Resources for hope in the distressed city

Distress in the City: Racism, fundamentalism and a democratic education by Linden West (Trentham Books; £24.99); reviewed by Mark H. Burton.

Over more than a hundred years, industrial capitalism created urban landscapes that brought people together in huge numbers, ordering their diverse lives through the discipline of the factory yet providing the basis for a resilient social fabric forged in struggle. And then it decamped to exploit cheaper reserves of labour power. Despite its endless self expansion, capitalism from time to time destroys some of what it has accumulated, discarding those whose lives have been structured through its processes of production and reproduction. This is the history of now post-industrial cities and towns, places like Bolton and Wigan, or that agglomeration of towns, Stoke on Trent or The Potteries.

West’s book on Stoke is an ambitious attempt to connect diverse themes including post-industrial personal and collective distress, racist reaction and religious fundamentalism, the crisis of representative democracy and the commodification of education. He does this through what he calls auto/biographical narrative research, with interviews, observation, literary and documentary analysis, tied together with reflection and questioning in which his own positioning, as a working class boy from Stoke, now a University academic, is explicit.

West ties these threads together very well. A key theme is the disrespect experienced by people, both the white working class and ethnic and religious minorities. The system disrespects them and they can disrespect one another in turn; exemplified, for example, in the day-to-day experience by Asian taxi-drivers, of racist and Islamophobic abuse. West contrasts this with a non-idealised exploration of the tradition of working class self-education. Workers’ eduction recognised people with the right to be heard and to fully participate, respected as fully mature people with lives to relate and ideas to contribute.  Being recognised went with recognising others, and with making a civic contribution.

West draws on Raymond Williams, a scholar with similar origins. ‘Resources of Hope’, the title of a collection of some of his articles, is also one of his key concepts. West finds Resources of Hope in the tenuous revival of self-education and in the recovery of collective historical memory, for example in the revival of ‘Lidice Shall Live, an international solidarity action by Potteries miners following the erasure of the Czech town and the mass murder of its population in a Nazi reprisal. A key message is the importance of making the effort to understand those with different life experiences and perspectives, even when this is very uncomfortable. A Stoke mosque did it, inviting English Defence League demonstrators in for tea, as described in one of the book’s more striking passages.

For me, the book made connections among a number of my favourite themes: the state of post-industrial settlements, the recognition of ‘the other’, historical memory, community building, working class movement history and the ‘meta-psychology’ of Raymond Williams. I would have liked less on the theory of the investigation and more on its content and output, with more explicit model building for an engaged, psychologically informed socio-political practice. But for anyone concerned with ‘post-industrial distress’, it’s well worth reading.

- Reviewed by Mark H. Burton, Independent Scholar Activist

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