Building the Foundations of a New Paradigm (part one): Cooperation Hull

Building the Foundations of a New Paradigm (part one): Cooperation Hull

Picture of Steve Brett

Steve Brett

Co-founder of 3rd Space
Picture of Steve Brett

Steve Brett

Co-founder of 3rd Space

Building the Foundations of a New Paradigm (part one): Cooperation Hull

Introduction

One of our guiding principles in 3rd Space is the discovery of a way of relating to the world that is beyond binaries. We are habituated in modernity to look at everything through binary either-or logic. When it comes to a deeper understanding of the world we live in, of living systems, this form of thinking completely fails us, because the logic doesn’t sit in any greater context than itself. Binary logic is the basis of electronic systems. Its utilitarian potential is endless. But when added to the dominance of social media and how algorithms work in service of the market, it has drastically undermined our ability to connect with each other, to deal with the complexity and ambiguity of reality as it is, or relate to a whole universe of perception and relationship, that lies outside of its reductionism.

We recently spent four months in India. India is a country that is not as centralised and tied to the state as we are in the UK. It is a vast country used to functioning both locally and communally, and having to accomodate hard times. Resourcefulness and resilience are inbuilt. We were impressed with the number of local projects around the country that are doing significant work challenging modernity’s priorities, in fields as diverse as agriculture, education, politics, climate-change, the building industry, economics, and artisanship, some of which we have already written about in 3rd Space.

Once we got back to the UK, we wanted to connect with similar projects that are birthing here in the face of the growing recognition of our perilous global future. Over the next few weeks we will be publishing a series of articles from our experience of visiting either in real time or virtually, several projects in the UK, both urban and rural, that are on-the-ground examples of how a new story is emerging that is recalibrating our current system and worldview.

As we look to the future and the environmental and social breakdown that now seems increasingly unavoidable over the coming decades, one of the binaries we need to move beyond is the disabling binary of hope and doom. As the re-generalist Joe Brewer suggests, going beyond hope and doom begins by letting in the pain of what we have lost, something he calls ‘bearing witness’. This seems like an essential step. But it doesn’t end there. Bearing witness generates a connection to the world and to each other that motivates an entirely different kind of response. Empowered action that is both integrative and ethical in the knowledge that we are all part of an interdependent whole.

Another significant binary we need to transcend, is that between local and global responses to the metacrisis. Even someone as knowledgeable as Indy Johar, thinks the local is irrelevant at this point, because nothing is local any longer – which is of course the very reason why we need to recover it. People like Daniel Schmachtenberger, Nate Hagens, and Indy Johar are doing critical work on our global predicament, which we have highlighted at times on 3rd Space. At the same time without transforming our actual relationship to the living system we are part of, which means our relationship to people, places and communities, how can we regenerate our democracy and the natural world, rebuild our resilience, and transform our current system?

The term cosmo-localism is a useful one because it points to a way of relating to the local that has nothing to do with ‘returning to the past’ – a common critique associated with localism. On one hand this is about restoring first principles of participatory democracy. It is about learning what it means to live and act in accordance with living systems that are the basis of regeneration, and this begins with local regions and local people. But a cosmo-localism is also about acting within a deep awareness of our global predicament and the profoundly interdependent nature of the world and the cosmos. This shift in our form of knowledge or epistemology, is ultimately a shift in ontology, that is, it is on the level of Being, and it needs to re-contextualise every field of society from regenerating participatory democracy, to revolutionising our food system, rebuilding our communities, reviving our collective imagination, re-enchanting our education system, and creating equitable limits to growth economy: all arenas that many are working on right now.

Autopoiesis – which is the way in which living systems regenerate, as understood by Lynn Margulis, is a process that is both self-maintaining and autonomous. Living systems are structurally coupled with their environment and are constantly creating emergent properties that change their internal structure. Therefore regeneration itself is the process of living systems. The question is, as Joe Brewer suggests, how do we create regenerative systems for every aspect of our societies and of the living world we are part of?

Cooperation Hull

The idea is to create “a new civilisation” in the city – one that is “fit for the 21st century and the next seven generations” says Gully Bujack of Cooperation Hull.

Cooperation Hull began in Kingston-Upon-Hull a year ago in 2023. I had already heard about it as I knew two of the climate activists that started it, Roman Paluch and Gully Bujack, from my involvement with Insulate Britain’s climate activism campaign in 2020. As part of our research on local projects in the UK challenging the current system, and our plan to write about it, Roman suggested I come up to Hull and stay for a few days leading up to the local elections in Hull on May 2nd, and join the Citizen’s Assemblies they were planning to hold on the same day.

Cooperation Hull was inspired by two movements in particular, one in the United States, and the other in Syria. Cooperation Jackson was started in the US in 2014 and has just celebrated its 10th anniversary. Their mission has been to advance the development of economic democracy in Jackson, Mississippi, by building a solidarity economy anchored by a network of cooperatives and other types of worker-owned and democratically self-managed people-powered enterprises.

The other is the Kurdish Rojava Movement in North-East Syria. Rojava was set up by Arabs, Kurds, and other ethnic groups in 2013 during the Syrian Civil War, forming a self-declared autonomous region known as Rojava. It is known for its emphasis on democratic confederalism, decentralization, and inclusive governance, inspired by the American Anarchist philosopher and social theorist Murray Bookchin, and the Kurdish revolutionary and founder of the PKK, Abdullah Ocalan.

What is radical about Cooperation Hull is that it is not only attempting to rebuild a people-based participatory democracy entirely outside of the system, but because it was started by climate activists, it recognises that we are facing an interrelated series of crises globally, whether it be in democracy, economics, the climate and ecological crisis, or our food and agriculture system, as a result of which some form of social collapse over the next few decades seems inevitable. Not only has there been no attempt by the UK government to prepare for this eventuality, but the current system is driving us ever faster toward it, based as it is on a neoliberal capitalism which is rapidly destroying the foundations of human society, as well as the biosphere on which all life depends.

Sign over a highway in Kingston Upon Hull

Arriving in Kingston Upon Hull, or simply Hull, I had a host of instant impressions. Clearly this was a city with an illustrious history, sitting on the confluence of the River Hull and the great Humber estuary, with many of its grand old buildings still intact, remnants of another era, most of them now empty. Once a port with a booming fishing and shipping industry, 95% of the city was damaged or destroyed in the Blitz. This was followed by a period of limited investment and post-industrial decline. 50% of the land is now owned by 1% of the population. There was an enormous expansion in equality imbalance. It is a city whose people have a warmth and great pride of their past. But it’s a place that needs a new reason to believe in the future.

There are murals all over the city honouring Hull’s shipping legacy

When I got to Hull, I visited Cooperation Hull’s weekly food gathering “Waffle” at the historic Lonsdale Community Centre. The place was packed with local families and many of the Cooperation Hull crew, everyone tucking into the food produced on a ‘pay as you like’ basis by the team. I chatted with Roman, members of the team and local mothers, who were telling me what a difference it was being able to bring their kids there because there was nowhere else for them to go. The atmosphere was friendly and warm. Northerners know how to make you feel at home.

‘Waffle’ at the Lonsdale Community Centre

The following day I met up with many of the group at one of their shared houses, a roomy and elegant if slightly run-down mansion in one of the old moneyed Avenues from Hull’s glory days. Hej gave me and other visitors a history of Cooperation Hull.

There are eleven people in the core group living across three houses in the city. They initially raised £8,000 for the project from a crowdfunder. Their housing was made possible by early connections to a Housing Charity called Giroscope, who have been really supportive. Other help in connecting to the city and its issues came from Adam Hawley, a local community organiser and delivery cooperative owner. I met Sean, one of the core group, who is originally from Norwich and now doing his PhD on Cooperation Hull. Some of the group are from Hull city itself, most from elsewhere. What is common is that nearly all are young and brimming with energy and enthusiasm for a project that takes an extraordinary degree of commitment, to feel that something as big and as revolutionary as it is, is worth fighting for.

The vision behind Cooperation Hull is simple but radical: to rebuild a society with strong, caring, empowered communities that have a respectful relationship with the natural world, lives filled with meaning and purpose, and with a future to look forward to. Its vision is based around five “pillars”. Democracy (being led by people’s assemblies), economy (setting up cooperatives), ecology (embedding a real connection to the natural world), education (a community education programme), and action (using the tools of civil disobedience when needed).

One of the striking features of Cooperation Hull is that they don’t want to dictate how this is all going to work out. The ‘how’ to do this, revolves primarily around Citizens Assemblies. That is, creating a self-organising culture that enables local people themselves to build the society they want to live in. As well as running eleven assemblies over ten months in every borough of the city since they arrived, they have spent a lot of time pounding the pavement, knocking on doors, getting a feel for the population, and finding out what people actually want. They are experimenting with ideas to see what works. ‘Waffle’ is one of those ideas, as is partnering to raise money towards a community pub, setting up Hull’s radical library@cooperation.books, and helping the @peoples.land.cooperative to incorporate.

I asked Roman, after a year of developing the project, what he thinks are the key ingredients for building a people-based participatory democracy and a resilient new society.

“A huge part of it is relationship building. A visitor said to us, ‘It really feels like you guys are not cutting corners, but you’re also not wasting time.’ I really like that as a phrase to encapsulate how we’re trying to do this. Our whole approach and our whole narrative is that everybody is able to create change, and everybody should be in that process, especially the people starting from the bottom, who are the most disenfranchised in British society.

Roman Paluch

And it’s keeping a keen eye out for the individuals who, if they had some encouragement, would have really valid ideas for how things could change. Another huge part is about leadership development, and finding people in the community who already have informal leadership roles, and are looked to as some sort of an authority in the area, and are respected. So, that’s a key ingredient.

It’s noticing the individuals that have got ideas and showing them that you care about their ideas and you’re interested. It’s being in the community, living side by side with them, and going with the ideas that are there. That’s how Waffle came about.”

Roman tells me this is what happened with the connection to the Housing Cooperative, Giroscope, at the beginning. Ironically, he ended up doing his community service work for several months, (part of his sentence from a climate activism trial) on insulating houses for them. This built trust with everyone in the organisation and Giroscope ended up being instrumental in the quality of the early Citizen’s Assemblies.

“A huge part of our methodology is just literally creating physical spaces where people come to and meet and share ideas. And also building physical assets that belong to the community. This takes time, but it’s something tangible that the community can recognise as a product of their work, because it’s all about building a coherent community.”

After spending the afternoon helping prepare food for the local election day assemblies, on election day I made my way up to one of the six Citizen Assemblies being held in the city, this one in postmark HU7 and home to the biggest council estate in Europe. As I arrive Roman is in a circle deep in conversation with local folk. Simple questions are presented to those coming by, to see what registers.

This is not London. People don’t need much encouragement to say what is on their mind. Housing is clearly a big issue. While one complains about immigration, another is full of enthusiasm for a massive change. “What we need is a revolution!” Most are curious and want to talk. None trust politicians. 22% of the Hull population voted in the last local elections. People might not agree on what needs to be done, but all know that the system is broken. This is the baseline for Cooperation Hull ‘s work.

Hull is so far from being a liberal enclave of like-minded progressives, which makes Cooperation Hull even more of a radical enterprise. Here is Gully writing on Facebook after five months of Cooperation Hull:

Gully Bujak

“We’ve laughed, we’ve cried, we’ve danced, we’ve dug holes and chopped more onions than you’ve seen in your f’kin life, we’ve listened to ‘stop the boats’ and ‘climate change is a hoax’, we’ve heard anger and apathy and love, we’ve learned what questions to ask and to always make everything a pot-luck. We’ve been taught daily to not judge books by their covers, and our compassion, resilience, and ideas have been tested to their limits and we’ve only just begun…”

Next week the core of Cooperation Hull are going to have a meeting with the wider group in the city that have been working with them for many months, in order to create a better sense of shared organising, to increase their capacity as a collective and streamline their process. After that there will be an assembly of all the postcodes to bring people together and talk through ideas for a shared community project to launch after the summer.

Roman tells me, “I believe social change is non-linear. So its not going to be about just the small group of us struggling to make things happen. It’s about doing things well, and then a lot more people are going to come on board.”

 

 

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Picture of Steve Brett

Steve Brett

Co-founder of 3rd Space
Picture of Steve Brett

Steve Brett

Co-founder of 3rd Space

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