How best can we identify and foster culture capable of promoting well-being among seriously disadvantaged, alienated groups in societies in which ‘success’ requires individual aspiration and exposure to socio-economic insecurity? This question has been examined through a comparative, participatory, cross-cultural research project involving academics from a range of backgrounds and non-academic community co-researchers from Ashington, Northumberland and Aboriginal groups around Brisbane, Australia. The project applies and examines the theoretical claims of ‘good culture’ outlined in Evaluating Culture (Johnson 2013) which hold that we must always uphold values of solidarity, equality and non-domination in order to avoid harm, whatever other values we pursue and in whatever conditions we pursue them. ‘Good culture’ promotes eudaimonic well-being by tailoring lives to specific contexts, shaping environments and resisting reckless individualism, inequality and domination.
This programme examines ‘good culture’ in the context of ‘lumpenprecariat’ groups, which are seriously excluded and alienated even from ‘precarious’ forms of employment and experience often predictable forms of drudgery.
Guy Standing (2011) has popularised the notion of precariousness to describe the unpredictable neoliberal conditions faced by radically different people throughout the world. Members of Standing’s ‘precariat’ lack occupational identities, treat work and other money-making activities instrumentally, are focused on the short-term and have no ‘shadow of the future’ hanging over their actions, leaving little incentive to sustain long-term relationships and productive, but unpaid, social activities. In this regard, Owen Jones highlights in Chavs (2011) the startling effects of de-industrialisation on Ashington in Northumberland. Once regarded as the largest village in the world and a successful site of collective self-organization, Ashington’s decline demonstrates that material gains associated with neoliberal reform can be uneven and accompanied by forms of serious social disintegration.
Jones notes the similar conditions faced by other de-industrialised towns in the UK. The problem, though, is much broader, affecting radically divergent groups that have reached this position through very different paths. Aboriginal people in Brisbane, Australia, for example, have, during colonization, been dispossessed and dislocated from their lands and traditional relationships and subjected to explicitly racist legislation, collectively limiting their autonomy and creating serious obstacles to their engagement in society.
Though the entry points and processes are different, people in both communities now face similar challenges. While Standing (2014) and others (e.g. Torry 2013) have presented potential policy responses to support the main body of the ‘precariat’ that is engaged in the mainstream economy, little has been advanced with regard to the most disadvantaged and alienated. Standing (2015, 4) refers to a ‘lumpenprecariat’, ‘consisting of sad people lingering in the streets, dying miserably… [T]hey are effectively expelled from society, lack agency and play no active role in the economic system beyond casting fear on those inside it’. His portrayal may overplay the dramatic appearance of such groups and underplay the number of people exposed to transgenerational exclusion and alienation from the precarious economy.
While people subject to precariousness are at least engaged, ‘lumpenprecariat’ groups have seen historical social forms dissolved in such a way as to eliminate the resources around which collective aspirations were once formed. The broader societal failure to foster resources conducive to individual aspirations required to expose ‘lumpenprecariat’ groups to ‘precariousness’ means that individuals’ circumstances need to be understood as qualitatively distinct from the precariat. These groups are engaged in a pursuit of a relatively narrow and predictable set of goods and bads. They are subject to repeated, life-sapping traumas, but these traumas do not always change the nature of their existence or their social status: with very little to lose in the first place, their lives are not subject to the falls which the precariat face by virtue of their aspirations. There are often no careers and houses to lose and no broader forms of recognition to pursue. Their lives are marked by predictable drudgery, the cultural basis of which is under-researched, misunderstood and best, for a range of reasons (see Wall 1998), addressed culturally by groups themselves in order to (re-)establish structures and resources capable of shaping spheres of autonomy and promoting well-being.
However, while there has been much discussion across the political spectrum about the way in which communities have been disenfranchised or distanced from decision making processes, there have been few genuine attempts to engage people faced by precariousness in active dialogue about the future of their communities and the possible contribution that their culture may make to policy development.
This project attempts to overcome this by bringing together non-academic community co-researchers from Ashington, in Northumberland, and Aboriginal communities, from around Brisbane, with academics from a range of backgrounds to identify and foster culture capable of promoting well-being in seriously alienated groups.
The reason for building the project around the two groups in question is that they are both radically different, having been separated by thousands of miles and thousands of years of human history, and presumed by many to be on opposite sides of colonial/colonised and white/black dichotomies, and yet similar in ways which offer insights into sources of collective harm and understandings of ‘good culture’: i) they both lived lives which, within serious environmental constraints, can be seen by any reasonable measure to be economically productive and self-sufficient; ii) their institutions were underpinned by forms of in-group solidarity, equality and non-domination which helped mitigate and control insecure natural and social conditions through, for example, informal welfare systems grounded in kinship; iii) they have both had collective aspirations undermined by the actions of other socio-economic groups and the state (Aboriginal people with regard to land since colonization and Northumbrian people with regard first to land ownership and private industry and then the dissolution of mining); iv) people from both groups have then faced unemployment and migration onto welfare programmes, entailing a shift to predictable, inescapable and damaging lives often accompanied by significant and increasing micro-management by external bodies; v) they have both faced relatively high incidences of social pathologies (domestic violence, alcoholism, social dislocation and ‘lifestyle’ illnesses like depression and diabetes, resulting in reduced life expectancy, etc.); vi) they have been subject to critical public discourses regarding welfare dependency and the ‘undeserving poor’, with their cultural heritage cited as a reason for their failure to integrate into the ‘real’ economy and assimilate into broader society; vii) they both face cuts to welfare and social services at a time in which the private sector seems unable or unwilling to provide sufficient levels, or non-precarious forms, of employment; viii) people in both communities lack, relatively speaking, individual aspirational confidence to engage in precarious life and, ix) they both face, as a consequence, deficits in well-being relative to other groups within their respective states.
These deficits have been highlighted by political bodies in the two contexts. The UK Government’s ‘Big Society’ initiative (see Ishkanian and Szreter 2012) sought to fill the void left by the state’s retrenchment from employment, encouraging communities to deal with a range of local side-effects of economic streamlining, without necessarily dealing with the broader causes. Aboriginal Australian public figures, such as Noel Pearson (see, e.g., 2014) of the Cape York Institute, have endorsed the UK Government’s position, supporting similar programmes for Aboriginal communities and calling for Aboriginal people to exercise ‘responsibility’ – in essence, to engage in precarious labour and not place demands on their communities through demands for sharing. In both contexts, calls for cultural change among ‘dysfunctional’ communities are aimed at promoting agency and, through that, well-being. However, there is seldom substantive engagement with ‘lumpenprecariat’ communities as communities about their future, recognition that these groups may be able to develop collective responses, or willingness to support groups in achieving autonomy required to pursue change.
During one-month, embedded research visits to each other’s communities in 2015, the groups worked with academics and community members to compare and contrast their histories, challenges and cultural resources through listenings/interviews, focus groups, daily group meetings and weekly seminars. Exploring differences and similarities enables understanding of the cultural resources required to promote well-being among such seriously disadvantaged peoples.
This is particularly important as, while there have been attempts to understand and design public policy mechanisms, such as basic income, to increase the well-being of those in Guy Standing’s ‘precariat’, the lives and challenges of those in the ‘lumpenprecariat’ remain misunderstood and attempts to promote well-being misconceived.
Analysing interview data and collaborative written work produced during the participatory elements of the project, the programme seeks to identify and foster culture capable of promoting well-being in ‘lumpenprecariat’ groups by: i) defining the conditions that people experience; ii) creating narratives of disadvantage which link personal family histories to broader political processes to explain experiences, their causes and conditions; iii) considering similarities and differences in the ways in which the communities traditionally dealt with circumstances in order to explore the universal features of ‘good culture’ and iv) by outlining means of fostering shared understandings – the basis of my account of culture – in ways which enable people to respond to their particular circumstances in ways which promote well-being.
This research is important for three related reasons.
Substantively, the context of austerity-based politics ensures that the future of disadvantaged communities is of great importance within and without formal politics. The rolling back of the welfare state (and the advance of the securitizing, corporatizing state) means that communities are not only increasingly told to take responsibility for their futures, they increasingly have no other option but to attempt to shape their collective lives in new and dynamic ways. Initiatives like Big Society and the work of the Cape York Institute in Australia have attempted to encourage communities to take responsibility for guiding their futures, but have accepted basic premises of neoliberalism and fail to grant genuine autonomy to communities. This project recognizes that communities alienated by this politics often have cultural resources which could be deployed to meet challenges of the present in new and dynamic ways. It is grounded in an active attempt to contribute to essential community and policy discussions in the UK and Australia.
The project deploys participatory methods, which place community members at the heart of research, working with academics to investigate issues of importance to both. The method has gained traction in the social sciences and humanities and is relevant in the context of concern for initiatives like Big Society, which claim to foster co-operative, voluntary and transparent engagement between different sectors at all levels of society. This approach overcomes the power imbalances between academics and non-academics in other methods and encourages communities to exercise agency in defining and managing issues that affect them (see McTaggart 1991). The project’s focus on research benefits to communities meets HE impact and engagement agendas, illustrated by the AHRC’s Connected Communities programme (Durose et al. 2015). By highlighting high-impact research processes and content, the project will be of value to early career researchers, including those in the network, who need to recognize impact in securing grants, meeting REF criteria and securing jobs.
Finally, the project is international, demonstrating links between different communities in ways which trace the role of global processes in economic development and highlighting the importance of cross-cultural engagement in dealing with issues.
Durose, C., et al. (2011) Towards Co-production in research with communities, Swindon: AHRC.
A. Ishkanian and S. Szreter, eds. (2012) The Big Society Debate, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.
Johnson, M. T. (2013) Evaluating Culture, London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Jones, O. (2011) Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class, London: Verso.
McTaggert, R. (1991) ‘Principles for Participatory Research’, Adult Education Quarterly, 41, 168-187.
Pearson, N. (2014) ‘A Rightful Place’, Quarterly Essay, 55, 1-72.
Standing, G. (2011) The Precariat, London: Bloomsbury.
Standing, G. (2014) A Precariat Charter: from denizens to citizens. London: Bloomsbury.
Standing, G. (2015) ‘The precariat and class struggle’, RCSS Annual Review, 7, 3-16.
Torry, M. (2013) Money for Everyone, Bristol: Policy Press.
Wall, S. (1998) Liberalism, Perfectionism and Restraint, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.