A Liverpool writer reflects on the differences between feeling powerless in the position of receiving charity and empowered when part of a collective effort.
Recently I started using the Walton Vale Community Shop, in North Liverpool. It was set up due to high levels of poverty in the area, and anyone living in Walton can pay £3.50 or £5, for 10 or 15 items. It appears to be run by volunteers, but is funded by a mixture of the council, charities and the GMB union, while also receiving surplus food.
While the food and toiletries they provide are very cheap, there is some discontent from users around it only being open for two hours a week (during typical working hours) and the fact that it is not unusual to have to queue for over an hour. However, I think there are deeper issues with this model, which calls itself a “food cooperative”, although I am grateful for the volunteers that make it feasible.
I find using the Community Shop, like most other forms of charity, is a disempowering feeling for everybody involved. As users we seem to have no input (there have not been any surveys of what food we would like, or minutes from meetings, in fact we have had no contact since joining), while I can only imagine volunteering feels exhausting.
The fact that it is heavily linked to the council also guarantees political neutrality, it has to stick narrowly to its parameters or risk defunding, for example the shop couldn’t really be used to distribute literature criticising the council, yet you will see plenty of Labour Party merchandise. Dependency on the council also raises the question of what happens if a different party, or faction of the ruling party itself, wins office. These issues are typical of charities, which address the effects of poverty, rather than challenging its root causes.
I was surprised then, when I attended a talk by Cooperation Town, a group which has helped set up several grassroots food cooperatives. They described food cooperatives as being member-led associations, which they advised do not grow larger than 10-20 households, at which point they risk becoming too large to manage democratically. They can still access surplus food, but also collectively spend their membership fees to buy goods in bulk at wholesale prices. Every household is supposed to help out if and how they can in running the co-op (ideally for less than an hour a week), such as ordering or delivering food.
They can be organised geographically, and then split into smaller localities as they grow. However, they could also be set up around specific dietary requirements or preferences, such as being vegan or gluten free, or preferring chinese food. If there were several food cooperatives in one city, they could still work together, while maintaining their autonomy, for example by forming a federation.
In contrast to my local community shop, this model of neighbourhood food coops enables people to act for themselves. It could give people new skills and also the experience of making decisions in a non-hierarchical manner. If autonomous, these co-ops would have the freedom to support social struggles, for example they could donate surplus food to striking workers, or they could form the basis of local campaigns to resist evictions, protect green spaces or oppose austerity measures. They would also be more resilient, since there would be no risk of defunding.
There are of course risks involved in this model. They could end up being co-opted by politicians or developing a bureaucracy, taking control away from members. Likewise they could become too large, or work might not be shared equally, which could lead to them becoming unwieldy and falling apart. But these are risks with any form of bottom-up organising.
Realistically food co-ops won’t solve the underlying problems around capitalism. As well as the fact that people go hungry in one of the worlds richest nations, the production process also poisons our bodies and the earth, and wage slavery subjects us to lives of monotony and cruelty. For this reason, I think it’s worth fighting for a world where food, and everything else, is distributed freely according to need, and where the people involved in this work do so voluntarily. But in the meantime, setting up food co-ops seems like a worthwhile endeavour.
This article comes from the latest issue of Liverpool Anarchist, a monthly newsletter covering local organising and direct action in the city.