Promoting and Protecting the Spirit of Co-operatives

The rendezvous was Café Toronto in Crellestrasse, an area well known to many as the district where Marlene Deitrich partied and entertained her fans and where the first gay bar in Germany was established. Now an upmarket part of Berlin, it radiates Berliner chic.

Elisabeth Voss is a high achieving, shining star of social change, championing many worthy principles over many years. She describes herself as a business economist and publisher in the field of solidary economy. Her web address is
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The focus of this conversation was on affordable housing in Germany and her interest in what is happening in that area in Australia.

Elizabeth is, amongst other things, a founding member of The Network for Self-Management and Self-organisation (NETZ für Selbstverwaltung und Selbstorganisation) and the author of the book Signs of a Solidarity Economy ¡Another Economy is possible! (Wegweiser Solidarische Ökonomie ¡Anders Wirtschaften ist möglich!)

But to backtrack a bit ….
By way of introduction to Elizabeth Voss, Cath Muller, a fellow-presenter at the ‘Seminar on Collaborative Housing and Community Resilience’ conference in Leeds, in the UK, kindly linked us via email noting our shared interest in co-operatively owned housing/property in common ownership.

Cath and Giselle at LILAC Cohousing in Leeds, UK in April
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Cath is herself an intense, intelligent and energetic worker in the co-operative movement. Her email signature includes this quote by Maurice Brinton:
Class society has a tremendous resilience, a great capacity to cope with ‘subversion’, to make icons of its iconoclasts, to draw sustenance from those who would throttle it.

Cath works for Radical Routes, a network of social change cooperatives founded in 1988, and also for from Cornerstone Housing Co-op where she lives and works in a small printing business operating from the basement. She is actively working to change the work – money – power dynamic and her life, participation and work-exchange approach reflects her work and her work reflects her life.

Radical Routes is a network of radical co-ops in the UK. RR supports the co-operative ideals of people controlling their own housing and work through co-ops but also specifically supports radical co-ops – those opposed to capitalist systems of hierarchy, exploitation and “money as power‟. RR is a “secondary co-op‟ – a co-op whose 35 members are themselves co-ops, which in turn have individual members.

The Vision, Mission and Values are inspiring and reflect the core spirit of cooperatives depicting well the goals and potential held within.

Radical Routes aspires to see a world based on equality and co-operation, where people give according to their ability and receive according to their needs, where work is fulfilling and useful and creativity is encouraged, where decision making is open to everyone with no hierarchies, where the environment is valued and respected in its own right rather than exploited.

Its mission is to support people in collectively taking co-operative control of their housing, work, education and leisure for need not profit, free from organisational hierarchy and based on mutual support not competition.
In so doing, to reduce reliance on and provide a radical alternative to exploitative capitalist economic and social structures and to create a horizontal network of secure bases from which to challenge the existing capitalist system and encourage others to do so.

The values held by Radical Routes are
Co-operation and mutual aid: sharing skills and resources for mutual benefit. Direct action, DIY and being the change you want to see. Recognising the inequalities, privileges and power hierarchies that exist in society and working to challenge them. Participatory decision making and the use of consensus. Ecological thinking, recognising the intrinsic value of the wider environment and the interconnectedness of natural and social systems. Voluntary association of members, and autonomy within their own co-ops. Commitment, both to membership and the long-term need for change. Solidarity, with the network and with wider struggles. Common ownership and common wealth.

Hear, hear!

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Cath also helped with the introduction and tuning in to Elizabeth Voss by making available the 2008 Report from Netz Berlin – “Summary of the Cross-country radical housing conference”, Berlin (June 08) – where she and Elizabeth first connected. This gave some idea of some of the projects and mechanisms in Northern Europe for collectivising property. The conference was set up by Netz and the Berlin/Brandenburg Centre of Excellence for Self-Management and Co-operation and the report described different models including the Mietshäuser Syndicat’s Apartment House style with which Elizabeth has a close association.

Mietshäuser Syndikat is a(nother) model which grew out of the squatter’s movement and is in some ways similar to Radical Routes. The organisation supports self-governance and aims to prevent the re-privatising of commonly owned houses. It functions as a nationwide networking association that links 37 housing coops and 30 prospective coops together to encourage exchange and solidarity between the coops.
All coops own themselves through their own house GmbH (private company with limited liability) that is made up of two shareholders – the registered society (coop) and Mietshäuser Syndikat. The coops are autonomous in their decision-making and organisation, except in case of a house sale (or amendment in constitution and how to utilise profits). Here the Mietshäuser Syndikat has 49% voting right, so in case of a house sale, both parties have to agree.”

This report did help introduce the work of Elizabeth Voss as did a look at her website for the Netzkraft Movement. The following quote gives a sense of where Ms Voss is coming from.

The decentralized – autonomous concept of the Netzkraft Movement
Act long-term
Social commitment rarely has immediate effects. However, intellectual energy does not get lost when it is passed on to other people: Every idea, every action leaves its trace on those who receive it; it becomes part of their store of memories and experience. They will be able – often much later – to create new ideas which otherwise would not have been generated, or influence actions which otherwise would have developed differently. In cases where their commitment remains without a directly obvious result, nobody should, resign in view of the magnitude of the global problems or underestimate their own potential. All that matters is the long-term action of the many people involved in a variety of fields!
Just as in all the great citizens’ movements in the past, these committed people have a pioneer role to play. Through a gradual process of networking, they will be able to initiate a broad fundamental movement. There are people who are able to move others so that things get moving.
If we don’t act – who will?
Politicians and political parties alone are incapable of solving major global problems in the long run. They are too much engaged in the changing demands of daily politics, individual pressure groups and the national interests of their country. So they often don’t act in the interest of future generations or the vast majority of people living on Earth.
On the other hand, parties and politicians who are democratically elected, which means they are influenced by the public, are the only ones who – in their function as managers – are able to put the necessary laws into effect and take other actions needed to guarantee our survival. Only if they can rely on the will and support of most of their voters – which means only in those cases where those people demand corresponding steps clearly and loudly – will they consider the public welfare more important than any short-term objectives or individual interests.
It is difficult for people in non-democratic countries to change bad political developments and contribute to the solution of global problems: There is often a high personal risk in political action. People in the poorer countries of our Earth often have to concentrate their energy on regional questions of survival. In addition, parties and politicians there have less worldwide influence than those of the rich states.
But also in the rich countries, most of the citizens are so busy with their personal interests or so discouraged due to the extent of global problems that they don’t succeed in taking any actions to fight against them.
Many people who have not previously been active will join a broad movement which looks promising. The true challenge comes earlier, in the ability to work for the growth of a movement before it has come noticeable. It is encouraging to see how many people at numerous places on Earth are socially or politically active. It all depends on the readiness of those persons and groups who have already been active to combine forces. If we don’t act together – who will?

So, a convivial meeting with Elizabeth Voss took place in Café Toronto on a cool, overcast Saturday in Berlin. Elizabeth breezed in full of smiles and we got straight to the point.

The discussion spanned the scenario in Australia and the current situation in Berlin and Germany where there are “a lot of fights around housing, because more and more new cooperatives are only possible for people with much money”. But, said Elizabeth, the housing-movements are going forward.

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Elizabeth’s work interests have long been focussed on small alternative co-ops and worker co-ops. She touched on Mondragon which was started in 1956 and is now experiencing a revitalisation of the co-operative spirit.

Both Cath Muller and Elizabeth Voss are concerned about protecting co-ops as much as helping them get going. The commerce and individualistic environment swirls around co-ops in a world still infected with economic rationalism – a sad hang-over from the last century. There is a move to squash co-ops which are somehow perceived to be a threat to the mainstream real estate ownership models.

This political climate is really servicing the privileged and creating housing that is increasingly out of reach of not just poor people, but also the middle class and most certainly their children.

Within the difficulty of this and general lack of understanding and absence of creative thinking and innovation, some groups are committed to build the co-op movement. Consideration of radical ideas is being undertaken. There is desperation in the air.

Elizabeth discussed the Mietshäuser Syndikat which
“promotes self-organized living – solidarity-based economy! … provides advice to self-organized house projects interested in the Syndikat’s model invests in projects so that they can be taken off the real estate market helps with its know-how in the area of project financing initiates new projects.”

The financing formula is along the lines of
• 10% from people in the group
• 20% loans from other people
• 60 – 70% loans from banks
And others giving a guarantee.

In parts of Europe, in spite of the concerted opposition and general reluctance, some good strong and persistent work has accomplished a certain receptivity to co-ops. Banks do lend to co-ops.

There are innovations and radical solutions being thought out and fought for in Germany. This is reflected in the success of the Mietshäuser Syndikat which has now achieved more than 90 housing projects representing about 90,000 households big and small who are buying in for a around €1000 per square meter. There are many co-ops of different sizes. The size of the group depends on what it is possible. Some new co-ops are very interesting.
“Sometimes” said Elizabeth, “members don’t understand what it means to be in a co-op.”

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Organised in sub-groups, some founded after the breaking down of the Berlin wall, some co-ops are given lots of autonomy and asked “What do you want?” Some want services. Some want to be fully self-organised. Interestingly, there can also be different models under the one co-op.

Maintenance is usually in the contract and is the responsibility of the association. But for some of the bigger alternative co-ops that can have more than twenty houses there is a big problem looming of who is responsible. In some cases, no-one is taking responsibility and there is no money in the bank for contingencies. A very worrying situation.

Elizabeth emphasises the importance of abiding by the rules of the legal structure and says the first step is determining Vision and Values. In the case of buying of shares, the question is who can afford it and who’s in and who’s stepping up to take responsibility. To be a member of the group might only be a dollar / euro but there may or may not also be equity shares. Elizabeth talked about the need for learning about the different cooperative models possible including mixed structures and finding the common ground for the people that comprise the group.

Elizabeth campaigns for co-ops. “Don’t Sell Out the Community” – and promotes a petition calling for: “Hands off our co-ops – They compete fairly”. Her T-shirt says “Stop Selling the Neighbourhood”

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Tonight she is off to a party of young people who invited her to be a speaker for ten or fifteen minutes. They came back to her twice to confirm each time requesting the length of her talk be extended … to half and hour and then to an hour. She is very much looking forward to it. Her main message is “What do you want?”

Elizabeth really related to the question “Whose intention are you living?” and we laughed.

Elizabeth Voss has worked as a business economist and a journalist in Berlin, written a book “Guide Solidarity Economy: Not Business as Usual is possible!” and run a blog on Postwachstumsgesellschaft or Degrowth Society. Her subjects are solidarity economies, cooperative enterprises, home projects and self-organization in the economy and society. She is now running a consultancy promoting and protecting housing co-operatives in Germany.

Both Elizabeth and Cath are bona fide “holders of the flame”. They are each committed to the societal change they know is possible. Both work with determination and enthusiasm building on what they have each already helped happen with their certainty and optimism.

Guiding lights in the world of Housing Coops, Elizabeth Voss and Cath Muller are two examples of what dedicated people can do. They are in good company with many others equally deserving of such praise but these two figured prominently in this study tour and the significance of their work to the Australian scenario warrants this attention.

The exchange of information was valuable and the enthusiastic connection with these fellow travellers was invaluable.

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About Giselle Wilkinson - 4allsentientbeings

Environmental conservation, community and cooperatives have been enduring threads in my life. Promoting sustainable lifestyles and more lately, focussing on restoring a Safe Climate, is work expressed predominantly through organisations such as The Sustainable Living Foundation (which I co-founded in 1999 - current President) and the others listed as links below. I am some way into a professional doctorate with MIECAT on "Mobilising Whole Communities to Restore a Sustainable Environment" and have in recent years moved into MURUNDAKA – a (more) sustainable, (more) affordable co-housing community / housing cooperative in Heidelberg, Melbourne (for which I gave up my co-op house of 19 years including veggie garden and small orchard) and it's great. I'm also a mum of two grown up daughters and have five step children.
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