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Editorial: Collective ownership

The pros and cons of 'rebel countercultures'

We’re still digesting the long interview we carried out with veteran US activist George Lakey earlier this year, the last part of which appears on p8. We’re bringing George to the UK for a two-week speaking tour (which culminates in a day-long whole-camp workshop at Peace News Summer Camp) and we’re very much looking forward to learning more about the multi-dimensional Movement for a New Society that he initiated, which, among other things, took a number of buildings into collective ownership. Another issue that he’s explored a lot, is the difficulty that self-defined ‘activists’ can create for themselves in relating to others (his new introduction to Toward a Living Revolution, which we’re re-publishing, has a chastening example from the Occupy movement).

These issues can come together when activists take control of buildings. A bit behind the times, we’ve only just noticed the emergence earlier this year of The Black Rose Centre, a new activist social centre in Sheffield. This grassroots, non-hierarchically-run, anarchist project joins the Sumac Centre in Nottingham and the Cowley Club in Brighton (both part of the Radical Routes network of radical co-ops and social centres) and a host of other radical social centres, including south London’s venerable 56a Infoshop (going since 1991).

Bristol’s Kebele Community Co-operative, which started as a squat in 1995, comments on its website: ‘Such centres recognise that we can make fundamental changes here and now, in the ways we organise, communicate, interact and take action. This is the everyday revolution.... Social centres provide a space for people to explore and practice what they believe in, free from interference from the state and capitalism (for most of the time!).’

Absolutely true, and social centres provide valuable experimental spaces for creating ‘pre-figurative’ institutions, ones that create in miniature the kind of society we’d like to create in the future.

At the same time, there is always a danger of creating an exclusive sub-culture. Andrew Cornell observes in his brilliant new book on the Movement for a New Society, Oppose and Propose!: ‘The shared sense of acting and being different from the bulk of the world when one is working with other radicals can be one of the most thrilling and rewarding things about being an activist. Sometimes is feels like the only thing that keeps us going.’

However, Cornell points out that ‘rebel countercultures’ can be alienating for others, and get in the way of working with other folk who also want to change the world.

One of the things we’ve really tried to do at PN Summer Camp is to make it welcoming, respectful and inclusive, and the feedback we get is that this is something people really appreciate.