Tiny Universities of Solidarity
In a recent analysis of ‘Generation Left,’ James Meadway pointed out that, with 50% of 18 – year-olds attending university, ‘education is no longer a marker of class in the way that it was two or three generations ago.’
As political scientists continue to puzzle over the generational divides in our society: the old tools for understanding political tendencies are becoming blunt.
One marker that is seldom considered, which always seemed obvious to me – is whether you had to work in a low-paid job (usually in hospitality) to pay your way through university, or whether family picked up the tab.
Personally, I found the deeply alien terrain of a Russell Group university largely incidental to my life as an undergraduate. Like so many others, I spent those years of my life mostly in the pub – soon drawn in to a revolving door scene of young punters, who, having spent all their disposable income on pints, inevitably end up earning it back behind the bar.
At points it felt a bit like national service; albeit with more bodily fluids involved. I’ve never worked as hard, confronted so much novelty, deployed so many versions of myself, as when working behind a bar. I wasn’t that good at it, but people who do it well can achieve the grace of a conductor teasing out a symphony.
In this way, manky wee pubs raised me. This is perhaps a romantic statement, and it doesn’t apply to my childhood; apart from, perhaps, the tail-end of it. However, if the village can raise a child, there is no reason why this elevating work has to stop on reaching adulthood.
In fact, the need to be raised up by community continues, becomes more relevant even, at later stages of life. We may lack the rites of passage that our ancestors used to position their selves within a wider scheme of things, but we all still need that anchor of belonging at unknowable moments and in multifarious ways.
So my life up to 2020 was often spent seeking out the unhygienic human stew found in your own, or somebody else’s, local. The search was all the more appealing because it was often frowned upon. Keeping different hours, you could revel in the particular comfort of being defined by something other than the default markers of identity – family and occupation – and their sometimes suffocating obligations.
These particular qualities were defined by Ray Oldenburg as vividly present in his concept of the ‘third place’ – neither the household, nor the workplace, but a setting that offers the ‘neutral ground’ required for free, informal, sociability.
It is precisely these places that, having been ferociously battered by the pandemic, now need to be sustained and revived as a public good. Unlike the ersatz chains and shopping centres: the community’s pub, library, hairdresser, café, bookshop, are, quite literally, irreplaceable.
As Oldenburg argues, ‘a place that is a leveller is by its nature an inclusive place.’ Out of this equality emerge associational cultures vital to civic participation and engagement, perhaps even to civilization itself.
Problems and solutions
Since Scotland’s 2005 Act, licensing policy has placed the pub in a strange predicament, with minimum pricing failing to rebalance the major shift since the 1990s towards off-sales.
Even before the pandemic, a lingering Scots paternalism often seemed to view informal public gatherings as inherently problematic in their own right. Licensing, public health and policing policies consistently fail to comprehend that, while Scotland’s drinking culture is foul and destructive on many levels, it is still a culture, and cannot simply be legislated away.
Due to this gulf of understanding, we are left with a picture in which a third place in Scotland can either be a public good or a public vice, depending on what postcode it is situated in, and how much it costs to make use of. Thus, the street life of the Royal Mile or the Merchant City is celebrated, while that of Govanhill is decried.
A decent pub, with a cast of regulars, well-paid and empowered staff, and attentive management, is the polar opposite of ‘problem drinking’. They are the equivalent to what Jane Jacobs famously called ‘eyes on the street’ – the most effective deterrent against crime.
So while the price of a pint in Edinburgh or Glasgow has doubled over the past decade, the social consequences of alcoholism continue to be played out as national drinking habits have moved indoors. Yet, relegating these problems to the home, as the pandemic has already reminded us in its bitterest consequences, just moves the problem out of the pub, off the street and into darker recesses.
The ‘hospitality’ sector is unique in that its name refers to the performance of an act of human kindness and fellow-feeling: of emotional or affective labour. In the higher-end, or big-chain establishments, this work is tightly enforced and obligatory.
But the closer you get to the manky wee pub model, the more you will find the real, tough, work of sustaining community, of care and contact with those who need it. This work is not always pretty to witness but is often vital and necessary.
As James Cameron said of his time frequenting the world’s bars as a foreign correspondent: ‘they were cardinal points on our map, and it was possible that in them alone one really knew where one was.’
Without these waypoints, the city becomes merely a vast suburb: isolated, individuated, inward looking. Hospitality becomes a mere transaction. On current trends, it seems all too likely that the pandemic will simply speed up this ongoing process.
There is also the related risk that the politics of the pandemic will shift a predominantly non-unionised Generation Left to the right – particularly if we allow the right rhetorical ownership of the process of re-opening and the return of freedoms.
Ditching paternalism and censorious moralism will be key to this: in their place we need to demonstrate that the consistently shallow nature of freedom on offer.
Freedom of the Third Place
We should talk instead of the freedom to be sick, without facing destitution, or the freedom that comes for low-paid workers when they are able to expect a minimum number of contracted hours.
We also need to argue for the freedom of the third place, protected from a crippling commercial rents that could soon destroy so many.
Elsewhere, the example of Glasgow Life’s partial reopening – has, perversely, drawn communities together to protest the silent shuttering or selling off of their cherished third places.
This should remind us that after a moment of unprecedented mass isolation, we have an opportunity to rebuild associational cultures, just as the left worked to create autonomous cultures of ‘fellowship’ a century ago.
Go back to the origins of contemporary urban society, and you’ll find that definitions of university (from the Latin universitas: community, whole) and the pub collapse into each other.
Communities don’t always conform, they rub up against each other and are proud, awkward, disruptive. But perhaps the most useful thing that the community of the pub taught me growing up was the value of regular contact with difference: of age, class, temperament.
As the market-based freedoms to exploit, evict and enclose return, the third places – those tiny universities of solidarity – need to be defended at all costs.