Collective Autonomy on the Move
By KIRSTEN BRYDUM
Republished from The Nor’easter
After years of working on projects in San Francisco (SF Really Really Free Market, Dirty Dove Infoshop, AccessCafe), I decided to travel the States to study how others are arranging anarchist economic models. The idea to travel turned into a project called the Collective Autonomy Network (CAN).
Collective Autonomy refers to a strategy: Collectivizing our energy and resources in order to approach autonomy from forces of oppression. It is self-sufficiency achieved through cooperation.
This project has taken me through the Pacific Northwest, the Northeast and the Midwest in search of counter-institutions such as infoshops, free schools, really really free markets, guerrilla gardens, radical health collectives and other projects that are creating a post-capitalist world today. By networking, I hope to show a movement that is more extensive than we realize, and to facilitate research and resource-sharing across distances.
Counter-institutions challenge existing social institutions by directly building alternatives to them. Free schools defy the dominant mode of education by demonstrating that people can come together and share knowledge in a non-competitive and non-commodified environment. Counter-institutions also establish the infrastructural framework for a project to survive beyond its founding members.
The San Francisco Really Really Free Market, for example, happens the last Saturday of every month in Dolores Park, regardless of whether an organizer attends.
Although I do not dismiss the importance of insurrectionary action, this project focuses on the ways we prefigure a world without capitalism. Utopian by design, yes, but conversations and practices that embody how we would arrange space, resources and methods of exchange in a free society are vital if we are truly seeking social change.
Anarchist economics involve sharing resources in order to become autonomous from the dominant system (see: The Dirt Palace, artist-owned collective in Providence), collectivizing energy to better meet the needs of our communities (see: Philadelphia Childcare Collective), and de-commodifying those needs (see: Divine Bicycle Church, Philadelphia). Anarchist economics move us from competition to cooperation, from selling to giving, and from expecting the government to care for us to doing it ourselves.
In describing our major social institutions and alternatives to them, I have been using the categories of food, housing, healthcare, education and markets/resource exchange systems.
The Collective Autonomy movement responds to the dominant institutions by building institutions informally based on a gift economy in which people form collectives or projects in order to facilitate free or low-cost access to resources in a certain community.
For example, radical health collectives formulate to provide (generally alternative) medicine to people with lack of funds. Food not Bombs volunteers salvage wasted food and serve free vegetarian meals to hungry people. Guerrilla gardens and urban farms transform abandoned lots into vital, food-producing land (see: Mill Creek Farm, Philadelphia). Free schools utilize the already-existing wisdom in each community to provide free education to whoever wants to learn (see: Albany Free School). Really really free markets emphasize the joy of giving without the expectation of return (see: Alton Brighton Really Really Free Market).
These types of projects thrive on a local level. These are community-building projects that arise out of people self-organizing to better meet the needs of their own community. The CAN seeks to connect an intentionally decentralized movement. Autonomy is important, but if we were more connected then we wouldn’t constantly reinvent the same strategies with which to thwart capital.
If we could maintain this decentralization while communicating and sharing knowledge with each other, then will we start to see our efforts as part of something happening all over the country, and we will begin to understand our strength.
Descriptions and contact information for projects in the Northwest, Northeast and Midwest (Southeast coming soon) can be found at www.collectiveautonomy.net. The site is a wiki, so contribute your own projects to the network.
Some highlights from the Northeast region (a more comprehensive list is on the Web site):
I. New York City
A. 123 Community Space – Bed Stuy, Brooklyn. Community center and infoshop. Formed by four grassroots organizations: In Our Hearts, Freegan Bike Workshop, Misled Youth Network and Anarchist Black Cross. Programs: Garden work parties, silkscreening printshop, letter writing to prisoners, bike repair, Picture This! (Kid’s photography project).
B. Rock Dove Collective – radical health, access to healthcare and accountability. Developing an Alternative Provider Network.
C. Freegan.info – Web site and collective describing “freegan” theory and encouraging “freegan” practice. Aims at providing food, bikes and clothes to the activist community. Hosts a full calendar of events every month.
A. Borrowed Time – Sober, smoke-free arts and events space. Free store, movies, meetings, art shows, potlucks, board games, costume parties, skillshares and more.
B. Philadelphia Childcare Collective – Providing free childcare, as a political act, to parents at ongoing meetings and events
C. The Divine Bicycle Church – Bike repair co-op. Tools, advice and recycled parts available.
D. Mill Creek Farm - Volunteer-run urban farm. Makes fresh, local, organic produce available to low-income and senior residents of the neighborhood by keeping their prices competitive and through programs like EBT and other welfare-like coupons.
A. South Side Community Land Trust City Farm
B. The Dirt Palace – All-women artist collective, owned by two collective members; located in Olneyville. Only public facility is the silkscreening lab. Film animation studio, music room, sewing room, library, beautiful kitchen. Hosts Books Through Bars.
C. Food Not Bombs – Serves Sundays 1-4 in Armory Park, in need of more volunteers.
A. Lucy Parsons Center – Radical Bookstore, Infoshop and Meeting space. Hosts a calendar of events.
B. Alton Brighton Neighborhood Assembly – Local community self-governing; organizing Really Really Free Markets.