We went along to the University of Liverpool to hear a lecture presented by Professor Tim Parsons, a social historian at Washington University in St. Louis. He studies twentieth century Africa and his research to date has been focused on understanding how ordinary people experienced imperial rule.  How did Africans, from diverse walks of life, navigate the shifting realities of repression and opportunity that emerged during the imperial and early national eras? He had come to Liverpool to look at the archives because he was curious to see how much of the thinking that had informed the administration of the colonies had come back to these shores.  He wanted to explore the degree to which the imperial style of authoritarianism had manifested itself in the metropolitan west, both historically and currently. His expectation was that it would be that way round.  That people returning to Liverpool from posts in Africa and Asia would bring ideas and practices back with them.  He found evidence of that.  But he also found something which surprised him more.

Travelling around Liverpool, he began to be struck by strange resonances.  In the cityscape, he saw buses, buildings, ways of systematizing people and traffic which he had associated with Africa.  It was the same when he visited the archives.  Terms which he had assumed were coined in Kenya (community development, social work, youth work and community work and workers) had in fact originated here.  There was also evidence of the same attitudes towards groups of people within the city slums as those expressed about native communities n Kenya.

W.M. Frazer Medical Officer of Health in Liverpool, 1936 “Conditions of poverty, under-nutrition and fatigue arising from lack of sleep so sap the physical energy and willpower of many women that a condition of mental listlessness is engendered in all but the stronger, or perhaps financially more fortunate minority, so that an apathetic condition of mind is formed, which, long continued, creates the typical slum-dweller.”

These attitudes brought with them a number of key assumptions.  Firstly, that those in positions of power within the establishment were dealing with people who were, on a number of levels, fundamentally unruly, inferior and, therefore, in some way dangerous and needing to be controlled or managed.  That management enabled the ‘good citizens’ of the city to get from them what they needed, labour, whilst at the same time placing the rest of the community within a geographical and ideological frame of reference which made it easier to subject and rule them without feeling too badly about it.  It also made it easier to think of them as a ‘them’.  One of many interesting points of fact which came from this talk was that the concept of tribes had not been an African one.  Indeed, it originated from a Greek idea of blood ties which would have been entirely alien to those who were living in the area of Africa the British Empire determined to enclose and call Kenya.  Therefore, the tribes which were established there, and the tribal areas which they were assigned, were almost entirely a fiction created in the minds of their oppressors.   And yet, because these tribes were also routes to a form of representational power, they began to take on real meaning.  By telling the story of identity, the invaders were able both to exploit the land and the people that they conquered and, at the same time, tell themselves a story that they were doing them a favour.  They behaved in the most uncivilised manner, lying, cheating, stealing, dispossessing, raping, exploiting, excluding, murdering, torturing and yet claimed to represent a step further, much further, along the road to the ideal of civilised man.

So what, you might think, has this got to do with us now?  Why should we be interested?  It poses the conundrum that we, as citizens of this place, have been just as much victims or benefactors of the Empire as a native of Kenya.  And that, at the very same time that people were being disposed all over Africa to be moved to housing projects, slums were also being cleared in Liverpool. And, like their counterparts in Africa, the population was being described as if they belonged to tribes based on where they lived as if they all thus possessed a homogenous and a vastly inferior identity.

Liverpool Personal Service Society, 40th Annual Report, 1957-58 About ordinary People in Kirkby “Slum clearance brought some poor types, thriftless and anti-social. Next door to such people may be self respecting folk with high standards who, naturally, find it difficult to mix with others. There is undoubtedly some bad neighbourliness on the estate.”

A ‘slum’ dweller being re-housed in the ‘60s and ‘70s in Liverpool might have more in common, in terms of their experience of being done to rather than with, with a black Kenyan during what Professor Parsons refers to as the second colonial occupation.  More challenging was the notion that this might not just be the case historically but also now.  The relationships between those who determine spending decisions and policy now are corrupted by the same underlying assumptions about people and communities. What was clear, in my experience as a regeneration practitioner, was that Local Authorities were very uncomfortable when they were dealing with mixed communities, ones in which the range of people and buildings were too diverse for them to understand in simple terms. There was no identity around which they could be organised, no clear demarcation of the boundaries of that community and no one organisation could act in the role of the paternal landlord. No matter how dysfunctional, Local Authorities were always more comfortable in managing discrete, designed, outer-urban housing estates than, for example, mixed tenure and diverse inner-city communities. The following quote, taken from the presentation, is from the late ‘60s but similar observations would be made now about communities, such a Tuebrook and Everton, all over North Liverpool.

Liverpool City Planning Department. Open Space in Everton: Reappraisal of Planning Proposals. December 1968. Characterization of Everton “The main impression of most of Everton today is one of dereliction and of starkness. … A generation of slum clearance, high density rebuilding on a piecemeal basis, and little expenditure on anything beyond housing, have all contributed to Everton’s bad image as an area to live in. … At this moment there are dozens of acres of open land, but most of it is a derelict, rubble-strewn wasteland — a blot on the landscape, a danger to children, and above all a discouragement to any local pride in home or neighbourhood.”

During the Labour years, the panacea to all our problems was to deal with, in the jargon of the day, socially and economically excluded communities by bringing them more fully into contact with the towns and cities of which they were part. This was envisaged as a process of empowerment and of investment in social capacity as much as it was about the built environment. However, the opportunities to empower people were, more often than not, cynically manipulated by those in the position to do so. Like their colleagues in the past and like their colonial civil servant ‘colleagues’ in Africa before them, most Local Authority Officers were of the strong conviction that they were dealing with inherently inferior human beings. They were people who were like children that had to be guided by those who knew better. The fact that we have failed repeatedly as public servants for decades and decades to do anything sustainable to reduce inequality, impoverishment and a growing sense of learned helplessness in our most deprived communities did not lead to any show of humility. The mantra that people are the experts in their own lives was never any more than that. The knowledge that people can only sustainably develop if that development comes from their vision, culture, attitudes and values remained that, theoretical knowledge never to be tested. In the ‘real’ world of pragmatic politics, politicians, power brokers and professional elites exploited opportunities to make sure that their version of the world, of what is possible and important, continued to be THE version of the world. Much like the second wave of colonialism and the post colonial settlement of Africa, it is one thing to be enslaved. It is quite another to be promised equality, respect and inclusion whilst all the time being manipulated, marginalised and abused. One of the most pernicious aspects of the failed regeneration processes I have witnessed is the extent to which, by engaging people in a false process, by betraying their trust, we did much more damage than if we had deliberately and explicitly excluded them. There is something perniciously abusive about encouraging people to have hope, to risk believing in your beneficence and the value of such things as education and aspiration, and then humiliating them in a process which systemically demeans and marginalises them. It is an impact very reminiscent of the psychological damage caused by people who endure domestic violence. Not only is the damage done, the hurt inflicted, but the victim is taught to accept that it is all a consequence of their faults, weaknesses and failures. The control, violence and subjugation is an expression of care, of love and a desire to protect, to help. What the victim is left with is a sense of their own inferiority, their powerlessness to act and their dependency on their abuser. Again, the parallels between the experiences of the poor in Africa and those in marginalised communities here in the post war years and to the present day seemed shocking.

So where to now? In a recent radio programme 1about the Commonwealth, Bridget Kendall and guests discussed its history, role and possible future. The journalist Frances Harrison argued that, in becoming members of the club in the post colonial era, African countries were demonstrating the symptoms of the Stockholm syndrome. That is a psychological adaptation to a chronic and traumatic situation in which the victim, in order to survive, begins to form an irrational and deep attachment to their tormentor. This attachment is subsequently very resistant to challenge or change. This process of attachment and the beliefs that accompany it have been described as ‘traumatic bonding’. And it seems that, as long the people who are subjected to regimes dictated by the more powerful continue to buy into the story of their own inadequacy they will never be truly free. Perhaps even for those of us who regard ourselves as educated, privilege and free have been, unwittingly perhaps, will good intentions maybe, subjecting our own citizens to these process too. Perhaps if Brexit taught us nothing it taught us that?

Our American visitor appeared a bit nervous in sharing his impressions. He made it clear that they were only tentative. He was open about his ignorance of many things about our culture and way of life, including how to pronounce Kirkby, and clearly anxious that his audience might take offence. And yet it was not the case. The audience responded almost with gratitude to a perspective which, in the cold light of day, showed us in an unflattering light. But perhaps, like the traumatic bonds which are symptomatic of the Stockholm syndrome, to be really free we have to be bold enough to see the bonds which are holding us? Christina Ashworth

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Tree House Liverpool CIC

Tree House Liverpool C.I.C. aims to provide people with access to the support they need to recognise and realise their own potential.

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