Sunday, October 27, 2013

obstacles in communal living and ways to surmount them

For the past 8 years I have been trying to find or create an intentional community where I could both feel at home, and that would make a difference in the world. Many people have had a vision of a better life that would be possible in and through intentional community, but most of the attempts to implement such a vision fail. It is disheartening that many who have an inspiration for living in an intentional community do not bother to study the history of such communities, both past and present, and learn from it. It's been a while since I read Diane Christian's Making A Life Together, which also has a similar list. I need to check if she has any additional obstacles/pitfalls.

Here are my tentative conclusions about pitfalls and possible solutions (in no specific order), based on experience, history and interviewing people (please suggest additions if you think I missed something):

  1. Parents wanting something better for THEIR kids, as opposed to other kids. I noticed this at 3 different communities and was told about the phenomenon by a Hare Krishna explaining to me why their community is no longer communal. This might be generalized to say that the nesting instinct goes against communal needs. Nesting women have a hard time sharing kitchens and households with anyone but their mate and children, at least in our culture. Also babies and toddlers need constant care, and adults need to be able to focus and be coherent and not get down to the babies' level all the time. Babies and toddlers need to learn to become more like adults, not vise versa.
  2. Different standards of domestic cleanliness/order. This is hard enough to work out between just 2 people.
  3. Sex/jealousy. A strong human emotion that can break up a community
  4. Power/control/ego issues. One can pretend that these don't exist and that we don't share a common ancestor with social primates, but if not confronted head-on, they can wreak a community.
  5. Not enough privacy. Twin Oaks found this out early on. The needs of individuals for privacy vary. So do cultural norms between cultures (e.g. US rugged individualism vs Jewish cooperative sensibility).
  6. Not enough autonomy/artistic freedom. Red Earth was founded partially because there was not enough autonomy and artistic freedom at Dancing Rabbit. Same comment as #5.
  7. Not enough shared vision/spirituality. Wanting community isn't enough of a basis for maintaining community. People are later surprised that other people don't share their vision in enough detail. Earthaven folks assumed that sustainability meant the same thing to everyone, but it didn't. Vision and spirituality can counter the selfish motives of a human being, but the vision has to be shared or trouble may ensue. Even if the vision is shared, it needs to be maintained through ritual, outreach and inner work. If people don't have enough rituals which reinforce their common vision/religion/spirituality the vision falls apart due to all the countervailing forces mentioned here, and then the community follows suit.
  8. Not enough shared work/economy. Many cohousing communities suffer from lack of community glue. Common work is a strong community glue. It is not enough to live next to each other and probably not enough to even have shared vision.
  9. Not enough time together due to external financial pressures. If people work outside the community and their work takes a big chunk of their time, they don't get to bond and the community can fall apart. 
  10. No shared effective conflict resolution protocols, or ways to share feelings and stories and prevent conflict in the first place. 
  11. Not enough or too much cultural isolation. I have made the point in this blog and on my youtube presentation that some amount of cultural isolation is necessary so as not to be swamped by mainstream memes which work against community and other cultural changes. But too much cultural isolation can be a problem too because cult-like characteristics can arise, and because a community needs startup energy that may not be sufficient from its members. Also for celibate communities, new people are needed to replace the old and dying ones.
  12. Not enough competency/skills to make a living/survive without being miserable. I haven't seen alot of this, but supposedly many 60s communes had this issue. Also the folks at the community I started had some issues at first.
  13. Not enough study of what works and what doesn't. This seems to be true with alot of communities, not sure why but maybe people in the US have an aversion to the study of history.
  14. The small size of a starting community means it is fragile and susceptible to disruption from inside or out much more than a bigger organization of humans. One psychopath can destroy the community, or one hostile neighbor, or one drought or other natural disaster.
  15. Radical Income/wealth disparity. Usually the people with the most money or the title to the property make more decisions, have more power. This might be OK with some people, but revolutions were fought in the name of equality and going back to feudalism is still not palatable to most people.  Diane Christian had an article about this situation (at Earthaven) in Communities Magazine a while back. I have seen it in several communities and heard about it from others.

Possible Solutions:

  1. individual households or more community glue or patriarchy(not my preference) or celibacy. One or a few people can be childcare providers so as to free up the rest of the community, and they can circulate that chore with others so they don't burn out. As children become older they can participate more and more in adult activities.
  2. individual households or a protocol that is agreed upon and followed, where a compromise is made between the different standards.
  3. monogamous marriage or celibacy
  4. good governance that gives everyone a voice such as democracy or consensus. A spiritual path that keeps ego in check and values altruism
  5. individual households or rooms or places to go have solitude
  6. everyone needs to have a job that they have autonomy over or individual households
  7. make sure before someone joins that they share the vision/spiritual path. Then devise or borrow numerous reinforcing rituals both in daily life and special occasions to keep the vision alive.
  8. local economy and/or common cottage industries
  9. either a strong local economy or profitable cottage industries
  10. shared conflict resolution protocols
  11. The sweet spot of cultural isolation has to be found by trial and error. It doesn't have to mean geographic isolation, similarly to the genetic case or reproductive isolation, which can happen geographically or by other means. Memetic exchange has to be limited but not completely eliminated as there is a tradeoff between resiliency and isolation. Eliminating or greatly reducing media is probably a good idea, as is allowing select people to visit, having bridge groups in the cities. Greatly reducing dependence on the global economy and the industrial mode of production and distribution is another good idea in that direction
  12. Learn skills such as food production/farming and construction (but pre-industrial) and subsidiary crafts. Also if cottage industries are engaged in, learn those well enough to make a living.
  13. Study and be humble. Learn from historical examples and current experiments. Do not assume that you are the only one who had the idea to start a radical community or that your idea is better than anyone else's. There is no point in reinventing failures (or "square wheels" as JMG calls them).
  14. Community glue will help with resiliency and also maintaining some connection to the greater economy/culture as was mentioned above. But ultimately many startup communities will fail, similar to startup businesses or species. The more startups, the more some will succeed.
  15. If you have title to the land, donate it to a non-profit and either leave or make a special effort to give other people more of a voice. If you have alot of money, give it away or share it (this is not new advice. Supposedly Jesus had some such similar advice 2000 years ago). Not just to anyone, but to people who have a chance to create a sustainable community. I have done these things, they are not just theoretical, but the results are still tentative. Did I pick the right people? Only time will tell. The right people are those that will create a community that is sustainable and inspiring to others. What if they are just freeloaders with no vision except their own opportunity?Study, train, and implement democratic decision making techniques for small groups. It is possible to be a benevolent dictator, though power corrupts even the most benevolent.
The first 6 are specific to communal living situations, and the solutions are either unappealing to most people (e.g. patriarchy or celibacy) or involve satisfying our deep archetypal longing for community/tribe with family and a village setting rather than a communal living arrangement. Community glue is mentioned several times because it is a force opposing the selfish and short sighted human tendencies that conflict with community.
Note that I did not include the generic fact that people have different needs because it is dealt with in more specific ways in the list above. A strong community is able to thrive despite this fact, both by including only people with similar enough needs, and by having people be willing to sometimes sacrifice some needs for the community/other people.