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  • 34 Wright's Houses, Edinburgh Student Housing Cooperative, front view. (Photo: Wiki commons)

    34 Wright's Houses, Edinburgh Student Housing Cooperative, front view. (Photo: Wiki commons)

Published 23 November 2014
The network of radical co-operatives began in the 1980s with a group of unwaged activists.

Within modern Western activist organizing, there are powerful tensions between different values: allowing people independence and autonomy; including all who can possibly be included; treating everyone equally; and at the same time setting boundaries and being clear about radical principles, about what is acceptable.

In Britain, some of these tensions are currently playing out within the Radical Routes network of radical co-operatives. Radical Routes began life in the 1980s when a group of unwaged activists tried to set up an alternative university in Birmingham, and found a way of navigating the legal frameworks involved to use unemployment benefits to fund the house purchase that would give them a secure base. In Britain, unemployed people can claim ‘housing benefit’ to pay part or all of their rent – the rules have changed over the years, but the principle remains the same. 

What the New Education Housing Co-operative Ltd managed to do was to find a legal form that allowed it to raise funds through ‘loanstock’ from supporters and a mortgage loan from the bank, and then to receive income from housing benefit from its unemployed tenants to pay off the mortgage. The peculiarity was that the co-operative was run by and for its tenants. The unemployed tenants who were receiving housing benefit (and paying rent) were also the directors of the company (which was paying off the mortgage and would eventually own the property). 

The founders of New Education had discovered the only legal structure for the company (a ‘par value, fully-mutual co-operative’) that would allow this to happen. The legal structure they put in place prevents any personal financial benefit to any individual member of the co-op either during the life of the co-op or when it is dissolved (any funds left have to go to another co-op or an organisation with similar values to the dissolving co-operative). 

The members of the co-op benefited by having secure housing under their own democratic control, but they did not gain any financial advantage in terms of a dividend or a share of the capital gains if the house was sold at a profit.

Other unemployed activists started applying this model elsewhere, and the legal departments of a number of local councils (which operate the housing benefit system) tested and approved the system. The loose network of radical housing co-ops then became a formal organization called Radical Routes in 1988, and incorporated itself as a secondary co-operative (a co-operative of co-operatives) in 1992.

Setting boundaries

The new network, which used consensus-based decision-making, was determined to set high standards for new members, to protect its radical identity. Member co-operatives had to pay a small sum each year towards the basic operating costs of the network, but the main burden was in terms of time and effort: the network would be run by and for its members on a voluntary basis (apart from one qualified finance worker), and each member co-op was expected to do two days’ work a month to keep Radical Routes (RR) functioning (one day a month, if a small co-op). This work would be in or through one of RR’s working groups (finance, publicity, internal communications were the main three) – each co-op was also meant to hold a regular ‘Taking Control’ event in its area to publicize the ideas of radical co-operation.

Not only were there responsibilities for the members co-ops, the founders of RR decided there would be two conditions for individual members of each member co-op (individuals can’t be members of RR itself).

Each individual joining an RR co-op would have to commit herself to limiting her personal consumption to no more than twice what she would be entitled to from unemployment benefits (this was part of RR’s mission to ‘challenge consumerism’); and she would also have to commit to doing 15 hours a week radical social change work. This figure arose from the unemployment benefit rules, which allowed claimants to do only 15 hours of voluntary work a week – beyond that they would be penalized and benefits would be reduced.

The three things that people were told in the 1990s definitely counted as ‘radical social change work’ were: organic agriculture; home education (it is legal for parents to educate their children at home in Britain); and radical political campaigning (including but not limited to ‘direct action’). Organic agriculture has now become mainstream, but that doesn’t mean that it’s easy to be a radical workers’ co-op trying to operate in the organic food industry.

One down, one to go

Both of these rules for individual members came under attack in the second decade of Radical Routes’ life, increasing in intensity in its third decade. The limit on personal consumption (usually, wrongly, called ‘the income rule’) finally perished in the summer of 2014. The 15-hour rule, requiring all RR tenants/members to commit to two days a week of radical social change action, is on its last legs as I write. A proposal to abolish the rule was made at the August 2014 gathering and effectively re-submitted at the November 2014 gathering. 

At the November 2014 gathering in Brighton, only one member co-op objected to the proposal and defended the 15-hour rule in principle. [Declaration of interest: I’m a member of that group, Walden Pond Housing Co-op.] According to the ‘consensus-minus-one’ decision-making process used by Radical Routes, opposition from only one member should have allowed the proposal to go ahead, and the 15-hour rule to be abolished. However, there were a number of co-ops with concerns about the exact wording of the proposed new policy, and the proposing co-operative decided not to press ahead with abolition at that moment.

How is it that such fundamental policies which were agreed at the foundation of the network, and which each new member has had to sign up to on joining, have been either abolished (the consumption rule) or on the verge of abolition, with only a single member out of around 30 member co-ops supporting it?

Cycles

It is possible that this is part of the life cycle of this kind of activist organization. It’s possibly the case that another factor is the life cycle of small radical housing co-ops themselves. Often, co-ops join Radical Routes with a burst of enthusiasm and energy. They throw themselves into RR work, helping to change the way things are done, or just doing a lot, while simultaneously buying a house for themselves, with the aid of RR advice and an RR loan (Radical Routes has never had a bad debt, despite lending mostly to groups of unemployed people). 

Then the members of the co-op get jobs, have children, get caught up in their local communities in various ways, and have less time and energy for RR. They either move voluntarily out of full membership to associate (supporting) membership, or they are thrown out of the organisation, after not showing up to gatherings for over a year. 

As only full members can have loans from RR, leaving full membership means paying back any unpaid loans from RR. Very often this has been easy for co-ops who’ve been paying off their mortgage for over 10 years – they’ve been able to expand their bank mortgage in order to pay off their loan from RR.

For these reasons and for others, many co-ops who were around in the 1990s are no longer members of the network. In the few co-ops that are still around from the 1990s, the membership has often changed completely. 

Whoever, whatever

The culture of the organization has also changed. Partly, this is the result of the commitment to autonomy in RR – and in British activist circles more widely. One example of this is the ‘new groups visit’. When a group is forming, and wanting to join Radical Routes, it is encouraged to send representatives to the quarterly gathering. It’s a requirement of joining that representatives have attended at least two consecutive quarterly meetings before they can join (at the third consecutive gathering). However, it’s recognized that this visiting scheme doesn’t necessarily involve every member of the joining co-op, so RR sends a couple of people to visit the co-op at ‘home’, and to have a meeting with all the members, explaining what is involved in RR membership.

It’s during this visit that Radical Routes has a chance to say directly to each and every member of the joining co-op, among other things, what is expected of them personally in terms of the 15 hours of radical social change action.

However, the way that ‘new groups visits’ are arranged (and indeed ‘new groups’ introductory meetings at the quarterly gatherings), often it has been whoever has volunteered who goes off to represent the network, and conduct the visit (or meeting) as they see fit. This has meant that the message given has not been standardized, and the meaning given to certain important parts of RR may have been varied, which the newly-joining co-op sees at ‘the real meaning’, because it is what has been passed on to them by a representative of the network.

Tensions

The commitment to autonomy sits alongside a more authoritative impulse to be clear about boundaries. So RR has always required joining co-ops to attend several workshops at its quarterly gatherings, including ones on ‘consensus decision-making’ and ‘facilitation’ (of meetings).

Throughout much of its life, however, RR has not effectively specified what should be conveyed to the new co-ops about consensus decision-making or facilitation. The content of these compulsory workshops was left to whoever volunteered to run them, meaning that the instructions on how to do group decision-making or meeting facilitation could vary from gathering to gathering, possibly even in a contradictory way.

Within much of contemporary activist organizing, there a tension between exactly these competing values – autonomy and ideology. In the debate around the 15-hour rule, one theme that has emerged strongly has been a claim to autonomy by member co-operatives. Co-ops who joined RR by giving an undertaking that they would restrict their membership to people willing to accept the consumption and radical social action rules, and who have sometimes gained loans from RR on this basis, have later decided that they wanted to be able to admit whoever they wanted into their co-ops – while still being members of Radical Routes, and without having to pay back their loans to RR.

Radical Routes has achieved amazing things. It’s enabled groups of mostly young, mostly poor people (generally voluntarily-downwardly-mobile) to take well over £4 million-worth of property out of private hands and into co-operative ownership. It’s provided stable bases for some of the most important British direct action campaigning of the last 30 years. It’s been a beacon of democratic decision-making and anarchist financing.

At the same time, it’s not clear what the effect on the organization will be as the demand for individual and co-op autonomy overcomes the need for boundary-setting principles.

Radical Routes has, in many ways, been an example of the future desired society being set up in miniature within the shell of the old society. It’s possible that over the last few years, key elements preserving its radical identity have themselves been hollowed out, leaving a fragile shell. There may be lessons here for others.

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