Tag Archives: values

Little ol’ Oblong vs. global neoliberal capitalism?

In this post I want to talk about neoliberalism and Oblong’s work.  I’ll write about what I understand by that concept and link this to Oblong’s work.  And I’ll say why I think local work like Oblong’s is significant, even in the face of a global economy.

The term ‘neoliberalism’ is bandied around a lot but sounds a bit baffling. Right in the middle of the word is ‘liberal’.  Liberal politics might refer to political views and policies supporting tolerance, human rights and social cohesion, but this is different to liberal economics.  As defined by the Financial Times, liberal economics means classic free-market capitalism, with no interference from the state except to provide support structures (like roads or train lines to move things around on, courts to settle disputes, or education so people have basic skills).  Liberal economics relies on the ‘invisible hand’ producing the best outcome for everyone through a market economy where everyone acts out of self-interest.  So, if ‘neo’ means ‘new’, then what’s new about neoliberalism?  As a political philosophy it means to make trade and markets even more free, so that even things like infrastructure and basic goods (i.e. public transport, or even water) can be privately owned and traded for profit.  The idea is that wealth will ‘trickle down’ from those who make a lot of profit to those who don’t.  The government’s role in all this is to maintain favourable circumstances for the companies doing the trading and profit-making.

Neoliberalism acts as an overarching political approach, not just an economic one. It goes back to the ‘80s – Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher favoured a neoliberal ideology.  Neoliberalists favour keeping workers’ wages as low as possible to help increase profit margins.  But since wages provide the money people can spend on the products companies are selling, loans and credit then had to become much easier to get, to keep the demand for products up.  People in more industrialised, developed countries have much more credit card and mortgage debt than in the past – and that debt is loaned out by companies who invest their money in markets all over the world.  In the past 30-40 years we’ve seen the prices of goods and services everywhere increasingly affected by things like international credit and stock markets.  The price of oil, for example, affects the price of everything because we get most of our energy from oil and we need energy to make, transport and provide almost anything you can think of.  This comes to roost in our lives locally not just by affecting prices but also through decisions on social policy, public services and military action.  When governments see their role as creating conditions favourable for profit (and therefore, supposedly, helping everyone), they end up taking a back seat in other roles citizens might think important, like providing public services, regulating the price of essentials, ensuring a social safety net, and keeping us safe by maintaining international peace.  Austerity measures exemplify the effects of a neoliberal approach: the state retracts responsibility for ensuring people can live decent lives, in the hopes of stimulating commercial activity.  This leaves communities – including groups like Oblong – to fill in the gaps, without providing the resources necessary to do it.

This is the danger of the neoliberal philosophy: what if the trickle-down effect doesn’t work?  We can see clearly that it doesn’t – the gap between rich and poor keeps growing larger and larger. The environmental damages our economy causes hurt poorer people much more than they hurt richer people (though eventually they will hurt us all).  But even in ‘democratic’ societies, we’ve forfeited much of our power to redress this.  In order to afford campaigns as vast and flashy as each other’s, politicians take funding from large businesses.  Even if they don’t, they find themselves constricted by the power of large corporations that control a lot of wealth.  This leaves voters with paltry choices, largely similar to each other and mostly talk – if we bother to vote at all.  We can blame political parties and we can blame corporations, but those organisations are made up of individuals, just doing their jobs.  For example, it’s a CEO’s responsibility to make a profit or face losing her job. She’s built her life on values from the culture all around her, which rewards individualism, money-making and hard work with a prestigious job and a high standard of living.  It’s understandable (if not commendable) how she might make decisions which in fact trickle down harm, not help.  As societies, we have ignored voices of warning and embraced the logic of profit.  It seemed like a good idea – some said, “A rising tide will lift all boats.”  But we know some important things now: firstly, placing profit about other priorities does not improve everyone’s lives – in fact it causes many people to suffer.  Secondly, the constant growth needed to produce this profit is fundamentally unsustainable.  Neoliberal capitalism isn’t working, and our institutions aren’t dealing with the problem.  So what do we do?  We can bang our heads against the wall of reforms that need to be made…or we can try and find a way over, or through.

This is where local, values-based groups like Oblong come in.  Obviously, Oblong alone isn’t going to solve the global economic crisis.  But getting involved with something where there are opportunities to have a voice, be heard and put ideas into practice – in cooperation with other people – makes a crucial, sometimes life-sustaining change from trying to get by in a boring or competitive job, or dealing with increasingly restrictive and undermining ‘benefits’ from the government.  For example, planning and teaching an English class with other volunteers can make a welcome change from factory work.  A group like Oblong, which states clearly that it values people and their development, provides a place where a desire for empowerment, equality and working together doesn’t feel like madness in a world revolving around money and individual gain.  I feel better about the world, and my life, when I interview volunteers about the work they’re doing at Oblong than I do when I listen to the news, that’s for sure.  People build up and reinforce values, for themselves and others, by defining them and putting them into practice.  (This is how neoliberal rhetoric and policies work, too.)  These skills – understanding what our values are, why we have them, how to talk about them and how to practise them – are skills we all need increasingly as our democratic institutions fail to redress the effects of inequalities and exploitation.  It’s not easy to counteract global problems on a local level, but if it’s the best option we can see, let’s get as good at it as we can.

It’s not simple, not least because practising non-profit, people-centred values like Oblong’s means constantly rubbing up against the necessity to get and spend money.  It’s not like we can say a heart-felt good-bye to profit-based capitalism and go our separate ways.  It’s more like, say, a messy break-up, with kids and shared possessions…and the ‘ex’ is the richest, most influential person in the world.  An individual’s strength in a situation like this comes from conviction in beliefs, networks of support, and willingness to be understand and be flexible, to learn and adapt.  These same things sustain organisations.  By collectively developing a commitment to self-defined values and continually working out ways to practise these, even within the context of economic austerity, organisations like Oblong – and the people involved – can build strength and resilience.

I’m fascinated with the ways Oblong manages to practise and sustain its values, because these practices offer me hope in the face of the darkness and disaster I see in neoliberal globalisation.  If all of these global forces can affect our little, local action, then it must also be true that our little, local action can affect these global forces.  For that reason, what we’re doing at Oblong is important and significant, and so is whatever you’re doing wherever you are.  We can grow in awareness, imagination and power by sharing these things.

A closer look at Oblong

In my first post, I wrote about why I decided to do a PhD on Oblong.  This time I hope I can introduce Oblong in more depth and give you a picture of the organisation’s ethos and day-to-day work.

One of Oblong’s most intriguing traits is its flat management structure.  No boss or CEO heads up the organisation, and all of the paid staff get paid an equal rate.  This doesn’t mean no one is a manager; it means everyone is a manager.  Paid staff ‘peer manage’ each other using a system of regular check-ins, consensus decision-making, differentiated job roles, joint planning, and clear target-setting.  Every Wednesday morning we each talk about how we’re doing and give an update on our progress against targets we’ve set for ourselves that quarter – “I haven’t got the newsletter done yet, but I’ve done the report for the funders,” someone might say, or, “The volunteer-run kids group on Saturdays is going great, but I still need to record the number of people who turned up on the database.” The agenda contains thorny issues that couldn’t be dealt with individually – for example: “What should the new membership scheme look like, and who is going to take it forward?” Some staff have described a concept of joint responsibility (for making decisions) with individual accountability (for carrying out those decisions).  Sometimes decisions take a long time to get made; often the combination of several people’s ideas creates fast, flexible and innovative solutions.  The staff team tweaks and improves the system for managing each other perhaps once a year: this year we made the way we appraise each other’s performance more comprehensive and focused, but less frequent.  Perhaps like any teamwork, attentive and focused listening makes a crucial difference to how well the peer management and joint decision-making processes function – as a team we’ve made noticeable progress with these skills in the past year after completing some training together.

Volunteers work in collectives too, making decisions together about running projects such as English classes or a food co-op.  Staff participate in each collective on an equal footing with volunteers.  For example, a staff member may take responsibility for facilitating a collective meeting, or a volunteer might do it.  All members of a collective are expected to contribute their opinions: one person might say, “I’ve designed this logo for the new website.  Let’s hear what everyone thinks.”  It would be dishonest to say no power differentials exist – of course people with more knowledge on, say, IT networks would have more influence over a decision about the internet service.  Someone who is particularly articulate might overshadow someone shy.  Some people feel that, for this reason, a lack of explicit hierarchy leads to power being used less transparently than if it was stated outright who was in charge.  But the idea is that everyone has valuable knowledge as well as the right and the potential to have an influence on whatever they choose to be involved in, whether it’s running reception in Woodhouse Community Centre or something outside of Oblong, like a decision about a building development in their neighbourhood.

A colleague at Oblong has always told me: “Non-hierarchy is an aspiration, not an achievement.”  It’s a work in progress. Volunteers sometimes feel confused by the way decision-making takes place at Oblong, and outside partners and powerful funders have expressed scepticism.  The Social Investment Business, when loaning us money to refurbish the community centre, sent an employee to investigate our staff management system and insisted on a full report on its functionality.  (They didn’t examine whether it felt empowering for volunteers, I guess they trusted us about that.)  Oblong sticks with this way of doing things, not just on principle but also because it makes us stronger and more resilient.  When we were running on fumes in the middle of that refurbishment project, we took the pay hit together, working equal reduced hours and standing strong behind decisions we made as a team; an organisation with one manager would have crumbled under redundancies and blame.  Flat management doesn’t always run smoothly, but it’s worth doing.  In fact it’s an essential way of expressing and practising Oblong’s core values.

Oblong developed six core values during a weekend away with volunteers and staff several years ago.  Some work was done more recently to hone the way these are defined.  I imagine they will be re-visited again in future.  Here are Oblong’s values and what we mean by them, with some examples I think illustrate our attempts to practice them:

Empowerment: people feeling able to change their community for the better.  This is the idea behind the Communities Creating Change courses we run, where people learn skills for developing their own community projects.  It’s also the idea behind running projects collectively – everyone has a chance to exercise some leadership and grow in confidence.

Collectivism: making decisions together as equals.  I’ve said enough about staff peer management and volunteer collectives above.

Sustainability: caring for the future of the community and the environment.  In staff meetings, we often talk about sustainability in financial terms.  We want to be financially sustainable so we can keep Woodhouse Community Centre open and available for the community long-term. However, in recent interviews with volunteers, we’ve noticed a ‘disconnect’ between how staff tend to think of sustainability and volunteers’ ideas of what it means.  They think, understandably, that it’s more about the community gardens we create, and that maybe we could do more.

Being community-led (directed by people): focusing on people’s ideas and needs.  We try to enact this in a number of ways.  We do yearly surveys asking local residents what they want to see happening at the community centre.  We also hold regular ‘Bob-alongs’ within Oblong – these are forums for volunteers to raise ideas or issues they want to discuss which affect the whole of Oblong.  Within the project collectives, people’s ideas and needs are central to decision-making and progress.  Like all the values, this one is intertwined with others and a work in progress – more empowerment, for example, would lead to more community leadership.  Staff members reflect often on the difference between ‘consultation’ and ‘co-production’.

Equality: ensuring that every individual has an equal opportunity to make the most of their lives and talents.  One colleague suggested that “equality has to be something you experience – a phenomenon” – it’s not enough just believing that it should be so.  Oblong has a deep-seated historical attachment to the idea of equality.  It’s a persistent driver for doing things differently, in the hopes that by creating at least one space in society where equality is genuinely valued, people’s experience of this will bolster their strength to insist upon more equality in the wider world.

Respect and care: how we relate to each other and the people we work with.  In Oblong’s volunteer induction, we tell volunteers that we expect everyone to be sensitive to others’ different perspectives and their (perhaps invisible) needs or feelings on any given day.  This is intangible but important.  Our recent training as a staff team has brought respectful listening and communications to the forefront of how we interact.  ‘Respect and care’ can seem like a very subjective value, but I think that would be a bad reason to leave it unsaid.

Reflecting on this list now, I think that values mirror theories in this way: it’s exciting and significant to believe in them as concepts, but it’s when you try to practice them that they become real – and infinitely more complex.

I decided that exploring Oblong’s practice of its values could make up an entire PhD’s worth of research precisely because it’s so complex.  Believing in these values isn’t difficult – even if defining them can be.  But attempting to make them concrete in the context of an economy dominated by market values creates a rich and fascinating story that I think we can all learn from.  When I told a friend I was researching how Oblong tried to keep its own values central to its work despite financial pressure, she said, “That’s what we all do, right – as people, in our lives and in our work?”

In my next post I intend to write more about the specific context Oblong works in at the moment – the pressures and constraints it faces (which we could also see as opportunities).  I think current economic and political circumstances make it a particularly interesting time to explore the ways a community organisation can navigate financial realities whilst holding firm to non-financial values.