Another article in Aditya Chakrabortty’s Guardian series “The Alternatives”. This time we can’t claim any involvement (though one of SSM’s members is named as a participant in the workshop). But this is an excellent initiative. One thing we did once was run a workshop specifically on the steady state economy / degrowth. Maybe people would like more of this kind of thing.
More broadly, the initiative Aditya describes recalls Manchester’s rich history of working class self-education. We wrote about this in relation to the broader need for cultural alternatives in our pamphlet In Place of Growth and this seems like a good moment to reproduce that section.
From In Place of Growth, 2012:-
Our culture today is a strange one. In many ways we have been de-culturised. Even by comparison with Celtic Britain the lived culture of Manchester (like most of England) is weak, dependent on passive consumption. Some of this is a consequence of waves of the successive destruction and re-making of communities due to the enclosures and migration to the cities over the last 200 years. Comparing the cultural life of Manchester at the start of the 20th Century with that now is instructive. For example, a popular progressive movement organised around both political action and cultural events and practices, with choirs, walking and cycling groups, working people’s institutes and educational resources, even secular churches. There were parallel participative cultures linked to other sectors too. That cultural life will not be re-created in the same form, but a re-discovery of those lived forms of culture and community would help both reduce our dependency on the consumption of consumer goods and services, and help build stronger and more resilient communities where mutual aid is the norm. In a context of welfare austerity too, such a transformation is a real necessity.
Box: Historical memory and lived culture
Manchester has an impressive history of participative people’s culture that was an integral part of the struggles for social justice of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Taken together these examples suggest how a new people’s culture could emerge again to replace the current culture of passive cultural consumption. That movement was much more than its trade unions and political parties, instead it was an all embracing social movement with a whole way of life, of social relations that embedded social solidarity, learning, healthy living and cultural enrichment.
These are some of the main structures and initiatives in the working class history of Manchester.
Working Men’s Associations
Co-operatives – retail and producer
Socialist faith groups and socialist churches
International solidarity (Spain, 19th Century independence
Clarion clubs – cycling, walking and music, and a newspaper
Access struggles culminating in the Kinder Trespass
Manchester and Salford Labour Halls
The Hall of Science.
Beyond Manchester there were also intentional communities and housing schemes linked with the Chartist, Owenite and later movements.
In the 1970s there was also another resurgence of radical lived culture in Manchester, centred on two small groupings, Community Research and Action group and the Manchester Non Violent Action Group. Some initiatives variously linked to these groupings included
The Community Levy for Alternative Projects
On the 8th Day
Grass Roots Books (later Frontline)
Several alternative newspapers including Manchester Free Press
North West Spanner Theatre Company
Community Arts Movement
If we are to reduce reliance on energy intensive passive entertainment and at the same time build a new social movement for ecological living that lives its values and principles then these traditions need rediscovering, renewing and reinventing. And this must be done in a way that includes everyone, not just a section of those centred on districts like Hulme and Chorlton. Moston Miners’ Community Centrei and Moston Small Cinemaii is an excellent example of what we have in mind, but such examples are scarce.
We need to radically reduce unnecessary consumption, that is to say any consumption that does not meet a social or personal neediii. Sadly, we are at a point where people’s identities are tied up in consumption and without finding some way of addressing this it is difficult to see how there can be success in building a steady state economy. This means that it is not just about replacing one ‘type’ of economy with another but it is about how together we shift values, perceptions and what people aspire to. There is a potential debate here – is consumerism a side effect of the underlying dynamics of growth and accumulation, or is it a key support for those processes, or again, do they mutually reinforce each other? But that does not matter too much so long as we attack both ends of the problem. As we feel loss more strongly than gain there is a need to find ways to highlight that this would be a gain (in terms of better quality of life, environment, community, etc.), rather than a loss (you can’t buy mangoes from wherever). This is clearly very challenging, particularly at the local level but maybe there are some practical things that can be proposed.
iii We acknowledge that the definition of ‘real needs’ requires debate and discussion: that discussion and consideration of what we actually need, individually and collectively for well-being and fulfilment, is a pressing need. Up to now a model of mindless consumption has been promoted and imposed without democratic debate or decision making.