15 Apr 2021

Levelling-Up and Achieving an Upswing - Part II: It’s all about the Civic Journey

In the first part of this blog Matthew Flinders praised Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett’s ‘The Upswing’ for its historical range and depth but questioned its future-focused relevance. In this blog he builds upon Putnam’s work in order to cultivate a fresh debate about reimagining ‘the civic journey’. It is this focus on nurturing and understanding how and why people move in and out of civic spaces throughout their lives which may provide a bold new blueprint. Read part III of the blog series here.

One of the highlights of my career occurred in 2003 when I had the chance to meet Professor Robert Putnam. As the grainy photograph shows, time has arguably been far kinder to the mighty professor than it has to the (as was) young lecturer. The selection of a black and white shot might not have been completely accidental. Putnam is proud of his Irish ancestry and had spent the week before we met touring around the island that is Ireland piecing together the fragments of his family tree. His travels had, however, been hampered by the unexpected emergence of hot-spell for which he was completely unprepared. This meant that when we met he was red-faced not just by being caught-out by the weather but also as a result of extreme sunburn.

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Giant's Causeway, Ireland. Credit: Dimitry Anikin via Unsplash

I’m not sure the monochrome photography really was designed to save his blushes but I am sure that Bob Putman’s work and approach to being an academic has been an inspiration to me throughout my career. This is why I’m keen to build upon his recent arguments concerning The Upswing (written with Shaylyn Romney Garrett) and to push his thesis further.

There is, of course, a link between the tale I have told about Putnam’s Irish adventure and the broader focus of his academic career. By travelling to the Emerald Isle he was, in essence, seeking to identify and understand his roots, and through that to achieve a sense of stability and anchorage. This focus on the need for individuals to feel anchored could take us on an intellectual journey from C. Wright Mills through to Zygmunt Bauman – with lots of delicious detours on route – but such temptations must be resisted in order to make the simple point that individuals need, crave and are to a large degree dependant upon a sense of belonging within a broader social fabric.

As that fabric becomes increasingly threadbare then so people seek to either mend their sense of self or find new tribes to which they can belong. The phenomenal growth in the popularity of tracing family trees, finding long-lost relatives and even DNA-based ancestry testing is therefore just the soft relation of more extreme brand of neo-tribalism and ethno-nationalism that has emerged in recent years. It’s all about roots and anchorage.

What ‘The Upswing’ provides is a meticulous account of the pulling up of roots and the loosening of anchor points. The economic, political, social and cultural trends from 1885 to 2015 all reveal what Putnam and Romney Garrett capture in the notion of an ‘I’-‘We’-‘I’ arc of the twentieth century. The core thesis of his book is that as America has lifted itself out of a pit of economic, social and political despair before then it must be able to achieve a similar ‘Upswing’ again.

I hope that’s true but where the authors are heavy on historical past, they are far lighter on future-focused detail. And yet the deeper story that arguably exists within and between each and every chapter and page, line and word is the notion of a journey. A journey, that is, which binds individuals to their communities and as such does not simply provide a sense of anchorage (belonging and meaning) but gives it tangible form.

It is the notion of nurturing a new civic journey that is the seed that Putman and Romney Garrett plant with such precision. This is a seed, however, that remains deep within the text and needs to be brought out into the sunlight of public debate in order to flourish and find form.

To make such an argument also serves to tease-out the broader international relevance of the text’s deep story. ‘The Upswing’ is a book about American politics written as if the ‘I’-‘We’-‘I’ arc that it exposes cannot also be found in similar forms and patterns in the majority of advanced liberal democracies around the world. A vast body of literature on the ‘end’, ‘crisis’, ‘suicide’, ‘death’ and ‘twilight’ of democracy all suggest that downswings are part of a common trend and upswings fairly elusive. Early data charting social relations during the pandemic seems to indicate a reverse ‘I – We – I’ trajectory in terms of peoples’ relationship to their wider communities; sense of solidarity and cohesion; even trust, albeit within admittedly hyperlocal and ‘silo-d’ pockets. The emergency of the first lockdown inspired an apparent turning to ‘we’ – but by August 2020, political and identity divides were returning, layered on top of divides founded on the inequalities of socio-economic status; health and the lived experience of relative precariousness or comfort during lockdown. These swings continue to emerge as we move through the successive phases of the pandemic as the Institute for Community Studies (ICS) charts in its report about the social implications of Covid-19 on communities.

To empower an ‘up’ via targeted interventions and policy has arguably never been more needed. In England, for example, the ‘levelling-up’ agenda has clear connections with the notion of an ‘upswing’. The aim being to raise levels of social, economic, technological and political equality in the midlands and north of England so that those structurally embedded inequalities that have traditionally benefitted the south-east of the country are flattened-out. And they need to be flattened. Life for ‘the left behind’ in Doncaster, Durham, Barnsley and Birmingham is not a million miles away from the lives of what Obama called ‘the forgotten people’ and that were revealed with such incredible insight in Archie Hochschild’s American odyssey, Strangers in Their Own Land.

The challenge and the opportunity is that ‘the levelling-up’ agenda is itself a hollow-shell, ripe with potential but deficient in detail. The key question then is to innovate and to see opportunities where others see only problems. And the crucial question to identify where the muscle of ‘we’ in levelling- up or an upswing can and should be found, as large scale top-down interventions alone are unlikely to reverse generationally embedded forms of social inequality. The answer is to work with rather than for those communities that are eager to be the drivers of positive social change. More specifically, to ‘upswing into the future’ we need to focus on young people and three small steps may begin to build a new blueprint.

The first step simply acknowledges the existence of generational tensions that are likely to be exacerbated in a post-Brexit, post-Covid context. It is the young who are going to pay for the decisions and protection of the old. Period. The second step acknowledges the existence of a rich pool of civic energy and commitment. As the Institute for Community Study’s Safety in Numbers? report revealed, it is not true to suggest that young people are angry and apathetic – it is far closer to the truth to suggest that they are the group that most want to engage and enrich their communities. The ICS’s findings reveal that what they tend to lack are entry points for how to engage when facing a political system that feels out-dated, archaic and too often unresponsive. It’s a focus on the nexus, knowledge and new ‘docking points’ between a political system steeped in the past and one that is designed for the future that is likely to yield fresh fruit.

And yet the third and final step demands something quite different; an approach that looks beyond specific reforms and interventions and instead has the capacity to stitch together a rich new narrative that makes the focus on the ‘we’ not ‘I’ far more explicit. At root, the focus of ambitions concerning both the American ‘upswing’ and the English ‘levelling-up’ are concerned with shifting the balance away from the individual and back towards the safety-net of collective endeavour. It demands an approach that nurtures, incentivises and facilitates collective engagement and mutual understanding across and within communities from an early age.

It demands a new civic journey.

The great weakness of the current situation is that those young people in Doncaster, Durham, Barnsley and Birmingham who feel forgotten and ‘left behind’ are largely left to somehow find their own way out of a trap that society has created. One of the saddest and starkest facts that Putnam and Romney Garrett offer to support the need for an ‘upswing’ is the rapid and recent rise in ‘deaths of despair’ (i.e. suicide). To think about the civic journey is not concerned with trying to squeeze everyone into a ‘one-size-fits-all’ civic box but it is about thinking about how existing projects, investments and initiatives might be better connected so that the total value to society is more than just a sum of their parts.

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Birmingham, UK. Credit: Kelvin Han via Unsplash.

How might a seamless tapestry of meaningful civic opportunities be put in place, for example, from school, through college and into university? How can apprenticeships be plugged into a new civic network? What role might service years have in terms of building skills and social connections that last a lifetime? How might the civic journey forge new opportunities for the middle-aged and older populations who are too often afflicted by a combination of depression and isolation?

Building bridges and a new civic journey may well provide the key to achieving an Upswing in America and beyond.

Matthew Flinders is a Civic Fellow of the Institute for Community Studies; Founding Director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre and Professor of Politics at the University of Sheffield. He is also Vice-President of the Political Studies Association of the United Kingdom and Chair of the Universities Policy Engagement Network.