Mutual Improvement Societies

“Herein lies the tragedy of the age:
Not that men are poor, – all men know something of poverty.
Not that men are wicked, – who is good?
Not that men are ignorant, – what is truth?
Nay, but that men know so little of men.”
― W.E.B. Du Bois

Mutual improvement societies can be an interesting way to generate intellectual life.
Around May Day, we added the tool of Incident reports to try and improve the level of conversation.


One interesting way of knowing the truth in its many dimensions is to try and generate a conversation. If you ask about the same incident to different persons in different layers of the organization and try to record these, you will get a summary of what the feel of the incident is. This has been a way of building perspective from a holistic approach rather than a Top-Down Absentee Board Member approach making some closeted decisions without ever asking the persons on the ground what is happening.


Date: Time:

What happened?

Reported to administrator…Yes or No,

To Whom


Proposed action.


The Exit Interview

The Pygmalion Effect


In her book- The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes’ Jonathan Rose writes about the workings of other grassroots and awareness-raising groups in hundreds of chapels and thousands of kitchens became known as ‘mutual improvement’ (a term used as far back as 1731). Although ‘these institutions are scarcely mentioned in studies of labour history,’ Rose comments, a Coventry millworker once claimed that
‘The Labour movement grew out of Mutual Improvement Societies’ (58).

In the medical private sector, I came to know of some bizarre rules like

“If you talk to the administrator three days salary will be cut”

While talking to some workers who do night duties.(When will they get
their dues if they keep working quietly in night?)

Meeting in a non-formal atmosphere, talking about the composition of the communities through their schools, libraries, reading groups made us realize how different issues like housing allowances, gratuity, medical insurance, transfers help build a narrative and perspective which is different from “millions transferred-profit and loss” of the board.

“How come a hospital which derives income from insured patients does not insure its own medical staff?”


Remembering Haymarket..The Eight Hour Day
The first secular holiday of Libya under the transitional council is the International Worker’s day.Earlier, other than Islamic holidays, the only secular holidays were those relating to the important dates on the calendar of the previous regime.

Which Historiography..In search of Unknown Worker


As we sifted through the intellectual life of working people, we realized the truth in the words of a student in 1936 Williams-Heath survey who believed education exists

‘To enable a man to stand on his own feet. To equip him to be able to endure his own company on occasions, communing with the inner world of his thoughts, instead of rushing out to mix with the crowd’ (283).

As I asked a reputed Head of an Infectious diseases unit in Tripoli about the source of medicines, he acknowledged that India-the pharmacy of the underdeveloped world can provide the same drugs at a much cheaper rate.

“There is pressure from NGOs to acquire the drugs from European companies.
I do not have much say in the purchasing committee and do my job to take care of the patients. The lobbies are funded by powerful interests.”

As I read this article in the Tripoli Post about the state of our hospitals-

I have recently seen a report on one of these hospitals that suggests that they still are in very bad shape. As a matter of fact recently some doctors have taken the desperate measures of leading a daily hourly strike in protest against the shortage of equipment, and the recently added problem of gun threats by patients to the medical staff.

The truth of experiences at different layers comes out in many ways. The patient, relative experiences the same institution in a different way from a maintenance engineer, or a medical head of unit , nursing instructor. The place is the same, but the experiences and viewpoints are different .Add to this the fluid state of ministries the sense of flux is felt even more. As one veteran pointed out

“The persons in the ministries have become defensive, do not want to rock the boat and just want to finish their tenure without much controversy.”

If education is to stand on one’s own feet, then collective opinion may give us better ways of doing so.


Let us try to go beyond monologues into multilayered conversations, develop mutual awareness and improvement societies to interrogate various layers.


1. Book review by Elliot Murphy

The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes’ by Jonathan Rose
As the marketisation of universities accelerates, maintaining forms of education which value the pursuit of knowledge as an end in itself has become a crucial and necessary challenge. Elliot Murphy revisits a classic study by Jonathan Rose that explores the pre-war culture of self-education amongst the British working classes.

2. The Scary Spider That Opened My Eyes – by Mary Ahmed

3. Dictated by Pharma Companies

Commentary by Kalpana Mehta, Anand Rai, Nalini Bhanot in Economic and Political Weekly April 2013

The 59th report of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on health and family welfare on the functioning of the central drugs standard control organisation strongly indicted the agency for its incompetence and the corrupt dealing of doctors who are puppets of pharmaceutical companies.


About prashant bhatt

A psychologist, interested in mindfulness practices. I practiced medicine as a radiologist for 23 years in India and Libya as a radiologist before shifting to Canada. A regular diarist, journaling since 1983 Reading journal :
This entry was posted in Everyday History, Health Policy, life and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Mutual Improvement Societies

  1. NB says:

    I agree that mutual improvement comes out of conversations but provided it takes the shape of dialogue / discussion; Given “multi-layering” of experiences, there is always the danger of conversations degenerating into arguments (personal experience!); a level of maturity/ tolerance of differing viewpoints is required; I am too often guilty of becoming the devil’s advocate just trying to probe into the layers! An understanding of this phenomenon is yet another lesson I have learnt from my (few) intellectual dealings in Tripoli! It is indeed a life-long learning process…. (therefore I need to keep an open mind);

    May the workers of the world unite / at lease converse; Kudos to the Libyan Govt. for its secular side!

    • A writer once wrote- People who call themselves- Devil-advocate-are actually disagreeing and trying to be diplomatic/clever.


      I think it is not always true, and in many of our discussions and smiles I have found in you what I miss from my many discussions I used to have with my father in my younger much wilder days. In retrospect, this is the guiding hand of experience.

      Cynics may call it something else…thankfully I have not yet become a cynic (though many middle-class intellectuals belong to this
      fairly large club)


      From the many studies (Check Burn out Forum) to summaries of Dr.Livingstone (Christianity-Commerce-Civilization) to the
      Everyday Histories at Safir… you-Dear Nattu Bhai have brought something more to the table than just the Biryani…

      Happy Thinking

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