orge Juan lives with his wife and two children in an apartment complex in the rapidly-gentrifying Westlake neighborhood of Los Angeles. A densely populated area – more than 100,000 people live in nearly three-square miles – Westlake has been the destination for immigrants from Mexico and Central America for many years.[1] However, as the average rent for a studio increased from $1,782 to $2,600 in the neighborhood where most are renters, so has the Latinx population dropped from 74 to 68 percent from 1990 to 2015, based on the American Community Survey.

Juan’s family had their monthly rent increase from $950 to $1,350 – a 37 percent increase. Their household wasn’t alone; all tenants of the 192 units at 131, 143, and 171 South Burlington Avenue were told that their rent would increase by 25 to 40 percent. Juan told a reporter at L.A. Taco his concerns about his children who attended the elementary school across the street.[2] “We just want them to learn and not be worried about a meal for tomorrow because all of our money is going to the rent.” The tenants started to collectively organize as a tenants association called Burlington Unidos, and decided to withhold rent until the owner addressed the inhabitable conditions plaguing the apartments: rats, roaches, bed bugs, sewage water leakage, and toxic mold. 92 tenants agreed to participate in the rent strike.

On a warm Friday evening in May 2018, members of Burlington Unidos gathered in a Craftsman house on a block lined with Jacaranda trees. Dishes of rice and beans were arranged on the kitchen table while children squirmed in their seats. About twenty adults – mostly tenants participating in the rent strike – sat on an assortment of folding chairs and benches in the living room. The tenants were gathered to learn about cooperative models where tenants purchased their buildings and converted them into tenant-controlled housing.

The Burlington Unidos’ experiences were similar to those interviewed in Amanda Huron’s book, Carving Out the Commons: Tenant Organizing and Housing Cooperatives in Washington, D.C.[3] She interviewed tenants in Washington, DC who established limited equity housing cooperatives in the midst of rising Black power in local politics. Limited equity housing cooperatives are homes that residents invest a modest sum to take ownership; the home retains its affordability – the owner is able to sell their share at a slightly higher price than what they initially invested. Huron proposed that the cooperatives were examples of “the commons” – since the tenants collectively own and control the buildings they live in.

In doing so, Huron blends the approaches of what she terms institutionalist and the alterglobalizationists. The former harks from the disciplines of political science and economics and conducts empirical case studies of the commons. The institutionalists saw the commons as workable property regimes and focused on how the commons as an institution operates. The latter, on the other hand, are scholar-activists who emerged from the global justice movements. The commons, according to this perspective, is a resource to be enjoyed by all yet is endangered by forces that want to privatize and enclose land. Wealth should not be the ticket to access the commons.

As someone who was birthed politically in the post-Seattle protests that galvanized my generation in the last decade of the twentieth century, I share the anti-capitalist orientation of the alterglobalizationists. However, as Huron pointed out, the institutionalists developed useful approaches to studying the commons which alterglobalizationists can adopt.

Commoning doesn’t have to be explicitly anti-capitalist. I’ve found, in my research, that people engaged in prefigurative practices don’t necessarily have an oppositional consciousness. Sylvia Federici wrote that “the ‘communing’ of the materials means of reproduction is the primary mechanism by which collective interest and mutual bonds are made.”[4] This is the “first line of resistance to a life of enslavement” and a step towards “the construction of autonomous spaces.” Many may participate in cooperatives or other alternative forms in order to survive, because their very existence is denied by capitalism. However, the practice of social and economic democracy embedded in these forms is a transformative experience and has a lasting impact on the participants.

These cooperative practices are prefigurations of a new economic system, the solidarity economy. Solidarity economy is a framework for an economy centered around human needs and the rights of Mother Earth. The alterglobalization movement arose in North America in the 1990s to say no to neoliberalism. The movement evolved their stance in the aughts, through the U.S. Social Forum process, to say yes to a solidarity economy instead.[5]

While some might say that cooperative institutions and practices don’t constitute anti-capitalist alternatives, Jessica Gordon-Nembhard disagrees. Author of Collective Courage: A History of African-American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice (Penn State University, 2014), she thinks that practices people did in order to survive moved them into the realm of the solidarity economy. “The Black communities I studied, even when they were not deliberately trying to buck capitalism, they took a first step into a different system,” she explained.[6] “Sometimes it got them a foothold into capitalism, but sometimes it got them interested in something completely different.”

Case-in-point: the Chinatown Cooperative Garment Factory was a bright star for three years in the dismal landscape of sweatshops in San Francisco in the 1970s. But its half-life were the activated worker-owners of the factory who continued to agitate for better wages and working conditions. Started in 1971 by Asian American students and community organizers in the aftermath of the struggle for the establishment of ethnic studies at San Francisco State and University of California at Berkeley, the founders were inspired by the tradition of Black cooperatives in the South and an article by Black Panther Stokley Carmichael, which defined Black power as economic power.

“Cooperatives show that alternatives exist for the larger community,” a former organizer Harvey Dong explained.[7]

“There is a benefit to our experiment even though the Chinatown cooperative wasn’t able to survive past a few years. Some of the workers went on to work in other garment factories. They brought their own concepts of independence and autonomy to their new jobs. The next year after the coop ended there was a huge factory strike in Chinatown, right around the corner. The former worker-owners were leaders in the strike. They helped to spread the idea that you don’t have to accept things the way that they are.”

Amanda Huron takes a unique approach, in blending the institutionalist and alterglobalization perspectives, using the framework of diverse economies, a recognition that various social and economic relationships proliferate. By writing a book about the cooperatives, Huron is making alternatives to capitalism more real, more credible, and more present in our everyday lives, to paraphrase J.K. Gibson-Graham. She also is carving out spaces of hope and possibility, that life isn’t totally subsumed to the logic of capital.

Back in the Craftsman home where the Burlington Avenue tenants gathered, the kitchen table held the remains of a chicken and bowls of melted ice cream at the end of a three-hour meeting. Three examples of communing were shared: a limited equity housing cooperative established by tenants in the mid-1990s, another collective community comprised of land purchased by Caltrans for an abandoned freeway extension, and an Occupy Los Angeles-defended home from eviction. The tenants voted to attempt to purchase their building and establish a commons. It passed, unanimously.

[1] Ruben Vives, 2/25/18, “As crime and drugs recede, MacArthur Park is going upscale, and many residents feel left behind,” L.A. Times, http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-westlake-district-20170211-story.html (accessed 7/14/18).

[2] Jacob Woocher, 5/30/18, “More Than 90 Rent-Striking Families in Westlake are Facing Mass Eviction by a Wealthy Westside Landlord,” L.A. Taco, http://www.lataco.com/over-90-rent-striking-families-in-westlake-are-facing-mass-eviction-by-a-wealthy-westside-landlord/ (accessed 7/14/18).

[3] Amanda Huron, Carving Out the Commons: Tenant Organizing and Housing Cooperatives in Washington, D.C. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018).

[4] Silvia Federici, 2011, “Feminism and the Politics of The Commons,” The Commoner, http://www.commoner.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/federici-feminism-and-the-politics-of-commons.pdf (accessed 5/3/18).

[5] Julie Matthaei and Jenna Allard, “Another Economy is Possible! Using the US Social Forum to Create the US Solidarity Economy Network,” https://ussen.org/portfolio/another-economy-is-possible-using-ussf-to-create-ussen/  (accessed 7/5/18).

[6] Interview with Jessica Gordon-Nembhard, 1/8/18.

[7] Interview with Harvey and Bea Dong, 3/4/18