I stare out of Amtrak windows three times in a week, first watching the Virginia countryside, then the Washington DC, and then the Maryland countryside go by. This train journey from rural Twin Oaks Community to Red Emma’s anarchist bookshop in Baltimore sums up the contrasts of my tour and the contrasts of the USA.
I’m visiting radical co-ops and communities, people working to create fair and ecologically-sustainable economies. And I’m poking around to find out what works and what doesn’t, how things go wrong, what gets tried, what inspires cultural change and what gets compromised in the struggle to combat capitalism while surviving inside it.
Along the way, I’m absorbing copious amounts of information and thinking all sorts of thoughts. And, like a bee, carrying political pollen from one project to the next, exchanging, swapping, sharing ideas and contacts, weaving a web of relationships.
Spring had sprung the day I arrived at Twin Oaks, near Charlottesville, Virginia. Despite the overnight journey, I got my usual tingle at seeing people living and working in woodland. There is something deeply nurturing about trees, about walking through piles of leaves, jumping over logs and the noise of twigs breaking underfoot.
Clipboards and tofu
Twin Oaks is a founding member of the Federation of Egalitarian Communities (FEC), a mutual aid network of around 10 income-sharing communities. The founding values of Twin Oaks are equality and nonviolence. The FEC is the nearest equivalent in the US to Radical Routes (RR), the federation of radical co-operatives with which I’m involved back in the UK. Except that income-sharing is practically unheard of in RR, so I was fascinated by being there.
With over 100 people in Twin Oaks collectively managing community life and multiple businesses, there is, unsurprisingly a fair amount of bureaucracy. But despite that, I love how normal it feels, once you get past the strange mixture of home life and work life – discussions (all handwritten on a giant array of clipboards) about expanding the tofu business sit alongside letters expressing sadness at leaving, a description of the children’s history curriculum, results of the food preferences survey and calls for managers to submit their annual budget requests (for both cash and hours).
The community celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, so they’re doing something right. They even have their own graveyard and a living space suitable for people to move into when they’re dying. Three or four more similar communities have been spawned or inspired nearby, creating an increasingly resilient ecology of people and businesses.
It feels very solid, very stable, very organised, very settled. And comfortable and beautiful.
After too few days, I left for Washington DC and Baltimore, bringing my all-sorts-of-thoughts with me.
In your face
Being in cities is more familiar to me, living among masses of people of all kinds, all backgrounds. Some might think like me, some others might share a culture, but most will have different cultural frameworks, different values, different ambitions.
In cities, the impacts of capitalism are in your face – the extremes of inequality and overconsumption, the blanket of tarmac, concrete and manicured lawns, the onslaught of advertising and information from all directions and the sense-deadening impact of traffic, neglected property, rubbish and noise.
So far, so generic, though Baltimore seems to have more than its fair share of difficulties. But it is also home to Red Emma’s workers co-op, anarchist bookstore and coffee shop. It’s a large and welcoming space, with long tables and power points encouraging hipsters and homeless people to hang out in close proximity.
And this is the other side of cities – cultural novelty and mash-up, the synergies of lots of people bouncing ideas off each other, the excitement and challenge of meeting new and interesting people, the possibilities for organising and creating collective power and for feeling and channelling anger.
And thus I find myself in a crowded room, listening to discussions about why anarchists should organise around the upcoming governor election. It’s a new setting for a familiar theme – how much energy should we put into defensive organising, supporting the least worst option that might buy us some time or space? At home, it’s been around Corbyn and around Brexit. In Barcelona, it was around Catalan nationalism vs freedom from the Spanish state. My concern is always how we don’t just end up splitting into factions.
I cycle back, thinking that, as usual, I can see everyone’s point and they’re probably all right.
The telly is on as I come in, showing scenes of hundreds of people in red clothing, clapping, singing and smiling. It’s a Netflix documentary, 'Wild Wild Country', about the Rajneesh commune – or should I say ‘town’ – in Oregon in the ‘80s. Pretty soon, the documentary is detailing their efforts to gain local power by bussing in thousands of street people from across the US to come live with them, so that they’ll all vote for the Rajneeshi candidates. Now, that’s what I call electoral organising*.
No one’s going to hold up the Rajneeshees as shining examples either of a sustainable egalitarian commune, or of excellent community organising and local engagement. But they too had some pretty interesting stuff going on.**
And that’s really where I’ve ended up – what does each project have that’s good? What can we learn from each other? Can we agree to disagree about tactics and strategy, while maintaining friendships and solidarity that will be essential in an uncertain future? How can we be critical friends of each other’s projects and campaigns? How can we take the value from the phrase ‘by any means necessary’ and couple it with ‘as long as we don’t screw up our future’?
* It didn’t work out for them though. Unsurprisingly. ** And some awe-inspiringly terrible stuff.