Creating use value while making a living in egalitarian communities

sese-team-picutre

“If one wanted to crush and destroy a man entirely, to mete out to him the most terrible punishment … all one would have to do would be to make him do work that was completely and utterly devoid of usefulness and meaning.” Fyodor Dostoyevsky in The House of the Dead

I observe a lot of suffering related to senseless work. David Graeber describes the entire system of “bullshit” jobs that causes emotional suffering. The quest for sense and usefulness has attracted many to peer production projects and to intentional communities. It is one of the elements of the postcapitalist mode of production to enable people to contribute in a meaningful way, to produce use value.

In this article, I will present egalitarian communities, mainly Acorn community in Virginia to examine whether the postcapitalist mode of production in the physical world can be introduced by establishing intentional communities. It should be noted that the opinions presented here are not necessary those of the founders or members of the community where I have done research. I interpret my findings with regard to their significance for imagining the postcapitalist mode of production. Acorn community does not define itself as a peer production project so the following analysis is not an evaluation of the implementation of peer production theory into practice. It is instead an extrapolation from the practice to how peer production organizations in the physical world could operate in the current system and in the future. The main characteristics of this form of production are: 1) Self-selected spontaneous contribution of participants in the production process;{1} 2) creation of use value rather than exchange or market value, which results in free access to public goods; {2} 3) non-delegation and distributed coordination, in contrast to hierarchical state and market providers. The first article of this four-part series focused on the consequences of self-selected spontaneous contribution as a model of organizing production.

In this article, I will examine how producing use value can be translated into production in the physical world in the context of the constraints imposed by the capitalist system. I will describe how structuring production via intentional communities can generate use value at different scales: for members, for the communities movement, and for society at large. I also explore how the production of use value can be accomodated within the necessity to make a living in the present system and what role communities can play in the transition towards a system where work/working produces use value rather than exchange value? How to navigate the pressure to make a living? – this is the dilemma of many in the peer-to-peer movement. Some have already contributed to this subject: Las Indias in their blog post on the fear of selling out or Lars Zimmermann in his post on Sensorica. I hope that the examples described below will widen the range of possibilities that can be imagined.

The main tenet of the peer production model is that one’s self-selected contribution is motivated by the opportunity to pursue public interest. There is no expectation of reciprocity (access is not dependent on involvement in the production process) and the results are distributed for free. {3} According to Benkler and Nissenbaum, peer production is based on and will inculcate a new set of virtues such as self-selection and volunteerism, gift culture, and the will to contribute to a broader community. {4} Currently, most of the peer production projects in which use value is created in the form of open source and open access products results from the involvement of peers who have other sources of income than their involvement in peer production. However, the motivation behind the contribution to open source projects may be also influenced by the fact that many peers can expect a postponed monetary reward because their participation in digital peer production builds their reputation in the domain of software development. Skills development can be another reward. As long as remunerated work is necessary to sustain public benefit work, it will be difficult to see a pure example of peer production in which peers are solely motivated by the production of use value. Ignoring the material bases of survival for the contributors in a peer production project may have dangerous consequences for the entire project because it may induce motivations to overtake the project by its most active contributors. Therefore, organization models that make the for benefit contribution sustainable and meet the logic of survival are interesting to explore.

Acorn Community sustains its roughly 30 members through operating an heirloom and organic seed distribution business, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (“SESE”), and through subsistence agriculture. The enterprise is an interesting example that integrates profit making into the production of use value.

As I mentioned in the previous post, the contribution to production is not entirely spontaneous because the members are obliged to meet 42-hour labor quota and because some members may resent people that do not contribute and consequently make it difficult for a free-rider to feel socially integrated. Therefore, the work in the community, especially within the labor quota, is motivated by self-interest, although less strictly than in the classical employment system. My interviewees mentioned that escaping the stress and anxieties of having a job in the capitalist system and sufferings related to having a boss and pursuing senseless activities were one of their main motivations for joining the community. Other individual motivations were to be able to live a healthier life and be part of a community. Many interviewees mentioned that their involvement is part of their pursuit of the struggle against capitalism. As one of them, a former environmental political campaigner, put it, he decided to shift from oppositional to propositional action. Many members see their lifestyle as an experiment that may inspire society to change. One needs to take a selection bias into account, though. The 15 individuals that I have interviewed may have agreed to be interviewed because they consider participating in the community a way of inciting a broader change. Therefore my project of spreading information and further analysis may correspond to their vision and motivation to participate in the community.

Acorn’s members do not receive a salary but rather are granted unconditional access to all the resources and services produced by the members and made available according to their needs (except for tobacco and alcohol). This is supplemented by a small monthly stipend that can cover needs that are not met by the community. All members have the same position in the community. This is one of the reasons why the community calls itself egalitarian. The enterprise produces use value by redistributing its income to all members of the community, even those who do not play a major role in the success of the business in a monetary sense, as is the case in the capitalist mode of production. Although I have not interviewed anyone who does not work for the business at all, in theory it is possible to do only domestic jobs, grow food for the community, and engage in other subsistence-related activities to fulfill one’s labor quota. Since there is no special reward for individual effort or skills, one can define their work as being closer to work for benefit rather than for profit. The system resembles what one could imagine as an advanced form of an unconditional basic income at a group scale with two modifications:

1) Access is conditional on overall conformity with the labor quota (some proponents of an unconditional basic income also are in favor of a social contribution quota).
2) In contrast to a monetary transfer, the same for everyone, almost all goods and services are freely available to all members. Actual consumption varies widely between individuals. The model looks similar to free public services. {5}

This model can be an inspiration in the discussion and imagining of how the production of use value could be imagined at a broader national scale.

Acorn business model: integrating exchange and use value

Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, the enterprise run by Acorn community, is an example of how a profit making enterprise can produce a use value. The enterprise sells heirloom seeds and provides services helping gardeners grow and preserve them for the next season. They work with about 60 farms that produce seed for them, which they test for good germination, weigh out, and sell or freezefor future use. The seeds are chosen according to their reproduction potential, by which we mean that gardeners can reproduce seeds from the harvest instead of buying them every season. The enterprise conducts and publishes research on the varieties so that customers take less risks when planting them. The orientation on reproducibility of seeds and increasing food autonomy is certainly an alternative to the major seed distributors who have an interest in generating dependency on their seeds. Instead of creating dependency on their seeds, the enterprise focuses on widening their selection, currently having about 700 varieties in stock. As a result, its promotional activities increase the biodiversity in the region.

One can compare the business model to an open hardware initiative. Expertise and a product that can be reproduced are provided to the customers. However, the customer needs to pay for the material part of the product. This model, being very locally oriented, could be implemented by other enterprises. The promotion of heirloom seeds that is a part of the enterprise’s activity can have broader impact on the environment in the local area.

Benevolent investment: earn money to change the world

The profits from the business are invested in projects that have broader social change as an objective. The material and human resources of this thriving enterprise are invested in the replication of the model in different settings. It distinguishes them from charity funding, which often is oriented on short-term goals instead of sustainable structures that would improve quality of life. Examples of investments include expanding the infrastructure of the community and helping other communities expand creating a complementary network of egalitarian communities which have developed an internal system of labour exchange. One current initiative, PointA, which wants to bring the community-organization to urban areas and benefit from urban-rural exchanges illustrates how the community’s resources can serve to increase autonomy from market forces through sharing and exchanging.

Producing exchange value and participating in the market system may actually contribute to the sustainability of the communities, making more use value production possible. A member of East Wind community in Missouri, which runs an enterprise producing peanut butter, observed that the authorities probably do not bother the community because the enterprise is one of the major taxpayers in the locality.

One of my interviewees thinks that a complete withdrawal from the money system would be the ideal final stage in the intentional community movement because as long as the community takes part in money exchanges this sustains the system. Instead, by operating on “zero dollars” and by setting an example, undermining “faith in money” would contribute to its end. Certainly, this long term vision can be achieved by creating prefigurative practices of postcapitalist modes of production. Participation in them, despite being sometimes motivated by the advantages to one’s quality of life and not necessarily the pursuit of a social change, may be an opportunity to inculcate non-hierarchical organizationalstyles and develop skills needed to live outside of the employment system.

Communities may use their resources to have an impact on society outside their network. For example, Acorn has been involved in a lawsuit against Monsanto. The Midden, an urban egalitarian community in Columbus, Ohio, enables its members’ political involvement by sharing their resources and decreasing their costs of living. A member of East Wind community (another egalitarian community located in Missouri) would like to help the local town next to his community become a place where food is grown in public spaces and accessible to all. For this purpose, the community can donate seeds and help in setting up the initiative.

The same person wanted to become a biologist before joining East Wind community but he dropped out of his studies. Now he works on experiments with aquaponics and growing trees. It is a way of continuing his passion outside of the rigidities of science funding and the limitations imposed on researchers in academia (check, for example, the writings by David Graeber). Since the labour quota in this community is 35 hours a week and includes varied activities, some time and energy may still be left for pursuing passions and creating a use value.

Securing basic needs and freeing time for useful activities by organizing into intentional communities may be a response to the dilemma that the p2p movement is facing. When the contribution is directly linked to profit, this may influence the motivation and produce other disadvantages to the final product (see Zimmermann’s post). However, the movement needs to address the subsistence problem if it wants to thrive. So by rearranging the mode of production, the communities may be places for producing knowledge and science to develop more autonomy. That may be their transitional role.


Endnotes
{1} Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams, Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything, Expanded Edition (London: Athlantic Books, 2008), 36. Pekka Himanen, The Hacker Ethic and the Spirit of the Information Age (Random House, 2002).
{2} Michel Bauwens and Sussan Rémi, Le peer to peer : nouvelle formation sociale, nouveau modèle civilisationnel, Revue du MAUSS, 2005/2 no 26, p. 193-210.
{3} Lakhani, Karim R.; Robert G. Wolf (2005): Why Hackers Do What They Do. In: Joseph Feller, Brian Fitzgerald, Scott A. Hissam, Karim R. Lakhani (eds.), Perspectives on Free and Open Source Software. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA. Michel Bauwens and Sussan Rémi, Le peer to peer : nouvelle formation sociale, nouveau modèle civilisationnel, Revue du MAUSS, 2005/2 no 26, p. 193-210.
{4} Yochai Benkler and Helen Nissenbaum, “Commons-based Peer Production and Virtue,” The Journal of Political Philosophy 14 (December 2006): 394-419.
{5} I appreciate the comment of GPaul Blundell that helped me see the distinctions more clearly. The definition of public services in the model of unconditional basic income is one of the problems to be solved by the movement.

What is Acorn community?

Acorn community is a farm based, egalitarian, income-sharing, secular, anarchist, feminist, consensus-based intentional community of around 32 folks, based in Mineral, Virginia. It was founded in 1993 by former members of neighboring Twin Oaks community. To make their living, they operate an heirloom and organic seed business, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (“SESE”), which tests seeds in the local climate and provides customers with advice on growing their own plants and reproducing seeds. Acorn is affiliated to the Federation of Egalitarian Communities, a US network of intentional communities that commit to holding in common their land, labor, resources, and income among community members.

Information on sources

I spent three weeks in August 2014 at Acorn community in Virginia where I conducted interviews with 15 inhabitants of this community (accounting for about half of the membership). The interviews will be used in my book analyzing a scenario of a postcapitalist mode of production from a personal perspective. It will be published in Creative Commons license. My research trip has been co-financed by a Goteo crowdfunding campaign. Some inspiration comes from four public meetings with a member of East Wind community, which I organized in October 2014, in Strasbourg, France. In total, 47 people participated in these events.

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank my interviewees, Couchsurfing hosts, and Acorn community for their hospitality and their time. The following people have contributed to the Goteo crowdfunding campaign: pixocode, Daycoin Project, Olivier, Paul Wuersig, María, Julian Canaves. I would like to express my gratitude to these and eight other co-financers. I would like to thank for the editing and suggestions from GPaul Blundell, communard of Acorn, instigating organizer of Point A DC.

Further publications

Another article on a Montreal-based enterprise where I conducted interviews for the book in progress can be found here: “There is such a thing as a free lunch: Montreal students commoning and peering food services.”A longer article on the same enterprise is published by a closed-access academic journal. Gajewska, Katarzyna (2014): Peer Production and Prosumerism as a Model for the Future Organization of General Interest Services Provision in Developed Countries Examples of Food Services Collectives. World Future Review 6(1): 29-39.

Please, do not hesitate to ask me for an electronic version at the address: k.gajewska_comm AT zoho.com

I have also published other articles related to peer production and unconditional basic income:

Gajewska, Katarzyna, “Technological Unemployment but Still a Lot of Work: Towards Prosumerist Services of General Interest,” Journal of Evolution and Technology.

Gajewska, Katarzyna, “How Basic Income Will Transform Active Citizenship? A Scenario of Political Participation beyond Delegation,” Paper for 15th International Congress of the Basic Income Earth Network, June 27th to 29th, 2014, Montreal, Québec.

About the Author

Katarzyna Gajewska is an independent (unpaid) writer and social activist. In her book in progress, she explores potential psychological consequences of transformation towards a postcapitalist mode of production in the physical world. Formerly an academic (precarious) researcher, she builds upon her scientific background in industrial relations and political science and incorporates other lenses in the analysis of a scenario of a potential future. She focuses on personal and daily life in order to stimulate collective imagination and democratic debate.

For updates on my publications, you can check my Facebook pageor send me an e-mail to the address to get updates by e-mail: k.gajewska_comm AT zoho.com

Katarzyna Gajewska is an independent scholar and a writer. She has a PhD in Political Science and has published on alternative economy and innovating the work organization since 2013. She is also interested in preventive health and emotional and psychological aspects of economic change. You can find her non-academic writing on such platforms as Occupy.com, P2P Foundation Blog, Basic Income UK, Bronislaw Magazine and LeftEast. For updates on her publications, you can check her Facebook page or send her an e-mail: k.gajewska_commATzoho.com. If you would like to support her independent writing, please make a donation to the PayPal account at the same address.

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Creating use value while making a living in egalitarian communities

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