To Boldly Go… Where Many Have Dreamed Before

By GPaul (also just published on the Point A website)

At this point a cultural icon around the world, Star Trek is known for its futuristic tech, its memorable lines and characters, the adventures of the crew, and its noble and optimistic opinion of humanity. But standing quietly in the background of all the Star Trek TV shows and movies is a very radical set of economic assumptions and propositions more relevant to the humanity of the present than futuristic tech like transparent aluminum or even tricorders. The radical economics of Star Trek were recently given thorough treatment in a new book, Trekonomics, by author and nerd Manu Saadia. In the book, Saadia makes a point and distinction of particular interest to those of us working to organize a deeply egalitarian and democratic economy and society.

https://player.vimeo.com/video/131823542

Trekonomics from Inkshares on Vimeo.

The United Federation of Planets operates without money and without markets, a point referenced repeatedly by the crew members. The Federation is, in Saadia’s words, “post-economic”, his preferred way of characterizing their post-scarcity society. “Economics is the management of scarcity,” says Saadia. “With Star Trek, at least inside the Federation, you have basically overcome what [John Meynard] Keynes called, ‘The Economic Problem,’ … the allocation of scarce resources.” It’s easy to see how this is possible in a world with replicators capable of synthesizing anything that a Federation citizen might desire. What’s important to note, though, is that replicators were only introduced in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Even in the pre-replicator world of Star Trek (The Original Series) money and the market have been abandoned as barbaric relics from a less civilized and less humanistic era. In Star Trek, the movement beyond economics is presented not as the result of some cornucopia of technological automation but rather as a policy choice… and as a strongly moral policy choice, at that. The fact that the Federation’s movement beyond economics is a choice continues to be made throughout the various shows by the existence of technologically comparable societies (epitomized by the Ferengi) where money, the market, and scarcity still obviously exist.

Some people just really love money. (All screenshots by Eric Grundhauser via Atlas Obscura)

The flip side of scarcity is abundance, the state of having enough or more than enough of what everyone needs. It is a utopian material condition that many have dreamed of and sought throughout human history and across political traditions. What is described here in Star Trek are the two general methods of approaching abundance. We might call them demand side abundance and supply side abundance. Supply side abundance is the easier one to imagine and is embodied by the post-replicator Star Trek. The means of production have developed to the point that an infinitesimal amount of human labor is transformed into an infinitude of materials goods. It no longer makes sense to talk about prices when your costs are essentially zero. Without the need to manage scarcity the market fades away as product after product is decommodified. It is the communism described by Marx as the near inevitable result of Capitalism’s drive towards mechanization. Our friends, Las Indias, have done a lot of good work exploring the ways in which this form of abundance is beginning to breach into our world, the challenges it poses to the status quo, and the opportunities it presents to egalitarian communalists (see their by donation ebook The Book of Abundance or The Communard Manifesto).

Picard is served a potted plant by a malfunctioning replicator. (All screenshots by Eric Grundhauser via Atlas Obscura)

However, as exciting as a dawning age of supply side abundance is, what I find even more exciting is demand side abundance. By this I mean the world of abundance that is already available to us and has been, pretty consistently, for a very long time. As the stone soup story suggests and as Bucky Fuller calculated the existence of scarcity in the world is not a problem of production but a problem of distribution. But when we talk about distribution in this way we’re really talking about something bigger. We’re talking about Demand or how decisions are made and priorities are set not just around who gets the stuff that is produced but about what is produced in the first place and how it is distributed and made available. Like how we, as a species, decide how many Ferraris are produced versus how much malaria medicine. Or how we decide where we pile up food and when it gets thrown out. Or how much to spend on lawyers to fight health insurance claims versus how much to spend on health care. Any number of decisions, really. The idea hinted at by pre-replicator Star Trek, and the idea clearly explored by Ursula K. LeGuin in The Dispossessed, is how a society can choose to create abundance even in a situation with limited resources. That is to say, how a society can choose to make sure that everyone has enough of what they need. The path that LeGuin’s moon anarchists take is the same path taken by our very real and present day Federation of Egalitarian Communities. That path is one that both works to make distribution as efficient as possible (by extensive sharing, intensive cooperation and coordination, and the removal of barriers to access) while at the same time thinking critically about what is needed to live a good life and, as much as possible, finding non-materialist paths to satisfaction and enrichment. This is what makes LeGuin’s anarchists a peaceful and rich people despite living on an isolated desert planet with very scarce resources and it is what makes the communes of the Federation able to provide comfortable, secure, and satisfying lives (of an arguable middle class or upper middle class quality) on sub-poverty level incomes. It is an abundance that is available to all of us right now if we can change the way that we relate to each other and to our economy.

We are living science fiction. May our message of peace and abundance one day reach the earth… and finally the stars.

The Federation is on its way. (All screenshots by Eric Grundhauser via Atlas Obscura)

To Boldly Go… Where Many Have Dreamed Before

Communities of Communities

from MoonRaven’s Social Alchemy Blog (Saturday, June 9, 2012 )

I’ve written about the Federation of Egalitarian Communities in my post [on my blog] on Egalitarian Communities, and about Twin Oaks in a post entitled Real Models 1:Twin Oaks. What I want to write about here is what is happening in Louisa County, Virginia, where Twin Oaks is located.

Twin Oaks has been around for forty-five years as of this year and has a population of about a hundred people (adults and children). While this would be impressive enough, in 1993 some folks from Twin Oaks helped found a second community, called Acorn. (Yes, this is a spinoff reference.) Acorn is located in Mineral, a town over from Twin Oaks, and now has about 30 members. Last year, with help from Twin Oaks and Acorn, work was begun on Living Energy Farm.  This will be a community, education center, and farm which will also be a demonstration of how it is possible to live without fossil fuels.  Twin Oaks and Acorn are members of the FEC and Living Energy Farm is a Community in Dialogue with them. All are located close to one another in Louisa County.  (Update: As of 2016, there are now five income sharing communities in Louisa County–not only Twin Oaks and Acorn and Living Energy Farm but also Sapling and Cambia )

…given the size and stability of Twin Oaks and Acorn, with their help, this (and Living Energy Farm) will probably succeed. In fact, at this point, Twin Oaks and Acorn both have long waiting lists of people who want to get into them. The waiting list at Acorn is at least six months and I suspect the waiting list at Twin Oaks is a lot longer.

Land Day at Acorn

I find what’s happening in Louisa County very inspiring. There’s a growing community of communities there within a few miles of each other, backed by the durability of Twin Oaks (and now Acorn) and an apparent real longing for community, as evidenced by the waiting lists.

But what’s really amazing is that Louisa County isn’t the only place this is happening. In Rutledge, a small town in northeastern Missouri (population 109) there are also three growing, thriving intentional communities that are working together.

Sandhill Farm is the oldest, started in by four 24-year olds in 1974, now at maybe eight members. That may not seem impressive, but the fact that Sandhill was there and supportive encouraged a small group of students from California who wanted to build an ecovillage to settle there in 1997 (incidentally, the group began to converge in 1993, the same year Acorn started). Dancing Rabbit now has sixty-something members, residents, and children. They are talking about wanting 500 to 1000, but even having sixty now is pretty good. Among other things, Dancing Rabbit wants to have a “Society of Communities”. One community within Dancing Rabbit is Skyhouse.  Dancing Rabbit isn’t an FEC community but Skyhouse is (and so is Sandhill). Then, in 2005, Red Earth Farms, “an intentional community of homesteads” bought 76 acres of land adjacent to Dancing Rabbit. There’s now about seventeen adults and children living there. From what I understand, there is a lot of traffic back and forth between the three communities–and a lot of support for each other. And, not far away, in La Plata, Missouri, is the Possibility Alliance, very interesting community of nine folks that has some links with the three Rutledge communities. In addition, some students from Colby College are making a film about the three communities called “The Rhythm of Rutledge”.

 

Sandhill folks having fun

Paxus has written a post called “The best parts of America”  where he talks about all these communities as well as some of the other FEC related communities around the country. It’s a nice overview of this process.

What is so exciting to me is the building energy in Louisa and Rutledge. Far from the urban mainstream, folks are gathering (about 130–so far–in VA and nearing a hundred in northeastern MO) and supporting each other in building communities. The long waiting lists for the communities in Virginia shows the hunger for this and the durability of the communities. The fact that Twin Oaks has also been running strong since 1967 is an interesting answer to “Whatever happened to all those communes from the sixties?” I think it’s also significant that Sandhill has been hanging in since the seventies and has managed to attract and support two other communities in their small town. Building strong vibrant egalitarian community is possible, and even very successful, at least in two places in the US.

Addendum (6/12/12):  I finally found a piece of info that I was looking for.  I never really understood why the folks at Red Earth Farms decided to create something separate from Dancing Rabbit.  From Laird Schaub’s (of Sandhill) blog Laird’s Commentary on Community and Consensus  in a post labeled ‘Culture Forming in Northeast Missouri’:
“When some DR members were unhappy about the community’s adamancy about maintaining a high population density, they started the spin-off community of Red Earth Farms, on 76 adjoining acres in 2007. Red Earth is based on a more agrarian, homestead model of land development.”

Addendum (5/13/16): There are now five (5!) income sharing communities in Louisa County, the two newest being Sapling and Cambia.

Quote of the Day: “Why We Exist–Because we share so much, and because we are committed to a vision of community which transcends our individual groups, we have joined together to cooperate on publications, conferences, recruitment efforts, community support systems including health care, and a variety of other mutually supportive activities. Our aim is not only to help each other; we want to help more people discover the advantages of a communal alternative, and to promote the evolution of a more egalitarian world.” – from the FEC website

 

Communities of Communities

Taking sharing further: A co-oper’s experience of Twin Oaks

By Telos

Until about a month ago, I called a housing cooperative in California my home.  Affectionately named Cornucopia, it was a place of shared responsibility and benefit.  Together we cooked meals, split the cost of common food, kept books, tended the garden, and so on.  Though much was shared, each member still paid rent and board, many of us working nine to five jobs earning the money to do so.  I wanted to contribute more of my energy directly to the community and less to the pursuit of a paycheck.  Wanting to take the cooperative ethos further and, having been interested for some time in income pooling, my desire for radical sharing led me to Twin Oaks.

TaChai

For those who may not be familiar with it, Twin Oaks is an income sharing community in rural Virginia, home to around 85 adults, as well as some children.  It is well established, approaching it’s 50th year.  Twin Oaks is relatively structured compared to some other income sharing communities, sporting labor sheets assigned to each member and visitor weekly and a robust collection of policies.  The visitor program at Twin Oaks is also relatively structured, designed to give those visiting the community (and possibly applying for membership) the best possible look into how the community works and what daily life at Twin Oaks is like.  The three week visit is packed full of orientations (or “oreos”) to various aspects of life at Twin Oaks, covering topics such as the labor system, social life, and governance structure, among many others.  Outside these orientations, visitors spend their time at Twin Oaks much in the same way a member of the community does: engaging in the community’s various areas of labor, eating two meals a day at the steam table, attending community events, or otherwise spending their free time as they wish.  Visitors even live in their own small living group (SLG) at the visitors cottage, much as members of the community live in their own various SLGs at the different residential buildings.  Coming from a housing co-op, this three week visitor program was my introduction to life at a commune.

It was immediately apparent that Twin Oaks had a lot in common with the cooperative community I arrived from, and so I felt comfortable as a visitor very quickly.  In many ways it felt like I never left home.  A day spent at Twin Oaks shares much with one spent at a housing co op: both are filled with gardening, small construction projects, cooking, cleaning, and generous amounts of time spent with community-minded people, either over work, a shared meal or just enjoying one another’s company.  Cooperatives and communes have similar atmospheres, being built around similar values and sharing community as their center point.  It would actually be inaccurate to say Twin Oaks is not a cooperative; it is even more so a cooperative than a housing co-op.

ZK

Degree of Sharing

Sharing is the main uniting factor between co-ops and communes, but they are set apart by a difference in the degree of sharing.  Housing co-ops are places where some time, space and resources are shared, whereas communes are places where nearly all time, space and resources are shared.  Few Twin Oaks members own their own tools, instead using the community’s.  Bike racks located throughout the community are full of bikes, available for use by whoever happens to take them.  Members of Twin Oaks even share clothing, borrowing from and returning to their collective closet as needed.  Most importantly, Twin Oaks shares its income, generated through community owned businesses, including the manufacture of tofu and hammocks, as well as others.  One need not leave the community to participate in these income generating businesses, and work in these businesses is valued the same as domestic work, such as gardening or cooking.

This generation of shared income through cottage industry creates a blur between home life and work life not present in housing co-ops.  Members of housing co-ops often split costs, but the money used to pay those costs usually comes from outside jobs that members work.  Consequently, co-op members must budget their energy between their community and their jobs.   At Twin Oaks, this split need not be made.  Members are always at home and always at work, since their home and their work are the same.  Eliminating the need to earn income elsewhere means members of Twin Oaks can focus energy more intently on their community, but it also means they cannot leave work when off duty and have less opportunity to take space from personal conflict.  A community without cottage industry allows members to escape work at home or vice-versa, but this is not possible at Twin Oaks

For me, the blurred line between work and relaxation at Twin Oaks, had a therapeutic effect:  I found myself to be more relaxed, even though I was just as busy as before I arrived at Twin Oaks, if not more so.  My personal theory is that I was experiencing the recovery of energy that would otherwise be wasted on the tension between work and home life.  While working at Twin Oaks I was not anxious to be done, and while relaxing I was not stressed about work.  I found myself better able to put my energy into the moment at hand, since I didn’t feel I had someplace else to be.  Where else was there to be, besides at Twin Oaks?  While the combination of work and play may feel claustrophobic to some,  I enjoyed the merge since, in my eyes, a life of work-play is more desirable than one with an artificial divide between these aspects of life. While living and working in the same community may be difficult when conflict occurs, such conflicts may provide opportunity to develop new relational capacities. Though combining work and home may come with challenges, I believe many would find the challenges outweighed by the benefits of increased continuity between career and community

TO Bikes

Labor and governance systems

Aside from its increased level of sharing, Twin Oaks also differs from a housing co-op in its labor and governance systems.  Very little labor at my previous co-op was assigned, most being done on a voluntary basis, and our governance structure followed what I would consider a fairly standard model for a non-profit, featuring a board of directors and a handful of committees that advise that board.  In contrast to Cornucopia’s minimal assignment of labor, members of Twin Oaks must meet a weekly labor quota of 42 hours.  Some creditable work can be picked up anytime, such as weaving hammocks, but most is scheduled each week by labor assigners, who take the schedules and work preferences of each member into consideration.  Labor balances are tracked such that members consistently working more than the required 42 hours accumulate vacation time, and those consistently working less than quota fall into “the labor hole,” which can be grounds for expulsion in extreme cases.

The governance system at Twin Oaks, a unique planner-manager system modeled after B.F Skinner’s novel Walden Two, is closely coupled to it’s labor system.  The internal economy of Twin Oaks contains around 100 labor areas, like garden, dairy or tofu, each area with a manager or managerial team.  Each manager leads decision making in their particular labor area, determining how to allocate available money and labor in that area while keeping within yearly financial and labor budgets.  Managers at Twin Oaks have considerable decision making power, but they operate transparently, with community input, and unpopular decisions can be overturned by appeal or popular veto.

Unlike within the decentralized, planner-manager system of Twin Oaks, most decisions at my co-ops of origin were made by the same body: the entire group.  Some members were entrusted to oversee particular tasks, for example the house bookkeeper, but such roles came with very little decision making.  Instead, house level decisions would be made by the entire residency using consensus, and organization level decisions would be made by the board of directors (also using consensus), with input from its various committees.

Since most decisions at Twin Oaks are made by its numerous managers, its central leadership can afford to be very small.  The top decision making body at Twin Oaks is its board of planners, built of three planners on rotating 18 month terms.  The planners do not micromanage the managers, but instead are only responsible for affairs that fall outside any managerships or arise in an emergency, such as long term visioning for the community or mitigating unexpected damage to a building.  In comparison, the non-profit corporation that Cornucopia belongs to houses a number of people similar to Twin Oaks, but has around 15 directors on its board.  This is partially because the governance structure used is less decentralized than at Twin Oaks, so proportionally more decisions fall to the board of directors.

TO Greenhouse

Written versus spoken culture

The last point on which I will compare Twin Oaks with my co-ops of origin is a significant difference in their cultural mediums.  While communication at Cornucopia and many other communities I’ve visited takes place though conversations and at meetings, Twin Oaks has a largely written culture.  It is rare to find any majority of Twin Oaks members gathered in a single meeting, a fact made possible in part by the decentralized planner-manager system.  One of the few times this does happen is during “feedbacks,” when a member has broken an agreement and the entire community offers their feedback to that member.  More frequently, small groups will meet to discuss some shared interest or work area, but most community wide conversations take place on the O&I (opinion and idea) board, located in the main dining hall at Twin Oaks.

Two dozen or so clipboards hanging on the O&I board act as a forum for just about anything members of Twin Oaks want to discuss as a community.  The O&I is home to proposed policy changes, commentary on community projects, ideological debates and articles members would like to discuss.  Members read and comment on each other’s papers posted to the O&I, often discussing topics more thoroughly than would be possible in the space of a meeting.  Even when announcing an event to the community, asking to borrow something or communicating one to one, the culture of Twin Oaks is uniquely written.  The main dining hall at Twin Oaks contains a prominently displayed board designed to hold 3×5 cards, on which members make announcements, call for help with projects, seek community around a shared interest, and so on.  Older cards are slid to the right and eventually removed, or cards denoting an event are moved to the “today” board on the day they occur.  The Twin Oaks dining hall also has a wall of  pouches, one for each Twin Oaker, where members can leave each other personal notes on 3×5 cards

The written culture of Twin Oaks, decentralized governance system and sparsity of meetings make it easy for members to ignore conversations not relevant to them, and even makes it possible for members with different areas of focus to generally not interact with one another.  While some may see the option of avoidance as a weakness to the Twin Oaks system, ignoring one conversation can allow a member to focus on another more intently.  Forced participation is unenjoyable, both for reluctant participants and those working with them, so allowing members to choose their own areas of engagement is universally more fulfilling, and does not create needless tension.  Still, there are clear benefits to being well informed about happenings in the community, and many members choose to remain widely engaged, even though nothing forces them to.

TO Card Board

A co-opers conclusion on communes

I came to Twin Oaks for the same reason I first joined a cooperative: to live a deeply held belief that society should be based on sharing and cooperation, instead of on cutthroat competition.  Those who joined cooperatives for a similar reason may find the move to a commune such as Twin Oaks a natural one to make, and the similarities between these two types of communities are abundant.  Communes hold the same basic values as housing cooperatives, but they go further to live them.  Sharing income may be an alien and somewhat frightening concept to some, but if we wish to create an economy in which resources can be shared fairly, sharing resources fairly among ourselves, as is done in a commune, is an important place to start.

Some challenges may arise in an income sharing community, but ultimately I believe these challenges have the potential to make us better people.  Living and working with the same group of people may make it difficult to escape from personal conflict; let it be an opportunity to solve our personal conflicts.  Some people may prefer to keep their home and work lives separate; let their combination be an opportunity to have fun with our work and be serious about our play.  Sharing decision making with 100 other people may feel like a sacrifice of personal freedom; let it be an opportunity to be kind to one another and find common ground.

Visiting Twin Oaks was a superb first experience of commune life, and I now find myself at the start of a journey exploring other income sharing communities, both urban and rural.  Housing co-ops are wonderful, and I am so glad to have lived in one, but if I may make a suggestion to current co-opers, it would be this: go further; join a commune.  

Taking sharing further: A co-oper’s experience of Twin Oaks

Commie Couture

by Marz Corbeau from the blog Professional Communist (February 7, 2016)

A few nights ago, I combed through the racks of Commie Clothes, fishing out a pile of beautiful dresses and trying them on. It was, in a small way, a dream come true.  Many people here cite the internet as how they came to know of Twin Oaks but I don’t know of any that point to our little “thrift store” in the attic as what they were searching for.

Processed with VSCOcam with a5 preset

When I was in high school, a group of my friends started gathering to talk about leftist philosophy and practice. My history class at the time had begun to deeply challenge my political beliefs. As a newly minted socialist, I threw myself into the work, researching works to discuss and planning activities to coordinate.

One project the group was interested in was communist models of sharing clothing. When I went to find more information, a blog post about Commie Clothes was one of the first entries to pop up.

Commie Clothes are clothes held in common by the community. You can take clothing back to your room and “privatize” it or return it to the public laundry when you’re done. People put clothes they don’t need or want to the public laundry and workers wash and hang them up in the attic of Harmony.

When I first read about it, I was sure it could never work. Surely all the useful or beautiful clothing would get privatized and the only clothes left would be more a waste of space more than anything else.

But now having seen it in person I can see what I overlooked at sixteen – people are complex and different. The other evening, I pulled out four beautiful dresses all in my style and size. I realized, I couldn’t see many others on the farm vying after them. Our tastes and our shapes vary. Our needs and our desires change. What I want from clothing is largely unique to me.

Capitalism creates a narrative of constant competition where none actually exists. So much scarcity we experience is artificial, a product of our cultural morals rather than actual shortages.

Creations like Commie Clothes remind me that our resources are often most efficient when they’re held in common. Pants that are too small on me can find a home with someone they flatter perfectly. Dresses that are too big for others slip over my curves like they were made for me. And at no cost to anyone.

What started as a dream of seeing Commie Clothes became a passion for communal living and I’m thankful to have fully realized both.

Commie Couture

A Reflection on Community

by Cel Free Farm

I live in an urban community called the Baltimore Free Farm. What does that mean? I gaze over our three row houses and community garden. Chickweed spills over the sides of an herb planter. I think back on my community’s less than intentional start and natural evolution into an intentional community. I am proud of the progress. The memories of our origin still leave a mark on us as we move to a quieter, gentler culture. They represent lessons learned. Life here is complicated and beautiful.

For those of us who are new to the intentional community movement, an intentional community is a residential group brought together by a shared vision.  Many would argue that intentional communities are as old as humanity. They come in all shapes and sizes. They form around a variety of ideals from religious ones to secular political ones. Of course, here I am most interested secular egalitarian communities. These are communities that structure themselves to encourage even distributions of power and greater inclusivity. This is done by adopting democratic or consensus based decision making structures to include the widest number of voices possible. Many communities adopt partial or full income sharing to equalize income generating and important non-income generating work. They strive to be living, working examples of a need-based economy. Many communities come together around a variety of issues. Some focus on food access, sustainability, or a combination. Others focus on issues around gender, relationship, racial, physical, neurological, or other forms of diversity. There are even communes that focus on helping other communes build themselves.

Whether the idea is new or old, I find it helpful to remind myself what draws me to this way of living. I like to compare a commune to a very well thought out art piece. Like an art piece, an intentional community presents a possibility; a fresh perspective. Here is a little living example of how a truly egalitarian world would look. Here is proof that it is possible. Here is an example of the many ways we can organize ourselves in an egalitarian manner. There are sustainable farms and small urban gardens. There are even nomadic cyberpunk communes. What new forms could a commune take? How many other possibilities are there?

Dawn

There are, of course, the struggles we all go through as well. Conflict can develop between members even in the most carefully constructed systems. As much as we try to prevent it, there will occasionally be members who attempt to dominate others. We can receive criticism from other activists about our involvement in other forms of activism and our perceived or real inclusiveness. Money and other resources can become tight. Legal problems can develop. Communards are not immune to the range of human experience of birth, death, love, loss and the like. People have stilled end up hurt, sad, and lonely. We are far from perfect. It is important to remember that perfection is not the goal. Progress is.

The troubles of the outside world still loom in the distance. Police and military machines still spread violence. Prisons still overflow. Capitalism still pits us against each other. Power is still concentrated in the hands of the elite. Revolution after revolution replaces one dictator with another. Climate change is still underway. Local and national laws can change for the better or worse. The homeless still starve on the streets just for making the wrong mistake at the wrong time. Bigotry and hatred still exist. Violence still exists in its many forms. Inequality is still rampant and institutionalized.

As challenging as life can be, I cannot help but still feel hopeful for the many new communities springing up globally. Each one contributes to this movement meaningfully. The urban communities are clearly visible in the wider community. The rural communities provide models for sustainable agriculture. Old communities show successful approaches to common problems. New communities represent fresh possibilities. Let’s keep supporting each other until we no longer can. Let’s keep expanding until it is no longer possible. Let’s keep working on ourselves until there is no one left. Even if the world is doomed, let’s keep trying until the end.

A Reflection on Community