Essays Writings

The Friendly Society: On Cooperation, Utopia, Friendship & the Commons

In which I sketch out a set of ideas about the logic of the commons, prompted by conversations in a seminar at the Gothenburg School of Design & Crafts.

We are looking at a photograph from Amsterdam, 1868, thirty or so men in black and white. Even in the flesh, they would be black and white: black overcoats with blacker collars, faces pale as November and framed by various symmetries of facial hair, top hats like a row of chimneys. Despite what the hats might suggest, these men are workers, craftsmen, dressed in their Sunday clothes, outside a cafe called The Swan. They stand formally, the members of an association shortly to constitute itself as the Construction Society for the Acquisition of One’s Home. On its first night, hundreds more will join. By spring, the membership will have passed two thousand.

Their gaze presents us with a question, and the way I remember it, our conversation in Gothenburg was an attempt to put this question into words. Ana and Marc framed it for us first, with images of abandoned, half-built housing blocks in a Spain where someone is evicted every fifteen minutes. They traced a line along which the cooperative associations of the early socialist movement had been absorbed into the great public housing programmes of the mid-20th century, only for their achievements to be liquidated in the neoliberal decades that followed, leading to the current crisis. Why is it, they asked, that we struggle to find the confidence to remake reality that we see in the actions of these men?

Running through this discussion was a yearning for and an unease with utopias. The shadows of futures past—made concrete in the geometries of Biljemeer, Tensta, Novi Beograd or Park Hill—lean over us. The drawings of La Città Nuova look so familiar, it is hard to imagine the promise they once held. After the failure of the planned utopia, can there be a utopia from below—something improvised, emergent? Are our improvisational, networked ways of working really capable of building anything strong and lasting?

Into this conversation, Kim brought another current of history: the stories of the commons of preindustrial England and their enclosure. Unfamiliar words evoke the strangeness of these ways of living with each other and with the land. If the workers’ movements of the later 19th century mark the beginning of one story, they also belong to the ending of another. As I have written elsewhere:

The history of the industrial revolution is a history of massive resistance on the part of ordinary people. This resistance fell into two phases: in the first, it was an attempt to defend a way of living; in the second, which began when this way of living had largely been destroyed, it became an attempt to negotiate better conditions within the new world made by the destroyers. What had been lost was a way of living in which most production took place on a domestic scale, interwoven with the lives of families and communities. Work was hard, but it varied with the seasons and required skill and judgement. Many of the basic needs of a household could be met by its own members or their immediate neighbours, not least through access to common land, so that people were not entirely exposed to the mercilessness of the market.

It is not necessary to romanticise the realities of pre-industrial society: the intensity and duration of the struggle which accompanied its passing are evidence enough. (In 1812, at one of the high-water-marks of this struggle, the British government deployed 12,000 troops against the Luddites in four counties of England, more than Wellington had under his command that year in the ongoing war against Napoleon.) The relationship between this first phase of resistance and the labour movement that would arise out of its defeat has most often been presented as a progressive development: the dawning of a new political consciousness, and with it new forms of organisation and effective action. Yet it was also an accommodation to what had previously been fought against: the new division of the world between the space of work, dedicated to the sole purpose of maximising production, and the domestic space, now dedicated to reproduction and consumption. The sentimental idealisation of the home as a woman’s sphere originates in this division, as established in Victorian England. Behind this advertising hoarding lay the real transformation of the home from a living centre of activity to a dormitory, a garage in which the worker is parked when not in use.⁠

The swelling of the cities was driven by the loss of earlier possibilities for living with the land. (In England, the process of enclosing common land was generally referred to as ‘Improvement’ by those who organised and profited from it.) In the seminar, Kim talked about the persistence and reemergence of customary practices among the displaced, even in the new context of the city.⁠ New laws were required to proscribe activities which, because they took place outside the monetised economy, were illegible to both state and market.

As the conversation went on, Kim brought us back around to those men in Amsterdam. How could they trust each other enough to realise a thing like the Construction Society together, to rely on each other for something as fundamental as meeting the need for shelter and living space? ‘Perhaps what we are really asking is, how can two thousand people become friends with each other?’ (In English-speaking countries, the mutual associations of this time were often known as ‘Friendly Societies’.)

By now, a set of words had started to form a constellation on my notepad: friendship, utopia, commons, public, cooperative. In the relationship between them was a provisional answer to the question we had been circling around. What follows is a first attempt at spelling out that provisional answer, though perhaps it is best read as a rough sketch for a more ambitious project.

The connection between friendship and the commons had been put into my mind by the Mexican intellectual and activist Gustavo Esteva. During a conversation we filmed in December 2012, he returned twice to the suggestion that friendship was the key to the possibility of new commons. ‘If you want to abandon that feeling of precarity, then it’s to rediscover that the only way to have a kind of security is at the grassroots. With your friends. With the kinds of new commons emerging everywhere.’⁠ Particularly in Europe, particularly in the urban context, he emphasised, if we want to talk about commons we should start with friendship. Since this is not where people usually start, and since friendship hardly sounds solid enough to be a starting point that will be taken seriously, these comments stuck with me.

At the Commoning the City conference in Stockholm in April 2013, I spoke about this, and suggested that one reason for starting with friendship is that it gets us beyond the idea of a commons as a pool of resources. Anthony McCann has observed that ‘resource-management models’ of the commons mirror the arguments made historically by the defenders of enclosure: these discourses, he argues, ‘tend to work more in the spirit of a Trojan horse than an analytic tool.’⁠ In contrast to the discourses of resource-management, Ivan Illich made the distinction between ‘commons within which people’s subsistence activities are embedded, and resources that serve for the economic production of those commodities on which modern survival depends.’⁠ To see the world as made up of resources is already to have enclosed it in one’s mind, to reduce it to a stockpile of raw materials to be exploited for the production of commodities. Illich adds that the English language ‘during the last 100 years has lost the ability to make this distinction’. Certainly, there is little left that is not considered capable of being treated as a resource: the ecological crisis is to be solved through total ecological accounting, while we rarely think twice about the presence of ‘Human Resources’ departments within companies and organisations. In this context, friendship is an exception, one area of human experience where we still have a shared language to express the sense that not everything can or should be viewed as a resource: when someone we thought of as a friend treats us this way, we say, ‘I feel used.’

There is another sense in which friendship illuminates the nature of commons, as we come to the distinction between ‘commons’ and ‘public’, two terms frequently used as if their meanings overlap. Instead of treating them as interchangeable, it might be more helpful to think of them as characterised by two rather different logics, founded on differing presuppositions and leading to differing atmospheres.

A typical definition of something ‘public’—public space, the public sphere—will emphasise that ‘access is guaranteed to all’, in contrast to the private, which is by its nature ‘closed or exclusive’.⁠ The twin concepts of public and private are often seen as corresponding to the collective and the individual. This is most obvious when the terms are transposed to the political-economic structure of public and private sectors—and so to a model of politics in which the left is associated with the public and the right with the private. In a deeper sense, however, both concepts rest on an idea of the individual as possessed of certain rights that exist prior to and override the social context in which she happens to find herself.

This kind of individualism was hardly thinkable much before the 18th century, when the concepts of public and private took shape. The high version of this story—the version that animates Richard Sennett’s The Fall of Public Man, for example—treats the emergence of the public sphere in this period as among the great achievements of the Enlightenment and, indeed, of human history.⁠ There is a lower version to be told, however; one which sits less awkwardly with the recollection that this was also the century in which the enclosure of common lands reached its greatest intensity. In this version, we might recognise—among other things—that public space is, often literally, the subdued remnant of an older commons. A striking late example of this is the enclosure of Kennington Common, the site of the largest and last of the Chartist mass meetings in 1848; within four years, legislation had been passed to create Kennington Park, fenced and patrolled by guards under the command of the Royal Commissioners. (The artist and Kennington resident Stefan Szczelkun makes the fascinating suggestion that the curiously anonymous monuments, lacking plaques or dedications, erected during its emparkment seem to have been ‘placed strategically… just far enough from the sites of public executions and mass rallies to misdirect attention and focus from those emotive and resonant sites.’⁠ There is an analogy lurking here to the anonymity and seemingly random deployment of public art in today’s cities.)

There seems to be a paradox by which the concept of the public, with its guarantee of access to all, is realised through the creation of boundaries of a new hardness. In the case of Kennington Park, we have a modern public space created through legislative and physical enclosure. A more general example is the establishment of public services provided on a basis of universal access, which has entailed the hardening of the boundaries of citizenship which form the practical limit to the ideal of universality. In contrast, if the historical commons were unfenced, this never implied that they were simply open to all. There were rights of use in the commons, but these were not universal: rather, they were deeply specific, a fabric of interwoven agreements, subject to an ongoing process of negotiation. This is the customary law that Illich describes: ‘It was unwritten law not only because people did not care to write it down, but because what it protected was a reality much too complex to fit into paragraphs.’⁠

The absence of any commitment to universality in the logic of the commons sounds alarming, since—within the logic of the public—the alternative would seem to be exclusion. It is here that the example of friendship may help us discern the difference between these logics. If I claim that I have a right to be your friend, this makes no sense. The dance of sociability by which the possibility of friendship is explored takes a multitude of forms, but it can neither be rushed nor predicted.

The logic of the commons resembles the logic of friendship, in that it is based neither on an a priori openness, nor a set of a priori criteria which determine exclusion. The journey by which a newcomer may be drawn into the web of relations which form a commons—that ‘reality much too complex to fit into paragraphs’—is determined through what happens between the people present, rather than by the application of prescribed principles. The ideal of a universal guarantee of access makes no sense here, yet nor is there anything that resembles the erection of a hard boundary of exclusion.

The logic of the public appeals to something higher and more constant than the vulnerable threads of human relationships; but in normalising such an appeal, it has a tendency to cut through the fabric which those threads make up. The individual possessed of a set of rights begins as a fiction, contemporary and in other ways parallel to the figure of Robinson Crusoe which has held such an enduring appeal for economists.⁠

But such fictions have a way of coming to life: the attempt to realise a society based on such rights has often framed our highest aspirations for social justice, even if the reality has fallen short, but it has also been accompanied by the creation of societies characterised by an unprecedented individualism and atomisation. We pursue the circumstances of loneliness, even as those who study public health have started to describe it as ‘an epidemic’.⁠

 The logic of the commons, according to which rights are negotiated within human relationships, rests on another understanding of the individual, one which is closer to that of Raimon Pannikar: ‘I understand a person as “a knot in a net” of relationships.’⁠

If it makes sense to distinguish the logics of public and commons in the way that I have done so far, it is worth touching on a further aspect of this distinction, in relation to ‘space’ and ‘place’. The space of the public is Cartesian: an abstract, homogeneous, measurable void which preexists its actual contents, just as the individual (within this logic) is treated as preexisting the actual context of social relations in which she finds herself. In contrast, the commons is always somewhere, a specific place, just as its rights and laws are specific.⁠

In this sense, among others, the logic of the public is utopian—literally, ‘placeless’—and this can be seen in one of the fullest attempts to realise its ambitions, the commune movement of the 1960s counterculture. In many ways, of course, this movement was an attempt to create a refuge from the kind of modern society which we might more often think of as embodying the logic of the public, but the refugees took with them certain core assumptions—and these played a critical role in how their dreams went wrong. Lou Gottlieb founded the commune at Morning Star Ranch in 1966, declaring it to be ‘Land access to which is denied no one’. After Time magazine turned its spotlight on the hippie phenomenon in July 1967, the numbers of newcomers arriving at the ranch grew beyond its ability to cope: the site became overwhelmed, struggling with open sewers and the hostility of the Sonoma County authorities. In 1972, at the end of a series of court cases, all but one of the buildings were bulldozed.⁠ Iain Boal adds a speculative twist to this story, pointing out that Garrett Hardin was writing his ill-founded yet hugely influential paper, ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’, in California in 1968 as the story of the Morning Star court hearings was on the front page of his morning newspaper.⁠ Hardin’s account of why commons are doomed to fail bears no relation to the actual history of the commons, but it does resemble what Boal calls ‘the tragedy of the communes’.⁠ The essence of that tragedy—as seen through the lens I have been grinding away at here—is the attempt to realise, in its full utopian form, the promise of universal access which is alien to the historical phenomenon of the commons but intrinsic to the logic of the public.

One further example from the movements that came out of the 1960s counterculture illustrates the converse of the connection between friendship and the commons, the suspicion of friendship within the logic of the public. ‘The Tyranny of Structurelessness’ is a key text from the women’s liberation movement, drawing attention to the ways in which abuse of power takes place within informal, supposedly non-hierarchical groups. Running through it, however, is a striking suspicion of friendship:

Elites are nothing more and nothing less than a group of friends who also happen to participate in the same political activities. They would probably maintain their friendship whether or not they were involved in political activities; they would probably be involved in political activities whether or not they maintained their friendships. It is the coincidence of these two phenomena which creates elites in any groups and makes them so difficult to break.⁠

Written in 1970, ‘The Tyranny of Structurelessness’ was an attempt to learn from the failures of the innocence which had guided the experiments of the period to which Morning Star Ranch belongs. It contains a great deal of painfully-won insight. Yet there is a connection to be traced between the way that friendship is problematised here and a more general tendency to treat specific human relationships as interfering with the equality of individuals, as envisioned by the logic of the public: to avoid such interference, friendship should be confined (or at least seen to be confined) to the private sphere.⁠

The politics of informal groups to which ‘The Tyranny of Structurelessness’ draws attention is real enough and—as Kim reminded us during the seminar—an essential element of the historical commons was ‘a democratic assembly space’ within which to resolve the difficulties and disagreements that arise.⁠ We might question, though, whether friendship need really be so inimical to the social fabric—and whether a logic according to which the key to avoiding the abuse of power is to ‘break’ the connections of friendship is really headed in a direction which we would wish to take.

How do we find our way back around to the question in the gaze of those workers in Amsterdam, a century and a continent away from the examples we have been considering? The thought that occurred to me during the seminar, and that prompted the scribbled constellation of terms on which I have tried to elaborate here, was about the peculiar position of the cooperative movement in relation to these differing logics of commons and public.

There is always more than one story to be told about the origins of a movement, but the story most often told about the origins of cooperativism goes back to the experiments of Robert Owen at New Lanark. The waterfalls that powered the imagination of the Romantic poets also drove the first phase of the Industrial Revolution which their more practical contemporaries engineered. A short walk from the Falls of Clyde, which drew visitors such as Coleridge and the Wordsworths, Owen’s mill town straddles the mechanical and the visionary. Its founder belonged to the period described by Karl Polanyi in which practical enterprises were entered into in a spirit of intellectual enquiry, seeking to discover ‘new applications of the universal principles of mutuality, trust, risks, and other elements of human enterprise.’ (By contrast, Polanyi suggests, after the 1830s ‘businessmen imagined they knew what forms their activities should take; they rarely inquired into the nature of money before founding a bank.’⁠)

If the communards of the 1960s thought that they were walking away from the top-down institutions of modernity, yet took with them the essential logic of the public, Owen’s projects represent a more wholehearted attempt to realise utopia on an institutional scale. When his original investors at New Lanark tired of his philanthropic experiments, he arranged for them to be bought out by a group which included Jeremy Bentham. The plans for a model community at New Harmony, Indiana drawn up for Owen by the architect Thomas Stedman Whitwell belong to the genre of the panopticon, even if the reality of the settlement—which failed within two years—was closer to the experience of Morning Star Ranch.⁠ His earlier proposal to put the poor into ‘Villages of Cooperation’ met with resistance from popular Radicals and trade unions for whom, in E.P. Thompson’s words:

The Plan smelled of Malthus and of those rigorous experiments of magistrates … who were already working out the Chadwickian plan of economical workhouse relief. Even if Owen was himself … deeply in earnest and dismayed by the distress of the people, his plan, if taken up by Government, would certainly be orientated in this way.⁠

Owen was ahead of his time in many ways, yet the suspicion with which his plans were viewed also anticipates the shadow side of the real achievements of public provision as accomplished in subsequent generations: the suspicion that what has been achieved is not a liberation, but the rendering sustainable of an exploitation to which we become naturalised.

To point out that Owen’s own experiments were, by and large, failures is not to deny the significance of his legacy, but it could prompt the question as to why certain ideas with which he had been associated subsequently took on a life of their own. Thompson makes the observation that:

Owenism from the late Twenties onwards, was a very different thing from the writings and proclamations of Robert Owen … The very imprecision of his theories … made them adaptable to different groups of working people.⁠

It was this passage that came to mind, as we sat in Gothenburg trying to piece together the histories of the commons and the public, and that led me to add the word ‘cooperative’ to the middle of my scribbled constellation, somewhere between the clusters ‘public, universal, space, utopia’ and ‘commons, specific, place’. This is no more than a speculation, and clearly there were a variety of factors and innovations by which Owen’s ideas about cooperation as well as other experiments, some of them predating New Lanark, fused into the cooperative movement that took shape in the following decades. However, if we are trying to answer the question put to us by the gaze of those workers in Amsterdam—to understand the kind of trust which holds together a Construction Society for the Acquisition of One’s Home, or a Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers, the equivalent of which we struggle to find in our own experience—perhaps it is significant that these associations were formed at a time when the practices of commoning were still within living memory among the newly urbanised?⁠ Were these self-organised institutions—organised in response to the torn fabric of rapidly industrialising societies, and which we can see as anticipating the vastly larger systems of the following century—made possible because of the living memory of older customary practices? If so, we could think of the cooperative movement as a meeting point, straddling the boundary: conceived (at least by Owen) within the logic of the public, but brought to life by something that could well be called a heritage of commons.

First published in Heritage as Common(s): Common(s) as Heritage,University of Gothenburg Press, 2015. This essay responds to the papers given by Ana Dzokic and Marc Neelen (STEALTH.unlimited) and Kim Trogall (University of Sheffield) at a seminar at the Gothenburg School of Design & Crafts.