Last week, we published a piece on two income sharing systems called “Allowance Versus Box of Money” (which I’ve also heard called Dual and Unitary income sharing systems). Although I thought it was a really interesting article, I had a couple of difficulties with it.
One was that it seemed to claim that all income sharing came in “in two broad flavors”. I know of a couple of communities in dialogue in the FEC (the Possibility Alliance/Stillwater Sanctuary and Rainforest Lab) that are exploring using a gift economy exchange system, which involves neither an allowance or a box of money. The article also suggested that the box of money approach was the “more radical solution”. As someone who helped create an income sharing community, I found the allowance method an elegant solution to what we were trying to achieve. Instead of trying to figure out which is the ‘more radical’ approach, I think that it’s useful to know that there are at least three different ways to share income–probably more. (I heard someone talk about ‘punk income sharing’ where it’s not hard to share income if there isn’t any to share.)
I think one of the main reasons for creating new communes, is (as I also heard someone say) to create ‘new flavors’ of communal living. This is why there are five different income sharing communities in Louisa County, VA.
I think it’s important that there are many options for income sharing, that some communes are high structure (say Twin Oaks) and some communes are low structure (say Acorn), that there are communities that approach a middle class lifestyle and communities (like Living Energy Farm and the Stillwater Sanctuary) that are already preparing for life beyond fossil fuels. I’ve heard some folks talking recently about communities of people of color. I’m not threatened by this, any more than I’m threatened by women’s communities. And as much as I’m an advocate for egalitarian, income sharing communities, I’m well aware and even happy that this is only a small percentage of all the communities out there–there are co-operative houses, cohousing communities, ecovillages, hybrid communities of all kinds, and many varieties of spiritual communities, to name the most common ones in the Communities Directory.
Again, we’re creating more options for people, not less. And I’m well aware that not everyone wants to live in community. The point is that I think there should be all kinds of communities (and particularly income sharing communities) for those that are looking for them, because different people will do better in different communities, just like the ‘box of money’ approach will work better for some communities, and the ‘allowance’ approach for others, and using a ‘gift economy’ for still others.
As David from las Indias said, in an article on diversity that we published a year ago, “The kind of diversity many of you are concerned about … will come by itself, but probably not to every community, but to the network we must build together.” While diversity within communities is important, I think diversity among communities is crucial.
There are not very many places that do secular income sharing. But those that do come in two broad flavors. For those of us who spend a lot of time talking about income sharing, these two different approaches are sometimes given the shorthand “Box of Money” and “Allowance”.
All full income sharing systems are in agreement about communalizing the vast majority of expenses: Medical expenses, food, housing, clothing, education, transportation, costs connected with children, pets, various emergencies – these are all covered. Everything that falls solidly onto the “needs” side of the sometimes vague needs vs wants divide is covered. It is the small things and the things at the needs/wants margin where we struggle.
Should i be paying for your beer (especially when i don’t drink)? Should i be paying for your vacation to the beach? At Twin Oaks we have “solved” this problem by giving our members an allowance which is typically around $100 per month. You want to smoke cigarettes, you can have up to a $100 habit. You have to be at the premier of the latest Marvel superhero movie, that is your discretionary call. By giving people allowances, the commune avoids having to agree on a whole bunch of small, and oft divisive issues.
The more radical solution is the infamous “box of money”. In a number of European communes, including some of the larger ones, there is a physical box of money and when you need some, you go take it. Sometimes you need to write down what you took it for, in other places there is less concern about this. But if you are using this approach, you are agreeing to have whatever conversations and consensus is necessary for everyone to trust each other enough to let them spend the money they need to spend to live the life they want to lead.
In the US, the existing “box of money” communes are smaller. Compersia in DC, Sandhill in Missouri. Allowance based communes include Twin Oaks, East Wind and Acorn, the largest three members of the FEC. Although Acorn, with its anarchist orientation, straddles the boundary by empowering any member to spend up to $50 on anything for the community that they think is a good deal. In the three years i lived there i did not hear anyone complain at a meeting that someone had misused this privilege.
Some of the trade offs between the “allowance” and “box of money” systems are obvious, but many we are still exploring. We know that using an “allowance” system makes room for differences of opinion to exist without being resolved or even seriously addressed. Is that a good thing because it saves time and preserves privacy or a bad thing because it doesn’t drive us towards mutual understanding and critical reflection? We know that using “box of money” system allows for a greater diversity of spending patterns and priorities among members. Is that a good thing because it more easily makes room for people from diverse backgrounds and in diverse situations or a bad thing because it doesn’t drive us always back into the communal economy, looking for ways to meet our needs with each other rather than with money? As more examples are created here in the States and as we build better bridges of communication across the Atlantic our understanding of the dynamics of egalitarian, cooperative economies can only flourish.
Darles was a founder of the Quercus community, which is now, sadly, disbanded.
by Raven MoonRaven
Income sharing is one of the key things that differentiates communes from other intentional communities. (In this blog we also advocate egalitarianism, supporting communities that don’t have permanent leaders making most of the decisions.)
Income sharing is what it sounds like. All income is shared with every member of the community. This is different from asset sharing where all the financial resources that you own are shared. In many egalitarian, income sharing communities in the US, your assets are off limits–meaning that neither you or the community can use them while you are a member, but if and when you leave, you have access to them again. (Of course, you could loan them or give them to the commune, but that’s purely voluntary.)
In my initial post on this blog I gave several reasons why I thought income sharing was so important: “In a society that demonstrates its valuing of one person over another by massive pay differences, income sharing says that your work and my work and everyone in the community’s work is equally valued. As we share more, we need less, and we often have more time to do important things, like building personal connections with each other and exploring our spirituality and connecting with nature–things that don’t have a price tag and don’t add to the gross national product, but make our lives richer and better.” I would also add that sharing income also moves us out of the money economy and away from personal financial worries. Yes, the commune may be going through a hard time, but that’s shared by everyone so we all get to think together about what we will do about it rather than each of us agonizing alone about whether we will make it. We will all make it together or we won’t make it at all.
The communes are often so outside the money world that there’s a joke at Twin Oaks that you can leave a twenty dollar bill lying around and no one will bother it. (But don’t leave a candy bar around! For many people there that has more worth.)
There is a myth about income sharing that there’s a correct way to do it. For example, Acorn, East Wind, and Sandhill all have major community businesses that support them (in these cases they are seeds, nut butters, and sorghum, respectively) and Twin Oaks has several (including tofu and hammocks among them). But having community businesses is only one way to do income sharing.
There are many different models of income sharing. I was part of creating a community in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where three of us went out and worked at different jobs and came home and pooled our earnings. Compersia, a new income sharing community in Washington, DC, does something similar. One difference I saw right away is that anyone can spend up to a $100 without consulting with the community at Compersia, where in our community we were required to consult about purchases above $20. (Then again, our community flourished twenty years ago. Maybe some of the difference can be chalked up to inflation.) GPaul, who visited several European income sharing communities, came back to report several significant differences in the way they did income sharing.
There’s also a myth that it’s scary. In many ways it isn’t that much different from couples who share their income. For the community in Cambridge, when we were approaching income sharing, we had a discussion ahead of time about our fears about income sharing. One person was afraid that she would have to account for every pair of socks she bought. (Our $20 rule was partially made to deal with that.) My fear was that we would never actually get to income sharing. But we did and it went well and when the community broke up, that wasn’t one of the problems involved.
When the community broke up, we also worked to make sure that everyone would be okay financially. And this highlights a final reason for income sharing–in many ways, it is one more way of taking care of each other.
At this point a cultural icon around the world, Star Trek is known for its futuristic tech, its memorable lines and characters, the adventures of the crew, and its noble and optimistic opinion of humanity. But standing quietly in the background of all the Star Trek TV shows and movies is a very radical set of economic assumptions and propositions more relevant to the humanity of the present than futuristic tech like transparent aluminum or even tricorders. The radical economics of Star Trek were recently given thorough treatment in a new book, Trekonomics, by author and nerd Manu Saadia. In the book, Saadia makes a point and distinction of particular interest to those of us working to organize a deeply egalitarian and democratic economy and society.
The United Federation of Planets operates without money and without markets, a point referenced repeatedly by the crew members. The Federation is, in Saadia’s words, “post-economic”, his preferred way of characterizing their post-scarcity society. “Economics is the management of scarcity,” says Saadia. “With Star Trek, at least inside the Federation, you have basically overcome what [John Meynard] Keynes called, ‘The Economic Problem,’ … the allocation of scarce resources.” It’s easy to see how this is possible in a world with replicators capable of synthesizing anything that a Federation citizen might desire. What’s important to note, though, is that replicators were only introduced in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Even in the pre-replicator world of Star Trek (The Original Series) money and the market have been abandoned as barbaric relics from a less civilized and less humanistic era. In Star Trek, the movement beyond economics is presented not as the result of some cornucopia of technological automation but rather as a policy choice… and as a strongly moral policy choice, at that. The fact that the Federation’s movement beyond economics is a choice continues to be made throughout the various shows by the existence of technologically comparable societies (epitomized by the Ferengi) where money, the market, and scarcity still obviously exist.
Some people just really love money. (All screenshots by Eric Grundhauser via Atlas Obscura)
The flip side of scarcity is abundance, the state of having enough or more than enough of what everyone needs. It is a utopian material condition that many have dreamed of and sought throughout human history and across political traditions. What is described here in Star Trek are the two general methods of approaching abundance. We might call them demand side abundance and supply side abundance. Supply side abundance is the easier one to imagine and is embodied by the post-replicator Star Trek. The means of production have developed to the point that an infinitesimal amount of human labor is transformed into an infinitude of materials goods. It no longer makes sense to talk about prices when your costs are essentially zero. Without the need to manage scarcity the market fades away as product after product is decommodified. It is the communism described by Marx as the near inevitable result of Capitalism’s drive towards mechanization. Our friends, Las Indias, have done a lot of good work exploring the ways in which this form of abundance is beginning to breach into our world, the challenges it poses to the status quo, and the opportunities it presents to egalitarian communalists (see their by donation ebook The Book of Abundance or The Communard Manifesto).
Picard is served a potted plant by a malfunctioning replicator. (All screenshots by Eric Grundhauser via Atlas Obscura)
However, as exciting as a dawning age of supply side abundance is, what I find even more exciting is demand side abundance. By this I mean the world of abundance that is already available to us and has been, pretty consistently, for a very long time. As the stone soup story suggests and as Bucky Fuller calculated the existence of scarcity in the world is not a problem of production but a problem of distribution. But when we talk about distribution in this way we’re really talking about something bigger. We’re talking about Demand or how decisions are made and priorities are set not just around who gets the stuff that is produced but about what is produced in the first place and how it is distributed and made available. Like how we, as a species, decide how many Ferraris are produced versus how much malaria medicine. Or how we decide where we pile up food and when it gets thrown out. Or how much to spend on lawyers to fight health insurance claims versus how much to spend on health care. Any number of decisions, really. The idea hinted at by pre-replicator Star Trek, and the idea clearly explored by Ursula K. LeGuin in The Dispossessed, is how a society can choose to create abundance even in a situation with limited resources. That is to say, how a society can choose to make sure that everyone has enough of what they need. The path that LeGuin’s moon anarchists take is the same path taken by our very real and present day Federation of Egalitarian Communities. That path is one that both works to make distribution as efficient as possible (by extensive sharing, intensive cooperation and coordination, and the removal of barriers to access) while at the same time thinking critically about what is needed to live a good life and, as much as possible, finding non-materialist paths to satisfaction and enrichment. This is what makes LeGuin’s anarchists a peaceful and rich people despite living on an isolated desert planet with very scarce resources and it is what makes the communes of the Federation able to provide comfortable, secure, and satisfying lives (of an arguable middle class or upper middle class quality) on sub-poverty level incomes. It is an abundance that is available to all of us right now if we can change the way that we relate to each other and to our economy.
We are living science fiction. May our message of peace and abundance one day reach the earth… and finally the stars.
The Federation is on its way. (All screenshots by Eric Grundhauser via Atlas Obscura)