At the risk of seriously offending some dear friends, I want to take a comparative look at the relative successes and failings of two similar projects.  Both began around the same time, both began with very similar ideas behind them; one in a big city, Baltimore, was put in motion by a dedicated group of politically-oriented revolutionaries who- despite a diversity of lifestyles, individual interests and opinions, and personal backgrounds- came together in a politically and socially unified manner to start Red Emma’s Bookstore Coffeehouse.  The other, Langdon Street Cafe, is located in the much smaller city of Montpelier, VT (a “city” only by rural standards) and was put in motion by a small group of people with varying degrees of social affiliation and little if any political commonalities; as we’ll see, this group’s “politics” is loosely existent at all, beyond individualism and lifestyle choices.  Where Red Emma’s was the product of left radicals from a variety of traditions but unified around some of the most basic socialist principles, the Langdon Street Cafe’s “leftness” was a product as much of the larger community’s political understanding as it was any educated and learnt principles on the part of the founders.

To be clear at the onset: I was one of the five people who started the Langdon Street Cafe back in 2004.  The other four people involved in the project are people I consider friends (some closer than others, but that’s a digression) and are all people I care about and respect deeply.  None of my following critique’s about anyone’s personal politics, social mores, or personal priorities should be understood as contrary to these things.  I can like people, hold respect for and care deeply about people without agreeing (or even liking) aspects of their character or political orientations.  I would find no fault in anyone holding the same towards me.  I’m also a big fan of the Langdon Street Cafe and one of it’s best customers: I get my coffee there nearly every morning and have personally spent untold numbers of paychecks there on breakfast, lunch, and beers during a show.  That I find fault in what it is versus what I had originally hoped it to be (or thought it could be) is not to insinuate that what it is has no value, nor that the people responsible for it over the years aren’t some of the best there are.  Whatever political conclusions I may draw bellow- or in general- are certainly mine and it could be argued- perhaps fairly- that the “failure” lies in my understanding or expectations of the project from the outset.  Though I may disagree with that, it could nonetheless be a fair conclusion to reach.

What I’m setting out to write about here though is a comparison between two political projects, both very similar at their outsets, and both arriving today at very different places.  That Langdon Street ever was a political project (or that it isn’t now) may be questionable to some of my fellow co-founders; perhaps contrary points most telling of my overall thesis here.

Both Red Emma’s in Baltimore and Langdon Street in Montpelier were founded as worker-owned coffeeshops.  Both were born not just to be coffeeshops, but to be community spaces where individuals, artistic endeavors, and political groups could find space to gather, feed themselves (both physically and, for lack of a better word, spiritually), and grow and flourish out into the larger world.  In many ways, this is precisely where the similarities end.  True, both offer fairly similar menus of coffees, teas, drinks, breakfast, lunch, and baked goods focused on fair  trade, local, organic, and healthy; both can be said to be more conscientious of alternative dietary needs (vegetarian, vegan, gluten free) than the average cafe.  But whereas Red Emma’s is decidedly and intently a radical space created by individuals with more than a passing awareness of libertarian left issues and history (in fact, generally a dedication to the advancement of libertarian left issues and ideals), LSC has always had a more confused and amorphous identity which is far more oriented towards artistic individualism and liberal class notions than anything identifiably radical.

Before looking at what the two spaces are today, lets first consider what they were on their outset.  Both RE’s and LSC’s birth were as collectively run, worker-owned coffeeshops.  RE’s took a bit of a more traditional infoshop angle, with a radical bookstore as part of their space.  LSC, lacking the will or means to do the same, sublet part of their space to Black Sheep Books (which has since moved out to their own space).  As far as how each space was used in their earlier days, RE’s used their space largely for political and social meetings, presentations, talks, debates.  They had musical acts and art shows, but kept very much focused on using their space as a vehicle for political projects of all (left) stripes to speak their voice.  LSC’s monthly schedule from the onset was focused heavily on music and art; Black Sheep Books was given the reigns of organizing and presenting all non-music or theatre events, first twice a month (almost never on weekends) and eventually just once a month (the enthusiasm and commitment of BSB organizers plays into this as well; it’s not solely a matter of LSC’s impedes).  But from the get-go a certain degree of tension existed between the LSC Collective (the owners) and BSB’s and their events.  True, LSC was continually in tricky financial ground and shows with people drinking lots of beer was a much needed source of good revenue.  At the same time, LSC often viewed the BSB events as foreign, outside, odd.  Tellingly enough I guess, there was little interest from LSC in BSB events because, well, the majority of both owners and workers weren’t interested in radical politics (outside of what they deemed their own personal radical politics- a lifestyle-ist approach which I’ve railed against on this site ad nauseam) (and though I’m referring specifically to the LSC collective/”owners” I’m excluding myself, in general, from this broad stroke since I did in fact attend many BSB events and did in fact engage regularly with BSB both socially and politically and in the planning of events; I was in fact the only LSC collective member to actually volunteer as well at the book store). 

When we get into examining the “collective ownership” and management of the two spaces we really begin to hit the meat of my heartbreak.

The founders of RE’s (I can speak only in general terms here; though I’ve known a few of them, I do not know them closely; nor did I specifically interview anyone from RE’s for this piece- it’s based on common knowledge and a handful of passing conversations I’ve had with people involved with RE’s over the years) came together specifically to establish a radical community space which could support and push forward the ideas of socialism and libertarian principles.  They chose a worker-owned, collectively managed model because that is in line with their basic political and social beliefs.  Though the RE’s collective has never been a platformist group in the sense of any kind of stated tactical, political unity amongst it’s ranks, it is and has always been decidedly radical left, anti-capitalist, and anti-authoritarian at its very core.

Of LSC’s politics, I would say (and in doing so raise the eyebrows no less of my co-founding friends) that I was the only one involved with an overtly political orientation- let alone overtly radical political orientation.  The four other co-founders were each in themselves a mix of individualism, liberal to casual socialist leaning, and above all else “green” in their identity politics.  The very notion of being “worker owned” was one that I put forth at the get-go and which I had to explain, outline, and insist upon.  To be sure, there wasn’t much push-back against the idea as initially proposed, there were always lingering questions and doubts about the usefulness, purpose, and meaning behind “worker ownership” or “collective management”.

In this regard I deserve a fair amount of blame.  Though at the time my theoretical understanding of how to operate (and why) a collectively-run project was decent enough, my real-world experience in collective decision making and management was confined solely to activism and political collectives (such as the former Green Mountain Anarchist Collective- NEFAC VT).  I had no experience- nor did I know anything really about- how the collective model best or even could translate into operating a business within the world’s largest capitalist empire.  On top of this, none of the five of us knew anything whatsoever about running a business- let alone a coffeeshop/art space/music venue.  In the end I think the challenges of the latter overwhelmed the group’s patience for my singular interest in developing the former.  And herein lies the crux of my thesis here and the biggest lesson I learnt (among, many, many lessons) from my experience at LSC: radical political projects do not and cannot be accomplished by liberal or reformist-minded groups.  At the very least, a radical minority is up against nearly insurmountable challenges when trying to organize a specifically radical project with liberals.

Over time I did gain a foothold on many- if not all- of the necessary aspects of how to cohesively operate a collectivized, worker-owned business.  But time and again my insights into some of our biggest challenges were passed over by the nearly constant financial struggles of the business itself and the democratic will of the (liberal) group.  This leads to two separate points: the first is about the worker’s themselves.  As we struggled to understand how to expand the collective we found ourselves in the position of hiring employees to accomplish the labor of running the shop.  Despite a number of attempts to develop systems by which ownership could be offered or even given to “employees”, except for one singular occasion none were ever interested.  This struck me at first as incredibly odd- why would anyone choose to be but a cog in the machine rather than have the privilege of owning one’s own time and labor?  The problem with my thinking, of course, was many-fold.  For starters, we do not live in a society that educates us in any way at all about the nature of ownership, labor for wages, or the like.  People weren’t interested in being “part-owners” of a business because they didn’t identify themselves by their age, class, or occupation as a “coffeeshop owner”.  They were generally twenty-somethings looking to make their minimum wage paycheck and some tips and then go home or out partying.  The very meaning of ownership, let alone “employee-ownership”, was foreign.  Add to that the constant financial struggles and “ownership” simply did not appeal to (nearly) anyone.

Surely, part of this reality is dictated by locale and community.  Baltimore, with over 630,000 people packed into a mere 80 square miles, is about equal in population with the entire State of Vermont and it’s 9,250 square miles.  Montpelier is the country’s smallest state capital with only 8,000 residents, and the larger “Central Vermont” community (Montpelier’s “metropolitan area”, if it could be called that) would boast a population of around 60,000 people if you allow for the fact that this entails the out-lying residents of the region driving nearly an hour on winding back roads.  While I don’t see any reason for these demographic realities to dictate the political nature of either project, it does have a tremendous influence on the social nature of each.  Worker ownership, collectivism, can and does exist among multi-thousand person businesses in New York City as well as a handful of friends or acquaintances in the most rural of outposts.  But in a major metropolitan area such as Baltimore Red Emma’s is afforded a certain degree of lateral movement with their image, offerings, social focus, and of course potential participants.  In close-knit, everyone knows everyone Montpelier, LSC is far more beholden to putting forth a product and space that is inclusive to as many people as possible; simply enough, without as much business as possible from the widest swath of the community it just couldn’t survive.  These are practical, logistical realities that cannot be ignored when comparing these two projects.

The second point here though is about collective management and worker-ownership itself.  Members of the larger community, as well as a number of people involved with LSC, simply fail to grasp the inherent strength in collective, or group, ownership and decision making.  Despite the many challenges and flaws of our group, whenever someone would add or off-handedly suggest that part of the challenge was simply that there were so many owners I simply had to scoff: my hours were long, my stress was high, and the decisions before me often important- thank the Lord there were a group of other people there to rely on and take parts of the burden of running a small business.  What I simply don’t understand is how people do it themselves!  The simple fact of the matter is that each and every one of us has to work; when we feel a sense of ownership, of responsibility, of pride and investment (energetically, personally, or even financially), that’s when we actually step-up to the plate.  When we know that our opinions and experiences matter- to our colleagues and peers and co-workers- and we know that giving less than 100% is not just harming others but in fact screwing ourselves over- that’s when we step it up and give our all.  And any business or project is always going to be its most successful when everyone involved is operating at that  level.  Distracted arguments misunderstanding about the supposed difficulty of occasional voting, or listening intently to each other, or respecting the will or the fears of each other, or cooperating are straw men riding paper tigers.  True, participation (real democracy) is slightly more challenging and time-intensive than dictatorship.  Some of us- generally known as “radicals” or “anarchists” happen to believe that that’s OK and in fact that democracy, despite it’s challenges and occasional sloppiness, is much more desirable and fair than the alternatives.

So Red Emma’s is today a solid, successful radical space where socialist, libertarian ideas are placed on stage for the world to see; where people come together to learn, to interact, to share, or to simply get a cup of coffee.  While in and of itself it will surely not change the world or put an end to capitalism or patriarchy or human suffering, it is a light on the horizon doing something meaningful to shape our world in the biggest sense.

Which is not meant to take away from what Langdon Street is- a solid, successful space where creativity and a “different approach” is on stage.  But at its best LSC’s politics are little more than green, “funky”, artistic, and individual.  The promise of that sort of “revolution” was squashed in the 1960’s.  For all that it is- it is not a political nor a revolutionary space.  And that was a predictable outcome, given the politics of the people who created it and shaped it.  Liberals do not create radical spaces.