Tom Fox casts a critical eye over housing co-operatives. Originally published in January 2012.
It seems a truism in radical politics that if The Guardian starts to like you then something’s gone wrong somewhere. When you’re a member of a housing co-operative that is itself a member of Radical Routes – a federation of other housing and workers co-ops across the UK – a favourable interest from the deputy-editor of the Guardian website’s money section, as happened last autumn, is an experience disquieting enough to put you off your lentils.
It is striking in the article that there seems little actually radical about Radical Routes. In the Guardian article, it is pointed out that member co-ops are expected to drive towards social change. Yet the co-op that serves as the subject of the article seems the embodiment of the sort of inoffensive tweeness that Islington Guardian-types soak up: ethical shopping, herb gardens, and even the ability to ‘treat minor illnesses’ are mentioned. Aspirations include going ‘off-grid’ and becoming, essentially, a self-sufficient smallholding. It is made clear that they are not just growing ‘a couple of lettuces to make us feel nice’, but it seems more accurate to say that they’re growing loads of lettuces so as to feel nice.
The Guardian may simply be misrepresenting the co-op in question. Even if they were they’ve highlighted the deeper truth of Radical Routes’, and with that the wider mutualist movement’s, rather incoherent politics. A few months before the article appeared, representatives of the various Radical Routes member co-ops met in one of the quarterly ‘gatherings’ – essentially democratic management meetings, whereby Radical Routes member co-ops decide on the policies, practices and principles of the organisation as a whole. Here, discussion was dominated by two things. Firstly, the objections of two member co-ops to a new co-op’s application to join. And secondly, the ensuing debate about what constituted the ‘radical social change’ commitment required of individual members of Radical Routes member coops, who under the current rules must spend fifteen hours a week engaged in (unpaid) activism.
The fundamental criteria for acceptance of a co-op applying to join Radical Routes is evidence put forward that demonstrates the commitment of that coop’s members to social change activism. As the website puts it, ‘You must be committed to positive social change and we will want to know what you do about it…each of your members actually has to spend a significant amount of time working towards a better world.’ The co-op whose application to join received objections had not appeared to outline any of the voluntary ‘radical social change’ work asked of for membership of Radical Routes. When asked to justify their practices that amounted to activism, they mentioned going on the March for the Alternative, being poets and in bands, using gas and electricity sustainably. They rolled out the buzzwords: ‘facilitate’, ‘network’, ‘share practice’, ‘volunteering’, and made it clear that they attempted to manage their consumerism.
The prospective co-op also wanted to keep and slaughter animals on the premises for commercial reasons, and this was a particularly contentious issue. If this had not been mentioned on the application, would they have been allowed to join? It seems possible that they would have, or at least would have caused less controversy. Simply put, the rest of their ethos was not that far removed from that of the co-op interviewed in the Guardian (the co-op in question is in fact an associate member, rather than a full member, of the network; it has therefore not undergone full scrutiny under the Radical Routes application process – the ed.). They mentioned projects centred around art, voluntary work and consumerism, ably adopting the language of activism. And if that is what they think activism is about, it is because those things are all activists have been doing and saying for decades. Any slightly edgy behaviour, any ‘liberatory’ art project (no matter how shit), any tedious whinge or baseless complaint trotted out in a meeting ruled by consensus, any slug-sodden, exotically named root vegetable dredged from the weekly veg-box, and any effort to ‘reduce’ just about anything, has become the iconography of large stretches of the libertarian left. For decades now, activists have gone to every effort to present themselves as living aesthetics of perfunctory, perfectly acceptable, easily commodified deviancy. As a result, the movement has become an ethical rather than political one.
This is a shame, because it means activists and outsiders miss the original point of the politics of everyday life, of which co-operatives are a cornerstone: finding a way of coping with social relations within capital. For centuries, people have developed strategies, ranging from theft and more organised appropriation to forming friendly societies, sickness and funeral clubs, to co-operatives of consumers, workers or home-owners, and of course unions. All have fundamentally been means by which individuals, through mutual aid and collective action, have managed to make their lives better and easier. They are not inherently antagonistic toward capital, and do not intend to be so, but in fact all are strategies for the immediate or long-term alleviation of some of the problems that arise throughout our lives, such as wage labour, consumption and the commodification of housing. They are a means of having a better life within the social relations we find ourselves in.
In E.P. Thompson’s phrase, workers have ‘warrened capitalism from end to end’ since the industrial revolution. Yet the fetish of (for example) the co-operative as one of the tools of the ‘radical’ lifestyle activist is a complete perversion of this warrening. During one discussion at the Radical Routes gathering last summer, some advocated co-operatives as revolutionary in themselves, revealing how completely smitten with the idea of living our principles rather than organising according to our principles some of us have become. Co-op members are not capitalists in the sense that they are profit-seekers, but nevertheless they are still tightly bound within the relations of private property. It makes no difference if we are talking about loanstock on a hill on the Welsh border with army surplus booted, dreadlocked hippies and anarchists: we’re still talking about loanstock. There is nothing fundamentally radical or progressive about co-operatives: their supporters include, after all, Norman Tebbit. This is not to say that mutualism possesses guilt by association with the establishment, but rather that we need to be honest about what it’s for: slightly changing the rules of the game for our benefit, not forming an insular cult.
This is not a problem solely with the culture surrounding co-operatives. They are merely representative of a wider problem within today’s activist ‘scene’. In this, it is more important not to buy things than it is to organise in the workplace. Work itself is no longer seen as the source of all wealth, as it was in class-based politics for the best part of two centuries, but seen instead as boring and to be avoided. The Radical Routes rule that legislates 15-hours of social change activism a week was put in place to ensure that co-ops remained politically active, but also in an attempt to prevent full-time work and therefore consumption. In this the organisation followed the detachment of the left in the 1990s from not only the actual problems of workers and their organisation, but their entire culture and everyday life. With direct action (and largely environmental) activism, the trend was reinforced, and, a solipsistic and reclusive counter-culture was fostered. In part this was due to the need for those engaged in direct action to maintain high degrees of secrecy and security, meaning that such actions were never mass actions. At the same time, once an action was started it needed maximum publicity, meaning that activists presented themselves as a very small group of martyrs, protesting on everyone else’s behalf. That culture now seems a serious problem, and the inability of Radical Routes to decide what ‘radical social change’ actually means reflects the fracturing of the left caused by post-Millbank, post-austerity politics. What we now need is not monasticism and seclusion, but a relevant, united mass-movement that can respond to the current crisis. We need to clearly say that we are for the working class, and clearly outline what the working class now looks like, so that we can all agree that there is a mass engaged in, and losing, a class war. This cannot be done if we isolate ourselves. The activist can no longer be a secluded martyr, but should strive instead to be both everyone at once and no-one in particular.
In a slow, bureaucratic process, the rules around hours spent on social change work are being transitioned out of the Radical Routes constitution, in favour of a more decentralised agreement that allows individual co-ops to decide their own definition of social change. But this process, and the debate surrounding it, reveals a specific problem with co-operatives (that is itself tied to a general problem with lifestyle activism). By their nature, co-ops tend to focus political problems into a quotidian politics. However, this is not a quotidian politics based around actual everyday problems (‘what am I going to feed the family this week? Can we afford the bills anymore? I need to sit here all day and find a job’), for which ‘warrening’ provides a response. Instead, what we seem to have developed is a politics that decides that changing quotidian lifestyle choices is actually a radical act (‘Do I consume too much? Should I buy an organic vegbox? Am I over-privileged?’). The danger with this is that we end not so much Radical as Christian, directing politics inward at problems of the soul rather than outward at problems of social relations.
Similarly, an obsession with ethical consumerism and lifestylism leads to a contradiction difficult to deal with. In 1838, a Chartist defined the movement by telling a protesting crowd that it meant ‘plenty of roast beef, plum pudding, and strong beer by working three hours a day’. Chartism was a movement of millions who demanded more luxury and less austerity. Over the last two decades, a movement of a few thousand has demanded more austerity and less luxury, with the direct result being that the post-Millbank generation are confronted by a left that has neither an intellectual or organisational tradition able to respond to the current austerity drive. A schism is shaping between an ethical, inwardly directed movement of knitters and vegetable-botherers on one side, and those for whom austerity is a threatening imposition, not a welcomed privilege, on the other. We should be struggling to unlock the benefits of production for all people and the planet they live on, not denying it in order to remain an ethically pure elite.
Co-operatives are only one part of this wide-ranging conflict, but how they respond to it is intriguing. Should the principle behind them be the maintenance of an aristocracy of activists? Or would it be wiser instead to respond to rent hikes, home repossessions and job-losses by presenting the co-operative as a more humane way of dealing with the ravages of capital and private property? The question of homeownership, and the relations that swirl around it, is becoming politicised (witness, for instance, the occupation of repossessed homes under the Occupy banner in the US). Co-operatives could easily be one base through which activists re-engage with the everyday lives of those they claim to be struggling for, but only if they are not viewed as laboratories for eccentrics but rather warrens that allow us to cope with life under capital. Mutualism is not enough to deal with capitalism, a system that ultimately needs nothing short of abolishing. Nevertheless, it could be one element in the wholesale rejuvenation that the left sorely needs. In short, we need to think of ourselves not as trying to create a scene, but trying to join a mass-movement.
Tom Fox is a member of a Radical Routes housing co-op. He is a labour historian and involved in radical media.
Republished from Shift magazine