The city, social control and the local state

Subversion on the UK state's approach to poverty and the breakdown in "community" values against the background of the inner-city riots of the 80s.

Submitted by Steven. on July 28, 2011

Note: This article and the article on technology in this issue were originally discussion documents for a day conference we held in Salford in June 1995. The conference was held jointly with the 'Liverpool Discussion Group'.

"Modern civilisation has crowded the destitute classes together in the cities making their existence thereby more conspicuous and more dangerous. These already form a substantial part of the population, and possess even now, though they are still ignorant of their full power, great political importance... Almost every winter in London there is a panic lest the condition of the poor should become intolerable. The richer classes awake for a moment from their apathy, and salve their consciences by a subscription of money... The annual alarm may some day prove a reality, and the destitute classes may swell to such a proportion as to render continuance of our existent social order impossible"
- Sir John Gorst, Tory MP in the 1880s.

Charles Booth in the same period was also to articulate these fears and to promote a combination of charity and social reform aimed at containing the situation.

Periodically the ruling class has become alarmed at the reaction of the working class, and in particular sections of the poorest workers concentrated in the large urban conurbations, to the effects of capitalism.

At its most basic it has been the fear of general social disorder and lawlessness spreading to the wider working class and beyond that, fear that consent for the established order might break down amidst growing organised collective action by sections of the working class with literally "nothing to lose".

Similar fears began to emerge during the late sixties, as rising working class expectations hit the beginnings of the economic crisis to create an explosion of resistance across Europe and the rest of the world, in which rulers and revolutionaries alike saw the seeds of revolutionary change.

Our rulers had problems enough with the expressions of that resistance in workplace struggle but they did have in place flexible and experienced organisations of recuperation in the form of the trade unions. Outside the workplace, things were different. The traditional modes of instilling respect for authority, in particular organised religion and the family, were beginning to break down. 'Community' ties built up over generations on the back of stable single industry employment in heavy engineering, shipbuilding, coal extraction etc were also breaking down as these industries were consciously run down in the 'white hot heat of technological change'.

There was also the beginnings of open racial conflict in some areas as black workers began to flex their muscle and some white workers, uncertain of their future, began to resent this. Many young working class people brought up on full employment and the 'welfare state' and without the memory of the privations of war were less grateful and more challenging than their parents. There was the emergence of the 'generation gap' and the 'youth revolt'. Our rulers began to feel very uneasy about this seeming 'Pandora's box' which they had opened themselves.

But the ruling class in Britain is one of the most experienced in the world. They had come a long way since the 1880s and were certainly not going to sit around until the simmering revolt in the cities could only be contained, if at all, by simple armed suppression.

The apparatus of the state - central and local government and the 'institutions of learning' - were soon put to work, firstly in research and practical experimentation, and then into the task of both shoring up the old institutions of recuperation and creating new ones. They launched an ideological and organisational first strike.

Already in the early sixties, there had been a series of government commissions which had raised alarm bells: Milner-Holland on London's housing, Ingleby on children and young persons, Plowden on primary education and Seebohm on personal social services. All of them were concerned not with poverty and its attendant effects on the working class as a whole but with the way poverty was particularly concentrated in certain working class areas. They recommended the setting up of 'special areas of control', 'priority areas' and so on where the central and local state apparatus would apply 'positive discrimination'.

At this stage the officials were stressing the need for extra financial resources to be applied as a worthwhile investment by the ruling class against worse and more expensive problems in the future. But as the economic crisis grew worse and the relative burden of state expenditure increased, it became more a matter of 'prioritising' scarce and reduced resources. Over the next ten years there were many more commissions and official reports looking into different aspects of the poverty problems of the inner cities. One of the earliest saw the setting up firstly of the National Committee for Commonwealth Immigrants and then the Community Relations Commission, whose overriding concern was to 'integrate' the 'newcomers' into British society.

What was to emerge from these reports was a series of state-funded programmes and special area initiatives promoted by a range of government departments at the forefront of which was perhaps not surprisingly the Home Office who became very interested in extending their role from 'hard cop' into 'soft cop'. They were to set up one of the more enduring initiatives known as the 'Urban Aid Programme'. The first Urban Programme circular in October 1968 spelt out their objectives:

"The government proposed to initiate an urban programme of expenditure mainly on education, housing, health and welfare in areas of Special Social Need. Those were localised districts which bear the marks of multiple deprivations, which may show itself, for example, by way of notable deficiencies in the physical environment, particularly housing; overcrowding of houses, family sizes above the average; persistent unemployment; a high proportion of children in trouble or in need of care, or a combination of these. A substantial degree of immigrant settlement would also be an important factor, though not the only factor, in determining the existence of special social need."

These were pretty much the determining factors which were to be used for all the various schemes which subsequently emerged, although as concern increased about the financial burdens of caring for the old, large concentrations of elderly persons was also added to the list.

The Reports and programmes also started to conform to a pattern of pseudo-scientific language supplied by the newly fashionable Social Science departments which sought to define the problems in terms of the inadequacies of the people living in the areas rather than the effects of state-sponsored economic restructuring on those areas or the inadequacies of the competitive market economy etc. It is from this era that terms like 'multiple deprivation', 'cycle of deprivation', 'social malaise' etc originate. The definition of the problem as something related only to certain isolated areas implied that the 'system' was basically doing its job fine for the rest of us! The solution then lay not in wholesale social and economic change but in administrative and technical adjustments to the system.

A particular concern at this time was to draw people in the defined areas back into the system of 'democratic representation'. For instance, working class participation in local government elections was low at the best of times but one of the defining features of the areas which concerned the state was the even tinier proportion of people voting. The state has a continuing need to keep its fingers on the working class pulse but the absence of established channels of communications was preventing this from happening. Many of the schemes funded from the Urban Programme or set up separately were particularly concerned to establish new local forms of representation, which would include residents' associations, community groups, government funded agencies, councillors, council officials, the police, churches and so on, and which would act as a kind of bridgehead into the reformed local and central government structures. 'Neighbourhood Councils', 'Community Forums', 'Area Management Committees', 'Local Steering Groups' were just some of the names used to describe these experiments in 'democracy'.

Many of the early schemes were in the nature of 'action-research', applied to very small areas indeed, and intended on the basis of experimentation with different models of administration and technical applications to provide feedback to governments on the need for broader legislative change and ways of 'cost-effective' management of the 'poverty problem' and of the working class itself. The finance doled out in these cases was piddling, barely enough to cover the wages of a few administrators and researchers and fund a few public relations exercises.

In the housing field, some schemes did bring in real money but always there was always far more schemes bidding than actually got resources allocated. This was the beginning of a more intensive competitive approach to obtaining funds for 'special areas'. Local authorities had long been used to this on a broader scale but now local working class people were to be actively drawn into this process of competing with each other, usually on the demeaning basis of proving how much more rotten 'their' area was than anyone else's!

Obtaining 'community involvement' was not just about shoring up 'consent' to the system and its ways of doing things, it was also aimed at getting the poor to 'do for themselves' at minimal cost to the state. As usual, it was often women who were expected to do most of the 'doing'. Small amounts of money were aimed at various self-help organisations - playgroups, gardening clubs, advice centres, youth clubs, daycare, recycling workshops, crime watch, voluntary language classes and a host of others. The purpose, in summary, was to "take some of the load off the statutory services by generating a fund of voluntary social welfare activity and mutual help amongst the individuals, families and social groups in the neighbourhood, supported by the voluntary agencies" (CDP Objectives and Strategy, 1970).

These small sums of money were seen as 'seed corn' which through a lot of effort by other people would grow into something which could actually be 'eaten'. Another term often used was 'pump-priming', basically facilitating others to get things moving. Much was made also of the 'multiplier effect' - the idea that some initial finance could attract both money and effort from other organisations or the 'community' itself to make something much more effective than the initial sum would itself have provided for. Of course, any group which got a grant or a loan had to provide progress reports and accounts etc which kept the paymasters in touch with what was happening on the ground.

The various special area schemes came and went providing the state with much useful information along the way. Some new ones were set up with different names and in different areas and the whole process repeated. As for the multiplier effect, many groups suffered severely when the special area schemes disappeared and they had to rely on mainstream government or local authority funding which was being cut back. Many had to close down altogether.

In terms of any real impact on the social and economic conditions of people living in the special areas, the results were pretty negligible - where anything was achieved in a particular area, this was more than matched by serious decline elsewhere. In Liverpool, for instance, which in the late sixties and early seventies had more poverty initiatives than any other city, almost every indicator had got worse and seriously worse in the inner city areas.

Clearly none of the schemes was aimed even collectively at altering the general poverty suffered by our class. At best the more naive social reformers thought they might spread the poverty more evenly - but even here they failed miserably.

The EEC had joined the bandwagon in 1974 with its Social Action Programme, demonstrating that the same problems and concerns of the British state (under Labour and Tory) were shared by states in the rest of Europe. The thinking of the Eurocrats was along familiar lines - the objectives of one of their projects - a network of family advice centres - was to "help the poorest families come to terms with the particular ill effects of extreme poverty". They followed the same path as the nationally inspired schemes, gathering intelligence for the state, deflecting independent class-based opposition but providing little in the way of new resources.

Although most of the 'action-research' type projects came to an end in this period, others like the Urban Programme and Housing Action Areas achieved a degree of permanence and continued to selectively fund various local schemes around the country.

Things had tended to settle down into more of an administrative routine until, in 1981, various inner city areas - Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool, Brixton, Birmingham and Bristol - exploded into riots. The initial spark for many of the riots was confrontation between the police and black youth. This in itself said much about the failure of various programmes to integrate particularly second generation black youth into the system. More worrying for the state was the fact that many other, young and not so young, working class people, black and white, working and unemployed, either actively joined in or gave support.

Suddenly the spotlight was again on the 'poverty stricken' inner cities and the 'failure' of twelve years of the 'poverty programme' was highlighted for all to see. After an initial period of government tough talk and then reflection, decisions were taken to both tool up the hard cops and reinvigorate the soft cop approach. Some extra resources were made available but generally existing programmes were re-prioritised towards the riot-torn areas.

Given the experience of the previous 'poverty programme', you might have expected some fresh thinking, but for the most part it wasn't forthcoming. The same concepts, approaches and strategies using the same language were simply beefed up a bit and relaunched.

If there was a change it was only that now competition for the scarce resources was even more extreme. The government's 'Estate Action Programme' for run-down council estates was expanded. There was a reemphasis on local corporate management and the need to promote 'employment and training' as part of the process of physical regeneration.

As time went by, there was a shift to fewer but larger, more radical schemes with the birth of Housing Action Trusts, City Challenge and Urban and Industrial Development Corporations. Although, in line with Tory thinking, private business has become much more involved with these schemes, the approach on the ground in terms of 'community involvement', 'self-help', 'building a consensus' etc was much the same as far as the inner city housing areas were concerned.

The objective of transferring responsibility to local people for administering themselves at reduced cost to the state and effectively making working class people themselves prioritise the resources doled out, received new impetus. On the one hand, through a process of atomising estates through pressure on people to buy their council houses, and on the other by dividing council estates through schemes for tenant management or even tenant co-ops. Needless to say, local Labour-controlled authorities, after expressing some initial concerns, have enthusiastically taken up all these ideas.

Having sold the need for 'local corporate management' approaches and 'multi-disciplinary' working in the special areas, the government, under increased pressure to cut public spending, cleverly repackaged most of its various schemes into one pot called the 'Single Regeneration Budget' and in the process cut the overall spending. In future, special areas might be larger but there were a lot less of them, with EEC money also being 'prioritised' into the same areas.

The picture painted here is of a fairly consistent state policy being carried out throughout the period 1968 to the present day, with more or less enthusiasm, depending on the level of working class revolt in the cities. To the extent that some local working class areas have benefited from extra resources, this has generally only acted as a break on the deteriorating social and economic climate and has been at the expense of workers elsewhere.

From the state's point of view, the problems associated with the breakdown of 'community' and family support structures relate to the conservative role these have played in reproducing authoritarian pro-establishment values and maintaining at little cost to the state a sufficiently tolerable condition for the 'poor', to avoid open revolt. For workers there are also problems associated with these changes, including the effects of 'anti-social' crime, which predispose them to the enticements of the state, in the absence of anything better.

But it would be wrong to see the workers in these areas as simply being acted upon by the authorities. First of all, their selection has usually been a response to local revolt, local organisation and activity. Workers don't just give up in situations, even of extreme poverty; many fight back and try to do so collectively. If the form of that collective action is limited and stunted by capitalist ideology that is perhaps to be expected. Workers recognise and fight for (or at least campaign for!) more resources. Even where organisation is localised, the workers in many cases do not see their struggle as being at the expense of workers elsewhere. But the state does not hand back resources without having control over them, or at least ensuring the structures set up, and the 'thinking' of those entrusted with the resources are such that it can rest easy they will be used in the 'correct' way.

In the process, the very moment of victory, when hard fought-for money or other resources are won by local working class people, is often also the point at which the organisation set up to use the resources becomes an agent of the state rather than an expression, however deformed, of working class aspirations. If the state manages to suck in local working class leaders from amongst the activists, it has succeeded in containing opposition, but since it can't actually solve our problems, revolt will inevitably reemerge. The state hopes when it does, that it has the right people and structures in the 'community' to deflect it - but there are no guarantees.

There are risks in the state's approach, that local working class people won't be sucked in and that promises made, skills developed, and organisations set up supposedly within secure state tutelage, will turn "against the hand that feeds them". It has happened in a number of cases. Even the state-paid workers employed to encourage this whole approach can turn out to be unreliable. A whole network of 'Community Development Workers' employed by Manchester City Council, for instance, had to be closed down when they turned into local agitators. Even more impressive were the national network of Community Development Project workers funded through the Home Office and local authorities who got together to expose the whole racket in a series of excellently informative pamphlets, one of which ("Gilding the Ghetto"), supplied much of the inspiration and information for this discussion paper! They were eventually closed down.

Unfortunately, there are many self-proclaimed radicals whose ideas around concepts of 'self-management', 'anarcho-syndicalism', 'local autonomy' etc are easily co-opted by the more experienced ideologists of the state. Credit unions, LETS schemes and so on, popular amongst many anarchists and greens, are already being eyed up by local representatives of the state - political and professional - as a useful adjunct to their machinery of incorporation! We need to be much more aware of the subtleties of the state's local management policies, if we are to try and help revolt turn into revolution rather than a means of reforming the existing system to help it survive a bit longer.

For mechanisms of incorporation in other spheres of the state's activity over the same period, see also the article "Working Against the Left in Manchester" (available from Subversion) and "Bollocks to Clause Four" in Subversion 16