29. community capitalism
on 'community organising', economic restructuring, and counter/insurgency in bolivia and the north of england
The telegraph must have some kind of deal on with twitter, I don’t know what, because every time I log on, one of their articles is being promoted in a side-bar. Normally it is just fluff - how Kate Middleton’s fashion sense has come into her own, for example - but yesterday one caught my eye.
“Our village was so run down that we bought it - and reversed its fortunes.”
The article is entitled ‘The village that broke free: An ailing Lancashire community is now the poster child for a movement that might change rural life for ever.” What the village ‘broke free’ from is never made clear; the metaphor is abandoned, but the article opens by characterising rural decay as a new colonial wasteland.
‘We’ve always been at the end of the line,’ says Sara Swann, blowing out her ruddy cheeks in the car park outside Trawden’s library and shop. ‘This is East Lancashire’s final frontier.’ A Union flag on a pole hangs sodden in the dependable Pennine rain.
Behind this romanticism, the problem is relatively predictable. This is another northern town, stripped of Fordist industry, the local economy falling into increasing states of decay. Business after business closes, attempts at municipal rejuvenation fail. You’ve read the brexit thinkpieces.
I grew up in rural lancashire. I spent most of my childhood in an ex-shrimping village, just beyond the marsh, the Ribble estuary. I recognise the kind of decay this article describes. My primary school backed onto a rotting mansion and a fenced off expanse of ex-industrial land. After I left home I got periodic texts from my dad about new demolitions; first the old water tower, once a kind of icon of the landscape, then, just last year, the village pub.
But failure, the telegraph tells us, is not inevitable. In Trawden, rejuvenation has been driven by a series of key local institutions - a community centre, a library, a village store, and a pub - being brought into community ownership. The telegraph presents this as a product of plucky local spirit and hard graft; it focuses on the enterprising initiative of individuals like 67 year old parish councillor Steven Wilcock, a local to the area going back three generations, and community participation through fundraising and volunteering that made these projects possible. That plucky spirit, of course, is reinforced and supported by ‘rural development grants’ from the state, and the Plunkett Foundation, described briefly as “a charity that assists community-run schemes across the country.”
The ‘Plunkett model’ decrees that locals buy shares in a community business, with every shareholder accorded equal voting rights, regardless of the size of their holding.
The article does not describe the origins of the Plunkett Foundation in the work of Sir Horace Plunkett, an anglo-irish aristocrat. Plunkett’s first experiments in the co-operative movement were an attempt to solve the problem of mass rural emigration out of Ireland, in the wake of plague and generations of colonial dispossession, by giving his tenants a stake in a community owned store. This attempt was - even according to the Plunkett Foundation’s own, relatively glowing, accounts - pretty unsuccessful. In 1879, he began to experience lung trouble, and travelled to wyoming to participate in ranching as a kind of ‘fresh air cure’. This was just three years after the Black Hills War of 1876, in which the united states government violated its own treaties to annex territory in the last of a series of brutal frontier wars against the Lakota, Dakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho in what then became wyoming. Returning to Ireland upon his father’s death in 1889, Plunkett was inspired by his experience of the settler solidarities he had encountered in america, and this time organised his co-operative between dairy farmers, existing property owners, rather than tenants. This time, it worked.
It is hard to be against ‘community’ on the left right now. Surely we all agree that we need to resist neoliberalism’s atomisation of society, and the ruthless individualism of capitalism? Since Corbyn was ousted from the Labour Party in 2019, many have turned to ‘community organising’ - sometimes referred to as ‘base building’ - as a solution to the collapse of left electoral possibility. Change will not come from Westminster, the argument goes, it will come from ‘our communities’. And there is definitely some truth to this. Certainly, a key failing of the Corbyn years was too great a trust in the ability of good socialist ideas to transform or overcome the function of such bourgeois institutions as parliament, the free press, even the police. Radicals and revolutionaries of various stripes have been insisting change begins “with the people” for centuries, and they have been right. But Corbyn knew this too - his motto was “for the many, not the few” - and so do the Conservatives, as evidenced by the promise that Brexit would “take back control” for the British public. ‘Community’ is an ambivalent term, that can encompass a variety of social forces, and a variety of political projects.
In fact, the British government has been promoting forms of ‘community organising’ since at least 2011, in the wake of mass student protests over austerity in higher education, urban uprisings against the state-led murder of Black people, and the Occupy movement. The Community Organisers Programme began as a 4-year training programme, alongside other ‘Big Society’ initiatives aimed not only at legitimating reduced public spending, but also at allowing further state infiltration and control in areas of societal collapse and the accompanying resentment of the system that created it. As the state felt the pressure of significant resistance to its by-then decades old austerity project, it recognised a need not only to shift the blame for the collapse - away from capitalism or the state, and onto ‘communities’ who did not do ‘their part’ - but also to disarm potential opposition by making them dependent on state funding. Facing the possibility of what Bolivian social theorist Álvaro García Linera calls ‘multiple sovereignties’, community organising provided the state with the possibility of rebuilding the capitalist nation-state from the ground up. If this seems like a very different set of pressures from those confronting community organising on the left, one of the organisations that has consistently sought out funding and training from these government programmes is ACORN, a tenants union often presented as a key example of what the left should be doing more of.
Returning to Trawden, one might hope, of course, that socialist readers would be sceptical of gushing assurances from the telegraph that “buying” a village could be its “salvation.” But in other ways, the picture this article paints is one you might easily find at home with a variety of leftist positions. The narrative of northern decline, and the romanticism of old-fashioned community life in english industrial towns, combined with co-operative ownership, favoured by some socialists as a radical evolutionary solution to capitalist decay, could find supporters among a variety of social democrats and soft-anarchists - though perhaps some might insist on ‘the Plunkett model’ being accompanied by more radical “top-down” state restructuring or “bottom-up” mass movement building. It is therefore important to point out that both the community centre and the village store in Trawden are, according to the article, staffed entirely by volunteers, many of them elderly people just looking for something to do outside the house and to keep their village supplied with services - despite the fact that the shop is running for profit.
The community shop is already a half-million-pound-a-year business, so relentlessly profitable it had to be separated from the charitable trust.
Even taking the telegraph at face value, the economic model being described here is not anything close to mutual aid, but the state and NGOs using funding to wring volunteer labour out of exhausted local economies, labour that eventually becomes consolidated as profit and privatised, cut away from the declared ‘community’ that produced it. Romanticising ‘community’ obscures that these relationships are bound together by desperation and exploitation.
On the topic of romanticised relationships, the way these forms of ‘community’ exploitation are mediated by gender is buried by the telegraph’s nostalgic pride in Trawden’s “long traditions”. It would be difficult to read too much about gender into the telegraph’s account, but it does appear as if the majority of the unpaid volunteers interviewed are women, and the majority of decision makers, men. The community pub is managed by tenant landlords, a heterosexual couple, who take in local teenagers to do odd jobs (no mention of pay). It seems fair to ask whether Trawden’s ‘community’ could function without the divisions of labour that gendered norms invisibilise.
At the same time, the tendency of leftist discourse to slip into easy oppositions between ‘community’ and ‘individualism’ can also function similarly to conservative appeals to ‘tradition’ to obscure how gender functions to mediate these social formations. The destruction of industry in the north of england has put huge pressure on once-assumed household divisions of labour between male breadwinners and female housewives. Though this was never universal to begin with, the loss of the industrial ‘family wage’ has fragmented previously existing kinship relations of various kinds - but the memory of this family wage and conservative propaganda about historic familial norms have made specific adaptations to these new conditions bear the brunt of resentment for economic decline. Recent measures taken against sex workers in Leeds and Blackpool, for example, (in the latter case modelled on previous measures in Bristol) are not only attempts to force sex workers back into more direct forms of exploitation oriented by wage labour, but also indicative of how this can be legitimated as for the good of the ‘local community’ or ‘families’. Narratives about ‘neoliberal individualism’ miss that Thatcher’s actions against the trade union movement and against gay self-organisation were part of the same programme of restructuring, including wider measures from housing to foreign policy.
Similarly, trans people are frequently not accommodated by forms of ‘community’ united by historic forms of socio-economic relations, such as the legacy of industry in the north of england, or ongoing border imperialism. Falsely labelled as alien to these historic social formations, many trans people are forced to choose between the support these ‘communities’ offer, and gendered self-determination. Often these dynamics are part of the same process; sex work remains one of the few avenues of viable employment for the majority of trans people, especially those who are not white, citizens, or middle class. It would be easy to respond by either stigmatising these experiences as evidence of unbridled liberal individualism, or as demonstrating the necessity of strong communities to prevent such forms of fragmentation, alienation, and exploitation. But these are two sides of the same coin, a dialectical process by which capital disorganises resistance and reorganises its own processes of inclusion and exclusion, exploitation and domination, both in the name of ‘community’. It is not that ‘community organising’ have nothing to say to such experiences; just that ‘community’ might be a weapon for our enemies just as frequently.
There are, of course, examples where something probably well described as ‘community organising’ has been a key form of mobilisation against racial capitalism. Lately, I have been reading a lot about Bolivia, and especially the mass uprisings of 2000-2005 and the conditions that lead up to it. García Linera, a veteran of the indigenist armed struggle of the 80s in the Túpac Katari Guerilla Army and Evo Morales’ VP from 2006-2019, traces the origins of the present moment from the National Revolution of 1952, when the industrial working class, represented by the mining unions, forced a compromise with imperial capital in which they received some benefits of nationalised industries and stabilised conditions of work (commonly referred to as Fordism). This compromise came under increasing pressure from the late 70s onwards, before the final defeat of the miner’s unions in the ‘March for Life’ of 1986, marking the beginning of increasing marketisation and labour precarity in the country, known globally as ‘neoliberalism’.
Yet in Bolivia, alongside the organised working class in nationalised Fordist industries, there had always been the rural peasantry, and in some regions, “the communal mode of production”, a subsistence economy by which Aymara and to a lesser degree Quechua people have survived against 500 years of colonial conquest in the region. Both the peasantry and indigenous communities are also characterised by forms of ‘family production’, in which the household functions as a single productive unit rather than a site of a gendered division of labour, suggesting mediations of kinship other than those of the ‘family wage’. Neoliberalism in Bolivia, then, depended not only on the intensification of ‘real subsumption’ of value from the waged working class, but also (and more importantly) new forms of the colonial ‘formal subsumption’ of value via capitalism appropriating value from other forms of economic production.
At the same time, however, these other forms of economy contained other traditions of resistance, primarily organised around territory, land, as the basis of ‘community’ relationships, and articulating indigenous sovereignty against neo-colonial forms of dispossession. As labour was disorganised out of its structures in single factories and industries, it was able to re-organise itself on a territorial basis, oriented around these other radical traditions. This provided the basis of what Raquel Gutiérrez Aguilar, another veteran of the armed struggle and critic of Morales, has called the ‘inversion of the mestizo and Creolle left’ in the uprisings of 2000 and onwards; whereas historically mestizo unions and parties had attempted to appeal to indigenous people to support their struggles, indigenous formations now found themselves to be the orienting forces of mass struggle across the country at large.
It would not be wrong to call this transformation in the social struggle in Bolivia a product of ‘community organising’. But it would also only be half the story, masking a more complicated set of relations between settler colonial conquest, trade unionism, indigenous social relations, race, class, and various forms of anti-colonial nationalism.
We are also used to half-told stories about the north of england. It would even have many of the same features as the account of Bolivia above; the collapse of nationalised industry, the defeat of the trade unions, increasing precarity, even (more recently) a form of “anti-hegemonic” nationalism. (I really fucking hate the Northern Independence Party but it’s not worth addressing here.) In writing this, I have been dependent on the telegraph’s presentation of Trawden. I do not know Trawden - but I know the village where I grew up. You might tell a story about that village and the e.u.; once home to a thriving small-scale shrimping industry, the recent poverty is partly the product of e.u. regulations on fishing and the cheap foreign markets the e.u. made available. You could also tell a story about rural gentrification; the village is actually growing in population, from around 3,500 in 2001 to 4,100 in 2011. Much of this is the product of new housing estates, for middle class commuters working jobs in Southport, Preston, and even Liverpool. The spectre of rural gentrification haunts the telegraph’s article on Trawden too, as when one co-operative committee member observed some of the lengths they went to in fundraising;
‘It wasn’t blackmail,’ says Webber, ‘but we came close. “Remember – if this pub shuts, the value of your house is going down.” That sort of thing.’
If you could tell a story about sexuality, I’m not sure I know it; I left before I could come out even to myself. But of course, you could also tell a story about migration; I knew people growing up who tried to get summer jobs on local farms, and everywhere they went, they were asked if they had a passport or not - if they did, they wouldn’t be hired. Many people predictably assumed that migrant labourers were stealing jobs from good honest english folk - I remember one election year, one street especially was lined with BNP placards. I’m not sure how many realised, or cared, that these farms wouldn’t hire you if you had a passport because the kinds of wages and conditions that keep agriculture profitable are illegal in the united kingdom. In some cases, it may not even be waged at all.
In Bolivia, the process of formal subsumption has been made visible by centuries of indigenous resistance to settler colonialism. In britain, it has been invisibilised by the border, which is not only a line on a map, a division of land, but a series of practices and institutions that cut through society, a range of brutal disciplinary violences by which the united kingdom continues to profit from its empire, conjuring cheap labour pools from the wreckage of its colonies. The legacy of Horace Plunkett, as well as the coalition government’s initiatives from 2011 onwards, suggest that community organising may similarly invisibilise the contradictions, the repression and the struggle, constituting the present form of capitalism on these islands - but it doesn’t exhaust them. In Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition, Cedric Robinson argues that the most radical forms of historic resistance to capitalism in england are not identical with the most famous legacies of those struggles; behind the Labour Party, the Trade Union Congress, and “the making of the English Working Class”, there are other currents of struggle.
Irish labor leaders took prominent roles in working-class agitation in England (in the Chartist movement for example) and it is a widely held belief that working class movements and organizations in England in general were modelled from Irish organizational methods.
(Growing up, half the people I met “were Irish”, usually meaning they had one migrant great grandparent or attended Catholic school.)
I have already observed some elements of a counter-history to these struggles, in the trans-atlantic networks of knowledge making and dispossession that informed Horace Plunkett’s ‘co-operative ownership’. But for Robinson, this is not only a technical point about the place of Ireland in the history of English trade unionism. These organisational methods, from demonstrations and petitions to riots and machine-breaking, indicate resistance to the uneven processes of dispossession and proletarianisation in the emerging british empire, in and against the consolidation of racial capitalism that made and are making the nation state and ‘the English working class’. These methods are still around, some more than others. New forces of resistance, to new uneven processes of dispossession and extraction, are still around. And the final consolidation of racial capitalism and the nation state is not over - not even in the romance of community.
 I read it via a proxy site - I don’t give the telegraph clicks if I can avoid it.
 anglo-irish here refers to the english settler class in Ireland.
 I have written before about another aspect of this dynamic, in relation to trade unionism, here:
 Cf. ‘The Crisis of State and Indigenous-Plebeian Uprising in Bolivia’, in Plebeian Power: Collective Action and Indigenous, Working Class and Popular Identities in Bolivia (Brill: Leiden and Boston, 2014), p. 265-281.
 See this report, page 13-14. This is just the tip of the iceberg for the bullshit ACORN are involved in.
I might also suggest that the move from urban uprisings in the summer to the Occupy movement at the end of the year represents a shift in the contradictions of a movement that foreshadows the state interventions I describe. However, a full account of the struggles of 2011 and their legacy would require a lot more historical research than I am able to do at present, and more time than this newsletter allows.
 Briefly, ‘Real subsumption’ refers to when capital extracts value from labour directly, via wage labour. ‘Formal subsumption’ refers to when capital extracts value from labour by assuming domination over other forms of labour, such as, in this case, peasant labour and communal subsistence economies.
 Rhythms of the Pachakuti: Indigenous Uprising and State Power in Bolivia (Duke University Press: Durham, NC, and London, 2014), p. 84.
 “I was surprised to find that after years of research contrary to my understanding, one famous textbook, [E. P. Thompson’s] The Making of the English Working Class, had entirely overlooked the presence and contributions of Black leaders who were prominent in English working-class struggles.” Ron Ramdin, The Making of the Black Working Class in Britain (Verso: London and New York, 2017), p. xii
 Black Marxism (University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill and London, 2000), p. 39. The argument referenced is that of the whole chapter, “The English Working Class as the Mirror of Production”.
PS: In this newsletter I mostly reference my experience in rural lancashire, because that is what sparked this off, but much of it could be said in different ways of other places I have lived in britain, including where I’m based now, in Manchester. I leave that for others to think about.
Thank you to friends who read this for me and gave me feedback.