Colleagues, community and commons – our vital triumverate

In this critique of Voce and Sturrock’s A Situated Ethos of Playwork, Simon Rix suggests that community should be integral to playwork practice, and the central focus of the field’s fightback.

Thanks are due to Gordon Sturrock and and Adrian Voce for their recent paper, A Situated Ethos of Playwork. It rightly acknowledges that the internal debate, about what playwork is, should at present be laid aside in the face of the urgent issue of what playwork should do. This is not to say that what playwork is is not important; it is to say that what playwork may be is being shaped, and in such circumstances, to do is to be. Doo-be-doo-be-doo!

In this response, I will first discuss some of the paper’s main points; then I will add some comments that I think are relevant. I won’t comment on the preliminary descriptions of playwork in the first section, because I cannot argue with what’s written there. Nor do I dispute the principle that playwork is, at present, a necessary part of the ludic ecology – an ecology that is inevitably linked with, overlapped by and overlapping into other parts of the totality. Currently, this is dominated by an economic hegemony under the control of very narrow interests, only aware of their own needs and assumptions. This can be described as both the ‘integrated spectacle’, and the ‘no alternative’ dialogue, favoured by crisis capitalism.

A story of recuperation?

The historical section of the paper reads as both a story of development, response and endorsement; and a story of recuperation. As Voce and Sturrock rightly point out, the elements with the greatest capacity (wealth) and / or affinity with the current hegemony, tend to have the greatest sway; and also tend to harvest those elements of and from playwork that suit their agenda. So, we find landscape architects presenting projects designed by playworkers as their own, and bit players from our field taking selected elements of the playwork approach into other, more lucrative fields.

Mutual aid and class

So, to resist recuperation and to develop itself as a discreet discipline, it is proposed that playwork should return to the totality, which was at its genesis (in a critique of the totality). The paper pronounces: “where the subordination of children is no longer accepted, everything can change”, The critique of social Darwinism, rightly identified as a way of justifying and promoting practices of domination – from race to class to gender – in fact goes back to 1902 and the publication of ‘Mutual Aid’ by Kropotkin. It’s not new; it is a longstanding heresy, which playwork has been allied to explicitly and implicitly, to varying degrees, forever.

I feel that here is a call for a period of more explicit aligning with that critique, an alignment which, in my opinion, is long overdue. Playwork has been cowed since the beginning of the neo-liberal assault on the critics of social Darwinism, an assault which has had the effect of altering the totality for most, even playwork, into the ‘no alternative’ narrative – of placing all value into the market and so forcing participation in the market at the expense of everything the critique stands for.

Marxian critique still holds sway

In support of that call, we are introduced to the precariat class as an ally. In the context of the critique of the totality, the Marxian critique based on class division still holds sway and hasn’t been superseded; but this critique is also of the totality. While the emergence, (or discovery) of the precariat class is appropriate in the face of the effects of the current neo-liberal crisis, in terms of the totality, how different is being a member of the precariat class any different from any other way of being a landless peasant?

I also wonder how different the discovery of the precariat is to the discovery of the ‘underclass’ in the 1980’s, and how successful any hopes pinned on this section of landless peasantry will be? The pinning of hopes on the underclass – which, for similar reasons, was forced to make a life outside the norms of capitalism and develop ‘post-work’ social structures – didn’t produce change. It didn’t make a significant contribution to playwork, other than providing playwork with a number of volunteers from ‘outside the system’ (a significant number of whom then dropped out of playwork too!).

This is not to denigrate those who find themselves identifying with the precariat as a class, and share playwork’s analysis. I would caution, however, that a significant part of the gig economy is made up of aspirant, slightly arty entrepreneurs whose wish is to find fame, be discovered and float on the stock market. The role of playwork is not to develop class consciousness among the precariat, nor to facilitate the advancement its aspirant element, nor to develop class consciousness among children.

‘The dialectic process demands the negation of oppositions, the creation of something new, not a mere realignment of the forces it contains’.

As Anslem Jappe points out in his recent book of essays, capitalism, class structure and its ideology – currently called neo-liberalism – reproduces itself as a social relationship, as well as reproducing countless throwaway consumer items. It’s the social relationship which is at the hub of the arrangement. How far, then, Jappe asks, is basing change, as well as our critique, on this social relationship, likely to be successful? Is not change, as a departure, dependent on the formation of new social relationships, yet to be decided, but based in other qualities: human ones. This echoes the paper’s point “The struggle we need to commit to, then, is not between different alignments of people, but between people and non-human entities”, but I wish to escape from relying on the existing social relationship as a basis for that. The dialectic process demands the negation of oppositions, the creation of something new, not a mere realignment of the forces it contains.

This is alluded to in discussion of a situated practice. I can’t disagree with the utopian picture painted. I can’t fault the likelihood that a playful approach seems a route towards it, and that playful environments will be a contributing crucible.

New organisations and methods

In pursuit of the establishment and maintenance of crucibles, the paper seems to go into two points. The first is the unification of playwork and the escape of its story from the recuperated, possibly watered down alliances that it’s had. I am a trustee of the Playwork Foundation along with Adrian (declared, though as a burden, not an interest: trusteeship has no personal benefit) and I do see this as a developing vehicle for a playworker controlled, and owned, narrative and solidarity.

There are a number of other, more local, initiatives developing as well – a coping mechanism in the face of neo-liberal denial of any but its own social system. These initiatives are about delivery through new sororal groupings, and new relationships with the state and other funders. There is an opportunity there to develop solidarity and mutual aid among playworkers and our organisations. There is opportunity through this to build local, regional and national networks of playwork delivery. Whether this is additional to, affiliated with, supported by, or any other relationship with the Foundation remains to be seen, as appropriate, but whichever route is taken, care must be taken at this development stage to have due regard to maximising direct democracy in the structure which is set up.

In both cases, Foundation and delivery, the membership is the critical mass, and the source of strength. There has been much written on organisational structure, group dynamics, meetings, consultation and decision-making. In this case, I think the choice to be be made is one which emphasises the human relationship, and tries as hard as possible to enshrine that in the structure. That means a principle of grass roots localism and autonomy, under the auspice of the agreed narrative and structure, which will, as far as possible reflect those principles and narrative. At all costs, the fallacy of democratic centralism must be avoided; as must elitism (another class issue), a tendency which the precariat seems to be susceptible to.

Policy of relationships

Secondly, we have a discussion on rights and policy. I have the greatest admiration for those who are able to sit down with the suits, jackals and other creatures that inhabit the corridors of power; and are able to both endure it, and be understood. I’m certainly not that person, but I have seen the impact it can make, and I appreciate it. The paper goes into, as I have above, the dangers of recuperation, and that any honey pot attracts flies. But, in addition to the corporate squatters and ideological heathens who gathered around the Play Strategy, I feel that the social relationship I criticised above also raised its head here. This was in the decision that the roll out should be by a managerial, and not a playwork organisation.

The idea that management is a generic skillset, and that managers need not know anything about what they are managing was a problem, both for the strategy and for playwork. Skilled and experienced playworkers found themselves leading astonished managers around events and projects; managers who in some cases had no idea of the magic that playwork can unleash. Some playworkers, whose influence had apparently been crucial, didn’t even find out their influence had been there until years after the strategy had been rolled out, never mind have a conscious input.

This is a caution to the Foundation, to the imagined delivery federation and to the field. If it is to be the Foundation that makes the policy approach to Government, if it is to be a delivery federation, if either have a role in a new phase of growth, then the medium is the message. The human relationships, enshrined by the principles of localism, autonomy and direct democracy, must be held dear by these organisations, and their structures must reflect that.

It’s the community, innit?

This leads me on to the glaring omission, the third point.

The paper contains several mentions of the word ‘community’, it talks of a community of practice, and it makes mention of the communities playworkers serve. But, in human terms, I consider community to be the most important constituency in every way. The paper speaks of a national campaign that will “listen to the voices of those on the front line, and in their communities.” Although this speaks of consultation, it doesn’t speak so strongly of participation. It speaks of building support, as traditional politics does, towards a particular goal, which can and may be forgotten as the campaigning mode subsides and the programme lost in recuperation, but it doesn’t speak of love. Love is what sustains the communities that gather around good playwork provision, retains them and facilitates their participation. Playworkers have a service role in this community, but they are not its leaders or its voice. If anything, playworkers should be a conduit based on shared skills, given freely.

‘to build a community around provision and to mobilise that community in times of threat, means everyday playworking in campaign mode’.

This is both relevant to campaigning and to everyday playwork, because to build a community around provision and to mobilise that community in times of threat, means everyday playworking in campaign mode. This shouldn’t sound extraordinary. Observation, knowledge, response, relationships, attention to detail and sometimes individuals, large affective interventions, and small effective facilitations – these should be common to both.

Everyday playworking should be able to concern itself with issues that impact on children’s lives, and affect their ability to play, just as much as it should be able to concern itself with the play environment. It should be able to make a connection with the totality of the community and respond to that, both as an acknowledgement that these issues have an impact on children’s ability to play, and because the play environment has a place in that totality. To attempt to campaign in the face of threat without having the groundwork of a position in the totality of the community renders the community an afterthought, a position nobody will respond to.

I consider this to be a more valuable mode, in the local context, than playwork organisations regarding themselves as managerial and relying on relationships with power, which have already proved fickle. I consider that mode to be as much to do with playworkers positioning themselves in the redundant social relationship that is class society, a symptom of the aspirant precariat, and we will see them by the number and strength of the communities around them and how quickly they accept their recuperation, or die.

Colleagues, community and commons – a vital triumverate

The question of how to develop this element of the triumvirate of playwork defence and development is a little more problematic, given that playwork is about relationships. If I may quote myself, “The adventure playground is not a physical thing. It’s a community. The physical appearance of the site is the hook, if you like, but it’s the social and emotional that gets people to remain”. Community should come as second nature to playworkers, but evidence shows that this is not always the case. Why? Are some tired, some resting on their laurels, some not recognising the connection, some subsumed in the status that policy mistakes of the past have dubbed them with?

Should playwork training have more emphasis on community and relationships, should it contain a unit on campaigning? Should emergent playwork organisations take it upon themselves to take this training out, as a separate piece of work? Who should it be delivered to? Should a model be devised on the hoof, as organisations develop, with due regard to the principles of localism, autonomy and direct democracy at its core? Who is going to join in?

These are questions for debate, and prompt the prequel question of, how and by whom is this debate to be organised? In that spirit, I call upon the field to engage with the Foundation and with the policy roadshows currently underway; and I call upon the roadshows and those debating at them to consider the triumvirate of colleagues, community and commons as an adage:

Colleagues – a unified workforce, building solidarity among us;
Community -meaning both those we serve, whose totality we are a part of, ­­and a community of practice; and
Commons – meaning the wider social and political environment and institutions that we need to have an oversight of, and facilitate in that environment.

If we lose sight of any part of this triumvirate, we will miss the mark.

Simon Rix

Image: Jacqueliine Pallesen

Simon Rix is a practising playworker and a trustee of The Playwork Foundation


One thought on “Colleagues, community and commons – our vital triumverate

  1. donne buck says:

    Thanks, Simon, your points on community are very much in line with my experience. I have observed how the development of a play project can have a powerful healing effect on a whole community where it originates and is managed from within and projects itself into the community.

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