Community Management and the Commons

I want to link this to a recent blog I co-wrote with the communities manager at London Community Land Trust. I recently finished working with them helping to assist residents to get ready to manage their site at St Clements in Mile End as members of a resident management company (RMC).

London Community Land Trust is London’s first and probably largest Community Land Trust (CLT). It developed from community organising by Citizens UK – in response to the need for actually affordable homes in the capital. They have sites all over London with different mixes of housing tenure, including social housing and private housing, some of which is priced according to local earnings.

London CLT states that their core aim is to foster a democratic culture ‘distinct from centralised decisions made by government and the market’. This separation from market and state is the logic of the commons. In a previous post, I have talked about the commons as a concept (link). Commons can be understood, broadly speaking, as social systems in which resources are shared by the community who makes and/or uses those resources. Importantly, though, it isn’t just about the sharing of resources, but also that decisions about how those resources are used, produced, distributed and circulated are decided through democratic and horizontal forms of governance by the community that uses/produces them. So, the commons or the practice of commoning is as much about creating different kinds of systems of governance as merely the management of resources.

With a Community Land Trust, land is locked out of the market and assets such as affordable homes, community gardens, civic buildings, pubs and shops among other things are developed and maintained on behalf of or by the community that uses them. London CLT, for example, is a democratic membership organisation, in which the board is elected by the membership, and anyone who lives in London can join it. The board, which is elected by the membership, is made up of one third each of resident representatives, local community representatives and other stakeholder representatives. With a resident management company, such as the one at St Clements, members can decide on the make-up of the board and how it represents or reflects the tenure types and demographics of the site. 

One of the motivations for writing the CLT blog post was to underline how difficult it can be to do things in ways that don’t follow state and market logics. One of points I raise is that we can’t take for granted what it actually means to foster democratic cultures that really work against the norms of the dominant paradigm. This includes all levels of organisation, from the micro-political interpersonal level, to larger processes such as planning and land ownership. Dominant neoliberal values will inevitably be embedded within structures and ways of doing things at every level. Financialisation, entrepreneurialism and managerialism have extended into many areas of society that haven’t traditionally been affected governed by them and this can even include grassroots community initiatives.  Some of the testimonies about Covid-19 Mutual Aid Groups, for example, in which some members appointed themselves as administrators, or insisted on quasi managerial processes, back this up (link).  It therefore cannot be underestimated how much work and commitment it can take to develop cultures that propose different ways of doing things.

In terms of urban development, particularly since the financial crash preferential treatment has been given to large developers across the city, effectively putting large swathes of public housing and land into private hands. Austerity measures imposed on local authorities put pressure on them to demonstrate their contribution to GDP, and to take on entrepreneurial and risk-taking managerial strategies. This prompted councils to court large private developers, offering them preferential treatment and in some cases gifting them land for next to nothing. The planning process is also weighted towards larger developers who by nature tend to favour undemocratic, extractive models of urban development. Even London CLT was obliged to work with a large commercial developer, and this had huge implications for the site including the choice of social housing provider, meaning that smaller community led housing was not really an option.

Given the current political climate of mistrust in democratic processes and the polarised nature of debate exacerbated by social media, it is easy to see how this wider climate might seep into grassroots organising. While there have been many experiments in grassroots direct and participatory democratic practices, it is also quite possible for democracy even within community organisations to stay on a cursory level with either a small number of people on a board representing the membership or community and making decisions for them without much consultation, or voting rights which are not much more than symbolic.  People can very easily feel disconnected and disengaged especially if they are not used to having a say.

This is where ideas and initiatives based on the commons and practices of commoning can be applied, both on a practical level and as an inspiring concept. As an idea, it can be used on the level of discourse and common sense to discuss the creation of wealth and value for the common good. As a practice it can be used to challenge norms around resource management and to explore what democracy on the ground actually entails. And it can also be used to develop practical solutions that challenge institutional structures.

The economic think tank Common Wealth have recently published a report on Public Commons Partnerships as an alternative to the Public Private Partnerships that were developed by the Labour government in the 1990’s. At the centre of PCPs are what Common Wealth call Commons Associations, ‘groups of citizen-owners who are able to contribute not just to the direction of their PCP, but also where the financial surpluses of the project end up’. They are aiming for PCPs to be ‘islands of democracy’ that add up and affect wider society, facilitating its democratisation. They argue that just as ‘neoliberal institutional reform aimed to create and propagate an “entrepreneurial” common sense, participation in commons helps develop a truly democratic common sense’.[i]

As well as offering some practical solutions, there are some interesting theoretical discussions to be had here. The idea of common sense in the way that Common Wealth use it comes from the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. Gramscian common sense can be described as the ideas and seemingly self-evident descriptions of social reality that normally go without saying.  It is a ‘collective noun, like religion,’ a confusion of unexamined truisms that must be continually questioned, ‘fragmentary, incoherent and inconsequential, in conformity with the social and cultural position of those masses whose philosophy it is’.[ii]. Gramscian common sense has been used in relation to neoliberalism by many scholars including Wendy Brown, Nancy Fraser and David Harvey.  In his 2005 history of neoliberalism for example, David Harvey uses Gramsci to describe the conceptual apparatus through which ways of thought can become dominant by appealing to intuitions, instincts, values and desires[iii] and in Undoing the Demos, Wendy Brown describes neoliberalism as governing ‘as sophisticated common sense’.[iv] Ways that can counter this are of course to be championed. However, it is also worth considering that neoliberalism as many have suggested also operates through a form of what Michel Foucault called governmentality or the conduct of conduct. This includes certain sets of practices for governing and how we govern ourselves. If we are to counter the neoliberal paradigm we need to work on all fronts. Dardot and Laval for example argue that the commons can offer an alternative form of reason to neoliberalism, stating that ‘the practices of ‘communization’ of knowledge, mutual aid and cooperative work’ embedded in commoning can delineate this (321).[v]

However, there are bound to be many tensions and contradictions in trying to institute commons initiatives that inherently challenge the dominant paradigm. Those that have the time and energy to put into community governance are most often those that already have access to resources. Researcher and facilitator Manuela Zechner has written about some of these challenges in her book on care and the municipalist movement in Barcelona. After Spain’s 15M movement, there was a wealth of new institutional experiments and Zechner details some of these centred around childcare in the neighbourhood of Poble Sec. The struggle for and to care, as Zechner puts it, is central to thinking about commons and commoning practices and the relations between movements and institutions.

I want to end by highlighting the newly created Institute for Commoning. They have just set up a new Masters course outside of any institutional framework. The Masters in Commons Administration or MCA, has been created as a counterpoint to the traditional MBA or Masters in Business Administration. Learning and unlearning together is vital if we are going to overcome entrenched neoliberal attitudes, conduct and structures. It can potentially help set the conditions for a transition to a fairer, more inclusive and more democratic society at a time when we have enormous issues to face. As Keir Milburn and Bertie Russell state:

‘The stakes really couldn’t be higher, the fate of the world depends on humankind’s ability to collectively govern the global commons of the atmosphere’.[vi]

[i] Keir Milburn and Bertie Russell (2021), Public-Common Partnerships: Democratising ownership and urban development. London: Common Wealth.

[ii] Antonio Gramsci (1971, 2005), Selections from the Prison Notebooks, pp. 325, 419. London: Laurence and Wishart

[iii] David Harvey (2005), A History of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[iv] Wendy Brown (2015), Undoing the Demos. New York: Zone Books.

[v] Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval The New Way of the World: Neoliberal Society, p. 321. London/New York: Verso.

[vi] Keir Milburn and Bertie Russell (2019), Building the new left economics: public-commons partnerships and new circuits of ownership. Open Democracy.

More Mutual Aid: grassroots organisation in response to crises

Continuing my interest in the emergence of mutual aid groups in response to the pandemic, I thought I would write about other grassroots organisations that have emerged in response to crises. I have wanted to do this for a while but been delayed again due to various factors including more health issues with the Covid vaccine.

This of course, is not the first time that cooperative grassroots initiatives have emerged in response to disasters, catastrophes and crises. As Rhiannon Firth (no relation, 2019) has discussed in her excellent book chapter on Covid and mutual aid, environmental catastrophes such as Hurricane Sandy have, over the last few years, been responded to very early on by on the ground activist and community based relief efforts, and what she terms disaster anarchism.

 Occupy Sandy, for example, organised community disaster relief at a much quicker pace than NGOs, charities and federal agencies. It drew on knowledge and practice of activists from the Occupy movement in Zucotti Park in New York, which itself emerged in response to the financial crash in 2008/9. At the time of the first iteration of Occupy, many commentators bemoaned the lack of strategy and concrete demands that the movement embodied and saw this as indicative of a lack of longevity.  While on one level, this criticism may be valid to some extent, in the main, it misses what was a crucial aspect of the movement. What Occupy did, was to equip activists with ways of organising, namely practicing collective, cooperative and collaborative organisation and decision-making which directly challenged the dominant ultra-individualistic neoliberal paradigm. Since the actual occupations died down, it may seem that nothing has come of them. However, the experiences shared by activists involved, became a useful reservoir of knowledge from which to draw from in the future. Indeed, there is evidence that it is often the case that activists who have been involved in previous actions, or have a shared history and political culture, can at times quickly collaborate and create seemingly spontaneous actions within communities (Firth, Scott).  What may seem spontaneous often emerges as a result of much offstage on the ground activism that has to happen before anything becomes visible.

There are also many examples beyond living memory of innovative forms of cooperative grassroots organisation emerging at times of devastation and destruction. I am cautious about drawing too much of a parallel between the pandemic and a state of war, especially as wartime rhetoric has been used especially in the UK, by the government, to forward nostalgic and essentially nationalist agendas. Nevertheless, unlike a localised environmental catastrophe, the pandemic is affecting not only whole nations but is a global event and there is much to be gained from keeping a global perspective. In addition, there is a level of collective trauma that is perhaps comparable to a large global event such as a world war. During the last century, both world wars engendered new forms of organisation. Between 1916 and 1921, waves of strikes, protests and labour organising, took place in many countries across Europe, predominantly directed against the labour conditions workers were expected to endure because of the First World War. Two new forms of organization emerged at this time – the factory committee and the soviet (Mason, 2015). In addition, innovations in media technologies, the telephone, telegraph and radio facilitated the dissemination of these new organisational forms and protest techniques on an international scale. In Germany, Italy and Russia, the unrest reached revolutionary proportions while becoming ‘pre-revolutionary’ in the UK, France and the US.  The soviet, of course became the self-proclaimed democratic unit for the Soviet Union, although in actuality, the Communist Party held onto the real power and control, while in Germany for example, workers councils voted to join the national government in order to create the Weimar Republic.

A perhaps more comparable example, less based on the protest against working conditions, although drawing from the same repertoire and knowledge, took place after the Second World War in Germany.  The devastation caused by the war engendered many small mutual aid organisations to appear across Germany. Shortly after what became known as Zero Hour, anti-fascist committees or antifas, and workplace councils seemed to spontaneously emerge out of the rubble (Pritchard, 2004). In this case, the tradition of workplace councils from before the Nazi regime, the same ones that had emerged during the First World War enabled them to emerge again alongside low level resistance during the Nazi reign which became the antifas. Interestingly, these two organisational forms, the antifas and the workplace councils, took on not only local denazification processes but also provided basic services and utilities such as electricity and water to the wider population at a time when there was no state capacity to do so. There are opposing views of the significance and radical potential of these grassroots organisations. Some historians have claimed that they were potentially revolutionary and could have led to a form of genuine socialism based on direct democracy and others (from both East and West) have downplayed their significance.  The population in Germany at the time was hugely split between a passive, apathetic and still essentially National Socialist majority and a small but significant active anti-fascist minority. This split eventually came to be embodied in the geopolitical split between East and West Germany. In each case, the state dealt differently with these organisations in order to subsume, co-opt or suppress them. In the formation of the GDR, for example, the workplace councils and antifa’s were suppressed by the state, while in the West, they were subsumed by the state social welfare infrastructure.

In The Utopia of Rules, anthropologist David Graeber argued that the modern social welfare state during the late 19th Century, in fact came into being through creating its own top-down versions of organisations that had already been created by trade unions, neighbourhood associations, cooperatives and other grassroots organisations. These, Graeber argues ‘were engaged in a self-conscious revolutionary project of “building a new society in the shell of the old,” of gradually creating Socialist institutions from below’ (2012, p. 153). Graeber’s argument is essentially a classic anarchist argument echoing that of Kropotkin, that the rise of the state destroyed the independence of other forms of organisation in favour of its own bureaucracy (p. 119). From this perspective, far from just appearing at times of destruction, crisis and disaster, cooperative organising exists in many different forms, much of the time, as the basis on which society is founded. For Kropotkin this is a very different state of nature to Hobbs’ brutish one. Indeed, Marx also argues that social cooperation, is in fact the stuff on which capitalism is built. 

If we return to the contemporary moment in which in the UK at least, there has been over a decade of austerity and state withdrawal, there is a growing trend for the state to rely on spontaneous community responses to compensate for its lack (Firth). This became particularly visible during the coalition government’s emphasis on the Big Society after the financial crash. As the state withdrew, there was more focus on the community based and charitable sectors, but also increasingly on state terms, with more constraints put onto many organisations such as charities for example, to be organised in certain ways and not to act in ways that might be deemed to be political. While there was an encouragement of more socially active citizenry and a decentralisation of knowledge and information, support has only really given to sections of civil society that have deemed ‘legible’ to the state. These moves can be viewed as parallel to and in some senses complicit with neoliberal governmentality, in terms of putting increasing responsibility and risk onto the individual for things that had once been the remit of the state.

With a short term crisis or disaster, there is even more possibility that once the initial community response has happened, the ‘return to normality’ will involve a process by which the grassroots initiatives, rather than being supported, will be taken over, discredited, depoliticised, or  otherwise managed.  Indeed, as Firth has argued, mainstream disaster studies views human cooperation precisely as an anomaly to be harnessed in the interests of capital. From this perspective, cooperation as a community response involves a level of post-disaster camaraderie and euphoria that leads people to put aside differences but is inevitably temporary. While there may often be an initial and particularly intense surge of altruism and camaraderie that is difficult to sustain, this does not mean that cooperative relations and organisation cannot continue. It is often the case that interpersonal difficulties derail social movements and non-hierarchical organisations, but that doesn’t mean that more longevity isn’t possible. Any initial putting aside of differences, needs to be channelled into acknowledging and working with them, but that isn’t to say that it can’t be done.

One of the things which has seemed to become apparent, especially at the beginning of the pandemic was a sense that values were being reassessed with life, health and the provision of basic needs becoming more important than the economy. That social reproduction, the reproduction of life, is more valuable than the reproduction of what Marxists term labour-power, or the time and resources it takes to reproduce a worker on a daily basis.

What I am particularly interested in therefore, is longer term alternative infrastructures that can in some sense hold the cooperative spirit. In relation to the post-pandemic situation, there are some examples of cooperative infrastructure developing from Covid Mutual Aid Group (CMAG) networks. In particular, Cooperation Town is a network of mostly very small and informally organised food coops, many of which are now associated with CMAG groups. (). This in turn, took its inspiration from Cooperation Jackson, a grassroots citywide initiative in the USA. There are also other initiatives such as solidarity funds and eviction resistance networks, emerging from or utilising the CMAG networks.  Pandemic Notes is a really nice publication, which has just been published, which details some of the responses to the pandemic.

In the last post, I highlighted theoretical ideas about the commons and the possibility of the development of polycentric social governance built from the bottom-up. Polycentricity is a fundamental concept in the work of Vincent and Elinor Ostrom (the economist whose work on the commons garnered her awards). A mix of multilevel organisations of multiple levels and scales of diverse types of organisations and governing authorities would for Kioupkiolis include state apparatuses. Ostrom suggests that polycentric governance or governance that has polycentric characteristics ‘may be capable of striking a balance between centralized and fully decentralized or community-based governance’ (Carlisle & Gruby, 2019, p. 928). A purely anarchist perspective would however, reject this proposal out of hand as being too centralised and state based.

What is also true is that while there has been a decentralisation of knowledge and information, risk and responsibility, there has also been a growing automation and an authoritarian creep which has been exacerbated by the pandemic. Indeed, what has been termed cybernetic governance can be said to have been emerging since the shift from a Fordist to a post-Fordist paradigm. Cybernetic governance combines ‘a state-capitalist logic with decentralised cybernetic components’ (Firth, p. 61) of control and governance. It can be seen in its most extreme form in contemporary China where facial recognition, social credit and tracking systems heavily control the population. It is perfectly possible that at least some of these governmental initiatives could come into greater effect here in the UK over the next few years. As the current UK governmental incoherence grows in the midst of a third wave, we should be on our guard for both the increase in these decentralised control mechanisms and a continuation of the disaster capitalism that Naomi Klein (2008) so presciently described in her book nearly fifteen years ago.

Keith Carlisle and Rebecca L. Gruby, (2019), ‘Polycentric Systems of Governance: A Theoretical Model for the Commons’, Policy Studies Journal, Vol. 47, No. 4.

Rhiannon Firth, (2020), Coronavirus, Class and Mutual Aid in the United Kingdom, London: Palgrave MacMillan.

David Graeber, (2015), The Utopia of Rules, NY: Melville House.

Alexandros Kioupolis (2019), The Common and Counter-Hegemonic Politics: Rethinking Social Change, Edinburgh University Press.

Naomi Klein, (2008), The Shock Doctrine, London: Penguin.

Paul Mason, (2015), PostCapitalism: A Guide to Our Future, London: Allen Lane.

Gareth Pritchard, (2004), The Making of the GDR, 1945-53, Manchester; New York: Manchester University Press; Palgrave.

Covid and the Commons pt 1

As we start a slow, although not guaranteed return to life as the pandemic recedes (in the UK at least), I thought I would start connecting some dots in my research interests with what I started in the last blog post. Following on from that one, which was back in June, nearly a year ago now, it seems important to mark what might be learned from the pandemic, even if there is a desire to get back to ‘normal’ as quickly as possible. Of course, this depends how crises and disasters are viewed in relation to the ‘normallity’ of neoliberal capitalism, but I will therefore try and use the next few blog posts to include ideas which might help to think about how we might use the opportunities and struggles presented by the pandemic in relation to organisations and organising practices.

I have a short book review in the forthcoming issue of New Formations, so for this blog post, I thought I would write about this and some of the ideas that come from it. The book is The Common and Counter-Hegemonic Politics: Rethinking Social Change, by Alexandros Kioupkiolis. You can find the full review here.

Kioupkiolis’ book is ostensibly a theoretical exploration in which he brings together work on the commons and commoning with post-hegemonic political theory. The stakes in doing this revolve around the question of how disparate, horizontally organised social movements and grassroots initiatives might produce widespread, sustainable and long lasting social and political change. This has been a key question for many social movements particularly since the alter-globalisation movement in the 90s and in relation to movements like Occupy and 15M that emerged in response to the 2008 financial crash. One of the fundamental features of the social and political movements since the 90s has been a move away from state power as a focus. Theorist and philosopher John Holloway has characterised this perspective, that ‘the attempts to transform society through the state have not just failed to achieve that end. The fixation on the state has tended to destroy the movements pushing for radical change’[i].

A general critique of these movements is that while they may have worked on the level of tactics they have left a strategic gap. Kioupkiolis tries to address this gap by bringing together two theoretical strands of what can be said to be broadly speaking post-Marxist theory: theories of the commons, the common and commoning and post-hegemonic political theory. Both of these strands of thought have been very influential in the political landscape over the last 20 years, particularly in terms of grassroots social movements and their relationship to mainstream politics. Kioupkiolis mostly concentrates on Hardt and Negri’s work in terms of work on the idea of the common, although other theorists and aspects of this idea are explored at the beginning of the book, and in terms of post-hegemonic political theory, Mouffe and Laclau’s work is mostly focussed on, although Gramsci is also cited.

Kioupkiolis’ main proposal is for a tentative, careful or qualified combination of the politics of hegemony which includes ideas of representation, the aggregation of forces and collective convergence, with the more horizontal politics of the alternative commons which includes self-organisation, openness and diversity. Kioupkiolis argues that whilst recent thinking on the common has offered much, it has failed to think through power relations and conflict as well as how collective subjects and communities of struggle might be created.

It is perhaps worth here just spelling out what Kioupkiolis and others mean by the common and how organisations run on these principles might operate. Kioupkiolis uses the common as a kind of shorthand for different definitions and terms such as the commons, common pool resources, commons-based peer production and others. Historically, the term commons has its roots land set aside for common use which were destroyed through processes of enclosure that started in the 17th Century. More recently however, the term has been used as a way to challenge the logic of both private and state public property. While it encompasses resources that are collectively owned and/or collectively produced, the common should not be confused with just shared resources per se. The common or commons also encompass the community of people who share that resource and the way it is managed and distributed through collective and egalitarian participation. Governance is therefore particularly important. In her ground breaking work on the commons, Elinor Ostrom asserted that commons always implies some form of communal governance. In addition, historian Peter Linebaugh coined the term ‘commoning,’ turning the noun into a verb and therefore emphasising it as a practice.[ii] Rather than merely being a fixed resource, the common therefore also includes the practice of commoning, as the collective care of that resource by the community that uses it.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a short proposal for a cultural think tank on how the commons could relate to cultural organisations and I used the idea of the fallow year (a concept drawn from medieval rural common land ownership), as a metaphor for an ‘unproductive’ period that could be used as time for social maintenance. This was before the term furlough came into public parlance, and of course, while a lot of organisations have found themselves having to have a forced hiatus in response to the pandemic, the reality is that many organisations are facing huge cuts and difficulties as they come back to life.  

Kioupkiolis’ focus in terms of these ideas, is on Hardt and Negri’s use of the concept. For Hardt and Negri, the common is the central concept of the organisation of society and a political strategy that extends collective self-management and commoning across society. The common is interlinked with their concept of the multitude, their term for an immanent or latent, if submerged, collective subject of democratic struggle against the neoliberal ‘empire’. For Hardt and Negri, ‘the multitude is grounded in the common and gives rise to the common’[iii]. I will go into this and the autonomist Marxist tradition of which Negri is part, in a future blog post.

While Kioupkiolis’ book is ostensibly a theoretical exploration of strands of post-Marxist thinking and how they might be combined to create a hegemonic bloc to affect change, there are also some specific concrete proposals. Kioupkiolis’ critique of commons-based initiatives is that most horizontalist initiatives and mobilisations remain weak, tentative and dispersed, and when confronted with entrenched state institutions or other systemic centres of power they can easily be overwhelmed or be co-opted. Nevertheless, Kioupkiolis proposes a major social transition through a process of commoning. Social self-governance, he suggests, could issue mainly from the bottom up through civic initiatives such as a social economy of collectively self-managed enterprises and community services, or the lowest tier of state administrations on the local level.

This idea of transition to a commons based society, echoes that which has been suggested by the P2P Foundation. Over 10 years ago, I wrote about the P2P Foundation and what was termed the contribution economy. At that time, web 2.0 was relatively new and there was an emphasis on the much vaunted changes that peer production and digital participation might produce. Now, while peer production and platform technology have been absorbed into the mainstream, the P2P Foundation has broadened its remit, and embraced the concept of the commons. It has developed a program for what it calls a commons transition and now has also embraced cooperatives as playing a role in their vision for a commons-based society.

Kioupkiolis’ vision of transition is of the development of polycentric social governance which would include a complex mix of multiple levels and scales of diverse types of organisations and governing authorities. He suggests that alongside new organisational and institutional spaces, state apparatuses would also need to be engaged with in some way, through for example, a process of ‘colonisation’ rather than pure withdrawal (which is generally the position of social movement activists and theorists such as Holloway and Hardt and Negri). Kioupkiolis also posits the possibilities technology for civic engagement.  While I find Kioupkiolis’s vision a really interesting and appealing one to think about, the suggestion of engagement with the state is more difficult. For many grassroots movements, their absorption into more mainstream political forms or governance structures has been quite problematic, for example, with Podemos in Spain or Syriza in Greece or even in relation to how grassroots Covid related mutual aid has purportedly been treated by local government [iv]. Kioupkiolis, however, does temper this call with the necessity to skew relations against hierarchical centralisation. He suggests that this could be done through hybrid forms such as participatory budgets, local assemblies, mechanisms of rotation and alternative kinds of leadership.

In terms of organisational forms and modes of operating, Kioupkiolis suggests that they should include collective ownership and local participative democracy. For organisations to operate as anti-authoritarian, they would need to lay down rules roles and processes through which they seek to promote collective and consensual decision-making, in order to reduce asymmetries of power. Tasks could be rotated in order to transform them into power and knowledge sharing experiences, and leadership could be cultivated in a way that takes as its ethos the Zapatista formula of ‘leading we obey’.

There are existing organisations which do these things, including some co-ops, but it is certainly not easy. As well as formal mechanisms to promote collective and consensual decision-making, cooperative and collaborative cultures also need to be nurtured and maintained. If we are to expand our democratic culture from the bottom up, there are many places, such as most workplaces, in which democracy does not currently thrive, which will need radical change. And as Kioupkiolis has suggested, tensions are also likely to break out between top-down and bottom-up power and decision-making. Processes of transition and emergence can be messy.  Indeed, many radical activists are of the opinion that top-down power will always either repress or recuperate any bottom-up initiatives.

As I wrote in my last blog post, Covid-19 might offer an opportunity to rethink how we are organised, to rethink our interconnectedness with each other and the nonhuman world, and to place care and the common good more centrally. Covid-19 Mutual Aid Groups could encourage further ‘micro-democratic organising’, or the development of other local structures such as community councils. However, we have also seen a tendency for the pandemic and the measures put in by government to protect people, to take on an authoritarian and controlling nature that may well continue afterwards. There is therefore plenty to do, and plenty to struggle against, through and beyond. Visions for how social change might occur are therefore needed more than ever.

[i] John Holloway, The Concept of Power and the Zapatistas, []

[ii] Peter Linebaugh, 2009, The Magna Carta Manifesto: Liberties and Commons for All, Berkeley, Calif.; London: University of California Press.

[iii] Alexandros Kioupkiolis, 2019, The Common and Counter-Hegemonic Politics: Rethinking Social Change, Edinburgh, UK, Edinburgh University Press, p. 78

[iv] Rhiannon Firth, 2020, ‘Mutual Aid, Anarchist Preparedness and Covid-19’, in Preston & Firth, Coronavirus, Class and Mutual Aid in the United Kingdom, London: Palgrave Macmillan

The Covid Post

I chose this image for my last post but it also seems relevant now.

It’s now many months since I wrote my first blog post. I had been hoping to write at least one per month but not only found myself very busy in February and March but by the end of March had contracted (almost definitely) Covid-19 and while I was only severely ill for a short period of time, I have since then been suffering from what has been called the ‘long tail’ form of the virus.

As Paul Garner, a professor at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, recently wrote: ‘Symptoms come and go, are strange and frightening. The exhaustion is severe, real, and part of the illness.’ Thankfully, I am now more or less over it and am relieved to find that I am not the only one for whom it has dragged on for so long.

So, I have a bit of catching up to do. I started this blog as an attempt to work through some of my research interests and connect the dots. The pandemic has thrown up some interesting ways for this to happen and there is lots I could write about. For one thing, it is amazing how a tiny thing, a thing smaller than an individual cell or bacterium (viruses are generally about 100 nanometers in length) could cause so many enormous changes. The virus is an entity on the boundary of what counts as being alive because it commandeers the host’s cells to produce multiple copies of itself, and has initiated enormous changes in human behaviour and governmental action including shutting down large sections of the economy.  It has shown our interdependency on each other, and the planet’s ecosystem. Not only that but it has made visible inequalities and structures of governance that we knew were there but couldn’t see so clearly.  Changes that we deemed impossible before the pandemic, especially in relation to carbon emissions, happened incredibly quickly.

On the day I came down with Covid-19, philosopher and sociologist Bruno Latour posted a series of questions for people to think about during lockdown. Latour asked people to think about the activities that have been suspended due to the pandemic and decide which ones should resume and which should not. His questions also ask us to think about how people who were engaged in the activities we don’t want to resume should be helped to transition to do other things. These are great questions and ones that can get us to think about transitions, connections and relationships, that we really are part of an ecosystem with chains of consequences. However, something that perhaps they miss are things that have emerged during the crisis that we might want to continue in some way or at least to exert an influence on how we resume. This is about continuing or developing something that has emerged rather than just encouraging or discouraging something that has been stopped. I’m thinking about the rise in altruism, goodwill and neighbourliness during the pandemic and in particular the appearance of Covid-19 mutual aid groups which happened very quickly as lockdown was taking place. There is currently a network of small groups across the UK that is loosely affiliated but not centrally coordinated in any way. This is echoed in other countries such as Spain where there are also groups all over the country. Anna Kleist, who set up one of the first in Lewisham, recounts how they very quickly ‘went viral’.  The obvious pun here might be too much of a cliché given the severity of the pandemic, however, Covid has perhaps ‘given us a model of contamination’ in which the personal and the collective are not totally distinct or discrete. Ideas, knowledge and organising models can also move quickly.

Mutual aid practices are nothing new. The concept stems from a 1902 series of essays by anarchist-communist philosopher Peter Kropotkin and it has been widely practiced by radical and marginalised communities to provide for their everyday needs, especially in circumstances in which state provision has not been forthcoming or deemed prejudicial. The fact that these groups have appeared perhaps does point to something that has not been forthcoming even if the anarchist roots of the practice become obscured. Crises can prompt paradigm shifts precisely by highlighting the limitations of existing norms, beliefs and practices. They can provide opportunities for the re-evaluation and reappraisal of dominant values. Years of austerity and neoliberalism have placed more and more burden on the individual to look after themselves as the state withdraws. The pandemic has not only highlighted this but the deep inequalities that underpin much of society.

The groups themselves may not directly challenge the status quo or see themselves as political, although many of them were set up precisely to deal with some of these inequalities. The assistance they offer such as picking up someone’s shopping, is not antagonistic to the logic of capital, and may ultimately act as a sticking plaster especially if the groups develop along more charity based lines. However, they challenge the limits of commodity exchange through the development of social solidarity.

What might emerge from this mass organising, whether the groups do just develop into neighbourhood charities or entities that have more radical potential, remains to be seen. Deborah Grayson has argued that they could promote a kind of ‘radical neighbourliness‘, entailing a long term commitment and an increasing willingness to tackle injustice.  Certainly, from reports, it seems some of them have already resisted evictions that should not have been happening because of the lockdown laws, even as others are being heavily policed for anything ‘political’.  They could also encourage more micro-democratic organising: that is, the development of local structures such as community councils that allow people in a given area to hold decision-makers to account.

Even if they don’t develop further as organisations as such, the fact is that an increase in social solidarity could help to rewrite our social and political imaginary with a shift in focus towards a more caring idea of the common good. Coupled with a hopefully wider acknowledgement of the existence and effects of racism that the Black Lives Matter protests have encouraged (and an increasing commitment to do something about it), this could create a real shift in values. Watch this space.

Connecting the dots…..

Five-thousand-randomly-located-individuals-dots-on-a-landscape-surface-of_W640I have decided to start blogging in order to try to bring together and connect the dots between my various research interests. I am hoping that as I write, some of these will come together to form either a coherent body of writing or identifiable strands that I can develop further in my research.

For this post, I want to focus on a particular gap or interface in our political culture. This seems especially important in the aftermath of the 2019 UK election and the continued rise of various kinds of contemporary fascisms. Writing as I am now in early January 2020, one of the things I want to do is to reflect on what kinds of theory and practice might be needed in order to counter these, to develop grassroots capacity, solidarity and counter-power.

Living as I do in a housing co-op, I am interested in alternative and ‘autonomous’ forms of organisation and practices of grassroots democracy. By autonomous, I mean non-hierarchical, de-centralised organisational structures and counter-institutions on the edges of mainstream culture and political economy. There have been several waves of these kinds of organisations. The housing co-operative I live in comes out of a wave during the 1970s. There was a previous wave during the 1930s, and a more recent one around 2011 with the square and Occupy movements. These kinds of alternative organisations have coincided with experiments in different modes of democracy. One question I could ask is what the relationship of these micro-democratic practices have to democracy as a whole. Is it a mistake to link the two?

Increasing democracy in the widest possible sense seems to be vital in order to respond to the current erosion of democratic culture. However, it can come with its own challenges because the areas of life that become contestable increase. Mark E. Warren writes that an increase in democratic decision making can put a strain on the social fabric in ways that we are not used to.

Most social interactions we can take for granted – not because they do not involve risks, but rather because the risks are contained; they are governed by a myriad of intricate forms of shared social knowledge, such as the rules governing reciprocity when one gives and receives gifts. Politics emerges when these forms of shared knowledgeability fray and become contestable so that the risks of social interactions are no longer predictable.[i]

Earlier in December, I was involved in a project with the School for Civic Action, an experiment in alternative urban pedagogy run by Public Works, a critical design practice.[ii] At one event in Blackfriars on community charters, there was an interesting discussion about the gap or disconnect between local councils and communities. I use the word communities advisedly here, as it has to be acknowledged that community is a catch-all phrase which belies complex realities. There are many different types of community-based in a geographical area or around particular interests. Also at the event was a worker from a managing agent for housing cooperatives. She talked about a similar disconnect between the organisation and the co-ops that they help to manage. In both cases, there seems to be the tension or clash between very different cultures, and particularly cultures with different ideas of structure and democracy. I’ve also come across similar tensions between activist groups and local government. This is perhaps not so surprising, as activist groups very often make a point of organising non-hierarchically and are set up in order to lobby organisations such as councils. While the machinery of local government is often, as cyberneticist Stafford Beer described it, a machine of inertia.[iii] Local councillors seem beleaguered and fearful. They seem to be continually in fear of being attacked. If councillors were open to admitting that the machinery they are a part of is in large part, a machinery of inertia, perhaps they could invite and accept activists’ role in lobbying them, in order to give them more momentum to change things or to apply pressure that they couldn’t otherwise.

I am also currently involved in the editorial team of the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest (JOAAP). For the next issue, issue 11, JOAAP has invited groups to produce newsletters to circulate within their particular communities.[iv] These will then be collected together to produce the issue. The initial invitation asks how autonomous critical, creative and activist practices might create a commons while retaining their specific conditions/situations. In particular, those that are situated outside of cultural and political institutions. It suggests that ‘the gap between the radical imaginary built on actual social capacity, and formal politics’ might be reclaimed. This is another way of talking about the gap I already identified. Might there be something productive in thinking about or even dwelling in it?


[i] Mark E. Warren, What should we expect from more democracy? : Radically Democratic Responses to Politics, Political Theory , Vol. 24, No. 2 (May, 1996), pp. 241-270


[iii] Eden Medina, Cybernetic Revolutionaries: technology and politics in Allende’s Chile, (2011) MIT