9 June 2021
In the 3rd part of a 3 part series, about class and communes, D. Hunter talks about the radical imagination, political idealism and comes to few final thoughts about whether any of this might be worth the time of poor and working class folks. If you haven’t already read Part 1 and Part 2 of the series here and here
Sharing the weight vs political idealism.
At the top I spoke about how A Commune in the North and similar projects can be seen as utopian. They can be vessels for us to put our prefigurative politics to work. This is an exciting possibility for me as it encourages us to use our political and social imaginations in new ways, and offers solace from the brutal monotony of capitalist realism. We could create spaces where we develop new forms of family and kinship, new ways of sharing, deconstructing patriarchal heteronormativity and the ways in which it manifests in our everyday lives. We can push the envelope on how we interact with our surroundings including the psycho-social elements of architecture and our relationship to the natural world. To a degree—and it is only to a degree—we can collectively ask what society would look like without racial capitalism? But there’s a problem, and that problem is partially rooted in class.
Access to developing your radical imagination—by the thinking through of ideas, in speculative thinking of how things might work, by considering how each act might be one of resistance, and not one that can be recuperated by the state or capital—is not evenly distributed throughout the population. The access to do these things is shaped by class, gender and race, and how these social constructs allow us to take up such pursuits with time and energy. Now, I wholly accept this is merely my personal experience, and I couldn’t provide scientific evidence on demand, but my experience tells me that many of us who have lived prolonged periods of economic and social marginalisation have to practice our radical imaginations on a daily basis—it’s linked to our survival. Because it’s linked to our survival, it has to work, and we don’t get time to experiment. We try something, retreat when it fails to try something else, and if that something else works we do it until it doesn’t, then we try something else again. The worry that it might not be the most politically pure or unrecuperable thing, or the biggest ‘fuck you’ to state and capital, is not a preoccupation. We are forced to use our radical imaginations to survive capitalism on an hour-by-hour, day-by-day basis, in ways in which those who are granted economic stability, who have been able to plan twelve months in advance, simply do not experience.
If you can plan twelve months in advance, then you’re not forced by circumstance to use that radical imagination muscle, so it requires practice. That practice occurs primarily in academia, certain radical political organising, and social movements. These spaces, in different ways, can act as a training camp for the radical imagination; there are limits to it of course. Different political flavours offer different political frameworks, each setting different limitations and offering different guidance for both individual and collective radical imaginations. If I was to extend the radical-imagination-as-a-muscle metaphor past the point of usefulness, I would suggest that academia and radical social movements are gyms which offer training for every muscle going except the core. The core is where those of us who have experienced long-term social and economic marginalisation are strong.
Where does all this leave us?
I’d argue that projects similar to A Commune in the North must either make a difficult decision, or seek to establish a treacherous balance between being a place which is a manifestation of what we’ve imagined so far, and a place from where our imaginations are built. What I mean is, does A Commune in the North start where radical social movements and leftist academia is at, a base for those with class privilege to go and enact their thought experiments and culture? Or is it a place where those who have thus far used their radical imaginations to survive go to build from their strong core? Why can’t it be both?
A difficulty of having it be both is that the radical imagination of those involved in leftist political organising has developed a variety of cultural norms which are not as readily accepted by those who have relied on their radical imaginations for survival. I’m not saying here that, for example, economically marginalised people don’t care about the environment, and they all think recycling is a waste of time; or that they all think the heteronormative nuclear family is the bees knees; or that mainstream cultural practices reliant on capitalism, elite sport, Hollywood films, and flag waving patriotism are the be all and end all of cultural pursuits. I’m saying that different folks will have constructed their own relations to and meanings about these topics, which they might not wish to see shunted off to one side because of what a very white, very middle-class, leftist political scene believes. People’s consumption practices and their cultures do not define one’s class, but the ways in which one relates to what they consume and the culture they are surrounded by is shaped by class position. If A Commune in the North, or any similar project, decides that it wants to be a space in which the radical imaginations of those who have spent long periods within the milieu of radical leftism are set free, this may collide with the ways in which those who have used their radical imaginations to survive have made meaning of their lives from aspects of the dominant culture. No example I could give would be cut and dried, but let’s take the example of heteronormative, patriarchal, nuclear-family units. The radical leftist position might be, and this is one I agree with, that these units are the settings for extreme violence, that they’re units in which binary gender roles are enforced, where social reproduction for the benefit of capital plays out—that they’re fucking shit. However, for some, and I’m thinking particularly of poor and working-class folk who have lived precarious and vulnerable lives, they can be, when entered into through choice, beacons of safety and security, and places from which pride and self-worth are built. Nonetheless, I recognise that there are many situations where this isn’t the case. Not many of the kids I grew up with are living safe and comfortable lives now, but of those that are, there are some who have made their own nuclear-family units. And these units provide love, care, and warmth that their adult members did not experience as young people. This isn’t an argument for the patriarchal family unit, but I’d ask whether it’s appropriate for a class-privileged collective to offer the possible economic security of a commune to those who are socially and economically marginalised on the proviso that these family units are deconstructed and the meanings that their participants have given them be delegitimised. Whether or not these poor and working-class folks have formed patriarchal family units, and shaped them into places of safety and security because that is all capitalist society made available to them is, in my eyes, irrelevant here. What is relevant is the meanings folk have ascribed to the unit. Equally, none of this is to say all socially and economically marginalised folk, or poor and working-class folk, have positive past and present relationships with the patriarchal family unit—of course not. Many have experienced the violence and coercion mentioned at the top of the paragraph. Some may want death to the nuclear-family unit, but have generated self-worth and a sense of belonging via another cultural practice that is critiqued by the radical left; some might have found those things in the radical left.
Solidarity comes in many forms. One way a project like A Commune in the North can act in solidarity with the socially and economically marginalised, is by being a space where basic needs are met without being coerced by capital into dehumanising labour. Socially and economically marginalised people develop coping mechanisms in order to bring care, respect, self-worth, and interconnectedness into their lives. If solidarity in the commune is contingent upon conformity to a culture that suggests the ways in which people have coped with dehumanising labour in the past are problematic and unacceptable, then this simply will not be solidarity, but more of the violence and coercion of the state and capital in smiling sandals.
What if a commune instead centred its existence, and its pursuit of radical imagination, on the lived experiences of those who have thus far used their radical imagination as a survival tool? Again I’ll use the meanings that can be ascribed to the family unit. The family unit for poor and working-class folk comes in all kinds of shapes and sizes. Sometimes it involves blood ties, sometimes it follows the heteonormative model, but it can also involve folk who are not blood ties, or who are distant leaves across the family tree. It can skip generations, it can be just one generation, it can be sealed, and it can be porous. Poor and working-class folk generate family structures which fit their needs but are material and emotional. And whilst there is often a case of ‘my family structure is the best way for a family to be structured’, and in our worst moments attempts to police one another, for the most part folks know that the goal is to keep our people alive, and that will often mean differently structured family units acting in solidarity with one another. I’ve seen 2.4-children families act in solidarity with queer, single-generation families, and single-gender, five-generation, blood-kin units act in solidarity with an uncle raising his nephew-and-niece-by-marriage and the niece’s boyfriend type of unit. What matters is both survival, and what those units mean to us. So, what if the commune says people can arrange their family units in ways which make sense to them, but that the family units should act in solidarity with one another? There is no prescribed analysis of how people organised their home lives before, so here there is an opportunity for differently structured units to reshape themselves if they see fit, for new units to emerge, but most of all for those units to take on greater levels of responsibility for one another, and to be less judgemental over one another’s structure. My experience in radical-leftist communities tells me that they know very little about solidarity, community formation, and the possibilities of family units in comparison to most average council estates. What radical-leftist communities know, and have access to, are resources and the accumulation of capital in order to facilitate lives. If you got 75 people from a council estate, 75 people from the radical left, and 50 more with one foot in each house, then you might have a project that could ignite our collective, radical imaginations.
In no way is this a conclusion. I’m merely stopping because I’ve already written 2,000 more words than I intended, and I’ve got other things to do. I will almost certainly do a part two to this meandering engagement with the questions of whether communes are for the working class. I probably wrote this as a way of finding some of those ‘50 with a foot in each house’, those from both the radical left and the poor and working class who are both sceptical and excited by the idea of a collective living project. I wanted to hear from them, and thought the best way of finding them was by throwing a bunch of my concerns and other thought processes out into the ether. Nothing I’ve written here, whether it be related to contesting culture, the sharing of resources, the strategic sense of using resources in this way, or the highlighting of some poor and working-class experiences—basically none of it—should be taken as gospel. I’m not convinced by much of it, but I am convinced that these are some of the issues, and that they’re worth thinking about. Not just as they pertain to setting up a commune, but how they resonate with much of our organising work. At a time when faux cultural divisions are being generated, when racial capitalism has its foot on the throat of so many, and the fights we are in right now will determine not just our survival but the direction we go in if we make it through, I think the question of how we follow the best instincts of our collective radical imagination is of significance.
If you want to know a little more about A Commune in the North go here A NEW COMMUNE? | NorthAmericaTour18 (wixsite.com)