Mutual aid in england

One of the simplest and profoundest teachings of anarchism is that it is only with the help of many, many others that one finds oneself.

Jesse S. Cohn, Anarchism and the Crisis of Representation

The debate around the “radical” nature or potential of mutual aid organising, cooperatives, communes, and the like, will persist for the simple reason that there can be no final theoretical or ideological answer to the question of whether “the revolution” should pass through such forms of self-organisation, instead of preparing for a generalised insurrection, for example. The question however is misplaced, and not only because the either/or in this instance is again largely ideological, but because conceptions of “radicalness” and “revolution” are themselves far from obvious.

We may argue over the “faith” that the author below suggests is a characteristic of anarchists, but then the disagreement will very likely be over questions of meaning and of the conditions for that faith.

From Freedom News, we share below a two part article Warren Draper on mutual aid organising in england.

DIY or Die

Freedom News, March 9th, 2022

The main difference between anarchists and authoritarians (…on both the right and the left), is that anarchists have faith in people (in fact, I’m not sure that authoritarians even like people). This faith is born from the understanding that relationships are key to building a better, braver, brighter future for all (indeed, in modern physics, it is relationships, rather than atoms, which seem to be the building blocks of the universe). Upon reading Carissa Honeywell’s recent book Anarchism (Polity Press, 2021), I was reminded of the following Gustav Landauer quote:

“The state is a relationship between human beings, a way by which people relate to one another; and one destroys it by entering into other relationships, by behaving differently to one another.”

This quote sums up perfectly the nature of our struggle and the immediatism inherent in all truly anarchist activism. Where the authoritarians simply want to change who is in the driving seat and/or where the car is going, we anarchists want to stop the car, bask in the sunshine, and have a picnic while we enjoy each other’s company and every minute of what Mary Oliver perfectly described as our ‘one wild and precious life’. Carissa herself says of anarchism:

“[In anarchism] we can identify a radically interpersonal (or inter-being) philosophy of grassroots relationship building that aims to foster or model ideals of community wherein all needs are taken seriously. The practices that emerge from these ideas (or the ideas that emerge from these practices) may be a source of new thinking in difficult political times.”

Carissa and I are both admirers of Freedom’s Colin Ward. In his own favourite — and most often cited — quote, Ward shows that this relational/ interpersonal feeling is embraced by all self-organised, grassroots, working class initiatives.

“When we compare the Victorian antecedents of our public institutions with the organs of working-class mutual aid in the same period, the very names speak volumes. On the one side the Workhouse, the Poor Law Infirmary, the National Society for the Education of the Poor in Accordance with the Established Church; on the other, the Friendly Society, the Sick Club, the Co-operative Society, the Trade Union. One represents the tradition of fraternal and autonomous associations springing up from below, the other that of authoritarian institutions directed from above.”

Colin uses his own quote in his important essay, The Welfare Road We Failed to Take. The essay deals with the fact that we threw the self-organising baby out with the bathwater when we allowed a Fabianist welfare state model which increased paternalism and dependence on the nation state at the same time it increased social security. Colin’s wider body of work was awash with countless examples of grassroot self-organisation, but here’s one Carissa uses in her book:

“Within anarchist discourses, social order is reckoned to be the spontaneous collective product of human creative and collaborative problem-solving impulses. Anarchist writers, from Kropotkin to Colin Ward, point to examples of the organisations and institutions that have emerged from the voluntary practices of individuals and groups in order to meet complex lived human needs without the hierarchical authority of state, law, armies or police forces. In fact, Ward points to the origins of the UK National Health Service in one such organisation in a Welsh mining town that operated a user-controlled, self-funded set of health-care and social services accessible to all members of the community. In his radical challenge to the familiar social history narrative of inadequate and inconsistent welfare before the intervention of the state, Ward points to the Tredegar Medical Aid Society, founded in 1870 in South Wales. Through voluntary levy, the society provided medical and hospital care for local miners and steelworkers and their dependents, irrespective of contribution or employment status.”

How much more resilient would a decentralised, locally owned and governed NHS have been against privatisation and state mismanagement?

Now that the state has largely internalised neoliberal values (not that the state and capitalism were ever anything but allies born of the same colonialist mindset), and the capitalists are using crisis and welfare infrastructure to increase their profits, our paternalistic society is largely under equipped to defend itself from the unfolding and deepening collective troubles we now face. It doesn’t take a genius to realise that neoliberalism has brought us full circle to a place where Victorian values once again prevail, and that only “the tradition of fraternal and autonomous associations springing up from below” have the capacity to protect vulnerable, dispossessed communities. If we want to defend our communities from the coming storm, we are going to have to look to ourselves to do so. For decades the state has proved itself unwilling and unable to give the support our communities truly need. And, to be frank, I think we could do a better job without them anyway. As the old Napoleon Bonaparte true but whiny quote goes: “If you want a thing done well, DO IT YOURSELF.”

DIY culture, of course, has long been a crucial aspect of anarchist principles and practice. Before lockdown, I had hoped to document many of the amazing DIY, bottom-up, anarchy-friendly initiatives around the country. The Covid Crisis put pay to this, but it also saw a rise of interest in mutual aid and alternatives to the status quo. This, in turn, led to the creation of more DIY grassroots community solutions, and the linking up of various groups. Over the last few months, particularly in response to the European leg of the Zapatistas’ ”Journey for Life” tour, a few like-minded individuals and groups across the north have been coming together to celebrate and develop the kind of grassroots, DIY, community-based organising which, consciously or not, adhere to an anarchist worldview and the key principles of Zaptismo. We are, I believe, witnessing a crucial escalation of commitment, awareness, organisational ability and skills necessary for building a widespread movement of practical, autonomous solutions to the attacks on our communities. In other words, we are seeing a rise in what Colin Ward would invariably call anarchy in action.

Not that this is a new thing, it is only the scale which differs. As part of the research for this piece and the development of what we are currently calling the DIY Alliance, we visited Bolton Diggers, who have been flying the flag for DIY activism almost as long as their namesake… or at least since 2014. Their message is simple: “Bolton Diggers believe that the earth is our common treasury. There for everybody’s benefit, not simply for the profit of the rich.” Their work is important. Their plot is amazing.

One thing which struck us on our visit, and when visiting most grassroots, DIY projects, is how welcoming these places are. With the working class, the first point of business is kettle on, have a cuppa. We went on a Monday, which also happens to be the regular open day for Bolton Diggers, so we were also met with hearty, healthy, largely home-grown vegan food. This particular Monday was damp and dreary, but at least the welcome was warm.

This is almost never the case for top-down, hierarchical organisations, particularly state institutions. An artist friend of mine told me that during a recent hailstorm she jumped into a doorway and found a young homeless Romanian who asked where they could get a shower. She took the youth to a place she knew, whom she assumed would help. They asked the youth whether they had an appointment?!? Needless to say, no help was given.

The bureaucracy and assumptions of hierarchical institutions are also a major problem. Bentley, the former mining town north of Doncaster where Bentley Urban Farm (BUF) is based, used to have the third largest uptake for food banks in the borough, but the forms which people are now being asked to fill in are so prying and personal that parents feel like they might have their children taken away from them if they engage. Consequently only 16 people sought the help of the local food bank during the second lockdown. Whereas the food network BUF was involved with fed 50 people a day at the height of its use because it didn’t ask people to prove that they were ‘deserving’. The inevitable question from those with an authoritarian mindset was “What if people take advantage?” Our reply, “They get fed.” Which is, of course, a similar principle to that of the Tredegar Medical Aid Society, where all get help regardless of contribution or employment status.

Only smaller, decentralised, non-hierarchical solutions offer the humanity and flexibility needed to absorb the actions of a tiny minority who might seek to ‘take advantage’. And, having faith in people, we anarchists know that even these people can change. Hoarders, opportunists, freeloaders and thieves benefit from an environment of scarcity and dog-eat-dog relationships. They’re generally suffering from some kind of pathology. Unfortunately they also currently run the world. An anarchist relationship negates the need for desperate, childish, anally retentive hoarding, and so both the global oligarchs and the local wanksters (wannabe gangsters) are left looking stupid when they try to take advantage of that which is freely given. Change the relationship, change the world. Capitalism and the nation state will never change their toxic relationship with the vast majority of human and non-human life. So if we want to see that change, we’ll have to do it ourselves.

I’ll be writing more about Bolton Diggers in a forthcoming piece about DIY community food organising, and in a piece which more precisely documents the newly emerging DIY Alliance. In the meantime I’d just like to say “Get yer sen to Bolton Diggers for a decent cuppa and a slice of anarchy in action.” And if you or your group are interested in getting involved with the DIY Alliance please contact me via Freedom.

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Nine meals till Anarchy

Freedom News, March 31st, 2022

Writing for Cosmopolitan in 1906, the American lawyer, journalist and short-story writer, Alfred Henry Lewis observed: “There are only nine meals between mankind and anarchy.”

Being a lawyer, it comes as no surprise that he was using anarchy as a synonym for chaos. But the statement does highlight the fragility of a dominant socioeconomic system which relies heavily on manufactured scarcity, widespread insecurity, a generalised lack of self-confidence in our ability to provide for ourselves, and a crippling, state-induced paternalism. Lewis was warning that potential social upheaval is never far away, but that situation is deepened by the dominant economic model. As we witnessed in the initial months of the Covid-19 Crisis, and before that during the UK fuel protests, the ‘just-in-time’ supply system becomes highly unstable very quickly during times of crisis.

The UK Fuel Protest, which began on September 8th, 2000, had major effects on the supply chain within days. By September 12th the protests, combined with panic buying (also a contributing factor to the CV-19 shortages), had caused 3000 petrol stations to close their forecourts. The next day, NHS services were placed on red alert, supermarkets began rationing supplies of certain goods (which led to further panic buying), the Royal Mail said that it could not maintain deliveries, and schools began to close. On the 14th, just six days after they began, the protests began to end, averting any real hardship. Nobody had gone hungry (apart from the usual tolerated percentage of ‘deserving poor’ of course), but the very possibility of shortages had seen a rapid deepening of the crisis.

Now, with the global economy even more tightly entwined, combinations of coronavirus, Brexit, imperial wars and even cargo ships getting stuck in canals, have caused similar supply crises in recent years. The main excuse for just-in-time supply is efficiency, but the bottom line of capitalism — constant economic growth at any cost — demands the very opposite of efficiency. An efficient system, one which supplied the needs of all, would be both resilient and fair. But the capitalist system has been desperately seeking ways to cut corners, wages and rights in the name of profit since Shmidt started shovelling (Shmidt was an anecdotal worker in Frederick Winslow Taylor’s long discredited — but still worshipped by greedy bosses — time and motion study which gave rise to the pseudoscience of ‘Scientific Management’).

Capitalism has proved itself, time and again, incapable of providing humanity and our non-human kin the basics required for a stable, happy, free and fulfilled life. But as long as a certain percentage of people do not go hungry, and remain content with the regular dopamine hits they get from shopping, entertainment, holidays, drugs, social media and a secure supply of bog roll, then we will never have a supply system capable of weathering the converging storms of ecological collapse, growing authoritarianism, imperial wars and global pandemics.

So how do we make an efficient, resilient and fair supply chain capable of providing for the needs of all life? Well the short answer is: through anarchy and peace. But I shall elaborate on this statement further using the focus of Lewis’ aphorism, that absolute essential to human (and indeed, all…) life, food.

As I mentioned in my previous article for Freedom, I have been visiting food projects across the north of England, and have had Zoom chats with projects further afield, as part of my work to help build the newly emerging, Zapatista inspired, DIY Alliance. My own focus has been on the community-led, self-organised provision of food, as this is the area that I am most directly familiar with. I have been looking at existing anarchist/anarchy-friendly solutions and ways to close the food production/supply circle so that communities have greater control over their own food provision, especially in times of crisis. This has little to do with self-sufficiency, it is more about food sovereignty, food security and food autonomy.

As I mentioned in the previous article: “relationships are key to building a better, braver, brighter future for all.” Or as Tomás Ibáñez puts it in Anarchism Is Movement (Freedom Press, 2019):

“[T]here is no “essence” of anarchism that exists beyond circumstance. Anarchy cannot be this or that in itself, but is the product of relations.”

The anarchist imperative is, I believe, to explore, build and celebrate essential new relationships of mutual support, solidarity and self-organisation in everyday life — regardless of the times we find ourselves in — and to support and defend those relationships in any way we can, especially during times of crises. As CrimethInc.’s mythbusting From Democracy to Freedom puts it:

“If we understand freedom as a collectively produced relationship to our potential rather than a static bubble of private rights, being free is not simply a question of being protected by the authorities, but the project of creating open-ended spaces of possibility.”

I quoted from Carissa Honeywell’s book Anarchism (Polity Press, 2021) to the same ends in my last article. I feel that Carissa’s, CrimethInc.’s, and Tomás’ books collectively and perfectly embody the emerging anarchism of the 21st Century. A century with unique problems compared to those of preceding centuries, but one which also presents new technological and organisational opportunities for real and lasting change… if we can create the essential relationships necessary to bring this about.

New relationships may offer the possibility for fairer, more secure and sustainable food systems, but food itself also offers the potential to build new relationships. As Carissa says in her book:

“Eating together traditionally symbolises equality, interdependence and community. The shared meal can be the manifestation of shared effort, companionship, care and kinship, a ‘form of social practice lodged in needs with emancipatory potential’. [here Carissa quotes Banu Bargu’s ‘The Politics of Commensality’] Crucially, commensality can forge bonds that do not depend on shared or fixed identities, or ‘sameness’ in any other respect than shared needs for food and company. It is a practical expression of kinship and companionship and a visceral experience of trust and intimacy, upon which bonds are built.”

And Carissa should know. She is one of the directors of Sheffield’s wonderful Foodhall project. The current Foodhall is housed in a building close to Sheffield train station (so go bloody visit!). It has a kitchen, social and workshop spaces, a courtyard, shopfront and pavement area which combine to offer ‘a place where everyone can come together to share food, drink company, skills and time’. Foodhall intercepts food waste streams from local traders so that they can serve hot meals a minimum of three times a week. But this is just the core of Foodhall’s offer. They also offer a platform for community members to pursue their own interests and share their skills with others. This has given rise to things like bike repair classes, DJ nights, pottery workshops and cinema screenings. We found that the same kind of diverse, peer-led projects emerged when we opened up Bentley Urban Farm (BUF) to the public and community groups. There is no shortage of ideas or abilities, just a shortage of spaces which allow things to happen organically.

While I was visiting the Foodhall kitchen I met Alan, an elder citizen with a history of mental health problems. When he found out that I was an urban farmer he offered me some amazing tips for seed-saving from supermarket-bought tomatoes and growing them to maturity in your bathroom. In more traditional, hierarchically bureaucratic institutions, people like Alan are treated like ‘victims’ or ‘clients’ — worse still as bloody ‘consumers’. Whereas in more horizontalist, self-organised, peer-led projects this distinction is simply irrelevant. The actions, abilities, ideas, thoughts and feelings of each individual are mutually beneficial to the community as a whole. In fact, such spaces have a special feel to them because they have been shaped by a wide diversity of people, each bringing something special to the equation.

Foodhall is currently housed in a beautiful building which could have been purpose built for their needs, but their future is uncertain because they have to pay rent. In a country like the UK, where there is such inequality in land and property ownership and access, finding a space can be a real obstacle. Space is everything. An open door to a space open to ideas — with an everybody welcome, everybody equal policy — is a formula for real transformation. But how we do this without being pulled away from our own goals in order to satisfy the narrow remits of traditional funding institutions is currently a bit of an issue.

An obvious solution is squatting. Both France’s ZAD (zone à défendre) encampments and London’s Grow Heathrow have been highly effective at showing people exactly what self-organised green-spaces can offer local communities. But the fact that they are born of protest makes them both vulnerable and, to some degree, hinders the kind of open-door policy which we need in order to create an everyday anarchism capable of lasting change (more on this in another post). Long-term projects born of squatting, such as Denmark’s Freetown Christiania or Spain’s Marinaleda are harder to establish in the current climate (although definitely not impossible… hint, hint) and, as the history of Christiania shows, it is extremely difficult not to be dragged back into the sphere of the dominant state’s power structures and/or down capitalism’s economic rabbit hole. But sometimes the leviathan-esque nature of state bureaucracy does provide opportunity to birth anarchist/anarchy-friendly initiatives within the forgotten spaces of state and capital; a situation which offers the same sweet poetry as that of dandelions and daisies growing up through the cracks of city pavements.

Bolton Diggers is one such project. In 2016 they managed to secure a section of a council allotment plot in Bolton, Lancashire which had been largely abandoned because of its boggy ground. They offered a collective space for people to come together to grow food and build alternatives to the status quo. Not only have they brought forth crops from marginal land, they have brought forth a range of beneficial community projects for Bolton, such as Bolton Mutual Aid and Bolton Urban Growers. BUF itself was founded the same year as Bolton Diggers. The opportunity presented itself to us because a lack of available funding meant that a former council-run horticultural training centre had sat empty for over half a decade. Years of austerity measures have sadly deepened the need for food growing projects like Bolton Diggers and Bentley Urban Farm, but they have also created an environment where local authorities are unable to maintain vital community assets. Which gives grassroots, self-organised groups some leverage when it comes to taking over council-run plots of land… if you can access them before your council assets department sells them off.

Is it hard work getting local authorities to relinquish control of community assets even though those assets are supposedly there for the benefit of the community in the first place? In too many places, yes it is. But it is absolutely worth the effort. Is it an easy alliance to maintain? Let’s just say that my capacity for anarcho-pragmatism has indeed been tested over the years. But none of this should stop anarchists organising to find places to grow food for themselves and their community wherever they may live.

One exciting recent development is the new plot of land secured in Camden by Cooperation Town. The story of the incredible growth of the Cooperation Town initiative has already been documented in Freedom here and here, and this land will offer a new and exciting phase. Inspired by Cooperation Jackson, Cooperation Town UK teach communities how to effectively organise in order to collectively buy and distribute their own food. I mentioned earlier a desire to close the loop in the production and distribution of affordable (where possible, free…) and healthy food; Cooperation Town is one initiative which has come very close to these ends. They work with local authorities and traditional funders, but they are very open in their wish to make the roles of funders, charities and state bureaucracies obsolete through the education and empowerment of communities.

The aspirations of Cooperation Jackson go well beyond food provision. Their long term vision is to develop a cooperative network that will consist of four interconnected elements; a federation of local worker cooperatives, an incubator for coops, a cooperative education and training centre, and a cooperative bank or financial institution. What a vision. Surely it is one we all share? I truly believe that commensality and food provision has the power to unite us (whoever we are and wherever we may be) in a quest for the same ends. In fact, I have proof…

At a recent meeting of the Doncaster People’s Assembly, a large percentage of the members decided that waving placards was not enough when it came to protesting the emerging cost of living crisis. It was proposed that they try a new tactic. One which provided food in a convivial environment without stigma, bureaucracy or judgement. There were, of course, some crusty, old-guard types who said that this is not what Doncaster People’s Assembly does. So a collection of socialists, greens, anarchists, Labourites, communists and community activists (talk about the uniting power of food!) said ‘fair enough’ and set up Doncaster Engagement Network (DEN) instead.

DEN’s response to the cost of living crisis is simply to create warm spaces where we (‘we’ as in absolutely anyone…) can cook together, eat together, enjoy some music and each other’s company (music + food + people = party). Local food waste project, Food Aware, will provide the food for free and meals will be sold on a Pay As You Feel (PAYF) basis in the hope of raising enough funds to tour the project around Doncaster’s many satellite towns. No alienating forms, no economic (or any other…) segregation, just an open door and a string of possibilities. The project launches on May 7th and I will keep you informed about its progress, because if we can pull this off in a place like Doncaster, there’s no reason anyone else — anywhere else — cannot try something similar.

Work with each other. Plan and deliver the next nine meals for your community on anarchist principles. To paraphrase a sexist old quote: “The way to a community’s heart is through its stomach.” Lunch is liberation. Supper is solidarity. Another dinner is possible!

And if we fail? Well, there’s always Jackson, Mississippi.

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For more on the DIY Alliance, see here.

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