Easter weekend I was transported to a vision of the future. Not in some vague, William Morris, utopian way (although, all power to that!.. we definitely need more utopian visions to counter the pathological cynicism of dystopian fun-sponges), but in a very real, practical and inspiring way.
The host for our latest DIY Alliance (DIYA) meeting was the remarkable, multi award winning, Lancaster Cohousing at Halton, just outside Lancaster. As I have previously mentioned, DIYA meetings are designed to bring grassroots, self-organising, anarchist-friendly, community-focused projects together so that we can learn from each other and maximise our impact through solidarity and mutual aid. The original plan had been to unite projects across the north of England, but the idea has gathered an unpredicted momentum which saw people from as far afield as Northampton join us for the weekend. Among them were our old friends from Bolton Diggers, the 0161 Anti-Fascist festival in Manchester and members of A Commune in the North (ACitN) — who I shall write about more thoroughly in a future article — to name but a few. It was Cath from ACitN who invited Natalia from Anna’s House Education to give a talk about the Kurdistan Freedom Movement. More on that in a moment.
The venue itself was something of a paradise. Built on the banks of the salmon-rich River Lune, on ex-industrial land, Lancaster Cohousing is a long street of cosy homes which meet Passivhaus and Code for Sustainable Homes (level 6) standards. No cars are allowed in the residential area, so neighbours must pass each other in the street and the kitchen windows of each house face into the street so that every resident sees everyone else on a regular basis, reinforcing the sense of community. Some of the project’s power is supplied by Halton Lune Hydro, the biggest community hydro in England, in combination with community solar power generation and the national grid. The houses are so efficient that you need to programme how many people are sleeping in the house. We forgot to add somebody in one of the houses where we stayed and it got noticeably hot through the night due to the extra body heat. They have a large community kitchen and meeting room, which we used for our gathering, and a Mill with offices and workshops.
On a sunny Easter weekend the place was ridiculously idyllic. Everytime we thought it couldn’t get any better, it just kept on giving. Children played and families swam in the river. I swear even the dogs had smiles on their faces. And when we opened our bedroom curtain in the morning a pair of blue tits waved at us from a feeder outside the window.
My younger self would have been angered by the fact that the children in working class communities like mine would not get the chance to enjoy a place like this. But nowadays I realise that the work at hand is to ensure that one day, no matter how long it takes, future generations of children will enjoy a variety of nurturing environments wherever they happen to be born. I once designed a self-build social-housing estate. It was based on straw-bale construction with land for growing and workshops for small enterprises which would allow families to build their way out of poverty. The project got quite a long way before being halted by the limitations of building regulations, mortgage providers and planning laws which were the construct of lobbying from large property developers such as Persimmon rather than regulations created for the protection of those who would live there. Access to land is also a major issue in the UK.
One place which has successfully crowdfunded to secure 6 acres of land in trust for their community is Claver Hill Community Farm. After our tour of Lancaster Cohousing we visited Claver Hill. They described how it was a volunteer-led project where everyone who volunteers is an equal member of the project. A system similar to the one in place at Bentley Urban Farm (BUF), but better defined (something which I will be addressing thanks to this visit). The whole site is no dig and there are 92 large and productive beds split over six distinct projects, including a seed bank plot and a commercial flower plot. This year is likely to be the first where all of their compost for the no dig system (which needs the addition of inch of compost on each bed each season) has been made on site (in compost bins with very attractive screens which have been woven from willow which they grow on their hillside land as wind-breaks), giving them an added layer of autonomy and resilience. Emma, the inspiration behind DIYA, has identified sites like this and Bolton Diggers as the ‘new commons’; autonomous spaces where we can provide people with much-needed assistance in the present, and where we can also experiment and build for the future.
Emma had helped to organise the recent Zapatista tour of the UK, and it was here she came to realise that the Zapatistas are not creating their education, outreach and dialogue events in the hope that we will tell their story. Rather, they are actively seeking to link autonomous, self-organised, revolutionary (and potentially revolutionary…) groups around the world because they see that the construction of a better, braver, brighter future has already begun. It might not feel like this in so-called ‘developed’ countries, because we exist in a world which is much further removed from the possibility of beautiful alternatives. But the people of Chiapas and Oaxaca know that the fight for the future has already begun.
The same is, of course, true for the people of Rojava who live within the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AAENS). As previously mentioned, Cath from ACitN had invited Natalia from Anna’s House Education (named, of course, after Natalia’s friend Anna Cambell) to speak at the DIYA get-together. ACitN already has regular education workshops on the second Sunday of the month and, as we were at Lancaster for the weekend, Cath thought it would be good to double up. Political education is central to both the Zapatista and the Kurdish revolutions. As Natalia explained to us, revolution does not come out of nowhere. It takes years of education to instil the skills, confidence and culture needed for real change. The seeds for the 2012 Rojava revolution were planted 50yrs ago when a tiny group of people began to talk proudly about their Kurdish identity and took the first steps to Kurdish independence. The same was true for the Zapatista uprising (although the road to revolution was quicker, because it was the Marxist revolutionaries who were educated in a millennia-held indeginous worldview) and for the Spanish revolution.
The other quality that each of these movements share is the ability to self-critique and adapt. As I just mentioned, the Marxists who went to the mountains of Chiapas were converted to an indigenous worldview which created a refreshingly anti-hierarchical, post-colonial ethos which deeply inspired my generation in the 1990s and showed humanity that ‘another world is possible’. The Kurdish Freedom Movement also famously moved from a hierarchical, patriarchal, Marxist perspective, to the eco-feminist concept of Jineology and the daily practice of Democratic Confederalism. In AAENS organised regions decisions are made by mixed gender councils, female councils and children’s councils. Just as long-domesticated Westerners are those furthest removed from a belief in real freedom, women and children are furthest from the corrupting influence of the patriarchy, and, as such, they are better suited to making the decisions which will lead us to a freer world. Nor is there the fear of failure so endemic in people who have been conditioned by Western education. The AAENS has been experimenting with building a network of worker’s cooperatives to help support the revolution. The first wave of cooperative building did not achieve the desired results, so they are currently redesigning the system from the bottom up. This kind of feedback is rarely allowed to exist in our current, intensely polarized, ‘I am right, you are wrong’, anti-dialogue worldview, but it is essential to building an anti-authoritarian, anti-dogmatic, anarchist future.
In honour of her friend Anna, Natalia spent a year in Rojava. It was hard, but she would love to go back. But she realises the educational work which needs to be done in societies such as ours, so is now dedicated to educating people about Jineology in countries like the UK. As I mentioned earlier, we are also currently looking at regular political education workshops at BUF to help familiarise people with the advances made by the Zapatistas and the Kurds. I am also more than prepared to work on something which will not come to fruition in my lifetime. But if we look at the work in hand from a global perspective, it may not take 50yrs to build a revolution in this country. Both the Zapatistas and the Kurds are of the opinion that the revolution is right here, right now. Whatever we choose to do to further its ends is part of something much wider. We are not starting from scratch. We have very real, very tangible illustrations of alternatives to the status quo created by people who have already done a lot of the leg-work for us. If we use the ‘new commons’ — sites like those we are visiting on our DIYA tour — as educational opportunities to introduce Zapatismo and Jineology to people in some of the UK’s most marginalised areas, then we have the potential to reduce some of the revolutionary groundwork. We just need to realise that we are all part of the same movement. To paraphrase a well worn adage, it is our business to “Think globally, act autonomously.” And to paraphrase William Gibson: “The revolution is already here, it is just not evenly distributed yet.”
In true Kurdish style, we ended our visit with dancing. A smal, but incredibly diverse, bunch of people danced fiercely into the night — and into the future.
The DIY Alliance are actively making links around the UK. If you would like us to visit you, to join us in our visits, or would just like more information, please contact the network directly via our mailing list at diy_alliance(at)lists.riseup.net
*Since publication I have found out that, thanks to the success of Lancaster Cohousing, a new social eco-housing development is being built next door to the existing project in conjunction with Lancaster council. Hopefully this will set a much-needed precedent for other council’s. And as Alan from Bolton Diggers has pointed out, these projects are the pathfinders developing essential skills for the future.