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Why we need our DIY spaces and co-operative venues more than ever

today09/02/2024 9

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The dance music press is often guilty of propagating the idea that contemporary clubbing is the natural descendent of the iconoclastic spirit of rave, but in another light, it can be seen as a symptom of its near-total defeat. At the same time as the free party movement was crushed by heavy handed policing and draconian legislation, commercial superclubs were negotiating late licenses with police and absorbing rave’s collective energy back into the logic of landlordism, drinks sales and pricey ticketing. These days, club culture is our norm, even in the self-styled ‘underground’, while the wildly excessive punishments for unlicensed parties – which can involve as much as £10,000 in fines for organisers, the routine impounding and destruction of expensive sound equipment, and possible criminal charges – have driven illegal raves into the hands of promoters that either can afford the fines or are more accustomed to conflicts with the law. In either direction, this disempowers communities from building culture collectively, drastically compromising our ability to hold space for our difference, and to foster collective responsibility for each other’s safety.

Terre Thaemlitz, or DJ Sprinkles, has discussed the idea propagated by the marketers of commercial clubbing, that the club is, by default, a space where the rules are overturned, of open experimentation and liberated movement. On the contrary, she argues, clubs tend to reinscribe all the heteronormative, patriarchal, racist, and classist power relations of the world outside: “The House Nation likes to pretend clubs are an oasis from suffering, but suffering is in here with us.” For all their anti-establishment rhetoric, most of our venues are profit-making organisations, fundamentally built on leveraging space to extract wealth from their audiences, most of which goes in neo-feudal tithes to brewery barons and landlords. Built on the fundamental power relations of property-ownership and renteeism, other hierarchies and exclusions soon follow. Co-op venues don’t exist in some perfect space, outside this dynamic: they’re equally beholden to landlords and to drinks-sales. And it’s true that some of our cherished for-profit venues have also operated for years at a loss, or are struggling to keep up with rents and bills, to maintain cultural or artistic integrity. But what these co-op venues aim for is to disrupt the top-down hierarchy, carving out a slice of autonomy, of egalitarian space, within the limitations of the larger structure.

Read this next: How oppressive policing has eroded rave culture

The influential queer theorist Judith Butler argues that we assemble to display our vulnerability together, challenging the capitalist myth of rugged independence, and at the same time, refusing hopeless dependency. We come together in plurality, with all our difference, interdependent. But we need autonomous space to make this possible. The radical core of the rave movement came precisely from its reclamation of space in the context of escalating privatisation. It continued the work of free festival pioneers and squatters in the countercultural ‘60s and ‘70s, like the Hyde Park Diggers and the organisers of the free festivals at Windsor, Glastonbury, and Stonehenge. The locations are significant: centres of power in the British mythical imagination – respectively, the residence of the monarchy, the alleged site of both England’s conversion to Christianity and of King Arthur’s burial, and the British Isles’ oldest site of spiritual power.

The Hyde Park Diggers’ name refers to the historical Diggers, a proto-communist group led by Gerard Winstanley during the English civil war, who squatted and built a commune on St George’s Hill in Surrey in 1649 to protest enclosures of common land. The Charter of the Forest, a companion document to the Magna Carta, signed by Henry III in 1217, protected the right of public use of common land in England, redressing the abuses of William the Conqueror and his Norman heirs, who regularly enclosed large swathes of land to use as exclusive hunting territories. Guy Standing, in Plunder of the Commons, tells us that “the Charter’s lasting legacy lies in asserting the rights of commoners, in a far more specific and meaningful way than in the Magna Carta”, which protected the rights of aristocrats by restraining the power of the monarchy. While the Magna Carta is memorialised today as the foundational document of British democracy, celebrated by the Conservative government on its 800th birthday in 2015, the rights established in the Charter of the Forest have been largely eroded away by successive monarchs and parliaments, and now mostly forgotten. For Standing, the Charter was subversive, “not about the rights of the poor, but about the rights of the free.”

Read this next: Why James Holden is still inspired by rave culture

The British hippy counterculture recognised itself as part of a protest movement against enclosures of land and liberty which stretches back to antiquity and which continues today with organisations like the previously mentioned Right To Roam. In the ‘80s, as privatisation became the central project of Thatcher’s government, and those that followed. At the same time as the Right To Buy Scheme, which sold off council housing to private individuals, the privatisation of welfare provision, and the accumulation of land by investors and developers, there was a legal and ideological war on travelling communities and free festivals, from the Battle of the Beanfield, the brutal police attack on the New Age travellers’ peace convoy on its way to the Stonehenge free festival in 1985, to the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act in 1994, which criminalised raves. This has only escalated with successive governments, with New Labour’s demonisation of ‘benefits scroungers’ and the current government’s Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts Act passed in 2022, which upgraded trespass from a civil to a criminal offence for the first time in British history, effectively criminalising Romany and traveller communities, and placed new restrictions on the right to protest.

Written by: Tim Hopkins

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