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A rose by any other name

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A rose by any other name
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  A Rose By Any Other Name Would Smell A s S weet:The Big Society In Hackney . Bags of Fruit is a sustainable development and community-building projectbased in the borough of Hackney, North London. According to the projectsmission statement it aims to do two things: change the damaging foodsystem by providing the local community with locally grown organic food,and provide a space for ‘community creation’ in the borough by virtue of itsreliance on volunteering. In this paper I situate Bags of Fruit within whatwe know of the ‘Big Society’ paradigm and analyse it in accordance to therelevant conceptions with regards to neoliberalism and freedom set forth inDavid Harvey’s Book A Brief History Of Neoliberalism (2005). I proposethat the use of rhetoric like freedom, community and sustainability within aBig Society paradigm advances a neoliberal ideal in re-establishing orrestoring economic elites and contributes to the passive exclusion ofcertain sections of society. Rather than focus on the more obviousethnographic report of the constraints or positive outcomes that a projectlike Bags of Fruit faces or might potentially face, this paper is critical, andpurposefully so - notwithstanding entirely theoretical, with more of areflection on what the Big Society is and what a project like Bags of Fruitmight mean within it and the community, as opposed to what Bags of Fruitpurports to, or does contribute to the area it inhabits. Methodology In order to fulfil the stipulations of the M.A programme in Development andRights, I was required to undertake a placement in a development-based 1   organisation with headquarters in London, ideally over a period of no lessthan 10 weeks and commencing no later than the end of January, early 1 The srcin of development, the meaning of the word development  and in fact whatdevelopment actually does is not only broad but also contested for examples on thediscussion see: Lehmann (1979), Sachs (1992), De Beer and Swanepoel (1997).   1  February 2011. I fulfilled this requirement by taking on a volunteer positionat a community-based project in the area that I live (Hackney) in the lastweek of January, and concluded my research trips by the middle of March2011. In order to insulate my informants and the organisation itself I havecreated aliases for all features, except the name of the borough as it playsan important part in the suppositional underpinning of this paper. In orderto obtain the necessary data for this report I relied on the classical practiceof participant observation 2 , which included informal chats as well as somesecondary archival research mainly pertaining to the population statisticsin the borough. Bags of fruit Bags of Fruit took shape nearly ten years ago with the credo thatcommunity-led trade can be a practical mechanism for improving the foodsystem 3 . Mainly run on volunteer participation - last year it had over 120volunteers falling broadly into the 25-45 age demographic - Bags of Fruitdoes employ around 20 part time staff and is ‘led’ by a democraticallyelected volunteer board. In practical terms: Bags of Fruit finds localfarmers and growers (or at times Bags of Fruit are found by them), andcreates an outlet to sell their produce. Bags of Fruit pays them what theyneed to produce and raise sustainable food, and puts a mark-up on theproduce or charges a stall fee as one of the ways the project generatesthe income vital to pay the aforementioned part time staff as well as theoverheads generated by the urban plots in which Bags of Fruit grows 2 A key principle of this method is that one may not merely observe, but must find a rolewithin the group from which to participate  in some manner, even if only as "outsideobserver." It is therefore limited to contexts where the community under studyunderstands and permits it. Critics of overt participant observation argue that study issubsequently restricted to the public fronts socially constructed by actors (Douglas 1976). 3 Bags of Fruit works on the assumption that we have a negative food system and thatwe are moving into an energy and resource constrained future and therefore, we need toconstrain it voluntarily to prevent runaway climate change. Bags of Fruit feels that theycan contribute to this restraint by reducing the amount of energy, fossil fuels andresources it takes to feed people and to create a food system that is sustainable andresilient. 2  some fruit and vegetables themselves (mainly cash crops like salad). Theurban plots of which there are three main plots and four associated 4 microplots range in size from 10m 2 to 50m 2 and are most often located on theoutskirts of commons or in one case a park, and are ‘donated’ 5 byHackney council. Bags of Fruit has a weekly ‘harvest’ in which they collectthe produce (mainly salad) from the urban plots, and the vegetables fromthe local farmers for what is known as the ‘box scheme’ –Bags of Fruitalso retains a stall at the local farmers market on Saturdays. The boxscheme currently subsidises some of the cost of producing the food grownon the urban plots as well as provides most of the funds for the apprenticescheme 6 Bags of Fruit runs. The box scheme consists of bags in assortedsizes ranging from small to large and are made up of either fruit orvegetables, which are made available for weekly collection at various pickup points all over Hackney. The different bags all come at a set pricereflecting the size of the bag, for example, a small bag of fruit consisting of3-4 representatives of seasonal fruit is £4.38, whilst a standard/mediumbag consisting of 7-8 representatives of seasonal of vegetables (three ofwhich would typically be potatoes) costs £10.15 a week and is paid for in 4 The associated plots are formed of previous growing community apprentice growers,one of the aims of the scheme is for these growers to work a micro-site (which could be ina garden or any small patch of land available) in order to provide Bags of Fruit with moresalad leaves which would then be added to the box scheme, Bags of Fruit provides theland, tools and equipment for this endeavour. The aim of which is to generate moresustainable produce but also to help people to generate an income from local foodproduction here in Hackney. 5 Hackney council on the surface provides Bags of Fruit with land, however therelationship is strained with Hackney council frequently necessitating the project to move- a herculean task - due to developers buying the plots of land Bags of Fruit have been“given”, or randomly demanding payment for extraneous services - during my time thereis was very difficult to glean any information as to what the main Bags of Fruit membersfelt about this situation and the exact nature of the relationship between Bags of Fruit andthe council. 6 Bags of Fruit is trying to create more ‘growers’ through this apprentice scheme. Theytake on a few apprentices a year who spend a day a week working with the main (paid)grower, receiving free training in organic growing. The aim of which is to have theseapprentices grow food on microsites. 3  advance by members of the scheme 7 and collected by themselves at theirleisure. Hackney and the inquiry The borough of Hackney was formed in 1965 from the former metropolitanboroughs of Hackney, Stoke Newington and Shoreditch and is situated innortheast London, and forms part of inner-London. Individual parts ofHackney have a rich history dating back to Roman times 8 , and after theSecond World War Hackney has traditionally been the home of theworking class 9 . After industrialisation, extensive post-war development andimmigration, the area is now in its third wave 10  of gentrifying its large stockof Georgian and Victorian terraces, new apartments and warehouseconversions with a crop of period restorations being built in every part ofthe borough. In spite of this Hackney remains one of London’s poorestboroughs with one of the highest proportions of working-age adults 11   receiving benefits (see Figure: 1) and a borough with a high rate of low pay  (see Figure: 2). The plot thickens when one looks at the demographicsof Hackney (see Figure: 3). It becomes clear that just under half of thepeople resident in the borough belong to an ethnic group other than ‘WhiteBritish’ or for that matter ‘White Other’ and yet this large proportion ofpeoples were noticeably    underrepresented  at Bags of Fruit during my time 7 It must be noted that Bags of Fruit does accept sure start vouchers and have adiscount for pensioners, however it is still more expensive then getting ones fruit on thehigh street. The borough of Hackney is home to a large population of adults who receiveless than £7.50 per hour (see Figure: 2) a bag with 3-4 pieces of fruit for £4.38 isexpensive; It seems not everyone can afford to be part of this community. 8 T he River Lea forms the eastern boundary of the borough. This was an ancientboundary between pre-Roman tribes, and in the Roman era, was tidal as far as Hackneywick and has continued as the boundary between the historic counties of Middlesex andEssex. 9 This is always a somewhat shadowy concept as ‘class’ is not a stable socialconfiguration. 10 Developer led residential gentrification. 11 Most of the volunteers at Bags of Fruit fall into this demographic as earlier stated,however, I felt it imperative to reiterate that fact at this point in the paper. 4  there 12 . Not only were different ethnicities underrepresented but a quickinformal review would disclose that most people who volunteer their timeat Bags of Fruit would not fit into the low pay category represented byFigure 2. The question is why, and what does this mean in a countryteetering on the edge of Big Society ideology? Neoliberal freedom According to David Harvey (2005) for any way of thought to be dominant,a conceptual apparatus has to be developed that appeals to our intuitions,instincts, values and desires (Harvey 2005:5). The founding figures ofneoliberal thought took political ideas of human dignity and individualfreedom as fundamental, and as the ‘central values of civilisation’. In sodoing they chose wisely, for these are indeed compelling and seductiveideals to anyone who values the ability to make decisions for themselves(Harvey 2005:5).The Ideals promoted about the Big Society are analogous with thisposition as this excerpt from the prime ministers speech at a rally inLiverpool clearly demonstrates: ‘Let me briefly explain what the Big Society is and why it is such a powerful idea. You can call it liberalism. You can call it empowerment.You can call it freedom. You can call it responsibility. I call it the Big Society. The Big Society is about a huge culture change where people, in their everyday lives, in their homes, in their neighbourhoods, in their workplace don’t always turn to officials, local authorities or central government for answers to the problems they face, but instead feel both free and powerful enough to help themselves and their own communities.It’s about people setting up great new schools. Businesses helping people getting trained for work. Charities working to rehabilitate  12 I was unable to get any information on previous ethnic percentages at Bags of Fruitduring my time there. I must therefore reiterate at this point that this essay is not a critiqueof community projects like Bags of Fruit, but instead an inquiry as to what creates acommunity and what community might mean in a Big Society paradigm.  5
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