Back to the City!

by GPaul Blundell,  from Communities magazine,  Winter issue #177

There’s an abundance to the city, an almost overwhelming abundance. Today this abundance showed up as 20 rolls of sushi. A couple weeks ago it showed up as about 30 lbs. of filet mignon. Before that it was a gross of eggs (a dozen dozen) and a crate of organic grass-fed heavy cream and a case of fair trade black Himalayan chia seeds. All free. All pulled out of a dumpster in the middle of the night and brought back to the main house of Compersia, the commune I call home in Washington, DC.

As anyone who has moved to the country to pursue the simple life will tell you: the simple life is not so simple. The dream of rural abundance, of growing all your own food and fashioning all your own tools, is more often a reality of long hard work and making do with less. Unless you’re independently wealthy, there are not many places you can live where everything you might want comes easily and abundantly.

Fundamentally there is one difference that separates rural areas from urban ones: population density. Many communes and intentional communities settle in the country. Insofar as they desire to build a new world divorced from mainstream society this makes sense. With fewer people occupying the land there’s more room to build and more room between you and your opinionated neighbors. Over the decade that I lived at rural Acorn Community, in central Virginia, this is certainly the reality that I experienced. The abundance of space, both physical and cultural, provided a lot of room to grow a little utopia and keep it insulated from the corrosive effects the mainstream would have on it. However, there are abundances in many places if you can appreciate and cultivate them.

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When I first moved to Acorn in 2005 I came looking for proof that a better world was possible. My political blossoming in college, during the peak of the anti-corporate globalization movement and the run-up to the Iraq War, saw me immersing myself in the history and theory of anarchism. But in conversation after conversation my passionate insistence that we could, as a society, thrive without constantly brutalizing and dominating each other was met with skeptical requests to cough up the proof that my nice ideas could stand up to harsh reality. When I discovered Twin Oaks and then Acorn, all quite by accident, I knew immediately what I had stumbled upon and that the egalitarian communes movement was my life’s work.

And the communes did not disappoint. Acorn Community, an egalitarian income-sharing commune, member of the Federation of Egalitarian Communities, and daughter of older larger commune Twin Oaks Community, was founded in 1993 and at the time of my joining listed “anarchist” as one of its self-applied labels. Acorn operates by consensus, runs a fairly complex and highly seasonal mail order garden seed business, and does it all with a minimum of formal structure. While there we saw the business quadruple in size (rising to over $1 million in revenue by the time I left), helped two other nearby communes to form, built a giant eco-groovy new headquarters for the business, and weathered an arson and a whole string of health, mental health, and interpersonal crises by various members. My time at Acorn and getting to know the other rural social laboratories of the FEC taught me or confirmed several important things:

● Prosperity and organization are possible without hierarchical domination of each other. People are, as it turns out, really good at managing complexity.

● Complex organizations can be run democratically with relatively small overhead. This is related to the above point but the distinction I’m making is that a business or organization can be both directed and managed in a non-hierarchical, democratic, and cooperative way.

● Motivation is available without individual or private reward, like wages. Human motivation is more complex. I found that people could be motivated to apply themselves to valuable labor by the prospect of collective enrichment as well as less tangible things like their values, personal curiosity, or simply love of a good challenge.

● Intense cooperation/communalization/socialization significantly boosts quality of life relative to cost of living. In short, a middle-class quality of life is achievable at sub-poverty levels of income. And it comes with a lighter and less rigid labor burden than is required by almost all full-time jobs! A corollary of this is that intense communalization brings ecological impact down to ballpark global sustainable levels with relative ease.

● The socialized economy of the communes provides a supportive healing space for people dealing with various forms of mental illness (from simple things like anxiety to more complex things like psychotic breaks) as well as being flexible enough to make mental differences that were a problem in the mainstream not a problem in the commune.

What I noticed about all these is that none of them seemed to be a result of the communes’ rural locations. In fact, for all the advantages of living in the country there were several glaring problems. The work that could be done in the country was generally pretty low wage. Low population density means commune life could feel isolating, particularly for minorities of any sort. Undeveloped land means that population growth is limited by the speed at which new residences can be built. Their remoteness made visiting them difficult for interested people. Perhaps most striking of all, though, is simply that there are a lot of people who want to live communally but do not want to live in the country.

Our society is run by the few at the expense of the many. It is consuming and degrading the environment we depend on. Inequalities of wealth and power are accelerating. The world is on fire. I thought I had found some ways to help put it out but now those tools needed to spread.

In the summer of 2014 I had the good fortune to be able to take a trip to Europe both for pleasure and discovery1. In Madrid, I visited the comrades of the Red de Colectivos Autogestionados2 (RCA). Most of the members of the RCA were also members of the CNT, Spain’s famous anarcho-syndicalist trade union which is remembered as the most successful anarchist organization in history, having fought off Franco’s fascist coup for several years and controlled large areas of Spain at their peak. After Franco died and his fascist regime was dismantled, membership in the formerly illegal CNT exploded. However, despite sky-high membership the CNT did not display the strength or resiliency that it had historically and had been fading ever since. The RCA arose out of a very material analysis of this situation. Spain has a long deep history of cooperatives, long predating the Rochdale Society in England and with a stunningly high and widespread membership. It was this community of cooperatives that provided the material base and support for the combative and often embattled CNT during the decades leading up to the fascist coup. By the time Franco died (peacefully in his bed) he had largely succeeded in co-opting the cooperative movement and cleansing it of its leftist politics. Looking at this history the comrades who started the RCA concluded that for the CNT to regain its power they needed to rebuild the network of radical cooperatives that had fed and supported it.

There’s an example of this closer to home and closer to now in the Movement for a New Society (MNS). A Quaker peace movement-derived organization that started in 1971 and lasted until 1988, MNS saw the world as being on the verge of a revolution and made it their mission to research, educate, train, and prepare the new society that could arise after the old one tumbled. To support their work and their activists they established a nationwide network of cooperatives and urban communal houses, often sharing income. In interviews I conducted with several veterans of MNS the value of the communes and cooperatives in supporting the work was reiterated again and again. This support came not only in the form of material support (to avoid bankruptcy) but also in social and emotional support (to avoid burnout) and as laboratories and testbeds for the ideas that MNS’ activists were developing.

So here we were. The world clearly needed changing. We had some proven strategies for building effective movements. The rural egalitarian communes had done good work but had also clearly shown their limitations. The need to develop a network of urban egalitarian communes to support radical social change work was clear. In the Fall of 2013 several fellow communards and co-conspirators and I decided to try to do just that by launching a project called Point A.

Of course, we are not the first ones to try such a thing or things like it. Specifically on the urban egalitarian communes question, since I first joined Acorn there’s been one or two urban communes in the FEC. When I first joined there was Emma Goldman Finishing School in Seattle, Washington, and a few years later they were joined by The Midden in Columbus, Ohio. Both shared the same general model and in the last two years both have devolved into simple group houses or co-ops and left the FEC. This is a sobering recent history but there are counterexamples if we widen our gaze a bit. Ganas, an intentional community with a smaller income- and asset-sharing commune at its core, has been thriving in New York City for 35 years. Over in Germany there are a bevy of income- and income- and asset-sharing communes located in major cities, some of which have been going for over 30 years3. In Spain (mostly) there’s Las Indias, a nomadic but very stable income-sharing commune that’s been going for 14 years. In Israel, a new generation of urban kibbutzim has arisen. In light of this, it’s easier to consider the dissolution of Emma Goldman Finishing School and The Midden as something peculiar to that model or an accident of circumstance.

Point A took on the mission of working to cultivate ambitious and engaged egalitarian income-sharing communes in the urban centers of the American East Coast. Ambitious and engaged—to connect them to the wider work for social justice and liberation. American East Coast—because that’s where the FEC has the most resources, and the FEC is a natural ally for this work. When we started working we went in every direction we could find at once: Researching examples of successful urban communes. Finding and forging contacts with collectives, cooperatives, and organizations that might make good allies. Conducting research into legal and tax options for urban communes. Conducting research into financing options for urban communes. Organizing public talks, workshops, and events. Building out a website and blog to point people to.

We started the work in one city: Washington, DC. This is the city in whose suburbs I grew up and where I had the densest network. It’s where I wanted to get a commune started. And it’s where I have stayed and worked, but the project didn’t stay there. Soon after starting in DC we were enticed to NYC by some exciting prospects, and other Point A organizers started working there. Then we got involved with some collectives in Baltimore that we thought might be interested in converting. Then we were contacted by a new, and sadly short-lived, commune in Richmond, Virginia. Then a collective house in Binghamton, New York. Various Point A organizers have tried various tactics in each of these cities.

In DC, meanwhile, the project, as I was organizing it, maintained a laser-like focus on getting a single commune started. The general strategy was to start by recruiting potentially interested people from our existing network. These people would start the conversation that is the first phase of any cooperative project. One caution we had heard again and again was that the people to start the conversation would likely not be the people to start the commune. Keeping this in mind, we thought of each phase as a sinking island, a platform we could find temporary purchase on but that, if we wanted to continue, we would need to be planning to move on from. That first meeting had about 20 people. Of those, 12 ended up coming to our monthly meetings. After a little less than a year, a group of eight likely founders had identified themselves. Together those founders, of whom I was one, finished hammering out what we hoped was the bare minimum of policy and structure that we needed to start and put each other through our newly designed membership process. Of those potential founders, five made the jump and actually started the commune: Compersia, the first egalitarian income-sharing commune in DC (in a while, at least).

After that I stepped back from Point A work. My fellow Compersians and I had a lot of work cut out for us continuing to build out the agreements and policies we didn’t have, figuring out how to live together, and figuring out how to run this urban commune we had created. Now, a year and a half in, we’re still around. We’re even growing! With any luck we’ll need a second house before long to fit all our members.

To learn more about Compersia visit compersia.community or better yet email contact [AT] compersia.community. To hook up with the Point A crew check out frompointa.org or send an email to info [AT] frompointa.org.

GPaul Blundell is a member of Compersia Community in DC and an enthusiast about egalitarian community. He enjoys long easy bike rides, nerdy board games, and building the new world in the shell of the old.

1 I visited a number of urban and suburban egalitarian communes in Europe and the results of my interviews, observations, and analyses eventually made it into a one-off podcast called “Income Sharing Across the Pond” available free on Soundcloud.

2 English translation: The Network of Self-Managed Collectives.

3 I personally visited Kommune Niederkaufungen in Kaufungen outside of Kassel and Villa Locomuna located in Kassel.

 

 

 

 

 

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Back to the City!

The Throw Away Society

The DC Chapter of Point A is moving rapidly towards the birth of the first commune. As we approach the moment of our launch we’re hammering out the foundational mechanics for our group. And arguably the most foundational, most essential policies are for membership and expulsion: how people are included and excluded. Thinking about expulsion is not a fun topic and many democratic and collective groups don’t really think about it. Some (like Kommune Niederkaufungen in Germany, apparently) seem to get on just fine for years. For other groups, not having thought much about expulsion eventually causes a conflict to blow up into an explosive crisis and, with an unfortunate frequency, destroy the group.

A community is a web of relationships, and a healthy community reinforces and weaves those relationships thicker and tighter. The complexity and strength of this web is the source of the value and power behind a vibrant community: it brings meaning to our lives, it enriches us socially, and it gives us access to support and assistance when we need it. It can include our closest allies, collaborators, audience, and friends. But it’s the very importance of our community that makes it that much more painful when an assault or serious breach of trust occurs within it. The bigger we are, as it were, the harder we fall.

When a member of our community hurts us or breaks our trust, it is common and reasonable to want them to leave and never come back. Maybe we fear that they’ll hurt us again, or maybe seeing them reminds us of the pain they’ve caused us, or maybe we feel like they’ve broken their side of the social compact and so don’t deserve membership any more. However, in a deep and vibrant community, and especially one with any history, ostracizing a member is messy because inevitably important relationships exist between other members and the perpetrator of the offense, relationships which are not destroyed by the offense. If the aftermath of a serious offense is not handled with sensitivity and care to all sides, it is all too easy for the community to divide into camps and begin to attack itself. If the perpetrator is ostracized and their remaining relationships are not honored, then damage can cascade through the web that is the community. That damage can cause other members to lose their faith in the community’s ability or desire to care for them and frequently results in an exodus of people from all sides of a conflict.

Additionally, although ostracism is sometimes appropriate, it often has the same problem as the throw away society that it resembles: it assumes that there’s an “away” where you can throw people where they won’t do harm (much like we assume there’s an “away” where we can throw trash where it won’t do harm). That’s not always true and if we don’t deal with the root cause of the offense and the perpetrator has not taken on the project of self-reflection and change we want them to then we might just be passing our problem on down the line to the next community they end up in. Similarly, this “throw away justice” assumes that the person who has committed the offense is no longer of value. They are trash and not worth saving.

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In light of all this serious thought about the process of expulsion is of obvious value. Especially knowing that often when an offense occurs emotions run high, people are in pain, and quick and skillful action is necessary to prevent harm from spiraling out of control. It can be difficult or even impossible to conceive of, design, and execute such a response if it has not been discussed by the community in advance. When we design such a process, then, there are a few deep questions we need to consider. If we choose to not just get rid of people whenever they harm someone, how do we respond to offenses in a way that takes care of the whole community and leaves us stronger and better people on the other side? When and why is the work to do that beyond our ability and how can we tell? If it is beyond our ability… what do we do then?

The Throw Away Society

Becoming a Circus

Apparently, I was the last activist in the US to hear about how great the Honk Festival was.  As I was enthusiastically explaining the event to other people I kept hearing “Oh, I was on the Honk organizing team 10 years ago,” or “We helped start Honk in New York,” and equivalent recognition.   But despite coming late to the party, it was still a transformative event for me, and the projects which surround me.

It started back in February when our Point A traveling heroes hit Boston.  Maximus said, “We should come back for Honk” and like a fool, I asked, “What is Honk?”  Fortunately, Maximus is patient with me.

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Like many things, Honk grew out of a collection of activists trying something new.  A collection of marching bands took over the streets of Somerville and started performing.  They had fun, they made an impressive amount of joyful noise and they had multiple political messages.  And they agreed to come back next year.  This scruffy initial incarnation has become a treasured institution which brings protest marching bands from around the world.

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I have to confess I had not thought much about marching bands as a protest tool.  Maximus has thought about this a bunch.  He pointed out the power of having noisy attractive mobile groups which do not require amplification.  He waxed eloquently about what it means to take performers off the stage, put them in the street at the same level as the audience and the implicit invitation for people to join in, marching, dancing or banging on anything which one might find handy.

But this was all much later, once we were well into the Honk experience.  It started, as many good things start, with dumpster diving.  Maximus and Rachel had cooked a dumpster dinner for the 400 Honk musicians in 2016.  His invitation to the Point A crew to come up and participate in Honk hoped to replicate their past success.  Fortunately, this plays directly to some of our strengths.

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Steve doing house repairs.

Steve is a man of many talents.  He was an obvious draft pick for this trip in that he can look at a full dumpster and see if there is anything good at the bottom and he can cook for huge quantities of people.  Steve was just one of the ringers we brought on this trip.  We had significant local talent was on hand as well.  We had 4 teams which went out at midnight.  Three of them were car based and one consisted of members of the local radical bicycle gang.  The ten of us started at midnight.

 

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By 3 AM this is what we had hauled in

 

But three hours of diving was followed by a couple of hours of cleaning and sorting and even some time spent arranging to get the above photo.  We had originally scheduled two evenings to gather food, but we did so well the first night, that we canceled the second dive.  We even had to re-dumpster some of our catch, because we exhausted the refrigeration space we had available to us.

Soon all this food would be cooked and prepped into a lovely dinner for 400 musicians.   The other two dinners were catered, but several folks said ours was the best.

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Honk has grown significantly from its early days.  The city of Somerville has embraced this event, local businesses help sponsor it.  But the costs are significant.  They help subsidize the travel of bands from across the country and even other countries.  There were many meals for the performers, most of which were much more expensive to produce than ours.

While our dumpster diving crew was dominated by out of town Point A activists, there was also important representation by locals who came from various places.  Sophia used to live at Craft House, where some of us were staying, in Tracy Chapman’s old closet, which is where we met her.  There are desirable attributes you hope for in a fellow dumpster diver: willingness to get dirty, good sense of humor, willingness to take chances, nimble and stealthy movement, healthy disrespect for the law, willingness to work crazy late without compensation, discernment about which food to rescue and ability to cook are some of them.  Sophia had all this and more.  And at almost 5 AM she climbed the labyrinth fire escape to the residence I was staying in to break me into my locked housing.

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Sophia in the final Honk Parade

Acquiring the huge haul of food is just the first step in feeding the Honk musicians.  We still had to cook it.  Most of our original dumpster divers plus a handful of new locals came out for this formidable task.  My terrible cooking skills are the source of legend and while others toiled in the First Church’s kitchen, I called wholesale hammocks customers. My old college partner Amanda came to help with the cooking, she had fond memories of being on the Honk organizing team years ago and was happy to return to support the effort.

 

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Telos in the final Honk parade

 

Mysteriously, the grill which had been unlocked outside the church for months was moved ten feet towards the curb to aid in loading it into a vehicle to move to the VFW outpost where the meal was being served.  But before we could pick it up, it vanished.  Taken likely by someone who thought it was being left on the curb to be discarded.  This cost us both a grill and preparation time.  I drove one of the Skul radical bicycle gang who had helped with the dumpster dive back to their home to pick up a replacement grill and delivered it to Steve Compersia at the VFW where he started cooking like a fiend.  The grill was not especially well designed and soon Steve was working without the propane on in a blaze of fire.  This attracted the police who decided they were going to shut our meal preparation down.  Fortunately, by the time we were caught, Steve had completed most of the cooking.

 

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Daniel and Z holding Lady Liberty’s head in the Free Palestine float

 

Part of the Point A mandate is to do skill shares when we come to town.  We often do Transparency Tools workshops for the various living collectives we visit and this time we did one at Craft House on the Tufts campus.  Before Honk, Courtney from Compersia had worked with Telos on a workshop on how to be an Ally.  And when Courtney agreed to come up to Boston, this workshop became a multi skit performance.

Being an ally is hard.  Many attempting to support oppressed people would get failing grades from the those they think they are helping.  The metaphor which was used as a chorus in our performance was that privilege is like wearing heavy boots in a world full of people wearing sandals.  You must keep being aware of when you are stepping on other people’s toes.  Telos played the failed ally in a series of 20-second micro skits with Courtney using such lines as:

“You should not have put your feet there”

“I don’t see toes”

“Are you calling me a toe stepper?”

And my personal favorite line

“All toes matter”

The final toe stepping micro skit gave curious prospective allies insight into what they might do to get it right, a simple apology and a promise to pay more attention in the future.

 

 

 

We had communicated with the Honk organizers about our desire to do our performance and they had offered us the Elm St “stage” at 8 PM on Saturday after the last marching band.  Sadly, the police were not given a schedule that had our performance on it and we were stopped again by Somerville’s finest just as we were trying to draw our crowd.  Instead, we did a dress rehearsal in the Davis Square metro station to a slightly baffled collection of commuters.  Maximus caught it on video.

 

Honk was an inspiring experience.  At the last dinner, we had together it was obvious we all wanted to come back next year.  As is part of the Point A culture we did a post mortem of our take away of what we learned.  We listed a number of suggestions to improve our efforts.  Get a dedicated food processing crew, distinct from dumpster divers to handle the haul after we retrieved it and not force divers to stay up most of the night.  Bring more people.  Practice our skits longer in advance.  Work more closely with the event organizers to get on the official schedule, to avoid hassles with the police.  Work in advance with more locals like the fine folks from Craft House at Tufts.

 

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Exotic water carrying bike device from final Honk parade

 

The most important transformative aspect of Honk was that we realized we wanted to become a circus.  The Point A trips have often been referred to as a circus, in part because of the joyful chaos they deliver.  But this was something bigger, the idea that we should step out of our comfort zone of giving presentations and workshops into something more theatrical, more like the famous Bread and Puppet troop (which was one of the Honk marching bands).  To get out of the classroom and more into the street.

 

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Infamous Bread and Puppet Theater Troop

 

The excited conversation about our new incarnation explored the idea of circuses as part of transformative festivals.  One thing which makes these kinds of events powerful is that they have the capacity to induce quinks.  [Quinks are the opposite of trauma. Where some specific acute event leaves a lasting positive effect on your life.]  When we reflected on the purpose of the Point A circus what we came up with was that we would try to induce quinks in both the participants and audience.

There’s much that could be said about building community. But what motivates people towards it isn’t usually what people say, but rather the way community makes them feel. People don’t decide to radically rethink the way they are living because someone told them they could, they do it because some powerful event in the lives made them believe it was possible. This is quink, and HONK is uniquely good at producing it. All the sound and color and joyful noise conveys an experience that words never could.

Our mission as Point A is to spread community into the urban areas that need them most. There are many ways to do this, and the most effective involve quinks. It seems like a parading circus is in our future…

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Helis and Maia – Estonian Hitchhikers

After the final parade on Sunday, Daniel and Raven and I hopped in the car with two Estonian hitchhikers we had picked up through Craig’s list.  Maia and Helis’s housing in NYC had fallen apart before our ride, so I spent most of the drive from Boston to NYC reaching out to various Point A allies who might host them.  We ultimately succeeded and deposited them with willing hosts.  Then Daniel and I drove across several states and arrived back at Twin Oaks at 3:30 AM, just in time to do a late night tofu shift.  This revolution does not stop.

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After the all-night drive, Daniel starts tofu at 3:30 AM

 

 

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The party does not stop

 

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Honk bands support social change

 

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Honk band performs on Boston Subway

 

 

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Z and Lady Liberty

 

Becoming a Circus

Building Urban Communes: A Point A Report

by Raven

Point A was started by folks who realized that income sharing communities were flourishing in rural areas (there are now five in Virginia and four in Missouri), most people in the US live in cities and communal situations were not doing as well there.

The few urban communes have been struggling. Seattle’s Emma Goldman Finishing School stopped income sharing several years ago. The Midden, in Columbus, Ohio, just transitioned to being a co-op rather than an income sharing community. Quercus, in Richmond, Virginia, lasted less than a year. The Baltimore Free Farm currently doesn’t have an income sharing group (although there are people there that would like to have one again).

 

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Poster by Reynaldo

Point A started in 2013. I’ve reported on its history elsewhere. Here’s what I see happening now.

Washington, DC, is our big success story. Compersia has been up and running for over a year and folks are strategizing on what to do next.

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Compersia’s house

I think that New York (where I’m working) is on the cusp of something. I’m hoping I’ll have more to report very soon.

Even though there isn’t an income sharing community in Baltimore, there seems to be a lot of folks there talking about it. I’ve heard of people from four different groups that are discussing the possibility and I’m not sure why they aren’t co-ordinating with one another.

As I’ve said, Quercus in Richmond is gone. I’m not sure what next steps, if any, can be taken there.

We also had a try at getting a co-op house in Binghamton, NY, to move toward income sharing, although that didn’t happen.

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Sign at the old Genome Collective in Binghamton

And there is a group in Newark, NJ, that is working toward creating a two fold community that would contain an urban portion and a rural farm portion. (An idea that always seems interesting to folks but seems very difficult to pull off.)

In addition, Point A has been going up to the Boston area (the place I’ve lived most of my life) and been giving workshops (as we will be doing this upcoming week), hopefully seeding the area for future commune building.

One US East Coast city (at least in the northeast US) that we haven’t done work in is Philadelphia. I think that it has great potential (New York and Boston are becoming increasingly unaffordable where I’ve heard that Philly still has a lot of lower cost housing stock–and the city has a history of movement organizing, including the group Movement for a New Society, which had a bunch of communal houses called the Life Center). Unfortunately, Point A’s resources seemed stretched to the limit these days, so it’s unlikely that there will be a project in Philadelphia anytime soon unless there are people there who want it.

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Smiling Hogshead Ranch in Queens, which we are trying to build an NYC community around.

If we can get a commune in NYC up and running, I think this could be a starting place for building more income sharing communities in urban areas. (I call this the Frank Sinatra theory of commune building from his line, “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere…”.) Hopefully if we can make it in New York, we can begin to build more urban communes. There’s a lot of cities on the East Coast alone, never mind in the country and the world.

I’ll keep you up to date.

 

 

Building Urban Communes: A Point A Report