Abolish the Rochdale Principles

Co-operators go on and on about the “Rochdale Principles”. If you hear someone doing this, you can know right away they are less than familiar with happened at Rochdale, or why Rochdale is an important part of Co-operative history. There are no “Rochdale principles”, in the sense of principles written down by members of the Rochdale society in the 1840s. Co-operative principles pre-date the Rochdale society, and the innovative principles attributed to Rochdale, cash trading and the dividend, are practiced by hardly any co-ops today. The Rochdale group did talk about “objects”, which included -setting up an Owenite commune, starting a temperance hotel, and taking over the state. How come those didn’t end up in the “Rochdale Principles”? What is called the Rochdale principles are principles set down by the International Co-op Alliance (ICA), first in 1937, then ’66, then ’95. Why did the ICA refer to a small group of weavers in 1840s Rochdale when writing up principles of the Co-op movement? They certainly were not the first to operate a co-op store. The Co-op store emerged out of friendly societies, with the Fenwick Weavers often being mentioned as the first experiment. By the 1830s there were more than 300 co-operative societies in the UK, and Co-operative Congresses began being held in 1831. The Rochdale 1844 Co-op wasn’t even the first co-operative store on their street – the Rochdale Friendly Co-operative Society operated a store at 15 Toad Lane from 1833-35. The reason why Rochdale was and is so central in Co-operative memory is largely attributable to the fact its founders went on to found the Co-operative Wholesale Society (CWS) in the 1860s, which became a large reason for the success of the UK co-operative movement as a whole. And yet the huge majority of North American co-operators wouldn’t be able to tell you anything about that. I’ve literally never been to a Co-op presentation in North America, other than ones I’ve given myself, which mentioned the CWS.

The extent of this disjunction is such that it needs some kind of explanation, how could people be getting this so wrong – how could the reason something is so important be so ignored, and the thing that is important be so focussed on, without genuine understanding? There is something religious about this problem.

And I think I’ve figured it out. Co-operation was a genuinely alternative political theology to liberalism. It isn’t anymore, or at least no one sees it that way (even its most passionate adherents), and the incessant repetition of the “Rochdale Principles” is a fudge to cover the hole left in our hearts. According to Carl Schmidt, political theology is the correspondence of the metaphysical image of the world in a time/place with the form of political organization which is recognized in that time/place as immediately appropriate, i.e. to be accepted without question.

The metaphysical image that a definite epoch forges of the world has the same structure as what the world immediately understands to be appropriate as a form of its political organization. (Political Theology, 46) 

 Schmidt talked about how the political theology of the early modern era, characterized by the planning of a “sole architect”, which could be either God or the political sovereign, had been replaced by a pervasiveness of scientific thinking, which presumes a law of nature applying without exception. It’s not surprising that Chicago school economists began to characterize the economy as natural system, one which any attempt to intervene in will compromise its internal, natural functioning, of revealing the most efficient use for everything. It has been more recently argued that the political theology of neoliberalism is divinationHuman activity in the market reveals the most efficient production of value. Co-operation, on the other hand, warns against the drive towards maximization, and instead calls for mediation, for mutual discussion, for sharing, for harmony. For example, the 1909 rules of order of the Co-operative Union of Canada specified that a condition of membership in the union was

the “conciliating the conflicts in interest of the capitalist, the worker and the purchaser, through the equitable distribution among them of the fund commonly known as Profit. (8)

The rules also insist societies prevent the “waste of labor now caused by unregulated competition”(8) (the American spelling of “labour” is actually a political statement, first adopted by the CWS, in solidarity with the fight against slavery).

If the eschaton of neoliberal market activity is innovation, the ongoing reduction in price and improvement in service, the eschaton of co-operative activity is harmony between the needs and interests of all members of society. If neoliberal theology is the radicalization of the “sole architect” metaphysics into the absent architect, the architect who can’t intervene within the bounds of time, co-operative theology moves in the other direction, it is a metaphysics of multiple architects, of ongoing deliberation, of ever repeating intervention from all corners (properly regulated of course, with a not at all autonomous governmentality).

One way that a political theology can be seen manifested in a political realm is the emergence of a corresponding utopian vision, and the story of co-operation is a story of the decline and fall of that vision, not once but twice. The first is the experiments of utopian socialism, i.e. Robert Owen’s villages of mutual co-operation, Fourier’s “Familistaires”. While it’s still possible to find references and homages to Owen and Fourier within the co-operative movement, it’s quite difficult to find people who’ve actually read anything they’ve written, or studied their projects in any level of detail. And maybe that’s because the success of the modern co-operative movement, meaning the success of “co-operatives”, was the defeat of Owen’s vision for villages of mutual co-operation. More than a dozen of these communities were set up, the most famous being New Harmony, Indiana. In Owen’s village, every aspect of social and economic life would be operated co-operatively, whereas a “co-operative” is the attempt to take a single element from that village, i.e. a store, or a factory, and operate it as a self-standing organization. This sundering of the unity of human life as one of consumption, production, socializing, etc, led to consumers’ co-operators getting into arguments with Marxists about whether it was the productive or consumptive capacity which truly defines the nature of the human being. However, the decline of Owenism as a philosophy of co-operation did lead to another utopian vision.  

The second, and for our purposes much more important, was the vision of co-operative federalism, developed by the CWS Chair T.W. Mitchell in the 1860s, which envisioned the ownership of the means of production and distribution to be all owned by workers, as consumers. Individual co-operative societies would not own factories, farms, or transportation companies themselves, but these could be purchased by wholesaling societies which could in term be set up for and owned by individual consumers’ societies. The power, and the success of this vision from the 1860s till about the 1950s is the reason why the UK co-operative movement has traditionally been central, and looked up to. If you’re wondering what people have been “looking up” to, it’s certainly not some weavers selling oats in the 1840s. At the time, having stores own a wholesaler was innovative – vertically integrated retail firms did not yet exist, and therefore store prices were high not simply because storekeepers tried to maximize profits, but because they in turn bought from wholesalers who were themselves trying to maximize profits. The CWS still exists today, although it changed its name to the Co-operative Group, and I think it’s the largest consumers’ co-operative society in the world, trading approximately 10 billion British pounds annually (excluding credit unions, and obviously excluding producers’ co-operatives and retail co-operatives owned by franchise owners rather than consumers). However, it no longer owns and operates its own factories, and it seems to have largely abandoned its former rhetoric of creating a complete and viable alternative to capitalism. 

Today an international slogan of Co-operation is “Co-ops build a better world”, which on the face of it sounds radical and transformative. But with the decline of co-operative federalism we are left without a workable plan for using co-operation to build a better world. Many co-op developers will tell you that it’s not practical to start a new project without state or foundation funding, and this expresses the difficulty of expanding the movement without access to capital. The old strategy of leveraging capital already in the movement to expand it – federalism – is now generally seen as too risky by co-ops, which act in increasingly individualistic, self-serving manners, unwilling to risk their own benefits to grow the movement. Sure there are “start up funds”, and various programs (often based in the discourse of entrepreneurial capitalism), but in general there is nothing like the willingness in co-ops to invest in shared structures with the goal of taking control of means of distribution and production, to impose harmony upon it and undo the waste caused by relentless competition and maximization.

It’s possible to give an account of the decline of radical visions of co-operation in various ways. One can point to the emergence of privately owned vertically integrated “chain stores” which presented a challenge to the efficiencies previously held exclusively by co-op federalists. One can point to the internal problems with various large co-operative wholesalers, like the CWS or the National Co-operatives in the United States, and blame particular managers or management cultures, or a lack of appropriate democratic mechanisms, or the rise of cultural individualism. One can also point to the success of areas of the co-operative movement which were traditionally much less radical, such as agricultural and retail co-ops, which are owned by small business owners rather than consumers or employees. Today of the 30 largest co-operatives in the world, only one is a workers’ co-operative, and three are consumers’ societies, whereas 10 are retail or agricultural co-ops, and the rest insurance or credit unions. It isn’t my intention to weigh the relative force of any of these causes in the decline. What matters for purposes here is that there was a decline of co-operative federalism, which sought harmony in society and global peace through the ownership of society by consumers, and that this utopian vision has not been successfully replaced by any other one.

Historically, the articulation of the “Rochdale Principles” by the ICA in 1937 should be read as part of the decline of the utopian vision held by consumers’ co-operation. The ICA was never as dominated by consumers’ societies compared to the UK co-operative movement, also in the mid 1930s the Co-operative Federalist orientation of the Co-op League of the USA was being challenged by farmers who were staunchly opposed to the socialization of their farms, which would turn them into employees. It’s in this context that Co-operators attempted to articulate a universal vision of Co-operation, one which is inclusive of all different movements calling themselves “co-operative”. By focussing on the Rochdale pioneers, these values appropriated the legacy of the UK co-operative movement, widely recognized to be the most successful, without appropriating the politics and strategy that movement developed starting in the 1860s. A special committee was entrusted with determining the extent to which the consumers’ co-operative movements were in fact, as was often repeated, based on principles “laid down in a statesmen like constitution and subsequently practice” of the Rochdale society. They found,

that the observance of
co-operative principles depends on the adoption and practice
of the first four of the seven Principles, viz.,

1.   Open Membership,

2.   Democratic Control (One Man, One Vote),

3.   Distribution of the surplus to the members in proportion
     to their transactions,

4.   Limited Interest on Capital.

In the opinion of the Committee, the remaining three
Principles, viz.,

5.   Political and Religious Neutrality,

6.   Cash Trading,

7.   Promotion of Education,

What is notably absent from the principles is the practices that made the UK co-operative movement wildly successful, and ultimate the historical explanation as to why Rochdale is seen as important at all – the development of the Co-operative Wholesale Society in the 1860s. There is nothing here about co-operative federalism, and therefore this account of consumers’ co-operation is one which is anaesthetized of the radical elements of consumers’ co-operation which threatened other elements of the co-operative movement (especially agricultural co-operatives).

In 1966 a revision eliminated neutrality, and added a provision for public education, as well as “Co-operation amongst Co-operatives”, perhaps an attempt at reviving a sense of federalism in the movement. The 1995 revision ads “concern for community”, and further defines “co-operation amongst Co-operatives” as the participation in common structures to better meet the needs of members. Because this principle doesn’t define the difference between educational and wholesaling federations, however, co-ops can claim to be meeting this principle simply by belonging to an educational and advocacy federation. Also, many co-operators believe that having their co-op patronize other co-ops (i.e. banking with a credit union) is an example of “co-operation amongst co-operatives”, possibly because they rarely read more about the principles than the list itself.

The ICA Principles, technically called the ICA “Statement on the Co-operative Identity”, commonly referred to as the “Rochdale Principles” (many co-operators somehow believe that the current version, developed in 1995, was actually developed by the Weavers in the 1840s), serves as the pat answer to the questions “What is a co-op?” and “What makes your org a Co-op?”. They serve to answer this question quickly and efficiently, before anyone has a chance to reflect on whether what is ever called the “Co-operative Movement” is going anywhere, or moving in a coherent organized way at all (it is not). They serve as a substitute for a political theology, harmony, which few of them any longer believe in. It’s difficult for anyone who isn’t an activist to believe in a metaphysical image of the world which conflicts with the dominant one – it was easier in the 19th century because (neo) liberalism was not as entrenched, there was still a sense of possibility that co-operation rather than competition might become the organizing principle of society.

The call to “Abolish the Rochdale Principles” is not a call for Co-operators to stop practicing the principles stated in any version of the ICA/Rochdale principles. Rather, it is a call to co-operators to abandon the simple answer “what is co-operation” that these principles give, and to renew a sense of openness to the future which has been closed off. The making-eternal of principles provides only the simulation of a political theology, one produced by compromise rather than genuine metaphysical insight. The co-operative movements period of intense strength and growth it did not need a universally valid set of “Rochdale Principles”, it was rather characterized by a multiplicity of co-op movements struggling to replace capitalism, and sometimes in tension with each other. To create workable, believable visions for a world beyond liberalism, co-operators need to develop a dynamic relationship with principles, revive an interest in harmony as an alternative to neo-liberalism’s political theology of divination, and question the dominance in the Co-operative movement of the enormous organizations which are not owned by human beings.



A few thoughts on Bayat’s notion of “Social Non-Movements”

Asef Bayat‘s idea of “social non-movements” might be crucial for thinking about “social movements” today. The very idea that we “ought” to respond to the political crises we face by organized “movements” is perhaps overly narrow.

Let me say that by “social non-movements,” I mean broadly the collective action of dispersed and unorganized actors. These include the non-movements of the poor to claim rights to urban space and amenities; the non-movements of youth to reclaim their youthfulness, that is, to realize their desired life styles, and fulfill their individualities; and the non-movements of women to struggle for gender equality—say, in personal status or in active presence in public sphere. These claim-making practices are made and realized mostly through direct actions, rather than through exerting pressure on to authorities to concede—something that the conventionally-organized social movements (like labor or environment movements) usually do. In a sense, the non-movements emerge as an un-articulated strategy to reduce the cost of mobilization under the repressive conditions.

The has been raised that what Bayat is describing is a sort of “life style” politics. In a sense that is clearly true, but I think not in the pejorative sense of for example “lifestyle anarchism”. Bayat isn’t proposing “life-style” as an alternative to politics, in fact, I don’t think he’s being prescriptive at all. The very notion of a prescription would seem to be counter to the idea of a social non-movement. I think the point is a descriptive one: that because of the repression and ineffectiveness of social movements to respond to certain sets of grievances, social non-movements are emerging to respond to those grievances. I think this is the key quote:

“These claim-making practices are made and realized mostly through direct actions, rather than through exerting pressure on to authorities to concede—something that the conventionally-organized social movements (like labor or environment movements) usually do. In a sense, the non-movements emerge as an un-articulated strategy to reduce the cost of mobilization under the repressive conditions.”

The emergence and repression of social-non movements is something I’ve seen this in Palestine first hand. It is sometimes either impossible or practically impossible for Palestinians on occupied territory to get the permit to sell their goods, or to build a house, or run a business. Or even if it is not impossible maybe some refuse to engage with the authorities because they don’t recognize their legitimacy (and to be fair, there isn’t a state in the world, not even the United States, which recognizes the legitimacy of the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem). A social-movement response to this would mean organized protests with demands, or participating in electoral politics according a constitution (you certainly know the debates about “constitutionalist” politics on disputed territory in the Irish context!), or right the way up to open, potentially militarized struggle against Israeli institutions. But, if the costs of any of these options were too high, and they are high, it isn’t surprising that people in a non-coordinated way simply break the law and do the things they need to do and get on with their life. Sometimes the border police come through the Muslim quarter of the old city of Jerusalem and kick over people’s stalls if they don’t have the right permits – Bayat isn’t saying that social non-movements are without cost. But, the cost of sometimes having your food knocked over, or even sometimes having your house torn down (which happens on a daily basis, and there are literally thousands of standing demolition orders), maybe the cost is still lower and differently distributed than the cost of a social movement to change the law. 

But Bayat’s point is not that this is a politics. Rather, he’s describing the social field’s aversion to politics, but also how that aversion has political implications:

“non-movements” keep their actors in a constant state of mobilization, even though the actors remain dispersed, or their links to other actors remain often (but not always) passive. This means that when they sense that there is an opportunity, they are likely to forge concerted collective protests, or merge into larger political and social mobilization.”

So, describing the social non-movements that exist might certainly be relevant for people trying to organize social movements. But you can’t organize a social non-movement, because the very act of organizing it would make it a social movement. At the same time, there may be opportunities to politicize non-political non-movements, by repeating the same non-movement direct actions with increasing amounts of organization. 

I wonder if this is a way of opening up Michael Hart’s thesis that to think “leadership” in the contemporary series of uprisings we need to reverse the links between “leadership – strategy / mass – tactics”, and think of leadership tactically and the mass as a source of strategy. Maybe the non-movements, which are a-political, are actually strategic because they are directed immediately towards the problems that exist, and we could add a political level to them by tactically bringing non-movers together, on a short term basis, with a leadership which would tactically spontaneously dissolve rather than increase its authority over time.

Beamish historical park: a living history of life and class realities in Northeast England


I’ve always loved living-history museums. Growing up I was lucky enough to visit many in Canada – grand ones like Heritage Park in Calgary and Fort Steele in south eastern B.C., and smaller ones closer to home – Burnaby Village and Fort Langley (both in the greater Vancouver area) come to mind. When I was four I also visited Beamish, a living history museum in the Northeast of England, while on a family trip. Now back in England, visiting the same family, I’ve had the chance to make a second visit.


I’m not sure if I can sum up in a sentence what museums are for, but in my view living history museums give you a sense of what they should be for – granting you a felt as well as cognitive sense of how people lived in difference places and times. Of course there are limitations – we know so little about ancient times that a living history museum of, for example, Ancient Greece, would really tell us a lot more about ourselves than about the Greeks. This perhaps explains why living history museums tend to be started by people who still have a lived connection to the history displaced, and why they tend to be started only a generation or two after the oldest time portrayed on the site.

Beamish focuses on the Northeast of England during the height of industrialism. The large site, mostly farmland on rolling hills, is dotted with villages enacting different periods and different forms of live. Set in 1900 there is a town, railway station, a mining (“pit”) village, and a coal mine. In the 1820s there is a manor house, a farm, and a steam powered wagonway (early term for railway). There is also 1940’s (wartime) “home farm”. There are plans to add a Georgian area, as well as one set in the 1980s. Since the last time I visited Beamish was in the 1980s, I found that last one a bit of a shock, but really it shows the commitment of the place to be relevant in an ongoing way.


Because it shows sites from different periods, it’s possible to make comparisons as to how people from different socio economic classes lived in different periods. I was absolutely floored to discover that an average mine worker from 1900 might live with 14 children, his wife, and grandparents in what basically amounts to one room and a loft – and yet, keep a parlor the same size again as the cooking/living area for use only on high days and holidays. Also, there was nothing meek about the way the mine workers house was decorated – if I wasn’t told it was a mine workers house, and I’d seen it only from the inside, I think I would have guessed it was a middle class house for a small family in the city. Decorated with quite ornate goods (both in the living area and the rarely used parlour), it felt aspirational, as if the whole place was laid out to convince (guests? themselves?) that the family was richer than they really were. And they really were not that rich: they did not own their home, and if for any reason no people in the house were any longer working in the mine (including if the workers were killed in a mining accident), they had to be out of the house in five days, so it could be ready for the replacement worker. I can’t help but wonder what might have happened in Britain if mine workers had put as much effort into organizing against capitalism as they did into pretending to be wealthier than they were. (This insight obviously applies equally, if not infinitely more so, to people today).

There is a standard way to talk about the lives we discover in historical museums: to say “oh dear, their lives were so hard, I can’t imagine living like that”. I used to repeat this kind of talk, and of course, it’s completely true: we are totally dependent on the most modern of privileges, we can’t imagine living without all the consciences of home. Cars, vacations, computers, appliances, these all cost huge amounts of our meager earnings, and yet we don’t want to go without. Living a washing machine, who could imagine? (Besides some hipsters in Brooklyn, who I’m sure have taken up hand washing as some kind of D.I.Y. craze).

Trying to think in a way that is a little more wordly, however, this “oh their lives were so hard” talk starts to feel deeply disingenuous. Why should I pity the life of a mine worker in 1900, a mine worker who could afford to have a parlour which he only used on Christmas and Easter, when the keyboard I’m typing on was made by someone who I’m basically certain is much materially poorer than he was? And as for working conditions, yes industrial age working conditions were bad – but there are still no global standards for industrial labor or resource jobs. Am I sure that the miners who worked to get all the specific metals required for my phone and computer had working conditions any better than miners in Britain in 1900? Or even 1800?

We look at the lives of people who lived earlier in our societies and see the hardship and struggle, and feel good about ourselves because things are so much better today. And they are, for us at least. But this can lead to a vulgar progressivism – to be honest we should think not only about how what is called “development” has made some people’s lives better, but also other’s lives worse. Who gets included or excluded when a new standard of living is achieved?

This hypocrisy in the way we perceive the living museum reveals problem of global capitalism from the perspective of labour is, in a nutshell, that trade and production is global but regulation is local. Coal is no longer mined in the U.K. in large quantities, not because the coal ran out, but because (and I know this isn’t the only reason) increased standards for workers safety and the high standard of living of workers makes U.K. coal production uncompetitive on the global market. The problem is, in essence, that British families have the right to buy coal from workers who work in conditions which would be illegal if their employer subjected them to. This is a real material form of benefitting from the national inclusion/exclusion barrier to legal guarantees of well being. 

Of course, Beamish helps answer this question as well – the presence of ideological content from the different periods helps explain how it was (and how it is) that British workers care more about status aspiration than about their own material oppression, and care little at all about workers elsewhere.


It isn’t prominently displayed, in fact it feels like there might have been a purposeful downplaying of the Imperial narrative, but you can still find evidence of British Imperial propaganda around Beamish, and in working class contexts. The above banner is from the school house where the children of mine workers were educated (at least until they began to work in the mine). There were no maps of the world displaced anywhere in the school house, but if there had been I can be sure that every British colony would have been coloured red, and children would have been taught that the sun never sets on their empire. In the hallway there were paintings of British imperial battles, and the same in one of the mine workers houses. Some of those children might have gone off to fight in imperial wars. But those who didn’t, those who stayed home to work the mines, in a sense their efforts were equally important to Britain’s imperial-industrialist projects. And while I might be inclined to interpret the worker’s situation as one of being oppressed by the owners of the means of production, it’s also possible to see the British workers as lower status members of the British imperial “team”, members whose efforts were crucial to that “team” continuing to “win”, and members who have, in the long run, materially benefitted from those ongoing victories. After all, the very fact that we look back on those times as hard proves that today’s working conditions have, on balance, improved – and not only historically in relation to earlier British workers, but also geographically in relation to non-British workers. Maybe this is just what “winning” looks like, and the battle between nationalism and socialism is a conflict over which game we interpret ourselves as playing – are we playing the game where we want our country to do better than other countries, or are we playing the game where we want the production of the material needs of a society to be more or less a tool for reproducing the status privilege of wealthier families?

This perhaps helps us define very exactly what class aspirationalism actually is: the desire to improve the economic status of oneself or one’s family, without the desire to overcome the system of domination that allows those with higher economic status to extract wealth from those with lower economic status. And this same dynamic can be discerned on national (both Russian “socialism in one country” and British “socialism not communism” varieties are examples of this), and international (i.e. Trotskyist) levels. In all of these cases the defining characteristic appear to be a combination of seeing oneself as part of a larger group that shares common interests, caring about other members of that group, and distinguishing that group from another group or groups to which your group has either an antagonistic or neutral orientation, and about which you do not particularly care.

Perhaps the only example of socialism in action at Beamish is the presence of the co-op store in the 1900 town.


The co-op movement started in Rochedale, also in the Northeast of England. Built and run by workers for workers, the co-op movement was a way of avoiding high prices. You had to be a member to shop there, and as a member you had the right to elect the board of directors which hired the workers and ran the shop. As such, everything was done in the interests of the co-op’s members. The co-op sold goods with a lower mark up than other stores, and they also dealt directly with manufacturers and sold goods under their own C.W.S. (co-op wholesale society) brand.

Co-ops are interesting. You can imagine a mine worker in 1900 who cares about his own well being and the well being of other workers, and sees his interests in common with them. He has the choice between joining the co-op society, or joining the union (working in the mine he has limited capacity for organizing). If he joins the co-op, he works for the interests of workers as consumers – improving the access to quality goods at lower prices. Imagine he has been elected to the board, and been enlisted with the task of finding a supplier for a new product which the co-op wishes to offer as C.W.S. (in-store) brand. He finds two suppliers that can offer the product at the same quality, but one supplier can offer the product more cheaply because of a combination of lower wages and less concern for workers safety. Which supplier should he choose? Because he is entrusted to work in the interest of the membership, who are workers but workers as consumers, he will most likely have to choose the supplier that can offer the product more cheaply, unless he can convince the board and membership to adopt some kind of “fair trade” standard for suppliers. This illustrates an interesting paradox: advocating for workers, but advocating for them as consumers, one can end up reproducing (or in some cases increasing) the exploitation of the very workers on whose behalf he is advocating.


I want to finish this by writing about trains. This might seem like a strange departure from a post which has mostly focused on working conditions and worker’s consciousness, but bear with me. The steam locomotive was invented in the Northeast of England, and the importance of the locomotive to the history of industry in this area is obvious from the fact that there are no less than 3 different and separate steam railways at Beamish: a reproduction of the first railway locomotive ever (pictured above) from 1815, a typical mining railway from 1900, and a passenger railway from 1900. There is also an electric tramway that circles the park, bringing you between the different areas on vintage streetcars. In other words, trains are clearly very important for the history of this region.

But what does this mean for the lives of the people who lived here? The locomotive above only carried coal. It was a good deal better than horses at hauling coal – a horse could pull a half ton of coal along a wagonway, whereas this engine, named “steam elephant”, cold haul 90 tons of coal in a 15 wagon long train. It meant mines could be built farther from canals, which means more mines and more work. At a more general level, the steam engine (and this means primarily the stationary steam engine) was a source of work – work which elsewhere would have needed to be done by men or non human animals. Really what the steam locomotive is is a symbol of the transition to the fossilized carbon economy – where the key fuel transitions from food (from recently deceased plants), and the fact this transition happened here earlier than other places is not only a source of pride, but firstly one of material wealth. The actual mechanization of labour was slow – in 1913, which was the highest production year of the mine at the Beamish site, less than 10% of the coal was taken off the coal face by machine. But at the same time, if locomotives were the reason the mine could be there, and made it feasible to transport all that coal to market, then the workers benefitted deeply from the locomotive. Beamish has an incomplete mock up of a coal mine from the Georgian era. Basically a hope in the ground, topped by a wooden crane powered by oxen to lift the coal out of the mine. It was worked by a whole family, father and son underground, mother and daughter above working the animals. The transition to steam powered industrial mining meant that instead of the whole family needing to work mining, a family could buy their material needs from the labour of the men only. Another impact was the growth of new jobs in railroading. My mother’s grandfather worked for the Stockton and Darlington railway, a good step up from his previous job as Gardner. With that income he was able to buy a stately family home in Redcar, a stroll away from the seaside. And don’t forget the advent of the working class holiday- made possible by the railway as well.

So, perhaps the truth of this story is that what at first appears as false pretention (the aspirationalism of a mine workers parlour), is in the end a real material truth (opportunities arising from industrialism for class ascension). At least for some. And of course today the story is the opposite – young people leaving for want of jobs, pit villages are depressed, many houses deserted. The high street in Redcar, although nicely pedestrianized, does not show signs of economic prosperity. Perhaps this is not something that can be altogether separated from how good the museum is – places whose glories are in the past, it’s not wrong for them to celebrate them.

Defending the Portland Hotel Society

If you aren’t from Vancouver, you’ve probably never heard of the Portland Hotel Society (PHS) a non-profit started in ’93 to provide services and advocacy for the marginalized people of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. The society operates many hotels which rent mostly single-room-occupancy (SRO’s) in that area, and specializes in harder to house populations. In conjunction with Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH), they opened insite, Canada’s first supervised safe-injection site for harder drugs.

Right now, PHS is under attack following two audits which raised some questions about the use of certain administrative fees. The audits recommended that “VCH and the PHS jointly develop requirements for record keeping and service evaluation plans”. However, instead what has happened is the two founding directors of the PHS have been sacked, and many of the programs PHS runs which were funded through administrative fees are in danger of being cut.

These programs include: paying veterinarian bills to keep their beloved pets alive when they can’t afford to; to continue providing residents with transportation, suitcases and pocket money for family reunification, or for presenting their work in harm reduction at the conferences to which they’re invited; to continue hosting dignified memorials and celebrations of life when residents pass away, with coffee, sandwiches and flowers for the bereaved; to continue the lunch program that feeds ~200 residents of the Sunrise, Washington and Stanley Hotels; to continue serving hot Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners with all the trimmings at every project each year, and eggs and bacon breakfasts on Christmas mornings at the New Fountain Shelter.

In short, what is happening is the war on the poor is being waged in the name of the poor, in the name of transparency and efficiency, and in the name of holding non-profits to scrutiny. But don’t take it from me, the main purpose of this blog post was to provide a space where I could host a set of links by real journalists and writers who have something to add to the discussion.

“We should decry the cynical timing of the audits’ release — hot on the heels of the disgraceful DTES local area plan, which announces the imminent dispersal of hundreds of people who call the Downtown Eastside their home. We should reject the mainstream’s framing of this audit and note that it asks questions but says exactly nothing on corruption, longterm financial solvency of the PHS, or its ability to deliver public money to those who need it most.” The Portland Hotel Society should be defended. (Rabble)

“Patrick May works the front desk for the PHS at the Pennsylvania Hotel, site of the original Portland Hotel. “I feel a bit confused, kind of scared for the future, not only for myself but for the culture of the organization. We work in unorthodox ways and that is why we have been effective. It think it will be difficult for us if we have to be more bureaucratic.” Passionate former clients defend Downtown Eastside non-profit as audit reveals loose spending. (the Tyee)

“PHS staff work under extremely challenging and highly stressful conditions without pension plans, employee assistance programs or disability benefits. They are seldom, if ever, paid overtime, and they are rarely paid to attend staff meetings. The incredible commitment on the part of PHS staff is reinforced by kindness. They are a small army of dedicated people who are committed to doing hard work that is producing real change in peoples’ lives on a daily basis; work in which it is not uncommon to find a person who has overdosed or is otherwise traumatized. These are tough conditions that many would not chose to work in.” Mark Townsend: the Portland Hotel Society’s work must go on. (National Post Editorial)

“If [the founding directors] had paid themselves $40K per year more over the 3 years in question (a figure of approximately $500K- 4 people X $40k X 3 years) and paid the controversial excesses out of their own pockets 3 things would have happened. 1. Their wages would have still been lower than the top 4 BC Housing Execs. 2. They still would have been far more effective than any other organization, including BC Housing. 3. Nobody would have cared. But they screwed up and there are enough people in power who hate them for their activism and lack of bureaucratic process that have been waiting, salivating for this moment.” I work for the PHS. (blog)

“Did the PHS board need to quit/ be let go? That depends…, did they lose confidence within the eyes of front-line workers or service users?  From what I’m seeing in social media and some news that bothered to talk to people directly affected, the answer is ‘no’.  People remain confident in the services, programming and overall harm reduction mission that PHS facilitates.” The Facts on PHS Scandal and Following Reactions of critics, Boards and Jenny Kwan. (blog)

A Visit to the Anti-Gentrification Protests in Vancouver

Yesterday evening I participated in the anti-Gentrification pickets in front of Pidgin restaurant at Hastings and Carrall, and Cuchillo restaurant at 261 Powell street. Due to conversations with friends, I’ve become increasingly interested in the issue of Gentrification in Vancouver, and I thought that participating would be the best way to get a sense of what the pickets are about, who are leading it, and how effective and sustainable this form of resistance can be.

At 6pm the picketers met in front of Pidgin restaurant, which is directly across from Pigeon Park. It’s an odd location for an upscale restaurant. The patrons arrive, usually in taxis, wearing fancy clothes and jewellery – while across the street the locals drink, cuss and play soccer in the street. Just across Hastings there is a man laid out on the sidewalk in an awkward position while police stand around an an ambulance arrives. Two men walk by, loudly calling us “a bunch of losers”, my friend tells me they are drug dealers and dislike our presence because the pickets draw the police.

The picket is a lively place, not like a union picket – because it only meets for an hour or two a day it also serves as a meeting time for the people involved. Stories are shared, analysis is given if asked for. I’m told that the picket has been staffed by as many as 60 people, but what impresses me is that they come every day – every single day, even if there are only two or three. And it really bothers people. Just to have a few people standing outside a restaurant, explaining the connection between the upscale restaurant in a lower class neighbourhood at street level to the evictions that are taking place upstairs. And the evictions are taking place – above both Pidgin and Cuchillo, and the connection between the upscale resto downstairs and the evictions of low income residents upstairs is undeniable. Still, apparently quite a few diners patronizing Pidgin actually do engage in dialogue with the picketers. I’m told they tend to have lived in Vancouver a long time (in upper class neighbourhoods) and have somewhat thought-out opinions on things. I didn’t experience this myself because I didn’t notice any diners going in at all. Mostly we got yelled at by people who weren’t eating there, quite possibly by people who couldn’t afford to eat there. I suppose this illustrates the extent to which people have bought into the trickle-down, neo-liberal view that richer people are better people, and that if the rich are coming into this area of town, this must be a good thing. It feels strange to be yelled at, called names. I suppose it’s a kind of emotional warfare – are we suppose to feel bad at being called “losers”, or “get a job” (ironically the 6pm pickets make it easy for people with 9-5 jobs to participate)? Is this high school? Why are they so angry that someone opposes evictions of precarious, low-income residents, and draws attention to the connection between that and fancy restaurants?

And then I found out that the resistance against the picketing can go beyond name-calling. At an information meeting, right there on the sidewalk, I learned that the day previous several organizers had been assaulted by the building manager from one of the buildings that is picketed. Four women organizers were eating lunch in a cafe when the assailant stormed in, shoved one of them out of the way, grabbed their picketing sign and ripped it to pieces.  The police were called, but were dismissive of the organizers desire for justice and refused to press charges. This is clearly political, because in a previous incident where a picketer was alleged to have shoved someone, the police were more than happy to move forward with charges, with no more evidence than statements by the parties involved.

Because of the alleged assault, the picketers decided to move to the Cuchillo site, as this is the building where the building manager who intimidated organizers is employed. The picketers have for the most part stopped picketing at Cuchillo because, for a variety of reasons, the picket is more effective at Pidgin. Whereas Pidgin restaurant is located in an area with a lot of foot traffic, and Pigeon park across the street being community gathering space, Cuchillo is on a stretch of Powell which is quite desolate (perhaps in part due to the eviction of all the tenants in the building). Also whereas Pidgin is not a very busy or successful restaurant, Cuchillo was started by restauranteurs who already have a loyal following in Vancouver.

The management at Cuchillo seem a lot more antagonistic than at Pidgin. For one theres the assault, although that involves the building owners not the restauranteurs, who are renting the space from them. We did get a message from the restaurant, however, a few minutes after arriving:

Apparently if you know “shit about living here”, you know that evicting the entire building and keeping it vacant is good for business and good for the neighbourhood. Again this “get a real job” rhetoric – especially ironic because Nick (pictured here) does have a real job, he works in a kitchen. At least, I think working in a kitchen is a real job. Maybe we should ask their kitchen staff?

The diners are Cuchillo are also quite different form those at Pidgin. The prices are affordable, at least middle-class affordable (from 8$ for a pulled-duck taqaria to 24 for diver-caught scallops). The crowd was neither urban hipster nor working class nor upper class chic, in fact the only word I can use to describe the crowd is…suburban. I don’t like to yell much at protests, but when people yelled out “get a job”, I felt like answering “tuck in your shirt” or “get some decent shoes!”. There are few positive interactions with diners, some feigned concern, but mostly bro-ish antagonism. Every fifteen minutes or so a car drives by honking its horn, the driver holding out a middle finger at us. I can see why the picketers have mostly stopped demonstrating here.

But they will persevere at Pidgin. There is for the most part support of the pickets by the area’s not-yet-evicted residents. I’m told that many have said they would participate in the pickets, and they support them fully, but they are afraid of being targeted by police. They live down there, and because basically everyone is involved in illegal activity from jaywalking to public drinking to drugs, the police can quickly make life difficult for any singled out individual. There is also a sense they are winning – at least Pidgin restaurant is not doing well, and the police are no longer religiously observing the protests. Mostly I’m just impressed at how a relatively small group of people have kept a daily protest going for many months, and had a real impact on the political discourse in the city.

Over an 8$ pint at a restaurant two subway stops away from the picketing, I asked my friend if he felt like there was any contradiction between going down to the DTES and speaking against gentrification and then whizzing over to commercial to enjoy a meal in the absolute same class-bracket as those diners crossing the picket line. He responded: sure, but this is the way it has to be. It isn’t going to happen any other way. And he’s right – the pickets aren’t against people eating at bougie restaurants, they are against the opening of bougie restaurants in locations which displace people. Displacement is wrong because it isn’t a solution – it looks at the problems in the DTES and then prescribes moving them over a few blocks in this or that direction. And while it’s unfortunate that the very people being evicted can’t always stand on the front line of their own resistance, this is just a paradox that we have to live with if we want to stand against dishonest social policy, and struggle against the exclusion of the most oppressed from any benefits of living in one of the richest cities in the world.

Syria: The Sovereignty of the Revolution Lives in the Bodies of the People in Struggle

Syria. Uttered in Arabic, we hear Sou-ree-ah. What is the meaning of this word today? Its utterance produces shivers, sighs, perhaps sparks of hope along with the horror. And of course fights. There is alive in the 2.0 world of print/blog media a war of words concerning Syria – is it a revolution? is it still a revolution? what about the islamists? what about Assad’s nominal anti-imperialist stances? What about resistance against American hegemony? What about American funding of the rebellion? It might be said that it does not matter so much what is said on blogs in the West about Syria, that the revolution or rebellion continues regardless of what we think about it. But there is a universal human obligation to try to understand those things to which one is connected. And a still more universal obligation to pay witness to suffering, and to those who stand up against oppression. There is something to be learned from every rebellion, every revolution, because there is a truth in the physical manifestation of standing up against injustice. Not because this standing necessarily leads to justice, but because it opens a door, a way towards justice. Because without sacrifice, there is no justice.

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North Korea produce remarkable film exposing American culture

This came across my facebook feed. A twelve minute film about American celebrity culture, gaming culture, reality TV, and imperialism. Basically, it is a film about American narcissism, and the disconnect between American culture and American foreign policy. We in the west could certainly make a film critical of North Korea’s propaganda and internal culture, but since North Korea does not have a military that threatens states all around the world, and is in a real position to start new wars, maybe we have less of a reason to worry about domestic North Korean culture than they have a reason to worry about us.

EDIT: Here is the full length version. The film is called “Propaganda” and it is 82 minutes.

Revolutionary Love

Strange, the concept that has most enamoured my conscience since returning from my travels is that of “love”. I read “Prisoner of Love” on the airplane, and it put a lot of things together for me. Solidarity, revolution, resistance, taking sides. These are not acts of conscious reason, acts of pragmatic improvement. These are acts which have the feel the absolute in them, the transcendent. And I think there’s a good reason for this.

But first – liberal politics, what is it? I think I learned in Foundations 103 about a hundred ago that politics, and by that they meant liberal politics because we didn’t study any revolutions in Foundations 103, was the ‘art of the possible’. I think it’s more often theorized as the science of the possible, whereas “art” is probably a fairer description of what politiciens actually get up to,but I won’t get into that distinction at this time. The emphasis on the “possible” is essential, and “possible” is actually a very restrictive idea. It means (liberal) politics only concerns itself with things which are possible given the existing arrangements, given the existing organs of power, given the existing discourse, given existing public sentiment, etc… Liberal politics isn’t concerned with transforming the world, just making it a little bit better as is possible given the circumstances.

Liberal politics doesn’t need love, because it doesn’t transcend anything. It doesn’t go beyond the normal, the everyday – it stays within those parameters, ideally making the most progress possible without stepping over the pragmatic boundaries for action. Liberal politics doesn’t need a family, or an in-group, it doesn’t need a militia or people to die on the barricades when the army stands down their non-violent protest.

Revolutionary politics is a politics of love because it transcends, it demands the impossible. To be clear what it actually demands is for the situation to revolve, to re-orient, for the topography to shift, for the questions to change. That usually involves a miracle – an event which could not have been predicted, who’s outcome could not be foreseen. An event which outstripped the capacity of liberal politics to contain the goings of things within the possible and the pragmatic. An event which changes the orientation, the relationship network between other events – literally changing the meaning of normal, everyday happenings. Miracles can’t be expected, but they can be demanded. They can’t be produced, like a house, but they can be instigated, like an earthquake.

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Climate Change and Colonization

The logic of colonization is brutal, but at least it includes within its practice the redemptive forces of its own undoing. The colonizer oppresses and dispossesses the native, but the native can rise up in a sort of republican and emancipatory anti-colonial nationalism which resists by force his and her dispossession, oppression, subjugation. In other words: colonization is bad, but at least there is someone positioned to fight against it.

Climate change is much worse. Not only because it will cause dispossession and dislocation around the entire globe, disproportionately effecting the poor and the global south, but also because the position of victim and perpetrator is less clear. Climate change is not a form of colonization not because it is less violent or less exploitative of the third world, but because it is emissions rather than geographically based. So how can you establish an anti-climate change nationalism? You may laugh at the idea, but this is because you don’t understand the purpose of emancipatory nationalisms – their role is to allow many people to act together, with one hand, to stand with more force than the few and powerful than benefit from their oppression. For people to act together, they must both be in a situation where their objective needs coalesce towards a goal, and they must feel that their individual sacrifice for the cause is more valuable than the cost that it makes on them as a self interested individual. In other words, the people must be together, and they must not be selfish. This is exactly what is missing in climate change politics – stopping climate change is in everyone’s interest, but no one, at least no one yet, is immediately dispossessed by it in a way that their interests coalesce and the situation motivates selfless action in the face of it.

This may change as the weather effects get worse. Climate refugees may become climate revolutionaries, carrying out guerilla campaigns against the elites that benefit from the very pollution that caused their dispossession. This will play into the logic of the “global war on terror”, but it will be more difficult for the state to sell this war as “evil” because those fighting it will be “climate patriots”. The idea of the nobel lie may by used to justify massive disinformation on climate change to prevent the people from supporting climate guerillas – insisting their are alarmists and their dispossession was caused by the natural progress of nature, not a rich industrialist in the Western World.

In order to prepare for the conflicts of the future, we should begin to think seriously about what motivates conflict, what sustains conflict, and we should try hard to see the truth in the revolutionary so as not to miss something in our reactionary opposition to “terrorism”. Furthermore, we should re-examine the paradigm of republicanism and think about what it means to be a “sovereign people”, and what collective knowledge and/or collective projects this requires. We should not simply “imagine” a better future, we should think clearly about what forces are likely to emerge in the future, and stand with those forces on the side of freedom and emancipation for all peoples – including the people of the future.

Mofaz coming/not coming to Ramallah: the PA’s skillful political ways

Last week Abbas annouced that for the first time in years, there would be high level talks between the Israeli and Palestinian leadership, and this would take the form of vice Israeli prime minister Shaul Mofaz visiting the Mukata in Ramallah.

Shaul Mofaz has been to the Mukata before, when he was minister of defence during the 2nd Intifada, when the Israelis came to the Mukata by tanks but were not able to get inside.

Unsurprisingly, there was public opposition to Abbas’ invitation from Palestinian society, even from within his own party Fatah. There were protests planned last week to take place in Ramallah on Friday against the visit. However, by Friday, Abbas had already cancelled the visit. The protests took place anyway, with chants against Mofaz and people saying “how can we allow Mofaz to come here when he came here by tanks and killed 27 people”. But the chants didn’t make sense, since the visit had already been cancelled. This didn’t stop brutal repression by the PA, I saw myself a shirtless man draged on his back along the street into the police station. He was also roughed up, and stomped on by one of the undercover officers. This violence prompted another protest on Saturday that I didn’t see, this time against the police brutality, and which apparently involved more violence. But while the protestors are willing to oppose the PA’s brutality and Mofaz’ visit, it seems they are unwilling to take a harder line against Abbas – to oppose his security co-operation with the Israelis, oppose the statehood, even oppose the giving up of much of the territory East of the green line.

Instead, because Abbas cancelled the visit, he comes off looking like the democratic character in this ordeal – after all, he listened to the people! But what he really did was remove an opportunity for the people to rise up against him. As the statehood project continues, and as it becomes clear who benefits and who does not – and most importantly who is unwilling to abandon the Palestinian Revolution.

As the resentment in the camps increases, and as those Palestinians only provisionally willing to support the statehood bid, that is, on the condition that it improve things in the Westbank, begin to turn against the PA’s leader and political line, the proximity to the third intifada increases. Today, there was some decent coverage in Hareetz on the PA’s fear of the third intifada. Ironically, it relates the recent protests to resentment towards the PA from refugee camps – a logical link, although one which I believe doesn’t exist in practice (those who would have joined the protests from the camps stayed home once they found out that Mofaz’ visit was cancelled).

The current direction of things in the Westbank does point to conflict, even potentially to war – but not a war between the Israelis and the Palestinians, but rather between Palestinians and the Palestinian Authority.

That said, by cancelling Mofaz’s visit, Abbas has shown political skill in de-escalating a situation which could have lit things on fire. This will likely be the road he continues to take – symbolically deferring to his opposition, and trying not to allow a situation to escalate to the point of open conflict between the PA and the camps. But if he makes a mistake, it could be his last.