Monday 22 June 2015

Commoning and Commons Rising

"Gentrification" is a term used to describe the process whereby a previously low rent neighbourhood sees a shift in the core demographics of its population, usually driven by a combination of factors, including increasing numbers of affluent, middle class professionals moving to the area, pushing up rents and providing the economic basis for a more consumer-driven local economy. Other factors usually play a part as well however, not least among them may be decisions made by local councils to make planning decisions which deliberately allocate more land for the construction of luxury flats and none for genuinely affordable, social housing. The result of this process is what many people have described as a kind of 'social cleansing' in which indigenous members of the community find that they can no longer afford to live in the area and are eventually forced to move away.
This process is simply the end result of what happens when individuals, businesses, and government, simply accept the individualistic, acquisitive nature of capitalism as a given. It isn't, of course, and the predominance of this way of life hasn't stopped committed groups of people coming together to build alternatives. It simply makes it a bit harder.

There's always alternatives, often difficult but always worthwhile
What are the alternatives though? I have always been keen on searching out practical examples of living alternatives, in the hope that I may find a kind of reverse process, a "de-gentrification," an attempt (to borrow an old legalistic term) to un-enclose the enclosures of an increasingly privatised world, a world of individuals and nuclear families, competing against each other in increasingly gated off communities filled with surveillance cameras and private security guards.
Sometimes groups of people band together to live communally, not so much like a student residence, but like an extended family, sharing meals and resources, and offering practical and emotional support to one another. But if you are still paying rent to a private landlord you remain subject to rent rises and lack control over how you maintain your own property, so some people form housing cooperatives, becoming their own landlords. The Sanford Housing Co-op in New Cross, south east London is a good example of a large project which has been around since the 1970s. Of course, unless you have a large sum of capital to begin with, you will likely still have to deal with banks and building societies though.
Other approaches are more radical still. Squatting dis-used land is an old practice which challenges one of the very fundamental assumptions of capitalist life - the nature of private property. It is a   practice that has made possible community centres like the Bonnington Cafe in London's Vauxhall, played a significant role in protest movements, and led to the creation of entirely off-grid communities like the threatened Runnymede Eco Village in Surrey.
Of course, living together in a shared house with shared resources, whether by forming a housing cooperative or by squatting it, is really only one manifestation of a broader trend which has had many different names over the years, but which increasing numbers of people now choose to call "commoning" - a handy term which describes the process of either reclaiming the old commons, or creating new forms. 

The most effective approach seems to be to build stronger, more resilient communities, capable of protecting their own interests. A good example may be the way residents of the villages to the north of Heathrow airport have worked together to oppose a third runway, which would have meant the destruction of their homes and communities. The key to their success lay in the very broad-based nature of the campaign. While the locals fought for their homes, environmental activists set up community protection camps in the area to create hubs for the local community whilst highlighting the negative consequences for the climate of expanding the airport. The first of these was the Camp for Climate Action, soon followed by Grow Heathrow, which remains to this day. Even the inhabitants of neighbouring wealthier boroughs opposed the expansion on the grounds of increased noise pollution.

During May, following the general election result which returned the Tories to power with a slim majority (a party seemingly committed to destroying all alternatives), I found it quite rejuvenating to be able to pay a visit to the community of my colleague Earthian in the east end of London, just prior to his setting out on the latest leg of his peace pilgrimage, advocating for world peace and a world without borders. Three months into their latest occupation of a surprisingly clean and modern former primary school, the community were having an open day with talks and music, including one given by a speaker from the group Commons Rising, which has helped clarify and give structure to a wide range of different projects I had discovered over the last few years, and many I had not.

So what is the commons and commoning?
Put briefly, the commons (or 'commoning') is a term we can apply to anything that involves ordinary people coming together to create something which serves a communal need, rather than someone's personal profit. In the commons, the only rules are those that ensure everyone profits. But rather than being a form of charity (where the 'haves' give to the 'have-nots' and thereby uphold an essentially unequal relationship) in order to build a true commons, our basis must ideally come from a feeling of equality and solidarity, of shared struggle and shared interests.
Manifestations of commoning does not even need to exist in physical space, like a housing co-op or community cafe. Online projects like Wikipedia and the Internet itself are good examples of the commons taking other forms.
For more information, check out: 

Amended: June 28th 2015

Friday 19 June 2015

Two Zine Reviews for the Price of None

In this post I will be offering you a brief summary of not one but two zines.

Why two zines?

Primarily because both deal with the same subject - veganism (or vegan tourism) - in the same way, by creating what are both witty and informative little guides for vegans trying to find places to eat in two very different UK cities. Also because I'm quite lazy and its easier than writing two different posts.

The first of them, A Vegan Guide to Newcastle, which has been put out by, I found in the great, zine-friendly, independent comic shop Travelling Man (its actually an expanding chain, but still a very small one at the present time), during a recent trip to that city in the north-east of England. The zine is comprised of mostly descriptive passages of text, but is greatly helped by the many simple yet realistic pen drawings of the places featured. Sadly, I only had time to check out two of the places mentioned in the zine, but I was not disappointed. Both the Settle Down Cafe and Tea Sutra had great service and a chilled out vibe, while the food in the first was amazing, the choice of herbal teas in the second was quite frankly overwhelming. You would need to live in Newcastle to be able to sample everything!

I am going to overlook the terrible pun in the title of the second vegan guide: TimeSprout: A Vegan Tourist's Guide to London, because while the artwork is not as polished, it is written in a far more entertaining style, is attempting to cover a far larger city (except the west end, which the authors admit they don't know as much about), is lovingly bound with beautiful soft string which gives it a handmade quality which reminds me of my wife's aesthetic tastes, and if that weren't enough is being produced with the help of the folks at Footprinters and Active Distro as a benefit comic for the Green and Black Cross. GBC is a 100% volunteer grassroots group who have been around for five years, and who provide legal support to activists working on liberatory social change (the combination of factors is so right-on it hurts!)

If you are looking to connect with a more ethical life through the prism of a lively, grassroots DIY culture what more could you ask for than these two amusing and informative little zines?

Thursday 18 June 2015

Book review: Wonderful Copenhagen

I would recommend anyone reading this to find a copy of this graphic novel by Danish creator Adam O for the stunning full colour artwork alone. However, I am conscious that to do so might be doing a dis-service to the powerful themes the book explores.

The story is SF/Fantasy, but more in the tradition of authors like John (Day of the Triffids) Wyndham than Aldous (Brave New World) Huxley or George (1984) Orwell. For this reason I am not sure if it is right to call Wonderful Copenhagen 'dystopian'. I think 'post-apocalyptic' may be a more useful term, because in the time period when the story is set the dystopia (our own ecologically fragile, surveillance-ridden world) has already passed. We only see this world through the flashbacks of the principal (in fact, the sole) character. Without wanting to give too much away, I will say that Adam O proves quite masterful in the way he explores the potential dangers of increased repression by a technocratic state with beautiful, and in some aspects disturbingly believable, attention to detail.

An added plus side to spending hard cash on buying a copy is that the proceeds from the English translation (available in the UK from Active Distribution) all go to Haven Books to Prisoners, a shoestring charity which buys books for people who are studying in prison.