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Radical Routes and radical social change

The long story behind current debates about principles in a radical co-op network

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The pink house, Walden Pond Housing Co-op in St Leonards-on-Sea. photo: Milan Rai

Radical Routes has been an amazing radical success story, proving that democratic radical institutions can survive and thrive, operating by a modified form of consensus decision-making, and turning private property into collectively-owned, activist-controlled spaces. For some, the success of Radical Routes (RR) has proven that ‘anarchists can deal with money’.

Today, Radical Routes is changing some fundamental aspects of its politics, leading some to wonder what this means for attempts to build lasting radical institutions on non-hierarchical principles.

RR was set up in order to help radical activists to gain control over their housing, education and work: ‘Through gaining collective control over these areas we aim to reduce reliance on exploitative structures and build secure bases from which to challenge the system and encourage others to do so.’ That’s from the RR aims & principles.

RR was set up for people who not only believed in the RR aims and principles (equality and co-operation and other good things), but who wanted to ‘challenge the system and encourage others to do so’, radical activists who were radical and active.

Origins story

Radical Routes began life in the 1980s when a group of unemployed activists (including Stephen Hancock, later a PN co-editor) set up an ‘alternative university’ in Birmingham. They wanted to purchase a house in Hockley to give the New Education project a secure basis.

What they discovered was that it was possible for a housing co-op made up of unemployed people to buy a house, and then pay off the mortgage using housing benefit payments – if the co-op was structured in such a way that no individual member could ever benefit financially from the house purchase, either during its life or when it was wound up and its property was sold off.

Other unemployed activists started applying this model elsewhere. The loose network of radical housing co-ops became a formal organisation called Radical Routes in 1988, and incorporated itself as a secondary co-operative (a co-op of co-ops) in 1992.

The purpose of Radical Routes was to give advice, support and loans to new housing and worker co-ops; to promote the idea of ‘taking control’ of our lives; and to share mutual support with other members of the network.

Radical Routes has been operating with the same basic structure ever since, with:

  • a modified consensus decision-making process (if only one co-op objects, the proposal is passed);
  • a peer review form of loan approval (a volunteer Finance Group assesses loan applications);
  • quarterly gatherings that rotate around the country (most recently in Manchester, Monmouthshire, Derbyshire and Brighton); and
  • only one paid member of staff, the finance worker (all other work to keep the network going is done voluntarily by member co-ops as a ‘work commitment’).

The network has made 35 loans to member co-ops for purchasing property during its lifetime, and has lent out over £1m in total. RR top-up loans have helped co-ops bridge the difference between a bank mortgage and the house purchase price.

Loans worth £666,000 have been used to purchase property costing £3,822,000. Extraordinarily, RR has never suffered a bad loan despite lending to co-operatives made up of low-income folk – two sectors banks tend to shy away from.

One of the main changes that RR has made since 1992 is that it created a separate fund-raising mechanism, an ethical investors’ co-op called Rootstock, in 1998.

The long road to abolition

As we pointed out on the front page, the founders of Radical Routes put two membership rules in place at the very beginning of the organisation, which were requirements for all individual members joining any RR co-op.

The first rule to be put into place was the radical social change work rule: ‘Individuals are expected to be doing 15 hours of work per week in line with the aims and principles of Radical Routes’, adopted in March 1990.

We’re going to follow a suggestion from a disabled member of the network has suggested that this be referred to as radical social change ‘action’ rather than ‘work’.

While this was not put in writing in the policy document, radical social change action was defined at the outset as including (but not limited to) home education, organic agriculture, and campaigning for activist causes.

The second membership rule was adopted in January 1993: ‘Individuals within member co-ops should have a maximum average disposable income of double the income they in their personal situation would normally receive’ in unemployment benefits (emphasis added). People under 25 were entitled to the rate for over-25s.

In July 1993, the network decided that Radical Routes would welcome co-ops with members ‘whose disposable income is above the agreed limit’, if those members were willing to donate the difference to a cause of their choice.

Exemptions

Both these rules were altered in 1998 (to exempt members of the Rootstock investors’ co-op from these requirements), and in 2001 (to allow social centres to join the network). In the latter case, the 15 hours of weekly activity would be expected only of members of the management committee, not of all the many disparate members of the club.

UpStart workers’ co-op took the opportunity in 2001 to get the network to pass a more general exemption process for the radical social change activity rule: ‘where the size or composition of the co-op’s membership makes this [15-hour requirement] difficult, it may be applied to a specific subset of the membership or waived altogether with the explicit agreement of a Radical Routes gathering’.

The attack begins

In October 2002, Alex and UpStart made a head-on assault on both the 15-hour rule and the consumption rule, proposing that they be replaced with a new policy ‘which applies to member co-ops rather than individuals’.

They argued that RR’s ‘investors, supporters and founders did not have in mind making sure that poor activists stayed poor’.

There were objections from four co-ops (two of which have since stopped being full members of RR); the proposal was blocked.

What about the idea that RR’s founders did not want to ‘make sure that poor activists stay poor’?

UpStart just a few months earlier had circulated an excerpt from a founding discussion paper of October 1988, which said: ‘we think we have to break a considerable barrier of materialism’, arguing that it was possible to provide people with food, clothes and shelter ‘and enable people to comfortably have enough money to get the other things they might need (eg a holiday)’ at a far lower cost than is normally envisaged.

The paper suggested people in the network should have £40 per week over and above rent, ‘and any surplus would go to the co-operative’. (From the agenda of the July 2002 RR gathering.)

If we apply inflation to the £40 figure mentioned, today it would be something like £85 after rent for an individual; using the double-JSA calculation which was actually put into the policy, it would be £145 per week after rent.

A founder member of RR has told us that her recollection is that ‘it wasn’t for people who had lots of money. We wanted it to be for people without much money, who chose to be without much money, and who were happy without much money. People who said: “Because I don’t like capitalism, I’m going to voluntarily limit my income”.’

She adds: ‘It was really important to us that we weren’t setting up something for people with good jobs who had alternative ways of getting good housing. It was for people who were voluntarily limiting their income and spending a considerable amount of their time working towards a more egalitarian society.’

The saga continues

In January 2003, there was a discussion of the two rules at the RR gathering in Brighton, the notes of which began: ‘It appears that a large number of people within radical routes feel the income rule and the personal work commitment rule are either out dated, unworkable, largely ignored or all of the above.’ A sentiment repeated throughout the intervening 11 years.

One point that was made in the discussion by an older member was that originally the income/consumption rule was seen as ‘less important than the personal work commitment rule’: ‘Giving time to social change projects was the focus not the income rule.’ This makes sense given that the 15-hour rule was instituted in 1990, three years before the consumption rule.

In January 2004, UpStart tried again to delete the two rules and move the radical social change responsibility away from individual members to the member co-op as an organisation. There were objections from five co-ops, and this was blocked.

A slow drift

The logjam broke in July 2004, when Footprint Workers’ Co-op proposed the abolition of the consumption/income rule by moving the responsibility for creating an income rule to the member co-op level.

Instead of RR as a network having a rule about individual members’ personal consumption limits, it would be up to member co-ops to create whatever rule they wanted in this area (and also on political activity, low-impact lifestyle, members’ savings and participation in RR).

This procedure was basically accepted (with one co-op objecting) in January 2005.

What the network agreed was that the consumption rule would be abolished once two-thirds of the membership had uploaded their policies in these areas to the RR website.

Despite the overwhelming support for this change, co-ops did not rush to draw up secondary rules. Nine months later, Cath from Footprint observed that only three co-ops had uploaded their rules, ‘and the whole exercise is beginning to look futile’. There was a very slow drift of policies being uploaded, until finally, in August 2014, over nine years after the Footprint proposal was accepted, it was announced that the two-thirds threshold had been reached, and the consumption/income rule had been abolished.

Radical social change

Meanwhile there had been a long-rumbling, inconclusive discussion about the radical social change action rule.

In November 2011, as part of this, there was a discussion on the eve of the Nottingham gathering of RR, which resulted in a booklet entitled It’s not radical, it’s just change, ‘brought to you by the Assassination Working Group’.

Openness

In May 2014, the discussion took a much more concrete form when a new co-op wrote an open letter to RR, after ‘a lot of soul-searching and discussion’, asking for ‘a dialogue with the organisation as a whole, because we find ourselves in a difficult position’.

The new co-op admitted that it was ‘failing comprehensively to meet its obligation as a member of Radical Routes that requires our members to be working towards radical social change’.

The co-op had decided it was neither ‘able nor willing to police’ the radical social change action rule within its membership, and would not insist on the 15-hour commitment from future members, who it hoped to have lots of: ‘We want to expand, buy more property, take on more members’.

Heartened by the support it received in response to this open letter, the co-op then put in a proposal to abolish the 15-hour rule at the Summer 2014 gathering, with the argument that ‘the 15 hour rule gives an inaccurate reflection of the culture within Radical Routes, discourages membership applications from co-ops that are as or more involved in Radical Social Change as existing members, and is on balance, doing more harm than good still being on the books’.

This was knocked back on the grounds that no replacement was being proposed, so at the November 2014 gathering in Brighton, new specific wording was proposed.

Instead of asking for 15 hours, the policy would now say: ‘Individuals are expected to be using a significant portion of their free time to carry out or support work in line with the aims and principles of Radical Routes, as defined by their member co-op.’

Four distinct changes were being proposed here:

  • to move from a specific amount of time to a proportion of ‘free time’;
  • that proportion not being specified, but just being a ‘significant’ portion;
  • ‘support’ (undefined) for radical social change action now counted equally with radical social change action itself;
  • the decision as to what counts as ‘work in line with RR aims and principles’ would now be made by the member co-op, not by the RR network itself.

Concerns were expressed from several co-ops at the looseness of the language involved. Walden Pond objected in principle, the only co-op to do so. According to the rules of Radical Routes, it might have been possible to get the proposal passed at the gathering, but it was decided to step back and think some more.

Where next?

As we write, it’s not clear whether the 15-hour rule will be amended and made more flexible – there’s considerable flexibility for individual co-ops in the policy already, by agreement of an RR gathering, as pointed out above – or whether it will be abolished.

On past form, the most likely outcome might be that the issue is moved down to the level of the member co-ops, in line with the 2005 Footprint ‘secondary policy’ devolution of the consumption/income rule.

When Footprint put forward that secondary policy proposal in January 2005, it argued that each co-op publishing its secondary rules online would enable member co-ops to challenge each other. Transparency about the culture and practice inside each co-op would lead to pressure for more radicalism.

In reality, in the nine years since the proposal was passed, we’re not aware of any co-op having its secondary rules commented on either negatively or positively, either on the RR email list or at an RR gathering. There has been no pressure for radicalism.

Walden Pond

The Walden Pond position remains that:

  • if there is a difference between the policy that we all signed up to, and our actual practice, it is our practice that should change;
  • the 15-hour rule was put in place to preserve RR for radical activists who are radical and active, and that is a worthwhile goal;
  • if the 15-hour rule is removed, it means that a few years down the line RR may well be a very different organisation politically, because we are removing an important boundary marker for people considering joining, and irreversibly creating a free-for-all entry system.

The questions relevant to creating libertarian societies are: Can a radical institution work by consensus, keep taking in new members, and stay true to the vision of its founders? Should it? Not only the Labour Party has its ‘Clause Four’ moments.

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What purpose does the 15-hour rule serve?

Comments from a workshop at an RR gathering in 2011:

  • ‘The current rule acts as a gatekeeper to RR: to keep co-ops political and focused on radical social change; and to maintain RR as a network that’s about having secure social housing as a means to achieve further social benefits, not as an end in itself. It puts the emphasis on “doing” not just believing, and that doing this social change is central.’
  • ‘The rule demonstrates to co-ops what is expected of them, and can be seen as a clear marker for people coming into the network.’
  • ‘So people feel guilty or as a challenge to act’
  • ‘To maintain Radical Routes’ identity’
  • ‘To weed out people who fancy a hippy lifestyle but not to act for social change.’ [Next to this is recorded: ‘Is unclear – no agreement’.]
  • ‘No purpose it’s historical.’
  • ‘It is historical but it is also attempting got [sic] inspire social change’
  • ‘To make sure people do good social change stuff’

 

Radical Routes & Rootstock: www.radicalroutes.org.uk and www.rootstock.org.uk

Milan Rai & Emily Johns are PN co-editors and members of Walden Pond Housing Co-op, which joined Radical Routes in 1998.