A Question of Hierarchies

We have been putting questions on our Facebook page and getting a lot of responses. I (Raven) am now putting them out as Friday reposts so that blog readers can see what we’ve been doing on Facebook and some of the comments that we have gotten. Here’s the first question we reposted and the second and the third and the fourth and most recent.

In this back and forth, Theresa raises the question of the place of hierarchies in egalitarian communities. Is this a paradox or an admission that a flat playing field isn’t completely possible, even in communities that struggle for it?

This got lots of responses, beginning with:

This led to a back and forth between Shari McRae and Gil Benmoshe (with contributions from Theresa and Nicole Bienfang:

This was where the dialogue ended, but the question is still open: in ‘egalitarian’ communities, how do we deal with the fact that some folks will always have more experience than others? Do we reward it, or try to contain it?

A Question of Hierarchies

A Question of Consensus

from the Commune Life Facebook page

We have been putting questions on our Facebook page and getting a lot of responses. I (Raven) am now putting them out as Friday reposts so that blog readers can see what we’ve been doing on Facebook and some of the comments that we have gotten. Here’s the first question we reposted.

Maximus/Theresa asked this question back in November:

Again, there many (as in 22) comments. Here is a representative sample:

(Sadly, Susan Stoddard has passed away since this post. She was a sharp observer and a frequent commenter.)

Feel free to add your comments as to when consensus is appropriate and when it might not be.

A Question of Consensus

Warts and All

by Raven Cotyledon

I sometimes worry that this blog sounds too much like “Rah, rah, communes!”  I don’t want anyone to think that the communes are perfect or that we are trying to claim that the communes are perfect.

Far from it.  The communes are filled with people and since there aren’t any perfect people, there aren’t any perfect communes. It’s true that many of the communes have high aspirations but even if the people in them managed to perfect themselves, the boundaries between the communes and the rest of society are very porous, with folks leaving and new folks coming in all the time.

Almost any ill that you can find in society, you can find in the communes.  I have hung around at various communities long enough to see the problems and bad behaviors fairly close up.

 

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Diagram of a wart

I occasionally think about writing this and even giving some of the gory details so this blog doesn’t sound too idealistic and to balance things out, but I generally don’t because, first, it would make me very unpopular at what ever commune I talked about, second, because folks who are threatened by the very existence of our communes would publicize these incidents as a way to destroy our communities,  and third, none of these are anything that you can’t find in some corner of any city, or for that matter, almost any rural town.

So, if the communes share all the problems the rest of the society has, why put all the work into creating them?

My answer is that they are also doing some things that you can’t find anywhere else. For example, Twin Oaks does have their fair share of problems and even pass out a booklet saying that they are not utopia, but they also have nearly a hundred people who live communally and share way more than you will find almost anywhere else, and they have been doing it for over fifty years, and contrary to many people’s expectations, there is no dictator or group of people that run everything.

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Charlie Chaplin as the Great Dictator

I say this because I saw something where someone commented on an article about Twin Oaks that any arrangement like that ‘invariably’ ended up with a small group running everything–and, honestly, Twin Oaks is a communist society, and the mainstream wants you to believe that a communist culture has to end up in a dictatorship. I can tell you that no one there would allow it.

I single out Twin Oaks because they are the oldest and biggest of the communes, but every one of the communes is an experiment, trying to live a different and better way. Some work (at least in the sense they last) and some fail, but each is a valiant effort and we can learn from each failure and each success about what is possible. And given the very fallible people they are filled with and the society that they are surrounded by, they struggle with all the problems you can name.

But I prize each of them, warts and all, because they point the way to another future. Another world is possible, and we are carving the way.

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Thanks for reading! This post was made possible by our patrons on Patreon. The Commune Life team works hard to bring you these stories about our lives in community, and that work couldn’t happen without support from our audience. So if you liked this article, and want to help us make more like it, head on over to https://www.patreon.com/communelife to join us!

Deep gratitude to all of our patrons:  

Communities

  • Acorn Community
  • Compersia Community
  • Cotyledon Community
  • East Brook Community Farm
  • The Federation of Egalitarian Communities
  • Twin Oaks Community

Communards

  • Tobin Moore
  • Kai Koru
  • Jenn Morgan
  • Jonathan Thaler
  • Nance & Jack Williford
  • Julia Evans
  • William Croft
  • Aaron Michels
  • Cathy Loyd
  • Laurel Baez
  • Magda schonfeld
  • Michael Hobson
  • Sasha Daucus
  • William Kadish

Thanks!

Warts and All

Aspirational Egalitarianism

by Raven Cotyledon

The Federation of Egalitarian Communities is a network of North American communes. As the name implies the communities involved have a commitment to equality and egalitarianism. Unfortunately, these communities are filled with flawed and fallible human beings, as is the nature of any human endeavor.  Thus, as the title of my post suggests, egalitarianism is an aspiration, something aimed for but not always accomplished.

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Right now the FEC is struggling with questions about how to better live up to its name. Racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, and transphobia (and more) are all found in our communities because these oppressions are a basic part of our society and the communes are not separate from society.   The communities are mostly white, mostly middle-class, and while there is a decent percentage of women, there is still misogyny, and while we try to be a safe place for queer and transfolk, it isn’t always true.

So the work is about how to change that. How can these communities reflect the world we want rather than the world we have?  I would suggest that the first step is to acknowledge that we are still far from where we want to be. At Twin Oaks they give visitors a booklet with the title “Not Utopia Yet.”  This reflects both where we are and where we want to go.

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Each year the FEC has an assembly of representatives from the member communities and the  Communities-in-Dialogue where we talk about pressing issues in the communities. Figuring out how we can really become more egalitarian is one of the top topics this year.


 

Thanks for reading! This post was made possible by our patrons on Patreon. The Commune Life team works hard to bring you these stories about our lives in community, and that work couldn’t happen without support from our audience. So if you liked this article, and want to help us make more like it, head on over to https://www.patreon.com/communelife to join us!

Deep gratitude to all of our patrons:

  • Acorn Community
  • Compersia Community
  • Cotyledon Community
  • East Brook Community Farm
  • The Federation of Egalitarian Communities
  • Twin Oaks Community
  • Sumner Nichols
  • Tobin Moore

Thanks!

 

Aspirational Egalitarianism

Power Dynamics in the Communes

by Raven

I found a book in the library called The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni.  It was focused on business executive teams, but I found a lot of it applicable to communities.  His five dysfunctions were Absence of Trust, Fear of Conflict, Lack of Commitment, Avoidance of Accountability, and Inattention to Results. To put it in positive language, I would say that in creating a team or a community you need to build trust, be willing to disagree, be able to make commitments, and also be held accountable, before you can achieve results.

A friend of mine pointed out that every group, including communities, has to deal with power dynamics. It may be especially true in the commune world.

I have written about how a new community with an aggressive, dominant man at the core will often fail to grow. In December, with the MeToo movement in the news, we published a series of articles about how communes and communities need to deal with the problem of abusive men among us.  While sexual abuse and harassment are the worst examples and have been what has been featured in the media, there is also a strong problem of men (generally white men) dominating discussions, and often ignoring or disregarding the contributions of women and people of color–or, worse yet, claiming those contributions and taking credit for them.  (Full disclosure, I am a white man.)

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If we want to build diverse, inclusive communities, we need to deal with these dynamics. We need to deal with anyone dominating conversations, and ignoring or disregarding the contributions of others.   While white men are the prime offenders, we need to call out anyone with these behaviors. And it’s not just women and people of color who get trampled on, but queerfolk, people with disabilities, and working class and poor people. In fact, the whole community is often being trampled on.

To return to what I began with, when you have a person or a few people dominating in a community, it’s impossible to build real trust.   People become afraid to disagree with these folks and have no desire to give real commitments to the community.  Accountability is at least difficult, if not impossible, under these circumstances, and what results happen are usually not what the group wants.

Patrick Lencioni claims that what gets in the way of teams achieving results is a focus on people’s status and ego.  Well functioning teams do not have stars; they have a group of people willing to listen to each other and work together.  If that’s true in the business world, how much more so with communes.  Having dominating people makes true community impossible.

Power definition

Changing all this is not easy.  If you are dealing with strong people, you will probably need a cohesive group to confront them.  The more the group can be clear about what it wants and needs, the better the chances of getting it.  And that goes back to the need to build trust among this group.

It’s difficult work, but if our communes are going to be truly egalitarian, it’s work that needs to be done.

Power Dynamics in the Communes

WE ARE NOT SELLING A PRODUCT

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A few days ago several people sent me this article about co-living in New York City. Co-living came to national attention a year and a half ago when co-living groups in the San Francisco bay area, like the Embassy and Campus networks and Open Door Development, got a flurry of press attention (herethere, and elsewhere).

I spent some time trying to reach out to the folks mentioned in the story and am still unclear about whether the stories described a genuinely new thing (communal living updated for the networked age) or simply an old thing (group houses) with good branding and fancy websites made by people whose success in life depends on their ability to cast what they’re doing as innovative and disruptive. The label encompassed diverse assortment of houses, networks, and projects that sometimes shared little in common aside from a demographic and not all of whom were aware that they were being labeled as “co-living” spaces.

It was an interesting development of ambiguous meaning that I’ve continued to keep an eye on and occasionally try to research further. At best they could harbor some innovative ideas on how to adapt collective cooperative living to the modern networked age, its technology, its economy, and its culture. At worst, it was group houses for the techie crowd and its aspiring capitalists. Harmless enough.

The recent story in the New York Times highlights a different model, though, and raises different worries.

The article describes several attempts, mostly in New York, to commodify the group living experience, in one case by a single landlord but in others by corporations. The whole thing strikes me as a quixotic recuperative attempt by capitalism.

Much has been written about the ways that capitalism and consumerism, sometimes accidentally and sometimes intentionally, leads to isolation, alienation, the destruction of community, and the impoverishment of meaning. Because of this we have been, for some time but especially recently, in the midst of a realization of the value of what has been lost and a mass attempt to recapture it. The longing for community, authenticity, and meaning has spawned, in whole or in part, the back to the land movement, the local food movement, intentional communities of all stripes, foodies generally, the tiny house movement. Sometimes this quest for meaning and connection has led to radical departures from and alternatives to capitalism. Sometimes it has led down a path of quick recuperation with capital once again creating spectacles and commodities that promise community, connection, and meaning.

The problem, of course, is that capitalism is structurally incapable of fulfilling these very human needs. Community is the result of a web of relationships and arises where people have some common context or experience choose to enter into relationship with each other as equals. Hierarchies and inequalities make free and authentic relating nearly impossible. It is a deeply and essentially democratic process and simply cannot be enforced from above or outside and thus cannot be packaged and sold. Meaning, similarly, is something that can only be generated by a person through experiences that are important to them. Objects themselves have no inherent meaning or authenticity. Those qualities are imparted by the relationships that they take part in. You can no more buy meaning than you can buy love.

co_living-cartoon-300x169The New York City Co-Living projects profiled in the article are trying to take something essentially internal and induce it from outside. They promise that through them you can buy satisfying friendships and meaningful experiences. But they can only awkwardly ape the results that cooperative communities achieve spontaneously. Their communities are doomed to be hollow simulacra with all the appearance of a cooperative community of peers but none of the guts that actually make it work. Should a genuine community arise it will be a happy accident and would exist in an awkward tension with the profit driven owners who were not responsible for it but will try always to charge for it (a commonplace strategy of the networked age).

Although in a way I am happy for him, the story of the chef who moved into a Pure House property and describes how satisfying it is that people ask him how his day was when he gets home makes me sad. He has to pay $2400 or more per month to get friends to live with. And even those friends, so dearly bought, do not stay.

The whole idea presented in this article reminds me of a management handbook I once read. It began by explaining how study after study and anecdote after anecdote showed that morale was better, productivity was higher, absenteeism was rarer, and creativity and effort flowed in abundance when workers on a project felt like equal partners, felt like they had real agency and freedom, basically when they felt empowered. It then went on to suggest ways to trick your employees into thinking they were equal empowered partners without actually changing any of the fundamental power dynamics in the corporation.

income sharing venn diagramThe idea of a cooperative community of equals is an incomprehensible absurdity to capitalism because it exists outside of the profit-seeking and individualist paradigm. There is no way to understand it within those paradigms. To attempt to privatize, systematize, and commodify such a thing is to destroy it.

They are doomed.

WE ARE NOT SELLING A PRODUCT