The Many Failed Theories of Twin Oaks Community

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.

BF Skinner, influential behaviorist

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.

Kibbutz babies

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.

Capitalism?

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.

A couple of Twin Oakers laying cable

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.

Twin Oaks children

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.

The Many Failed Theories of Twin Oaks Community

An International Movement?

by Raven Cotyledon

I live in the United States of America. I don’t consider myself a citizen, but the government does. I seldom leave the northeast US, let alone the country, which I only left a few times in my life  (and not since the 1990s) and then only to go to Canada. But I think of myself as a citizen of the world.

Most of the communes that are written about on this blog are in the US.  Most are part of the FEC. The Federation of Egalitarian Communities covers North America, and that includes Canada, and we have featured two Canadian communities on Commune Life, Le Manoir and TCUP.  But the income-sharing movement extends beyond North America.

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Le Manoir

TCUP-P4
The Common Unity Project

We have had pieces on here about the European communes, particularly Kommune Niederkaufungen in Germany and Las Indias in Spain. I have heard of communes in places as far apart as Denmark and Australia. I have heard stories of some in Asia and South America.

 

Most importantly, there is the kibbutz movement in Israel, where they were income-sharing long before Twin Oaks and they were an influence on the American commune movement. It is true that many of the radical kibbutzim have become almost capitalist these days, but it’s also true that there are new kibbutzim arising that are trying to bring back the early ideals, especially in urban kibbutzim.

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Kibbutz Mishol

After I published a recent post where I talked about Las Indias and even included a picture that they had sent a few years back, I realized that I haven’t been in contact with them for a couple of years and when I tried looking at their website, it seems to be gone.  I’ve tried emailing them without any response. Someone else who knew them said, casually, that they had gone ‘radio silent’. I am afraid that they, like many other communities, are just gone.

The truth is that it is hard for me, often, to stay in contact with North American communities, and it’s incredibly difficult to keep or sometimes even get in contact with communities outside of North America. That doesn’t mean that they don’t exist.

Ironically, the last that I heard from the folks at Las Indias, they were working on a project to network communities around the globe.  I was excited about it, but I suspect that project is gone along with Las Indias.

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Las Indias

Yet my hope is that someone, some day, will find a way to network income-sharing communities around the world, the way that the FEC holds together the fragile network of North American communes.  If change happens from the bottom up, it builds toward the top, and it’s important for all of us in our little communities to know that we are involved in something bigger than ourselves, something that spans the planet.

Please, if you know of other income-sharing communities anywhere in the world, let us know of them. We need each other, no matter where we are.

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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
  • William Kadish
  • Em Stiles
  • Laurel Baez
  • Lynette Shaw

Thanks!

An International Movement?

The Story

by Raven Cotyledon

There isn’t going to be a lot of new information in this post. Rather, I would like to look at the context that surrounds this information. I am going to call this context, “The Story”.

I will start off with a story that I am concerned about and is prevalent in this culture. It was popularized by Margaret Thatcher and goes by the acronym, TINA.  TINA stands for There Is No Alternative. It’s a story that keeps the status quo in place. Things may be awful, but if you believe that there is no alternative, there isn’t much that you can do.

The intentional communities movement, and especially the communes, have a very different story to tell. It is a story about creating many, many alternatives.

And I often start telling the story by talking about Twin Oaks. Twin Oaks is  contradiction to many of the stories that are told to support TINA. All the communes from the sixties failed and are long gone. Communism just doesn’t work.  A dictator (or small oligarchy) will always arise and use any communal situation for his (or their) benefit.

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Twin Oaks 50th Anniversary picture 

Twin Oaks is a commune that started in the sixties, has run for fifty-two years, has over a hundred people living there (including children), and is going strong. It is a small communist society, voluntary and built from the ground up, that functions pretty well. No dictator or oligarchy has emerged in those fifty-two years and, given how independent minded most of the Twin Oaks members are, if anyone tried, they would probably be thrown out.

But one commune doesn’t prove anything. The next thing that I talk about in my story is this blog.  Not because I manage it and write so much for it, but because of the massive amount of information here about communes around the US and around the world. We have articles about communes in Virginia and Missouri, but also in New York City, Washington, DC, Portland, Oregon, and Laramie, Wyoming , and rural communes in Quebec, New York state, Washington state, British Columbia, and Alaska. And beyond North America, we have stories about  Kommune Niederkaufungen in Germany  and Las Indias in Spain, and the kibbutzim in Israel, which were not only the predecessors of the commune movement but are still being reinvented.  I have heard of more, and will publish whatever I find. Twin Oaks is not a single exception but part of what may be a worldwide phenomenon.

LI In a Madrid Bus
Las Indias 

The Story expands from there. It’s not that I expect everyone to live on a commune, but that the communes are the far end of dozens of alternatives. There is a large world of communities to explore if you go over to the Fellowship for Intentional Communities website, ic.org–including cooperative and collective houses, ecovillages and cohousing projects, and, of course, communes. Beyond that is the world of cooperative businesses, alternative agriculture, soft technology, ecological design, sharing projects, and new ways of communicating, building relationships, and dealing with conflict. The Story that we are telling is not that there are no alternatives, but that there is an abundance of alternatives, the world is overflowing with alternatives.

As I have said, communities are laboratories for social change where we see what works and what doesn’t. This blog is important because it documents what is happening in the far end of those experiments. This is the new story, the story of the world we are building, one commune at a time.

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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
  • William Kadish
  • Em Stiles
  • Laurel Baez
  • Lynette Shaw

Thanks!

 

The Story

My Favorite Things

by Raven

Here are some recent photos from this blog of the joys of Communal Living:

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The folks at Kibbutz Mishol

If you look carefully you can see god hiding

The pool at Cambia

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Working together at East Wind

cotyledon crew

The Cotyledon crew

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Cooking at Le Manoir

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Saturnalia at Compersia

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The Twin Oaks Feminist Zine

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An overview of East Brook Community Farm

ChickensChickens at Acorn

And from communes yet to be:

DV Trees

The land at Donald’s View

Map-1

A map of possible land for Full Circle

My Favorite Things

Urban Kibbutzim: A Growing Movement

 

 

By Anton Marks

from Communities magazine, Winter issue #177

 

The first kibbutz was established over 100 years ago, and over the following century, a network of almost 300 full income-sharing agricultural communes was established all over Israel. The plan was based on anarchist principles, whereby this federation of communities would coalesce into a whole cooperative society, without centralized government or borders.

אופציה 1

Fast forward to the year 2017. The rural kibbutz communities are in retreat, there’s a strong central government and, albeit for very different reasons, the country has no clear borders.

However, there are those who have taken up the mantle of taking responsibility for shaping the society, young people who are establishing hundreds of urban communes that, both individually and as movements, are affecting change in the inner cities—communes of educators who are working against violence, racism, homophobia, and poverty.

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I am a member of Kibbutz Mishol, one of the many intentional communities that have been established over the past 20 years. We are 130 people, all living under one roof, making decisions together, bringing our children up together, sharing all of our income, 10 cars, our living spaces, and a handful of dogs, cats, and chinchillas.

Our kibbutz is in the city; in fact, we are situated in one of the most deprived neighbourhoods in the country—and it’s a choice. We’ve made this choice to work together with our partners in the local municipality, and together with our partners who live in this city, to shape the wider community for the benefit of all of its citizens—Jews, Arabs, those from the former Soviet Union, from Ethiopia, asylum seekers, religious, secular, left, and right.

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We have established a nonprofit organization through which we run all of our educational projects. For example, we run a local public elementary school, non-formal education in after-school centres, a youth movement, a coexistence project, and educational tours to Poland. In addition, we have teams of people working together taking responsibility over the inner functioning of our community—looking after our cars, our building, our children, our finances, our learning, our relationships, and our culture.

It’s a healthy tension in our lives: to what extent are we focused on the internal—living together and improving our relationships, creating a community making decisions by consensus, challenging societal norms when it comes to gender roles, understanding the different needs and different abilities of our members—and to what extent on the external—our interactions and impact on the surrounding society? Do we exist for ourselves, as a lifestyle choice, or is our aim to use community as a vehicle for changing the world around us?

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The kibbutz-building enterprise started as a way of taking responsibility over the needs of a developing society and a developing economy—agriculture, creating towns and villages, defending the borders, building a public health system, a nationwide union, newspapers, etc., etc. Today the needs of the country can be found in the inner cities, draining the social swamps of society, rather than the physical mosquito=infested swamps of the early 20th century backwaters of the Ottoman Empire.

These urban communes, largely situated in the geographical and economic peripheries of Israel, springing up like mushrooms after the rain, are a model of how an alternative society can be built within the existing capitalist society—not as isolated independent communities, but as a network of communities which together offer an example of how society can be structured in a more just and equitable way.

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  • ● ●

Having previously been living communally for 18 years in the North of Israel, I’ve now spent the last 18 months living in the American suburbs of Rockville, Maryland. It’s a surprisingly easy adjustment to make—two adults and two young children living in a faceless apartment block with pool, fitness center, and Amazon deliveries 24/7.

I have been active on the international communal scene for many years—I am a board member of the ICSA (International Communal Studies Association) and have attended three of their international conferences.

In addition, I have been general secretary of the Intentional Communities Desk (formerly known as the International Communes Desk) and was editor of their magazine C.A.L.L. for 15 years.

I’ve visited communities in different places in the world and so upon coming to the US it was important for me to connect to what is going on here. Here is the list of communities I have visited on the East Coast, several within a few miles of where I have been living.

  • Baltimore Free Farm: an urban farm of activists and gardeners who gave me a tour of the farm and showed me their space where they host events.
  • Compersia, DC: a small urban commune whose members I’ve met a couple of times, including a visit to their house in DC.
  • Twin Oaks, Virginia: I attended the Communities Conference last year at the 50 year old full income-sharing ecovillage. I was extremely excited to visit their former children’s house named after the first kibbutz, Degania.
  • Platte Clove Community: I stayed for a few days at the Bruderhof community as a guest of members who had visited me in Israel
  • Maple Ridge Bruderhof: a visit for a couple of hours, including a tour of the community and meeting old friends who had also visited my kibbutz in Israel.
  • Rondout community in Kingston, New York: an urban Bruderhof community that runs their own preschool.
  • Eastern Village Cohousing: a community in the nearby neighbourhood of Silver Spring, Maryland.
  • Takoma Village Cohousing: another local cohousing community.

 

 

Urban Kibbutzim: A Growing Movement