Thursday, 31 March 2011


Rochdale Memorial Gardens by Pimlico Badger

'SOCIETIES ...', said the Oxford academic and political theorist, Stuart White, at the Memorial Meeting dedicated to the social thinker Colin Ward* held last year, '... use various techniques to meet needs and solve problems.' They use markets that rely on private property, competition and the pursuit of self-interest; and they use organisations based on authority, command and bureaucracy. But besides the pecuniary motive of the businessman and the power-drive of the politician and the office functionary, there is the social method of do-it-yourself, mutual aid, cooperation and self-help.

This month, in the Rochdale Observer, a dispute broke out about a planning decision to chop down some trees in the Memorial Gardens, originally designed by Edward Lutyens, in Rochdale Town Centre. Two regular writers in the printed version of Northern Voices have conflicted over whether or not the Council have an obligation to consult before embarking on these kind of 'cosmetic' enterprises: should they for example consult the 'Friends of Rochdale Memorial Gardens' - a group which the Council was anxious to set up to get funding for the gardens? Dr. Les May, a local biologist, thinks not and in last Saturday's Rochdale Observer wrote in response to a representative of the 'Friends Group' and local campaigner Mr Jason Addy: 'Even though members of 'friends' groups are self appointed, unelected and unaccountable Jason Addy seems to feel that such organisations should be allowed to interpose themselves between we the voters and council tax payers, and our council...'

Fair comment! But, without considering the merits of the specific case of Rochdale Memorial Gardens, Dr. May's broad brush challenge to the activists of the 'friends groups', if followed through, does imply an apology for a kind of elective dictatorship. After all, as the poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht pointed out during an insurrection in the old East Germany, we the people are 'unelected' and he even suggested that we needed to elect a 'new people'.

To be fair Les May has outlined his criticism of both voluntary groups and Colin Ward's theories in more depth in the current Spring issue of Northern Voices No.12** ('Rochdale's Weeds Beneath the Snow'). In that article he argued that '(Colin) Ward's ideas are not a million miles from David Cameron's "big society",' and '[b]oth start from the point that formal, state or local government institutions are slow, overly bureaucratic and unrepresentative.' Les May insists that: 'In spite of their good intentions experience suggests that all organisations whether "voluntary" or "official" have the potential to lose sight of their origins and purpose and become more concerned with perpetuating their existence.'

Les May writes that Cameron's 'Big Society' is close to Colin Ward's view of voluntary action, but Colin Ward's ideas are more all embracing than he gives them credit; according to Stuart White 'Colin's work prompts us to ask: how far does the "big society" apply to the economy?', and 'is it a corrective to the "big market" as well as the "big state"?' Furthermore, does Cameron's concept stretch to 'workers' control' in industry? Will it mean the replacement of commercial banks with mutualistic financial institutions? Shall it mean building up community production as an alternative to reliance on the market?

Les May, in both the Rochdale Observer and Northern Voices No.12, produces some evidence from which he claims to show that some voluntary bodies develop bossiness among their leaderships and lose sight of their more virtuous aims. From this, Dr. May develops a sweeping, broad-brush criticism of voluntary activism and an implied support for the status quo that borders on the idea that 'We should render unto Caesar that that is Caesar's'; just so long as Caesar is properly elected and constitutionally accountable to some electorate.

* Colin Ward, who died a year ago, wrote extensively as an anarchist on a wide number of social topics and as an editor of Anarchy in the 1960s promoted the early work of such now well known sociologists as Jock Young, David Downes, Stan Cohen and Laurie Taylor. His own books, still in print, include:

A Decade of Anarchy, selections from the journal Anarchy, 1961-70, editor: Freedom Press, 1987.
Anarchism: A Very Short Introduction: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Anarchy in Action: Allen & Unwin, 1973. Freedom Press, 1982.
Arcadia for All: the legacy of a makeshift landscape, with Dennis Hardy, 1984. New edition from Five Leaves Publications, 2004.
Autonomy, Solidarity, Possibility: The Colin Ward Reader. AK Press, 2011.
Cotters & Squatters: The Hidden History of Housing, Five Leaves Publications, 2004.
Freedom to Go: After the Motor Age, Freedom Press, 1991.
Goodnight Campers! The History of the British Holiday Camp, with Dennis Hardy, Mansell, 1986. New edition Five Leaves Publications, 2010.
Talking Houses: 10 Lectures, Freedom Press, 1990.
Talking Architects: 10 Lectures, Freedom Press, 1996.
Talking Schools: 10 Lectures, Freedom Press, 1995.
The Allotment: Its Landscape & Culture, with David Crouch, Faber & Faber, 1988. Five Leaves Publications, 1994.
Social Policy: An Anarchist Response, London School of Economics, 1996. Reprinted by Freedom Press, 2000.

Books edited or introduced by Colin Ward & still in print:
For Allen & Unwin: Kropotkin's Fields, Factories & Workshops, 1974. (New edition from Freedom Press, 1984).

For Freedom Press: Lewis Mumford's The Future of Technics & Civilisation, 1986.

** The printed version of Northern Voices No.12 with Les May's article is still available from our regular newsagents in Rochdale, Castleton, Marland: including Gallery Ten & Touchstones; several newsagents in Central Manchester, the Cornerhouse cinema, the Peoples' History Museum, the Smithfield pub, newsagents in Swinton, Eccles and Salford as well as the Buffet Bar and the People's Gallery in Stalybridge, Ashton Indoor Market newsagent, George Street Books & Bayleaf Books in Glossop, the Oakwood pub in Glossop and others in Hyde, Hebden Bridge and Freedom Bookshop, and Housmans in London. Or by post, price £4.20 for two issues (post included) cheque payable to 'Northern Voices', from 52, Todmorden Road, Burnley, Lancashire. BB10 4AH.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"Furthermore, does Cameron's concept stretch to 'workers' control' in industry?" For fucks sake, what sort of question is this? Cameron is presently trying to find ways of flouting an EEC directive that would give temporary workers improved employment rights. The beneficiaries of his Big Society, will be his capitalist chums.