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Lessons from the Common House

Lessons from the Common House

The Common House, an activist collective that had provided meeting space for radical groups in Bethnal Green, London, since 2013, closed down its physical venue in 2021. During the pandemic, many members had to drop out and those who remained decided to wind things down gently with care while they still had some energy left. The Common House is continuing organising events in other spaces as well as online, such as skill shares and a regular “Activist Cafe” networking event.

I am a grassroots organiser and writer, and friends with one of the Common House organisers. I asked if I could interview members of the Common House and write about their experience. The group consented and three people agreed to be interviewed. We talked about the history of the Common House, its structures, relationships and wider activist networks, and the process of ending the project.

The Common House was founded by a number of feminist, anti-capitalist, radical education and self-organised worker groups. Some of the groups involved from or near the beginning included Feminist Fightback, X Talk (a sex worker-led workers co-operative), Sex Workers Open University, Plan C, Precarious Workers Brigade, and Autonomous Tech Fetish. The space was run collectively by member groups who sent representatives to regular assemblies and shared the day-to-day admin work.

The Common House was an experiment in creating “urban commons” as collective praxis. They did not see the commons as something that already exists and is then collectively shared, but as something that is always in the process of being collectively created. The central idea of “commoning” is that everyone contributes something, and everyone takes something from the commons.

There is no straightforward relationship between what we give and what we take. Figuring out what someone is able to contribute and what they need to take away from a space are two separate processes that are intertwined in the commons. This means that at the heart of commoning there is a conflict that has to be addressed and resolved over and over again. Commoning is the ongoing work of harmonising what each of us needs and what each of us can offer to a collective.

Scholars Fred Moten and Stefano Harney argue that Karl Marx’s words “from each according to his ability to each according to his needs” are misunderstood when thought of in terms of property. If we possess our “needs and abilities” as property, that means they are quantifiable and translatable. In theory, then, we could work out a system to distribute from each according to their ability to each according to their needs. However, needs and abilities are actually power relations rooted in our interdependency with other human and non-human beings. They can never be resolved in a straightforward system.

This is why our needs are often contradictory and conflict with the needs of others. For example, the Common House was a rented flat inside a warehouse building, hidden away in a side street. It was not a space where one could just show up and meet other people. They couldn’t throw parties because of the neighbours. However, that also made the Common House a great space for sex workers and activists to meet confidentially. No single group or project can meet all the contradictory needs in our communities.

Many activist groups implicitly or explicitly work on the principle that the more time and energy someone is able to contribute, the more influence they should have or the more they should be able to get out of a project. Commoning challenges this assumption. The reality is that often the people who need a space the most are able to contribute the least time or material resources. However, that does not mean that they can’t or don’t contribute anything at all.

At the Common House, there were a few individuals who put in a lot of admin work, worried about the finances, and regularly took part in meetings. However, many others contributed to the life of the space by organising and attending events and using it to directly meet their needs.

For example, there were regular sex worker breakfasts, English classes, self-defence classes, and all kinds of workshops and skill shares. One of the people who put in the admin “grunt work”, said that they got out “so much more” because they got to be part of a vibrant and diverse space that was serving people’s needs. Ecofeminist Maria Mies writes that “no commons can exist without a community”. We need to build reciprocal social relationships in order to maintain common spaces. And we need common spaces in order to meet, get to know each other and build trust. Privatisation breaks down the commons, which breaks down our communities, which undermines our ability to create commons. For example, paying rent was a constant source of anxiety and stress for the Common House. Paying rent to a landlord means that you have an exploitative relationship built into the commons from the outset. The landlord takes a profit out of the commons which means that everyone else is putting in more than they are taking out.

The exploitative relationship built into the commons through private property is one of the reasons why groups end up with a dynamic where a few people do a lot more work, and shoulder a lot more responsibility, than others. Importantly, there are no winners in this dynamic. A few people lose more sleep and do more work than others. However, those members who do not have the capacity to take on as much work and responsibility, also find that they have less influence in the collective. For example, one of the organisers had not been able to attend the meetings where the decision was made to close down the Common House. The decision was therefore effectively made without them. On the other hand, two of the other organisers said they felt anxious because they were making a huge decision that affected many people who did not have the capacity to give their input.

This dynamic is further polarised and complicated by divisions such as class, sexism, racism, ableism, and migration status. For example, Erica Lagalisse observes that women have to do more “operational” work such as taking minutes at meetings or checking emails than their male comrades in order to gain influence in a group. Therefore, women who do not have the capacity to attend meetings will have less influence than the men who don’t attend, and women who do have the capacity to be actively involved are likely to take on more work and become more overwhelmed than the active men.

Grassroots organising within capitalism is inherently unsustainable. Individual groups can only sustain themselves over time by reproducing exploitative relationships. This is why we get that familiar pattern where young activists are chewed up and spat out by campaigns that claim to be growing and escalating when really, they are burning through and depleting grassroots resources.

The diversity of our movements is what makes us resilient and enables us to grow collective power. Our individual groups and campaigns don’t have to and can’t be the whole movement, they just have to be part of it. The relationships we build and the knowledge we gain through our organising outlast particular groups and campaigns and can feed into new things. This also means allowing ourselves and our comrades to take breaks or leave groups without losing their friendships and networks. It’s important that people who need to step back can do so without any guilt or pressure, are still actively welcomed to social events, and can become active again when they are ready.

Building commons within and against capitalism means (re)building reciprocal social relationships across capitalist divisions of power. This involves finding ways of making collective decisions and holding each other accountable. Collective decision-making and accountability are relationships where people affirm each other’s efforts, communicate their needs, voice disagreement, and challenge each other when necessary. They are not reducible to horizontal structures or formal processes.**** This is especially tricky when the majority of a group is already so tired and disengaged it becomes difficult to find out what people are thinking and what they want.

The decision to close the Common House was explored through a series of one-to-one conversations. Following these informal conversations, a motion to close down the Common House was brought to a monthly assembly and passed. Before finally leaving the space, they organised a big clear out day. Lots of people came by to pick up bits of equipment, books, and furniture, or just to chat and reminisce. There were people from other social centres, squatters, activists, neighbours, friends, and former Common House members. People who used to be involved came back to help wind things down. One organiser described this as a “life raft”, a “last-minute injection of support and comfort”, reassuring the small group that their decision to wind down the Common House was supported by their wider activist community.

~ Nora Ziegler

Pic: Common House website

This article first appeared in the Winter 2022/23 edition of Freedom journal, available at our online shop for the cost of postage.

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