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  • Writer's pictureurbanology

Of Guilds, Castes and Cooperatives

The dialogues between a legacy connected to co-operatives in Europe and that encased within the narrative of community in India could be considered as one more basis for the practice of urbz as it took root in Mumbai in 2008.

These dialogues became the foundation for a nuanced understanding of different methodologies, cultural contexts and approaches to urban practice and theory. It was only by working together, that the neighborhood of Dharavi, where the urbz office in India is located, emerged in our eyes as a distinct, historically shaped neighborhood rather than a slum, its dominant narrative.

Studying anthropology provides a lens that balances individual agency with collective and historical legacy. Thus places are not just about people and their actions, but come with a distinct set of collective histories.

Approaches towards work, vocation, practice and skills are also shaped by similar histories. Urbz methodology evolved as a multidisciplinary collaborative venture thanks to an exchange of approaches that reflected that of its co-founders.

It also raised the question about collectives and collaborations. Is there a specific history of Europe that values these more? Some of the answers to these questions can be found in a book on European Guilds by Sheilagh Ogilvie. By and large a critical and unsympathetic review of the economic history of organizational impulses that shaped artisanal crafts and trading practices in medieval and early colonial periods in Europe, it nevertheless provides a detailed profile of collectives as well. To a non-European, this history continues to be relevant even in a modern context as it appears in diverse ways in business practices, work styles and lifestyle choices still found in Europe.

To an Indian it connects and differs substantially with its own collective histories - including that of caste which shapes structures and social life of India deeply. From this perspective, a neighborhood like Dharavi is full of artisanal, crafts and trading histories that embedded in collective practices - but with a fundamental difference from their European counterparts - they have to deal with deeper prejudices linked to pollution of materials like soil, animal skin and waste which shape its material history - especially Dharavi’s dominant industries of leather, pottery and recycling. It also has to deal with prejudice against the populations themselves that are attached to these histories.

What happens when one consciously tries to understand the socio-cultural profile of neighbourhoods such as Dharavi from a perspective that connects to more global collective impulses, especially those of European guilds? Perhaps it becomes easier to connect with the artisanal energy of the place without the accompanying, more prejudiced narratives. This definitely has shaped some of urbz’s most important projects - ‘The Homegrown Street’ and ‘Design Comes as We Build’.

We continued to be sensitive to the dark impulses of caste. Dipankar Gupta’s book, on the subject, helps to see the connected histories of collective organizations and helps ask other questions; why did the artisanal collectives in India not become powerful urban forces like their counterparts in Europe? Was it the ideology of pollution? Or a stronger division between the value of physical versus intellectual labour?

There are several questions about economic history and urban life that such inquiry generates. When critiquing both, guilds and castes, are other dimensions of collective life also dismissed? When lauding the decline of guilds as monopolistic and medieval institutions do we develop blind-spots around colonial histories and individualistic ownership choices? Do we ignore a very important dimension that such spaces tend to protect? Local resources for example?

The most problematic manifestation of caste in urban India is the fragmentation of space, divided by multiple identities and segregated by hierarchies. Yet Dharavi provides us an example of how many marginal communities, when fused together, became a powerhouse of creative talent with the capacity of civic transformation - as long as their ability to harness collective energy is not tampered with.

For this it needs positive examples of collective mobilization and organizations from everywhere.

One example of how impulses traditionally embedded in guild histories continued to express themselves in contemporary Europe was through the reemergence of Cooperatives as a strong movement. The cooperative movement represented a desire to collectively own connecting this to housing and work. The cooperative movement shaped the thinking of leaders like Gandhi in India and through him even industrialists, most notably the Tata group, which at some point was influenced by Gandhi’s notion of trusteeship (a form of collective ownership) and even shaped some aspects of its shareholding patterns through not-for-profit trusts.

What does it mean to talk about the cooperative today? Maybe we can adapt the history of guilds and cooperatives, to the local management of resources which is one of the strongest concerns in the context of environmental challenges. In many ways, guilds controlled local resources, and made sure they were not overused. Criticism against guilds by global capitalism existed largely because they acted as a barrier against global capital flows and financial expansion. Eventually this lack of control of local resources was evident everywhere, in colonies outside Europe and in small towns and industrial centers within Europe. In a globalized economic context, this lack of control of local resources is one way in which unsustainable practices have become ubiquitous on a scale rarely seen before.

However, this scenario cannot be framed simplistically in terms of locality vs globality. Interconnectedness was and remains a hallmark of human history and the history of trading guilds are also part of that story. What is needed is a more complex understanding of locality as an interface between various expressions of global and regional forces - in the way anthropologist Arjun Appadurai frames it in his reading of globalization. From such a perspective, urban spaces are at the heart of the relation between the local and global and these can be expressed in several ways- not just in the language of individuated privatized worlds but also collective expressions. In today’s environmentally stressed times, paying attention to these expressions may be particularly useful and also help pinpoint a more proactive role to urban practice in terms of its contribution to environmental questions.

Summary from Rahul Srivastava's urbanology talk, 10 November 2022.

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