Posts Tagged ‘Mutualism’

The Bulgarian Peasant Party’s Solution to the Housing Problem

June 1, 2014

Last week I blogged on the several contemporary issues, which were similar to those tackled by the Bulgarian peasants’ party, BANU, nearly a hundred years ago. These were a local village power company, which was run as a co-operative by the whole community. It was thus similar to the idea of the Utopian British Socialist, Thomas Spence, for the communal ownership of land by the individual parishes, and also to the idea of the Bulgarian peasants’ party for the transformation of Bulgarian agricultural society through the formation of peasant cooperatives. I also remarked on the way the Bulgarians had also set up a policy of allowing the banks to provide loans on reasonable rates to credit cooperatives as a way of driving out the moneylenders. This is a problem that now besets British society, through the return of loan sharks and payday loan companies, like Wonga, that offer extortionate rates, because of wage freezes and cuts to welfare benefits.

Bulgaria, like modern Britain, also suffered from a housing crisis, made worse by the influx of thousands of refugees displaced by the First World War. They attempted to solve it through a mixture of policies, one of which was similar to the Bedroom Tax. They laid down the maximum amount of space that a family could occupy in a property, so that there would be more space available for the homeless. They also set about building cooperatively owned tenement blocks. R.J. Crampton describes these policies in A Short History of Modern Bulgaria (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1987) 90).

The principle of maximum holding was applied to urban as well as rural property. The post-war refugee invasion had placed severe strains upon the already hard-pressed housing resources of Bulgaria’s towns, particularly Sofia. According to Agrarian legislation no family was to occupy more than two rooms and a kitchen, with an extra room for every two children over fourteen. Office space was also subject to restriction, and in the case of both domestic and office accommodation commissioners acting on behalf of the ministry of the interior had extensive powers to enforce the new and widely resented regulations. A second and more popular response to the housing shortage, and one much in conformity with Agrarian philosophy, was to encourage the building of new apartment blocks cooperatively financed and thereafter owned by their inhabitants. This reform survived the fall of the Stamboliiski regime and cooperative building continued through the inter-war period.

The German radical Socialist party, the USPD, also had a similar policy in the same period, for the same reasons: to solve the shortage of housing caused by the First World War.

What’s needed isn’t the Bedroom Tax, which is really an excuse to cut Housing Benefit by pretending to withdraw a subsidy that never in fact existed, if tenants of supposedly under-occupied properties don’t move out to suitable homes, which also don’t existed. What is needed to solve the problem is simply building more social and genuinely affordable housing, which the Conservative actively seem to oppose. When the ‘right to buy’ legislation was passed, councils were forbidden from building more council houses, and ‘affordable’ properties are only pegged at 80 per cent of the market worth, which means that in many parts of the London houses are well out of the price range of the very poorest, who need them. It’s possible that cooperation schemes, like those enacted by the Bulgarians, might be part of the solution.

Something like the Bulgarians’ legislation limiting the maximum amount of space families can occupy could also be applied to private housing. The Bulgarian policy was based on the view that you should only possess what you can actually work yourself. Thus there was a maximum amount of land allowed to be cultivated by peasant farmers. Large landowners were forced to sell the excess land to the smaller peasants, so that each peasant farmer had just enough for his needs and those of wider Bulgarian society.

The great French anarchist, P.-J. Proudhon, had a similar view. Much of his Mutualist anarchist system was based on his experience of peasant society in the Jura, where he grew up. While he didn’t set the maximum amount of space people could occupy in their houses, he did recommend that people should lawfully own only what they could actually practically use themselves. Thus, landlords, who held multiple properties, which they rented out, should have all but the property they themselves lived in expropriated and given to the people, who needed them.

I believe a similar policy could be usefully implemented today. Perhaps we need the ‘right to buy’ principle extended to all the private tenants, now forced to rent homes at exorbitant rents because of the way available housing was bought up by people seeking to rent them out later in the housing boom of the 1990s. I also believe that there are many under-occupied private homes, with considerable space going without tenants, in certain parts of London, such as Knightsbridge, Kensington and Westminster.

And possibly Chipping Norton. I can’t see how Dave Cameron, whose government is responsible for the Bedroom Tax, and who has said repeatedly that ‘We’re all in it together’, would possibly object to having to share his home with a couple of crusties.

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The Post Office, Privatisation and Valueless ‘Work-shares’

July 13, 2013

This is a story that I will need to check, but if it’s true, then the Post Office has committed what would once have been a violation of the Truck Acts, and committed something that could reasonably be construed as fraud.

‘Work Shares’, Local Currency Schemes and 19th century Anarchism

The government this week announced it was moving ahead with its plans to privatise the Post Office. This is scheduled for the autumn. There is going to be major restructuring, but it has stated that its workers will be given shares as part of the privatisation deal. I know a number of people, who work for the Mail that are naturally worried about whether they will still have a job in a few month’s time. A friend yesterday told me, while we were discussing this, ‘At least this time they’ll have real shares’. I queried what they meant by this, and my friend further explained that a little while ago the Mail told its workers that it was now going to pay for their overtime in that period in ‘work shares’. My friend said this wasn’t the correct term, which he couldn’t remember at that moment. The name my friend gave to it suggests that it may have been similar to some of the local currency schemes operating in some parts of the UK. These schemes give you a number of coupons or token for hours worked in particular community projects, which can be exchanged for goods and services, which have involved the same amount of hours worked. It’s an idea that ultimately seems to come from 19th century Anarchism, particularly Proudhon’s Mutualism and Anarcho-Individualism. One of the great American Anarchists of the 19th century used to operate what he called a ‘Time Store’. He used to time how long it took to serve a customer. The actual monetary cost of his wares were low, very close to cost price. However, he would also charge his customers payment in kind equivalent to the time he had taken to serve them. It was a commercially successful system.

It also inspired the classic SF short story, And Then There Were None, in which a party of imperialist Earthmen gradually succumb to the superior social and political system of just such an Anarchist Utopia. The planet they attempt to conquer has just such a libertarian economic and political system. Intrusive questions and attempts to bully the self-reliant farmers, businessmen and workers of the world into giving vital information is simply answered with the word ‘NYOB’: None Of Your Business. The local currency schemes, which such libertarian ideas have inspired, have done a lot of stimulate local economies, as people patronise their local businesses using these currencies. Or they did until Gordon Brown started looking for more things he could tax, and declared that these schemes were also subject to VAT. Unfortunately, according to my friend the Mail used an accounting trick to declare that these ‘work shares’ were valueless, took them back off their workers, and destroyed them.

The result of this is that the Post Office workers were effectively not paid for the overtime they worked.

The Truck System

Now as I said, I don’t know if this is true. If it is, then at one time it would have been a violation of the Truck Acts.

Robson Green gave a succinct summary of the ‘Truck System’ in his TV show, Building the North, on ITV on Wednesday, although he did not call it by name. He remarked how 19th century factory masters had nearly absolute control of their workers’ lives. They were frequently paid in tokens, which could only be used in the company shops. Although he didn’t call it by name, this was the notorious Truck System. It was abolished in the 19th century by the Liberal government, which freed their workers from such commercial exploitation from their employers. I’ve got a feeling that free trade commercial ideology may also have played a part. If the workers’ were free to spend their money how they chose, then not only would this allow them greater choice, it would also encourage greater competition and commercial opportunities as other companies and shops would be free to supply them with whatever they wanted or needed.

Truck Acts Repealed in Favour of Electronic Payment

Unfortunately, the Truck Acts were repealed in the 1980s when the direct payment of wages and salaries into employees’ bank accounts was introduced. My point here is not to criticise that system of payment, but simply to show that it appears to have had the unfortunate consequences of opening the system of payments back up to such morally and commercially dubious arrangements as the ‘work shares’. It looks like something close to the Truck System was being operated by the Mail with these spurious shares. It does not augur well for employee confidence in their promises to provide them with shares as part of the privatisation package.

Unpopularity of Post Office Privatisation

I also have to say that I don’t know anyone personally who has been in favour of the privatisation of the Royal Mail. My next door neighbours were working class Conservatives. They objected to the idea, when it was mooted by Blair’s administration. I don’t think ordinary people like them will be impressed whatever the type of government that introduces it. The same friend, who mentioned the ‘work share’ system also told me that the dangers of privatising this service could be seen in the way the Americans had never privatised it. America has always strongly supported capitalism and free enterprise, at least to a greater extent than the European nations. If the Americans found that privatising the Post Office was unworkable, then it showed that it was really unworkable.