By Keenan Dakota
[Disclaimer: This is actually an opinion piece by Keenan, not a well-designed experiment with a control group, or statistics, or any math at all. Repeat: this is NOT actual science.]
Twin Oaks was started in 1967 as an experimental community by a group of people inspired by the behaviorist theory in B.F. Skinner’s utopian novel, Walden Two. After fifty plus years of ongoing experimentation, we now have some results to report.
Theory: A society can apply Behaviorism to improve individual members’ function and happiness.
Fail: The very premise that brought the initial group together, that Behaviorism—widely and properly implemented—could remove undesirable human traits was the first failed theory of Twin Oaks. At Twin Oaks, human behavior has proven to be extraordinarily resistant to any generally applied theory or practices—for instance, interpersonal tension and communal drama are enduring problems at Twin Oaks. Kudos to the founders for choosing the survival of the community over clinging to an empirically failed theory.
Theory: A village can raise a child better than a family can.
Fail: In 1973, Twin Oaks began the official child program based on the theory that the whole community would be responsible for raising the children. Part of the rationale was provided by evidence from the mainstream culture with its child abuse, neglect, and enduring cycles of familial dysfunction. Obviously, merely being able to biologically procreate was no qualification for raising children, right? Sounds good in theory, but in practice there are many flaws with a whole community attempting to raise children. (The history of the kibbutz illuminates a similar arc in child-rearing theory—starting communal and evolving toward supporting families .) Twin Oaks, in a fairly short period of time, moved away from communal child-rearing toward emphasizing and strengthening families. These changes included designing living spaces that allowed closer family connection, writing policies that expected parents to be responsible for their children, and giving parents autonomy over how their kids were raised.
Theory: Members of a community become cohesive by living in close proximity to each other.
Fail: Early Twin Oaks designers clustered buildings together, clustered bedrooms together, and skimped on sound insulation between rooms. For decades now, Twin Oaks has been remodeling to try to undo those early mistakes. Twin Oaks has learned that the ability to have privacy is absolutely key to happiness in a communal setting. Specifically, acoustic separation is a key component of successful community living.
Theory: A strong community comes from a sense of connection to all of the members of the community.
Fail: close emotional connection tends to happen among small subgroups in a community, not collectively among all members of the community. The community is stronger when there are many subgroups that have tight emotional connections. Although, over the years here at Twin Oaks, many attempts have been made to build cohesion among the entire community, these attempts have met with, at best, modest success. What has been more successful has been encouraging cohesion among small groups. Some small groups are living groups, some are work groups, and, of course, families are close-knit small groups. It turns out that strong families, because of their enduring commitment to the well-being of the community, are a foundational component for a robust and enduring community.
Theory: Communal societies will defeat capitalism.
Fail: To operate outside of capitalism entirely requires being almost totally self-sufficient: Twin Oaks is successful due to operating several thriving businesses. In the communal movement, only very small groups of people have managed to be so self-sufficient that they can be said to operate outside of the capitalist system. Rather, it turns out that collective living is a very effective way to out-compete mainstream businesses. Communities can offer lower prices on products due to cost-cutting on labor. Communities have a skilled work force with higher quality control due to the workers owning the businesses. Additionally, communal businesses are surprisingly nimble; if one communal business shrinks, or fails, workers can—the very next day—start working in a different business at the community.
I refer here again to the kibbutz movement which has been thriving for well over 100 years. In its heyday, about two percent of Israel’s population lived on a kibbutz—capitalists were not quaking in their boots in Israel. Even today, the kibbutzim run many large corporations in Israel.
However, a significant component of communal businesses is the creation of very empowered workers—since the workers also own the business. In a community business, workers are involved in every business decision. In addition to tremendous work flexibility, communal businesses do not build consciously shoddy products, nor have unsafe working conditions, nor run unethical businesses. If communes were to become a huge movement, empowered communal workers would provide a bulwark against the worst practices of mainstream capitalist corporations. So that’s good.
But overturn Capitalism as a theory? No.
Some theories that have worked:
Twin Oaks has managed to survive and thrive through the years by being nimble in shuffling through a lot of ideas quickly (and/or eventually) —discarding bad ideas that don’t work.
Here are some theories that Twin Oakers adopted which actually worked from the outset.
Theory: People thrive when citizens are equal.
Success: Twin Oaks’ commitment to equality from day one has proven to be a successful and enduring theory. Every part of Twin Oaks’ culture has been structured to create and perpetuate a society where the citizens are equal. A cost of this commitment to equality is significant constraints on some aspects of personal liberty. Economic equality requires constraints on individual members accumulating wealth. Political equality limits members’ ability to accumulate political power. Work equality (that is that no category of labor is valued as more vital than any other work) limits the tendency of a professional elite from developing. Overall human equality, means there is no discrimination against any category of people. (Admittedly, the lack of a lower class does make it a bit harder to keep the place clean, as the lower class in almost every society does most of the cleaning.)
Theory: Widely distributing power among the membership creates a strong decision-making culture.
Success: “Light as a feather! stiff as a board!”—ever done that? If every member takes on some little bit of responsibility, then the community thrives. At Twin Oaks, power (decision-making) is widely distributed. Some people could plausibly point out that collective decision-making is problematic because there are so many things that the community is routinely failing to manage well, or at all. But in the mainstream corporations fail all of the time. Additionally, mainstream corporations sometimes commit horrific evil.
The point is that, collectively, the community has continued to thrive in spite of having untrained amateurs in charge throughout the community.
It turns out that many people like having a little bit of power, or, let’s call it “agency.” Since power is something that needs to exist, Twin Oaks has wisely decided to spread power throughout the community so that the need for the exercise of power does not contribute to the growth of evil.
Theory: A well-functioning society does not need specialists.
Success: We are all dilettantes here at Twin Oaks. The knowledge needed to run a major corporation, or fix plumbing, apparently does not require years of study or apprenticeship. Any training that anyone needs is now available on Youtube. But even before the advent of Youtube, Twin Oaks built buildings, dug foundations, fixed cars, met government regulations, developed new products, filed corporate taxes—all without formal training in those skills.
It turns out that people like a diversity of work. Many members like the challenge of pursuing an entirely new career, or developing a new skill. Opening up to a diversity of work allows members the opportunity to explore personal interests. This makes people happier. Also, the community is more robust from having a deep bench of people who can work in any given work area.
Theory: Children are important.
Success: Twin Oaks has always put a significant amount of the community’s labor resources toward raising children. Twin Oaks is an exceptionally child-focused community. The result is that Twin Oaks raises healthy, happy children who later become healthy, happy—and accomplished—adults. Prospective members who are considering having children choose to live at Twin Oaks. Prospective members who don’t want to have children, but like to be around children are drawn to Twin Oaks. Also, the presence of children in the community—including adults who grew up in the community speak to the enduring stability of Twin Oaks.
Ironically, or, perhaps, predictably, due to the amount of communal resources that go to raising children, Twin Oaks has set an upper limit on the number of children who live at Twin Oaks. Consequently, Twin Oaks tends not to tout our child focus online because the community is rarely open to more families with children moving to the community. Twin Oaks also keeps the child thing on the down low because we do want to raise happy, healthy children, not children who might suffer from the burden of representing the community or the communal movement, so we attempt to shield them from that cultural pressure.
Theory: Behavior is changed by policy.
Success: Policy is the one tool that the community uses that routinely alters members’ behavior. Policy determines how much work people do. The community establishes non-violence as a core value, and thus the community is largely free of any violence. Policy determines what decisions need to go through communal process. Policy determines what does and does not qualify as sick time. Members are remarkably respectful of policy decisions. Policy turns out to be the most effective tool for altering the behavior of people collectively. Especially policy that members have a hand in crafting.
Through policy, community culture is created. To date we have created an enduring culture where members can comfortably and productively live their entire lives. Elders are cared for. Children are raised to be healthy and to recognize their own agency. Members feel equal and empowered.
But are people happier here, living in community? We don’t have clear evidence. The hope contained in the initial focus on Behaviorism was to create empirically happier people. In spite of the initial motivation of the community’s founders, and many, many attempts by various groups within the community, Twin Oaks has not yet found a theory that can effectively or routinely make individuals happy, feel fulfilled, eat well, defeat addictions, not be jealous, or be disciplined in attaining personal goals.
…so our collective experiment continues…
We will keep you posted on our results.