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.

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WE ARE NOT SELLING A PRODUCT

Dream Alliance

by Paxus Calta

One way to think about community is as an antidote to the problems of contemporary society. A strong case can be made that deep sharing mitigates most climate disruption contributors. We see that highly intentional community helps heal some people’s mental health challenges. But the real allure of community is something larger.

If we look at living together and sharing our lives as a long lever for creating culture, then isn’t it possible to design a community in which the members become well harmonized and deeply mutually supportive? Community asks the question “How might we come up with a way to live together in which amazing, healing and transformative things are accessible to the people who live this way? How could we develop a set of rituals and communication patterns which helps members of these communities manifest their dreams? And if this is possible, what do we know about these types of successful cultures already so we can experiment with them?”

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One of the things we know for sure is we cannot be supportive without being communicative. And the more we can trust, the more we can share what we find to be true, the more profound our ability to advise and ally with people.

Cambia is reviewing how we dream and vision. The community is small and reforming and old traditions are being reconsidered by new members as well as founders with new eyes. For me, the piece of greatest interest is the exploration and manifestation of personal dreams. I believe this is a rich place for meme craft and hopefully deep personal satisfaction.

We are tinkering with the parameters of a dream alliance. The basic idea is simple, I tell you my dream and invite you to support it and then we switch roles. If you don’t have a dream, or it feels incompletely formulated (“i want more music in my life”) then your ally will guide you through an exploration to help refine and define it more.

If your dream is ambitious (“we need to deconstruct industrial capitalism”), your dream ally might help you identify the next piece (“let’s start a worker coop”). If your dream is sprawling (“i want to get people to think!”), then perhaps your ally makes you look on a focused part (“let’s start an inspiring book club”).

But more important than suggestions from your ally is a willingness to help manifest. “I would cook and drive for a local Food Not Bombs chapter, if that was your calling” or “You need to stop Trump, I will go door to door with you before the next election”. Or perhaps simple logistics “I’ll watch your kid while you meditate/exercise.”

I was excited about this thinking and I brought this rough idea to the Thursday night book club at Cambia. We are reading Charles Eisenstein’s “The More Beautiful World our Hearts Know is Possible”, one chapter each week and talking about it. And after my enthusiastic description of dream alliances, Craig was uninspired. “I am not excited about exploring people’s individualistic dreams, what would make this interesting to me is if we were seeking and building our shared dream.”

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This is consistent with Eisenstein’s thinking. That we need to move past dualism and find a new story which connects everything. Craig gets this, which is why he has been pushing this book and the concept of InterBeing. InterBeing, as close as I can tell, is a sort of secular enlightenment, where you feel and react from a place of being connected with everything and seeking some type of harmony with it all.

I don’t get it. I am a dualist. This is slightly challenging to the book group I think. Perhaps it is a bit like having a libertarian in your anarchist discussion groups. You are all talking about getting rid of government, but with little agreement when it comes to what happens next.

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And even though I don’t quite get it around Interbeing, Craig’s challenge feels like a friendly amendment. There is something very powerful about seeking our shared dream together. The alliance is richer when it is our dream instead of you supporting mine in exchange for me supporting yours.

And I am again grateful for Cambia which thinks these are the questions we should be pondering and energy well spent exploring and cultures worthy of our efforts to design them. I think a carefully constructed dream alliance could be super memetic. And that is my personal holy grail.

Dream Alliance

A Year of Communes

by Raven

This is the one year anniversary of this blog.  It means that we’ve had a full year of articles, photoessays, and reprints, all centering on life in egalitarian, income-sharing communities.

Part of the point of this blog was to show some of the variety that exists among the communes, from Twin Oaks, which has almost a hundred people and is going to be fifty years old this year, to Compersia, which is small and just celebrated its first anniversary.

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Someone recently said to me, “Egalitarian, income-sharing communities.  How many are there?  Eight?”  I’ve counted more like eighteen–world-wide–and I feel like that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  I know of thirteen US communes, two Canadian ones, as well as one in Spain, one in Germany, and one in Australia–and I keep hearing stories of other ones.

She then said, “So what? Maybe twenty, forty communities world-wide?”  This is true, but the communes are at the far end of the communities movement.  There are thousands of communities of various kinds in the US alone, and perhaps tens of thousands world wide.  But we represent what is possible, the radical end of the sharing and equality spectrum for communities.  The fact that a community has been able to do this with a lot of people for fifty years and going strong, and the fact that there are a bunch of communities doing this with new communities still emerging is important.  Not every community needs to look like this (and it’s okay that only a small percentage do) and, of course, not everyone wants to or should live in a community, but we are showing the world what is actually possible.

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Unfortunately, not all of the eighteen communities that I’ve identified have been featured in Commune Life.  We’ve reached out to all the ones that we know about but sometimes we don’t get replies, or we get responses that they are too busy or they’ll send something “soon” (which probably means eventually).  Communal living, especially in the smaller, newer communes, is really busy and often folks don’t have the time or energy to contribute to this blog.

I am very grateful for all the folks who have taken the time and contributed with articles and pictures.

Also, part of the difficulty of community building is that is doesn’t always work.  At least one community that was featured here (Quercus) is completely gone and another one has moved and took over the land of a different, dying community.  I’m hoping that we can have their stories in here soon.  It’s important to look at what doesn’t work as well as what works.

On Wednesday, we’re going to feature photos from all the communities that have contributed to Commune Life.  I love the fact that we have so many different pictures of communal living.

Finally, Commune Life is also about the projects and organizations that support life on the communes, from the Federation of Egalitarian Communities to the Point A project.  I think it’s important to emphasize that you can find out more about any community or project or communal subject (from aging to the Transition Movement) by clicking on the three lines in the top right hand corner of this blog.  We want this blog to be a useful tool for anyone interested in any aspect of communal living.

I think the most important thing to note is that there’s real people doing communal living.  It’s not some pie in the sky fantasy, but an ongoing endeavor of many people around the world.  On this blog now is a year’s worth of stuff to prove it.
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A Year of Communes

Radical Sharing

by Raven

Sustainability is important to many people. Some of the newer income sharing communities, such as Living Energy Farm and the Stillwater Sanctuary/Possibility Alliance, focus on reducing their carbon footprint, but Twin Oaks, a large, older communities, has never been very concerned with this, and still uses almost 20% of the resources of an average American.

The reason is that Twin Oaks embraces what Paxus refers to as ‘Radical Sharing’.  Twin Oaks has 17 cars for nearly 100 people.   (To compare, a hundred average Americans probably have 67 cars.)  They share tools and bikes and even clothes, not to mention books and musical instruments and, of course, income.

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Truly, most communities, even co-housing communities which are sort of at the other end of the spectrum from income sharing communities, do some degree of sharing.  However, most of the income sharing communities, by their very nature, do much more sharing than simply income.

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Car sharing board at Twin Oaks

Acorn also shares cars and bikes and tools and clothes, as does East Wind.  And at new communes such as Cambia and Compersia the work of building the community is shared.

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Car key cabinet at Twin Oaks

I have a button that I wear sometimes that says “Consume Less, Share More.”  In the communes this type of radical sharing is a daily reality.

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Radical Sharing