A contribution to the discussion around SolFed's Community Strategy

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Martin O Neill
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Aug 3 2011 23:52
A contribution to the discussion around SolFed's Community Strategy

From the SolFed Community Strategy thread:
Martin O Neill wrote:
On Community Self Management: How will community organisations relate to industrial organisations?

In a libertarian society a residents or community collective, even in a society with no money, rotation of the crap unpopular work and the carrying out of some tasks collectively as neighbours, there will still be a need for the residents collective to 'employ' someone to carry out some specialist work that only some people can do, even in a society where there is greater skill sharing and things are produced with a greater emphasis on as many people as want to being able to understand easily how they work. Even if these specialist people are organised collectively they can still be hired or fired by the community collective. There will still be a power relationship. This has troubled me for years! Is there is a solution to this?

Joseph Kay wrote: Well, the organisation of a libertarian communist society is somewhat beyond the scope of a 2011 community strategy! fwiw i don't think it would be a hire/fire relationship since the specialist's livelihood wouldn't be dependent on the work. probably a new thread though tbh...

Caiman del Barrio wrote: Not quite sure what your point here is. How is the 'community collective' any different to the industrial one on this point? Could you give me some examples of specialist work?

Martin O Neill wrote: I think the question I asked about the relationship between community and industrial organisations is relevant to a community strategy in 2011.

In a libertarian communist society I would imagine most people's main occupation would be something they loved doing. It would be a vocation. The work itself would be a rewarding experience. A community may have to 'hire' a specialist person or small group of specialists to maintain on a long-term basis a localised heating system for example. For whatever reason the community does not want that person to that job anymore, so they 'fire' the person. One of the main pleasures of that person's life is gone. To continue to do the work that person may have to move to another area, away from their home. They may have a family. They may have to lose their friends. In other words, even though the specialist's livelihood would not be affected the community would still have the power to seriously disrupt that person's life, which may not be balanced by the power that comes from the scarcity of the workers specialist skills.

The following is a slightly different question, but one obviously relevant to a 2011 community strategy. How do community organisations relate to workers?

A number of years ago I was part of an occupation to stop the council closing a local swimming pool. There were serious discussions about the local community running the pool ourselves. The model most people had in mind was a pretty conventional one where local community representatives sat on a management committee overseeing the manager and staff. That was were I stopped participating in the discussion as I didn't want to be in a position where I was effectively someone's boss. However if the model was more of a direct democratic one I may have considered being part of it. For particular reasons most of the day to day tasks could have been carried out by volunteers, including the people on the self-management committee. Even slightly more specialist work like being a life guard could be done volunteerly as very experienced and qualified people from the swimming clubs could have taken on this role on rotation. However a specialist heating system maintenance workers would almost certainly have to be employed permanently. I should make clear that that all the council workers had already been assigned jobs elsewhere in the council, so the volunteers would not be taking over someone else's job. The pool could have been run by a community co-op employing a workers co-op. I am aware of all the possible pitfalls of co-ops in a capitalist society. I am not advocating it as a solution. The occupation was evicted. There were particular reasons why all the direct action stopped at that point. The battle was lost. Any chance of the council re-opening the pool was gone. This was despite the occupation having virtually universal support in a community of around 10,000 people. There were 100s of people actively participating in the campaign on a weekly basis. The overall point being that the council running the pool was no longer an option and all the other alternative options basically meant members of the community becoming bosses. But what do you say to people? Sorry you will have to wait until we abolish capitalist economics and the class system before we can re-open the pool.

It just so happens there is another community centre quite near to where I live that was successfully saved from closure by the council by an occupation by local people including a number of anarchists. It has it's problems, but 10-15 years later it is still self-run by volunteers and is still used at times for anarchist organising and socials. It pays a peppercorn rent of £1 annually to the council, but no capital funding is available from the council. The roof needs several thousand pounds worth of work on it and the top floor is unusable, because of rain damage. Millions of pounds of lottery funding is dangled like a carrot in front of community groups with the impression given that there is enough for everyone. People look at the money apparently available and say pass me the application form. Eventually it is realised that practically every community group in Britain in chasing the same money to refurbish their building and that you are competing with other working class communities equally in need for money that no longer seems so big. Do you tell people it's a con or is a false hope better than no hope?

With the Big Society hijacking a positive desire in people to voluntarily contribute to their community for a neoliberal agenda plus the cuts in 2011, in the near future some Lib Com posters and many working class people involved in occupations may find themselves facing similar dilemmas to the ones described above. Do you accept the closure or become a community boss? Do you let the centre become unusable or do you compete with other working class communities for ever decreasing sources of funding? Should these issues be addressed in the SolFed Community Strategy? Should you just worry about when it happens? Should anarchists have a particular position on these issues? Should there be a strategy worked out on how to save places from closure with more sharing of experiences and successful tactics? Are there alternatives in the here and now that don't compromise all revolutionary principles?

The Glasgow Uni Occupation has been in negotiation with the university management in recent weeks about the long-term future of the Hetherington, the former post-grad research club that is in occupation. Just before the club was closed down over a year ago the people working there came up with a business plan to run the place as a workers co-op. I suspect the plan was viable. The university management agreed to consider the plan in a move designed to end a campaign to save the Hetherngton, which I think included a short occupation at the time if I remember correctly. The demands of the student occupiers from the start, this year, has been that the university takes over all former responsibilities for the running of the club and re-employs all the staff who were paid off. I think this position may reflect a non-anarchist, socialist majority in the occupation. Certainly the imaginative use that the Free Hetherington has been put to in the meantime by the the occupiers, in effect the service users, has made the place an even more essential part of the student community it serves with long-term viability. Unfortunately, as I have been unable to go there for a while I do not know the details of the negotiations or if any solution is being found that may be able to be applied to other places, but it remains a possibility.

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Chilli Sauce
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Aug 4 2011 00:28

Is this in news? Is that the best place for it? Blog perhaps?

Martin O Neill
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Aug 4 2011 00:51

first time i have posted an article. maybe the admins could help out?

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Joseph Kay
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Aug 14 2011 15:45

just to say this has been flagged up internally and i'm personally meaning to reply, but a lot to consider and i'm on a dissertation deadline at the moment!

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Joseph Kay
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Oct 1 2011 10:11

Finally have some time to reply to this!

Martin O'Neill wrote:
In a libertarian communist society I would imagine most people's main occupation would be something they loved doing. It would be a vocation. The work itself would be a rewarding experience. A community may have to 'hire' a specialist person or small group of specialists to maintain on a long-term basis a localised heating system for example. For whatever reason the community does not want that person to that job anymore, so they 'fire' the person. One of the main pleasures of that person's life is gone. To continue to do the work that person may have to move to another area, away from their home. They may have a family. They may have to lose their friends. In other words, even though the specialist's livelihood would not be affected the community would still have the power to seriously disrupt that person's life, which may not be balanced by the power that comes from the scarcity of the workers specialist skills.

Filling in some of the details: if the 'whatever reason' is the're no longer needed (they were some kind of expert for something obsolete say), there would seem to be no reason why that person couldn't remain in that locality with friends/family and do something else, or choose to move to follow their vocation. I don't think libertarian communism will abolish these kind of dilemmas, but it will remove the financial imperatives to abandon friends and family to survive etc.

Martin O'Neill wrote:
The overall point being that the council running the pool was no longer an option and all the other alternative options basically meant members of the community becoming bosses. But what do you say to people? Sorry you will have to wait until we abolish capitalist economics and the class system before we can re-open the pool.

Of course not! You'll know the details, but seems like there are several options. Maybe it was just unwinnable. Or maybe some of those 10,000 people could have been mobilised somehow to put pressure on the council to find the money (when Brighton refuse workers faced £8k pay cuts a few years ago the council suddenly found more money 2 days into a solid week-long strike). Or maybe people could have taken direct action against businesses in the area, demanding they pay a levy to support the local infrastructure.

Now whatever model for running the pool emerged would be inevitably capitalist in some way, maybe the best thing would be to restore the status quo ante through direct action, then get the workers organising to put you/them in a stronger position to prevent a repeat in a few years. In a sense i'd probably argue for that over a volunteer co-op model as both are ultimately capitalist, but one at least means the cost is borne by the state whereas the other out of peoples' free time. But there are good arguments the other way too, and it wouldn't be up to me but general meetings to decide on demands. In terms of strategy; SF members in such a situation could be proposing the above strategy, organising mass meetings, taking the lead door-knocking to build those meetings, and using national/international contacts to draw on relevant experience from elsewhere.

Martin O'Neill wrote:
Eventually it is realised that practically every community group in Britain in chasing the same money to refurbish their building and that you are competing with other working class communities equally in need for money that no longer seems so big. Do you tell people it's a con or is a false hope better than no hope?

Generally i'd say honesty is the best policy. People might not want to hear it, but i'd say as the goal is to promote class struggles over sectional struggles, linking together different underfunded community groups to fight together for a bigger pie rather than fighting each other over the slices would seem the way to go. That might be as simple as Locals in different towns arranging and subsidising speakers from said community groups to travel and meet others to build horizontal links and share experiences, and come up with joint demands and tactics to pursue them.

Martin O'Neill wrote:
Do you accept the closure or become a community boss? Do you let the centre become unusable or do you compete with other working class communities for ever decreasing sources of funding? Should these issues be addressed in the SolFed Community Strategy?

Maybe the problems should be flagged, but I'm not sure there's a generally applicable answer. I guess it could certainly include something about they way government gets everyone fighting for a limited pool of funding and an aim to overcome this through fighting together for more funding, and maybe a brief discussion of the problems of self-management, whilst acknowledging it may be the least-worst achievable option, and that decision should be made by mass meetings.

Martin O'Neill wrote:
the former post-grad research club that is in occupation. Just before the club was closed down over a year ago the people working there came up with a business plan to run the place as a workers co-op...

My personal inclination is closer to the 'socialist' position of forcing the costs onto management if at all possible, then making sure the workers are well organised to exercise on-the-job power. I wouldn't be completely against co-ops though, I just think they shouldn't be a goal of SF (even if we become involved in struggles which settle for them as the best option on the table). There probably should be something in the strategy on this though you're right.

Just to reiterate, the community strategy is very much a first draft, and at present not much more than a statement of intent. We want to pull together best-practice from across the organisation and beyond, and that will be an ongoing process. I'd imagine there will be quite a few amendments over the next few years.

Martin O Neill
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Oct 3 2011 00:56

Maybe the fight was unwinnable as the council leader who ordered the closure of the pool was in practice launching his political career on a national level and being seen to be capable of making 'hard choices' like closing a public service are a requirement of such a job.

Literally hundreds of people were mobilised on a weekly basis over several months to put pressure on the council. Local businesses did make donations to the campaign to save the pool, but as the area is part of the poorest Westminster constituency in the UK there wasn't any large businesses in the area to pay for the capital investment needed to keep the pool open. The pool had been deliberately run down for years to increase the cost of refurbishment to make it easier to justify closing it. I think we tried every possible option and practiced every possible form of direct action we could think of. There was a form of direct democracy practiced through the active face to face interaction of 100s of people in the daily 24 hour picket outside the pool, which fed directly into weekly meetings, which regularly consisted of 50 people, a real community council.

There was an attempt to meet with other community groups in Glasgow. Unfortunately, with one exception, a load of lefty hacks turned up representing fake community campaigns, paid lip service to joint struggle and then did nothing as they realised there was no one there to recruit.

I would just like to re-emphasise that the point about the Free Hetherington was that not only was it run better by the students (the user group or community group in this case) than by the former management it was also run better by the students than by the former workers. It was less elitist, more open to non students, it became an anti-cuts organising space and a socialist education centre rather than merely a post-grad drinking club. Again unfortunately by August most people had just had enough and this particular model did not prove to be viable in the long-term.

Finally I would like to say that nothing I have said is a 'this is why libertarian communism will never work' point or a 'direct action doesn't get the goods' point it's just that some things can be a bit harder to do in reality than on paper, but I realise you already know that.