In the district of
Mülheim in Cologne, Heide Mertens conducted detailed empirical research into the
phenomenon of unpaid work in an overall context of paid work. She looked at the types of
work which are unpaid, how such work is distributed, what kind of network there is, and
what value unpaid work is given. The research is part of a district initiative to
regenerate a sizeable, run-down industrial site to provide services for a residential area
with a high unemployment rate. In the research paper's appendix, a valuable conversation
is documented between Heide Mertens (political scientist), Carola Möller (social
scientist), Ulla Peters (social scientist) and Irena Vellay (city planner). They compare
the experience of Mülheim in Cologne with areas of much greater social decline but which
also have self-help initiatives in place, in Detroit (USA), Nottingham (Great Britain),
and Wolfen-Nord in Saxony-Anhalt (Germany).
CM: In our respective subjects and projects we've all been researching the possibilities for work and an economy which aren't integrated into the competitive, profit-orientated international marketplace, but aim to provide a good quality of life for everyone in their local environment. Initiatives already exist in all the industrialised countries and also, under other conditions, in so-called Third World countries. In recent months you have each been able to collect new experiences of such initiatives through your respective research in an urban district of Cologne, in Great Britain, and in the USA. What is people's understanding in those places of alternative economies and lifestyles and 'new work'?
Unpaid work in
UP: That means, 'work' already inherently involves the concepts of 'for others' and 'with others'.
HM: One very typical example is the jam-making. This has always been communal work. The fruit is collected all together, an aunt probably helped, and the jam is then given as a gift to others. The mother received a jar, and two jars went to friends. Of course cooking jam hasn't the same material value as in former days: today one can probably buy jam more cheaply. But the other value of work is apparent here.
UP: At the same time, you say that there always has to be a material component.
HM: Yes, of course; but there's a different attitude to the material. Some people found this important for their children. They said, 'I want to teach my children different values. I show them that not everything has to be bought, and things shouldn't be just thrown away; an old cupboard can be fixed up.'
CM: Was that only particular households; households where there was an awareness of non-material values?
HM: It was mainly families with a secure income. Households which had the least couldn't afford to get involved in such work, because they had small flats, no gardens, not enough money to buy raw materials, few social contacts, and a very low income.
UP: That means alternative work doesn't function without certain pre-conditions.
CM: It's not enough to just give emotional support; they also need a material foundation.
Towns worn down by
IV: Detroit, which used to be a wealthy industrial town, certainly isn't pleasant either, with its poverty-stricken living conditions. A government initiative called 'Empowerment-Zone Enterprise Communities' aims to regenerate areas which are impoverished, socially unstable and lacking in any kind of industry. In 1990 in the designated 'Empowerment Zones' in Detroit, forty-seven percent of the population lived below the poverty line and the unemployment rate was up at 29%. In the mid-eighties, the drug scene lured mainly male youth within its deadly reaches. The poorer neighbourhoods in big cities were turned into war zones by fighting, territorial gangs. On top of that, black youth are criminalized for even small conflicts with the law. They talk about whole generations with prison experience.
UP: So these are not small allotments like we have here, but are ones that are worked in together: each person working on one section, but everyone doing it together. And accessibility is an important factor. The allotments should be accessible to all.
IV: As a rule there are no fences, which is surprising because in Detroit there are a lot of hungry people, they simply don't have enough to eat. You'd expect it to get raided. But this doesn't happen. Communal property is respected. Issues are discussed, and anyone who needs anything can take it. But the maintenance of the allotments is a problem. There are examples where it works well, and others where it doesn't.
UP: And they don't have any professional support?
IV: There are
very different allotment projects, and very different groups involved. Generally, they do
the work themselves. Sometimes there is some professional support, for example through the
Hunger-Action Coalition. One member there came from a farm and knew how to drive a
tractor. But that type of thing is all very informal. The murals continue to play an
important role. The models are the famous murals created in the thirties by Diego Riviera
exhibited in the Detroit Institute of Arts. Young people use his style to paint their own
murals. They organise it themselves, and all the walls will get painted at some building
somewhere. Often church congregations or community-based organisations commission them.
The youngsters want to give a positive message to the public by this means.
Mülheim the allotment has a qualitative value. Of course, you can buy everything in
Mülheim, and quite cheaply. But allotments were still an important issue for those
questioned. Most wished to have an allotment, partly in order to grow vegetables, but also
to have a piece of green space, to make it nice and provide a place for children to play
CM: Do you remember Chernobyl? The rich were able to buy clean food very soon, while the poor still have to eat radioactive lettuce.
UP: Health is also an objective among independent activists in England. Healthcare over here is still alright, compared to England.
IV: It's even worse in the USA. People with a low income don't have any health insurance whatsoever. If they get ill, they are scuppered. That means if one of your children gets ill, it has to be an emergency before you call the doctor out. Imagine the stress for parents!
'New work' - new
IV: In Detroit one of the main objectives was to create social relationships through working towards something for everyone.
UP: Maybe because they knew it would be impossible otherwise.
IV: Because the collapse of social relationships is so apparent, whether the cause has been drugs or the enormous stresses of competition. People there are often unable to relate to one another anymore; they can't talk, or plan anything together. One activist told me that she tried to set up a neighbourhood meeting. Some of the people invited didn't come because they knew as soon they left their homes the neighbours would break in. In my opinion, individuals have to begin by trying to re-establish social relationships.
UP: Back to the community allotments again. We need to look at what's going on there; what values are being put into practice, and in what kind of environment. For example, in the house where I lived in Nottingham in the house I lived, the front garden was soiled every morning because prostitutes used it either as a toilet or for their business. The landlord was totally frustrated because every morning he had to pick up the condoms. So how can well-motivated people succeed in creating a space which isn't going to be misused?
HM: In Mülheim when syringes were find in children's sandpits, parents asked for fences. There were playgrounds for which only certain parents had keys. Alternatively they could form a committee to take responsibility; people who would have the courage to say something if a young person lit a fire under the swings.
UP: In England they say something has to be fixed immediately if one or two things get broken, otherwise the damage gets worse.
grass-roots community economies
CM: Other research shows that unemployment causes a strong sense of insecurity among those out-of-work, so that they feel unable to cope with anything that would add to this insecurity - which these forms of economy would do.
HM: But I believe that you really can recruit those people who absolutely need these kinds of projects; it's just that they won't be the ones in on the start of the project.
IV: Allotments get looked after by so-called 'gardening angels', an informal network of retired women. They've created about three hundred gardens: their own, and also some communal allotments on Detroit's East Side. Their shared goal is to regenerate the broken-down social interraction of neighbourhoods through community gardens. In co-operation with others, such as 'Detroit Summer', a youth project, vegetables and fruit are grown and are shared with their own families, the neighbours in the district, the sick, and others who are in need, or they give a share to soup kitchens. Community gardens are also run by other groups. It's like a social movement, and it's not only in Detroit.
UP: So there are people who keep the project going, and other people who work with them, even though you're talking about independent set-ups. It's not just five people coming together and saying, lets start an allotment.
gardening angels did originally organise themselves independently. They've been around for
twenty years now. Their motto is: the regeneration of devastated nature. Seeing Detroit,
you would understand it. This deprived city, with 40,000 derelict pieces of land, is a
totally different ballgame from a nice, cosy country town.
IV: Of course it's always in the interest of the rulers to give people at the bottom just enough to survive on to keep them quiet. But in the USA that isn't working anymore, which is also certainly related on some level to the drug scene. The bottom rung of the system is self-destructing, with loads of psychologically disturbed people. Nobody cares about them; they are literally lying in the streets and starving. Grass-roots community economies are developing in the space left empty by the dominant economy, for the moment at least. These are niches. All who are able to work can participate, because access to the projects doesn't involve money.
Pre-conditions for an
alternative economy and alternative work
CM: For me, other important characteristics of an alternative economy are 'self-determination' and 'gender justice'. Women have written extensively on this.
HM: Another important term is 'sustainability'. The production and transportation of goods is ecologically totally absurd, even though a lot of money is being made out of it. 'Social justice' is another characteristic. Only a total restructuring will improve things. The way that the 'Third Sector' is functioning today will only increase the gap between high-earners and those who - even if by choice - don't earn much and are, at best, just managing to repair the material and psychological damage wrought by the economy of the profit-makers.
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