Are communes for the working class?
Updated: May 22, 2021
This is the first of three blog posts over the next three weeks, D. Hunter chats about a new project A Commune in the North, and what issues it might raise for folks from poor and working class backgrounds.
Introduction to ‘A Commune in the North’
I hear the word commune and I see jesus beards, sandals, white robes, flowery dresses, acoustic guitars, and salads with lots of radishes. I hear the voices of the always well fed and well schooled who have deemed themselves ethically too pure for society, and live with the knowledge that the capital accumulated by their parents will be theirs in old age. When I google the word commune, it brings up similar sights and sounds. When I'm invited to talk to a group of people who are planning to set up a commune about how to minimise the possibilities of it being a middle-class dominated project, I'm more than a little curious.
A Commune in the North, which as working titles go is descriptive and has a certain charm, aims to be the home of 200 people in a semi-rural spot in Yorkshire or East Lancashire. There is talk of setting up care homes, light industry, and other businesses which will create the economic base for the project; permaculture and sustainability are at the forefront of the founding members’ minds. Central to the project is personal development as a process of deconstructing the white-supremacist, patriarchal, capitalist system that has shaped us. There is an eagerness to ensure that it isn't just a nice place to live but a political base for those with anarchist, libertarian-communist, and similar leanings, and a desire to ensure that the project entwines itself positively with the geographical community it finds itself in.
In preparation for our meeting they sent me some reading material on communes, which doesn't really steer me away from my first thoughts, but I am, as I always am, interested when anyone is seriously engaging with the prospect of not just income sharing, but wealth sharing as well. Fundamentally, I am convinced that with a left and a working-class as economically stratified as the one we have in the UK, that the collectivisation of our resources is vital before we can even come close to denting the capitalist class's hold on society. This conviction is, to be fucking sure, a minority position, and not one I'm going to spend time in this essay delving into. If it's a new one to you, then feel free to check out either of my books or this essay. As well as providing a material benefit to many folks’ lives, collectivisation of resources and wealth within either the working class or the left as whole connects to another process that A Commune in the North aims to pursue: the deconstruction of white-supremacist capitalism that shapes our thoughts and actions. In both Chav Solidarity and Tracksuits, Traumas and Class Traitors I wrote about this extensively, and through the workshops we've been running at The Class Work Project this is something we've tried to push into social movements. Again, I don't want to go into much depth here, but will say that this work needs to be carried out both individually and collectively. This is not in order to make us more fully realised or just better people, or to provide an excuse for relentless navel gazing and narcissism—although it certainly runs the risk of that. The purpose is for us to be able to see how we might reproduce capitalist values within our organising practices, so as to best avoid this.
In a previous blog post I mentioned interviewing 100 participants in UK-based social movements in preparation for my next book. One of the most consistent themes that came up in those interviews was the classed, racialised, and gendered oppression that folks experience when involved in leftist political organising. I imagine that A Commune in the North asked me to chat to them about the class-related issues they might face because they want to avoid falling into the same trap as many social movement adjacent projects fall into, that of creating spaces which are inaccessible to those who are economically marginalised, and to be prepared to respond when that’s what happens despite those best intentions.. Not that I have even half the answers to these challenges, but as someone from a poor and working-class background who’s been involved in social movements for a while, I know some of the things to look out for. It was certainly a positive sign for me that they were keen to begin to address these challenges from the outset, and were prepared to think about how to build their responses into the foundations of the project, rather than treat them as an annoying amendment to be added on at a later date.
When I met with them, three of their members were familiar faces to me, via anarcho networks and adjacent organisations, while the others were strangers. We only had an hour and a half, and some of that was spent on me asking about their perceptions of class-related issues that might materialise during the setting up and existence of the commune. Following that I went through some of the concerns I had, which I'll talk about in detail shortly.
First I want to confess something: I was pretty intrigued about the project. The scale is interesting—200 people pooling their resources and embracing egalitarianism should not be considered idealistic nor utopian, but it kinda is. My experience in co-ops, squats, and house shares has often been driven by an effort to live a less individualised life, but have fundamentally failed, because whilst they address housing and food needs, the pressure remains on the individual to cover their share, pull their weight, and seldom takes into consideration the variety of economic contexts from which those living together come from. Whilst the collectivisation of rent and bills leads to a reduction in cost, the responsibility for one another's ability to pay their own share remains individualised and any negotiation around this, often hinges on the strength of the individual bonds and how much people are liked by others..
Housing co-ops go a bit further as a collective endeavour by removing the violent threat of the landlord, but the one I lived in, which is part of the Radical Routes network, had only 12 people in it (most lovely, many still friends) with each person responsible for paying their own way and taking on equal proportion of the work. There weren't structures in place to deal with someone being unable to do either of these things, nor for how to handle tensions between individuals. Neither of these were reasons for me leaving, although the former was an issue. Primarily, there wasn't a collective commitment to one another nor to the wider community within which the co-op was situated. This co-op like many others in an urban setting was situated in an economically and socially marginalised neighbourhood, but the co-ops members were primarily drawn from the ex-student and social justice movement scene which had settled in the neighborhood over the previous decades, and had not been entirely irrelevant to the rising rental prices.
Finally there are squats. I lived in squats before and after I started to engage with political organising, and I've had good and bad experiences. I'll focus on the good one. There were only three of us and we stated a preference from the outset to collectivise whatever resources we had at the time; this basically ended when we had a shitty eviction and other more stable living arrangements presented themselves. Having squatted when I had no other choice, I decided it was stupid for me to squat and live under permanent threat of eviction when I didn't have to. In short, in the UK, squatting doesn't offer long-term, stable housing.