An open letter to Montreal anarchists from the AEELI *
We decided to publish an open letter addressed to all individuals or groups interested in the small milieu of publishing and distribution of anarchist ideas. As members of the AEELI, who are involved in a NPO (nonprofit organization) dedicated to this cause, we believe it is essential that not only our ideas but our actions are known and debated. We hope they are not misinterpreted and that these interpretations do not undermine some people's solidarity. We can not deal comprehensively with the history of our association. However, we must say that we have been through some difficult, though fruitful, years and we hope that the future brings even more stability and that we leave our precariousness behind us.
The year 2008 confronted the AEELI* with tensions that could have had serious consequences. Tenants who leave without paying several months' rent and who refuse any recognition of prior debts or damage done to their premises, leaving the Association financially precarious and activists with the responsibility to deal with the consequences. Without wishing to enter here into all the details, this is what led to conflicts and has raised important ethical questions. It is because we experienced a lack of solidarity towards the Association, even an opposition against the actions of those who struggle for its survival, that we decided to do a brief historical overview of the new administration established in the spring of 2004. This enabled us to put into perspective the recent events, present in more detail our financial situation and defend our actions to elicit reflection or a wider debate.
A Little History
The founding of the AEELI in 1982 and the purchase of the building were made in order to ensure the sustainability of the bookstore project by providing a space and a source of financing from the leasing of commercial spaces. The primary mission of the AEELI is to ensure the existence of an anarchist bookstore; its objective is not to maintain a building to rent out spaces to anarchist projects. With the closure of the Alternative Bookshop and the sweeping administrative changes in 2004, the AEELI formulated and adopted a mission statement where we support anarchist projects other than the bookstore:
"Traditionally, the AEELI rents its spaces to businesses or community groups in order to pay expenses and subsidise the bookstore. Nonetheless, since the beginning, the AEELI wished that all its spaces be used by anarchist projects. In order to do this, anarchist projects housed in the AEELI's spaces were asked to contribute according to their means to the Association's common expenses."
-Excerpt from the Mission statement adopted on August 2, 2004
That said, this new mission statement has never put aside the primary mission of the AEELI, but rather served to complement this mission, that is achievable if we manage not only to maintain the Association, but to make it prosper.
It is also with the new administration that the bookstore (L'Insoumise (the Insubordinate)) became directly linked to the assembly of the AEELI in the same way that a working committee is issued from an assembly and operates by self-management principles. In doing so, the new bookstore, through its standing bookstore committee ("comité libraire"), took on a method of operation that is transparent and accountable, and which has led to a significant involvement of a variety of anarchist tendencies. It is through this quality involvement that the bookstore could, among other things, generate income that allowed it --for the first time in the history of the AEELI-- to contribute significantly and monthly to the AEELI's income. It is important to specify that the bookstore is not a tenant, it is a project of the Association, which contributes according to its means. The bookstore contributes to the AEELI and the AEELI can also help finance the bookstore.
The new administration favours renting the spaces to anarchist projects or those who are considered sympathetic to the anarchist cause. Instead of focusing on commercial tenants able to pay the market price, the AEELI that was renewed in 2004 sought to offer its spaces while subsidising a significant reduction in rent relative to market prices. However, this new economic condition of the AEELI did not improve the state of its precarious finances. In the first four years, the AEELI was unable to build a substantial reserve and carry out extensive renovations. It is also for this reason that tenants have not been able to count on the AEELI to pay for their minor renovations that were done in the premises. It is therefore unacceptable to claim that the AEELI's lack of investment is its own fault, since it is the responsibility of "friendly" tenants given their heavily-subsidised rent. As for major renovations or leasehold improvements, such as the work on the rear courtyard of the building, the AEELI also considers that it is the duty of its member-tenants to freely contribute to the management and maintenance of the project.
A Little Economics
The financial and legal situation of AEELI is worth some attention, because by it, we can judge the merits of its administration's actions. The AEELI is an NPO that makes no profits by legal requirement, which does not pay its administrators, which practices a transparent and accountable administration, and thus it has little in common with a typical private property landlord. Rents paid by tenants and the bookstore's contribution are only used to pay accounts necessary for its survival (property taxes, electricity for all premises, insurance). Since the last major renovations in 1984, there were very little investments for maintaining or increasing the value of the building. The AEELI needs to put money aside in order to create a fund if we want to one day obtain, among other things, a mortgage to proceed with major or urgent renovations. No bank or credit union agrees to lend to an association that squanders its assets or has no down payment and does not have enough of a predictable income to make monthly mortgage payments. With rents as low as they are, the AEELI can not afford to have tenants who do not pay. In addition to this responsibility to build a reserve fund, (similar to the payment of the mortgage the AEELI had from 1985 to 2005) the AEELI must also have a budget to make timely repairs. In any case, the AEELI is not a secret association and anyone who wants to meet with the board of directors for the exact figures is welcome.
In light of this situation, anarchist tenants or sympathiser-tenants who abdicate their responsibilities by lack of organization, lack of seriousness or lack of sympathy are at fault not only legally because they signed a lease, but also ethically, because they compromise the sustainability of the anarchist and bookstore project. Tenants have a responsibility, when deciding to become tenants, to be solid enough to cause no problem, to put money aside in case something goes wrong, and have members who will personally act as guarantors for the tenant-group's commitments. The AEELI can not take on unforeseen problems that tenants may have, but is ready to make the necessary arrangements to schedule the payment of a debt when such a situation arises. It is when there is breach of trust or breach of commitments, that the AEELI has no choice but to take legal measures to require that a former tenant repay its debt. The AEELI can hardly afford to create a precedent where a former tenant can walk away from its responsibilities. The AEELI can not put itself in an even more precarious by cultivating a reputation of laissez-faire. We favour solidarity, but also the value of responsibility.
A Bit of Law
Some people think that we should not legally oblige the former tenants to pay their debts and for the damage they caused. These same people also often think that the Association is responsible for providing premises in good condition for new tenants. Being seen as obliged to pay for damages, but being denied that those responsible for the damage bear the costs, is a sure recipe for bankruptcy. Would new tenants prefer to renounce holding the Association liable for previous-tenants' damages and themselves negotiate with the former tenants responsible for the damage?
Although it is always a difficult decision and because our association is not monolithic, the debate took a long while and was not unanimous. If the AEELI considers the use of legal notices and small claims court acceptable, it is because, since the founding of the Association, we operate in a minimum of a legalistic framework. If the AEELI does not pay its tax or electricity bills, the City, the school tax commission and Hydro-Quebec won't refrain from suing us. In the end, if we persisted, the building would be seized to pay such debts. If the AEELI were to renounce in principle to resorting to the law to obtain payment, it would then be better that the AEELI itself sell its property rather than have it forced on the Association. It is only in a world where our legal or monetary obligations will have disappeared that we can offer these same conditions. To refuse such libertarian realism is to disassociate oneself in advance and conserve for oneself the dominant values of irresponsibility and of being profiteer-victims (whether small or large).
Finally, tenants who make the effort to obtain a detailed, fair lease that protects their rights are ultimately poorly placed to complain if the AEELI decides to use the courts. Without the possibility of arbitration by the courts, a lease is simply a piece of paper that puts in writing practices and understandings that are mutual and voluntary. In this case, when one party wants to unilaterally change the terms of the agreement, nothing would prevent it from doing so. Commitment and responsibility, as well as rights and protection, become empty words. The AEELI does not expect that tenants waive their legal rights once they enter into relationship with it, a request which would be both impossible and immoral. Tenants or their friends should therefore not expect that the AEELI waive its legal rights which consist in demanding that our agreements be respected.
A Little Politics
Well beyond our legal obligations, members of the AEELI tried many times to talk and resolve our differences with the former tenants. This partly resolved some of our differences, but one of the former tenants frankly refused to discuss anything. After the failure of all attempts at negotiation, the members in assembly decided to proceed with a legal notice which could have ended up in small claims court. We do not accept being told that it is still our responsibility to try and try again to have a dialogue. When one challenges us to go to court in order to better disavow us, this is proof of bad faith, and it explains this unwillingness to negotiate. Consequently, irresponsible people who foster this culture of anti-solidarity, all the while wanting to retain their rights within the confines of the state, show a conventional attitude in the framework of capitalist relations.
That we have taken the risk to rent our spaces to political groups --which are not lucrative entities like capitalist businesses from which we would ask for references and a substantial security deposit-- does not make these groups any less responsible. On the contrary, we should expect greater solidarity on their part. However, some people who are in favor of renting our premises to these groups, blame us for using legal procedures, claiming that we should have foreseen their instability and not rent to them. In this case, if we apply the same precaution to all political groups, we should exclude all of them from the outset.
Our association has the responsibility to determine which groups of potential tenants show the necessary seriousness, but this foresight has its limits: as long as the tenants' projects remain active and their members are motivated, they have an obvious interest to keep to their commitments. Whether they are a social club, a political group or a small business, these are not a priori reliable indicators of whom is more likely to be responsible than the other. The AEELI can not predict the success or foresee the disintegration of a project housed in the building, but we intend to protect ourselves against such events. Tenants will be required to pay a few months rent in advance as security and individuals in the group will have to personally be guarantors and signers of the lease.
As the tensions of 2008 degenerated into physical attacks and threats, they have also show the limits of negotiation, and the abandonment of a libertarian praxis by former tenants. Our members do thankless work, voluntarily. It is completely unacceptable that their work exposes them to violence. It is also unacceptable to resort to extra legal methods of violence in an association. It is not only authoritarian, but also at a high risk of attracting the wrath of the police.
While its membership is made up of anarchists, the AEELI is nevertheless a legal association that owns a building and we don't as yet operate in a system of communal property. In this context, it would be impossible to have use of the building premises without being subject to many rules of the legal system. But some anarchists argue that the state system allow us the flexibility to sidestep some of its rules while putting in place a parallel system of conflict resolution. These anarchists should at some point get beyond their pretense of principle and demonstrate this with examples.
We recognize that the Association, its members and tenants will still need to put more efforts to develop and elaborate further a positive framework and alternative to conventional patterns of falling back on rights and obligations in terms of management of "conflicting interests" that characterizes capitalist relations. Establishing a specifically libertarian and communist praxis is not just our responsibility, it is a challenge we have in common.
Adopted by the General Assembly of members on April 22, 2009
*Association des espèces d'espaces libres et imaginaires (Association of types of open and imaginary spaces)