26 May 2021
Part 2 Is the 2nd part of a 3 part series, about class and communes, D. Hunter explores the ways in which skills are classed and how a social movement adjacent commune might be a drain on the movements it holds dear. If you haven’t already read Part 1 of the series here (Are communes for the working class? (theclassworkproject.com))
Skill StatusIt’s not only A Commune in the North’s income and wealth sharing that can become knotted by our class positions. Valuations of skills and abilities will undoubtedly surface as well, and not in necessarily coherent ways. A project such as this will be reliant on a variety of administrative, practical, public-facing, and care work. The definitions of each are of course contested—for example care work is practical and involves administrative work. Here I’m defining administrative work as office work including dealing with finances, legal structures, developing policies and procedures, working online, and undoubtedly more. I’m using practical work to encompass building, plumbing, electrics, engineering, catering, farming, gardening, amongst others. Public-facing work is perhaps the most self explanatory: it involves interacting with those outside of the commune, whether with specialists, funders, neighbours, or those who the project is trying to recruit.
Finally there is care work. Now my politics leads me to think of care work as a necessary process to be embedded in everything we do, but all too often that isn’t how it goes. Care for the elderly, for children, for those psychologically marginalised in any number of ways, is work that is all too often shifted off into discrete areas. To say care work is feminised is to state the fucking obvious, both in the field of professional care work, and in the care work that flows through our families and communities. This isn’t to say men don’t do it, but that they don’t do much of it, and those socialised as men are not trained to take responsibility for it. My main (legal) labour during my adult life has been professionalised care work, an industry where the managers have mostly been cis-men and the staff mostly everyone else. This repeats itself in our everyday lives, and without significant attention will repeat itself in any intentional community. The exact interaction between class and gender is contested, and prioritising one over the other is risky business, but both are involved in the social, cultural, and economic stratification of society. They reinforce one another in a myriad of ways. When cis-men are a minority in professional care work, but take on a disproportionate amount of the boss roles, it’s a reinforcement of gender hierarchies and it’s a class issue. When the care work in our communities is carried out by everyone who isn’t a cis-man and then invisibilised, there is a reinforcement of gender hierarchies and it’s a class issue. Working-class women thinking of involving themselves with A Commune in the North will be all too cognisant of this.
Administrative work also has classed and gendered dimensions. Data entry and work considered to be routine, secretarial stuff is taken up by women, and predominantly working-class women. The high status, big-noise work—policy making, budget projections, financial planning, legal document writing—is predominantly taken up by cis-men from the middle classes. Now, A Commune in the North will be reliant on individuals bringing skills that have been collected during their life times. Skill sharing is nice, and needed, but sometimes things need to be done by those that can do them in a hurry. What is vital, as far as I’m concerned, is removing the high status afforded to certain types of work. Being able to write legal policy doesn’t mean you should have more input to the policy and what it means for the community. Being able to write a business plan shouldn’t mean you make the financial decisions. All too often in political projects I’ve been involved in, being viewed as skilled in one high-status area builds a level of confidence, status, and power that is then transferred to all areas of the project. This is intensified when the skill is either one which has middle-management parallels and thus likely to be carried by upper and middle-class-raised participants, or alternatively is considered a traditional working-class trade but is being performed by some one from an upper and middle-class position. In the case of the latter, builders, plumbers, carpenters or electricians from poor and working-class backgrounds are expected to do their work discreetly, and work in service for the wider project, whilst deferring to the project’s upper and middle-class decision makers. In instances when those trades have been learnt by the upper and middle-class, usually in their post-university twenty-something phase (the one where they’re finding their authentic self), then the skilled trade becomes a new tool to legitimise the confidence, status and leadership position of the individual.
A quick note here on the working-class scholarship boy (it’s not always a boy, but usually is). The ones who got sent to private school on a scholarship or went to a high-status university. For obvious reasons there aren’t many of them, but just as they’re trotted out by political parties as an example of our glorious meritocracy, so too are they scattered about social movements. They’ve rejected the path their privileged education was supposed to lead them down, but they have seldom entirely rejected the privilege and training that education gave them. Private schools and for a shorter time elite universities, have supposedly been creating social leaders—or at least people who think they should be social leaders. For those from poor and working-class backgrounds who went to private school on a scholarship from 11-18, and for those who were at an elite university from their late teens to early twenties, I am sure it is an emotionally fraught process full of contradiction. But the presumption that they are the smartest people in any room, that their ideas are the most relevant, or that they should lead, is something which needs to be deconstructed. The kind of educational privilege they were granted can be poisonous.
A Resource Drain
The establishment and maintenance of a commune will take a great deal of resources, including but not limited to the work put into it by its members. For some folk it will become their primary activity, a space they put many hours into, with the aim of establishing their food, shelter, and community. To establish the business which will sustain the commune, in the commune’s early years the hours needed may well surpass those required when selling labour to gain basic subsistence. I suspect that the work put into establishing and maintaining the commune will be less alienating, and its collective outlook will offer many benefits for those involved. It will also leave less time available for participation in other forms of social movement work. If this is the case, then it is vital that the commune finds a way to ensure it is not a resource drain on the movements its participants come from, but one that impacts them positively. This is not necessarily a question of individuals finding higher capacity levels in order to maintain participation in both the commune and wider social movements, but a question of building into the infrastructure of the commune a deep and practical commitment to being a resource for relevant social movements. There is no easy answer to this, and it will require a holistic approach to social and economic justice, which is seldom seen within many prefigurative projects. The process of understanding what needs to happen, and ensuring it is done, will be a long and difficult process, one which will require ongoing conversations with those groups and organisations who are facilitating and steering contemporary social movements.
What should not happen, in my view, is for the commune to default into the white, middle-class, ‘ethical environmentalism’ position that dominates many alternative housing and working projects, both within the co-operative sphere and beyond. The specific ways in which white supremacy functions in these spaces will have to be examined, in order to ensure that its reproduction does not occur. I’m not the best positioned to write at length on this, and instead will focus on the classed aspect, with an acknowledgment that the two can never really be so gratuitously separated from one another.
I take the position that the warfare enacted upon poor and working-class people is carried out via both the political economy, and the social and cultural hegemony of contemporary society. Others have suggested that the struggles of those who live within marginalised communities are centered around the struggle for a redistribution of material resources and a recognition of their humanity. That is to say the violence inflicted upon poor and working-class communities takes a material form in which their basic needs are made either difficult or impossible to attain, whilst the dominant social and cultural discourses generate a pervading idea that this impossibility is the individual’s and the class’s fault for failing to measure up. There is a class of people who are framed as undeserving of life, described by Imogen Tyler as “stigmatised”. This stigmatisation does not go unchallenged. Various authors, including me, have documented the ways poor and working-class communities find collective practices which resist both the marginalisation and stigmatisation they face. These practices are often informal, taking place within geographical networks, and carried out using modes of solidarity and mutual aid, but can also be facilitated by more formal community organisations with a variety of political ideological positions.
Any commune worth its salt must not view itself purely as a place for some individuals to escape to, but as a vehicle that makes practical solidarity more possible than it was before within the local communities they are geographically tied to, and the social movements they are rooted in. This will require those from poor and working-class backgrounds to take taking a role in shaping the reality of the commune, from its inception and beyond. One possible avenue for this could be establishing early ties with communities in the area the commune will be located. A Commune in the North will be aiming to set itself up in— unsurprisingly—the North, with many of its current membership hailing from or residing in East Lancashire or South Yorkshire. It will likely be rural, well away from any metropolitan centre. This raises a number of questions which are seldomly satisfactorily answered by social movements, and which do not have simple answers.
There is always a lot of empty rhetoric regarding the Red Wall and the forgotten industrial heartlands of the labouring class, which often strongly implies that the working class is all white and living north of Birmingham in a town that used to have a manufacturing industry. This is motivated by an ugly desire to gain political relevance via various institutions and political operatives, who construct the working class as a regional and racial identity. This is bullshit and needs to be treated as such.
One of the many reasons it is bullshit is that it does a profound disservice to the diversity of the poor and working-class communities who live outside of large cities throughout the country, including in ‘the North’. One town amongst this is the one I was born in and spent the first nine years of my life: Burnley. The majority of people in Burnley, like the majority of people in the world, are forced to sell their labour for subsistence—but the capitalist class does live there. So too do the various strata of the working class, and indeed the middle class. Burnley’s working class is racially diverse, and there are many within the upper strata of that working class and the middle classes who are more than happy to foment racial division via the support of structural processes (cops for example), and cultural production (The Burnley Express for example).
This, and other types of class violence, occurs throughout the towns and villages of Lancashire and Yorkshire, and within all those towns and villages there will be people who are responding to this class violence. For my money, any commune established anywhere has to find ways to positively interact with its local area, and the poor and working-class communities who live within it. They have to find ways of addressing the class violence carried out in both the structural and cultural realm, and how they do this will need to be shaped by those who are living there and experiencing the violence daily. There is also a very legitimate argument that says that in establishing a rural or semi-rural commune in whatever region of the UK, an act of self-isolation from the everyday struggles of the majority of poor and working-class struggles is occurring. At the moment however, I lean towards the idea that this does not have to be the case. Many of us already participate in various forms of international solidarity, not to mention using formal and informal networks to build solidarity across different cities within the UK. The establishment of a large commune, which is rooted in social justice, can act as a form of dual power. It can be a method with which we find news ways of living within and against the state. It could be a powerful collective process which strengthens the ongoing fight against capitalism and the state.