Local Politics I: Take This Town

Two years into the Swindon stage of my life-long ethnography of the M4 corridor (eight years in Reading, eight in Bristol; where next?), and I’m growing fonder of the place. There is in fact, as my OU colleague Allan Cochrane reminded me before we moved here, a venerable tradition of urban studies research on Swindon – by Michael Harloe in the 1970s (a ‘town in transition’ then, an aspiring transition town now); subject of one of the ESRC Locality projects in the 1980s (Swindon really did have a proper ‘growth coalition’, once upon a time, apparently; and also an active Communist Party); and further work by Martin Boddy and others, who went so far as to suggest that Swindon might be the ‘city for the twenty-first century’. Not quite a ‘school’ like LA or Chicago’, not even the sustained history of case work that exists on places like Vancouver, or Columbus Ohio, or even Durban; in fact, Swindon is not even an ‘ordinary city’. It’s not a city. It’s a town. Very much so, a town.

It’s not a ‘post-political’ town, mind.

There is lots of politics here. And it’s not hidden, it’s quite open, and very much part of a vibrant little local public sphere.

One story rumbling through the local press (OK, the one local paper, the Swindon Advertiser, or ‘the Adver’) is about the plan for the Honda plant on the outskirts of town, one of the main employers and key to the economic success of the town over the last two decades, to build wind turbines on its site. This has aroused opposition from residents living close by to the plant. But the plan is supported both by the controlling Tory group on the Borough Council, and also by the opposition Labour group, on the grounds that it’s important to keep the Honda plant competitive (the Swindon plant lags behind other Honda plants on renewable energy targets, apparently).

None of this is necessarily is out of the ordinary (it fits with the image of local policy and political elites that emerges from those academic analyses of Swindon’s post-war development), it’s the sort of issue one can find all over the place (and it’s likely to become more common if and when proposed changes to planning regulations are introduced).

There is another story running alongside this one, which revolves around Honda’s relationships with UNITE, the union which represents some 1000 ‘associates’ at the plant. For some months, there has been noises about Honda seeking to de-recognise or minimize the influence of the Union at the plant.

The union story in particular has been very publicly sustained by reporting in the Adver, very sympathetic reporting one should say, that led in turn to a story with a slightly different inflection on BBC’s Points West yesterday.

As I say, none of this is terribly novel, although the juxtaposition of the wind turbines story and the union story is revealing of some of the ordinary political tensions that revolve around this kind of locally embedded link in a ‘global’ production system. I have been struck by the quality of the reporting on these sorts of issues in the local paper – which retains a much more obvious ‘civic’ orientation than I remember being the case with the equivalent daily papers in Bristol or Reading.

So, local politics, for local people only perhaps, but lots of it, and you don’t even have to look that hard to find it. No sign of the post-political, not here.

Geographies of Labour

Becoming a parent is one of those occasions when one gets to see a lot of ‘the state’ – engaging with doctors, nurses, hospital administration; becoming a welfare recipient, through signing up for child benefit, or the now defunct child trust fund; visits from health visitors; registering a birth. Of all the professional people we have engaged with in this process, twice now, my heroes are the midwives. ‘We’ have had very different experiences of maternity care, first in Bristol, now in Swindon. In Bristol, with our first child in 2006, we were part of a progressive so-called ‘domino’ system of midwifery care, attached to a midwife-led maternity unit – this system is distinctive because the same midwives provide continuity of care through antenatal, intrapartum and postnatal stages. We were enrolled into this practice through one of our neighbours, at a summer street party actually, when she and one of her colleagues convinced us of the benefits of this approach, compared to the model in which community midwives provide antenatal and postnatal care, while different midwives are responsible for care while in hospital. The Bishopston midwife practice was, in fact, full of properly feminist midwives – Mary Stewart, our neighbour, was both a practicing midwife and a part-time PhD student at UWE at this time, and she is now an academic at Kings College London. I didn’t know this back then, but she is the editor of an important primer on feminist approaches to midwife care. I remember having a conversation with her, after the birth of our first child (she wasn’t actually the attending midwife at the birth), about her use of Judith Butler and qualitative methodologies in her PhD to understand midwives discourses about performing vaginal examinations during labour. The speed-reading I have done in this area, just by tracking Mary’s publications and where they lead, reveals an interesting and unexpectedly close relationship between high-falutin social theory – lots of Foucault in particular – and very practical concerns of how to enact, as they say, feminist principles of empowerment in contexts where midwives are mediating all sorts of imperatives, from surveillance of women, doing things to them, and sharing their experience and expertise with them.

One surprising thing about being part of this midwife practice was that we were quickly converted to the idea of having a home birth, which would previously have seemed like a bizarre thing to do. In the end, our first daughter wasn’t born at home, but the decision to start from a home birth as a first preference was an important aspect in ‘empowering’ and building confidence for my partner around the process of labour and giving birth. This second time round, in Swindon, things have been a little bit different. No domino system, and the Great Western Hospital in Swindon does not yet have a birth centre either (it opens later this year, and my partner couldn’t hold on). While not impossible to have a home birth, it was not in any way encouraged. Before Christmas, just as my partner started maternity leave, there was a rush of national news stories about funding cuts to midwife care and heightened risk to mothers in labour, and about ongoing controversies about the safety of home births. So we found ourselves in a context of renewed debates about medicalization of child-birth, and campaigns to protect maternity services in an age of ideologically-led austerity. But in the end, the birth of our second daughter involved two great midwives at the hospital, in and out in one day, and no sight of a doctor at all. And whereas we had planned to use a birth pool at home first time (I never even got to inflate it in the end), this second time ‘we’ did a have a water birth.

Two children in two different towns, both born in hospital but under different organizational arrangements. There is a large aspect of comparison to the practice of parenting – comparing one’s own conduct to peers and cohort groups, or to parents or sisters; and now, it turns out, comparing the second time to the first time. And then you remember there is something irreducibly singular about each birth, each child, each nappy. So I’m not going to generalize on the basis of our experience, not least because while in Bristol we got the ‘theory’ right, in Swindon we have had as nice, and in some respects even nicer, and as ‘empowering’ an experience despite being in a more classically ‘medicalized’ system. There is, of course, lots of serious social science about the geography of labour (though not really much in Geography), in at least two respects: the different arrangements available in different parts of the country; and at a different scale, but closely related to this, the differences between births planned at home, in midwifery units, or obstetric units. Our former neighbour Mary, since completing her PhD, has been working on a major Department of Health research programme, the Birthplace programme, looking at whether there are significant differences in outcomes for mothers depending on where births are planned. The results of the programme are due to be published later this year.

Globalizing Responsibility

A new book, Globalizing Responsibility: the political rationalities of ethical consumption, co-written by myself and three colleagues – Paul Cloke, Nick Clarke and Alice Malpass – has just been published. It comes out of an ESRC/AHRC funded project on Governing the subjects and space of ethical consumption that we all worked on together, and which formally ended back in 2006. But these things take time to come to full fruition (we have another book in the pipeline).

The book sets out to analyse various ethical consumption practices from a political perspective. By this, I mean it tries to understand them as forms of political mobilisation, campaigning, lobbying, and so on – not in the sense of evaluating them from a pre-established position of what counts as politics or what makes politics more or less progressive – but in terms of trying to understand how these sorts of activities are indicative of changes in the way politics gets done now. It is based primarily on case studies undertaken in and around Bristol in the mid-2000s, especially focussing on fair trade campaigns of different sorts, and tries to make sense of the local dynamics of global solidarity politics. Theoretically, the book works through various approaches to understanding this sort of activity, including accounts of neoliberalization, governmentality theory, theories of practice, social movement theory, and theories of consumerism.

We have a couple of nice endorsements on the back cover, one from the geographer Peter Jackson at Sheffield: “Based on original research and innovative thinking, this profound and insightful book challenges conventional thinking about ‘ethical consumption’.  Approaching the subject as a distinctive form of political mobilisation, Globalizing Responsibility shows how our everyday consumption practices are related to wider narratives of social justice and collective responsibility”; and one from Rob Harrison of Ethical Consumer Magazine: “‘By viewing ethical consumption patterns as a political phenomenon, the authors deliver a far deeper understanding of this growing movement than a whole raft of marketing and business literature which has gone before.”

So if anyone is still stuck for gifts to put under the tree this festive season, this comes just in the nick of time.

Collecting My Thoughts

This time last year we moved house, and I found myself re-reading a well-known essay by Walter Benjamin called ‘Unpacking My Library’. It’s a lovely piece for anyone with an unhealthy attachment, of some sort, to books, of whatever kind, as artefacts. The essay is about the prosthetics of thought and memory, which is a common enough theme I guess, but what is really distinctive about Benjamin’s essay is how he captures the active sense of ‘collecting’ books as a habitual mode of thinking, rather than fixating on the contents of a fixed collection once acquired.

Benjamin’s essay is really quite funny in exposing the nerdiness involved in acquiring books as a process of thought, but in a serious sort of way. The aspect of the essay that rings most true for me is the sense of chance and coincidence that book-buying and book-browsing implies about how one’s own engagement with ‘Theory’ works. He articulates this around the idea of book collecting as a way  of investigating new cities: “How many cities have revealed themselves to me in the marches I undertook in the pursuit of books!” Unpacking the library is packed-full of memories, and regrets – for books half-finished, writing-projects never even begun.

The places which are evoked by unpacking my books were often more prosaic than those with which Benjamin was most familiar, although I do have favourite bookshop memories from cities like Paris, Stockholm, Cape Town, or Chicago. More often, though, the places my books evoke are towns like East Grinstead or Cirencester (the town where I can first remember buying a book for myself, in a now defunct Woolworths; You Can’t Win Them All, Charlie Brown, it cost 50p, new). Of course, unpacking books, or just rearranging them, also evokes memories of bookshops which are no more, like Oxford Books in Atlanta, my first experience of a real American bookstore (books and coffee, what a smell!), or Compendium Books in Camden Town, a bookshop so important in shaping the thoughts of an entire generation of British Theory-heads that is was obituarised in Radical Philosophy when it closed.

Our house move last year involved relocating to the weird and not-so-wonderful town of Swindon, and one of the things that was reconciling me to this was the knowledge that at least there was a big Borders on the outskirts of town. The week we moved, it was announced that it was going to close (much to the anger of local residents, many of whom really appreciated the Starbucks upstairs – there are not so many places in that part of town for new mums to hang-out with prams; the Starbucks has survived, only now it is upstairs in a shiny new branch of New Look). Earlier this year, just to make me feel even better, the Oxfam book and record store in town also closed down. Swindon now has fewer bookstores than East Grinstead, the town I grew up in, with dreams of leaving for more bookish places.

Oxfam bookstores sell second-hand books, but they are run along the lines of commercial second-hand bookshops (not a little controversially). Where we lived before moving to Swindon, in what one of our friends and fellow residents once described to us as the ‘Guardian-and Tofu-Ghetto’ of Bishopston, in Bristol, we were a five minute walk up the hill from an Amnesty bookshop. Amnesty bookshops get all their books from donations, so unlike Oxfam shops, their books are dead cheap. I’ve come to realise that this bookshop has had a powerful influence in shaping how I think as an academic over the last decade. It’s located on the Gloucester Road, the faintly alternative heart of independent retailing in North Bristol, equidistant from the University of Bristol and the University of the West of England – Bishopston is, according to census data, the most educated ward in the whole country (containing a high proportion of geography professors prolific in theorising about neoliberalism too). All of which means the Amnesty shop has this high turnover of lots of academic books of a particular vintage. This shop is a veritable repository of the ‘long-tail’ of a certain sort of British left-sociological culture of the 1970s through the 1990s. It is never without a copy of Berger and Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality, Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders, or Richard Hoggart’s The Use of Literary. There is also a regular supply of complete sets of OU Social Science or Humanities courses books, as students finish one year’s study before moving on to the next level (at least, that’s what we all hope if we work at the OU). Sometimes, books with the names of an academic with whose work you are actually familiar appear – books owned by Jean Grimshaw, the feminist philosopher, or Peter Haggett, the geographer.

I have come to cherish this bookshop like no other I know, primarily because of the promise of stumbling across something I didn’t even know I might want to read which will only cost £1.50, at most. I once bought a box full of volumes of Marx and Engels’ Collected Works, not the whole set mind, the Progress Publishers editions from Moscow published by Lawrence and Wishart, for £15, which worked out at about 90p a volume (I turned up the chance of buying the box of Lenin as well). Most of these are not volumes you would want to read, unless you are inclined to do a PhD on Engels’ fascination with military strategy and hardware (and it turns out that, like some of us cheap academic hacks these days, Marx and Engels both helped make ends meet by writing entries for Encyclopedias – my favourite is Engels little piece on ‘The Camp’, pre-dating Agamben on that topic by more than a century; although even he doesn’t mention that this is actually the name of a small hamlet in the Costwolds, as you drive out of the Stroud valley towards Cheltenham and Gloucester).

This is the only academic bookstore I know of where you can buy classics of modern social thought for 50p, often with the added value of someone else already having annotated the best bits for you; I have never spent more than £4 on a book here. Sometimes, you do come across a recent, up-to-date volume. I bought a copy of Twenty Theses on Politics here a few months ago (I still go back to visit), by Enrique Dussel, the leading political philosopher and theorist of contemporary Latin American politics (See http://www.enriquedussel.org/Home_en.html). I had heard of him before, never read anything by him, but there it was, a couple of quid, almost new. But mostly, the books I buy in this shop are older ones, maybe collections of political writings by Weber, old editions of Goffman, that sort of thing. But it is not just the age of the books you find in the Amnesty shop that accounts for their odd combination of intellectual appeal and cheapness – these are not antique volumes, or first editions of any value. These are the books that other academics, teachers, former students or educated lay readers have decided not worth keeping any more. By arriving here, on these shelves, they attest in their own way to their own lack of contemporary resonance, or at least this estimation by those who have chosen to give them away. It’s not just the unlikely student of Engels’ later works who might find an archive of materials here, but anyone who wants to reconstruct the debates on the left of the early and mid-1980s around Thatcherism, often Marxism Today-led conversations which still assumed that Labour might win an election in 1987 or 1988; or the excitement which Glasnost and Perestroika provoked for a reorientation of left-thinking; or the infusion of Marxist ideas into social work or education theory in the 1970s; or the literature of the anti-psychiatry movement (but not Foucault – nobody seems to donate Foucault books for free; he still resonates, clearly). The pamphlets and little magazines out of which New Labour emerged, or the extensive, theoretically sophisticated historiographical anthropological analyses of Southern African politics generated by and around the anti-apartheid movement – all of this can be gathered up from this shop, if you are willing to bide your time.

I haven’t invested my pennies (it wouldn’t be much more) in acquiring any of these archives, although each one would make for an intellectually challenging and valuable project. But I have certainly back-filled some of the holes left by own education-in-Theory over the last decade by buying a book every week or so from this shop, although I’m not to admit which holes. Returning to Benjamin, then, I like to think of this little shop as providing a twist to his tactical image of book collecting – here, collecting other people’s cast-offs is a way of travelling back into recent intellectual pasts, of measuring the unacknowledged distance between then and now, of getting a glimpse of what once seemed possible or plausible yet now seems nothing more than embarrassing, but also, perhaps a little more optimistically, of noticing the little advances or shifts in culture that have rendered certain sorts of critical, theoretical elucidation slightly less pressing.