Report from the Co-ops & Class workshop held near Edinburgh, 31 August – 1 September, 2019

If we continue to replicate the class dynamics capitalist society produces within our social movements, those movements will continue to fail.

– D Hunter

It can take me months to read a book these days. I am so frazzled by the time I get into bed I can barely manage a couple of pages before nodding off. But with Chav Solidarity by D Hunter, I devoured the entire thing in two days flat. I couldn’t put it down. By the end of the book I was underlining entire pages.

Suddenly, everyone was reading it. Even friends in Rojava were reading it.

And then it was summer, and I found myself inadvertently following D around a bunch of camps and festivals, hearing him give readings from the book in often very crowded tents, and hearing the questions and discussion that came after.

I bought a second copy of the book so I could lend it out to more people at the same time.

Then I heard that D was co-running a workshop about class and coops in Scotland, explicitly aiming to:

  • Examine the ways our lives are shaped by our class position
  • Hold space for poor and working class folks to centre and articulate their own experiences and knowledge, sharing it with the others
  • Support middle and owning class folks to recognise and take responsibility for the psychological and material benefits of their class position and take steps towards change
  • Discuss and plan for taking collective action to challenge economic inequality
  • Support cross-class dialogue and mobilisation of cross-class people working towards radical social change

Twenty people sat awkwardly around the big living room waiting for the workshop to begin. Most of us didn’t know one another, though some had come in small groups of two to five people from projects such as worker or housing coops, as well as residents in the collective housing project where we would be sharing space together that weekend. Most people seemed to be fairly local, or at least had come from nearby parts of Scotland, with the exception of the facilitators themselves and maybe one or two others who came up from northern England. For sure I was the only one to have travelled up from the south coast.

The facilitators laid out the plan for the weekend, their own backgrounds and motivations for doing this work, as well as the aims for the workshop. Then we got into pairs to start exploring some of the issues and to warm us up to the group.

We were asked to think about our earliest memory of another family in our environment with a class difference to our own. This opened up a discussion about the class indicators that had shown this to us, whether conscious or not at the time, and from there we were able to agree on a working definition of class, and class indicators, for the weekend.

The aim is not to reach one definitive definition that everyone thinks is The Correct One, but rather to find an overarching framework in which we can explore the various nuances and experiences that have shaped our lives, and to understand that class is not just about how much money you have access to, but also the expectations and possibilities we experience and how those shape our lives.

The first main exercise was to map out our own individual economic, social and cultural capital as a spider diagram on big pieces of paper. This was a solitary exercise designed to get us thinking about how we have different kinds of capital, not only economic, and how they can feed into one another. We had already heard a brief introduction to the idea that there are different forms of capital (defined here as ‘any assets that can improve your life chances’), as well as having had some pre-reading that was given to participants some weeks in advance.

We drew arrows and lines running between different themes and elements on our maps – for me, having a British passport enabled me to travel, which helped me to learn languages (cultural capital) and meet lots of people around the world (social capital). My mother taught me to read and write at a very young age, so I developed writing skills (cultural capital) which helped me to get my job (economic capital)…

We went out into the garden and formed a series of spectrum lines according to various questions, which had been designed to dig into different aspects of class, such as your parents and your own level of education at 25, the number of times you went without meals as a child, what kind of home you were living in at the age of 12, the wages of the household you were raised in, as well as the wages you now earn, and also how much you benefit from white supremacy and patriarchy.

From these lines, we worked out our relative class position in relation to the group, and were eventually sorted into four groups of five people. These were to be ‘our class caucuses’, and especially for those of us at the bottom of the class spectrum, were to function as our safe spaces that we could retreat into over the course of the weekend.

The four class caucuses were called Capital Heavy, Plenty of Capital, Mediocre Capital and Capital light. The facilitators had chosen to use this wording, “as terms like ‘middle class’, ‘working class’, ‘professional middle class’, ‘lower working class’ are deeply limited, but more importantly the names of caucuses reflect our long term aims – that of the redistribution of capital within the entire working class in order to build radical social movements that can destroy the owning and ruling class.”

It is somewhat telling that I have been active in many different social movements over the past 12-13 years, but until this year, until after reading Chav Solidarity and attending D’s workshops, I had never had an open conversation about class in my groups, and certainly not among a group of people who have shared similar experiences to me. Of course, I have other working class friends and some of those are also working towards social and political transformation, but very few, and not more then one or two in the same groups or cities. It is so nourishing to be heard and understood in the way that can only come from having lived through similar experiences.

Even in the bigger group, there was little of the usual defensiveness which comes up at the mere mention of class. Nobody trying to shut the conversation down by saying ‘class is complicated’ or to defend their own position because they are ‘not independently wealthy’ and ‘have always worked’. We were all there with a shared willingness to explore the issues and understand them better.

In our class caucuses we were invited to explore some questions and ideas in relation to our experiences. In the ‘capital light’ group, a big theme for us was the constant stress of trying to meet payment deadlines such as rent and bills, and the amount of time and mental and emotional resources needed to dedicate to this. The damage to mental health as a result of precarity and economic uncertainty was another one, as well as the effect of growing up in families which were experiencing this.

It is from this basis of being heard and understood in our own class caucus that we are ready to move into cross-class groups later on, to speak about our own backgrounds with people from other positions in the spectrum. We had been asked to write a testimonial in advance of the weekend, which we were to share in these mixed groups.

This was the brief we had been given:

What’s your understanding of yourself as a person of your specific class identity? What have you experienced regarding your identity? How does this affect the person you are today? What are some feelings or emotions that come up as you think about how and what influenced your identity over time? What other social identities (gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, ability and so on) are also important to the way you think about yourself? How do these identities intersect with your class experience and affect the person you are today?

Each group had one person from each of the class caucuses. We read out what we each had written and then offered reflections. Again, my group felt supportive, despite our differing experiences. This was also where some of the nuances came out, for example, the person from the ‘capital heavy’ caucus in my group was a woman of colour who is a first generation migrant to the UK and financially supports her economically poor family in her country of origin. The key thing here was the ability to talk about these nuances and complexities without using them as a means to sidetrack from the core issue of class and access to wealth and resources.

It should be noted that neither of us pretend we’re doing this from a neutral position, I come from the underclass/poor communities within the UK, whilst my colleague was raised in blue collar rural Canada. We’ve both built up various forms of capital in the last decade as well as differing levels of economic security, we still maintain what some might call “chips on our shoulder” or others might name “the legacy and trauma of economic marginalisation”. We’re committed to radical social movements and the end of capitalism, but believe that the radical social movements we have are not fit for purpose, and that we must restructure and build the economic power of our social movements so that they can support the activities that are needed.”

– D Hunter

The most powerful exercise of the day illustrated the power of jelly beans, but D and Shan asked me not to share too much about that one!

On the Sunday we started to really dig in. The first day had focused on exploring class dynamics and experiences, and now the second day would give us a chance to work out how those dynamics might feed into the co-ops and projects we are part of, and how they might be improved.

Coops… can be perceived as places where radical political thought intersects and occasionally does battle with capitalist logic. What comes out victorious in those battles is debatable, but we have had enough experience with co-ops to understand that the class dynamics which play out within them have very clear parallels with those existing in wider society.”

– D Hunter

We were split into new groups and given a case study each to look at, study and discuss. These were different examples of projects which are to some degree collectivising or redistributing wealth as part of their praxis. My group had a collectively-run doctors’ surgery in Germany where all the staff have equal pay, whether doctors or not, and make decisions by consensus. They also treat people without papers or without health insurance for free.

Each of the groups fed back about the projects we had studied and we had time to discuss the different techniques, benefits and potential pitfalls and consequences of each one. This would also help us later on in thinking through how wealth is distributed in our own co-ops, projects and movements, and what we could do to change or improve them.

Later, the group listened to two ‘diversity interviews’ – one from someone at each end of the class spectrum. Because I knew the facilitators in advance, they had asked me to be one of the interviewees. I had been allowed to glimpse the questions the night before, but they were big questions, and I hadn’t had time to think about them properly. I had also been asked if I wanted to go first or second. Nervous, I chose second.

The person from the ‘capital heavy’ group who did the interview before me was someone who had a surprise inheritance from a distant rich relative – really the stuff of fairy tales. She had been to two of D and Shan’s previous workshops and is vocally committed to seeking ways of collectivising the wealth that she has. I realised that I am not used to hearing wealthy people talk about class at all, other than to argue that it doesn’t really exist, or is essentially too complicated to talk about.

Suddenly I was facing a room full of people and being asked to open up about my life, my attitudes towards wealth and my feelings of guilt and shame around it. It was tough, but the room listened attentively and thanks to all the work of the previous day, the space felt supportive.

In all I probably told at least the broad overview of my life story a good three times over the course of the weekend, thanks to the various exercises, but this would have been less for other participants who were not interviewed.

One of the last exercises we did, and probably the most useful and powerful for me in terms of moving forward, was a ‘fishbowl’.

Six chairs were arranged in a circle in the centre of the room: one for a representative chosen by each of the class caucuses, with two spare chairs that could be occupied at any time by either one of the facilitators or any member of the two lowest capital groups who wanted to support their comrades, or to add to the discussion themselves. This format allowed a large number of people to take part in an ongoing discussion, while keeping the size of the group small. We were able to go a lot deeper into the themes of the workshop than would otherwise have been possible.

After the workshop ended I realised it would take me some time to digest and reflect on some of the things which had come up, and to give feedback to the facilitators. In all it was a workshop that created and held space for some very deep issues to be explored and opened up in a way that was probably as supportive as possible. Some of the themes which came up throughout the weekend were around concepts of worth, inequality and individualism, as well as collectivisation, solidarity and security.

The planning and strategising parts of the second day, though useful, could do with more thought in future workshops, and there wasn’t as much focus on co-operatives as I had expected – I think I had assumed that the workshop would be geared more towards transforming co-operatives, and putting more co-operatively owned infrastructure into the hands of the lower classes, but actually it was more about getting people who are already in co-ops to think about and discuss class dynamics, and probably around three quarters of the people there were in some kind of a co-op.

The space was well held throughout the weekend, and D and Shan had clearly put a lot of time and thought into designing the exercises.

We are looking forward to working with D and Shan to help these discussions to continue and will be co-organising similar workshops around various parts of England in early 2020.

Read D’s account of this and the other workshops he and Shan have been running here

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