Neoliberalism with a Community Face?: A critical analysis of asset-based community development in Scotland?


The paper ‘Neoliberalism with a community face?: A critical analysis of asset-based community development in Scotland (MacLeod, MA & Emejulu, A) 2014, is one of the few critiques of Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) out there. We need more. Critiques are critical to ensuring a deepening of practice and philosophical rigour.

The credibility of a critique in my opinion hinges on the author’s ability to understand their subject and on whether they have read everything under their purview in order to do so. In that regard, as you will see, the critique in question falls short. In this post with the help of John McKnight’s reflections on the paper, I will explore how this analysis effectively creates a straw man argument, and in so doing, fails to provide a robust critique of ABCD.

Notwithstanding, it is fair to say that accurate and constructive challenge can come from flawed analysis, and so on balance, I will also outline some of the important challenges the authors offer to policy makers and practitioners alike.


A Straw Man Argument

“Attacking a straw man” is a technique used in polemical debate, where the impression of refuting an opposing argument is created by replacing it with a different proposition (standing up the straw man), and then defeating that counterfeit proposition (knocking down the straw man) while claiming to have defeated the original. An example is to suggest that ABCD is pro-marketisation and indivdualisation, which it is not, and then attacking it on the basis of this false assertion. This is the fatal flaw at the heart of MacLeod’s and Emejulu’s critique.

Prof. John McKnight in reflecting on the paper, and the wider question of why there have been so few similar critiques, notes the following:


I think that the lack of attacks is because most US observers understand that ABCD is the identification of the 5 primary resources used in local places to improve local life – a map of local resources. No one, in articles or in hundreds of audiences, has questioned the validity of that map, and it has been used by local people in identifying productive local resources around the world. In the US, consequential elected officials or politically partisan policy persons of any note have never approached us and sought a relationship. Including Reaganites.

 My guess is that we are of no interest to either party because Republicans are about empowering corporate interest and Democrats are about growing government interests. We aren’t of interest to either so we have had the huge advantage of being unworthy of partisan political identification. Indeed, ABCD has spread worldwide, in part, because people locally understand its universal utility and non-partisan political nature.”


In responding to a central claim of the MacLeod & Emejulu, paper, upon which their entire argument stands or falls, where they incorrectly assert that ABCD is a capitulation to “individualisation, marketisation and privatisation”, John has this to say:


There are some people who are myopic – physiologically near-sighted. They can’t see much of what is surrounding them. These authors are stateopic – psychologically near sighted: unable to see the ABCD in plain sight.

The clearest manifestation of this malady appears at the bottom of page 431. Here, they say ABCD is a capitulation to values of “individualization, marketization and privatization”. That statement can only be made by people who can’t see what is before them. Therefore, on behalf of 20-20 vision a few basic clarifications:  

1. Regarding individualization, throughout ABCD literature and practice is the finding that assets require connections to be useful. And so the field is mainly about connecting people in associative forms to enable productivity. Indeed, the heart of ABCD in writing and practice is opposing individualism and supporting collective action. 

The focus of our literature and practice is often about reconnecting citizens who have been disconnected by market consumption and professional dependency.

2. Regarding marketization, somehow the authors missed the current book that Peter Block and I wrote – The Abundant Community (2010). It could only be understood as a whole-hearted attack on consumerism and the disabling impact of modern marketing. If the authors should choose to write an article against marketization, we hereby give them our permission to cite the book numerous times.

3. Finally, regarding privatization, the remarkable reality is that the basic guidebook Building Communities from the Inside Out: A Path Toward Finding and Mobilising Community Assets (1993) rarely mentions the state and never negatively. However, my book, The Careless Society (1995), is an assault on professional dominance as a disabling force in community life, rarely mentioning the state. The authors clearly don’t understand that opposing professional dominance is not opposing the state. Professions are the “services” side of the market that they seem to dislike. But I think I am wrong about them. Like many others, I think they are political advocates of state funded professional dominance. And as we frequently point out in writing, the state has been coopted by advocates of dependency creating, compensatory professional ameliorative interventions, rather than economic reform that relocates income and the power of productivity. The authors even cite my position on income and productivity in the last paragraph of 435.

In summary, as an ABCD founder, let me make clear that our words and practice are about associational and collective life – not individualization. Our words and practice are about productively powerful communities rather than places vanquished by consumerism and marketization, created by corporations and professions that struggle to capture the state.  Our words and practice are about productive communities where the state provides support for that productivity and, more importantly, uses its power to provide citizens income equality rather than palliative services and commodities.”


 Embracing important challenges

There are, in my opinion, some important challenges contained in this paper, which both policy makers and practitioners in Scotland do well to heed as do supporters of ABCD.

  1. ABCD in its own right has not done enough to lift up the voices of women and especially women of colour. In more plain terms, it is over populated with the voices of white, middleclass men.
  2. ABCD in Scotland is in danger of having its radical roots cropped off, and being redefined as ‘asset-based approaches’ where the focus is on individual strengths and not on collective efficacy and community development. It’s important to note this is not in fact a critique of ABCD but of those who misappropriate the approach and water it down for their own ends.
  3. Asset-based approaches (as distinct from ABCD) in Scotland may be used by some as a rhetorical device to excuse neoliberal policies and practices, e.g. people and communities are imbued with a multiplicity of strengths and therefore do not require state support and assistance.



Nearing the end of the paper, the authors note “For us, we think ABCD provides the wrong answer but asks some of the right questions”.  As I conclude this blog, what I find most concerning about this whole paper is not that the authors consider that ABCD provides the ‘wrong answer but asks some of the right questions’, but that they believe they have priviledged access to the right answer, having mostly asked the wrong questions. The truth is none of us have ‘the answer’, and we’re all in search of better questions….I hope.


Cormac Russell





  1. Neoliberalism with a community face?: A critical analysis of asset-based community development in Scotland (MacLeod, MA & Emejulu, A) 2014
  2. The Abundant Community (McKnight, JL & Block, P) 2010.
  3. Building Communities from the Inside Out: A Path Toward Finding and Mobilising Community Assets (Kretzmann, JP & McKnight, JL), 1993
  4. The Careless Society (McKnight, JL) Basic Books1995. Paperback 1996



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  • Dave Conroy

    I understand the critique and yet cannot help but feel it comes from an uninformed (through practice rather than research) perspective. But it’s also valuable because it points to a real and valid critique of ABCD done badly, perhaps with saving money as a key driver. Personally, saving money is not in itself a bad aim (it’s probably essential), but the sticky aspect is in the transition from publicly funded, professionalised service inputs that drop down on people to a much more locally based, locally decided set of priorities and delivery mechanisms. We’re in transition right now hopefully to an ABCD based set of local relationships around local challenges and solutions, yet dragging behind is so much of the old ways and so much (all!) of the related resource. Creating that transition with no/little resource to pump prime the new it is a whole challenge in its own right.

    October 5, 2016 at 10:01 pm
  • Philip Booth

    MacLeod, MA & Emejulu argue in their paper, which I have just read, ‘that ABCD is neoliberalism with a community face, meaning that logic of free market relations and a hostility to state-sponsored social welfare is the central unacknowledged value embedded within this theory and practice’.

    Having spent three years working alongside residents and community builders using ABCD in a number of communities I just don’t recognise this; this is so not my experience. I welcome the comments from John McKnight and Cormac Russell – and indeed discussion on some of the real challenges we face.

    October 5, 2016 at 10:55 pm
  • My wife, Pam ( Working With Not To Gweithio Gyda NidI ) has encouraged me to look at this discourse. My perspective might be useful to others in reflecting on their present activity and what they want to do in the future. It feels like another aspect of the struggle to make sense of Public Goods. I am aware of the many meanings given to these words, I am going to restrict myself to saying a commodity or service that is provided without profit to all members of a society, either by the government or by a private individual or organisation.

    Many citizens have been thinking hard about how they can take action in their communities to advance the common good. Such thinking has been influenced by austerity, a growing disaffection with political and professional leaders and workers whose own self interest has very often taken priority and by a growing sense of relationship being important to collective action. There is also enormous frustration with the hoops citizens are expected to jump through in having contact with a public or private body to get the service or commodity they want.

    Individuals have been having discussions about taking action and organising things differently often from very modest beginnings and sometimes involving professional workers whose own self interest is not inimical to the process.

    This is not to deny that micro politics is part of the collective process but it is not dominant or attempting to advance a particular ideology or theoretical construct. Citizens have come together to take action to ensure that the vulnerable adult with learning difficulties can stay living in his street with support and services or to improve and maintain the local park or in my most recent action contribute to getting a local Gypsy Traveller site constructed.

    The interesting thing about such actions is that a diverse group of people come together and use their knowledge, skills and strengths to make a modest difference and create something new. Almost the slogan could be “make it new”.

    Such actions can often cause anxiety to people with positional or professional status because the outcomes the community achieve sometimes completely bypass the public and private bodies. The citizens are also not seeking accreditation from anybody, they are not wanting to advance a particular concept
    or ideology apart from acknowledging that they can achieve things often without much or marginal assistance from public or private bodies.

    My own encouragement to citizens with an academic bias is to ask them to look at the “What is ” (Positivist Analysis) of what is happening. If there motivation is to encourage citizens they perceive as excluded from a particular community activity, take action to build relationships with the those reported as excluded and encourage their involvement. My own experience is a dynamic one, those that participate in this moment are the people to enable the next step. Hence my motivation to make a modest contribution to the discourse.

    October 6, 2016 at 2:16 pm
  • This is a helpfully reflective, and reflexive post, Cormac, thank you. I completely agree that the main charges of the article miss their mark – the emphasis of ABCD is on the ‘C’, as much as, if not more than the ‘A’ – but it does highlight the very real danger, the all-too-common reality, in fact, of systems and markets co-opting ABCD’s language for very different ends. And the article also helpfully underlines some of the ‘silences’ (or at least under-articulated areas) of the public ABCD conversation, especially in the UK: gender, ethnicity and class. I’m finding myself increasingly drawn to the language of ‘radical democracy’ to frame the spirit of ABCD in possibly more subversive terms. I’ve blogged a bit more of this here:

    October 6, 2016 at 8:34 pm
  • Mick Ward

    Thank you for this Cormac, and other contributors

    As someone who is trying to move towards implementing ABCD (I admit sometimes as an approach, and sometimes as a more purist model) from very much the heart of the beast – I am the Chief Officer for Commissioning in Adult Social Care in Leeds, I would like to add a further personal perspective on the debate. What I believe has happened here, and articulated well as a ‘straw man’ is the fact that there is confusion around ABCD, especially when its language is usurped, not that it is inherently flawed, in fact the opposite is true, its central tenants are so overwhelming, that they substantially challenge orthodoxy in service provision, but its narrative is so strong (literally stories are known to be at the heart of ABCD) that those who do not support the intentions of ABCD are more than happy to use its language.
    This very much reminds me of when mainstream social care (and eventually health) did the same with the social model of disability, to the point where its core aim, the very overthrow of a way of thinking about disability and disabled people was lost in a series of tweaks to service provision.

    I now see it reflected in ABCD, as even Sustainability and Transformation Plans (STP’s ) claim to be based on ABCD approaches, and certainly, their introductions are peppered with asset based terminology, but I can assure you, they are light years from any true asset or even community led, approach.

    I think for ABCD, this can be shown in the areas outlined by Cormac and the initial paper, namely Individualisation, marketisation and privatising – 3 areas that I spend my working life in

    In Leeds our main focus is on changing Adult Social Care to be strength based, this builds on some elements of personalisation – yes it is focussed on the individual, and moving from individual deficits to individual assets, but we are very clear that this will be only work if it is hand in hand with community based work and action – ABCD, we see them as 2 sides of a coin – not the same thing, and so our work and our thinking reflects this.

    Marketisation. A core element of my job is to ‘develop the market’ and parts of this, especially in regard to having a vibrant private sector, are clearly in this dangerous territory, but again, that is only one tool of this approach, a good commissioner I would argue, can also stimulate (and then support) communities to be that market, to be the market for those that use the market, but also to own, and to work in those market stalls, delivering support (goods if you like) in a very very different way to the rest of the market. Unless you do both, and then grow one stronger, you actually fail now, but crucially for the future

    And here, I confess another contradiction, for as well as being a Chief Officer, I am also a long standing Trade Unionist. And yes, this can cause me angst in my role. However, asset based approaches are the solution to that contradiction. This is not about swapping some service from the Local Authority to another provider, I have seen, and indeed carried out, plenty of that. No, this is about radically (as in the social model) shifting the whole notion of not only what a service is, or who who carries it out, but about whether there should even be a service

    So please, more debate, for without it it, and a clear understanding of the radical nature of ABCD, we are in danger of it being hijacked, and that is way more dangerous than some missunderstandings

    And finally, where you see the language being used inappropriately, please challenge, but more importantly, use it as a way in to implement that shift.

    October 7, 2016 at 11:28 am
  • I couldn’t agree more that constructive critiques are worthwhile in any discussion, because that’s how ideas and approaches are improved and refined.

    However, surely a constructive critique would begin from the basis of understanding exactly what is being critiqued?

    I became interested in ABCD precisely because it is about building that which marketisation and individualisation erodes – connection, the gift economy and wider social health and wellbeing.

    Before I had even heard of ABCD, in 2008 I wrote:

    ‘Consumption promotes the definition of individual identity and focuses our attention on what we are doing to maximise our consumption and generating the income to sustain it.

    While people are busy concentrating on the pursuit of individual lifestyles, there is a corresponding retreat from involvement in civic and community life, and a weakening of the social cohesion that has been part of life for centuries.

    …a range of goods and services have been commodified – we now have to pay for things that used to occur as a transaction of trust and friendship, from how we entertain ourselves to how we care for children. Often these commodities – such as child care and fast food – are bought because people are time-pressed from working longer hours.

    In a profound departure from the integrated community life, spontaneous social contact and support of extended family, friends and neighbours that has characterised human lifestyles thorough the generations, more affluent societies have begun leading lives that are increasingly privatised and segregated.’

    While I think there are always valid critiques for any field of practice – and certainly ABCD proponents and practitioners have acknowledged that there are aspects of ABCD that need strengthening – if there are instances where ABCD is being misrepresented, then the critique for that particular practice should be identified as being a critique of this faux-ABCD.

    If there’s one thing that ABCD is actually the polar opposite of, it is the commodification and atomisation of human life.

    October 7, 2016 at 2:13 pm
  • It is obvious the author of the critique did not fully understand ABCD. However, I agree with the comments by both Cormac and others that this raises an even more interesting topic – the misuse of ABCD language by institutions who are calling things ABCD but whose actual practices are far from the ideals of ABCD. While I have mixed feeling about the idea of creating ABCD guidelines that clearly state, “This is ABCD” and “This is NOT ABCD,” I do believe that we will continue to see a lot straw man arguments if we don’t develop shared language to describe the movement.

    I also recognize that this is not entirely a communications challenge. Some people no matter how well we articulate the core of ABCD will only see what they want to see.

    I greatly appreciated the “Embracing Important Challenges” section. I think all three items: More female and minority voices, the threat of misappropriation of ABCD as individual betterment strategy and the risk of groups using ABCD as a basis for less government support.

    Cormac – I would love for you to do follow up posts tackling each of these challenges.
    How do we increase the voices of women/minorities in the movement?
    How do we combat misappropriation of ABCD?
    How do we demonstrate the appropriate role of the state/government?

    I know I am wrestling with all three challenges in my own context and I suspect others are as well.

    October 7, 2016 at 8:17 pm
  • Articulating a critique of ABCD based on theories of market economics feels alien to me and does not connect at any level with my own experience and understanding of the practice and theory of ABCD. It took me a while to understand what could prompt such a critique and I think it is perhaps a complete failure to apprehend the risk posed by the advancing serviceworld (which sees a programmatic solution/fix to every human story) and the resulting colonisation of the lifeworld by market forces. In this scenario where everyone is (or could become) a client of the human services system, the system world provides services only to those it deems eligible. These service transactions are carried out in a competitive and phoney market of the systemworlds own creation. This phoney market creates, builds and foments social divisiveness and atomisation. It pits people against one another for resources it deigns to be scarce. It simultaneously asset strips its colonised clients of resources they once freely enjoyed in the lifeworld. The things this critique claims that ABCD is guilty of it seems the system world of programs and professionals tripping over one another for clients is most guilty of itself: individualisation- dealing with individuals just as individuals as if they are not connected to other people. Marketisation – commodification of normal human experience by placing, segmenting and sluicing people into programs based on ordinary human needs. Privatisation – the creation of a non democratically owned systemworld at odds with the commons and notions of subsidiarity. Privatisation through the forcing of services which furthermore are unsustainable and unethical often being leveraged on huge debt and with a profit making ethic. Critiques are important and necessary but for me this one really doesn’t cut it.

    October 7, 2016 at 9:51 pm

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