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Living co-operatively: everyday dissent

We go beyond protesting against the Tories' housing crisis, writes Amy Corcoran – we can start to construct co-operative alternatives

June 19, 2015
7 min read

Amy CorcoranAmy Corcoran is an artist and organiser for Art the Arms Fair, and a PhD student at ISCI, Queen Mary University of London.

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sanfordThe 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.

Co-operate or die

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.

‘The Personal is political’

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.

Networks of co-operation

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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Amy CorcoranAmy Corcoran is an artist and organiser for Art the Arms Fair, and a PhD student at ISCI, Queen Mary University of London.

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