Surviving Utopia

“Misplaced faith in political utopias has led to ruin” – quote from Oxford Languages

Foco can mean a central space, however in revolutionary politics Che Guevara gave it real meaning in guerrilla warfare against military dictatorships around the world. It was a place from which the poor and oppressed could launch their attack on the ruling class.

On the Paradigm Shift, this week, Andy talked “about creating radical collaborative spaces in Brisbane. We hear from people organising this week’s Community Day for Climate, next week’s Laura Street Festival, plus the ongoing spaces at Common House and Moorooka Social Space.” – Andy from Paradigm Shift

Andy interviews people from four contemporary radical spaces around Brisbane: Turnstyle Community Hub in Laura Street, Common House in the Valley, Moorooka Social Space and Extinction Rebellion’s Community Day for Climate at Northey Street Markets.

unite dies but Foco lives!?
Paradigm Shift often looks at an evolving need for community. None of the spaces discussed on this particular show existed more than ten years ago, illustrating the precarious existence for organisations that run these spaces. For example, unite, set up only a few years ago (2016) has split and dissolved. Common House is now run by a management committee from a number of different collectives.

Interesting also is the generational nature of theses groups. Faced with a climate crisis, a global pandemic and the sabre rattling of war mongers, there is a need for stable lasting organisation of revolutionary groups … till now, unattainable.

It is interesting to go back and hear Dave Eden speak when unite was originally set up:

It seems that unite was unable to live up to at least one piece of advice by Dave Eden: “Run, comrade, the old world is behind you!” so it ran out of puff. Not that there is any harm in a little utopia in political organisation.

It is very difficult to maintain any level of organisation, something that the more rigid Socialist Alliance did manage for many years prior to being pushed out of that place by the more anarchist unite. Socialist Alliance are still going at the Albion Peace Centre.

During the ten years I did Paradigm Shift on 4ZZZ, I would walk by Common House on Fridays after doing the show from noon till 1pm. Nine out of ten times I knocked on the door at 74b Wickham St, Fortitude Valley, there was no one there. An empty space. Now there’s a radical concept.

Many communities in Meanjin
Some longer lasting political groups tied to the Left in some way that were not covered on the show are: Foco Nuevo, the Cuba Friendship Society, Justice for Palestine, LeftPress Printing Society, the Big Ride for Palestine, Andy’s own community, the Catholic Workers, Just Peace, Friends of the Earth & Stop Adani, and Politics in the Pub, Julian Assange supporters and of course a number of union based communities which get together each year on May Day. There is even Paradigm Shift itself that has gained a following since 2009, thanks to mainly to Andy.

And let’s not forget 4ZZZ, still surviving since it received its ‘educational licence‘ way back in 1975. 4ZZZ an independent radio station came out of the anti-war movement. Zed’s survival depends almost solely on that common Australian occupation ‘volunteerism’. Individuals (like Andy) and small collectives put together their own shows under the umbrella of an organisation that took over the old Community Party of Australia HQ at 264 Barry Parade, Fortitude Valley, a building that even survived a vicious bombing by the far right in 1974. Sadly 4ZZZ’s main focus remains, music before politics.

Humphrey McQueen disparagingly calls utopian political organisations such as those mentioned above, ‘grouplets‘. Sometimes his the description fits. When the organisation rests on the efforts of only a few people, there does seem some justification for his thinly veiled contempt. But setting up is hard, but sustaining organisation is harder.

For people of Humphrey’s generation the glory days were embodied in big events like the popular FOCO. However even this lasted only about 14 months, firstly at the old Trades Hall and then at AHEPA Hall in West End. Foco rode the crest of the anti-Vietnam war movement and counterculture that grew with it.

Foco Nuevo, on the other hand, has been going since 28 March, 2008 and is a monthly concert featuring local and international musicians from many different genres. It takes the form of the Latin American ‘peña‘, a regular performance space for Jumping Fences and guests, held on the First Friday of every month. It has even survived the pandemic. There website provides the particulars:

Foco Nuevo ”was initially organised in association with Ahimsa House, a community space in West End, Brisbane.

The name Foco Nuevo refers to Brisbane’s FOCO Club, a lively and alternative performance space which ran on a weekly basis during the late 1960s. The mix of music and social issues has given a particular character to Brisbane music over several decades, and has never been far from the inspiration behind the song writing of Jumping Fences. Their original work and the influence of their long association with Latin American music have given them a unique profile in Brisbane.

Social groups
There are a number of other progressive social groups in Brisbane (Meanjin).

There’s the St Mary’s community that formed because of the need for social justice in the church of Rome. Disillusionment by progressive people about the failure of the church to provide a space for women and gays was a strong motive behind this community that often thrived in the old church next to what was St Vincent de Paul in South Brisbane. Two priests, Kennedy and Fitzpatrick consistently raised the need wider participation in the church until both were de-frocked by church elders in Rome and the old order re-established. After all, the church in Rome is a gay men’s club led by luminaries like George Pell, the former leader of the church in Australia, once convicted of pedophilia escaping prison only through the auspices of the High Court of Australia who quashed the conviction by a jury on technical grounds.

Then there’s the aboriginal community in Musgrave Park, Jagera Arts, WAR and the Sacred Fire which is about sovereignty and first nations land rights.

There’s the Latin-American community (groups like Chile Solidarity and CISLAC) both loose formations around solidarity with the struggles in Latin America. People often get together at various venues including the Spanish Club, Foco Nuevo, Cuba Friendship events and some restaurants.

Down the years, Radical Feminists have organised in the various places that have evolved from the broader women’s movement including Women’s House. This is the subject of a whole history in itself, one that I am not qulified to give. I know Marg Reid has assembled a history of Women’s House and this includes long term struggles by women for reproductive rights, equal pay, and protection against men’s violence.

As mentioned on the Paradigm Shift the anti-poverty network is trying to make government accountable for the widening gap between rich and poor, particularly women.

A full treatment left-wing community groups in Brisbane in this short article is impossible.

Economism – wages and volunteerism
The second utopian element I sensed there (at an anti-Adani camp at Clermont) was that all of us were working for free. This might seem like a strange goal, when so much political activism over the last couple of centuries has been workers organising for better pay. ” – Traces of utopia by Andy Paine.

In the 1890s Australian Trade Union movement set up the Labor party to obtain political power to win economic justice for workers in a world dominated by robber barons who achieved great wealth by exploiting workers and keeping wages down. The barons wanted workers to provide their labor for free. So it is ironic that Australian society is one of the strongest examples of volunteerism in the western world. Workers doing work for free. Women understand this because they have been doing it for generations.

In Sydney’s west, the epicentre of the the Covid 19 outbreak, the most economically productive area of Australia, has had to resort to volunteers to fight poverty in the working class community. The NSW government went AWOL while community groups have had to wrestle with the reality of people and their families locked up for months in their units and houses under Covid 19 restrictions. And along came the volunteers…

Anyway have a listen to the Paradigm Shift and see what you think …

Ian Curr
25 October 2021

Traces of utopia by Andy Paine

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