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