Progress and the Public Realm - what progress are we looking for?


A species comes together and co-operates when there are common benefits. Even the monarch or tyrant reaps the undue reward of collective effort. In such ways have communities formed. Progress has tended to move us away from absolute rule, shuffling the hierarchy into other forms of leadership and further developing the public realm, albeit that there is almost always an apex in organisation and some drivers that become the norm.

Journalist and author Will Hutton has been a consistent commentator on this shuffling in recent decades. In the mid-nineties, he observed the increasing polarisation of well-being in the UK in a concept he called the 30-30-40 society. He argued that our society had become divided along the lines of the poor and despairing, the newly insecure and the relatively comfortable. The insecurity came from a new source of inequality, bringing fresh patterns of social distress and exclusion. Unemployment and low pay were now being combined with the risk of new forms of casual, temporary and contract forms of employment so that even those on average incomes and higher had become victims of pressures beyond their control. Only the 40 per cent who counted themselves as having secure income prospects had lives with any certainty.

Hutton's premise got my attention since at that time I was, in some small way, grappling with how the blatant insecurity of the bottom 30% could be arrested. Working alongside unemployed scheme placements at Springfield Community Garden, we designed and built new elements of that radical seven acre Permaculture project while developing new skills in ourselves and the project's productive capabilities. For some, this day to day association with Springfield was a life in itself. On the backdoor of their regeneration estate, here was purposeful activity that could have seen out the remainder of their working lives. For others, it could have been the bridging transition that took them from unemployment to self-employment or community enterprise. But that was not what the placement scheme was about, nor did the benefit system have the flexibility to honour these options without placing on them irreconcilable barriers, restrictions or prohibitions.

Springfield provided the real access to land and resources that multiply-deprived people are excluded from. Given the opportunity, some may even have chosen to live on Springfield, cementing their union with it and realigning their lives to primary production, craftwork and trading. These are community norms that have been lost to many in the progress to the public realm through phases of industrialisation, technology and the service and information economy.

A cynic may say that those who want to work with their hands and their brains, and wish to have access to primary resources around them, should first wholly embrace the contemporary world, quickly gain its rich advantages so that they could then be used to buy a way into a piece of the parallel private realm that so excludes them (i.e. become part of the 40%) - or do the lottery. At the time of Hutton's article, I saw it differently in that the frustrations of a divided society presaged a schism in which a landless people took the initiative to regain a living through land rights. The staged occupations of The Land Is Ours campaign group were a sign that others saw this as an appropriate way out of the hopelessness that we have contrived.

Hutton has written recently acknowledging that today's prosperity is built on a credit-backed consumer boom and a service-sector economy. He fears that further progress, principally science and invention based (when it was once industrial and technology based) suffers from a modern-day antipathy fostered by an overweening influence from the new irrationalists - the alliance of anti-science. I must explain that I don't see myself as part of this trend. The best of human nature can be seen when it does great things and when it courageously knows when to remove its influence. This richness in human endeavour is most apparent when difference and diversity are allowed to flourish and there is not the drag-hand of uniformity/conformity that says there is only one set of answers, one way forward and fears anything that steps outside the norm.

Where I once saw schism as the inevitable violent driver for change, I now see the evolution of concepts of communities with differing normative drivers but with varying degrees of interdependence as being a better reality, more in keeping with the varied motivations of the human species, and giving some hope that we can begin to re-integrate ourselves with the whole of the land community. To slot this as the new urban and the new rural would be to greatly oversimplify and constrain what I would hope to convey. I do believe though that it is in the public realm that we should be devising these opportunities for living alternatives, since it is only there that rich and poor have equal claim. I would also argue that science and progress are not antithesis to this evolution of new communities - it is likely that it will be in these new communities that we will make first progress on our approaches to the energy descent world that faces us and we may need science to help us understand and reduce our old dependencies.

Mark Fisher, 15 March 2004