Wyoming

Solidarity Collective Fights to Survive in 2020

We aren’t going down yet, but we haven’t achieved long-term viability

by Matt Stannard
May 22, 2020

Solidarity Collective’s landing at this space, with its large 1878 main house, and 3-acre estate full of other structures, pasture, and abandoned junkpiles, has always been a work in progress. It wasn’t some comfortable and ready-made space, although it has striking wonderfulness all over it. Making it work was going to take time and money. Making it work as an anti-capitalist commune was going to be even more challenging, because that meant we would not exploit each other or anyone else in the restorative process. At our approaching two-year mark, we’re running out of the resources–all the resources–to make it work.

We are still fulfilling our mission: we host (now virtually) political and social events and open our resources and spaces up for a wide range of socialist, left-wing, intentional community, anti-capitalist, anti-oppression and progressive causes. We give away and sell food. We produce podcasts with hundreds of downloads per month. In some instances, resource and labor shortages, and now the pandemic, have slowed our pace, and at our last annual retreat we lamented our failure to get more projects off the ground, particularly work in anti-racist education. But we are productive and values-aligned enough that our service and output is not the reason we’ve recently come so close to calling it quits.

I point out that we’re still living our values and fulfilling our mission because the consensus of the comrades, at least now, is firmly that deciding not to live that mission and those values would mean that the work we are putting into maintaining the space of the collective wasn’t really worth it. We’re not yet ready to concede we need some kind of Cuban “special period” of capitalism, and i suspect none of us could be capitalists even if we wanted to (capitalism means exploiting the labor of wage workers for profit; on the relationship of worker-owned cooperatives to anti-capitalist politics, see the work of Richard Wolf, among others). We also recognize the limits of the cooperative model.

Finding a way to make it work means finding a way to make all of it work: the finances, the values, our sustainable and nurturing treatment of each other. Our radical egalitarianism is non-negotiable. If we were to fold, it would be cooperatively, with the expectation that everyone will do everything they could to make sure each comrade finds a stable transition and destination.

We have some good things going for us: we’re bringing in 3 new members in the next three months, we’ve gotten additional inquiries beyond those, socialist and alternative economics are surging in popularity, including in Wyoming, and we are still full of energy and ideas to push forward.

But we have some bad things going against us too: Solidarity Collective isn’t presently financially viable in the long term. None of us are remotely well-off financially, and collective ownership was the only option for owning this space. Paying our mortgage, keeping the power and heat on, feeding ourselves and others, maintaining our main work and living spaces are our top priorities, and the lights aren’t going out, nobody’s hungry, we’re warm and safe, and won’t default on the mortgage. But repairs, taxes, and project financing have put us in a slowly growing hole, such that our long-term projections are not viable without increasing our prospective membership by around 50%. In the best case scenario, climbing out of the red won’t take as long as it took us to get there, but it’s not going to be easy or quick, and our current configuration doesn’t have the resources to do it.

We have viable, if modest, business models for the enterprises we run (again, if the point was to make huge profits, we would not be operating communally or within our values), and we are exploring ways to increase our Patreon support, produce more podcasts and grow our listenership, and expand our farming operations. But these take human labor and we’re all stretched very thin.

Partnerships may work for some of them. We’re meeting twice a week, painstakingly (and emotionally) considering possibilities and propositions. We can always re-prioritize our labor but we have no room to reprioritize our financial commitments. They have been massaged and scrutinized over and over again, and we’re at the part of that slide show which shows that we will not survive long-term.

Another important factor is that it’s hard to do what we’re doing. Material and cultural cooperation isn’t just learning the skills needed to share. It also proceeds from the same general principle as socialism: that a wide scaling of shared resources can serve everyone’s needs. “From each according to ability, to each according to need” can only really meet the diverse needs of a group of people if the gives-and-takes are sustainable. Our financial, physical, and emotional resources are stretched and often broken, week after week, month after month. There is no more “from each according to” to take.

We’ve also just had some bad luck. Some of us have lost work due to Covid-19; two comrades’ jobs have been eliminated. Another has had a string of tough health issues. Expected move-ins have been delayed by the pandemic and roadbumps in people’s lives. A guest who was temporarily staying with us seriously damaged an apartment and we don’t expect them to be in any position to fund the repairs we need. At the same time, we’re aware that some unexpected good luck could turn up, as it has before. In any event, we aren’t viable if we depend on good luck and dread the bad knowing we can’t absorb it. Viability under capitalism is nothing if not highly dependent on the ability to absorb bad luck.

I write this even though what sticks out in my reflection over the last two years has been the number of times each person here (and some who have left) have risen above and beyond what might be normally expected of people. Communal heroism has been on alternating display here, from those that live at the commune and those who actively support it from the outside (whose visits and constant help has been the stuff of legend). In other words, I say this feeling strongly that each person involved with this project has at one time or another been vital to our functioning.

That’s outstanding. It confirms, for me, a lot of my beliefs about the viability of solidarity–when people’s care for others is sustained by socialized, restorative systems. We don’t presently have enough people to create or sustain all the systems we need, but we’re trying to find a way.

Why am I telling you this?

Because we’ve always been transparent about our intentions and our resources.

Because if a strong part of you or someone you know tells you that you have been wanting to join an anti-capitalist commune and you like fighting good fights with long odds, this is your opportunity to do it–get in touch and help us soberly and objectively make our decision about the future.

Because if you are fascinated by processes and challenges like these, you are welcome to follow our saga through to whatever conclusion it reaches.

Because regardless of the outcome, we have hard work ahead (dissolving or rebuilding will both take tremendous amounts of work) and we need to maintain our connections to supportive and well-wishing friends: we need the love and connection of those who care about us and what we’re doing.

Because we have accomplished a whole lot here, and that won’t change even if we end this phase of our work, and you can help us celebrate that. We need celebration too.

You can support Solidarity Collective in many ways (contact members for more information) but one easy way is to subscribe to their Patreon at this link.

Why Poor People Don’t Run for Federal Office

by Yana Ludwig
July 1, 2019

I’m running for US Senate as someone who regularly experiences economic insecurity. Here’s a little of how that has been so far.

A few months ago, one of my housemates said to me, “You do the Millennial hustle better than any Millennial I know.” What she was referring to is my multiple part-time jobs and freelancing gigs that comprise my part of keeping the mortgage paid and the lights on.

It was funny and kinda flattering (I’m too old to actually be a Millennial, but I often find that they are the folks I most easily connect with). But her teaching me that phrase brought part of her generation’s struggle into sharper focus: the painful reality I experience around not having work and economic stability is so common for her age mates that they’ve coined a term for it. Ufdah.

There’s pain in this reality. The constant hustle takes its toll, some months there isn’t enough and we have to do that horrible juggling act (pay insurance or get car fixed? delay the dentist for another couple months or skip getting new groceries and eat pantry dregs?). If it wasn’t for the Affordable Care Act, I’d be one of the millions of people who live in fear of waking up in the morning will illness rising and nowhere to go; as is, the co-pay and deductible still discourages “good” choices sometimes.

I’m running for office because of that economic insecurity, and because climate disruption is a real and rising reality for all of us, but especially people of color and poor people everywhere. I’m running now because there is urgency to both, and because the rise of fascism needs people to stand in its way as powerfully as possible. And for some reason I woke up in February with the notion in my head that maybe I could stand up more formally and actually run for office.

So I’m doing this thing, and I’m committed to seeing it through, whether that means it is over in 14 months, 17 months or 8 years. And I was in no way “financially ready” for this.

In fact, I almost didn’t run because of money. One of the first things I learned when I started talking to folks who know more than I do about elections is that candidates can’t pull any kind of salary from their campaign coffers until after the primary filing date closes: in my case, because I’m in a state with a late primary, that means June 6 of 2020. So running means adding to my hustle a nearly full time additional job. That pays nothing. For a year. When I’m already struggling.

But it gets worse. Once you can pull a salary, you are limited to either what you made last year, or what the office you are running for pays, whichever is less. Think that through for a second. That means that someone who makes the big bucks can pull a salary equivalent to $174K (current US Senator salary), and I can pull a salary equivalent of less than $25K, for the same work. It’s blatantly classist and it is hard to believe there wasn’t intentional favoring of rich people to be able to run for office.

My next inquiry was, “Can I crowdfund to help keep my bills paid while I run?” And the answer was, “Nope. Any help people give you because you are running counts as a campaign contribution and is subject to these restrictions.” So that modern desperation go-to isn’t even available. (I can’t even publish this article on my own blog because it is on patreon and will be interpreted as an “ask”.)

My response to learning these things was first despair (CAN I do this? How does anyone do this?!?) then analysis (THIS is why we are so under-represented! I’m seeing the mechanism laid bare!) to deeper commitment (Godammit, someone has to do this. Let’s go!)

But I’m dragging other people along. The financial stress in my life was already there and it is shared stress with my family and community-mates. I’m going through waves of feeling anxious and guilty for this choice, which was, after all, my choice first and foremost. And the more I show up as a candidate, the less I’m available to help get that mortgage paid. 

I’m also harboring deep fears that this is going to compromise my health. I have chronic Lyme disease, which is held in check by daily doses of herbs and being the party pooper who heads for bet at 8:30 most nights. It’s a precarious balance, and falling off that cliff can mean weeks or even months of increased pain and exhaustion. Plus not being able to work for a while, which just leads to more stress and anxiety as the bills pile up and my partner has to double down on his own already exhausting work life.

Then there is the “birds of a feather” phenomenon: I don’t hang out with millionaires, which makes fundraising for anything a challenge. And I don’t have millions of my own money to throw in to my own campaign. An independent candidate in the last Wyoming US Senate race joked in an interview that his wife had agreed to let him spend $1M on his campaign… but he’d do more if she wasn’t paying attention. Isn’t that sexist and cute? And casually unaware of his own privilege?

Reading that article left me feeling the old shame of being a capitalist system failure. I comfort myself with the story that I’ve always been more oriented toward service than a big paycheck, but the reality is that even if I had tried to play that game in earnest, only a handful of people ever “make it” if they don’t start out in a family with a lot of wealth.

So the crux of the “why” is that the deck is stacked against us, both in general and within the minutiae of campaign finance law. My family is going to go through the squeezebox of economic stress over the next year and a half in the hope that I can win a seat at the table and be part of changing the mess that is our electoral system, and win or lose, being a role model for not accepting the hand we’ve been dealt. 

I want public financing. I want Citizens United dead and gone. I want corporate power blunted so that people with a real commitment to the working class and poor can actually stand a chance in our electoral system. And the deeper I get into the stressful, anything-but-justice-based process of running for a federal office, the more fierce that commitment gets. 

Yana Ludwig is the author of Together Resilient: Building Community in the Age of Climate Disruption, and is a candidate for United States Senate. She is a founder of Solidarity Collective in Laramie, Wyoming. 

Photo credit: https://www.yana4wyo.com/platform

 

How to Go Left (& not get left behind) in Wyoming

by Matt Stannard
May 7, 2019

The presumption that the right gets to call the shots is the Wyoming establishment’s greatest political weapon. It has allowed center-right, “moderate” oil and gas pawns to dominate policymaking by allowing the far right and the billionaire class to dominate policy and values rhetoric. Periodically, Wyomingites are reminded that resistance to this arrangement is futile, and besides, we’re all one big small town here, so we best not be getting uncivil about the way we do things (“uncivil” is when anyone besides Al Simpson or Dick Cheney cusses at somebody, or any time poor people, women, indigenous people, queer folks or people of color object to the cultural and material hierarchies of the state).

I’m here to tell you that’s all good old-fashioned Wyoming bullshit. There’s a growing, increasingly vocal, diverse left here, and you’re probably part of it — if you want to be. Here are five ways you can effectively engage the political landscape on this very colonized land.

1. Join (or form) politically independent or transpartisan left groups.

In addition to political parties, there are also independent political advocacy groups that can bring Democrats, Greens, socialists and independents together around common causes or issues. There’s already a Southeast Wyoming chapter of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA is not affiliated with any party but endorses candidates and organizes direct political action around issues of economic justice); maybe you’re reading this in Evanston or Lander and want to organize additional branches. There are progressive coalitions in cities across the state. There are publications and groups like WyoFile and Better Wyoming, there’s Wyoming Equality, and more [I’ll even edit this paragraph to add more groups if you suggest them]. Trans-partisan and multi-party activism gives us strength beyond our numbers and helps us articulate a general left direction for state politics.

2. Support ANY organizations and candidates that push Wyoming leftward — and use your dialogue and solidarity to shape their direction.

If a candidate is left of center but not left of center enough for you, support them and talk to them about why they should be more left of center. If an organization publishes stories about education funding, hate crimes, and LGBTQAA+ rights, support them and push them to cover labor rights and cooperative economics too. Aim to be invitational and not isolationist with anyone seeking to make things even somewhat better here.

In Wyoming, we don’t have the luxury of sectarianism. We can and should be clear about our beliefs and orientations, but we absolutely must find common points of convergence and action in order to push back against the Foster Friessian privatize-everything machine and the incipient fascists in cowboy boots.

3. Stand in solidarity with groups and individuals brave enough to push the boundaries — and proactively defend them when they’re attacked.

The last three years have seen unprecedented creation and growth of an unapologetic, self-identified collection of left, socialist, direct action, anti-ICE and anti-fascist and other groups in Wyoming, and they are out in the streets, on our campuses, in our living rooms, and showing up at the state legislature and other points of engagement. Even if you aren’t a member of any of those groups, those groups need you to be vocal and supportive allies and defenders when they face inevitable right-wing backlash.

Stand with and listen to indigenous people, and with the brave Latinx activists and others fighting against the construction of a private detention facility in Evanston and for freedom from ICE’s brutality across the state. Support Juntos and join their rapid response network. Stand up for the Southeast Wyoming DSA and for the Wyoming Red Star Coalition (remember that the Martin Niemöller poem actually begins “first they came for the socialists”).

There will be pressure from your moderate and conservative acquaintances to denounce “the far left.” Please don’t give in to that pressure.  Those groups are creating good space for all of us, and are taking a lot of personal risks in their endeavors. Be their allies, accomplices, and fellow travelers when you can. Prove to the doubters that an injury to one truly is an injury to all.

4. Speak, write, and share your politics.

A bunch of us here at Solidarity Collective in Laramie produce “Solidarity Wyoming,” a podcast about left politics in Wyoming. We also host public discussions and offer space for groups to have their meetings. We want to amplify those voices that often feel silenced here. We want to see spaces like that activated across the state. Everyone should be amplifying one another’s voices through social media, public discussions, blogs, podcasts, and any other media conduits we can access. If you have opinions, be part of the external political discussion and the internal debates and discussions that will help our ideas evolve and win.

5. Don’t let the right –or the center– define our political reality.

People make political reality when they join together and fight for it. And if every person in Wyoming who doesn’t feel represented by the old elites, who doesn’t want to be defined by underground carbon deposits and their planet-choking extraction and burning, who doesn’t currently vote or votes reluctantly, who’s thinking of leaving but can’t (or is looking for a reason to stay), if all of us got together, we could win local elections, create sizable public demonstrations, form networks of direct action and material solidarity, and support candidates and policies designed to break the hold of ranching and fossil fuels on Wyoming’s means of production–and to actualize Wyoming’s claim to be the Equality State.

Let’s do it. We have nothing to lose but our dusty, oil-and-cowshit-covered chains.

Matt Stannard is Operations Director at Solidarity House Cooperative in Laramie.