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The New Yorker just ran an article on “Communal Living”. Unfortunately, almost all of the places that they referenced seemed like high-end situations and not what I usually think of as the usual intentional communities, let alone communes.
The article features a place called Treehouse that looks a lot more luxurious than most of the communities I know of. It and most of the other places they reference seem to be of the new ‘co-living’ ilk. I am very skeptical of co-living experiments. While it seemed like many of the people benefited from living at Treehouse, it also seemed to be a high end, somewhat profit making venture–which was true of most of the situations mentioned in the article.
I fear that this is just another case of capitalism trying to figure out how to make money from people’s loneliness. There was a mention of the communes of the sixties in the article. I always point out Twin Oaks as an example of a commune that has not disappeared, has not sold out, as an example of bottom up, voluntary communism that works and has worked there for 54 years and continues to work.
Sky Blue, former Twin Oaker and community consultant, has a webpage and I want to add this quote from a post that he wrote that highlights the difference between “co-living” experiments and more ground up built communities.(I have previously published threedifferentpieces from Sky. I really feel in line with what he writes.)
“I think there’s a place for developer driven intentional communities. But I think the kind of community I want to be part of has to come from a group.
“This is where I look more to distinctive communities like The Farm, Twin Oaks, Dancing Rabbit, Earthaven, Arcosanti, Lost Valley, Occidental Arts & Ecology Center, TLC Farm, Songaia, Mount Madonna, Lama Foundation, Ganas, Sirius, Ithaca Ecovillage. I could go on. They all have unique, fascinating stories of a group coming together with a common vision.”
I also would add East Wind, Acorn, Sandhill, Red Earth Farms, the LA Ecovillage, the Tennessee queer communities, and, of course, Glomus Commune. And if you want to look beyond the US, Kommune Niederkaufungen, Christiania, ZEGG, Tamera, Damanhur, and Gaviotas, and, of course, the original kibbutzim. For many of these, as Sky says, “one way or another a committed and passionate group comes together to do the impossible and succeeds.” These are not all income sharing communities by any means, but they are very organic and alternative.
I am glad that co-living and these other ventures exist because people need alternatives and for many folks these are closer to what they have than the more organic communities–hopefully, for others, these ventures are a stepping stone, only a first taste of what is possible. Maybe, for a few, these could be the first steps on a path that will lead them to real communal living.
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The title actually means two things, first, a disaster at Twin Oaks Community, and second, a disaster involving one of the original twin oaks that the community is named for. There was major storm in the area and a bunch of the trees around the community were affected, including the aforementioned oak, which was completely uprooted and destroyed part of Llano kitchen–in one of the oldest buildings on the ground. There were two posts about this on our Facebook feed and here is the first:
This got a lot of attention. On the Twin Oaks Facebook site, 126 folks put emojis up for ‘Wow’, ‘Sad’, and ‘Care’ and they got thirteen comments and five shares.
On our site, we reached 255 people as of yesterday, had sixty-two engagements, and had twenty ‘Sad’, ‘Wow’, and ‘Care’ emojis.
Yesterday, we ran the followup post from Twin Oaks:
I want to talk about money. Not because it’s a fun topic. But because there’s so much to say.
Along with purpose and relationships, I see money is one of the big three broad overarching issues that intentional communities need to deal with, and that define what kind of community people are looking for.
There are a number of facets to the money conversation, particularly for forming communities. Where is the money going to come from to buy property? How individualized or collectivized will finances be? Will there be a community business or will people be responsible for finding income sources themselves?
But there are some deeper issues. We’ve got a lot of baggage wrapped up around money. Security, privacy, autonomy are some big trigger points. But we also tend to have our sense of self-worth invested, so to speak, in our relationship to money, which is highly influenced by our class background. When looking at financial questions for a forming community, I think each of us needs to examine our own relationship to money and be transparent about what we see. If we can’t do that, that’s a red flag. If we can, seeing whether there is alignment in our core beliefs and desires about money will help determine if we can agree on a financial model for the community.
There’s no easy answer to the question of where the money will come from to start a community. That is, unless you do have an easy answer, though nothing is without complications.
You might have someone in your group who has a lot of money, maybe from inheritance. This can work well if you can navigate the potential power imbalance and make sure your legal framework and financial agreements are solid. You might also be able to find an angel investor or donor, though again, there’s potential for a power imbalance and this needs to be approached very thoughtfully.
Or, you might take the approach of finding enough people who have enough income and assets to be able to get a bank loan. This tends to work well for cohousing communities where people own their own homes, and works less well for more collectively oriented kinds of community. The problem being that people who’ve chosen a more conventional lifestyle that has provided that kind of money tend to want a more conventional kind of community and don’t necessarily want to support people who haven’t chosen financially lucrative life paths.
A lot of people have forwarded the idea that there are a lot of boomers with money who need care, and millennials without money who can provide care, who all want community, and can’t we put them together? The central, oversimplified problem is that boomers have control issues and millennials have commitment issues. There are no easy answers.
As someone trying to help start a community, this is certainly a question that’s on my mind, but it’s not where I’m starting. Where I’m starting is trying to find a group of people who have enough alignment (we want similar things and have similar ideologies) and affinity (we like each other) that we are committed to doing something together, and then we figure out what makes sense. This would involve doing an inventory of the assets, liabilities, and income (actual or potential) of the group. This would require a high degree of vulnerability, which I think is crucial in itself. More on that later.
One of the obvious first steps would be to have a founding core group move in together for a trial period. This would serve as a test of our alignment and affinity. It could also help meet what should be one of the key benefits of living in community: It’s cheaper. Living in community should enable resource sharing, which should make it possible to live well with less money, which should make it possible to build assets to take the next step.
There are other potential avenues to financing a new community. The place to start might be creating a community business, rather than buying property. There’s also the possibility of having something mission driven and looking for grant funding, though my understanding is that foundations mostly don’t want to fund land acquisition. The exception to that being the strong interest these days in land justice and funding BIPOC communities. Another strategy is to search for property with existing infrastructure that’s being sold at low cost because it’s not well suited for anything other than it’s original, now-unviable purpose (e.g. small college campuses).
As far as financial models go, broadly speaking the spectrum is from expense sharing to income sharing. Expense sharing is what the vast majority of groups do. There are certain expenses that have to be covered, a mortgage, taxes, insurance, infrastructure maintenance, and the members pay to help cover those expenses, equally or based on use. Other expenses might get included as well, like food or cleaning supplies, or if the group decides to have other shared facilities, like a workshop or tool library. Members are individually responsible for being able to cover their share with little to no community support in generating income.
Income sharing approaches this from the opposite direction. It assumes all expenses, community and individual, are shared and the group figures out how it will collectively meet it’s income needs. There are pros and cons to both models, and it’s a spectrum, not an either or. There’s lots of ways to structure this. But to get creative, I think we need to take a deep dive.
There is a particular belief embedded in modern capitalism, which is that we deserve whatever access to wealth and income we have, and this is experienced very differently depending on your class background. I think this is wrong and damaging. It ignores the legacies of slavery, genocide, imperialism, and colonialism that have established the systems of financing and private property that run the world. It also serves to disconnect and isolate us from each other, makes us feel a false sense of pride or shame about our situation, and exacerbates a sense of scarcity and competition. And all of this reinforces the system by removing any sense of choice or possibility.
I’m an anti-capitalist. I believe capitalism is fundamentally unsustainable. The core mechanic of capitalism is the investing of capital to create more capital which is invested to create more capital, etc. The generation of capital is based on the extraction of resources and the exploitation of labor. So it only works as long as there are always more resources to extract and more labor to exploit.
I also think capitalism inherently trends towards the consolidation of wealth and political power, making it fundamentally unjust. Can you make rules to make it just and sustainable? Maybe, but there will be a perpetual power struggle with forces trying to undo those rules who, because of the trend towards consolidation, will always tend to have the upper hand.
But I recognize that capitalism is the only game in town, so we better know how to play it. I recognize that within the existing system people have very real needs and concerns, particularly parents with children, and older people regarding their care as they age and die. I recognize that we are heavily socialized by capitalism and can’t simply ignore or condemn needs and desires that may be coming from that socialization, or from very real individual circumstances.
So, the question is, can we lay it all out on the table and face it together? Can we create a system based on sharing and mutual support that buffers us from the effects of capitalism without compromising our ability to impact the world? Can we recognize that there’s nothing fair or just about the financial system and address the entitlement or sense of being undeserving that can creep in? Can we allow for differing needs? Can we approach whatever level of shared financial responsibility we have together and not just leave it up to individuals? Can we foster our relationships such that we don’t necessarily need to have our financial contributions be equal?
Obviously I’m coming from a particular place with this. Most of my intentional community experience is in an income-sharing, egalitarian community that holds the ideal “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need.” Over the decades, the understanding of egalitarianism at Twin Oaks seems to have evolved from “everyone should have the same” to “everyone should have the same access.” It also holds that all labor is valued equally, whether it’s cooking, cleaning, childcare, or working in one of the community’s businesses. Twin Oaks is part of the Federation of Egalitarian Communities. To be a member of the FEC a community must, among other things, “hold its land, labor, income and other resources in common,” and “assume responsibility for the needs of its members, receiving the products of their labor and distributing these and all other goods equally, or according to need.”
In starting a new community, in addition to doing the personal work of looking at our issues around money and sharing that with each other, I think we need to identify our design principles. For me, I would adopt something like the two FEC principles above, though I think they can be interpreted with more flexibility than FEC communities have tended to. I want our economic system to explicitly and actively seek to undermine capitalism. I also don’t think we should assume people will live in the community forever and want people to be able to create financial security for themselves in their old age. People also need to have enough flexibility and autonomy to address personal situations if the community is unable to offer support, for example with caring for an infirmed or dying relative. I want there to be transparency and care for each other at the heart of our financial model.
Is there a financial model that can accommodate all this? Probably not without some compromise, but I believe that if we’re willing to do the work we can figure it out.
But it’ll take work. These conversations can be incredibly triggering. And this is why I think vulnerability is so important. Vulnerability is the basis for intimacy, which is the basis for trust, which is essential for sharing, which is what community is all about. These are the conversations I’m excited to have with a group of people committed to taking everything we know about intentional community and taking the next step in what intentional community can be in the world today.
Sumner, who usually does these interviews, is himself interviewed by a grad student. He comments that it’s a “Confused, unfocused interview for the most part. Gets better in the second half.” It was done when he was living at East Wind and he comments about East Wind and other communities.
(Note: It may be obvious to say this, but in this situation I want to clearly state that I, Raven, am solely responsible for this content. Other members of the Commune Life team can respond but I take full responsibility for this post.)
Racism is a systemic problem that permeates every corner of this society. The communes, regardless of how much of an alternative they aim to be, are not, by any means, immune.
Last year, mostly in response to the death of George Floyd and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, several folks at Twin Oaks took the community to task for its racism, intentional or otherwise. We published severalposts on Commune Life aboutthis. There was a moment where it looked like Twin Oaks was going to commit to creating significant diversity there, and Keenan, ever optimistic, saw it as quite possible. The Diversity Team at Twin Oaks became REAL (Racial Equity Advocacy and Leadership) and put out a statement on their intentions. Unfortunately, as often happens, things got mired down and members of REAL got frustrated and left. I know that there are still members of Twin Oaks pushing for change but it seems stuck at the moment.
I know that at Acorn, they (under Ira’s leadership) have been trying to find ways of supporting BIPOC leadership. Two projects in particular that they have gotten behind are the Ujamaa Cooperative Farming Alliance, which “recognizes the need for increased diversity in farming and the seed industry, and the need to provide more opportunities and support for growers from historically oppressed and marginalized communities”, and an attempt in Louisa County (home to Acorn, Twin Oaks, and other communities) to create an “income sharing community run by a dedicated people of color”. My understanding is that Twin Oaks is also supporting this.
Here at Glomus we have a mutual aid fund that we have been using to support (among other things) projects created by folks of color and indigenous people–especially POC created communities–and we have also collected money for the last couple of years for black and indigenous farmers and farming projects at Farmers Markets where we’ve sold our produce. We did participate in the protests last year and we have been talking, on and off, about what else we can do. We are a small, white commune and not immune to racist behaviors, but we have tried to deal with them.
This brings me to East Wind Community in the Ozarks of Missouri. East Wind is a large, overwhelmingly white, community. (I’m not sure of its current makeup, but there have generally been one or two folks of color among the sixty odd member community.) It is also, of all the FEC member communities, the one with the largest percentage of working class folks. It has an unfortunate reputation for racism of the more overt kind. Much of that is from some incidents which occurred in 2018 which some East Wind members engaged in rather racist behavior which led to at least two members of color leaving East Wind and a very uncomfortable FEC Assembly that year where we tried (without much success) address racism (as well as sexual misbehavior and transphobia). It also led to a conference at Twin Oaks the following year where we addressed some of that more directly.
As far as I know, East Wind has never directly addressed this stuff (at the Assembly they were mostly defensive) but my understanding is that the folks responsible for the worst of the racist behavior are now gone–and left some time ago.
As someone who has been to East Wind once (during that Assembly) and has only heard stuff, mostly second hand, I am still going to give my take on what I think was/is going on. Paxus has referred to East Wind as the ‘wild west’ of the FEC communities. I see them as leaning toward libertarian and laissez-faire.
They are, as I said, a bit of a white working class community, and the issues of race and class become uncomfortably intertwined here. During the Assembly, I saw white folks from higher class backgrounds attempting to lecture East Wind folks (often using jargon and somewhat academic language) on their behavior and the East Winders involved generally felt condescended to.
I can’t see East Wind as a community apologizing for their behavior. They promote individual liberty there to the extent that during the pandemic, while Twin Oaks and Acorn (and Glomus) used quarantining to ensure safety, there was no direct response by the East Wind community other than affirm individual rights. I am frankly amazed that they did not get hit by the coronavirus–and I still worry for them.
What we realized at the Assembly and is still true is that the FEC is merely a vehicle for connecting the communes and has no power to police them or enforce any standard. As far as I am concerned, Commune Life exists to report on what is happening at the communes and to let the outside world know that they exist and are an alternative to mainstream living. They are often an imperfect alternative, but they are an alternative nonetheless. I am less interested in pointing out what’s wrong with them (although I am open to publishing critiques and have written a few myself) and more interested in exploring what we can do better.
There are a couple of current attempts to help POC led communities form and I am very interested in supporting those and think that they will do more for folks of color than censuring the current communities for what is a society wide problem. I am interested in how we can create more and better alternatives. I am not interested in attacking the imperfect (and rather fragile, considering how many communities have fallen apart) communities that exist.
Again, I want to be very careful to state that everything in this essay is my own opinion and not the collective view of Commune Life. I invite responses.