<<As part of the Feasts project, and the “Make an Everyday Meal Utopian” strand of it, we’ve asked people with a wide variety of expertise to contribute some pieces which might be of interest to anyone setting out to add a salting of utopia to their daily bread. The pieces won’t be anything as standard or straightforward as a set of recipes to be followed mechanically; but rather, a series of fresh ingredients to be stirred into the mix, as anyone wishes, and if they see fit.>>
When I first came to the UK about a decade ago, I was struck by the sheer number of pre-cooked meals on offer. They were neatly arranged at the entrance to the supermarket where their variety was proudly presented. This might have had something to do with the fact that the first supermarket I went into in the UK was in a university town: young people were suddenly deprived of home cooking and the ready-meals on display kindly ensured a smooth transition into adulthood and the art of cooking. The well-stocked shelves had also something to do with busy academics and other overworked professionals, who simply ‘didn’t have the time to cook’, as many of my new British colleagues and friends told me. This is a common enough complaint, one I’ve muttered once or twice myself. But in comparison to other European countries I have lived in, the influence of people’s busy work lives on their dinner tables was far more perceptible in the UK. The logic was: People are exhausted and so they make personal sacrifices. In the UK they decide to save time and energy by not cooking. It would be easy to be judgemental about this and say that such extreme forms of the atomisation of human existence are regrettable and that modernisation and capitalism are to blame for it (which is, of course, true). However, we have heard this sort of argument often before and it usually does not take us much further than a melancholy nod in agreement.
In recent years various scholars in the humanities have remarked that critique pure and simple does not seem to be particularly constructive anymore. We can diagnose and bemoan social ills – and we have become very skilled at it – but, as it turns out, a mere knowledge of the problems is not enough to change an undesired status quo. What we need is a new vision and a new horizon of the possible. I want to avoid the word “solution” here because what we need is not a blueprint with a set rules and regulations but rather a different kind of mental disposition that would allow us to project alternative scenarios for the present and the future. There are a number of exciting initiatives focusing on concrete practices that facilitate imagining alternative futures, ranging from small speculative design ventures, through initiatives like Imagining Alternatives with Feasts for the Future, to large scale alternative economies in autonomous zones. Here, however, I would like to focus on anarchist housing collectives, and the centrality of food in such co-ops, as one form of going beyond critique.
Utopian feasts takes place, for me, every evening in a co-op. It is not only because of its specific setting but also because of a set of agreements about how this should work. There is a communal money pot, with a set maximal budget for each dinner a week. Every member of the co-operative takes a turn in cooking for all the others, which – depending on the size of a co-op – comes down to a cooking duty once a week to once a fortnight. The meals are vegetarian (sometimes vegan) and fresh vegetables and fruit usually come from a communal allotment. The meals are cooked with basic ingredients. They are healthy and nourishing. It is true that one cannot always accommodate all tastes – some people don’t like soups, others shudder at even the thought of parsley – but the common understanding is that whoever does the cooking does the choosing. Regardless of their skillset, the person in charge of cooking for the evening does their best to make food tasty to others. And the others, regardless of their preferences, do their best to acknowledge the effort. The food is (hand on heart) excellent eight times out of ten. Needless to say, this set-up is both extremely time-saving and creates a convivial, collaborative dynamic between residents who don’t just live together, but eat together too.
The ‘co-op feasts’ differ from both a family setting and a typical house-share. They favour a common budget for meals and a constant rotation of duties (who lays the table, does the cooking and the cleaning etc.). Traditional gender roles are suspended. The duties are equally distributed (even though it’s not uncommon to strike a side-deal: I’ll do your cooking on Thursday if you dig the potatoes in the allotment). Through various community-building practices – a common meal being one of them – anarchist co-ops focus on materializing a sustainable alternative to current modes of atomized living.
Even though anarchism might sound like a bad word to many, evoking bloody assassinations and epic chaos, it is in fact a well-organised collective effort at a ‘slow’ social transformation. Contemporary anarchism in practiceis anchored in concrete spaces (housing projects, co-op farms, autonomous zones) and is based on cooperation, mutual aid, solidarity and community. In contrast to Marxist endeavours in the past, anarchism has always been about a continuous activity located in the present rather than a dream of a better (and rather distant) future. It prioritises arts of existence in the here and nowrather than rare events that will revolutionize the world. It actualizes a desired world – ‘a world after the revolution’ – in the present. It focuses on living rather than demanding. My research demonstrates that anarchist housing co-ops work with the basic intuition that humans are, first and foremost, mimetic, that is, imitative. That means that humans are primarily beings of habit that inevitably pick up other people’s behaviours. This happens both wittingly and unwittingly. Therefore, anarchists put themselves in an environment where they will be exposed to behaviours they aspire to incorporate in their own practices and to which they will direct their inherently imitative behaviour. This means that members of such co-op’s mould their habits towards improving the spheres they inhabit not only for themselves but, more importantly, the spheres they share with other humans, animals, plants and the environment. Their practices show solidarity with entities that are oppressed, dominated or unrecognised and contribute towards a more habitable world for both humans and nonhumans.
Now, how is this relevant to the non-anarchist public, apart from its obvious value for providing a window into a quaint curiosity shop? If living in a housing co-op is presently not a realistic option, then there are at least two other possibilities worth pursuing. One is to look for a co-op close to where one lives and see what community projects they carry out (bike workshops, solidarity initiatives, English classes, support of destitute individuals etc.). Radical Routes website is a good resource for this. It is a network of housing and working co-operatives that work for positive social change, and the website contains information on where activist co-ops in the UK can be found. Co-ops are usually quite open to interested members of the public and volunteers – after all, they hope that their living practices would inspire others to follow suit. I make no promises, but it is possible that a utopian feast is awaiting you there. The other option is to organise a series of utopian feasts with a couple of neighbours. Neighbours are a better option than friends (as tempting as that might be) because they live next to you and you don’t need to travel every evening to eat. You just go next door and see for yourself whether this experiment is sustainable for longer than a fortnight. As a new collective, you set a maximum budget per dinner, inform others of your dietary preferences, reflect on gender roles and food sourcing, and then host and be hosted. At the very least, it will make for a good story at the next private dinner party.
I see you squirm. Too much effort? I’ve always been a fan of one-pot dishes. A perfect format for a larger group. No space in your home? I say, who needs chairs? Universally carpeted floors in British households were simply made for this! Too radical? How radical can a shared dinner really be, eh? Try dipping your toe – or your spoon – into this anarchist practice and see how delicious it can truly be. This is productive, ethical anarchist living, one hearty meal at a time.
Iwona Janicka is Early Career Innovation Fellow at the Institute of Advanced Study at the University of Warwick. Her research interests lie within the area of twentieth- and twenty-first-century French and German philosophy, political thought and theory (French, Critical, Literary, Feminist, Queer, Posthuman, Anarchist). Her first monograph dealt with the concept of universality and social transformation in most recent philosophical thought: Theorizing Contemporary Anarchism. Solidarity, Mimesis and Radical Social Change(Bloomsbury Academic, 2017). Her second book, entitled Nonhumans and Politics (in progress), investigates the possibilities of formulating a non-anthropocentric concept of politics and is funded by the British Academy.