The Flourishing City

24 June 2014 | Creative Edge Building | Edge Hill University

The Institute for Creative Enterprise, Edge Hill University, will host an Ideas Exchange on the research theme: The Flourishing City

1.00 Lunch

1.30 Professor Victor Merriman, Theorising the Flourishing City: from Enfield to Anfield

2.00 Ideas Exchange: a series of open discussions on responses to the theme as set out, with a view to identifying potential research questions, themes, and processes

Professor Merriman writes: The idea of researching the Flourishing City is a response to important work under way in Ireland since the collapse of the banking sector in 2008. TASC, the Think-tank for Action on Social Change has set itself the objective of working through alternative social and economic models, based on the kind of social arrangements that should be available to citizens in what is still a relatively rich country. The themes of TASC’s project – articulated in their collection of essays on The Flourishing Society – resonate with what is emerging in the more interesting debates around Scottish independence. They have real significance for the North of England also, as its great cities fall victim to the politics of ‘austerity’. In his Flourishing Society essay on Francis Hutcheson, an Irish philosopher of the eighteenth-century, Philip Orr states,

For Hutcheson, a wise politician – perceiving that each individual is ‘a part of a great whole or system’ – would devise constant opportunities for the individual to ‘concern himself with the public good’.  Because humans have a nature that is ‘designed for the good of others’, a healthy society would be one where the capacity for ‘public love’, dedicated to the ‘public good’, is allowed free reign, with general benefit.

Historically, European social democracies, while not immune to human shortcomings, provided a working model of what Renato Constantino (1988) describes as ‘a community of aspiration, response and action’. This seems to us to make good sense. Why, then, does it also appear so far out of reach?

The President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins, stated at the launch of The Flourishing Society that ‘the challenge is immense.  We are not in a period where a destructive paradigm has been analyzed, not to speak of being abandoned.  The ‘habits of mind’ inculcated in support of that paradigm still prevail.’ According to Higgins, the case of Friedrich Von Hayek’s Road to Serfdom (1944) demonstrates that ‘the career of “concepts” within language does matter’. He points out that Von Hayek’s book reworked the concept of Freedom to mean principally – then uniquely – freedom of markets from regulation; as such, it may be regarded as neo-liberalism’s founding document. It is instructive to consider the parallel reworking under neo-liberalism of the concept of ‘Aspiration’: Constantino’s ‘aspiration’ is a utopian rhetoric of shared living and the common good; it mutates in neoliberal discourse to evoke a privatised project of individual advancement. Higgins insists that it must be remembered that the neo-liberal turn was ‘a conscious creation, an exercise in policy formulation and manipulation.’ What was created can, axiomatically, be revised, reformed, or replaced with a new creation. All through Higgins’s analysis of the Flourishing Society project is a commitment to the power of concepts, the need for enabling, progressive and egalitarian concepts to achieve institutional form in order to contest entrenched and pervasive groupthink: our present counsels of despair. Neo-liberal economics now functions as the only game in town, but this time it’s located in the Last Chance Saloon, and the stakes are the life chances and living standards of the great majority of people. This is where we come in.

TASC’s project resonates with work done by Stuart Hall, Doreen Massey, and their collaborators in successive issues of Soundings and in The Kilburn Manifesto. David Harvey critiqued neo-liberal globalisation in The New Imperialism (2003) and argued for new and practical imaginaries of shared living in Rebel Cities (2012), advocating the power of ‘mundane experiences of collective democracy’ (147) in building processes and institutions of urban governance where alternatives to capitalist hypermodernity may be enabled to flourish. Closer to the disciplinary home of the Performance and Civic Futures Research Group, Jen­ Harvie writes of  cities’ ‘cultural variety and utopian potential’ (Theatre and the City 2009: 49). Her Fair Play: Art, Performance and Neoliberalism (2013) critiques the role of ‘creative city’ policies in displacing struggling urban communities, while arguing that ‘at their best’, arts practices ‘seek and model alternative ways of being which preserve principles of social collaboration and interdependence’ (2013: 193).

All of these critical projects point to increasing pressure from the politics of ‘austerity’ on the social contract binding people together in nation states. Members of the Performance and Civic Futures Research Group are inspired by the potential of practical measures undertaken in the London Borough of Enfield reinvigorating local democracy to champion local people. It’s happening in Enfield; we ask if there are measures we can take to enable it to happen in Anfield? In what ways can ICE inspire Liverpool to become the UK’s Flourishing City?

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