On community organising, religion and getting things done

Citizens UK (formerly London Citizens) are pretty hot right now. During the election campaign they held a rally at which all 3 main party leaders spoke. No other organisation had the clout to achieve this. Their model of ‘community organising’ epitomises David Cameron’s dream of a ‘big society’ and now David Milliband has promised to use his campaign funds to train a thousand community organisers as part of his vision for Labour renewal. What is the secret of their success, and do they offer a model that can be widely followed? Are they the way forward or a dangerous retreat into communitarianism?

Founded in 1989, and gaining real prominence in the last 5 years or so, Citizens UK is a London dominated alliance of community organisers, modelled on Saul Alinsky’s ideas developed in Chicago in the 1930s. Community organising, a tradition well established in the US but less known in the UK, is an attempt to give power to the powerless by encourage them to organize (usually locally) and make demands, in their own self-interest.

Alinsky’s principles were confrontational and hard-nosed, realising that power would not be gained merely by asking for it:

A People’s Organization is dedicated to an eternal war. It is a war against poverty, misery, delinquency, disease, injustice, hopelessness, despair, and unhappiness. They are basically the same issues for which nations have gone to war in almost every generation. . . . War is not an intellectual debate, and in the war against social evils there are no rules of fair play.

Citizens UK has stayed true to this confrontational approach. Its first, and most famous success was to force Banks and other city institutions to pay a ‘living wage’ to their cleaning and other menial staff. This was a higher amount than the national minimum wage, calculated to reflect the real cost of living in London. The campaign combined a variety of tactics including occupations of buildings, interventions at AGMs and public shaming of the Banks in order to force a change of policy. The Living Wage later became a key part of Ken Livingstone’s mayoral policy, has been continued by Boris Johnson and has now become a major part of national political discourse. Other campaigns include a call for an amnesty for illegal migrants (a version of which was proposed by the Liberal Democrats at the election) and for ‘community land trusts’, a sustainable approach to long-term, community owned housing. In these, and other areas, Citizens UK has punched above its weight, arguably influencing debate and policy far more than more traditional bodies such as think tanks and trade unionists. Its combination of wide membership, consensus building techniques and direct action are a powerful combination, and their approach seems immensely attractive to progressives and liberals.

One element, however, is less likely to warm liberal hearts. Citizens UK has no membership for individuals, only for organisations and is thus run on communitarian/collectivist lines rather than liberal ones. This reflects the fact that the majority of their member organisations are religious groups, a broad coalition of churches, mosques and synagogues (though Jewish involvement has been limited, perhaps because of the event at Bevis Marks Synagogue where a rabbi was sacked for allowing his synagogue to be used as part of a demonstration). London Citizens activist Maurice Glasman, at a meeting during a Compass conference, described this as central to the organisation’s success. He argued that if a trade union claimed they could get 100 people to a demonstration, only 10 would turn up. If however, a Mosque leader made the same claim, they could be sure of getting nearer to 90 participants. Given that numbers of committed activists are central to the success of campaigns, and given the decline in membership in political parties and trade unions, the galvanizing of activists through religious institutions is an exciting prospect. It raises, however some awkward questions.

Liberal and Progressives tend to view religion as at best neutral and at worst oppressive. When they do tolerate religion it is of the gentle, liberal variety, exemplified by Liberal Anglicanism. This is the sort of religion that is fully comfortable with modern science, happy to see miracles, revelation and even sometimes God as ‘metaphorical’ and is thoughtful and reflective rather than bombastic and dogmatic. This kind of religion is fundamentally aligned to diversity and pluralism, containing a variety of members with widely divergent beliefs and lifestyles, brought together under a loose and frequently woolly umbrella. This kind of religion however does not bring out large numbers to demonstrate – perhaps because it is increasingly the religion of the affluent middle classes.

The sort of religion that can guarantee 90 people to a demonstration is very different. For a start it’s likely to be very hierarchical, with a strong leadership capable of delivering its congregants for rallies and other events. It’s likely to be ‘thick’, utilising strong mythic frameworks, tight social networks, and unambiguous theological narratives. Whilst ‘fundamentalism’ is not a given it is fairly probable in some form or another, given that strict, clearly defined religion is the sort likely to result in a community that is strongly bound together, whether through fear, love or a combination of the two. It’s likely to be a community of people who know each other by name, who are ‘in community’ with each other on a day to day basis, not simply meeting in the pews on a Sunday morning. It will have strong networks for mutual support and welfare, the downside of which being that it is difficult to avoid everyone else knowing your business. Individual liberty/personal spirituality will not be key values; rather the well-being community as a whole is valued, and practices that weaken it, such as exogamy or opposing dogmas will be vigorously opposed.

Most people will recognise that, while caricatures, these two descriptions give a fair approximation of these two types of religion. Most will also recognise that neither type has a monopoly on virtue; while liberal religion encourages personal liberty, intellectual honesty and a fair degree of democracy, traditional ‘thick’ religion promotes collective welfare and solidarity and a strong notion of community. They both have their downsides too; the former leading to all the loneliness, individualism and feelings of nihilism we have come to associate with the secular world; the latter leading to dogma, irrationalism, and potentially violence, when the collective considers itself to be under threat.

The latter type of religion, then, is the type on which activist organisations like Citizens UK rely, as it creates communities that are sufficiently organized and connected that they can effectively galvanise their members. One response would be to condemn it for this; to suggest that given its reliance on ‘oppressive’ community structures all of the work of Citizens UK is compromised, and they should emulate more normative individual membership organisations. But another response might at least allow for the fact that these communities can achieve things that secular based, individualistic ones have failed to. The council estate secular ‘community centres’ are frequently empty, the mosques and mega churches frequently packed. It’s unpalatable for liberals to admit it, but if you want to organise people in order to reach their goal – fundamentalism works.

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