Nils Buis / Jaap van Leeuwen

Alternative living
The do-it-yourself revolution

There seems to be a choice: either, fight the economic system, or, turn ones back and try to realise ones own alternative. In the present, as it was in the past, people have tried more or less successfully to build their own paradise; sometimes out of a disappointment with society leading to a total rejection of it and a conscious decision to live in isolation from it. In other cases the idea behind the creation of this 'paradise' has been to realise a sustainable alternative, not only creating living and working conditions according to ones own will but also to set an example. The example set would then engender further alternative possibilities, and stimulate discussion of the social situation.

There are by now enough examples of ethical enterprises or initiatives embedded in the structure of the alternative movement. Out of the squatter movement of the eighties in several big cities and towns came the 'do-it-yourself' culture, concentrated in a number of housing and work projects such as Vrankrijk and Tetterrode (Amsterdam), ACU (Utrecht), Hotel Bosch (Arnhem), and Blauwe Aanslag (The Hague). By squatting empty buildings which where subject to speculation, the movement claimed not only living space but also space to develop small, independent initiatives. A sub-culture has developed in which not only accommodation but also opportunities for different social or cultural initiatives have been created, sometimes even leading to the development of enterprises. Most of these housing and work initiatives still exist, either still as squats or having now become legal through the purchase of the buildings by residents or user-associations.

Although there have been meetings of residents from the different projects, this has never led to structural co-operation. However, there are now initiatives in the Netherlands offering an organisational framework for people and projects which are 'lived alternatives'. In this essay we introduce two of them: The Emmaus Foundation, and de Vakgroep (United Workers' Collective).

Stichting Emmaus Nederland (SEN): The Emmaus Foundation
The Emmaus movement arrived in the Netherlands from France in the sixties. The first Emmaus group was founded in 1949 to cater for the homeless in Paris. The idea behind Emmaus originated in France's post-war reconstruction. Despite its name and its founder, Abbé Pierre, who played an important role for years, Emmaus isn't committed to any political or religious ideology. Over the years Emmaus grew into the organisation it is today, an international organisation with 350 member-groups. Because each group is responding to different circumstances they differ from one another. The pivot of the Emmaus movement is its 'Universal Manifesto', which has to be signed by every group. Further, every group pays a membership fee and 2% of their income to Emmaus International. There are regular national and regional meetings as a mark of solidarity. Members from developing countries particularly emphasise the importance of these meetings: without awareness in the prosperous West, development in the 'Third World' is impossible.1

The movement combines the re-use of materials with caring for people on the fringes of society. It commonly supports projects in the Second, Third and Fourth Worlds. In the Netherlands there are about 20 active Emmaus groups. Seven are living and working communities (communes); the rest are groups of volunteers. The general public knows Emmaus as a chain of second-hand shops. Everything sold, from clothes and furnishings to books and electrical appliances, has been donated. Some people bring their superfluous possessions themselves; others have them picked up. Profits are primarily used to finance the local group. Any remaining profit is used to support grassroots projects.

The recycling of materials is the main objective of Emmaus. By using materials a second time, the environment is protected. They are collected, sorted and then offered to shops for sale. Some things get repaired and, if they can't be sold on, are sent either to materials recycling or to the Second or Third World.

But Emmaus stands for more than that. Sustainability is even evident in the attitude to human beings. It gives people who find it difficult to fend for themselves a chance to survive in society. The recycling projects are a means to give people who find themselves in difficult circumstances a foundation from which to sort out their lives. The housing and work projects catering for the homeless are the best example of this. These communities are constituted of people who have chosen to live in a commune for ideological reasons, plus those who have no choice anymore. By working together the members of a commune 'earn their living' in terms of accommodation, food and pocket money. Emmaus offers them the possibility to feel needed again, in that their work helps yet more homeless people to find a sheltered place, where they, in turn, will be able to find their feet.

Other groups work solely with volunteers. These are people who don't live in an Emmaus community but devote a lot of their time to realising the Emmaus ideal. Because people in such groups have an income, there is a lot of money available to support projects. Those projects which aim at economic independence stand the best chances of getting support. For small-scale projects at home or abroad, this means structural support, carried out by locals. Each Emmaus group decides for itself who and what to support. A condition for receiving support is that the project supports those who are at the fringes of society.

The Emmaus groups in Holland also vary. Each group is independent and responsible for its own actions as long as it follows the rules of the international manifesto. The fact of some groups being communes and others, volunteers only, is not the only variation between groups. Each group has its own priorities and decides on its own identity. In the end it is the people who shape the group. All Dutch groups come under a co-ordinating umbrella, the Stichting Emmaus Nederland (SEN).

Over the years, much specialist knowledge has accumulated about different ways of living and working together and recycling. In recent years the business of recycling has been discovered by others, including commercial enterprises. This has created some lively competition. It also means that Emmaus has to evaluate its position in the second-hand market. They are considering possible future projects, besides recycling.

Emmaus is also facing an increasing lack of leading individuals who are willing to work for the organisation and have the skills to manage local groups with sensitivity to people's wishes and to possibilities for future developments.

Co-operatives in Holland
The most direct way to escape the rules of the capitalist economy is to start ones own business, deciding for onesself on the means of production.

At the beginning of the last century, production co-operatives were the most common form of organisation. However, the co-operative movement never rooted in Holland, at least not to the same extent as in France, Germany, Italy and especially in Great Britain. The best explanation is that in Holland, industrialisation - and hence the development of an organised labour movement - was somewhat delayed. Also, the strategy of the labour movement in Holland further dampened the already weak enthusiasm for working in co-operatives.2 In Britain, the first co-operative shops were founded in 1850, which then also created a foundation for production co-operatives. But in Holland the foundation of trade unions and a labour party created a rather hostile environment for co-operatives. The labour movement put the emphasis on the political struggle: the work force was to be organised into trade unions to improve working and living conditions, and ultimately to take over political power. Co-operatives were deemed unimportant and sidelined as something that would distract the focus from the class struggle. This stance was left unchallenged due to the a-political behaviour of the pioneers of the first co-ops.3

Nevertheless some co-ops were founded in the nineteenth century, mainly to provide work for those who lost their jobs due to strike action. The major difficulty for the co-ops was to be the sheer impossibility of gaining access to capital. This meant that co-ops were only founded in sectors requiring low investment such as cigarette production, the building trade, printing, carpentry and bakeries. At the turn of the century, groups and individuals advocating land nationalisation and internal colonisation brought a new impetus. In 1898 the writer and medical doctor, Federik van Eeden, founded the Kolonie Walden near Bussum. A year later, a group of Christian anarchists founded a colony: Blaricum. This all led to the foundation of the GGB (Association of Common Land Ownership) in 1991, which existed until 1958. The GGB was meant to be a network for the co-operation of farming colonies and production co-ops. Its main aim was 'to own and use land and the means of production on a communal basis'. The existence of the GGB is characterised by periods of decline and resurrection. The period following 1920, when the depression took hold, was a time of resurrection, with about a dozen new co-operatives. But in general the association had a hard life, suffering from infighting, insufficient organisation, failing businesses, and the fact that the network of supporters didn't buy enough goods from the co-operative enterprises. During World War II, GGB kept silent, and after the war it seemed to struggle to survive. It carried on until 1957 and was then dissolved. The estate went to the Methoefer-Stichting which has as its aims 'research on, and the improvement of, human and social conditions in the context of socio-economic questions'.4

Meanwhile, some more modern production co-ops had been founded, which felt the need for real team-work. In 1959 the Associatie van Bedrijven op coöeperative Grondslag or ABC (Association of Companies based on the Co-operative Principle) was founded. The driving force behind it was H. van Steenis, who turned the engineering firm he founded after the war into a co-operative association. None of the GGB co-operatives joined this association, but by 1977, thirteen other co-operatives had become members. These co-operatives were relatively large enterprises averaging 130 employees. Since its foundation, ABC has become renowned for fighting for the interests of co-operative enterprises, both internally by offering courses, and also by acting as a go-between with the authorities. The ABC Guarantee Fond was founded to give credit on small investments. Some related co-operatives and the Methoefer-Stichting which evolved out of the GGB provided the means for this.5 Meanwhile the Methoefer-Stichting became the Financieringsfonds Demokratische Bedrijven (Fund for Democratic Enterprises),6 which is still in existence.

The democratic movement at the end of the sixties, a time of improving welfare, created a climate in which alternative forms of co-operative work and living were discussed and experimented with. This came about independently of the ABC. In the late seventies and early eighties, numerous initiatives aiming at a different approach to 'work' .came together at the interface between the labour movement and Mens- en Milieuvriendelijk Ondernemen or MeMo (Human and Environmentally-friendly Enterprises). Founded in 1977, MeMo was a loosely organised movement offering advice, information, credit and financial support to initiatives which were environmentally-friendly and aimed for independence. Over the years, however, some initiatives founded on the MeMo principle went their own way. Others disappeared quietly. Because a large part of the ideology of the movement was adopted by society, the movement lost its raison d'être.7 The labour movement didn't fare better. At the beginning of the eighties a network of small businesses and voluntary initiatives evolved around the magazine Eigene Arbeit and the KOM-Buero (an advice bureau sponsored by the district council of Utrecht for new businesses). This was never more than a loose network. The objective of turning the loose structure into a federation was never realised, mainly because it became quickly apparent that there were hardly any common interests or shared perspectives on political and social issues.8

De Vakgroep and het Verband
At around this time the foundation was laid for what later developed into the Vakgroep. While the labour movement failed because it lacked organisation and common aims, and while MeMo was deeply asleep, the Vakgroep not only managed to survive but actually grew. In the beginning, the Vakgroep was overseen by the association de Keerkring (Turning Point) which was founded in 1974. The starting point for de Keerkring was the development of communal living alternatives which incorporated the responsibilities of providing work as well as living accommodation. The conclusion that teamwork between housing and workers' co-operatives would offer many advantages led to the foundation of the Vakgroep as a federation of co-operative projects. The conditions for joining included financial, organisational and socio-political stipulations. In 1984 the Stichting Kollektieve Kas (Foundation for Collective Finance) was founded collectively.

At the beginning the emphasis of the Vakgroep lay mainly on housing co-ops in Utrecht. The squatted houses were being cleared out, so a group of people decided to create secure accommodation. The housing association de Regenboog (The Rainbow) was founded in order to buy one of the houses. Many followed this example. Modernisation work relied on the voluntary work of residents. Over the years, experience grew and the first businesses were founded, mainly in the building trade initially. By now the Vakgroep includes twentyfive housing associations, volunteer projects and businesses. The latter include a building contractor, two smaller enterprises working on building sites, an architect's office and a graphic design and multimedia enterprise, a consultancy for project development and organisation, a car leasing enterprise, a publishing house, and a centre for visual arts. There is also a goat farm with a cheese dairy in France, and a centre for training-courses and holiday accommodation.

The Vakgroep has survived for so long due to the good organisation of the team working together, and the fact that the associated projects had common financial interests. The members paid a regular monthly fee and (for businesses) a certain percentage of their returns, or (for housing co-ops) profit from lettings. In 1999 more than 100,000 gilder were contributed by projects. This amount was distributed according to a set code into funds within the Stichting Kollektieve Kas. The various funds were: an emergency fund, a modest investment fund for small loans to bridge financial difficulties, a fund supporting the economic use of housing, an internal support fund, and an external fund to support projects outside the Vakgroep.

The Vakgroep was always rooted in praxis. It always respected the independence of individual projects and aimed at mutual support. An important aspect of its success was that it never allowed ideology to supercede practice. Differences in understanding, aims and working methods were always tolerated. The housing co-ops, for example, could decide whether to calculate rent according to the income of the tenant. No rule was laid down for all co-ops.

The example set by the Vakgroep was followed by others with the foundation of het Verband, another federation with about a dozen projects in Nijmegen and the surrounding areas. Its organisational structures and working methods are mainly the same as for the Vakgroep, and there is an ongoing exchange of experiences. Vakgroep and het Verband are also members of the INCOF (International Network of Co-operative Federations) an international network made up of similar organisations and initiatives from Holland, Germany and Great Britain.

From Vakgroep to Solidair
At first the finances of Stichting Kollektive Kas increased only slowly. But when the federation, and therefore the financial input, grew, plans evolved to broaden the financial possibilities. These plans became concrete in the foundation of the Ana Maria Fonds within the Vakgroep. These funds provide the possibility to give out credits under set conditions as far as possible, and so to determine the flow of money. However, this development also caused a decrease in personal involvement: some of the projects felt they no longer had an overview on the way things were developing. Changes in the housing co-ops, such as tenants moving out and being replaced, contributed to the sense of decreased involvement: in some co-ops, none of the original members were left. Similar things happened in the businesses: because they felt they had to expand, new employees were recruited who were more committed to the company than to the federation.10
In the same period an opposition movement appeared. Some people realised that moving in that direction would lead to the erosion of, and finally the end of, the whole movement. It also emerged, via contacts with projects outside the Vakgroep that there was a desire out there for some form of co-operation. It was decided that the time was ripe to expand, on the basis of their accumulated experience and professionalism. In 1997, reflection began on how to organise the network in a new way, resulting in the foundation of Solidair, the successor of the Vakgroep, in the year 2000.

The most important aspect of Solidair is that not everyone wants, or is able to, contribute to a particular thing in the same way. Differences in motivation, inspiration and definite possibilities are not only tolerated but also considered positive and are used. Solidair wants to offer the broadest possible supportive structure to individuals, enterprises, housing projects and property owners. The structure also invites socio-political initiatives to contribute time, money, energy and ideas towards developing a co-operative economy. Solidair consists of several co-operative organisations: Ana Maria Fonds, SamSam, Commitment, AMF Onroerend Goed and Resonans. Each of these organisations has its own dynamics and field of interest, but they work together in order to have the optimal impact.11

Stichting Ana Maria Fonds
The Ana Maria Fonds is a foundation for the common good. It receives donations and inheritances from those who want to support co-operative activities in a less committed way. Working with the Triodos Bank, an extra fund within Ana Maria Fonds was created: the so-called Toegevoegde Waarde (Added Value). Its aim was to provide a possibility for companies which support the co-operative economy but prefer not to commit themselves too much, to donate 1% of their annual income. Ana Maria Fonds also promotes the so-called Love Money Project. Every year, from six different sectors, projects are selected which need special support and to which the fund wants to draw the attention of the public. Contributors can choose from the following categories: inequality; injustice; Third World or Eastern European development; poverty, inequality and solidarity in Holland; training, research and education; information and PR; culture, art, nature and the environment.

The associations Commitment and Resonans
The two associations Commitment and Resonans are networks of companies, mainly, but also housing projects and social, cultural and political initiatives which want to increase their commitment to a social economy. These initiatives show, in the way that they work and organise themselves, their services and products, that they prioritise human beings, the environment and co-operation above competition and the maximisation of profit.

As well as a small membership fee, these companies and initiatives donate a part of their income to the network. This money is used to give out loans to new co-operative organisations and to build up savings which can be used to support one another financially. Resonans not only requires a bigger membership fee, it also expects an ideological contribution to the network from members. Housing projects commit themselves to handing over some of what they own, which could be called a form of social ownership. In this way, Resonans tries to discourage projects which it helped to create from abandoning their original objectives as soon the founder-tenants have moved out. Individuals also can join by becoming members of Dissident, which is part of Resonans.

Property owners can enter a relationship on a number of levels with the fund AMF-Immobilien. The aim of this fund is to facilitate an increase in commonly-owned property, seeking forms of ownership which limit personal advantage or even eliminate it. It offers a package of services, for example advice and support for the management of property. It also invites property owners to donate their estate (or part of it) to the fund on a temporary basis or to will it to them. Many property-owners are not aware of that the explosive increase in house prices over the last few years has made them more wealthy. AMF-Immobilien encourages the active use of these dormant assets, which can be offered as securities for mortgages taken out by new initiatives. In this way, both property owners and initiatives belonging to the co-operative network can make this money work for them.

SamSam is an investment fund for those who want to invest in co-operative projects. Members invest an amount of money, short or long-term, which goes to support projects with start-up financing, bridging credit, consultations and guidance. Together the various co-operatives cover a broad spectrum of activities, giving the term 'social economy' a context and substance. They are linked together through working with Solidair, where discussions about principles and objectives are held. These discussions are open to anyone involved in some way with the network. Every four years objectives are adapted and reformulated to the current situation.

Future prospects of Solidair
Because the organisation is still young, many aspects have yet to be developed. There is undoubtedly the will and the potential to create an alternative to the 'market economy' mentality. Solidair has decisively opted to build up this alternative from the grass-roots. Participation is requested of all who are supported by the network, thereby creating a form of co-operation which is expanding and which can draw on its own strength and means.

At present, people are working hard to create a new organisational structure to transform the old Vakgroep into Solidair. All except one of the members of the Vakgroep are now members of the new organisation. In addition, new initiatives are coming forward, and het Verband (based in Nijmegen) is now considering how it can participate in this new organisation. The membership of Vereniging Solidair currently stands at thirty - five projects.

1. Emmaus in Holland - stichting Emmaus Nederland, Bilthoven, o.J
2. Arbeiten in Kooperation - Stichting WOV, Amsterdam/Utrecht, 1979
3. A.C.J. de Vrankijker - Unsere Anarchisten und Utopisten, Fibula-Van Dishoeck, Bussum, 1972
4. José Koster - Arbeiders werken voor elkaar , in: Vin no 35, Utrecht, Mei 1995
5. See 2.
6. Nils Buis - Eigen Werk, in: &,  Ideeën voor de doe het zelf revolutie no 4, Utrecht, Lente (spring) 1998
7. Marc Pronk - De toekomst van de ECO, in &,  Ideeën voor de doe het zelf revolutie 3 Utrecht, Lente (spring) 1998
8. Nils Buis - see 6.
9. Nils Buis - Latenwij de vakgroep opheffen! In: Vin. No 65, Utrecht, Meii 1999

10. Hin zur solidarischen Oekonomie, stoppt den Treibhauseffekt -Vereiniging Solidiar, Utrecht, Maerz 2000


Nils Buis worked as a graphic designer in his company ‘Om tekst en vorm’ and in the Utrecht housing project ‘de bonte kaketoe’. He is a member of Solidair. Jaap van Leeuwen is a consultant on sustainable technology with ADT (Advies Duurzame Technologie). He is a member of Solidair.