Rural Anarchism and Phone Boxes: case studies in mutual aid
[NOTE ON THE TEXT: This article is a combination of two articles written by the same author, both of the articles below have appeared elsewhere separately, but they are appearing together for the first time here]
The loneliness of the small-town Ancom
It’s not easy being a small-town Ancom. Often you’ll find that the farmers in your local are more interested in getting lambing season out of the way than listening to your repeated lectures about Bookchin. Even if your approach is somewhat more practical, there can be issues involved when it comes to praxis. Chain yourself to the railings by all means, but you’re in with a good chance of discovering that your arresting officer lives three doors down, goes to the same pub as you, and is the brother of a local councillor, and that suddenly it’s very difficult to get help with housing, allotments or even replies to your emails.
Being in a community in which there’s one or two degrees of separation between everyone, but in which it’s not literally true that everyone knows everyone, comes with some notable downsides. It’s simpler to just associate people with what you see them doing, and that’s the label they end up with. There’s the Plant Lady. There’s the Man Who Runs The Ice Cream Shop. And, in some towns, there’s the Resident Radical Who Won’t Shut Up About Communism. And because it’s taken as re(a)d (pun absolutely intended) that the Resident Radical will, in fact, talk quite a lot about communism, it’s seen as just ‘their thing’. You don’t stand a strong chance of changing individual viewpoints by lecturing people, let alone the status quo.
I’d argue, though, that there is a kind of radicalism in small towns, one that you might not experience to the same degree in urban settings. When I set up a mutual aid group at the start of the pandemic, I’d envisaged the same set-up as what I’d seen being done in the cities, namely that somebody’s appointed to look after each street and make sure everyone was having their shopping done if they couldn’t go themselves. But broadly speaking, this happened automatically, and it happened because of the fact that everyone vaguely knows everyone in our community. Where help was needed, it was required because people couldn’t afford food in the first place, but that’s an issue imposed on us from the top down, and it’s something people face regardless of where they live. So the mutual aid group instead concentrated on setting up and running a free community larder, which is still operational to this day.
It can be easy to malign smaller communities and to act on the assumption that they’re inherently less radical than urban ones, but I think this is an oversimplification. A different approach is called for, and it’s one that is anything but top-down. Don’t lecture the farmers about Bookchin. Listen to them talk about their work. Don’t ascribe political views to them that they may not hold, and take account of the challenges they’re facing. Just as importantly, don’t assume that they’re unable to grasp political theory or that they’re uninterested in it, or that your mention of anarchism is the first time they’re hearing about it.
Seeing rural communities as a blank canvas, ready for you to paint black and red, mightn’t be the best approach. There are reasons people may be reluctant to nail their colours to the political mast, and it isn’t always lack of political conviction.
So what is the best approach? At the risk of oversimplifying, I would say that going out and helping your communities is the way forward. I find it’s more effective to avoid words like communism, anarchism, and even anarcho-syndicalism entirely, but rather to lead by example and let people come to these conclusions, or conclusions very close to them, on their own.
Look at what’s there in your community, and meet people where you find them. Many if not most small towns have a food bank these days – just another thing we can thank the government for – and not all those running these food banks will be communists. In fact, most of them won’t be. They might not even be anti-capitalists. But they are decent people doing good work, and in joining them, you are in no way compromising your anti-capitalist principles; in fact, you are demonstrating why you have them in the first place.
[NOTE ON THE TEXT: Based off the above article and the author’s experience, below is a practical guide to starting a mutual aid phone box, something they did in their local rural community]
Phone box larders, a practical guide
Members of NEAG and other comrades have been setting up mutual aid larders around the north-east of England. Here’s how you can do the same!
YOU WILL NEED:
- A phone box, ideally one with a door still attached, ideally close to shops
- Some food to start off with
- Some shelves
- Some signs explaining what all this is, blu tack/tape
YOU MIGHT NEED:
- A bike lock
- Hand sanitiser
- A whiteboard and marker pens for mutual aid requests
What is this?
A community larder inside a phonebox, that works along the basic principle of ‘take what you need, leave what you can’.
Try and look like you’re supposed to be there. Wear hi-vis if necessary, pick a time when there are fewer passers-by (early morning works). Same principle as ad hacking.
Phone boxes are owned by BT so there’s no need to deal with local authorities. BT were willing to grant permission in early lockdown but are currently much less open to this kind of thing. In unrelated news, it’s often easier to ask for forgiveness than permission. And also to not ask for forgiveness from corporations.
Signs and advertising:
Best to keep signs short and simple, emphasising that the food’s for everyone and that there’s no limit on what people can take.
We contacted the local press as soon as we were set up. This was to make it far harder for the council to shut us down, because then they’d look like the bad guys. We also have a Facebook page and use Twitter sometimes.
It’s often better to keep non-food items on the lower shelves because of rodent risk, keep an eye on any uncovered/open boxes of food and try not to leave overnight. Good idea to label shelves. It can also be good to secure the shelves to the kiosk itself with a bike lock – this can be a major challenge. IKEA have great sized metal shelves that fit in the classic red phone boxes.
Set up a cleaning rota to make sure it stays tidy (provide hand sanitiser, masks, etc.). Wipe down handle/surfaces. Check use-by dates, chuck out anything unsuitable. It’s good to be seen doing maintenance too, it adds to your legitimacy.
If you see cops hanging round the phonebox as you approach to do maintenance…wait till they’ve gone! They’re not going to do anything to help and can only limit you.
Funding and keeping the larder stocked:
We use Open Collective, which lets you upload the receipt and you get reimbursed within a week or two. Everyone (donor or not) can see what you’ve spent the money on and how much money you currently have, although Open Collective do take a small cut.
We also use TooGoodToGo – this is an app for gentrified dumpster diving where you pay a small amount to get supermarket/restaurant surplus.
Where can these beautiful phone boxes be found so far?
Community larders in phone boxes can be found in many places, including Newcastle, Durham
Have any questions or feedback?
You can contact either Northumbria IWW (email@example.com) or North East Anarchist Group (firstname.lastname@example.org), you can also find them on twitter @NorthumbriaIWW and @NEAnarchoGroup)!