There is a little known and not particularly important “law” in economics called Gresham’s Law. It states that “bad money forces out good money”. What it is referring to is important for coin collectors and sometimes for treasuries. For example, in 1965, when they started issuing quarters which had copper cores in them, fairly quickly the all silver quarters disappeared. Coin collectors and people predicting the increasing value of silver pulled them from the market.
There is a much more important principle in communes, which is parallel. Bad communards force out good communards. Unlike the economic law above, this can be an extremely important and tragic situation. People who live in income sharing communities, with some regularity ask themselves, “Should I return to the mainstream?” While there are lots of good things about living in communes, the mainstream for different reasons always has some appeal to most communards. It might be the night life, or the higher disposable income, or the greater privacy, or the social acceptance or a larger dating pool. (Some of these problems can be solved by living in an urban commune.)
This means when there is a serious conflict between people in a community, many people, at least fleetingly, consider the option of leaving. For some problematic members, the community is by far the best option. The mainstream life was perhaps not treating them well, they had limited options, and the commune is satisfying all their needs. For some talented members, Babylon is offering all kinds of treats and rewards for leaving the commune. For some small number of especially problematic members, this can means that they can get what they want (the other person leaving) by just digging in and being assholes.
Communes hate to talk about this. We are egalitarian, right? We are all equal, right? There are no good members and no bad members?
Bullshit. We are egalitarian, certainly. People have access to the same resources and people’s work is evaluated the same hour for hour. But there are definitely “good members” who contribute to the community in lots of different ways: it might be their musical ability, or their ability to facilitate a meeting, or their marketing or plumbing skills. They might simply make everyone happy when they are around. There is certainly no “objectively good” member; it is a judgment call. But talk to anyone who has spent time in a community and ask them if there are members who they were very sad to see leave, and they will confirm this for you because of the loss to the community when they departed.
Similarly, there are “bad” members. And they can be bad for lots of different reasons. They can be corrosive to the social fabric of the commune, they can be sexist or intolerant, they can have under managed mental health problems which bleed out onto the community, or they can be pernicious gossips (something i am accused of occasionally). And they can just be assholes.
This does not mean they should not live in the community. It does not mean they should have any less access to our collective resources. If we have selected them for membership, knowing these things about them then we have added them to our family and we need to be responsible for our choice.
But this dynamic is something to be aware of. It is often the case that people come to Twin Oaks, for example, knowing that living at Twin Oaks would be very good for them. Transformative, healing, giving them the chance that they always deserved. And the right thing might be to reject them anyway. Despite many people’s desires, we are not principally therapeutic communities. And you need not have a mental health problem to benefit from being in one of these communes. Often times living collectively, if done with an open heart and self-reflection can help cure you of being an asshole. Because they are pointing it out to you, people are encouraging you to self-correct and play better with others. [Commune life has not cured me of being a gossip. In fact, i am worse because there are so many strange and amazing people to talk about.] It does not always work out this way but it can.
Communes need to ask themselves, “Is this person we are considering for membership good for us, collectively?” If the answer is “no”, then it does not matter how good commune life might be for them, they should live somewhere else. This does not mean everyone rejected from a community is a “bad person” hardly. There are all kinds of reasons why it might not work for someone to be in a particular commune.
But understanding the dynamics of Gresham’s Law of Communes is important to make sure that you don’t lose members who you really want to hold onto because they have other options when the person they are in conflict with might not.