No Supermarket: Suma Co-operative

I live in a housing co-operative. Which is awesome, not least because the people I live with try to do things together.

What that means is that every month someone from the co-op orders in bulk from the ethical retailer Suma. Suma is also a co-operative, which means that the business is jointly owned and managed by all the staff. Everyone is paid the same and they work collectively to do all the jobs that need doing (I discuss this mode of business here).

So today (for the first time ever, I’m ashamed to admit) I ordered some food from Suma. This is my shopping list:

  • 80 jasmine green tea bags @ £4.95
  • 1kg of raisins @ £2.95
  • 6kg of porridge oats @ £6.99
  • 12 eggs @ £2.62

Compared to Sainsbury’s, this isn’t bad. You can get 20 jasmine tea bags at Sainsbury’s for about £1, so that’s a touch cheaper at the supermarket. The eggs and the porridge come out at about the same cost. I normally buy Sainsbury’s Basics currents, which are dirt cheap at about £0.60 for 500g (I think), so Suma’s raisins are an expensive upgrade.

Anyway, that should be my breakfast covered for the rest of the month. Now I’ve just got to wait for the delivery on Thursday. At least I don’t have to walk to the shops.

Slave for Hire

I’m not going to write about slaves. I’m going to write about hirelings, people who depend on a wage for their livelihood, people who could not be alive without that wage. Wage slaves.

The abolition of the slave trade made the buying and selling of slaves illegal – and rightly so. But consider this: after buying his slave, a slave-owner would have to continue paying to keep the slave – to care for him, to feed him, to house him, to prevent him from getting hurt, to cure him of illnesses – because the slave was a capital asset. It was in the master’s interest to keep the slave at an operable level of health.

In today’s society, we need only rent the slave. We can pay a small amount of money directly to the slave and it is his responsibility to manage his livelihood. If the slave fails to maintain an operable level of health, if the slave breaks down, then others are ready to fill his place – at no capital cost to the slaver.

Incredibly, this modern state of affairs, post-abolition, is a much better arrangement for the slaver and no better for the slave, offering only the inducement -the illusion – of freedom. If the slave is lucky enough to break out beyond the earning power of a wage slave, then it is true: he may buy his manumission. More likely, however, he will earn only enough to keep slaving away for his master until he breaks down. Then he is done for, he must throw himself on the mercy of his family, his community or the welfare state, a shaming embarrassment.

But, hang on, isn’t that all of us? Aren’t we all slaves for hire?

This probably sounds a little extreme, but two hundred years ago it was a natural response to the introduction of wage labour, the decline of self-employment in artisan trades and the rapid increase in industrialisation. Nowadays, large businesses, corporations and governments represent the most likely source of employment. We sell our freedom hour by hour, day by day, in exchange for money; if we are lucky, enough to subsist.

I am not, of course, making an argument for the return of slavery; there are much better models out there to learn from.

Firstly, there is self-employment in a trade that is of permanent use to society. This is still a good way to guarantee sufficient employment to cover living expenses and the opportunity to save money in addition to this subsistence earning to pay for our dotage.

Secondly, there are worker cooperatives, where the workers participate in the democratic operation of the business and profits are divided among the share-holders: one share for each worker.

Thirdly, there are self-sustaining communities, like Braziers Park in Oxfordshire. Braziers Park is a working farm, an adult education college and a venue for hire. The income generated from these activities support a permanent community of approximately fifteen people all year round. These people do not pay rent to Braziers Park, but rather donate their labour on the farm and in the house. They run the business and are rewarded handsomely with organic locally-grown food, shelter and a vibrant living community.

It could be worth your while calculating whether you are being paid a slave wage or not. If you are paid only the minimum you need to subsist – or less (and this includes the means to support your family) – then you are being paid a slave wage and you would be better off seeking out alternative means of living, such as the examples above. If you are being paid more than the minimum you need to subsist, then that is great – as long as you enjoy the work that you are doing. If you do not, then remember that you are also giving away your freedom and your autonomy, two things that contribute greatly to our happiness as humans. Perhaps consider if you would be better off exchanging a wage-profit for greater autonomy.

I’m comfortable with wage slavery; it is a fact of modern life. But I’m also lucky enough to know it when I see it. I know what I am getting into when I exchange my freedom for money.

Braziers Park Community

At the dog end of summer 2009 I spent two months living and working at Braziers Park, a community hidden away in the Chiltern Hills, just the other side of the river from me. It is a constant source of incredulity for me that I never knew of this place until about a year ago. Now it seems as much a part of my countryside as Wittenham Clumps or The Bull’s Hole.

Visit the Braziers Park website here: http://www.braziers.org.uk/.

About Braziers Park School of Integrative Social Research

Braziers Park isn’t just a community; it is an on-going intellectual social experiment set up by Norman Glaister in 1950. The aim of this experiment is:
“To make concious in ourselves the shape of the process of which we are a part, so that we may facilitate its development more efficiently and harmoniously.”
And this is all done on a small-holding estate in the middle of the Chilterns, where the community members work the land, raise the animals, cook, clean and host courses.

So how have the members – and Braziers Park is 60 years old in 2010 so there have been many and a lot of work has been done – facilitated the development of the process of which they are a part?

The central concept at the heart of Braziers Park is called the Sensory / Resistive method. This basically contends that there are two types of mental activity, the Sensory and the Resistive. Sensory is fond of abstract ideas and cogitation and Resistive is given to executive decision making. Hence, to facilitate the cooperation of these two halves of our nature, Braziers Park has two kinds of meetings: Sensory meetings and Executive meetings.

The Sensory Process

No decision are made in Sensory meetings. This can be very hard for newcomers to understand. It is, essentially, a talking shop. That is not to disparage it either – I love talking shops! People can voice their concerns, their feelings, their ideas and their facts about the topic under discussion. It is a ‘safe place’ for all views because decisions are not made. You could make an outrageous suggestion without fear that it would be laughed out in favour of something more ‘practical’; you could criticise another idea without fear that your criticisms will be made personal – everyone has a cooling off period to cogitate before the Executive meeting and the dreaded decision making.

This is how it all works in theory.

There are a number of problems, however. Different people (as Glaister knew well) are different in their tolerance of Sensory or Resistive processes. Some people get frustrated with the Sensory process because it seems full of air, with no substance. Likewise, some people prefer not to get involved in the dirty business of the Executive meetings and are then surprised when the decisions taken there do not seem to tally with how the topic was discussed at Sensory.

Furthermore, this doubles (at least!) the number of meetings that the community has to gather: one to discuss the topic at Sensory and a second to make a decision at the Executive. Sometimes the topic then has to go back to Sensory for more thinking – and then back again to the Executive!

I am rather fond of the Sensory process, however I am aware that the problems are real and have been cropping up again and again over the last 60 years at Braziers Park. A solution has not been reached, but I wish them all the best in their endeavours and hope to be involved again soon.