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The Sanford housing co-op. Photo: Sanford
Recent years have thrown into stark relief the impact decisions made in Westminster have on our lived experiences – not just in the immediate, but for our futures. Living conditions have stagnated and retreated, and a generation of new adults face a situation where, in many respects, their quality of life will not match that of their parents. This is true across many facets of our lives: employment prospects, cost of living, and housing. And with a Conservative government now in power, welfare and civil liberties also increasingly find themselves under attack.
With the palpable realisation that decisions made by our representatives do not reflect our needs comes an understanding not just that the structures of capitalism are not fit for purpose – that they demonstrate an inherent disregard for the majority.
This reality produces a polarised response. On the one hand, disillusioned and ignored, many are resigned to this injustice, their energies instead focused on trying to secure for themselves a basic standard of living. This is an understandable reaction in a system which is closing in on us from all sides, and in which many feel powerless.
In amongst this, however, the opposite has also been gaining traction – that is, a politicisation. Political action takes on many forms, some less obvious than others. Co-operatives (housing, energy, food and worker) act in opposition to the ruthlessness of capitalism, and provide security, opportunity and positivity to those involved with them. We should consider these organisations part of a mounting politicisation that does not necessarily follow the well-trodden (but often ineffective) footsteps of much political activity, but embraces action, out of desperation but also defiance.
Housing is currently a topic of intense debate and emotion, particularly now social housing is under vigorous attack from the Tories, and as London’s housing crisis worsens. There exist within this country many pockets of dissent focusing on this fundamental issue. When I say dissent I am referring to something far wider than street protest and petitions. I am speaking of a rejection of the values and systems to which we were told to submit and adhere. And beyond this too: not just a rejection, but the positive shaping of new paths and answers.
This dissent may be at times necessarily confrontational, such as the London Black Revs’ action in cementing over ‘anti-homeless spikes’, it may be longer-term living setups such as housing co-operatives, or it may straddle the two, such as the Focus E15 campaign or Grow Heathrow.
The housing co-operative I live in, Sanford, celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. While Sanford is just one project in South London, it offers a tangible alternative. When people come to visit they are amazed – this is the sort of place you could live if you didn’t have a landlord who prioritised profit over tenants, if you organised collectively, if you were active and self-supporting. We can begin to sow seeds of change by allowing people to question their current situation and whether there is an alternative, and to feel empowered enough to begin forging that life for themselves.
Sanford is non-hierarchical and necessarily anti-capitalist: living there is a political act. But, it achieves its greatest successes not through terminology or political declarations, but in how those concepts translate into everyday living practice, and how those practices impact upon the way in which residents interact with each other and the wider world. Reclaiming power is not always about revolution on a grand scale, it is also personal revolution, which includes regaining and realising agency and having access to the tools required to enact this. There are around fifty housing co-operatives in London alone, and as the housing crisis deepens, their waiting lists get longer. Supporting and promoting the co-operative model will benefit who directly interact with these organisations, and will have ripple effects reaching out far further.
This well-worn adage, first popularised in the 1960s, holds true now more than ever. We cannot override the current system overnight; revolution relies on popular will. How can we hope for this to happen without demonstrating that there is an alternative (particularly when we have been indoctrinated to consider neoliberal capitalism the only viable modus operandi)?
To do so, we must be that alternative. In how we treat one another, in how we treat the environment, in how we live and think. This may feel like a daunting, unachievable task, but we can all make changes – and by sharing the responsibility we lighten the load, and can secure achievements far greater than the sum of our parts.
Within the world of political resistance are numerous groups of hard-working, dedicated people trying to fight for causes close to their hearts. While many of these struggles share an underlying ethos, their specificity often precludes strength in numbers. This is not a criticism – it can be exhausting to juggle campaigning with all of life’s responsibilities, and it is no wonder that those who decide to act focus their attention on challenges affecting them most directly.
Housing, though, is one thing that unifies us all (or at least most of us): from those borrowing to take out mortgages on shockingly expensive homes, those paying extortionate rents for shoddy rooms from private landlords, those in precarious house guardian schemes or illegal sublets, those squatting (regardless of their reasons for doing so), and members of housing co-operatives. Housing, too, is a symbol of the financial crisis itself, and the system which has led us to this precarious state. It is also something so fundamental to our survival that it highlights the absurdity of any modern society which renders it unattainable.
Linking ongoing resistance movements in a mutually supporting fashion would permit a network from which we all benefit. This was the threat of Occupy: it began demonstrating a workable alternative, a new mode of interaction, and it began joining the dots between groups and causes. Occupy demonstrated that protest need not be reactionary, but can grow into something that leads the debate. Ideas such as the Brixton Pound (amongst other local currencies) show ways in which communities are coming together to bypass capitalism and support one-another in a time where their representatives are not. As do the community-run social centres, clothes swap shops, skill-share events and community food groups that seem to be springing up all over right now. We can dream big, taking these ideas and developing news ways to live our lives free of exploitation, and without exploiting others.
Co-operatives in all their forms are a part of this more communal mode of thinking which is currently experiencing a revival. Born out of tough circumstances, it appears that many are reconsidering their priorities and realigning these away from the soulnessness of global capital. While a complete revisiting of our society is something that needs serious contemplation and large-scale action, starting small there’s plenty to do and lots of information out there. For example, Seeds for Change have some amazing guides on planning/organising and on setting up different types of co-operatives; Radical Routes is a co-op of co-ops – and a great resource; there’s a new app from Co-ops UK, Co-operate, which shows you co-operatively run organisations near you; Radical Housing Network is full of information and advice, and is committed to action for housing.
The Tory imagining of capitalism may be here to stay for now but we can protest against this, both in the streets and in our homes.
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The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme
Labour’s NEC has started to empower party members – but we still have a mountain to climb
The crunch executive meeting ahead of Labour conference agreed some welcome changes, writes Michael Calderbank, but there is still much further to go
Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it
The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going
A very social economist
Hilary Wainwright says the ideas of Robin Murray, who died in June, offer a practical alternative to neoliberalism
Art the Arms Fair: making art not war
Amy Corcoran on organising artistic resistance to the weapons dealers’ London showcase
Beware the automated landlord
Tenants of the automated landlord are effectively paying two rents: one in money, the other in information for data harvesting, writes Desiree Fields
Black Journalism Fund – Open Editorial Meeting
3-5pm Saturday 23rd September at The World Transformed in Brighton
Immigration detention: How the government is breaking its own rules
Detention is being used to punish ex-prisoners all over again, writes Annahita Moradi
A better way to regenerate a community
Gilbert Jassey describes a pioneering project that is bringing migrants and local people together to repopulate a village in rural Spain
Fast food workers stand up for themselves and #McStrike – we’re loving it!
McDonald's workers are striking for the first time ever in Britain, reports Michael Calderbank
Two years of broken promises: how the UK has failed refugees
Stefan Schmid investigates the ways Syrian refugees have been treated since the media spotlight faded
West Papua’s silent genocide
The brutal occupation of West Papua is under-reported - but UK and US corporations are profiting from the violence, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
Activate, the new ‘Tory Momentum’, is 100% astroturf
The Conservatives’ effort at a grassroots youth movement is embarrassingly inept, writes Samantha Stevens
Peer-to-peer production and the partner state
Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis argue that we need to move to a commons-centric society – with a state fit for the digital age
Imagining a future free of oppression
Writer, artist and organiser Ama Josephine Budge says holding on to our imagination of tomorrow helps create a different understanding today
The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics
Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.
Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making
Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
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Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
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A musical fightback against school arts cuts
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Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune
Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali
To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi
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Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh
With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
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