Wednesday, 24 May 2017

How to Set Up a Community Co-op

by Stir to Action, on Shareable: http://www.shareable.net/blog/how-to-set-up-a-community-co-op


Before joining the Institute for Solidarity Economics recently, I spent the last five years working for rural communities charity the Plunkett Foundation, an organization which supports the establishment of community co-operatives. Community co-operatives are businesses which trade primarily for the benefit of their community. Controlled by the community themselves, they have open and voluntary membership and, crucially, they encourage people to get involved – either by becoming a member, or by volunteering time or getting involved in another way.
By encouraging widespread involvement from their local community members, community co-ops play a really important role in helping to overcome issues like social isolation and loneliness, which can be prevalent, particularly in rural areas. Community co-operatives are set up on a one member, one vote basis, rather than one share, one vote. This is important because it means that all members have an equal say in how the co-operative is run, regardless of how many shares they’ve bought or how much money they've invested. In this way, they are truly democratic forms of business.
People choose to set up community co-ops for a variety of reasons, from safeguarding local services which may be under threat of closure, like the village shop or local pub, to wanting to establish a new service that meets the needs of local people. In all cases, the result is usually a thriving local hub of activity which meets a broad range of social needs.
There are now hundreds of community co-ops thriving all over the U.K. One example is the co-operatively owned George and Dragon pub in Hudswell, North Yorkshire, which recently won the coveted 2017 CAMRA Pub of the Year Award – a brilliant example of a local becoming so much more than a pub. Around 200 people came together when the pub closed nine years ago and reopened it as a co-operative, recognizing that if they were going to save one of the only community spaces left in the area, they’d have to do it themselves. Today it's a busy community hub that contains the village library, a community shop and community allotments, and the pub caters to both locals and visitors alike.
Recently celebrating its 15th birthday is Dalwood Community Shop in Devon. The shop is entirely manned by 45 volunteers and is open 363 days per year. It's one of 31 such community shops in the county, all of which are safeguarding these vital village services and making a real difference to the lives of people who live there.
Here's an outline on how you can set up a community cooperative. Please open the infographic below in a new tab to view a larger version:
This piece was originally published in STIR to Action Magazine.
Header image by Rebecca Siegal via Flickr

Thursday, 18 May 2017

A Theory of Change for Community Well-Being

Posted on May 17, 2017
As well as this week’s blog, check out our latest call for evidence on joint-decision making in communities.

Professor Jane South
Jane South is a member of the Centre’s community wellbeing team and professor of healthy communities working in the field of volunteering, active citizenship and community health. In this blog she shares the thinking behind the new theory of change model the team has created after carrying out research, workshops and public dialogues.
Personal experience tells us that the communities we’d like to  live in are positive, safe and sociable. And, of course, research shows how much community life and good social connections matter for our health and wellbeing.
As part of the Centre, our communities evidence programme is reviewing and summarising existing evidence for what works to make communities more positive places for people to live in. To help us do this, we’ve developed a ‘theory of change’. This describes the ways change can happen to improve community wellbeing.
There has been increasing interest in the UK in using a theory of change approach to help unpack how programmes work, which in turn makes it easier for evaluations to ‘test’ the pathways to outcomes. Our theory of change describes a cyclical process of six stages with the ultimate aim of improving community and individual wellbeing. It’s our first attempt and draws heavily on what we heard from people and community organisations across the country during the engagement phase at the start of the project. You can see the results of that engagement in our Voice of the User work.
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How the process for change works
The starting point for change is community conditions (box one in the diagram)The places where we live, how we relate to others and whether we have a say in how our local area run all influence our wellbeing. But while some people are part of communities that help them flourish, others are not.
There are things that government, organisations and individuals can all do to improve community wellbeing. For the purposes of this theory of change we’ve called these interventions(box two), but this doesn’t mean they have to be initiatives ‘done to’ communities – they could be things that people organise themselves in their neighbourhood.
Mechanisms of Change (box three) are then created, such as improving living environments, strengthening social connections and making it easier for people to take partThings begin to change at a local level and these improved community conditions then give us the best chances to live, work and play well (box four) . Eventually changes can lead to long-term wellbeing outcomes (box five) for communities and individuals, and the ultimate reason for making change happen.
Where this community wellbeing cycle works well, there are feedback loops and things keep improving as people are more connected and involved  in community life and feel the benefits. Potentially there could be net savings from improvements in community wellbeing, although this is not a necessary part of the change process. And obviously, improving community wellbeing requires investment over time.
How can you use the theory of change?
We hope that this theory of change provides a framework for understanding and improving community wellbeing. It will also be used to help us interpret evidence. Communities are of course diverse and what works in one community may work differently- or not at all – elsewhere.  This theory of change could be used and adapted in local projects as a planning and evaluation aid.  Key questions include: What is the relationship between wellbeing benefits for the individual and for the whole community? How do we measure more of what matters, such as changes in social relationships, safety, trust and belonging?
What happens next?
Over the course of this project, we will be reviewing the community wellbeing evidence for interventions related to housing, social relations and co-production. As we find answers about what works we will refine and update our theory of change, backing it up with the evidence.
But a lot of the evidence doesn’t exist in academic journals, it lies with people working on the ground. We welcome comments on this initial theory of change – does it fit into the way you already think about improving wellbeing in your area? Do you have ideas of how it could be used? Are there things that are missing, or don’t make sense for you? We’d love to hear from you, either in the comments below, on our forum, on Twitter, or via email at info@whatworkswellbeing.org.

Monday, 8 May 2017

On Nonconformity: Artist Ben Shahn’s Spirited Defense of Nonconformists as Society’s Engine of Growth and Greatness

On Nonconformity: Artist Ben Shahn’s Spirited Defense of Nonconformists as Society’s Engine of Growth and Greatness
“Society,” Emerson wrote in his timeless treatise on self-reliance and what it really means to be a nonconformist“is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater.” In such a groupthink society, Emerson cautioned, conformity is the most prized virtue, but whoever wishes to be a true person “must be a nonconformist.”
“Life would be dull indeed without experimenters and courageous breakers-with-tradition,” wrote Marie Bullock, the courageous founder of the Academy of American Poets, a century later when she rose to defend E.E. Cummings from his detractors in 1951 — detractors who had attacked the Academy for awarding him their annual fellowship and accused Cummings, now one of the most beloved and influential artists of the past century, for being an “arch-poseur and pretender” and a “disintegrator of language” who had dared to break with tradition, invent new creative forms, and, in sum, be a nonconformist.
Five years later, the great artist Ben Shahn (September 12, 1898–March 14, 1969) made what remains the most elegant case for the transformative power and sheer cultural necessity of nonconformity in one of his six lectures for Harvard’s Charles Edward Norton Lectures, eventually published with original illustrations by Shahn as The Shape of Content (public library).
benshahn
In the fourth of the six lectures, titled “On Nonconformity,” Shahn writes:
The artist is likely to be looked upon with some uneasiness by the more conservative members of society. He seems a little unpredictable. Who knows but that he may arrive for dinner in a red shirt… appear unexpectedly bearded… offer, freely, unsolicited advice… or even ship off one of his ears to some unwilling recipient? However glorious the history of art, the history of artists is quite a different matter. And in any well-ordered household the very thought that one of the young men may turn out to be an artist can be a cause for general alarm. It may be a point of great pride to have a Van Gogh on the living room wall, but the prospect of having Van Gogh himself in the living room would put a good many devoted art lovers to rout.
Shahn illustrates the value of nonconformity as a catalyst of cultural evolution with the story of the tumult that took place in France when officials proposed that one of the pavilions of the prestigious 1925 Paris Exhibition be set up in the space belonging to the Society of Independent Artists — the collective of nonconformists whose annual exhibitions had been setting the tone for modern art since their formation in 1884. It was suggested that these innovators had done their job and there was no further need for their tradition-upending sensibility, so they should relinquish their space to the traditional art establishment.
benshahn_nonconformist4
An art critic appalled by the backward proposition responded with twenty-five reasons why the Independents should keep their space and hold their annual exhibition. The reasons he listed were only names — the names of the most recent winners of the Prix de Rome, the venerated French art award that had been conferred upon promising talents in traditional art since 1663. All but one of those names were by then completely unknown. The critic juxtaposed those with the names of twenty-five artists who had presented at the Independents’ exhibition — artists who, as Shahn points out, “could not by any stretch of the imagination have won such an award [as the Prix de Rome].” Among those were PicassoVan GoghGauguinMatisse, and Cézanne.
Shahn considers the allegorical moral of the incident:
By fulfilling current standards drawn out of past art, the applicants [to the Prix de Rome] had won the approval of officials whose standards also were based upon past art, and who could hardly be expected to have visions of the future. But it is always in the future that the course of art lies, and so all the guesses of the officials were wrong guesses.
benshahn_nonconformist2
The very quality that prevents artists like the Independents from being lauded by the traditional establishment, Shahn argues, is the same quality that makes them capable of shaping the future, unencumbered by the past. He writes:
All art is based upon nonconformity [and] every great historical change has been based upon nonconformity, has been bought either with the blood or with the reputation of nonconformists. Without nonconformity we should have had no Bill of Rights or Magna Charta, no public education system, no nation upon this continent, no continent, no science at all, no philosophy, and considerably fewer religions. All that is pretty obvious.
But it seems to be less obvious somehow that to create anything at all in any field, and especially anything of outstanding worth, requires nonconformity, or a want of satisfaction with things as they are. The creative person — the nonconformist — may be in profound disagreement with the present way of things, or he may simply wish to add his views, to render a personal account of matters.
benshahn_nonconformist1
Shahn notes that while creative nonconformity is sometimes immediately recognizable as intransigence and deliberate rebellion, it isn’t always predicated on sudden and total upending of tradition — it often happens that a series of artists each contribute systematic small steps that eventually add up to an unexpected cultural leap. (Steven Johnson has termed this type of incremental innovation in science “the hummingbird effect.”) And yet all nonconformity — whether it operates on a small or large scale, whether it occurs in an instant or over time — requires a dissatisfaction with the status quo or, at the very least, a disinterest in its dicta. In a sentiment that James Baldwin would come to echo just a few years later in his unforgettable assertion that “the war of an artist with his society is a lover’s war,” Shahn writes:
The artist occupies a unique position vis-à-vis the society in which he lives. However dependent upon it he may be for his livelihood, he is still somewhat removed from its immediate struggles for social status or for economic supremacy. He has no really vested interest in the status quo.
The only vested interest — or one might say, professional concern — which he does have in the present way of things rests in his ability to observe them, to assimilate the multifarious details of reality, to form some intelligent opinion about the society or at least an opinion consistent with his temperament.
That being the case, he must maintain an attitude at once detached and deeply involved. Detached, in that he must view all things with an outer and abstracting eye. Shapes rest against shapes, colors augment colors, and modify and relate and mingle mutually. Contrasts in life move constantly across the field of vision — tensions between the grotesque and the sad, between the contemptible and the much-loved; tensions of such special character as to be almost imperceptible; dramatic, emotional situations within the most banal settings. Only the detached eye is able to perceive these properties and qualities of things.
Within such contrasts and juxtapositions lies the very essence of what life is today, or any day. Whoever would know his day or would capture its essential character must maintain such a degree of detachment.
And yet where the artist differs from the scientist, Shahn argues, is in the necessity for feeling things in addition to merely perceiving them. Unlike the scientist, who may exhibit what Einstein called “a passion for comprehension” but goes about pursuing that passion with the cool tools of reason, the artist operates from an intuitive place of deep feeling. Echoing Anaïs Nin’s assertion that emotional excess is essential for creativity, Shahn writes:
[The artist] must never fail to be involved in the pleasures and the desperations of mankind, for in them lies the very source of feeling upon which the work of art is registered. Feeling, being always specific and never generalized, must have its own vocabulary of things experienced and felt.
It is because of these parallel habits of detachment and of emotional involvement that artists so often become critics of society and so often become partisans in its burning causes. And also it is why they are so likely to be nonconformists in their personal lives.
More than a century after Kierkegaard contemplated the power of the minority and why we conform, Shahn points out the paradox of nonconformity, which has only grown more pronounced in the decades since:
It is an amusing contradiction of our time that we do applaud a sort of copy-book nonconformity. Everyone laments the increase in conformity; everyone knows that too much conformity is bad for art and literature and politics, and that it may deal the death-blow to National Greatness. The deadening effects of over-conformity are well understood. Yet, when it comes to the matter of just what kind of nonconformity shall be encouraged, liberality of view recedes. There seems to be no exact place where nonconformity can be fitted in.
[…]
Without the person of outspoken opinion, however, without the critic, without the visionary, without the nonconformist, any society of whatever degree of perfection must fall into decay. Its habits (let us say its virtues) will inevitably become entrenched and tyrannical; its controls will become inaccessible to the ordinary citizen.
[…]
Nonconformity is the basic pre-condition of art, as it is the pre-condition of good thinking and therefore of growth and greatness in a people. The degree of nonconformity present — and tolerated — in a society must be looked upon as a symptom of its state of health.
benshahn_nonconformist3
Shahn considers the primary species of conformity:
There is always an impressive number of artists who are overwhelmed by the nearest outstanding figure. They adopt his point of view and mannerisms and become a school; that is one kind of art conformity.
Another kind of conformity is derived from the wholly venal business of catering to a popular market. Still another results from trends and the yearning of artists — an almost irresistible yearning — to be in the forefront of things.
Writing half a century before the filter bubble of the social web, that ultimate generator of groupthink, Shahn adds:
All these kinds of conformity are inevitable and to be expected. But there has grown around us a vastly increased conformity. One could say “conformism” here; for this is conformity by doctrine and by tribunal.
Shahn ends with a timeless and poignantly illustrative parable of the difference in motives driving the various conformists and the nonconformist — a parable a version of which the poet Sarah Kay, a true nonconformist of our time, likes to tell. Shahn writes:
I remember a story that my father used to tell of a traveler in thirteenth-century France who met three men wheeling wheelbarrows. He asked in what work they were engaged and he received from them the following three answers: the first said, “I toil from sunup to sundown and all I receive for my pain is a few francs a day.” The second said, “I am glad enough to wheel this wheelbarrow for I have been out of work for many months and I have a family to support. The third said, “I am building Chartres Cathedral.”
I always feel that the committees and the tribunals and the civic groups and their auxiliaries harbor no misgivings about the men who wheel their wheelbarrows for however many francs a day; the object of their suspicions seems, inevitably, to be the man who is building Chartres Cathedral.
Complement Shahn’s thoroughly invigorating The Shape of Content with James Baldwin on the artist’s struggle for integrity and Teresita Fernández on what it takes to be an artist, then revisit Albert Camus on what it means to be a rebel and the vintage satirical gem How to Be a Nonconformist.
Thanks, Wendy

Monday, 1 May 2017

We Should Create Cities for Slowing Down

File 20170428 12970 1kui3j7
Brisbane cycle path signage: Slow! Michael Coghlan, CC BY-SA
Marcus Foth, Queensland University of Technology and Mirko Guaralda, Queensland University of Technology


Peter Jackson employed an intricate approach to the stage design of Lord of the Rings. The people who inhabited Middle Earth for hundreds of generations slowly left cultural traces, alterations, artefacts and remnants of their human existence on the environment. The Conversation

For example, the cinematographic stage set for Rivendell gives the viewer the impression of use and legacy over generations. Stage designers aged artefacts and applied, erased and reapplied cultural marks and insignia to “make” Rivendell the special and legendary place that author J.R.R. Tolkien had intended.



Designing Middle Earth: behind the scenes of The Lord of the Rings.

Placemaking

Urban space turns into place in a similar way. People are natural placemakers.

When they live in cities, they create “livehoods”, build, modify, decorate, expand and renovate. In doing so, they slowly leave their mark on the city.

In the 1960s, progressive urban planners and designers like Jane Jacobs and William H. Whyte argued that catering for slow pedestrians rather than fast cars results in better city design.
Placemaking can make places “sticky,” so people dwell longer, customers spend more in retail shops, and students stay on campus.

Trying to accommodate sustained high levels of growth, coupled with the need to contain urban sprawl, has led to the rapid gentrification of inner-city suburbs. As construction companies are trying to keep up with the mandate to grow Australian cities, they won’t slow down easily.

Placemaking is being used to quickly breathe life into new urban developments. Speedy placemaking is of the essence when generic turnkey residential stock is sold as “vibrant communities”, “liveable neighbourhoods” and “distinctive precincts”.

Cookie-cutter cities

Accelerated placemaking poses several risks.
  1. Places come with history and heritage to be conserved and protected. Digital storytelling has been used as a form of digital placemaking that not only enables the study of a place’s history, but also ways of embedding and commemorating historic evidence and artefacts in place.
  2. To avoid making places that suit the placemakers and their funders more than the current or future occupants, inclusive practices of placemaking are needed. Marginalised and economically threatened communities should be enabled to engage with their neighbourhood on their own terms and create their own urban imaginaries. This requires transdisciplinary, participatory and action research approaches to placemaking.
  3. Placemaking can fuel further gentrification with its well-known set of associated issues and consequences. Activating places often aims at making nearby retail and residential properties more profitable. Yet genuine and slow placemaking can add further value by unlocking a city’s diversity advantage.
  4. Many placemaking techniques such as urban hacktivism and urban acupuncture tend to be small and hyperlocal. They have been criticised for being limited in scale and impact. Can placemaking through DIY urban design scale up from subversive citymaking to systemic change?
  5. Contemporary placemaking relies more and more on stereotypes. An example is the iconic architectures of kerbside coffee shops. Christian Norberg-Schulz speaks of the genius loci as a fundamental element of placemaking: the essence of a place that makes it unique.
This approach seems currently ignored in favour of a cookie-cutter approach. Copying success stories – Venice in Vegas, for example – is a constant in architecture and urban design. But the trends of tactical urbanism, pop-up interventions and gentrification actually risk impoverishing our urban landscape and our urban ecologies.



James Howard Kunstler: The ghastly tragedy of the suburbs. TED 2004.

Slow cities

In addition to a set of ongoing challenges, there are exciting opportunities on the horizon for slowing down placemaking and for placemaking to slow down cities.

Our fast-paced world of automation and smart cities prioritises speed and efficiency. Yet the health and wellbeing of city residents can be improved by slowing down.

This is about not only a slower pace of pedestrian flow, traffic and life in public spaces. It also relates to appreciating artisan crafts, food provenance, seasonal changes, local customs, and even boredom and getting lost. In Australia, the cities of Goolwa (South Australia), Katoomba (New South Wales) and Yea (Victoria) have joined Cittaslow – “the international network of cities where living is good.”



Le Dîner en Blanc, Brisbane, September 1, 2012. brisbrad/flickr

This “slow cities” movement promotes the use of technology. Yet this is different to how technology is portrayed in many smart city visions, which liken cities to corporations that are about growth, efficiency and productivity. However, a city is neither a business nor a computer.

Making cities collaboratively

Revisiting Henri Lefebvre’s “right to the city,” we understand placemaking as a strategy to bring about much-needed social change and urban renewal through grassroots democratisation.

Cities often invite people as participants in urban planning decision-making. Yet why limit people to just providing feedback to city governments as part of conventional community consultation processes? Genuine placemaking regards them as co-creators in collaborative citymaking.


The exposure to diverse ideas, places and communities is crucial for innovation and the functioning of democracy. We believe placemaking can help develop a better dialogue between citizens, communities, government, businesses, civic groups and non-profits.

Placemaking is meant to provide a close connection between people and their locale. Placemaking has to be specific and unique to urban space, taking into account its community, environment, culture, food and social practices.

Finally, cities certainly need to face up to the challenges of climate change. Placemaking provides opportunities for more sustainable ways of life not only by creating accessible, healthy, democratic and slow cities, but also by imagining the post-anthropocentric city.

Marcus Foth, Professor, Urban Informatics, Queensland University of Technology and Mirko Guaralda, Senior Lecturer in Architecture, Queensland University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

A Shareable Explainer: What are the Commons?



Outline
  • What are the commons?
  • Is there an example of a commons business model?
  • In what areas are commons active?
  • Is commons a new idea or are there examples from the past?
  • How do privatization and enclosure affect the commons?
  • What is the importance of digital commons?
  • What role can commons play in the actual economic and institutional crisis?
  • What are briefly the differences between commons and markets?
  • Further reading
What are the commons?

Commons should be understood as a dynamic, living social system - any resource that can be used by many could inspire people to organize as a commons. The key questions are whether a particular community is motivated to manage a resource as a commons, and if it can come up with the rules, norms, and sanctions to make the system work. 

Is there a clear example of a commons-based business?

The internet provider Guifi.net in Catalonia shows how commons can create a new paradigm of organizing and producing. This bottom-up, citizen-driven project has created a free, open, and neutral telecommunications network based on a commons model. This is how it works: People put Wi-Fi nodes on their rooftops, which is extended and strengthened each time a new user adds a node to the network.

Currently, Guifi.net's broadband network has more than 30,000 active nodes and provides internet access to more than 50,000 people. The project started in 2004 when residents of a rural area weren't able to get broadband internet access due to a lack of private operators. The network grew quickly over the whole region, while the Guifi.net Foundation developed governance rules that define the terms and conditions for all users of the network.


Installation of a "supernode" of Guifi.net's network in the neighbourhood of Sant Pere i Sant Pau in Tarragona. Photo by Lluis tgn via Wikimedia Commons

The example shows that in creating any commons, it is critical that the community decides that it wants to engage in the social practices of managing a resource for everyone's benefit. In this sense "there is no commons without commoning." This underscores that commons is not only about shared resources - it is mostly about the social practices and values that we devise to manage them. 

In what areas are commons active?

Examples of commons can be found today in different areas:

1. Local food sovereignty
2. City commons
3. Alternative currencies
4. Web-hosting infrastructure for commons
5. Creative Commons license
6. Open-source software
7. Open-source design/cosmo-local production
8. Academic research/open education resources

It is interesting to consider the improbable types of common-pool resources that can be governed as commons. Surfers in Hawaii, catching the big waves at Pipeline Beach have organized themselves in a collective to manage how people use a scarce resource: the massive waves. In this sense, they can be considered a commons: they have developed a shared understanding about the allocation of scarce use of rights.


Wolfpak of Oahu manages access to the biggest waves in the world. Photo via onthecommons.org

Is commons a new idea or are there examples from the past?

From a historical perspective, commons were an essential part of the economical and social system of rural societies before modernization took place. People in rural areas depended upon open access to the commons (forests, fields, meadows), using economic principles of reciprocity and redistribution.

When common grounds were enclosed and privatized, many migrated to cities, becoming employees in factories and individual consumers, and lost the common identity and ability of self-governance. The modern liberal state separated production (companies) from governance (politics), while in the commons system these were an inseparable entity. In industrial capitalist societies, the market with its price mechanism became the new central organizing principle of society. 

How do privatization and enclosure affect the commons?

Nowadays massive land grabs are going on in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Investors and national governments are snapping up land that people have used for generations. All over the world, all aspects of life are being monetized with the expansion of private property rights: water, seeds, biodiversity, the human genome, public infrastructures, public spaces in cities, culture, and knowledge. 

What is the importance of digital commons?

The internet has been an arena for experimentation and innovation, precisely because there is no legacy of conventional institutions to displace. Entire new modes of creative production have arisen on the internet that are neither market-based nor state-controlled. Open-source software, Wikipedia, and Creative Commons licenses have emerged as a new way of production that is non-proprietary and based on the collaboration of widely distributed, loosely connected individuals who cooperate with each other.

Prior to the rise of the web, commons were usually regarded as little more than a curiosity of medieval history or a backwater of social science research. Now that so many people have tasted freedom, innovation, and accountability of open networks and digital commons, there is no going back to the command-and-control business model of the 20th century. The full disruptive potential of this profound global cultural revolution is still ahead. 

What role can commons play in the actual economic and institutional crises?

The commons offers a powerful way to re-conceptualize governments, economics, and global policies at a time when the existing order is incapable of reforming itself. The most urgent task is to expand the conversation about the commons and to ground it in actual practice.

The more that people have personal, lived experiences with commoning of any sort, the greater the public understanding will be. In a quiet and evident way, the commons can disclose more and more spaces in our everyday life in which we can create, shape, and negotiate our lives. 

What are the differences between commons and markets?

Commons: Rely on people's altruism and cooperation
Markets: Believe humans are selfish individuals whose wants are unlimited
Commons: Stewardship of resources
Markets: Ownership of resources
Commons: Individuals and collectives mutually reinforce each other
Markets: Separation of individual and collectives
Commons: Shared, long-term, non-market interests
Markets: individual consumers, short-term market relationships

Further Reading:
  • Benkler, Yochai, The Penguin and the Leviathan: The Triumph of Cooperation Over Self-Interest (Crown Business, 2010).
  • Bollier, David, Think Like a Commoner: A Short Introduction to the Life of the Commons (New Society Publishers, 2014).
  • Bollier, David & Silke Helfrich, editors, The Wealth of the Commons: A World Beyond Market and State (Levellers Press, 2012).
  • Capra, Fritjof & Mattei, Ugo, The Ecology of Law: Toward a Legal System in Tune with Nature and Community (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2015).
  • Hardt, Michael & Negri, Antonio, Commonwealth (Harvard University Press, 2011).
  • Sennett, Richard, Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation (Yale University Press, 2012).
This piece was written by Bart Grugeon Plana, a journalist and contributor of the New Economy and Social Innovation Forum (NESI Forum). It is based on the book "Think Like a Commoner: A Short Introduction to the Life of the Commons," by David Bollier.

Shareable is media partner of the NESI Forum, a nonprofit initiative that will bring together change-makers and thought leaders to conceptualize, discuss, and lay the foundations of a new economy, in Malaga, Spain, from April 19-22, 2017.

Header photo of Ballard Sunday Farmers' Market in Seattle, Washington, by Joe Mabel via Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

What is Good Rhetoric? Plato Said We Ought to be Suspicious of Persuasive Speakers and the Appeal to Emotions, but Rhetoric Can be a Civic Good

Plato in his academy, painting by Swedish pain...
Plato in his Academy by Carl Johan Wahlbom (Wikipedia)
by Tushar Irani, Aeon: https://aeon.co/essays/what-is-the-difference-between-good-and-bad-political-rhetoric

Tushar holds a joint appointment in the Department of Philosophy and the College of Letters at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. He is the author of Plato on the Value of Philosophy: The Art of Argument in the Gorgias and Phaedrus (forthcoming, 2017).

Philosophers have had a longstanding problem with rhetoric. The standard view of the quarrel is well-known: philosophy is a truth-directed activity concerned with reasoned argument, while rhetoric is uninterested in truth and concerned merely with persuasion. This view is often traced to Plato, but it is too crude.

As Plato himself recognised, philosophers need to present their ideas in persuasive form if they are to gain acceptance, and there are uses of rhetoric that can further our commitment to truth rather than frustrate it. The power of an effective speaker to captivate an audience is apt to arouse our suspicion in democratic politics, yet we should also acknowledge that the practice of rhetoric can serve a civic purpose. The real question here is what distinguishes good rhetoric from bad rhetoric.

Plato was deeply interested in this question. Although a concern for truth pervades his thought, this is not the main or the most important problem he has with rhetoric in his dialogues. To understand Plato’s critique, we need to read it against the backdrop of a deep mistrust of persuasive speaking that he shared with his contemporaries following Athens’ loss of the Peloponnesian War against Sparta in the late fifth century BCE. Apart from the huge death toll and casualties suffered by the city, the loss had a monumental impact on the Athenian psyche. In the Laws, usually regarded as Plato’s last work, he has his Athenian Visitor state that ‘[E]very Greek takes it for granted that my city loves talk and does a great deal of it, whereas Sparta is a city of few words, and Crete practices cunning more than talk.’

No doubt there were many factors that contributed to Athens’ loss of the war, but if there is one thing we can point to above all, it is the fact that the Athenian people themselves were persuaded by charismatic statesmen and generals of the period to undertake a series of disastrous military campaigns. As many writers - historians, tragedians and comedians alike - would lament during and after the war, it was in large part the Athenians’ ‘love of talk’ that led to their defeat.

Athens’ downfall provides us with a cautionary tale in our own era. While it would be wrong to reject a persuasive speech simply because the speaker fails to belong to our preferred political party, it would be equally wrong to think that we should accept every speech that strikes us as persuasive.

Adolf Hitler’s Nuremberg Rallies of the 1920s and ’30s were highly effective propaganda tools in consolidating power for the Nazi Party and influencing the views of the German people, but the wider effects of his ability to fabricate a redeemed Germany were devastating for the country. The principle here is simple: good rhetoric is not reducible to persuasive rhetoric. Persuasion might often be the goal of the rhetorician, but if rhetoric is to serve some civic good, it must serve the people on whom it operates. Plato was the first to observe that persuasion cannot in fact be the proper end of rhetoric, since it is an open question how it serves the interests of an audience to have their views influenced by a persuasive speech.

In his Gorgias and the Phaedrus, Plato therefore takes a different approach to the value of rhetoric. Together, these two works put forward a comprehensive theory of when and how a persuasive speech qualifies as good rhetoric. The Gorgias is best interpreted as a critique of the conventional practice of rhetoric. In this dialogue, Socrates argues that the chief purpose of conventional rhetoric is not (properly speaking) persuasion, but flattery. His point is that the practice of persuasive speaking typically achieves its effects by satisfying the pleasures and desires of an audience.

Notice that by moving here to the psychology of an audience, the rhetorician can now say something about how rhetoric serves the people on whom it operates. According to this view, the value of rhetoric lies in its ability to gratify and enlarge human appetites and impulses. Plato himself does not believe rhetoric functions best as a form of flattery, though he is correct that this is how the practice conventionally works. In addition to making direct appeals to people’s desires, a speaker can most effectively win acceptance for a particular policy or point of view by bolstering the entrenched beliefs of an audience and voicing their unspoken fears. Even if it is feigned, the reinforcement of these beliefs and fears can be thrilling for an audience.

Now, Plato knew well of the frenzy that such flattering rhetoric can provoke in others. Thrasymachus, for instance, while famous as Socrates’ main antagonist in the Republic, was historically one of the leading rhetoricians of his day. His ability to use speech to influence an audience was so remarkable that Socrates refers to him in the Phaedrus as ‘clever at inflaming the many and, once they are inflamed, at hushing them again with his words’ magic spell’.

So what is the problem with such flattery? Suppose a politician delivers an effective speech by gratifying the desires of his or her constituency. No-one can deny the sense of empowerment we experience when our feelings are confirmed and validated in this way. Why should such a speech not qualify as good rhetoric? Plato’s answer focuses on the object the rhetorician seeks to affect: human psychology. His problem with conventional rhetoric is that, by adopting flattery as its end, it assumes an utterly impoverished conception of human motivation - namely, that all we are essentially are pleasure-seekers.

Plato’s own account of human psychology is often misunderstood. On a common misreading, reason and passion are taken to be in conflict. In fact, as he stresses in the Phaedrus, the best life for a human being is one in which reason and the passions work together as a team. In this dialogue, Socrates turns his attention to how the practice of rhetoric might function productively as an art, but he also develops one of his most detailed portraits of the human soul in the Platonic corpus.

The pairing of themes is deliberate. For if the conventional use of rhetoric is no art because it assumes a poor view of human psychology, as Socrates claims in the Gorgias, then an artful use of rhetoric must operate on the basis of a good view of human psychology. In examining the nature of rhetoric, what we are really concerned with, according to Plato, is the nature of the human soul.

So what is the nature of the human soul? In the Phaedrus, Socrates defines the soul in general as a principle of self-motion in living things. He then proceeds, in his celebrated chariot allegory, to divide the human soul into different parts: a charioteer, representing the human intellect, trying to steer two horses, one of noble breed, the other wild (representing the rational and irrational passions). Plato does not deny our nature as pleasure-seekers in this allegory. But if we are to move ourselves as human beings, he believes it is crucial that we develop our nature as reason-seekers. Why exactly?

His main answer in the Phaedrus is that the reason-seeking part of us represents the power each of us has as a human being to engage in independent thought: to understand and appreciate for ourselves a set of ideals and aspirations we wish to live by. Indeed, he depicts our desire to develop this understanding as a force so compelling that it is best classified under the category of erotic love. 

Plato’s views on persuasive speech offer us a helpful set of tools in assessing the value of rhetoric in modern civic life. His critique explains, first of all, our tendency in democratic politics to respond suspiciously to the skills of a persuasive speaker. The problem here lies not in the use of persuasive speech as such, but in the aim of many effective rhetoricians to subvert or short-circuit an audience’s power of independent thought.

In Mein Kampf (1925), Hitler is startlingly open about this aim in expounding his views about the correct use of propaganda: ‘The art of propaganda consists precisely in being able to awaken the imagination of the public through an appeal to their feelings, in finding the appropriate psychological form that will arrest the attention and appeal to the hearts of the national masses.’ This is fundamentally a form of what Plato terms flattering rhetoric.

In addition to explaining the nature of bad rhetoric, however, Plato’s critique also helps illuminate for us the nature of good rhetoric. If to have a soul is to be a self-moving thing, and what is essential to the self-motion of the human soul is our ability to think for ourselves, then an artful use of rhetoric should cultivate that ability in particular. When we encounter persuasive speakers of this sort in the political sphere, we should not respond cynically. Instead, we should welcome such encounters, because they are opportunities to have our desire to understand enlisted, at the same time as - and even through - our passions.

Is rhetoric of this sort possible in civic life today? We are inclined to believe that the end of all rhetoric is persuasion or conviction alone, and that such a goal is ill-suited to the promotion of independent thought in an audience. Yet this is a mistake. An artful rhetorician might need to strike a balance between these two goals, but they are not incompatible. The danger to be avoided always is the kind of rhetoric that carries the authority of conviction at the expense of an audience’s independent thought. There have been speeches in the modern era that have moved their listeners profoundly while retaining this basic respect for the sovereignty of the human soul.

Consider Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (1863), regarded even today as a model of American oratory. In three compact paragraphs, the speech gives expression to a past, a present and a future United States. Lincoln delivered the speech on a formal occasion, at the dedication of a cemetery for those who fought and died at a key turning point in the American Civil War, but from the opening sentence he makes clear how he will use the moment to reflect on the theme of dedication more generally:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
The rest of the speech deftly juxtaposes the dedication of the physical space in which the audience stands with the dedication of all Americans to this abstract proposition, expressed in the Declaration of Independence (1776): the ideal of liberty for all.

‘It is altogether fitting and proper,’ Lincoln affirms, to commemorate the dead, but in the pivot that gives the speech its rhetorical force, he states that ‘in a larger sense, we can not dedicate - we can not consecrate - we can not hallow - this ground.’ Those who fought on the battlefield had already accomplished that. For those looking to the future, for the living, Lincoln asks instead that they rededicate themselves to the cause of human equality and freedom:
It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us - that from these honoured dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion - that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain - that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom - and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
The great power of the Gettysburg Address, full as it is with feeling and urgency, comes from its invitation to the listener to consider the basis on which the US was founded. The persuasiveness of the speech consists not just in its ability to stir the passions of an audience and instil conviction, but also in its ability to get ordinary Americans to think more conscientiously than they had previously about the coherence of their own ideals and the application of those ideals in practice. The audience is moved, but also (in Plato’s sense) self-moved, to the extent that they are led to think for themselves.

If this is right, we can see why the assumption that rhetoric serves as a pale substitute for reason and argument is too simplistic. Good rhetoric also does the work of reason, though in a different form than philosophical argument.

Plato came to be pessimistic about the rhetoric of his contemporaries in democratic Athens, which might be why he set up his Academy as a place where the practice of independent thinking could flourish. Yet there have been moments in history since then that should leave us more hopeful about the prospects for good rhetoric - or at least less doubtful.

The important question for us today is: ‘Can we conceive of a piece of political rhetoric that is both highly persuasive and at the same time spurs independent thought?’ That is not a rhetorical question. If we can’t, we might be in trouble.