policy & design

A note on politics and good ideas (notes from the Ctrl-Z Renewal! symposium)

On Saturday, I dropped in on the Ctrl-Z Renewal! Symposium at the £1000 Bend, where my friend Eugenia Lim of Assemble was speaking. I was there only briefly, to say hello to a couple of people, and catch the final roundtable discussion, chaired by Nikos Papastergiadis, with David Pledger (of Not Yet It’s Difficult), Marcus Westbury (of Renew Australia), and, I think (I missed the introduction), John Hartley from QUT.

The entire event was about digital technologies and digital publics, on participation, and the notion of citizenship in this day and age. While I didn’t attend expecting to be bored, it was more interesting than I imagined, and I left with notes scribbled on many scraps of paper.

One big theme of the discussion was that the importance of the collaborative processes set in motion in recent times (through work of organisations such as Renew Newcastle and The Gap Filler, but also community art, social media, and similar) is in the process itself, not in the outcome – not just for its democratic value, but also because of its inherent efficiency. Marcus Westbury said that the biggest challenge, after the initial success, becomes how not to professionalise participation. One of the distinguished gentlemen noted that government bureaucracies have a tendency to try to solve people’s problems by removing the problem-solving capacity from those same people, from local residents (this principle applies to the welfare state, but equally so to any other branch of government). No matter how good the final outcome, the people have always already disengaged from the process. Collaboration, however, is a form of hospitality, and it must be delivered with a humility: humility of not trying to know or influence the outcome ahead.

Then there was a nice little interlude on the new citizenship of the social media, and the ability of even underage people to exercise their rights of citizenship in new, and impactful ways.

But David Pledger brought it back to government as bureaucracy (or bureaucracy as bureaucracy, to be precise). Marcus Westbury noted that bureaucracies don’t use their enabling function enough, and get stuck in cultivating the conditions of their own existence (Westbury noted that, in the 10 preceding Renew Newcastle, whenever he tried to engage the City of Newcastle, the most common response he got was “That sounds very interesting, but we’re restructuring right now”). Pledger turned that around and suggested that, even more terminally, bureaucracies actively use their disabling function: they inherently don’t believe that individuals have agency, that anything other than another bureaucracy has agency, and so look at individuals, and individual initiative, adversarily. (He also said that that’s why art funding agencies want artists to function as organisations – to mirror something they recognise.) They agreed, ultimately, that a bureaucracy has a tendency to become inefficient (Westbury: 90% of costs goes to intermediaries), and that this ineffiency then has its own force, its own influence. Pledger asked to reconsider the bureaucratic intermediary as a bureaucratic protagonist in their own right.

The other thought were noting was the very unhelpful role of politics in wanting to create genuine change. Westbury said something very lovely: our contemporary politics is extremely binary, he said, but nothing else in the universe is. And so, politics engages in this translation of the complexity of everything else into two campls: the Left and the Right. Whenever a new idea appears, there is an attempt to have it owned by one of the camps, and that needs to be resisted, because, the moment it is CAMPED, half of the audience automatically goes YES and the other half goes NO. Westbury stated that Renew Newcastle happened when it got on board the most diverse range of supporters: the real estate agents, the developers, the artists, the council, and so on. Had he tried to implement Renew through a political process, he would have been forced to take sides. And had he taken sides, it would have never gained enough bipartisan support to happen. It would have been stuck in a discussion in which, in Westbury’s words, people would be arguing the symbolism, not the practicalites of events – in effect barracking for a team.

This last bit (which chronologically happened quite early in the discussion) was genuinely interesting, because it articulated some of the frustration I’ve been feeling for years, and I’ve heard people express, with our heritage of political theory and political philosophy, and how we need NEW thoughts, NEW theories, NEW ideas. Perhaps, instead, we simply need to be practical. What a great suggestion that was.

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