I just spent about a week in Pittsburgh, visiting people and playing music. Before I left I was feeling a little discouraged, for various reasons, but partly because of the lack of collective adventures in my life in Providence. At home, we share food and house chores collectively, with mixed feelings about its success from housemates. But as far as we are aware, among our peers we are one of very few houses that shares food collectively and has a house meeting when our unity starts to break apart. Recently we had a conversation about what it means to be a collective, and how our thoughts affect the choices and needs we have in our living situations. Then I went to Pittsburgh, where most of my friends now own their houses, many collectively, whether they be a more traditional family unit or a rag tag team of punks rebuilding a cheap house that was falling apart. We talked about sharing living spaces, collective ideology, and what does family mean when we buy houses in non-traditional ways.
I was simultaneously reading a book about two Catholic nuns who fought with the Vatican in the 1980s around abortion rights issues. Throughout the text they talk about how they lived collectively and the role of dissenting voices within the church. The book was co-authored by two former nuns who spent a great portion of their lives living and working together running a community center. They were activists for keeping abortion safe and legal when abortion was first becoming under attack by the growing right wing, which was based out of the Catholic church. They hold a strong belief that abortion should be at the discretion of the woman alone seeking one, without any intervention from the church or state in attaining one; a position that now even many pro-choice women are not so strong about.
Anyway, two things came up in my visit in Pittsburgh and reading the book; reproductive choices and the structuring of collective spaces. In radical and punk circles, often people view parenting as a contradiction to their beliefs in social change. I’ve heard many people, including myself at one time, argue that having children would take away the free time needed to work on collective projects aimed at creating alternatives to the system. When we talk about reproductive rights, the emphasis is often on abortion, keeping it safe and legal, and that it should be this empowering thing for people who are undesirably pregnant. But I’ve also heard people go so far as to decide that they think anyone choosing to have kids, as a result of a planned or unplanned pregnancy, are “breeders”. I fully support anyone’s decision to have or not to have children of their own. But to judge other people for that choice and to solely create spaces which are unfriendly to children I think is a weakness in creating true lasting community structures that aren’t just youth focused.
One of the strongest examples, to me, of my friends’ collective living is one family I know in Pittsburgh. Not only in how they share responsibility for each other in the household functioning, but also in the way that their house is always open to their friends, with children, without, single and coupled. They welcome houseguests and friends at most any hour, surprised and planned. They don’t see other people as distractions from their own ability to work on their projects; yet they lead highly active lives, playing music, working on visual art, films, etc. Many of the single friends I know want a lot of control over their lives and physical space, view children as undesirable distractions and often allow their own individual needs to take precedence over working problems out in a thoroughly collective manner.
I believe that we have internalized the intense individualism of the US culture to the point of failing in many of the collective ventures we attempt. I believe that when people become parents, perhaps instinctively, we become forced to care for another human being to the same level as we care for ourselves, and in that way actually become better in understanding and prioritizing other peoples’ needs in more equal level as our own. So I would argue that many of us may actually become better at fighting for justice when we are working not just for our own future, but for the future of people we are raising. Also, the reality is that most living creatures have some instincts towards reproduction, so it is no surprise that so many people end up raising children. So any alternative world that we create must involve roles for children, as well as aging folks.
How this all relates together, is that as more people I know buy houses, either as individuals or collectively, issues will surface around our ideas of what collectives mean, whether our spaces are youth-friendly, and what it is we are working towards. I believe strongly in creating structures that encourage communication, dissent, a multitude of ideas and possibilities. We often assume things about each other on the belief that we have all searched out punk, anarchism, radical spaces for the same reasons and with the same visions. But we haven’t, and exploring the differences between us will only strengthen our similarities, and our ability to create more sustainable spaces. I believe we need fewer temporary autonomous zones and more emphasis on long-term structures; we need to break away from solely youth based movements. Historical examples of strong collective, anarchist structures included children and old folks. I believe that it is the disastrous emphasis on the individual that weakens American dissent movements. So we need to encourage dialogue, dissent and struggle among ourselves to figure out what we are all fighting for, and how to incorporate all our visions. Anger and frustration are just as important as unity of thought, and we can’t shy away from the struggles which come from fighting against our own, often conflicting, self interests.