How I hitch-hiked across the Atlantic to visit US co-ops: Cath Muller of Radical Routes
Today I’m talking with Cath Muller of Radical Routes, Cornerstone Housing Co-op and Co-operative Business Consultants. This is part 1 of our conversation, about her visit to Catalan co-operatives, and hitch-hiking across the Atlantic to visit US co-ops.
Hi Cath. We want to help build the new, non-extractive economy. I know that you’ve always worked in that economy. What sort of things have you done?
I started by fighting (the extractive economy). I was part of Earth First, an eco-defence, direct action movement, and that was really my introduction to politics and economics. Before I understood how the system works, I thought: ‘oh my goodness, we’re destroying the world’ and so I got involved in things that were trying to stop that. But it became clear very quickly that the forces of capitalism create a narrative around domination, individualism and making as much as you can out of everything and everyone around you, in order to create your own security through money, rather than trying to create the security of living collectively and in tune with nature.
What did that lead to?
It led to an understanding that we have to find other ways of living that are not capitalistic, not individualistic, and that are ecologically sustainable. To me that meant having control and self-sufficiency for communities over how they meet their needs; plus ways of working non-hierarchically that embed a collective ethos. We really are all in it together, and living at the expense of anyone else will make our organisation weaker. So I’ve been particularly interested in non-hierarchical and collective organisations for that reason – combined with a sustainable approach that’s not just about the organisation, but about it’s impact on the wider world and the communities it works with, whether they’re customers or neighbours or suppliers.
What sorts of organisations have you worked for and with, and what sorts of things have you done?
I moved into Cornerstone Housing Co-operative, living communally. It’s in Leeds, I’ve lived there since 1994, we have 2 houses, and there are 14 people altogether. It creates something that I think is important to understand about collective initiatives, which is that because we live together and share a lot of stuff, that actually creates a surplus for us. So as individuals, we wouldn’t be able to afford to live in such beautiful housing, but together we can – we have a nice big lounge, kitchen and gardens. Also as individuals we’d probably have to eat much cheaper food than collectively, with bulk buying – we get organic veg boxes and delicious bread. It means that we don’t have to work all the time. We pay a reasonable rent and we have low living costs, so that means that we don’t have to have 40-hour-a-week jobs to maintain that lifestyle. Beyond that, we started a printing business called Footprint Co-operative, in the cellar of Cornerstone. We started trading in 2000, and Footprint has been in the cellar of the co-op ever since, so doesn’t have to pay rent, which again, generates a surplus for us, because of sharing space. This means that we all have more time than we would if we were working in the capitalist economy.
Both Cornerstone and Footprint are members of Radical Routes, which is a mutual aid network of people who are trying to create radical social change, using co-ops as vehicles for their activities.
Were you a founder member?
No – Radical Routes was founded in the mid-80s, when housing benefit was introduced by Margaret Thatcher, and that enabled for the first time, for people to create a co-operative landlord that could accept benefits-level incomes – because previously, benefits couldn’t be paid to landlords. That created a possibility for autonomous co-operatives. That meant we could be the kinds of co-ops that were really focused on radical social change, rather than just on cheap housing. There are plenty of older housing co-ops, but they have always had to be regulated by the state, and depended on income from the Housing Corporation, as it was then. So they had a lot less autonomy over their living conditions, membership, and what they could charge as rent, whereas autonomous co-ops can do what they like. We have a focus on being affordable and accessible to people who are actively trying to change the world.
So what sorts of things do Radical Routes do?
Radical Routes is a mutual aid network for radical co-operatives, which means that we create a political framework, we have gatherings 4 times per year, and at those gatherings, co-ops can get together and share ideas around how they live and work together, how they manage to interact with capitalism and the state. In the early 90s, Radical Routes started making loans to its member co-ops, and that has continued. This enables the buying of properties for housing co-ops, and then we also help co-ops develop their financial plans; we’ve written publications like How to set up a Housing Co-op, How to set up a Workers’ Co-op, How to set up a Social Centre; at every gathering we train people who come in consensus decision-making and facilitation; we offer financial literacy training. We’ve also been doing lobbying work – so whenever legislation comes in that affects housing co-ops, where it really shouldn’t, because it’s aimed at private landlords, we are able, because of joint forces, to come up with legal frameworks to suggest changes in legislation, to exempt co-ops if possible. All of this is done within a framework of consensus and common ownership. So we really bring that philosophical, political view to the bureaucracy of the state, to try to make it more collective.
We’ve got your booklets on how to set up housing and worker co-ops on our site. So if someone’s thinking of setting up a worker or housing co-op, is Radical Routes a good first port of call?
Definitely. I’d say the booklets are a good first port of call. Nobody at Radical Routes is paid, so we don’t have a huge amount of capacity for being a general advice service, although we do our best. The books are pretty helpful. I’d say Co-operatives UK is a good first port of call, or just do a web search to find co-ops near you. Try contacting them and talking to them. There are also quite a few people in the country involved in giving advice to co-operatives. We call those co-operative development bodies. I’m part of one called Co-operative Business Consultants. We’re scattered around the country – mainly in the north. There are several others, and I’d have to say that co-operators really are the most helpful people, so you’ll be able to have a good conversation about what it is you want to do before you even have the discussion about whether you can afford to pay them. Of course we need to get by, but mostly we just want co-ops to be set up.
Yes, we became a co-op recently, and I just chatted with Mark Simmonds, of Co-op Culture, and he was really helpful, and didn’t even charge us anything. He told us how to do it, and we did it. But Platform 6 has launched recently, hasn’t it? That might be a very useful first point of contact.
Yes, it’s a platform for co-op developers to exchange advice – and co-op developers is a very broad term. It means anyone who’s ever helped anyone else! (laughs). So anyone who’s able to tell you where to find resources, or give you the benefit of their experience. If you want to get involved in this kind of thing, then Platform 6 is a great idea. It’s not necessarily the first port of call for someone who’s not sure whether a co-op is right for them. For ideas, I’d say that Co-operatives UK is the best place to go. I think Platform 6 is more for people in the co-op movement to exchange ideas and ask for advice. Certainly it aims to support the development of the co-op movement. Part of what they want to do is to try to raise money that can be lent to people wanting to set up co-ops or develop their co-ops.
So I know that you’ve had a bit of an adventure recently. Could you just give us an overview of what you did?
Yeah – very quickly – my aim was to tour the US and Canada meeting people involved in radical economic projects. I was particularly interested in how the radical co-ops managed to survive in capitalism and whether any co-ops were managing to engage with social currencies and alternative currencies; plus I was also interested in the Moxey at Work network, which is a network of worker co-operators and advisors, and how they’re managing to keep that network going. The infrastructure of the co-op sector over there, and how it’s supporting itself – that’s what I was interested in.
But, the key element that I think you’re trying to tease out of me is that I don’t want to fly, so I decided to go by sailboat, as a low-carbon way of getting there. I knew that would probably mean going from Spain or the Canary Islands, and it would also mean getting a special visa. So I waited for this special visa in Barcelona for about 2 months, so I spent quite some time researching co-ops in Barcelona as well.
Of which there are a lot, aren’t there?
Catalonia is absolutely full of co-ops and the co-operative spirit. It’s an incredibly inspiring place to be. Their political centre is far more radical than our political centre, so things that feel very radical over here are pretty commonplace over there. So it’s difficult to know what lessons we can learn. You can see how people do things, but you don’t know whether they’d work over here or not, because the mainstream culture is more individualistic and less co-operative here. So we’d have to think of different ways to encourage behaviours here that are not necessary there. After Barcelona I went to the Canary Islands, and that was really exciting as well – again, lots of anarchists, and people fighting evictions, plus anti-gentrification and anti-touristification projects.
Did you get a boat to the Canary Islands as well?
No – because I was so late getting my visa, and as it was so late in the season, I couldn’t find a boat from mainland Spain, so I took a ferry.
But from the Canaries to the States, you hitch-hiked on sailing boats – is that right?
Exactly. Sort of hitch-hiked, rather expensively. The Canaries are where everybody doing transatlantic sailing stops for provisioning and for fixing and painting their boats. So there are lots of people offering and looking for lifts. People could sail alone if they didn’t have to stay awake so much of the time. So people are looking for crew, and you don’t have to be particularly experienced – you just have to be prepared to do your bit. You’ll learn stuff very quickly – you just have to be prepared to stay up at night to do watches. You have to be prepared for being stuck on a boat for 25 days with complete strangers, as getting off is not an option. There are all sorts of interesting dynamics around that.
What sort of tasks did you do?
I was quite sea-sick the whole way. Luckily for me, the boat I was on didn’t have autopilot, so it needed someone to steer 24/7, and as a sea-sick person, what you want to do is to look at the horizon the whole time. You can do that when steering, so I did a lot of steering. The other things you’d expect to be doing are cooking and washing up and cleaning mostly. When you’re sailing across the Atlantic from east to west, you’re travelling mostly with the trade winds, so there’s not as much sailing – as in raising and lowering of sails, or tacking / moving the sails from port to starboard – as on other journeys. So it’s a good starter trip in a way. It’s a lot easier to do that trip than it is to get from England to Spain, for example. The North Sea and Irish Sea can be choppy and terrifying, but the Atlantic, apart from taking longer, is generally pretty benign.
It sounds like such a fantastic trip.
Yes it is. Though I have to be honest – I’m not a sailor, so I didn’t do this trip for fun – I did it because I don’t fly, but I really wanted to go to the States. But it does give you a sense that you don’t need to rely on the corporate world in order to get across the Atlantic, or in order to get anywhere. You just need to know someone with a boat, who’s going to the same place that you want to go to.
Yes, I’ve talked with people who are very anti-corporate, and into sustainability, and yet they still think it’s ok to fly on holiday to Thailand or South America, when a) flying contributes massively to climate change, and it’s going to get much worse over the coming decades, and b) there’s no way to fly without giving money to corporate airlines and the corporate oil industry.
It’s the same as cycling across land. Cycling and walking are pretty much the only way to travel on land without giving vast amounts of money to corporations – and that’s just because of our dependence on fuel. Unless you’re creating your own biofuel somehow, or you have the infrastructure to create some electric-powered car, and the panels that go with it, I don’t see how else you can travel long distances without enriching the corporate sector.
The reason a lot of people want to travel long distances anyway is to get a holiday from the place they live, because it’s not very nice, and they don’t like it very much, so they feel the need to escape from it for a while by going on holiday; and this is instead of building people-friendly and beautiful communities for people to actually live in, so you don’t need to constantly escape them.
That’s definitely one aspect, but people do love travelling. It’s not always just to get away – it’s to experience new things. And I think the way to get around that is not to say that city breaks are the way to go, it’s that we need to incorporate into our culture the capacity for people to take lots of time out of their lives and go to other places and experience other ways of life. Corporate tourism is not ideal, not just because of the travel, but because you don’t really get to experience other cultures.
And the really popular places are becoming hell-holes. The number of people crammed into Venice, for example – it’s just a waste of time going there now.
That’s exactly what I was experiencing in the Canary Islands and in the Caribbean – and also in Barcelona, and in New Orleans. Everywhere there are campaigns against Airbnb, against development of ports and airports, highways, big hotels etc. This is happening everywhere – we’re constantly destroying more and more landscapes to build more and more infrastructure. There were similar experiences in the Caribbean. You’d be on a tiny island, with very low-rise architecture of huts and cabins, and then the giant hotel ship would pull in, like a 20-storey tower-block that dominates the whole island. It’s so bizarre.
- By sharing, we can live much more fulfilling and ‘rich’ lives without using more resources.
- Some places, like Catalonia, are full of co-ops and the co-operative spirit. Their political centre is far more radical than our political centre, so things that feel very radical over here are pretty commonplace there.
- It’s possible to hitch-hike across the Atlantic from the Canary Islands, on private sailing boats, if you’re willing to cook, clean, keep watch and steer.
Find Part 2 here, covering the difference between co-operatives in the US and the UK.
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