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How to Build a Better Us
Last week I interviewed Immy Kaur, the indomitable co-founder of CIVIC SQUARE, on how to build infrastructure for the public good. Immy explained the history of community organising which led to this immense project, detailing how to leverage systemic change, nurture imagination, and the critical role communities will face in the upcoming crises.
Planet: Critical investigates why the world is in crisis—and what to do about it.
What is public good?
There are different definitions for public good in countries and cultures around the world. But in neoliberal economies everywhere—and certainly in the United Kingdom—public good has been narrowed into a set of policies which party leaders hope can win them elections.
In the U.K at the moment, public good has been reframed as:
“stopping the boats” of refugees seeking asylum in this country
removing the right of those same refugees to the nation’s modern slavery laws
removing the United Kingdom from the European convention on human rights
Public good was long ago reframed around the farcical belief that wealth trickles down. It has been sold as the prioritisation of employment at the expense of public services, culture, and even access to green spaces.
Public good in this country is closing down our public libraries, locking our parks at night, accusing our youth of antisocial behaviour and banning the recreational drug laughing gas, rather than investing in that same youth whose only national activity in a country stripped of culture is to go clubbing on a Friday and Saturday night.
Right now, public good is about hoarding the public purse to then splurge it on public contracts that enrich Tory cronies during a global health crisis, a crisis which saw over 220,000 people die due to outrageous mismanagement
Right now, public good is about helping a corrupt former prime minister who broke the law circumvent justice so that perhaps he can throw his campaigning prowess at the next election to keep this miserable party in power.
Right now, public good is refusing to let the man elected by his constituents for 40 years run for the opposition in the next election, despite being the party’s leader which saw a record-breaking number of young people sign up as members thanks to his genuinely progressive manifesto.
There is simply no understanding, or care, of public good at the top—so communities are creating it at the bottom.
Immy Kaur and her team in Birmingham are doing extraordinary things. CIVIC SQUARE is a reimagining of the public space, highlighting the importance of having a place where people can convene, where they can exchange ideas, where they can help one another, where they can imagine different possibilities.
Communities need such spaces; neigbourhoods need such spaces. They should not be reserved to the elite who pay a premium to keep the rest of the world out. In cities around the world, private members clubs around the world demand a premium for access to a gate-keeped and monitored community.
This is antithetical to a healthy and happy way of life, as we saw during the COVID pandemic. Communities turned to one another, relied on one another, and needed one another—not just because of governmental failures, but because a fundamental key to achieving a sense of purpose, joy, wellbeing as a human being is belonging to a community.
In the episode, Immy talks about the importance of neighbourhood infrastructure, highlighting the fragility of our global supply chains, of our national infrastructure, and how these also alienate and isolate communities from having a say over what goes on where they live. Fundamentally, the people who live on the ground know better what they need than somebody at the other end of the country.
We know that when people are brought into the decision-making process by deliberative democratic practice, they become much more involved in politics, happier within their communities, pleased with outcomes, and even depolarised. Listen to my episode with Matt Leighninger for more information.
Change from the Ground Up
The future of politics must be people speaking to one another, it must be communal. Immy talks about how this is the moment before the transition when everything will change, that we must imagineer and build infrastructure to secure that transition. This moment might seem long and dark and miserable—but change has always come, and it is engineers which are now best placed to engineer that transition from the ground up.
However, she does highlight the particular difficulties of this moment of change. She speaks to Birmingham’s industrialist past, noting that even the industrialists were investing in their own communities, up-skilling their labour force by opening colleges and public libraries. Their motive may have been questionable—protecting the bottom line—but they understood the importance of the public.
Our story is very different today. The elite, including neoliberal governments, seem to think they are not obliged to care for or invest in the public, in their labour force, because they will have technological infrastructure who can replace these pesky humans with their legal rights. To me, we’re witnessing a sinister and deliberate disempowering and under-educating of the public to keep them docile, stressed and dependent on consumption to relieve their unhappiness.
We exist as consumers, not citizens. Jon Alexander has done fascinating work on the consumer vs citizen narrative which shapes our political and social experience, and I highly recommend listening to my interview with him to learn more about it.
An Educated Public is a Dangerous Public
Immy insists that democratic access to knowledge is critical, and she quotes the debate held in parliament when the Public Library Bill was introduced in 1849. The pushback to that Bill was that the public was already adequately educated and that, in fact, it would be dangerous to overeducate them, as doing so would make them difficult to manage.
Good. Let’s be difficult to manage. Our acts of resistance as communities, firstly, educating ourselves, educating one another, and convening in public to speak with one another.
Imagination is an act of resistance, and imagining different ideas is going to be much easier for your locale when we are grounded in an environment you know intimately.
Imagining becomes more possible when we understand understand the system on an intuitive level, when we know the community and can ask for help. Theoreticians may succeed in building blueprints for society, but community can evolve organically, and can evolve possibility out of crisis.
CIVIC SQUARE is a call for communities to take the public good back into their own hands. This immense project, which is currently being built, is testament to the imagination, creativity and collaboration of community. It is testament that change is on the horizon, that we can organise a better world.
That we can be a better us.
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