A Sense of Purpose in the Communal Organism

I read Kassia’s and Sky's great website about their European community-hopping and would like to comment about a few things mentioned in the text which accompanies their photos.

See: http://sites.google.com/site/eurocommune/

Kassia and Sky write that, “Twin Oaks blurs the line between community (in the contemporary understanding) and society. Usually, it seems, communities have a sense of purpose. Twin Oaks has some of this, but mostly its purpose is to perpetuate itself.”

See: http://sites.google.com/site/eurocommune/christiania
Jan 22, 2009 12:48 PM by Sky Blue

One might call that a cynical comment about Twin Oaks (TO), suggesting that many communities (especially European communities, in the context of Kassia’s and Sky’s website) are values-based while TO exhibits a self-serving purpose. My suggestion is to respond to this cynicism by attempting to identify what specifically it is that TO may be perpetuating. Answering that is a bit complex, yet it can be simplified, in my view, to the idea that what TO is perpetuating is primarily what I call the "sharing lifestyle." It can be stated that simply, yet there is also a lot behind that statement, especially with regard to TO’s feminist, egalitarian orientation and to the community referring to itself as an “ecovillage.”

Cynicism on the part of both current members and ex-members is an important thought to consider, because of course it leads to current members becoming ex-members. I see many connections and aspects of this issue and I'd like to lay some of them out and ask for comments.

I'm going to relate this issue to the whole history of TO. It has to do with the change over time in the general concept of the reasons for TO's existence. Several important things have changed with time, and some things have remained essentially the same despite those changes, and I want to touch on all that. Here's the summary:

This topic has a lot to do with Kat Kinkade, of course, and her ideal of creating a "Walden II" community. Originally, four things were most important in Kat’s version of the Walden II ideal (in my understanding of Kat's motivations), these were: equality (which as I’ll show is not quite the same as sharing), planner-manager governance, labor-credit system, and communal child care. Kat stated that she thought that behavioral engineering was "interesting" and that it might help attract people to the community, which suggests that behavioral engineering doesn’t rate up with the top four concepts I've just identified. The placement of behavioral engineering as a lesser purpose for TO’s being is due to the ideal having been dropped fairly quickly in TO’s history, if it ever really defined the community, while the other four ideals serve to provide much more in the way of an identity for, or definition of, or foundation for what TO was and is about.

* Equality vs Sharing - I've already written about this in my essay pulling together Kat’s quotes about communal economics (available on the FEC’s blog, at: www.thefec.org). In brief, Kat recognized a problem with equality, specifically what she identified as “envy” and which may also be explained as the “leveling to a common denominator of equality,” which led to her disillusionment with East Wind (EW), TO, and communalism in general. In response to Kat’s and other’s concerns I recommend not emphasizing equality. Instead, focus upon "sharing" as the central ideal of the community. Income-sharing and labor-sharing are the two basic aspects of the community, so if equality is problematic, just switch to sharing. It's a simple solution. Don't need to change the name of the Federation of Egalitarian Communities, just reference "equality" to "feminism," which emphasizes gender equality with regard to power in relationships and governance and economics, as opposed to a strict communal equality, and emphasize instead the ideal that each person participates in the sharing system according to the ideal of:

From All According to Intent,
To All According to Fairness.

I coined this new communal maxim in my paper, “Gifting and Sharing” (see: www.CultureMagic.org) in order to focus upon collectivity as opposed to the focus upon individuality in the classic communal maxim:

From Each According to Ability,
To Each According to Need.

"Sharing" (more than equality) may be affirmed as being the heart and soul of communal society.

* Planner-Manager Governance - Government represents the brains of the communal organism, and I notice that a couple times Kassia and Sky emphasize on their community-hopping website large communities they visited that use consensus. This is a long, on-going discussion.

Kat wrote in her first book, “A Walden Two Experiment” that TO began with consensus, and for anyone who was familiar with her articulateness I think it's easy to see how Kat was eventually able to kill that effort in favor of her preference for a Walden II style planner-manager system. She could have used her intellectual and verbal skills to make consensus work if she had wanted to; she was just focused upon Walden II. I think Kat paid a high price for that, when the person who sponsored that initial consensus experiment left the community after Kat killed it, and her daughter Josie hitch-hiked by herself at age 16 from Virginia to California to be with him. What was his name? Kat called him "Sandy" in her first book but that's a pseudonym. TO might some day name a building or a truck or a dog or a cow or something after him! :-) LOL

I would have been worried sick if my daughter did that and I was in Kat's place. Kat probably did too, yet she stuck to that Walden II idea, showing how committed she was to ideology, in this case a totally fictional concept dreamt up by B.F. Skinner, unless you look at China. China has a self-selecting governing body, similar to the Planner system. Lots of communal groups do, except for East Wind Community (EW). EW draws names out of a hat and lets people decline or accept their turn on a Board seat!

The planner-manager system has problems but it works well enough. It's an idiosyncrasy of TO, a unique feature, and if the system of governance were to change at TO I don't think it would matter that much. Initially it didn’t matter much at EW when we first started changing to democracy (I was a member of EW at the time, about 1983). Nice that EW made a change to something else, while I think it is fine that TO does what it does with respect to its governmental model. Like Kat said in her first book, it’s the managerial system that is the most important thing, and as long as that stays in place, TO can use consensus or democracy or a planner system, it doesn't really matter, because it's the managers who run things, and because the membership really does have ultimate control. The Planners are just servants of the membership. That idea might get lost sometimes, since the method of governance is not totally consistent with the theory of participatory governance, yet TO’s population size isn’t too big to prevent access by members to the mechanisms of governance.

* Labor-Credit System - I think that Kat's invention of what I call the "vacation-credit" system is extremely important. In my view it provides the most effective alternative to monetary economics; which is the best answer to the question that I believe radical, revolutionary, utopian writers and organizers had been asking since at least the dawn of the Industrial Revolution and the first secular communitarian movements. This is extremely significant, and it amazes me that so few people seem to see it. Kat didn't even seem to recognize how important her invention really is.

Kat focused for 10 years on the variable-credit system, an idea that utopian fiction writers dreamt up, which turned out to be a totally failed idea, while we can't even place a date on exactly when Kat invented and TO adopted the vacation-credit system. (It would be nice to have a date for that, if anyone is into doing the research.) It didn't even have a name, so I coined the term "vacation-credit" to distinguish it from simple labor-credit systems.

If sharing is the heart and soul of communal society, and the planner-manager system is the brains of the communal organism, then the labor-credit system is the guts of the system, the mitochondria or the enzyme that metabolizes energy in each and every cell of the communal body.

Kassia and Sky do a great service, in my mind, by describing the labor system used by several of the communities they visited in their writing on their website. One comment of theirs in particular about the community called K77 invites discussion. “Rules for cleaning or other chores would probably just create tension. Artists... go figure.” See: http://sites.google.com/site/eurocommune/k77
Jan 22, 2009 12:52 PM by Sky Blue

This “go figure” quote is in reference to the collective in Berlin, K77. I've been thinking about K77 and here's what I figure. I think that K77’s "labor system," or non-system, depending upon how you look at it, evidences an attitude toward work for community that is actually fairly common among artist collectives, and perhaps many “anarchist collectives” as well, and in some ways I think that a particular "artist/anarchist collective work ethic” or attitude about work could be identified. The K77 work attitude would probably fit one of two general descriptions I have for work systems, either labor-gifting or anti-quota labor sharing:

Labor-Gifting - which I define as people doing only what they want to do for the community, with minimal coercion or organization. Rainbow Gatherings and Burning Man would be examples of labor-gifting, where people generally take care of their own needs first, and than decide how they want to contribute to the community, if they do at all. Community land trusts would also fit in this category, where you have to pay a certain amount to live in the community (like for your land rent) but beyond that the amount and type of your contribution to the community is your decision. I use the term, "labor-gifting," to describe work systems in cohousing, even though they also emphasize a labor contribution through at least positive reinforcement (and sometimes peer pressure), and some cohousing groups are developing coercive systems, like the threat of a lien against your condo title if you don't contribute a minimum amount of labor. So far I've only read of that being suggested, and I don't know of any cohousing community actually doing it, although I'm not up-to-date on that. Once such a coercive system is instituted, the labor system involved is no longer labor-gifting and becomes an anti-quota labor-sharing system.

Anti-Quota Labor Sharing - this would be a better term to use for artist collectives if they have any kind of negative consequence for not helping out in the community. This involves an assumption and requirement that people contribute some labor and time to the community, but the contribution is not monitored, in the way that a labor-credit labor-sharing system does with labor accounting (like TO and EW-style vacation-credit labor systems). A person who does nothing for a community using an anti-quota labor system may be caused to leave the group, while a person who does nothing for the community in a labor-gifting community would not.

The difference between these two, labor-gifting and anti-quota labor-sharing, is whether coercion is involved. That is, can the community force someone to pay or leave if they don't work? A strictly labor-gifting system is coercion-free, although positive reinforcement may exist. Anti-quota labor systems involve some degree of negative consequences if people don't contribute to the community.

The question is which best describes K77? If you like these definitions or classifications, and have some familiarity with K77, I leave that question for your input.

* Children - Over time the communal child care system was dropped at TO and EW. Some say it only really worked about 3 months at TO, but it took the community about 10 years of doing one thing and saying something else before the community finally dropped the communal child care ideal. There's more to be said about communal child-care programs, especially considering the Kibbutz experience, however, to be brief, my thought is that the primary problem was the idea that either all children had to be part of the communal child program or else the system would be dropped.

I always believed that the community could give people choices, like communal child care for those who want it, and family-centered or parent-centered child care for those who want that. And why not let people enjoy some blend of the two, or to switch their participation back and forth between the two depending upon their life changes? TO had sufficient numbers and types of different buildings to offer both options (and for a while, at Tupelo childcare was done differently than at Degania), but it didn't go that way in the long term. For some reason it seems that people felt it had to be an "all or nothing" kind of commitment for communal child care, and I've never thought that way.

To me it seems that TO threw out the baby with the bath water when we dropped the communal child-care program (I was a member at the time, about 1987) and I believe that at some point the community needs to reformulate some kind of articulation of itself as a child-centered communal organism, despite the resistance some members may have. I thought we were doing that with the Child Program Process (facilitated in part by Caroline Estes) yet after the fact it seemed to me instead that without the term "communal" in our articulation we simply couldn't find words to describe the child program model that the community was evolving into.

I think that when (not if, but when, as I can’t see TO and EW going the way of the Shakers or Oneida) TO and/or EW finally do get around to moving back to an emphasis upon children, the best strategy would be to state an intent to create a school program and attract people who want to help create and support that, then maybe the option of communal child care could be offered again, at least among a subset of members. That would be my long-term orientation to the children-in-communal society issue.

Of course other issues like the non-parent concern about community resources going into children, who will most likely leave the community, must be addressed. My view of that is what Kat used to say, that we just don't have a viable cultural alternative if we don't have children, and to me that's the reason for identifying and advocating a child-theory in communal society. TO’s token child program, which I understand to be no more than 20% of the population being children or minors, while in practice it is actually significantly less, is simply inadequate to meet Kat’s goal of a “viable cultural alternative.”

From a perspective of looking at the history of successful communitarian movements (not just communal ones), I believe that a case can be made that it is those that establish schools that are the most long-lived. A lot of people focus upon spirituality as a success factor, but I don't think that's it. I think that religion serves as a context for having and raising children, with the result that people think of the community as a culture involving children, which to me is one important factor in getting the community past the kind of cynicism that Kassia and Sky express with regard to members leaving TO.

In many successful communitarian movements religion provides a context for children, yet it's really the process of raising children, not religion per se, that gives a community a sense of permanence, and that replaces cynicism with appreciation for the ideals for which the community stands.

Given that children typically leave the place of their raising, it is because the community knows that they will leave and supports a significant child program despite that knowledge, that cynicism (at least a particular breed of cynicism) does not find a conducive atmosphere and dies away, being replaced with a respect for the commitment to children, and the ideals by which they are raised.

I think that we must recognize that it is precisely the view that, "because children will leave, the community can't afford to put a lot of resources into child-care and education," that is the source of much cynicism in community. Change that attitude toward children and the attitude of the whole community changes, in a very fundamental way.

In considering this context of the community attitude toward children, consider the kibbutz experience. Many kibbutzim had central children’s houses where children slept at night separate from their parents who slept in other buildings. When those children grew up they would having nothing to do with the model of children’s houses, causing most of the kibbutz movement to build family apartments, which got many of them deep in debt and also helped cause the move toward privatization. TO and EW may fear following that trend, yet I believe that the idea of providing communal child care as an option (essentially a 24-hour child care service rather than the community taking the role of parents) would be one method of preventing privatization. The other essential difference is the strength of the vacation-credit labor-sharing system for maintaining the communal ideal. Kibbutz never used any kind of labor-credit system.

Many of the children of the kibbutz children’s houses left kibbutz upon becoming adults, yet many have subsequently formed urban intentional communities, in Israel and in America (at least New York City), and perhaps elsewhere. So TO and EW need not fear that supporting children results in a net loss to their own economic wellbeing, when the positive aspects of having and supporting children provides returns in ways that are not easily recorded in accounting books.

I think this is of central importance. There is no better way for the community to demonstrate what it stands for, than to raise children according to its ideals. Kat and the other TO cofounders were right to focus upon children in community. You can see it in Kat’s first book, and you can see it in Rudy Nesmiths' "The Revolution is Over: We Won!" pamphlet printed by the "TO Press," where they all talk at length about their goals for children in the community. If you haven't seen that, I suggest reading it just for the expression of idealism. (I made a PDF version that I can email to anyone interested, and I’ll ask if the webmaster at www.thefec.org will agree to make it available.) You can see how even before TO had children their ideals with regard to child care gave purpose and meaning to the community. Early member’s ideals about children provided an important goal for the community, one that evidently no longer exists, yet that can be reclaimed. The issue of children in communal society would simply need to be reconsidered in light of where the community is today.

People who decide to have children in community can be some of the most long-term, stable members, IF they have a similar commitment to the community after their children are born as before. The TO/EW experience has typically been that parents leave with their children, and the question is what changed with regard to those member's commitment to the community? Figuring out what accounts for that change in attitude and what would encourage those parents to stay rather than leave could provide a valuable understanding for at least part of how best to provide for children in communal society.

People often tend to think that the discussion about children in community has to do primarily with whether or not the children stay. I wish to emphasize again that the issue is not what the children do, it's what the parents do. Attracting and keeping adults in their child-bearing and child-rearing years ought, in my mind, to be the goal. This takes away any ideology with regard to ideal child-care programs, and instead focuses community energy upon ideal parent-care programs, which would provide a radical change for TO/EW.

The change would be away from a communal society that provides primarily for childless adults, or those who have grown children, to a communal society that supports and encourages adults to consider having children be part of their life in communal society. The question, of course, is how to sustain commitment to communal society when adults with children tend to leave? That question I answered in my last post, in my statement that I don't believe that a spiritual belief or a strong leader is necessarily required in a communal society with families, as I suspect that Kat's innovation of the vacation-credit system can provide the cohesiveness needed to sustain secular communal society with an emphasis upon parent-care.

Without a significant emphasis upon parents-in-community the model of community evidenced by TO/EW effectively lacks a sufficient procreation system. And this is not simply a metaphorical reference to the communal organism, it has to do with the long-term perpetuation of the community, which was the original comment of Kassia's and Sky’s that inspired my writing.

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