Monday, December 10, 2007

Review: Community Organization and the Canadian State

[Roxana Ng, Gillian Walker, Jacob Muller, eds. Community Organization and the Canadian State. Toronto: Garamond Press, 1990.]

As far as acts of everyday politics go, I think one of the least understood is that of prodding ourselves and each other to think more deeply about how we use language. I don't just mean the more obvious aspects of this -- things like challenging language use that invokes oppressive histories or paring away usages that obscure rather than reveal what is actually going on in a situation. No, those are important, but I'm increasingly convinced that there is political value in embracing and encouraging a comprehensively different relationship to language. We need to move away from seeing challenges to language as being about movement towards some kind of purity and instead gradually edge towards a sort of perpetual, creative, playful unsettledness with our words. The discomfort and rough edges we often feel when trying to figure out our way past some embedded nastiness in the words we have to choose from are not just unpleasant side effects, they are part of the point. Even the most incisive terminology can cause our brains to calcify over time if held too tightly. It seems to me that embracing that feeling of unease and holding even our most cherished words lightly in our minds just kind of goes along with larger projects of questioning and challenging.

My reasons for deciding that I needed to read this book at this time were kind of diffuse and reached a critical mass through the help of the periodic clutch of anxiety that I experience over not feeling that I know enough background or context to write a given chapter in my main project. I think it was the essay "The Politics of Minority Resistance Against Racism in the Local State" by Daiva Stasiulis that initially caught my attention -- from wherever it was that I came across the reference, it seemed like it might be relevant to the chapter I'm currently working on, and possibly others. It isn't as useful as I'd hoped in some ways, but I'll be able to use it as a reference in two other places. It talks about community struggles against racism at the Toronto School Board and at the Toronto Police Services in the '70s and '80s; the former will fit in nicely in a footnote for a chapter I've already written, and the latter talks about struggles involving one of my participants whose words are featured in another chapter, though not struggles that are the focus of what he talked about to me.

Beyond that, though, there's lots of great Canadian history from below in this book. Not all of it was necessarily written as history, but when read 17 years later, all of it is. George Smith's "Policing the Gay Community" on the bathhouse raids in Toronto in the early '80s is a classic look at a crucial moment in queer history in northern North America. There are at least a couple of the essays that look outside some of the usual limitations that often blind urban central Canadians such as yours truly even while we look for histories of resistance -- there is one about an environmental struggle in central British Columbia, for example, and another about community resistance that I was completely unaware of to the state-supported triumph of big capital in the fishing sector. Other topics include an example of Alinsky-style organizing in a Vancouver neighbourhood and the role of mothers in educational reform in early 20th century Ontario.

Only a couple of the essays made me raise my eyebrows in discomfort at some of their political choices. "Ladies, Women and the State: Managing Female Immigration, 1880-1920" by Barbara Roberts was a fascinating look at the role of voluntarism by ruling-class women in a sector we see as exclusively a state responsibility today. It wasn't that this essay was completely unaware that it was really writing about the agency of elite women as oppressors, exactly, but there was this strange discontinuity in which it seemed much more interested in the relations between these elite women and elite men than anything else. Even more concerning was the essay looking at the evolution of women's political involvement across the 20th century in an indigenous nation located in what is now British Columbia -- it is interesting history, and not unaware of the impacts of colonization, but in my estimation as someone who like the author is a white settler struggling with these issues, it does not take that awareness nearly as close to the heart of its politics as I would see as appropriate.

I was both challenged and pleasantly surprised, however, by the way the collection as a whole and a few of the essays in particular not only took terms like "community" and "state" as references for choosing content, but spent considerable energy in questioning and destabilizing them. The editors and the essays that were most interesting in this regard (though not all of the essays in the collection) took approaches based in the epistemological and ontological frameworks of Dorothy Smith's institutional ethnography. The Introduction and Conclusion written by the editors take a position of academically tactful but artificial indecision between more traditional Marxist-influenced analyses that tend to reify "state" and "community" and make abstract pronouncements about them, and those that follow Smith's reading of Marx and others into seeing those two terms as representing collections of practices and relations that must be investigated empirically. Perhaps this was because some of the essays take the former approach, and the editors did not wish to be disrespectful of the authors; still, is quite obvious that their allegiance lies with the latter.

The essay that opens the book is by one of the editors (Walker), and she traces the origins of the idea of "community," particularly as it gets used in the context of things like "community development" and "community economic development." She argues that emphasis on geographical communities and communities of interest in talking about how individual human lives are orgainzed into collective contexts tends to work towards ends of social control by distracting us from the fact that "our lives are not in any simple way organized communally. In fact, they are structured by wage and commodity relations and by ideological forms so that common features are actually experienced individually and the commonality of the features of that experience are obscured" [40].

She goes on to conclude that

The notion of community, when presented in the neutral, objective, apolitical, ahistorical manner of ideology, obscures under the guise of individual and group interests the whole network and structuring of people's lives in terms of class, gender and racial features that are embedded in particular relations of production. It also depoliticizes issues, or excludes those which are unequivocally political in nature. [42]

She concludes not with a settled program of action but with further questions to explore -- questions related to "community", to its relationship to our reified understanding of "economy", and to how people, especially women, can best organize for change.

The other two essays in the first section continue to look critically at the idea of "community", one in the context of the study of mothers and school reform mentioned above, and the other examining how the ideology of "community" in models of "community care" for people with serious disabilities of various sorts tends to mask the unpaid caring labour of women.

The examination of "the state", which again occurred in both Introduction and Conclusion as well as in the second section of essays, felt less original to me, but was still useful in helping me get used to thinking of it as practices and relationships -- I find reification particularly easy to fall into in this context. On the more practical side, I particularly appreciated the three or four essays investigating instances of state-funded work that progressives would generally see as positive. Partly this was because they made me think about my own time employed by a para-state reform-focused social service agency. Partly it was because Roxana Ng's "State Funding to a Community Employment Center: Implications for Working with Immigrant Women" and Alicia Schreader's "The State-Funded Women's Movement: A Case of Two Political Agendas" are both directly relevant to the last couple of chapters I've been working on. All of them are relevant to dealing with questions about the influence of state funding in ways that are not abstracted or fundamentalist but that seek to understand exactly how that funding has political influence, how it can coopt, and how it can be skillfully used by activists.

Though some of the basics in which its best pieces grounded themselves were not new to me, this volume was still quite useful in helping destabilize my relationship to two words that play prominent roles in a lot of political writing. And that was, according to the editors writing in the Conclusion, part of the point:

We suggest that the way in which these concepts are traditionally defined have restricted our ability to look beyond the confines of what constitute "the community" and community development. It has restricted our ability to develop resistance and build alliances across traditionally defined community boundaries. In closing, we want to emphasize the fluidity of the boundaries between communities and the state. How these boudnaries are defined and constituted must be a subject of critical exploration at all times.

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