I have written about the differences between living communally and living in the mainstream (occasionally called ‘Babylon’ by communards). One big difference is that money is essentially irrelevant within the communes. (Money is highly relevant to the survival of communes in a capitalist society but, in this case, we are talking about how income sharing communities interface with the mainstream.) There are jokes within the communes that you can leave a $20 bill lying around and find it in the same place several days later (assuming that no one has been cleaning the room) but don’t leave a candy bar lying around–because candy bars are worth something.
So what is the currency within the communes? I would love to be idealistic and say something like love or compassion or justice, but the truth is that work functions as a currency within most communes.
I’d like to illustrate this by starting off comparing communes with cooperative households, a somewhat different form of community that I’m familiar with. In a co-op house, you are asked to pay monthly for a room (and food and utilities, etc). In some co-ops all rooms are priced equally, in some the price varies by the size of the room, and some use a sliding scale to price things but there is a price for everything. They have to charge the residents in order to pay their rent or mortgage. In addition, everyone is asked to do chores.
In a commune, there is no price and no chores. There is no price because all income is shared equally and, thus, money is irrelevant. There are no chores because it is all work. Work is the currency.
In many of the bigger communes, work is actually tallied up. How careful this tally is depends on the community (Twin Oaks tracks hours carefully, Acorn is much looser about it). In addition the amount of hours varies (although I’m not up on the latest policies, for years there was a 42 hour a week requirement at Twin Oaks and Acorn and it was a bit less, 35 hours, at East Wind). In addition, Twin Oaks has a ‘pension plan’ that slowly requires less and less hours from older members. Even though forty-two hours seems like more than the usual mainstream forty hour work week, they argue that it’s actually less because everything is counted as work.
This is why I say that ‘chores’ are irrelevant. At Twin Oaks, if you cook or clean or grow food or even take food to a sick friend, that is considered just as much to be work as work that makes income for the community. Of course, you are cooking or cleaning for the community, but if you don’t cook, someone else does and you still get to eat it. So you don’t need to cook unless you get hours for it and they argue that since most work is done on the commune, there’s no commute. If you averaged the amount of time many folks spend cooking and commuting in addition to paid work it would probably add up to sixty or more hours.
At Glomus, which is a much smaller commune, we don’t track hours directly. Rather we pay attention to each other. We can see each other working, we report in a meeting that we have each week about what we have been up to, and we do a yearly “Roles and Goals” report about what we’ve done and what we plan to do. I can tell you that everyone here works hard–not because they are required to but because they love most of what they do and they want to make sure that certain things get done. If someone did nothing but sit around and play video games or watch shows and didn’t do any observable work (and they weren’t having some kind of health crisis), we would probably asked them to either work or move on because there’s so much that needs to be done and we want to be fair to everyone.
And this is the reason that I say that “Work is the Currency”. Everyone works so that we can survive. We still pay attention to money (at least some of us) to make sure that the community’s bills are being paid, but within the community, we just make sure that everyone is working (and often working together) to make sure that we get what we need to get done, done.
And, maybe, if you are a Kahil Gibran fan, you might say that love really is the currency.
In my ongoing quest to come up with provocative questions for our Facebook feed, I started thinking about the horizontal structures of egalitarian communities. I realized that being ‘Leaderless’ doesn’t mean that there is no leadership. So here’s what I wrote on Facebook:
As you can see, we got three comments. One of them was from me. I took the opportunity to elaborate on my ideas of leadership in an egalitarian setting.
Of course, if you have any ideas about leadership, you are free to comment here.
(Editor’s note: There is a link to the full presentation at the end of the post. – Raven)
I have 10 minutes today to present on how communes can help us move away from money centric economies. I love this topic and have quite a bit to say about it. So much to say, that it does not all fit into the time i have.
I think recruiters have an obligation to talk about the shadow sides of the things they are promoting. Here is the slide i did not have time for on the disadvantages of commune life in general.
Most of these points are self explanitory but i want to elaborate on the first one. Joining a commune is going to push your buttons. If you know what your buttons are, then you are signing up for a personal growth class by joining. You will be confronted with this and have to grow, or suffer. But the second possibility is that you do not actually know what your buttons are, and then coming to the commune can be a difficult and disorienting wake up call. You could find out that you are crazy jealous and the partner of your dreams is polyamorous. You could find out that you need much more alone time than you thought (because it had not been much of an issue before, because it happened “naturally”) and you need to adjust your schedule accordingly. Maybe you like to make your own choices about which brand of shampoo or kind of desert you want, this could require some adjusting.
Communities like to celebrate and spring is a wonderful time to do it. I posted this on the Commune Life Facebook page on Monday and by Tuesday it had reached almost 400 folks.
Here’s what I wrote to accompany the pictures (which I got from the Twin Oaks Facebook page): “Beltane or May Day is celebrated in many of the communes with a May Pole and many other festivities. Here’s some pictures from this year’s celebration.”
And Twin Oaks wrote on their Facebook page: “BELTANE. A few pics from the Maypole pre-ritual gathering. @ Twin Oaks Community”
[Disclaimer: This is actually an opinion piece by Keenan, not a well-designed experiment with a control group, or statistics, or any math at all. Repeat: this is NOT actual science.]
Twin Oaks was started in 1967 as an experimental community by a group of people inspired by the behaviorist theory in B.F. Skinner’s utopian novel, Walden Two. After fifty plus years of ongoing experimentation, we now have some results to report.
Theory: A society can apply Behaviorism to improve individual members’ function and happiness.
Fail: The very premise that brought the initial group together, that Behaviorism—widely and properly implemented—could remove undesirable human traits was the first failed theory of Twin Oaks. At Twin Oaks, human behavior has proven to be extraordinarily resistant to any generally applied theory or practices—for instance, interpersonal tension and communal drama are enduring problems at Twin Oaks. Kudos to the founders for choosing the survival of the community over clinging to an empirically failed theory.
Theory: A village can raise a child better than a family can.
Fail: In 1973, Twin Oaks began the official child program based on the theory that the whole community would be responsible for raising the children. Part of the rationale was provided by evidence from the mainstream culture with its child abuse, neglect, and enduring cycles of familial dysfunction. Obviously, merely being able to biologically procreate was no qualification for raising children, right? Sounds good in theory, but in practice there are many flaws with a whole community attempting to raise children. (The history of the kibbutz illuminates a similar arc in child-rearing theory—starting communal and evolving toward supporting families .) Twin Oaks, in a fairly short period of time, moved away from communal child-rearing toward emphasizing and strengthening families. These changes included designing living spaces that allowed closer family connection, writing policies that expected parents to be responsible for their children, and giving parents autonomy over how their kids were raised.
Theory: Members of a community become cohesive by living in close proximity to each other.
Fail: Early Twin Oaks designers clustered buildings together, clustered bedrooms together, and skimped on sound insulation between rooms. For decades now, Twin Oaks has been remodeling to try to undo those early mistakes. Twin Oaks has learned that the ability to have privacy is absolutely key to happiness in a communal setting. Specifically, acoustic separation is a key component of successful community living.
Theory: A strong community comes from a sense of connection to all of the members of the community.
Fail: close emotional connection tends to happen among small subgroups in a community, not collectively among all members of the community. The community is stronger when there are many subgroups that have tight emotional connections. Although, over the years here at Twin Oaks, many attempts have been made to build cohesion among the entire community, these attempts have met with, at best, modest success. What has been more successful has been encouraging cohesion among small groups. Some small groups are living groups, some are work groups, and, of course, families are close-knit small groups. It turns out that strong families, because of their enduring commitment to the well-being of the community, are a foundational component for a robust and enduring community.
Theory: Communal societies will defeat capitalism.
Fail: To operate outside of capitalism entirely requires being almost totally self-sufficient: Twin Oaks is successful due to operating several thriving businesses. In the communal movement, only very small groups of people have managed to be so self-sufficient that they can be said to operate outside of the capitalist system. Rather, it turns out that collective living is a very effective way to out-compete mainstream businesses. Communities can offer lower prices on products due to cost-cutting on labor. Communities have a skilled work force with higher quality control due to the workers owning the businesses. Additionally, communal businesses are surprisingly nimble; if one communal business shrinks, or fails, workers can—the very next day—start working in a different business at the community.
I refer here again to the kibbutz movement which has been thriving for well over 100 years. In its heyday, about two percent of Israel’s population lived on a kibbutz—capitalists were not quaking in their boots in Israel. Even today, the kibbutzim run many large corporations in Israel.
However, a significant component of communal businesses is the creation of very empowered workers—since the workers also own the business. In a community business, workers are involved in every business decision. In addition to tremendous work flexibility, communal businesses do not build consciously shoddy products, nor have unsafe working conditions, nor run unethical businesses. If communes were to become a huge movement, empowered communal workers would provide a bulwark against the worst practices of mainstream capitalist corporations. So that’s good.
But overturn Capitalism as a theory? No.
Some theories that have worked:
Twin Oaks has managed to survive and thrive through the years by being nimble in shuffling through a lot of ideas quickly (and/or eventually) —discarding bad ideas that don’t work.
Here are some theories that Twin Oakers adopted which actually worked from the outset.
Theory: Peoplethrive when citizens are equal.
Success: Twin Oaks’ commitment to equality from day one has proven to be a successful and enduring theory. Every part of Twin Oaks’ culture has been structured to create and perpetuate a society where the citizens are equal. A cost of this commitment to equality is significant constraints on some aspects of personal liberty. Economic equality requires constraints on individual members accumulating wealth. Political equality limits members’ ability to accumulate political power. Work equality (that is that no category of labor is valued as more vital than any other work) limits the tendency of a professional elite from developing. Overall human equality, means there is no discrimination against any category of people. (Admittedly, the lack of a lower class does make it a bit harder to keep the place clean, as the lower class in almost every society does most of the cleaning.)
Theory:Widely distributing power among the membership creates a strong decision-making culture.
Success: “Light as a feather! stiff as a board!”—ever done that? If every member takes on some little bit of responsibility, then the community thrives. At Twin Oaks, power (decision-making) is widely distributed. Some people could plausibly point out that collective decision-making is problematic because there are so many things that the community is routinely failing to manage well, or at all. But in the mainstream corporations fail all of the time. Additionally, mainstream corporations sometimes commit horrific evil.
The point is that, collectively, the community has continued to thrive in spite of having untrained amateurs in charge throughout the community.
It turns out that many people like having a little bit of power, or, let’s call it “agency.” Since power is something that needs to exist, Twin Oaks has wisely decided to spread power throughout the community so that the need for the exercise of power does not contribute to the growth of evil.
Theory: A well-functioning society does not need specialists.
Success: We are all dilettantes here at Twin Oaks. The knowledge needed to run a major corporation, or fix plumbing, apparently does not require years of study or apprenticeship. Any training that anyone needs is now available on Youtube. But even before the advent of Youtube, Twin Oaks built buildings, dug foundations, fixed cars, met government regulations, developed new products, filed corporate taxes—all without formal training in those skills.
It turns out that people like a diversity of work. Many members like the challenge of pursuing an entirely new career, or developing a new skill. Opening up to a diversity of work allows members the opportunity to explore personal interests. This makes people happier. Also, the community is more robust from having a deep bench of people who can work in any given work area.
Theory:Children are important.
Success: Twin Oaks has always put a significant amount of the community’s labor resources toward raising children. Twin Oaks is an exceptionally child-focused community. The result is that Twin Oaks raises healthy, happy children who later become healthy, happy—and accomplished—adults. Prospective members who are considering having children choose to live at Twin Oaks. Prospective members who don’t want to have children, but like to be around children are drawn to Twin Oaks. Also, the presence of children in the community—including adults who grew up in the community speak to the enduring stability of Twin Oaks.
Ironically, or, perhaps, predictably, due to the amount of communal resources that go to raising children, Twin Oaks has set an upper limit on the number of children who live at Twin Oaks. Consequently, Twin Oaks tends not to tout our child focus online because the community is rarely open to more families with children moving to the community. Twin Oaks also keeps the child thing on the down low because we do want to raise happy, healthy children, not children who might suffer from the burden of representing the community or the communal movement, so we attempt to shield them from that cultural pressure.
Theory: Behavior is changed by policy.
Success: Policy is the one tool that the community uses that routinely alters members’ behavior. Policy determines how much work people do. The community establishes non-violence as a core value, and thus the community is largely free of any violence. Policy determines what decisions need to go through communal process. Policy determines what does and does not qualify as sick time. Members are remarkably respectful of policy decisions. Policy turns out to be the most effective tool for altering the behavior of people collectively. Especially policy that members have a hand in crafting.
Through policy, community culture is created. To date we have created an enduring culture where members can comfortably and productively live their entire lives. Elders are cared for. Children are raised to be healthy and to recognize their own agency. Members feel equal and empowered.
But are people happier here, living in community? We don’t have clear evidence. The hope contained in the initial focus on Behaviorism was to create empirically happier people. In spite of the initial motivation of the community’s founders, and many, many attempts by various groups within the community, Twin Oaks has not yet found a theory that can effectively or routinely make individuals happy, feel fulfilled, eat well, defeat addictions, not be jealous, or be disciplined in attaining personal goals.
The natural beauty that surrounds the rural communes is often breathtaking–especially in early spring. Here are some photographs that appeared on our Facebook page recently.
East Wind recently posted this charming picture of a rainbow appearing above the community:
Here’s a gorgeous picture of Twin Oaks from Jayme Miller who was kind enough to give me permission to reprint it:
Jayme Miller wrote: “Twin Oaks- where every day is a week long, and so is every month.”
I posted the pictures from Glomus Commune and also wrote: “It’s high spring at Glomus Commune and the land around us has turned a brilliant green. Here’s three views of Pine Hill behind our land. The tree with the pink blossoms in the second photo is a peach tree. We live in a valley, so in the afternoon the land around us is in shadow while the tops of the hills are still sunlit–see the third picture.”
I often advocate living in communes for ideological reasons, for support and connection, and to be part of something very different from mainstream living, but the views aren’t bad either.
Here’s the seventh in a series of interviews done by Sumner (ex-East Wind member) of former and current members. The others: Macie, Warren, Zan, Jim Adams, Joston, and Cayli. This one is a bit shorter because it was one of the first interviews Sumner did and it was done in the middle of filming a video on cheesemaking.
If I had a dime for every time someone said, “if only there was a Twin Oaks on the west coast…” well, I’d maybe only have ten bucks, but it’s been frequent enough that if it existed I’m sure it would be popular. For reference, I was a member at Twin Oaks for 14 years, and have been in its orbit for 22. Check out the photos.
There are lots of great intentional communities on the west coast. So, what does Twin Oaks have that communities on the west coast don’t?
Twin Oaks is a 100 person, rural, income-sharing community. I’m not aware of any communities on the west coast that have those characteristics. But so what? Why does that matter?
Having no buy-in, and community businesses that provide most of the community’s income, Twin Oaks is one of the few non-religious communities that you can theoretically join with nothing but the clothes on your back and not need to find a job. This combined with a high degree of resource sharing means that the amount of money the community needs per person is relatively low, around $7500 per person per year. Labor quota at Twin Oaks is 42 hrs/wk, but the average member only has to spend about 15 – 20 hrs/wk working in the community businesses. The rest of your quota goes towards things you’d normally have to do on top of a 40 hr work week but don’t get paid for.
This has a number of benefits.
In many other communities you have to do anywhere from 5 to 20 hours a week for the community (there’s often an inverse relationship between how much you have to pay to live in a community and how many hours you have to do) on top of needing to figure out how to provide for yourself financially. This is especially challenging in rural areas.
The pervasive money-stress and vulnerability that exists in mainstream capitalism is mitigated by the collective responsibility the community takes for its financial needs.
It also means more time for, among other things, care work. Childcare, eldercare, and caring for sick, injured, or struggling members all count towards your labor quota. Sick hours can be taken as needed. There’s about 4 weeks of free labor credits built in (basically paid vacation), with the ability to work extra and bank more. There are also hours budgeted for organizing community holidays, local relations, and movement support.
Taking collective responsibility for the needs of its members makes it possible for Twin Oaks to be one of the most integrated intergenerational communities I’ve ever seen. Many babies have been born there, and many elders and others have passed away. People spend a lot more time socializing with non-age peers. Kids get to have lots of adults of different ages in their lives. No one has yet been born there and died there, but it could easily happen. Twin Oaks is an intergenerational community not only in the demographics of its members, but also in that it was designed to have a stable population and outlive its founders, which it has done.
The economics of the community also support a high degree of self-sufficiency. At its peak the community produces about 60% of its own food through gardens, herbs, orchards, chickens, and cows. It has a communal woodshop, auto/bike/machine shop, maintenance barn, a fleet of shared vehicles, and does the vast majority of its own building and maintenance. It maintains public offices and an internal computer network, including a large media library. There are also amenities like a music room, a pond and sauna, book library, and various multi-purpose spaces that can be signed out by anyone. It maintains 7 residence buildings, a large clothing library, a robust food system with a dining hall and small kitchens, and provides for all health, mental health, and dental needs.
There is no money exchanged internally. Working quota gives you equal access to the resource-sharing systems of the community, which everyone helps manage, and is paid for by the businesses the community runs.
There are certainly trade offs with income-sharing. You give up a degree of autonomy and control, which can be very emotionally challenging for people. If you need to be able to do whatever you want with your stuff whenever you want, it’s not a good model. Collective finances can be complicated. But trying to have an economically involved community based on individualized finances can also be complicated. Treating the whole community as a collective operation can also allow for some degree of specialization, potentially freeing you up from things you might not like doing, like accounting or auto maintenance or cooking, and you get to do a bunch of those things if you do like them. But no one is stuck doing the same thing for 40 hours a week if they don’t want to. And you get the satisfaction of having the majority of your time going towards activities where you see immediate, direct benefit, both for yourself and others.
Another thing that Twin Oaks has going for it is it’s size. Typically around 80 – 90 adults and 15 – 17 kids, with anywhere from 10 – 20 guests and visitors (pandemics notwithstanding), it’s large enough to maintain a robust social-culture. Support and activity groups are easy to organize, and it’s not hard to get people to show up for parties and gatherings. It can certainly be too insular at times, but it also allows for a level of cohesion that’s hard to maintain in communities where people are more dispersed, particularly because of the need to work outside jobs.
There are also things about Twin Oaks that would be hard for a lot of people. All residences are shared. You get your own room, but personal space is minimized. But it doesn’t have to be this way. That’s just the choice Twin Oaks made. Things are fairly dirty, cluttered, and broken, but again, that’s a choice. Twin Oaks has also made choices around its businesses that have led to the community being relatively poor. The community could decide to put a little more time into income production, and make some different operational choices, and have more money without losing much of its flexibility around labor.
There’s also plenty of petty drama, gossip, and interpersonal conflict. To some extent this is just people being people and it happens in any organization. It’s exacerbated by being so intertwined as a community. You have 80 or 90 adults sharing a checkbook, working together, and living in shared residences. It’s like being married. There’s just more fodder for shit to happen. But there are also things that could be done to reduce it. Again, it’s a choice.
Another major challenge that Twin Oaks is not alone in facing is what the worker co-op movement has referred to as ownership culture. It’s very easy for people to relate to the institution of Twin Oaks as being separate from them, and feel disempowered, disengaged, and/or entitled. I think the combination of size and centralization make it harder to foster a culture of responsibility, commitment, and intimacy. Having the critical mass of people is nice, but better use of small affinity groups might help.
But in the end, it works. It’s one of the few working examples of how an anti-capitalist society could work. Iit has huge benefits and it would be great if there were more communities like it all over. And after 54 years Twin Oaks has probably found most of the pitfalls of this kind of system, which means there’s a lot to learn from.