs, crash in pension values, obscene inequalities, general insecurity.... So there is a growing audience for new thinking,  interested in how we tackle the underlying causes of social injustice and widening inequality  ( greed, consumerism, the absurd pursuit of never-ending growth on a finite planet)
  3. Anxiety about survival is driving all of us; we are having to face-up to change and loss, whether we want to or not. Limitless economic growth and the pursuit of outlandish personal wealth is coming to an end for our species, because the planet will rebound on us every time we push it beyond its capacity. We already need two planets to resource our current abuse. “The Spirit Level : Why Equality Is Better For Everyone” reinforces what we all know; increasing inequality creates anxious and unhappy societies. Shared wealth brings increased sense of well-being for all, even within poor nations. Exploitation harms all of us and our environment; Nature is where we have to live, not the source for our plunder.

A RENEWED COMMUNAL WAY OF LIFE IS BEING CREATED, WITH A CHANGE OF VALUES & ASPIRATIONS AS THE CONSUMER ROUTE DRIES UP. We are still addicted to consumerism as the futile answer to our anxieties and alienation, but external reality is making it increasingly unviable. We will find that in future, we will have to shop less, work less and live more. We will need to collaborate rather than compete, and share rather than grab. A new work-life balance is on the way. We will need to focus on higher quality of life rather than pine for more money, with more time for people and more focus on feeling secure in strong communities. The isolation of personal greed is coming to an end

WE HAVE NEW WAYS OF COLLABORATING NEAR & FAR : we have always felt the importance of face-to-face connections with others, and now have  social media to communicate easily over great distances

WE CAN CONNECT & CHANGE TOGETHER: One of SSEC’s trustees, Alison Gilchrist, has written movingly on the importance of human  networks;  evidence reveals how having one happy friend is contagious, boosting the well-being of all their contacts. Through nurturing these networks, we have seen how a change in behaviour or attitudes by someone valued within a social network can spread quickly to others in the network and influence their actions and mind-set – and with our social media, these networks can have global impact and spread very quickly to a huge scale

WE HAVE A SHARED MISSION: RADICAL COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT can help to build active social networks face-to-face. Our approach means we can support people in exploration of the root causes of their day-to-day experiences, and develop their awareness of social injustice and inequality as barriers to all human development. This means that we can play a part in promoting a more equitable sharing of the world’s wealth. We can assert the importance of personal action in the face of big issues, and demonstrate how our small actions can link together to make big changes. We support the personal empowerment that inspires people to act in the knowledge that they are the answer, they are the change, and they make the demands . And we are not wedded solely to power in the old, destructive way – we support people to be empowering in their approach to all, not merely empowered for themselves. The selfish gene is challenged by the co-operative culture within community development.

WE CAN CAMPAIGN AGAINST THE OLD WAYS BLOCKING OUR NEW WORLD – Paul Gilding cites the contemptible example of the old ways trying to create a new colonialism to sustain the game a bit longer. For example, and what an example: our rich countries buying up poor countries’ arable land to use for producing bio-fuels as alternatives to oil. This exploitation only feeds an addiction which is choking our planet in carbon emissions while starving the dispossessed. We can hold our politicians to account (let them know how many votes are hanging on our campaigns) and pressurise companies in so many ways (including buying ethically and boycotting anti-social businesses. And setting up our own alternatives and supporting them collectively: the co-operative ideal still lives on, and we can make it the real mainstream).  

WE CAN REGAIN HOPE that individuals with passion can make things happen now and inspire others to collaborate. We will build more community and make our lives more connected with each other and our planet.

So join SSEC, join NatCAN, join whoever you like – but join with each other and let’s build our strength and optimism in collective, independent action. Transition towns, Freecycle groups, Transport-sharing, Co-Housing, Mental Health support groups... whatever turns you on.

“It always seems impossible until it’s done” (Nelson Mandela)

 Paul Barnes  4th February 2017

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