An article from Do or Die Issue 10. In the paper edition, this article appears on page(s) 185-188.
In the last few years, there has been a small wave of new radical social centres in Britain. A number of people involved in Earth First! and the direct action scene have been involved in opening these co-operatively owned and managed spaces. Some of these places are up and running, others are still in the early stages. As is healthy in any movement, there are different views on this subject. Here we present two different pieces, one critical of these social centres and another from someone heavily involved in one of the new projects.
Mortgages, loans, investment, property development, licence applications, accountancy, endless legislation, business plans, backbiting, membership lists, the dead time absorbing activists and the debt, oh the debt!
Welcome to legal social centres! Have a pleasant stay. The Cowley Club in Brighton just opened. It's a posh looking bar. It has a bookshop, the prices are cheaper than normal, the front door of the building is made of Indonesian hardwood (Solidarity South Pacific?!) and the plants were bought at Ikea. It has no dedicated meeting space (yet), only the bar area - revealing its priorities in the design. In themselves, legal social centres are what they are; a social enterprise - cafés, bars, possible gathering spaces. But the danger is that, springing up on the back of the direct action movement, they will divert activist time and energy into an essentially non-radical and liberal project. A project perceived, by dint of association, as a radical social space.
The Cowley Club is not the only new legal social centre. There is the Sumac Centre in Nottingham, which has filled a community space left behind by the now defunct Rainbow Centre. The 1 in 12 Club in Bradford is a longstanding example of a legal club. The recent social centre boom has taken a lot of time and energy in the last couple of years, and caused some tension amongst those involved (directly and indirectly). In a way, people feel they have had to take sides as people's politics are thrown into sharper relief. An example of this is some of the discussions that have emerged, the sudden imposition of legal hurdles and ownership allowing more liberal concepts to push into the agenda: should people be paid or not, the merits of CCTV, how the need to appear to be a legitimate café and drinking hole means that people should perhaps refrain from offering too many hardcore books in the library or bookshop or from holding radical meetings or events 'for a while'.
The Sumac Centre considered asking people not to hold Earth First! Winter Moot meetings there due to the threat of not getting their bar license. We were collectively requested to respect the fact that the Sumac Centre was in a vulnerable position and did not want to be too obviously connected with the Moot. While I respect many of the radical people involved in the creating and running of the space, this request implied that we were obliged to have some allegiance to it as a project, even though we had not been able to use it for the purpose for which we thought it had partly been created. Instead there is a sense of coercion attached to these centres, from 'drink here rather than elsewhere, comrade', through to 'don't set up free squatted spaces that might compete'. These notions coupled with walking on eggshells around the demands of legislation results in policing. An insidious self-policing of radical agendas by those more willing to make concessions, creating division and fucking around with grassroots support - no 'room at the inn' for autonomous groups who potentially compromise the legal status of the centre.
How do we fight against property speculation and ownership, gentrification, and corporate public space with a legal social centre that has more in common with these things than not? How can we engender radicalism in our society if people's first point of contact with non-mainstream politics is a space built on compromise, which exists only because the state says it can? The bricks and mortar, the signatures on legal and financial papers, the SWP-style membership structure, the boredom on the faces of volunteer staff paying off the bank, the ghetto - all these things that come with toeing the line, turn our politics into rhetoric. Running a legal social centre is, at best, the equivalent of working for an NGO.
It may be 'green' money that has enabled people to build them, but pursuing social change through the mainstream means being forced to acquire 'skills' applicable to the terms and conditions of mainstream ventures, it means creating a respectable business to gain the confidence of investors. What does any of this have to do with a movement in revolt against the machinery of capital and which fights the idea of exclusion and powerlessness based on social, political and economic leverage?
But, we hear the Management Committees cry, these centres are for the people, they are welcome, it is their space too. Well sort of, but let's take the idea of membership. If meetings do take place in The Cowley Club, for example, and run into bar time, those attending the meeting must sign in to the club. We complain about a lack of security in our culture and then set up formalities requiring people to put their names and addresses to political activity. The idea also clearly promotes the feeling that other people are in charge of your access to social space, either alienating you from that space because you aren't a member or from those outside the space if you are. Furthermore, buying £400,000 buildings is not something everyone can do, it does not empower other people to do the same, it only perpetuates the idea that some people are consumers dependent on the product of those, the elite, who have the power and connections to access resources that most people can't. People can 'work' for the centres, they can get nominated into the inner circle, the decision-making body, but how challenging, radical or empowering a process is that? A squatted social centre or an action can inspire us and we can do it ourselves too.
If we think we need 'access points' for new people to be inspired by our political perspective, then surely this is best achieved through practising direct action - not through acquiring crippling mortgages, obeying a myriad of regulations set by the state and spending years doing DIY of the conventional sort. The energy that has gone into legal social centres during what has been an action-quiet couple of years might well have found other avenues for action had a lot of very energetic people not been engaged in property development. And it doesn't stop when the centre is 'up and running', as the mantra goes.
My best experience of a social centre (A-Spire in Leeds) is my counter-argument. I like A-Spire - a lot. And although I haven't personally been to them, the OK Café in Manchester and Radical Dairy in London are projects that through their process and their inherent conflict with the state have been truly radical and desirable spaces. Squatted spaces are temporary autonomous zones reclaimed from property owners and councils. They explode through the cracks in the system and when they are crushed - often forcibly - they leave pieces of themselves everywhere, in the hearts of the people who went there, in new behaviour, new alliances, new thoughts. They are a practical attempt to get free from the state, to be free from the compromises and creeping obedience of a legal space.
Everyone there holds the squatted space together, with no formal membership, no nominations, no rulebook, just based on a self-determined responsibility for each other and the people who may use or simply neighbour the space. As a radical project, the group process of working together to choose and crack a building, open it up, decide what it's going to do and run it until an eviction, develops collectivity, responsibility, mutuality and autonomy. It has no management committee, just a bunch of people who've come together, it does not have to make money, no one gets paid for anything, there are no legal rules or bureaucratic strangleholds limiting what can be done with the space beyond those we internally discuss and evaluate. After much discussion about whether to be selling anything at all, A-Spire had a really cheap bar with proceeds going direct to various radical projects (not to 'pay off debts and the mortgage') but you could bring your own too, it had a donations-café (with skipped and stolen food), a free shop, an indoor skating ramp, an art space, and many meeting spaces. It was radical to a level that I believe a legal social centre can never be.
It is radical because the squatted social centre endeavours to get to the heart of the matter by removing itself from questions of legality and compliance. The space is laid bare. The people that occupy the space are laid bare. Each squat, each A-Spire or OK Café or Radical Dairy is a new world. Psychologically, the space is liberating. It is an action. It is about clearing a way through formal structures and accepted ways of organising social spaces. It is about how we relate to each other outside the dominant system. It is hard enough to explore fundamental questions of social transformation, process, mutuality, inclusivity, and hard enough to break down ingrained power structures and behaviours in a squatted space which has gone a long way to clearing its head of legal constraints and practical ownership, but it is even harder to find those the questions if you still shuffling along head and shoulders bowed under the added weight of legal and state apparatus or to reach anything resembling autonomy.
The squatted social centre is radically politicising in and of itself. As radicals, we try to challenge or bypass laws, regulations, routine, hierarchy. Not only this, but I would argue that by desiring and seeking permanence through legal social centres, in a sense we collaborate with the system. Every time we leave the state behind, every time we accept that what we have created in a squatted space may get moved on, we confirm our refusal of the system because we understand that the state will only allow to be permanent that which is compliant, corrupt, of no threat.. By accepting transience, by re-evaluating a desire for permanence in a world we wish to move on from, we expand our ability and desire to transform the world as it is into what we want it to be. The temporary autonomous zone is characterised by an intensity, militancy and dynamism only possible under those circumstances. For the time it exists, it is everything - not a daily or weekly shift in a permanent space.
In my experience, people are very different in a squatted social centre. They are more open and creative, more communicative and questioning. While doing the bar at A-Spire one night I spent a long time talking to a young guy who'd just left prison and heard that A-Spire was happening (this is a very important word - a legal social centre doesn't happen!), that it was pretty cool and decided to give it a go even though he didn't know anyone involved. He'd never experienced anything like it and was really excited. I was excited too and we talked for hours about our lives, and politics and the politics of the space. I don't hear those conversations happening at the Cowley Club, and I'm pretty sure that had it been a legal social centre with regular clientele and sign-up book, this guy might well not have come in, would certainly not have been that excited by it and I doubt whether I would have communicated with him in the way I did. There would have been less to talk about for a start. A job is so much less exciting and dynamic than an action.
That intensity creates an explosion of political understanding and bonding that is harder to achieve in a permanent, legal space. When the last A-Spire was evicted, it brought everyone together, it introduced people to crackdown by the state. It wasn't rhetoric, it wasn't an eviction described to someone new to evictions over morning coffee or read in a book. It was a clear and actual political situation, an experience of 'us against them', inspiring solidarity. It was difficult yet invigorating. If the Cowley Club or the Sumac Centre got closed down, I believe it would divide rather than unify. We would probably see blame put on the heads of other people in the community rather than on the authorities. It would be a cause of resentment between those who have put money and work into it and those who have 'transgressed', who have 'disrespected' the space.
To me, the legal social centre is a worrying development, selling the illusion of a politicised and radicalising public space when in fact it can by its very nature be nothing of the sort. It poses about in a hoody and mask keeping pretty well clear of the front line. The desire for accessible space is the same desire that underpins autonomous, squatted spaces - to reach out beyond the ghetto. But setting down roots in polluted ground is not going to develop healthy politics or healthy communities. They are a sell-out and a buy-in. We already compromise on so many things (from a place to live, to schooling our kids). Surely we can conspire to at least keep our public spaces radical and admit that if we have to make that many compromises to keep them, then they're probably not worth having?
Disclaimer: This piece probably contains factual errors, omissions, wild sweeping statements, vicious lies and blissful abuse of punctuation! It's an opinion piece. In terms of the ethos and spirit of what I think 'we' stand for and what I would like to see in society in general, I stand by the caution and criticism expressed in this piece regarding the inherent liberalism and dangers of entering establishment space. A culture of tense whispers has grown up around the recent legal social centres: I hope this article will open up space for more discussion about what legal social centres should expect from the communities they demand energy and allegiance from, and I hope that we can distance ourselves enough from these extremely stressful and confusing projects to reflect more deeply on the political character of the spaces we are creating.
The last couple of years have seen a few social centres with an anarchist and radical ecological outlook opening up by buying their premises, with other similar projects aiming to open soon. These spaces have been created to fulfil a need that has been felt for a long time - the need for social spaces under our collective control.
What goes on there can be as varied as the people involved, but a few current uses that spring to mind are - cheap bar, cheap café, library, infoshop, space for meetings, gigs, film shows, kids' events, self defence sessions, office space, self-managed housing, advice and solidarity for benefit and work problems, and not least an easily accessible way for people to wander in off the street and find all this!
So far, so good, but there are two main ways of getting a building to house these kind of activities. The first is to buy one, as has started happening recently, the second is to squat one. All things being equal, it's obviously a better idea to just occupy what we need than it is to borrow loads of money and buy somewhere. Unfortunately though, all things are not equal, and there are different problems with both options.
The problems involved in buying a building are fairly obvious. Typically, the buildings have been bought with money from 'green' or 'ethical' banks, co-operative support groups such as Radical Routes, and small loans from groups and individuals, all of which involves a few people dealing with a lot of bureaucratic bollocks. There are various state agencies to deal with, although this is mostly during the renovations stage (fire and building standards regulations etc.). Once the centre's open there's much less of this, with the two main exceptions of keeping accounts, and alcohol sales. For the latter you need a licence, you have to keep to certain opening hours (unless you're somewhere where lock-ins are common of course) and if the bar runs as a members club people have to give a name and address when they join, and sign in with that name when they come for a pint. Most importantly though, there can be a need to make a certain amount of money every month to pay the debts off (although this can come largely, or entirely, from rental income from housing, i.e. probably from housing benefit).
There are also problems with squatting the spaces we need, the main one being that whatever you do isn't going to be there very long! Before getting involved in a (hopefully) more permanent space, I'd been part of lots of squatted social centres, which lasted for an average of four to six weeks each. While they were there, they were often great places, and sometimes shitholes, but I got very frustrated by the constant moves. Temporary Autonomous Zones (TAZs) sound good on paper, but I'm a lot less keen on them when waiting for angry builders and cops to show up first thing in the morning, after shifting everything across town in shopping trolleys, four weeks after you last went through the process. The first time it's an adventure, the tenth time it's a pain in the arse. Inevitably, this kind of hassle means that there are long periods when there's no space of this kind around at all. When the space does exist there's usually no incentive to develop the building much - if it's going to be evicted soon, why bother to fix the toilets, or make it wheelchair accessible? And if somebody wants to sort out a venue for a gig, or a talk in a month's time, the best we can say is that there might be somewhere for it... Of course none of this is a problem with squatting itself, it's more a reflection of the current weakness of the movements that squat buildings. Resistance movements in other times and places have been able to take and hold the spaces they needed, and that is something I want to see developing here and now. Squatting in the current situation is certainly one way of trying to move towards this, but it's not the only way.
Some problems can potentially arise with any social centre, whether it's squatted or not. For a start, there's always some people who have the time, inclination, and energy to put more into a centre (or any other project) than most, and it's hard to run things in a way that means these people aren't seen as the de facto leaders. Certainly, having no formal structures is no guarantee that this situation won't arise. The fear of repression causing a more or less subtle self-policing within centres can also be a problem, whether it's fear of losing a licence, or fear of provoking an eviction. I've heard similar sentiments expressed in squats, other social centres and road camps, and it's a tendency that we should beware of - while it's not always clever to shout about what we're doing, these kind of considerations shouldn't put us off doing things that we'd otherwise want to do. Another common problem is the ghettoisation of social spaces, whether deliberate or unintentional. Creating spaces where we can put some of our ideas into practice also means there are more possibilities for reconnecting radical politics to the working class communities around us. Not so much by 'getting our ideas across', but by providing a way for different people pissed off with the way things are to meet, talk and act together, and a resource for people to explore their own ideas. Obviously, this can only happen in social centres if people come to them, and centres need to be welcoming. In my experience it's not class war or riot posters on the walls that put most people off, it's feeling like you need to have a certain haircut, or be a certain age, or be middle class (to give a few common examples) that excludes people. Nor does exclusivity have much to do with legality - squats can be accessible places on the high street; just as bought buildings can be exclusive hangouts for a particular scene.
I'd like nothing better than to see the emergence of a movement strong enough to occupy the spaces it needed and keep them for as long as they were of use. But that movement undeniably isn't here now. What is here now is a movement that needs space for its activities, space for living our lives. Sometimes that space is squatted and temporary, sometimes it's in co-operatives and less temporary. I don't see a conflict between the two - more stable bases should be a way of fomenting and co-ordinating action, including squatting. At the moment, they're not likely to conflict, because squats don't last long enough to 'compete' - if squats do become able to fulfil the same functions as more long term centres, then I'll be the first to celebrate and throw the mortgage repayment forms in the bin!
Autonomous Centre of Edinburgh
17 West Montgomery Place
Edinburgh EH7 5HA
Tel: 0131 557 6242
Draws together many campaigns for social and ecological issues into a revolutionary struggle to overthrow capitalism!
The Cowley Club
12 London Road
Brighton BN1 4JA
Social centre in the heart of Brighton with members bar, vegan café and radical bookshop. Has regular events.
Rants about Radical Space
62 Fieldgate Street
London E1 1ES
Tel: 020 7377 9088
Collectively run building providing computers, roof garden, reference library and space for non-hierarchical projects for radical social change.
245 Gladstone Street
Nottingham NG7 6HX
Tel: 0845 458 9595
Vegan café, bar, radical information, resource library and space for radical events.
56 Crampton Street
London SE17 3AE
Radical bookshop, anarchist archive, wholefood co-op and bike workshop.
Kebele Community Centre
14 Robertson Road
Bristol BS5 6JY
Tel: 0117 939 9469
Ex-squatted social centre with café, bike workshop, anarchist library, housing co-op and more.
1 in 12 Club
21-23 Albion Street
Bradford BD1 2LY
Tel: 01274 734160
Anarchist-managed social centre with cheap beer, punk gigs, information and resources.
3-5 Donegal Lane
Tel: 028 902 44640
Anarcho-punk social centre that's been going since 1984. Includes a café, gig space, practice room, food co-op, recording studio, arts studio etc.
The Initiative Factory
29 Hope Street
Tel: 0151 709 2148
Club run on co-operative principles by sacked Liverpool Dockers. Profits go towards an employment-training centre.
The Autonomy Club
84b Whitechapel High Street
London E1 7QX
Tel: 020 7247 9249
New social centre in the East End sharing the same building as the long-running Freedom Press bookshop, distro and publishers.
We haven't listed squatted social centres because they move and change frequently. For information on these, you could try contacting the London Social Centres Network:
Discussion list: email@example.com
Events list/newsletter: firstname.lastname@example.org