A paper and presentation for a University of Liverpool History PGR Work In Progress Seminar on October 28th 2020, about where I’m up to with my PhD work.
Beginning with a story
It had never been good enough, the way far too many people round the city had been forced to live, ever since their little river town had begun growing into a city port the best part of three hundred years ago. Time and excuses were still finding regular reasons for the words “poverty, overcrowding, hunger and exploitation” to be on the people’s lips well into the opening decades of the twenty first century. And many people had just about had enough.
Many people had just about had enough many times before in the history of the city. Causing them to march, protest, invent council housing, see their locally elected ones made bankrupt and consistently maintain that their city was not part of the country their governments’ were governing anyway. But it was. And not all of its problems had been their various governments’ faults. Profits, landlords, greed and corruption had played their traditional roles in the impoverishment and exploitation of generations as well, of course. Though over time, and also of course, some good things had happened and been tried out. Experiments in how better lives in better places might happen, let’s call them. There’d been the council housing already mentioned, the welfare state of the twentieth century, and a good deal of European money should also be honourably mentioned. But there were and continue to be other examples. Some of which are what much of the story I’m starting to tell you is about. ‘Particular cases of the possible’ as you may get sick of me saying.
Like the people in the last four streets of a once much bigger place who decided they’d had enough of the racism and municipal clearances that were being inflicted on them. Or the others and similar who were busy making up their own bakery, café, wash-house, maker-spaces, bike-delivery and suchlike futures when a pandemic came. And then turned out to be some of the best and quickest in the city at caring for everyone else while it lasted. Our search will include walking to these, sitting and working with the people there and learning from their stories and wisdoms. We’ll also be crossing the city’s river to walk through time, heritage and centuries of utopia to, well, another kind of place.
All of this then, the walking, sitting, working, stories and wisdoms, will be in search of some particular cases of the possible. Possible ways that have been, are being or could be tried out to create better lives in better places. And all to be done by the walking round the inside and outside of this one city, this Liverpool, that used to be a river town. Where it’s never been good enough, the way far too many people have had to live round here.
Or that’s one way to start it.
Another would be to state that this is an empirically-led study of particular examples of possible ways that people through time either have done, or are, going about envisaging and creating better lives in better places for themselves and their communities. In doing this it will consider the history and purposes of utopianism, together with more recent, and local to Liverpool, examples of community actions that I will say are questioning the further usefulness of utopia as a concept. But that all sounds a bit stilted and academic doesn’t it? And I wouldn’t like you to think there isn’t a degree of rage and exasperation, along with some hope, in what I’ll be working on and walking to here. Because there is. One of the many challenges I’ll be dealing with during this walking through the city’s recent past and its possible futures.
That story I’ve just told you is my current version of what my studying’s about. Next I want to tell you how I arrived at all that. And where I’m up to, here at the beginning of my PhD’s second year.
After a lifetime of working on what I’ve always and generally called ‘better lives in better places’ I’d spent ten years of this century directly doing the community action work at various places in Liverpool that I’m now thinking will make up most of my empirical research. Even though in the decade of doing it I’d thought of it as helping out groups of my friends in situations we decided needed changing, rather than research. But anyway, some of it, along with a well read Liverpool blog I’d set up about all our work, led me to enough prominence to be asked to do a couple of guest lectures at this university. Which in turn led to an application to do a PhD, which started off being more about another somewhere, called Port Sunlight, than all the stuff I’ve just told you about.
Port Sunlight is a late Victorian factory village over the river from Liverpool. And my work, which started off as a study of how it had been envisaged and changed over time, soon led me into considerations of utopia, as it is a lovely place. Where I then went and lived for a while to write a utopian fiction about it for the MA in sociology and history I did first, to get me ready for this PhD. Which continued full on into utopianism, at first, up to this summer of 2020. At which point I decided to set utopianism aside, considering it to be a spent phenomenon. And instead have returned to thinking about the Liverpool places.
Returning to Liverpool
All my thinking, reading and literature-reviewing about the five hundred years of utopia since Thomas More invented the word had kept leading me back from Port Sunlight and other utopias to the Liverpool places where I’d helped out. Granby 4 Streets, Homebaked, Kitty’s Launderette, Make Liverpool, Coming Home and some others. And wondering whether these might be kinds of utopia too, in one of the four categories I’d by then identified and could tell you about sometime. But no. I talked with some friends in the places I’ve just listed and they said “No, only you think that, Ronnie. We definitely don’t.”
Escaping from utopia
So I spent several quiet weeks during the just-gone summer doing some more theoretical work, as to be honest I was doubting utopianism and my categories of it myself by then. Using a mixture of theorists from within the utopian field like Ruth Levitas and Krishnan Kumar, and from other fields altogether, Marilyn Strathern, Joanna Latimer, Michel Foucault, François Hartog and Sara Ahmed. Reading enough ’til they were all having conversations in what I wrote down. And coming to the eventual conclusion that though some elements of utopianism, like working out what you’d all like, are more than useful, the word itself is what I now think of as a broken brand. Overused for too long and too many things, from dreams of heaven, through co-operative settlements to ‘the best juice bar in wherever’. And a field of study that’s still arguing about its definitions and purposes all these years since Thomas More, but one that’s not turning up in any of the ‘building back better’ discussions of our global pandemic. Done for, then, I’d say.
So now what?
Rather than continue looking for other people’s theories and methodologies to see if what we did and achieved in Granby and the others might fit with them now utopianism’s over, I’ve decided it’s time to be empirically-led. To start studying the methods and tools we’ve actually used in these now twelve years and continuing community work I’m calling my research. Much of which will be retrospectively done. Looking back through years of archives, walking together, wild policy improvising, house building, restoration, practical economics, guerrilla gardening, friendship and getting things done and changed, that others might call activism, but I don’t. All these particular cases of the possible, this work with the people I know. More than a few of them being the people who’ve just about had enough.
Well I won’t know what comes afterwards until I’ve done the work I know and expect will be difficult, of empirically studying these things I’ve been involved in myself, though never as a researcher ’til now. The doing of all of which will take the time it takes. That being one of the joys of doing a PhD for me. This unexpected gift of time to think. And who knows, having borrowed my current working title “Particular Cases of the Possible” from Bourdieu perhaps some of what I’ll find might fit with some of his or other theoretician’s thoughts? Or, and against my current judgement, even turn out to be some local developments of utopianism, Port Sunlight and all that? Or, and just maybe, I’ll find out something entirely new from all this, this work of my life. Which would be another joy and point of doing a PhD wouldn’t it? To find out something entirely new.
Big thanks to post graduate colleagues in the History Department for asking me to talk and for the discussion we had afterwards. More of my university writing is here.
All photographs by me, except for the monochrome one near the beginning, by Nick Hedges, for Shelter.