This blog is part of an online learning platform which includes the Pathways to New Community Paradigms Wiki and a number of other Internet based resources to explore what is termed here 'new community paradigms' which are a transformational change brought about by members of a community.

It is intended to offer resources and explore ideas with the potential of purposefully directing the momentum needed for communities to create their own new community paradigms.

It seeks to help those interested in becoming active participants in the governance of their local communities rather than merely passive consumers of government service output. This blog seeks to assist individuals wanting to redefine their role in producing a more direct democratic form of governance by participating both in defining the political body and establishing the policies that will have an impact their community so that new paradigms for their community can be chosen rather than imposed.

Friday, October 14, 2016

A Second Look at Neoliberalism with a Community Face and Asset Based Community Development.

The last post took a look at Cormac Russell’s blog post Neoliberalism with a Community Face? A Critical Analysis of Asset-Based Community Development in Scotland?, which took a look at the original article Neoliberalism with a Community Face. While I agreed with his assessment, it was from knowledge through a secondary source available to me a year or more ago. Thanks to Cormac and others, the initial article is easier to find, so it is possible now to start taking a closer look.  This is my perspective and not an attempt at an objective analysis. A second look did not change my overall position but it did demonstrate that the issues were more complicated than first appreciated. 

The authors of the initial article, Mary Anne MacLeod, University of Glasgow and Akwugo Emejulu, University of Edinburgh, took a feminist research approach with an interest in critically examining the implications of Asset Based Community Development or ABCD,  “…for the least powerful in society and whose interests might be served—and whose silenced—by this focus on, ‘strengths’ .”  No objections with this or with their decision to use snowball sampling but doing both I believe could be problematic. If you start with a specific perspective in choosing study participants who then recruit future subjects from among their own acquaintances, the chance for a skewed outcome seems increasingly probable. 

One can find a range of perspectives within the ABCD Institute, at Northwestern University,  on various approaches such as Collective Impact. Depending upon ten practitioners to get an in depth understanding of ABCD seems limited, especially when half of those participants interviewed occupied what were termed strategic policy positions. To what degree did those positions truly incorporate ABCD into their daily routines?

The authors go on to assert that they organized, coded and analyzed their data in relation to the patterns or  "stable regularities" emerging from the interview transcripts until reaching saturation point which could again suggest at least a potential toward biasing the outcome. 

I cannot say that this approach was wrong but if one's premise is that they ended with the wrong conclusions then this may be because of the path they took. From my perspective, they should have at least taken an extra effort to interview someone such as Cormac, or someone else they cited, who had a clear ABCD outlook. 

The authors also start with a problematic philosophical premise in identifying Asset Based Community Development with neoliberalism, which they see as a:

(T)heory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterised by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade. The role of the state is to create and preserve an institutional framework appropriate to such practices.

Their data analysis process focused on the changing nature of the Scottish welfare system through what they saw as a rise of neoliberalism and a decline in a historical tradition of social democracy. 

"In this ideological context, we argue that ABCD represents a capitulation and compliance with the prevailing neoliberal reforms of the American welfare state under the Reagan Administration."

The perspective of the authors is that the embedding of free market principles into community development organizations, which then seeps into the logic of local people may, in the long run, be counter-productive to social and economic interests of marginalized groups.

Besides contrasting different theories of economics, the authors also contrast conflict models of social action, in the tradition of Saul Alinsky, with what they see as consensus models of social action. 

It is, according to the authors, because organizations supporting conflict models of social action were actively targeted and de-funded that allowed consensus-based initiatives like ABCD grew in influence. 

Because ABCD does not seek to organize against the elimination, reduction and/or privatization of public services, it is accused of accommodating neoliberalism in both theory and practice. From this point on whatever is wrong with neoliberalism is wrong with ABCD and any arguments by the New Right against the welfare state, as breeding a culture of dependency best remedied by free market principles are also by association shared by ABCD. 

Neoliberalism, though, is primarily an economic framework which has been used both by Reagan, as a Republican and Clinton, as a democrat in terms of governance. A Tweddle-Dee, Tweddle-Dum difference for some perhaps with a political tradition far more diverse than what we have in the USA but it makes an important difference in understanding the roots of ABCD.

The authors seemingly define community only in its relation to the state and the state to the community. According to them, ABCD supporters seem not to recognize that, ‘systems’ can both harm and protect liberty and rights. That it is not the role of community development to simply disavow the state. Instead it should make the local and national state work better for the most marginalized. Transferring various state responsibilities to individuals and communities is not the way to reform the state.

The [welfare] state can be a cumbersome, bureaucratic and self-serving institution that undermines individual liberty and innovation. But it can also be a key guarantor and protector of equality and rights which makes individual liberty possible and meaningful.

As a result, ABCD intervention, resulting in the shifting of state responsibilities for social problems onto individuals and communities is seen as troublesome.

The author’s argument for a deep skepticism and distrust of the state’s ability to function for the benefit of society by ABCD is though wrong. ABCD is not, in my estimation, anti-state. It is closer to being anti-institutional but in truth it is pro-community. 

I can agree to a certain extent then, that as the authors state, for ABCD, ”...the idea of citizenship is explicitly separated from discussions of the state and the rights and responsibilities of citizens in relation to the state.”

That which ‘makes citizenship possible’ at least if I am interpreting McKnight interpretation of de Tocqueville’s community of associations correctly, is not a connection to or as a derivation of the state or its institutions but arises from what ‘today we call civil society’. A perspective held by this blog for some time.

Neoliberalism is a more modern continuation of the more classical liberalism arising from the Enlightenment, a bridge too far it could be argued but ABCD, itself, has far more in common with the late 19th and 20th century when, “…liberalism morphed from an individualistic philosophy to one that is more communal in nature.” There still continues to be a tension between the individual and the community.   

It does not follow then, as the authors argue, that ABCD, by framing notions of civil society and citizenship, as separate and independent of any notion of state responsibility (not removed from as the authors state), that it promotes privatization of public life.

The authors themselves admit that their, "... approach places significant limitations on the claims which can be made regarding representativeness and therefore on the generalisability of our data." Yet, generalize against an entire community empowerment discipline is what they did.

I believe it is still important to recognize that the authors, "...sought to examine the perspectives of our participants in their own words and attempted to understand the meaning of their views in relation to the socio-cultural context in Scotland ". 

It does seem that what precisely constitutes ABCD in Scotland arguably remains open to interpretation. While I disagree with their portrayal of ABCD, the argument as to which is better for Scotland is less settled. I won’t try to insert myself directly into that discussion but I will take a look generally at some of the issues raised concerning this question.

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