LOCALISM was a buzzword not so long ago but then it ran into the sand – along with the Big Society – as the Coalition hollowed out the very local services and political institutions that might have made it work. Ironically, the extreme localism of the individual led to the atomization of local society and a diminishing of, or perhaps further entrenchment of, civic disengagement. But if there is one thing we have learned from the pandemic it’s that many people have rushed to help others in need. Admittedly, this emergence of compassion was somewhat undermined by the panic-buying in supermarkets as the magnitude of Covid-19 hit home, but that was relatively short-lived while the outburst of compassion has remained.
So, is there a way that we can both understand what’s been going on and build on it while starting to break down the hegemony of self-centred individualism so beloved by neoliberal apologists? Well, a relatively new phenomenon called liberation psychology seems to be promising. In their book Towards Psychologies of Liberation Mary Watkins and Helene Shulman take a multi-disciplinary approach to psychology that breaks out of isolated encounters between patient and psychotherapist and bring into the heart of local communities the possibility of social and psychological emancipation.
The authors argue that because of its ‘scientific orientation much of mainstream psychology has emerged as a search for universals, for norms of emotional life and behaviour, and for modes of treatment for individuals who deviate from those norms’. They add: “Rather than searching for stereotypical norms, liberation psychologies place stress on identifying, supporting, and nurturing the psychological attempt of individuals and groups alike to re-author their own sense of identity.” The process often starts in small groups that finds new ways of expressing themselves which then seep out into the wider culture and ‘begins to affect community discourses’. “We have increasingly understood the needed healing potential of family, small groups, and community-based dialogical approaches to psychological well-being.” The authors refer to what they call ‘engaged Buddhism’ in which the ‘awakening of individuals is linked to the awakening of communities’ in that ‘without social liberation, personal liberation is limited, and vice versa’ – remarks which resonate with the previous article on this blog.
While Watkins and Shulman acknowledge that there is a long history of activist organization standing against oppression, the atomization of people – particularly in some Western countries – has led to the rise of the ‘bystander’ who retreats into a ‘focus on the personal and a pursuit of happiness carried out within a very narrow range of life with family and friends’ and for people ‘raised in educational systems that stress individualism, it has become difficult to formulate ideas about the way one’s own social environment and those of others affects one’s well-being’. In a telling phrase that rings true about our own society, the authors write: “Psychically, being a bystander to injustice and violence breeds disconnection, passivity, fatalism, a sense of futility, and failures in empathetic connection.”
If all this sounds familiar, then it could be because it chimes with the kind of society encouraged and championed by neoliberalism with its mythical champion Homo Economicus in which the only relationship between individuals is assumed to be self-interested and transactional, empty of compassion and altruism.
The forces driving this infantilization and atomization are enormous but fortunately there is a way out. As Prof Peter Kinderman writes in The New Laws of Psychology, while we are shaped by the laws of physics and social circumstances, we are also ‘shaped by thought’ and if we ‘can understand why we think what we think, we can change what we think’ while at the same time fighting the debilitating impact of poverty and inequality.
Watkins and Shulman write about the process of healing the damage caused by extreme atomization in a way that begins to build bridges between the isolated individual and community. “One can begin practices of democracy that allow participation in public dialogue and the opening of spaces for…difference and disagreement.” They write about creating intermediate places ‘between private identities and large scale institutions’ with what they call ‘communities of resistance’. “This is both for those whose lives have been disrupted by various forms of oppression and collective trauma as well as for many of the relatively affluent who have been taught to see themselves within a paradigm of individualism.”
It is often major disruptions in society like war, transformative revolution, state collapse and pandemics that generate change. We have already seen how the pandemic has prompted a flourishing of solidarity and compassion in a way that suggests that it is not individualism that underpins our society but our social being. Scratch the service and you don’t get The Lord of the Flies but our innate sociability and other-regarding traits. In Salisbury we already have two democracy cafés which provide the sort of liminal space or safe haven where participants are encouraged to listen and respect others in mutual dialogue without having to try to ‘win’ their arguments. Salisbury Democracy Alliance – the umbrella organisation that organises the cafés – also has a vision for creating a Citizens’ Jury in the city in which someone living in The Close might be rubbing shoulders with someone living in The Friary as they deliberate about a local issue and come up with recommendations for local councils. Perhaps the pandemic and organisations like the Alliance can create the sort of conditions that encourage a shift away from the bystander towards more critically engaged and compassionate citizens.