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Embracing the margins and the marginalised

As Vaclav Havel in The Power of the Powerless, (originally published in Czechoslovakia in October 1978) argued: power often stifles creativity and ideas, and generally it is only those on the margins that have the space, sometimes the eccentricity, to think radically.

Havel does not suggest that living on the margins in a physical sense is a great place to be. What Havel argues out of his lived experience in a communist dictatorship, is that many people can turn adversity into creativity and ideas that generate freedom and democracy, especially when they collaborate and act in community.

His words written some decades ago are validated today when people pushed to the margins take action together and creatively overcome adversity. For example, as Spain continues to cope with its economic crisis and attempts to address their recession with punitive austerity measures that by and large hurt the poor, in Andalusia where unemployment remains at 36% (for those aged 16 to 24 the figure is above 55%) one potentially very poor village called Marinaleda has defied poverty through creatively and ‘social’ innovation (see The Observer 20/10/13 The New Review p.16). In abject poverty in the 1070s, today while the rest of Spain suffers, Marinaleda enjoys a quality and standard of life because of a collaborative commitment to the communal use of land and village resources to ensure there is both food and jobs available for all its inhabitants. The Marinaleda cooperative works the 1,200 hectare El Humoso farm providing local jobs and sharing both the produce and the benefit across the village. Pushed to the margins, this village, led by a charismatic mayor, opted for a model that is the polar opposite of current neoliberal efficient individualistic capitalism. Against this ‘empire’ that produced the financial crisis that afflicts us still, the village has won, while the rest of Spain struggles.

The ‘margins’ of society can however refer to a philosophical (thinking) location rather than physical location. From around 1965 until mid-1980s this space was called the ‘counter-culture’. It was a space for questioning the status quo, for challenging authority, for ‘free’ thinking, for creativity and new ideas as well as a little drugs, sex and rock and roll. It was a time when people decided for a variety of reasons to live outside socially accepted norms. It is hard to contest that these two decades were amongst the most creative and innovative across all sectors of life in recent history.

Reaction to this creativity and freedom however has been very efficient. Led by the restructuring crusader Margaret Thatcher and supported by a third-rate ex-actor with primitive right-wing leanings in the USA called Ronald, three decades on, globalized market forces reign supreme, generally indifferent to the human and environmental damage they cause, and in which the gap between rich and poor has widened in real terms, no matter how the trickle-down theorists attempt to portray reality.

Now in the western democracies the majority of people assume they have power and with it contentment – so long as that power is consumer power and their contentment is rooted in material accumulation. It’s a deadening space where creativity and ideas are only acceptable if they support the status quo, and it is only questioned when it does not give more materially to its adherents. As Richard Flannery in his essay ‘The Australian Disease: on the decline of love and the rise of non-freedom’ observes: “in present day Australia, it doesn’t matter what you do or what you have done, so long as you conform to power. The only true crime in an ever-more bland Australia is to not conform . . . to speak out is to be declared a rat, . . . to not speak out is to be rewarded with endorsement and promotion . . . it is the Australian disease” (Quarterly Essay Issue 44 2011).

So where are the people living on the margins in a philosophical sense? Where can we find them? Where are the people living in a marginal thinking location that questions the status quo, searches for creativity, looks for new alternatives to the dominant discourse and does not forget about justice and equity?

One could assume they are to be found in the not-for-profit/NGO sector – organisations originally charged with providing services to those in society living physically on the margins. If markets depend on material self-interests, governments on coercion and power, the alternative base of the not-for-profit sector originally was one of moral commitment to ensure quality of life for those physically at the margins. One could assume this alternative space to that of markets and government would be the location of thinking philosophically from the margins. But this appears more and more improbable as many in leadership and executive roles in the not-for-profit sector primarily inhabit the physical space of the centralised (not the marginalised) and their acquiescence to the status quo is a key performance indicator in order for them to retain their position, and usually the revenue from government contracts (note: as with all broad brush stroke statements there are always outstanding exceptions, John Falzon of St Vincent de Paul being one of them).

So where are the spaces and places for creative radical thinking in Australia? Where are the people who are the cure to the Australian disease of conformism within a political-economic system that increasingly promotes hardship for those already physically on the margins? Where are those who can co-create alternative solutions like the village of Marinaleda in Andelusia, that combine thinking from the margins with practice to ensure those living physically on the margins don’t remain there? How do we solve this ‘disease’?

Here is a proposed solution: co-creation and collaboration. Invite people who are on the physical, as well as the philosophic margins, to work with you to find solutions to ongoing challenges and ‘wicked’ problems. Invite front-line staff to inform central office staff about the reality of working at the ‘front-line’ and set up ‘ideas incubators’ where the least powerful can be given the opportunity to have their ideas really considered. Bring the board-rooms and the street together so that the mayor of a town can sit down with the farm workers and co-create a solution. Let those on the margins both physically and philosophically hold a mirror up to those who stifle creativity and ideas and shake them awake to new possibilities.

We know it’s possible. We’ve seen it in action, and we’ve seen the results it can generate. It’s time to re-embrace the margins, the marginal and the marginalised.


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