ENG
menu close-menu
expand_more

Alte Mühle is a German community of people who have rejected city life, noise and hustle, and decided to live as a group in the countryside. Gradually buying up land, they develop their collective in defiance of the pressures of the modern world. How can one come to Alte Mühle? What unites people in their communal lifestyle? How do their neighbors feel about having such a community nearby? “Not Today, Not Yesterday, Not Tomorrow” talked with Fred who joined the project 9 years ago.

– Hello, introduce yourself, how many years have you been a member of the collective?

– Hi, my name is Fred, and I’ve been a member of the housing project Alte Mühle for about 9 years now.

– How did your collective come about? What is the history of creation?

– The project grew out of a failed housing project on this site. A man owned the whole area and he had the idea of inviting people to join his social housing project. The idea was that they would ‘buy in’ and slowly collectivise the land through ownership.

I don’t think it’s surprising that it failed. I think it is very difficult to collectivise what started as a private project of one (rich) person. Every new member had to share his vision. And apparently they didn’t, so the group broke up.

Our group grew out of a few people who lived here and paid rent to the owner. The group grew through networks in and around Berlin and then, through a lot of work and organisation, was able to get a loan to buy the land and deprivatise it.

– How many years has the collective been in existence?

– We are celebrating our 10th anniversary with a festival this summer.

– How many people are in the collective? And how did you come to live in the collective?

– At the moment, we are 19 adults, 12 children, 2 dogs, 3 cats, and 2 sheep.

I ended up here after leaving England on my bicycle, and, through a mixture of looking for a communal living project in the countryside and falling in love, I came to this place.

“Alte Mühle”, photo by Fred

– What are your values?

– We don’t have any kind of collective vision (that’s an advantage and a disadvantage).

But I would say we are all interested in creating viable alternatives to capitalist, market-based forms of ownership and hierarchical organisational structures (some of us might not describe it in those terms).

I think, however, that this is reflected in the ownership of the land and much of the infrastructure.  And also in the way in which the various projects and groupings here make their decisions. It is widely understood here that the power to change things lies with all of us, and everyone has the right to participate in the decision-making process and has a real veto.

This means that we are landlords and tenants, (and, in some cases) bosses and employees at the same time. 

– How are decisions made in the collective? Are there any disagreements, and how do you deal with them?

– We use ‘consensus decision-making’ for all important decisions that could have a major impact on the project. This happens at our monthly general meeting, where everyone has the right to be heard in the discussion and to veto a decision. The emphasis is on reaching a decision that everyone is happy with. We have a formalised process at the end of the discussions that can have three main outcomes:

The decision is made and everyone is happy with it

We need to have more discussion and perhaps make changes before we try to decide again

The proposal will not go ahead because there are too many opponents

This can easily lead to disagreements and arguments. It can also be quite frustrating because it can be very slow. It can make the group quite conservative because radical proposals won’t get through.

We have another type of meeting (where decisions are not allowed). In these meetings, we can discuss these issues or even personal conflicts more freely. They are not regular and are held when the group feels it is necessary. One problem we have is that there is often not much energy or capacity to engage in this. Some people prefer not to come to meetings or simply avoid people they don’t get on with. 

For smaller decisions, we have our ‘combos’. These are sub-groups that members join for a 3-month period to manage the day-to-day aspects of the project. This includes finance, construction, cleaning, ordering supplies, internal communication (organising meetings, etc), and the public face of the group (organising guests, email account, etc).

“Alte Mühle”, photo by Fred

– Is it difficult to join the group?

– Hopefully, it is impossible for fascists to get in! If you can identify with the project and get along with (most of) the people who live here, then it’s not that hard.

When we have a space/place available, we will announce it via contacts, our website, and local/Berlin email lists. Interested people can start a three-step process:

Come for a short visit to see if it is something they and we could imagine.

Come for a trial period – usually about 3-4 weeks

Move in on a trial basis for ½ year

At the end of this, they can become full members with full voting rights like everyone else. Members have the ability to veto this process at pretty much any time, but in reality, this doesn’t really happen. If the people fit or not, it is usually clear to everyone at some point.

– What development path do you see for the collective? How should the collective develop?

– I would say that there is a lot of potential here. But at the moment, we are quite limited in our capacity because we are bound by the need to renovate buildings to create more living space. We need to make more rooms, to get more rent, to pay back our loans. It is a very important question that we will have to ask ourselves when the main building site is completed. There are many areas where there are projects that could be built on. These include:

Solidarity Guest Infrastructure

Events (music, theatre etc)

Organic and permaculture food production

Agroforestry

Sustainable Forestry – replanting our monoculture

Collective workshops (wood, metal and bicycle)

“Alte Mühle”, photo by Fred

– Are there any problems with the locals or with the government? If so, how do you solve them?

– The area has a reputation (reflected in the results of the last European election) for hard-right politics. The growth of the AFD (Alternative für Deutschland) represents a dangerous political time for Germany in general and especially here in the rural East. We can expect this to affect some of the local politics and civil society institutions. We are walking a tightrope between engagement and isolation.

Some of our members are involved in local politics at the village/town level and in building up local groups to counter the Nazi influence here. Some of us also feel that we can’t always be so public about everything that we represent and do. One danger for us is that local people will use the institutions of the state to create problems. Our structures and precarious financial situation mean that we don’t want to make ourselves vulnerable to the local authorities just because we do things differently.

– Tell us about ‘Mietshäuser Syndikat’, how many people live there, what are the collective’s ideas, what do you have in common with them, and how do they influence you?

– We are members of the Mietshäuser Syndikat (MS). The MS is something like a collective of collectives. It’s members are housing projects like ours all over Germany, who are committed to the de-privatisation of housing.

It would be very, very difficult to start a project like ours without the support of something like the MS. Here’s what it does:

Provides a blueprint (literally also a financial spreadsheet) for how a group with little or no capital can obtain loans to buy land to live on.

This blueprint is recognised by a few ‘ethical’ (how ethical can capitalism be??) banks, who are then prepared to lend money because they have seen the success of such projects. For them, it is a sound investment – they get their money back.

The MS has a wealth of experience in many aspects of housing projects, and there are working groups to provide mutual support to groups. This could be finance, building, membership structures, crisis management, dealing with the state, etc.

The MS is also a source of funding, both centrally and from the membership. Some of our loans come either from the MS or from member groups that are further along the road to full de-privatisation and have ‘spare’ money.

MS ‘owns’ 51% of its member companies. This is a safeguard against the privatisation of the land that has been de-privatised. MS will only use this ownership power to prevent anyone from taking control of the companies and extracting the capital for themselves. It is a very successful protection for all the people who want to collectively control their living space.

“Alte Mühle”, photo by Fred

– Are there many of these settlements in Germany? Could you name a few? And do they communicate and help each other?

– Yes, there are many. Germany, as a rich European state, is a good place to use privileges to collectivise land. For example, the Mietshäuser Syndicat has about 160 member projects.

Mutual aid between us and other projects is another area we could develop much more. Sometimes this place feels like an isolated bubble! But we do have good partnerships with:

H15 – a neighbouring project with a radical left character:

Karlahof a non-commercial land project north of Berlin with a strong focus on food production, with whom we exchange equipment and know-how.

– Last question: is this your last word to readers?

– It can be quite hard work trying to do things differently. Some days I get angry at everything (and everyone!) here. But the great strength of this project – and of de-privatisation in general – is that individuals don’t have to take all the responsibility. If I left tomorrow, the project could easily continue. It is the same for everyone. We have not ‘bought in’ with personal wealth. We are just members of the collective that runs the company. I don’t own any of the capital here. We just have to make sure that nobody has all the information for one aspect (the construction site and finance are areas where this is sometimes difficult). 

“Alte Mühle”, photo by Fred

Sometimes I wonder what the children growing up here (including mine) will think about how the Alte Mühle works when they are older. Perhaps collective ownership and organisation will seem more normal to them because they have grown up with it (unlike almost everyone else). But then they might think what a bunch of stupid anarchists/hippies they are and get a job in insurance. We shall see…