What Doesn’t Work: The Totally Utopia Community

by Raven

In trying to create communities, it’s important to learn what works and also what doesn’t work.  There’s a lot of pieces on this blog from communities that are up and running, many for over ten years, and one for a full fifty. There’s a lot we can learn from them about what works.

We also hope to hear from folks who have tried to start communes that didn’t go anywhere, about why they didn’t work.  (One good piece on this is Gil from Cambia’s Lessons on Starting a Community.  Other folks who’ve dealt with difficulties in community building have promised to send their learnings.)  This is important because difficulties are the reality of commune building, and hopefully, anyone trying to start a commune can learn from them.

The Totally Utopia Community that I describe here is not a real community.  However, I am well acquainted with three real communities that are nearly identical to what I describe.  The important thing for me is that if I just happen to know three different communities (in three different states) that are so similar to the Totally Utopia Community, I strongly suggest that there are probably dozens more like this.  I can’t believe that I just randomly found the only three communities like this.

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The folks behind the Totally Utopia Community are a couple that I will call Adam and Eve (no relation to the biblical couple).  These are very bright folks, well versed in farming, construction, and all types of eco-sustainability.  Adam is especially capable and competent.

I’ve talked a little bit about community hardware and software.  Adam and Eve are very good at the hardware.  What they have difficulty with is the software–the relationships.

Adam is a charismatic, alpha male.  He is good at attracting people.  He is also very worried about climate change and is very demanding of himself as well as other people.  The problem is that no one outside of he and Eve matches up to what they want.  While they don’t have trouble finding people, no one seems good enough–and since no one ever matches up, I suspect that they’re not going to find anyone who will stay–and so they will never create real community.

To a large degree, the Totally Utopia Community, as such, exists in name only.  Two people and a rotating cast of interns and extras do not make a community.  As I’ve said, I’ve seen this particular community process in action at least three times, so it’s popular, even if it’s not functional.

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Lest you think this kind of situation is only restricted to heterosexual couples concerned about climate change, here’s a similar situation only with two gay men creating an agricultural religious community.  The ideas are they have are interesting but, as they said, they weren’t perhaps the right people to implement them.  I suspect they have similar problems to Adam and Eve.

Unfortunately, there isn’t an easy solution to the Totally Utopia Community’s problems.  It would mean that these folks would need to change their behavior to get anywhere.  Some thoughts that I’ve had is that Adam could, perhaps, learn how to be supportive and welcoming to people and, instead of deciding that they aren’t competent enough, try to figure out what they’re good at and how they could help build community.  Changing his behavior probably wouldn’t be easy, particularly if he’s scared and feeling urgent about the climate emergency.  Or, they could restructure things so that he isn’t in charge, but someone warm and welcoming and with interpersonal skills is running things and Adam can focus on the things that he’s good at, like construction and farming.  Or (and I actually suggested this to one of these couples), maybe they should just stop trying to build a community, and have a small family farm where they could work together and wouldn’t have to worry about other people.

When someone tells me that all you need to do to create a commune is, build it and they will come, I think of Adam and Eve.  In two of the three communities, I’m talking about, the couple is still out there trying to create the community.  I wish them luck but I fear that no community will happen unless something changes.

I put this out here because I think this is a model of how not to build community–and a model that is still being used.  For people who wonder why I’m so insistent on starting with getting the people and learning to work together, the Totally Utopia Community is a good example.

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What Doesn’t Work: The Totally Utopia Community

Laboratories or Modules?

I’ve talked, both on this blog and on my personal blog, about communities as being laboratories for social change.  In communes we get to try out stuff to see what works and doesn’t work.

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Of course, that begs the question of what to do with what works.

I’ve been thinking very hard about three quotations, the first two of which are very similar.

John Gall said this (which is known among system thinkers as Gall’s Law): “A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. The inverse proposition also appears to be true: A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be made to work. You have to start over, beginning with a working simple system.”

Kevin Kelly has been saying something very similar: “The only way to make a complex system that works is to begin with a simple system that works.  Attempts to instantly install highly complex organization …without growing it, inevitably lead to failure. … Complexity is created, then, by assembling it incrementally from simple modules that can operate independently.”

Finally, add to these quotes one by Buckminster Fuller, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality.  To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

This is exactly what we are doing in the egalitarian, income sharing communities–building a new model of a way to live that is sustainable, fair, and fun.  And when you look at the Gall and Kelly quotes, it’s clear that the only way to do this is start small, like at a communal level.  (An example of how not to do this is to take over a large country and try to install a communal system from the top down.  Lenin tried it.  It didn’t work.)

So how do we get from a few little communes to social change?  I’ve already talked a bit about this in my piece on networking.

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But the first step is to grow the movement.  If there are forty communes on the planet now (my complete guesstimate from my piece last week), how could we grow that to eighty (effectively doubling it)?  Why aren’t there more communes?

The problem isn’t that it’s hard to start a commune.  New communities start all the time.  The problem is getting communes to succeed.  As I also said last week, I know of one relatively new commune that is already gone and another two that have basically merged into one (because both weren’t doing well).  I also know of several other communities that are struggling and may or may not make it.

There are three reasons for this.  One, it’s hard to start anything and make it succeed.  The survival rate for communities is similar to the survival rate for new businesses.  Two, this is social change and there’s a reason social change is hard–if it worked it would change society, and there are a lot of vested interests that don’t want that. It’s an uphill battle to build a commune. And, importantly, three is that many folks who try to start communities don’t know what’s really involved. As someone I heard say, they pay attention to the ‘hardware’ (the buildings and land and physical systems–even solar panels and crops) and not to the ‘software’ (the relationships between the people in the community).  And they are surprised when the commune doesn’t work.

All this being said, if we want real change, we are going to have to build a lot more communes.  At this point, we know a lot of what works and doesn’t work.  (If you are thinking of starting a community, I’d suggest you click on the section here on Creating Community and read the articles there.  There’s a lot of wisdom there from people who have done it.)  And I believe that if 90% of new communes will still fail, we are going to need to start a hundred more communes, to get our next ten.

And I think that this is something worth doing, since I believe that egalitarian, income sharing communities are one of the modules for building a new world.

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Laboratories or Modules?

Betty Crocker’s Famous Commune Recipe

By Telos, adapted from a zine I once made called “Betty Crocker’s Tiny Commune Cookbook.” A printable copy of the cookbook can be found here.

A good commune is like marinated tempeh. It’s like spicy peanut (or even cashew) sauce, or deliciously chewy fruit leather. A good commune is like a pig roast. Or maybe it’s like a beautiful bunch of asparagus, made better by the fact that it was recovered from a local dumpster. When well prepared, an income-sharing community can meet your life needs- dietary and otherwise.

While there’s a lot of room for variation, there are a few common elements that make communes an especially scrumptious dish…

They meet each member’s needs: You don’t want a muffin where all the blueberries are concentrated in one spot. Likewise, you don’t want a society where all the wealth is concentrated in one spot! When income is shared, resources are distributed roughly equally, or according to need. Excess is enjoyed together, reinvested, or shared with the wider community. Everybody gets blueberries in their muffin!

They reduce collective expenses, through resource sharing: Part of what makes communes delicious is that they reduce consumption. By collectivizing resources, communes avoid the need for everyone to buy their own car, tablesaw, bike, etc. Collectivizing labor also allows income-sharing communities to meet more of their needs in-house, by growing their own food, for example. The resultingly reduced consumption translates to lower expenses and a smaller ecological footprint. Yum

They make all work valuable: Income-sharing decouples the value of labor from the income it produces, because each member has equal access to resources, no matter how much money they individually earn. This separation of “value” from money makes it easy to appreciate all types of labor, even so-called “women’s work” and other labor that is chronically underpaid. Income sharing is as tasty for those cooking, cleaning, farming, and answering phones as it is for those running businesses.

They make life well-rounded and interesting:  Income-sharing usually eliminates the need to work for pay full time, making it possible to pursue a variety of work, instead of just one type. The resulting freedom to nourish a diversity of skills and passions gives life a well-balanced flavor profile. Communes help create well-rounded people, who are more versatile and interesting to be around.

The Recipe messy

Communes are not an easy recipe to attempt, and it’s an unfortunate truth that many of them come out either burnt or undercooked. They often turn out tough, and it’s difficult to get them to rise properly. Still, this should not discourage the cook, because a well-prepared commune is perhaps one of the flakiest, juiciest, most delicious dishes there is to be tasted.

Part of what makes communes so difficult is that there’s no sure-fire recipe that will guarantee success. Still, there are certain ingredients that pretty much all communes will need. If you have experience living or working cooperatively, many of them may already be available in your pantry. Make sure to include a healthy portion of each ingredient listed below. Mix well, marinate, adjust proportions as needed, and add copious amounts of tenacity and mutual trust- starting a commune is a commitment that requires hard work and persistence.  Prepared properly, commune life can strengthen your relationships, create a deep sense of belonging, provide an exit from industrial capitalism, reduce your carbon footprint, and more.

Membership Process Chips-Membership

Who will be in the commune? How will membership be decided? It’s important for new communes to have a group of founding members with a strong shared vision and the commitment to manifest it. Once off the ground, they will need a process for determining which new members to accept into the community. Making this process fair and equitable is an important and challenging task. Strive for a process that does not discriminate on the basis of race, class, gender, age, sexual orientation, etc, even in subtle ways. Still, the membership process must also ensure that accepted members are able to contribute fairly to the community (in whatever way they do), that their needs can be met by the community, and that they will not be destructive to the community.

IncomeCream-Income

In order to share income, you’ll need…income! How much money is required to meet the commune’s needs? Will the community buy most necessities, or will it find ways to meet some needs without money (by growing its own food, or by scavenging, for example)? Once members determine how much money they need to collectively earn, they need to figure out where it will come from. Will they pool the income from jobs outside the community? If so, do all members need jobs, or do some members make enough money to support others? Or should the community launch a cooperatively owned business that all members can work in and share income from? What type of business? Does the commune have other income sources available until the business begins to turn a profit? Launching a cooperative business will affect the tax status that best fits your community, as well as other legal details, so don’t forget to do your research!

Governance SystemFlour-Governance

Life is full of decisions. How will the commune make them? In an egalitarian community, it’s important to have a governance structure that allows decisions to be made in a timely manner while ensuring that all voices are heard and that no individual or faction is allowed to exercise constrictive power over others. The most popular model for egalitarian decision making is consensus, in which proposals are continually modified until all members can agree upon a course of action. Most forming communes use consensus, but many forms of collective governance are possible. There are communes that use supermajority vote, some that delegate responsibilities to various managers, and some that elect committees or empowered to make certain decisions.

Labor SystemWhisk-Labor

Starting and maintaining a commune takes work! Each commune will need a labor system ensuring that each member contributes equitably and is accountable to others. Some members might contribute by working an income producing job, or in a collectively owned business, while others might garden, keep community facilities clean and repaired, cook meals, or build community infrastructure. Are a set number of work hours expected from each member, or will accountability come from conversation, instead of numbers? Is work assigned, or self-determined? How is it ensured that each member contributes effectively and has the opportunity to be fulfilled in their work?

Communication and Conflict ResolutionSpoon-Communication

Sharing income is a big commitment, and it’s important for each commune to have a healthy communication culture. Communities function best when everybody is on the same page, not just about responsibilities, but also about relationships. There are many ways to facilitate effective communication among community members, like providing a space in community meetings to discuss interpersonal dynamics, or hosting regular meetings exclusively for this purpose. Another very useful tool is “clearnesses”- regular one on one meetings between every possible pair of community members, providing space to address any clutter in their relationship, and kill gossip. Consider these various forms of regular communication as “interpersonal hygiene.”  When it comes to serious conflicts, it’s important to have a plan for dealing with them before they arise. Don’t wait to design a conflict resolution process until you need it!

Legal and financial details Egg-Legal

If you want your commune to be recognized by the government as a legal entity (and not just a band of weirdos), then you’ll need to set up a tax and corporate identity for the community. Different tax and legal statuses will place different constrictions on what a community can legally do, so research thoroughly and choose according to your community’s needs! Communes are commonly listed as non-stock, non-profit corporations with a 501(d) tax status, but there are several options that may best meet a community’s needs. Besides tax and legal status, it’s important to familiarize yourselves with zoning regulations for the area where the commune will be located, financing options for the purchase of land, and other relevant legal details.

CultureCulture-Governance

It’s probably safe to assume that those interested in starting communes want to live differently than most people do. In what specific ways? Are there cultural taboos that you would like to normalize, like female toplessness? What about “normal” behaviors that we’d be better off without, like conspicuous cell phone use? What do members of the community do for fun? What is the community’s shared sense of purpose? How will your commune rewrite the social code? Each commune has it’s own culture, whether or not it was intentionally adopted. Take the opportunity to redesign culture in a healthy way!
*Never consider your commune finished, or it may stagnate and spoil. Serves roughly 5, potentially up to thousands. Never to be enjoyed alone.

Betty Crocker’s Famous Commune Recipe

Compersia’s first birthday!

Last Friday Compersia, the first commune birthed with the help of the Point A Project, turned one year old. It’s been a year filled with joys and difficulties and a few close calls. Recently, responding to our frustration with the gap between our reality and our vision and the stubbornness with which some big important items seem to stay on our to-do list, Courtney, one of our members, gave us some perspective by noting that the commune is a living thing and only a year old. If it was a human we’d be thrilled at this point if it wasn’t pooping on itself and had mastered the art of eating solid food and crawling around. From that perspective, we’re doing pretty well, thank you very much. We’ve got our foundational policies written, we’ve added some new members, we’ve got money in the bank, and we’re building some deep and resilient relationships. And, much like a baby, the commune demands a lot of attention and care and not always at the most opportune times. But as it grows and develops we can see more and more clearly how awesome it will be when it’s fully grown and how all our hard work parenting it will pay off.

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Some highlights from our first year:

  • Started the commune! Set up a legal entity, set up a group bank account, started pooling our income, our labor, and our resources.
  • Modified one of our member’s houses so it could fit most of us and our vital functions, host events, and host guests. It made a wonderful crib to hold us in our delicate first moments.
  • Started a video editing and media coop that currently supports one member and will hopefully grow into a multi-member commune business.
  • Another member started a handyman business.
  • Took on two new members to add to the four founders.
  • Had a couple weekend long retreats to work on plans and policy.
  • Hosted dozens of guests.
  • Hosted jam nights and game nights.
  • Started connecting with cooperative lawyers to lay the groundwork for a project to create an easily replicable model for urban communes.
  • Pursued and started negotiating on several potential buildings to buy.
  • Stayed sane.
  • Stayed fed.
  • Stayed solvent.
  • Stayed together.

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Now, on the eve of our first birthday, and with a recently expanded membership, we’re moving all six adult members and all four kids into a new house and setting our sights on a new set of goals. But we’re doing it with the knowledge that we’re only a year old and if we don’t accomplish all our lofty dreams we won’t be that hard on ourselves. As long as we’re growing and thriving, learning and maturing we will beam with pride at our bouncing baby commune.

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Compersia’s first birthday!

GPS Directions for Community

by Valerie Renwick, from Communities Magazine, Winter, 2016

EXIT the mainstream urban / suburban / rural single-dwelling lifestyle you’ve been living. Depending on your life experience, you may need to VEER LEFT to accomplish this.

directions1IMMEDIATELY ENTER into the heart of your new community home. You will need to NAVIGATE THE COMPLEX TWISTS AND TURNS that seem to pop up with alarming frequency. Who knew that such a simple change in the kitchen would upset so many people? It was just one little thing.  What was wrong with the suggestion to adopt a community puppy–don’t people here want to provide a good home for a stray? Why isn’t the brilliance of my new business proposal obvious to everyone? Well, except for you-know-who’s constant bias against all post-Industrial-Revolution technology.

PAUSE to consider: When the other person said what they said, how did I feel? What is their piece of the truth?  Do I need to give them some space?

Even after traveling the road for years, you may find yourself in the middle of a tricky community conflict, looking like it’s going to end in a horrific pile-up of emotions. You have several options:

YIELD to the more vocal, more articulate, or more tenacious energy.

or

TAKE A SHARP TURN and attempt to address the festering, long-term issues that have slowly calcified over years into unwavering caricatures of process, then QUICKLY DODGE the head-on collisions and emotional shrapnel that comes flying towards you and everyone else.

RECALCULATING.

Now SIGNAL your willingness to work together, and MAKE A DETOUR by adjusting your position and offering a modified proposal that addresses the concerns that have been raised.

Before proceeding, BUY YOURSELF SOME INSURANCE by investing in other peoples’ viewpoints and building up some goodwill in your community-karma bank account.

As you continue on the journey, ENTER A ROUNDABOUT of meetings, discussions, and surveys. In due time, you will…..directions2

ARRIVE AT YOUR DESTINATION.  You find a solution that works for the group!

Now that the situation has resolved and the communal dust has settled, SLOW DOWN AND IDLE for a while, relishing this period of time and enjoying the glow of some skillful, caring cooperation and warm feelings towards your sister/fellow travelers.

Soon enough it will be time to RESET and start again…..

GPS Directions for Community

Networking the Communities

By Raven

I wrote in my piece on Communities of Communities about what was happening in Louisa County, Virginia, and in Rutledge, Missouri.  In Louisa there are five income sharing communities (plus a nearby Catholic Worker house) and in Rutledge there are three very different types of communities–and a fourth (different again) community only forty miles away.  In both of these areas, the different communities strongly support each other.  They flourish not in spite of one another but because of one another.  I’ve been at Twin Oaks and watched folks from Acorn, Living Energy Farm, and Cambia come by, and been at

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A Mailbox Sign from Long Ago

Dancing Rabbit and seen folks from Red Earth Farms and Sandhill hang out.  (Not to mention being at Acorn and working with folks from Twin Oaks and Little Flower–the Catholic Worker community.)

But I’m seeing connections growing between communities that aren’t even near one another.  I’m currently living at Ganas (not an egalitarian, income sharing community) which has a long history with Twin Oaks.  I joke about a conveyor belt between the two communities (300 miles from each other) because so many people go back and forth so often.  What’s interesting to me has been watching another ‘conveyor’ belt starting up between Acorn in Virginia and East Wind in Missouri as members of each community began spending serious time in the other one.

Then there’s a Federation of Egalitarian Communities and last year’s Assembly featured a host of starting communities.  The FEC exists partly to support and network egalitarian, income sharing communities.  Similarly, this blog exists to feature them–not only to make people aware that they exist and how many and diverse they are, but to keep communes aware of each other.

Most importantly, as David from las Indias argued in his post called On Diversity, the greater diversity that we seek is likely to come not so much within communities, but among communities.  He talks directly about the need to network our communities.

Going back to Louisa, Twin Oaks has a 100 members.  That’s a lot and many members are resistant to growing more.  Acorn has thirty members and doesn’t want much more because, as one person put it, they don’t want to become Twin Oaks.  But now there’s

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A Building at Cambia

three more communities down there, trying to grow and new people are often encouraged to investigate them.  Telos has written about why he decided to leave Twin Oaks in order to help build Cambia.

 

What we are talking about here is not just having a few alternative communities, but slowly creating a movement.  As we help create more and more communes (through projects like Point A) and network them, we are creating a real alternative to the situation we are inheriting.  With networks of income sharing communities, we are not only talking about a few communities in the US, or even North America (and there are a couple of Canadian communities in dialogue with the FEC), but throughout the world, as we connect with communities in Spain and Germany–and maybe the kibbutzim and other communes throughout the world.  There is already a Global Ecovillage Network and the Fellowship of Intentional Communities is busy connecting diverse communities from communes to urban co-op houses to large cohousing projects.  Communities matter and as we begin to connect with each other and network together, we are creating that movement.

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A Point A Organizing Meeting in DC

It’s certainly not the way I think everyone should live, but I do think there are a lot of people who might be interested in living this way if they knew it was possible.  Twin Oaks has a waiting list again, and I suspect Acorn and other communities do as well, and that makes me realize that there’s a lot more interest in the communities than there is space in them.  The Atlantic magazine just published a piece on people looking at communes because they’re “Seeking an Escape from Trump’s America“.  I only think that in these times, the movement is going to grow.  As I said in my first piece on this blog, I think that communes are important.  I think that it’s equally important to network and grow.  This is true social change.

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las Indias in Madrid

 

 

Networking the Communities