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CREATING AND MAINTAINING A SUCCESSFUL UTOPIAN COMMUNITY
-- Putting wheels under lofty ideals.
By Jim Miller
In the ideal community, brotherhood, love, and harmony replace conflict and competition; purpose and meaning replace alienation; sharing and collective responsibility replace private hording of goods; and family warmth and intimacy replace isolation. Relationships are loving; work is meaningful; and behavior is self-fulfilling.
The ideal community is like a train: passengers and freight are constantly getting on and off at stops along the way. Each stop beckons the disaffected members of the community still on the train, while at each stop, new participants on the platform are eager to get themselves and their stuff on board. Instead of a railroad baron owning the railroad and dictating which stops are honored and how the train is run, the passengers own the railroad, the rolling stock, tracks and right-of-way and determine when and where the train runs and how the train management is organized.
Our model of the ideal train (community) is close to the guidance expressed above by Kanter. How do we put wheels under those ideas, and how long of a train ride do we want? How does one form deep, lasting friendships and trust relationships? How does one translate those relationships, "social glue" into reality? In a utopia, who takes out the trash? How long and by what means is our ideal community, turned into hard reality, going to last?
What comes first: the love and trust or positive cash flow? Many utopias started out with just the proverbial "clothes on our backs" and small change in the pocket with the hole in it. By fits and many re-starts, these communities transposed themselves from a loose confederation of individuals into a tight-knit community with positive cash flow (or not). Examples of these types of utopian communities are: Twin Oaks in Virginia has grown and is still functioning. Freedom Farm confederation failed. Oneida, at one time, the largest producer of quality consumer flatware, has now relegated itself to marketing the flatware, the manufacture of which has been sold-off. Social engagement and religiosity helped form and maintain many utopian communities. Examples are:
- Bruderhof, deeply religious, is still active and is financially successful.
- Cedar Grove, a spirtual community.
- The Anabaptists: Amish, Mennonite, and Hutterite communities, all have strong religious underpinnings, coupled with strong work ethics, which produce considerable outside income.
Some communities focus their energies and/or derive income from topical goods and services. Examples are:
- Synergia for solar heat and ecological experiments.
- Breightenbar Hot Springs offers meditation, vegetarian food, self-awareness learning and geothermal-fed pools with clothing optional.
- The Amana Communities continue with light manufacturing.
- The Apache community of __________ provide competent steelworkers who erect steel structures for high-rise buildings.
Celebration, song and ritual has often played an important role in developing and maintaining group cohesion. Examples are:
- The Shakers adopted a shaking dance.
- Harmony put song to simple tasks.
"HOW TO" GUIDELINES
At some point, all utopian communities grapple with how to better organize recruitment, decision making, allocation of tasks and distribution of resources. The forms are many and varied. They are generally designed to breakdown barriers between people and create and maintain cohesion ("social glue"). Kanter offers this list:
- How to get the work done, but without coercion;
- How to ensure that decisions are made, but to everyone's satisfaction;
- How to build close, fulfilling relationships, but without exclusiveness;
- How to choose and socialize new members;
- How much autonomy, individual uniqueness and even deviance to tolerate;
- How to insure agreement and shared perception around community functioning and values.
Successful communities promote investment and some require a personal and/or financial investment in the community. Some add the requirement of personal commitment to ethical or religious dogmas. "Success" is a relative term for many people and organizations. What does one give up versus what does on get is often the only test individuals apply. This individualistic measure is the common test found in non-communitarian circumstances. The measure used by communitarians is more likely to be: Has the quality of my life improved? This latter test asks the much broader question of what are the core values of the member and of the community, often leading to the more profound questions, What is the meaning of life? Why am I here?
Gurus, prophets, philosophers, god-heads, and a variety of con-artists have ready and sure-fire answers to all of these questions, and promise much, but at a price. When the price is paid, the promises don't seem to work and the author of the promise often disappears with his/her bag of cash. Rev. Sun Yun Moon can step forward and claim the prize for last century's most financially successful con-artist. To the Anabaptists, the Mormons and similar groups, success is counted in terms of strong family ties and the production of children. In other circumstances, "success" is the complete brainwashing of the members to the point where they are willing to die. Examples are David Koresh, the Jones Town Massacre and the current extremists insurgency in middle-eastern countries.
At the other extreme, the 60's "Hippie" communes were open to all types, required no investment, offered little resources and no organization. Most hippie communes quickly failed or changed into more structured organizations. The "feel good" effect of drugs, booze, and laid-back lounging is hard to maintain on an empty stomach, an untreated injury or disease, or mental trauma such as post traumatic stress syndrome (including child birth, divorce, death of a loved one, etc.) Further, unorganized communities typically lack the ability to extract significant positive cash flow from the "outside" (however one chooses to define the `outside'). Poverty rules in the absence of thoughtful organization, investment and self-discipline. Hence, the quality of life is not what it could and should be.
Striking a balance between control and freedom, between order and spontaneity, is a difficult organizational problem for a commune. Too little order and organization may result in chaos, dissatisfaction, tension and vulnerability to outside pressures. Too much order may result in an authoritarian system that requires rules and regulations, suppression, surveillance, and "brainwashing". Communes have been criticized for both.
The Bible and the Koran attempt to describe and guide large communities. Governmental constitutions provide for the governance of nations. Charters and bylaws set forth the powers and authorities of corporate entities. Long-lived communes eventually negotiate organizational structures which mostly are put in written form, but which may remain as unwritten "custom" or in both forms. Over time, the legalistic approach tends to stratify the commune. By growth of membership and complexity of operations, delegation of individual decision-making is made to representatives. Representatives meet and confer, decide and then implement the new order or system. The early Israeli kibbutzim's went through various stages, resulting in impersonal rules, formal training, and rotation of managers. As individual participation reduced, democracy was weakened as the kibbutzims faced increased industrialization of themselves and the world around them.
One of the most successful and enduring communitarian groups is Mondragon Cooperative Corporation, which grew out of the poverty of the Basque country of Spain over fifty years ago. It is now a global 500 cooperative corporation with over 150 factory and service sub-cooperatives, its own credit union, schools and a university and a place at the table of regional political, governmental and economic powers. Mondragon went through many metamorphoses to become what it is today. At each stage, it resolved conflicts in a variety of ways.
Mondragon is worthy of study for its lessons learned on how to setup a governance system which is egalitarian, somewhat democratic , but mostly representational. The foundations were mutual respect, self-investment in the process of change and net cash flow for the "owners as workers" of the many Mondragon cooperative enterprises. Findhorn of Scotland, offers yet another good example of a successful communitarian establishment. Findhord combines the community centralized ownership and distribution of resources, and at the same time, allows, encourages and finances micro-businesses within the Findhorn general legal and economic structure.
Assume, for the sake of discussion, that a gaggle of folks, disaffected by the rigors of city life, wished to become both communitarns and ruralists. How would one start such a group, where would it be and how organized and managed? One could start with a few friends, family and then recruit. An existing organization could move to the hinterland or a different nation and reorganize or continue the organization they have.
Several start-ups of the family/friend variety are worthy of mention. These are generally at the early stage, without having gone through several re-starts or organizational changes. Typically, there is a leader who pilots the small group. They find some land or housing, then move onto the land, start the building process and concurrently, work out the interpersonal and governance relationships. Splits do occur, but also do joinder with other like-minded communitarians and "pods" in order to establish a larger, more sustainable group. Twin Oaks and Dancing Rabbit are good examples of this processes. Examples of communities currently seeking members are Mariposa Group, Acorn, and Mutual Aid Society of America. A few trade magazines and websites carry ads and announcements of groups which are recruiting new members.
The issues of governance are greatly affected by forces outside the group, such as state laws governing the legal structure; federal and state tax laws; state and local zoning and land use laws; charitable trust laws; general liability laws; trade regulations; health and safety regulations; and a plethora of other laws. Navigating these rules is difficult, complex and can have grave consequences if not understood and followed.
Governance also encompasses the art of compromise. What the members are willing to agree to, may not always solve the problem. Hence an umpire or referee or arbitrator should be included in the governance rules who will break deadlocks and/or over-rule compromises which are not consonant with the organizational documents. The local judge of the county court is ill-equipped to decide and is wont to slap-dash the case simply to clear the docket. A permanent standing group of three neutral, independent, and wise arbitrators should be appointed at the outset, so that on minor questions, one of the arbitrators is the decision maker, and on major questions, all three constitute the decision makers. Arbitration needs to be binding and enforceable by court order.
The form of governance should be representational, especially when there are many sub-organizations or enterprises to govern and coordinate. The larger the group, the more finely divided can be the responsibilities. However, the managers should all be multi-tasking through frequent rotation of jobs and continuing education. In a multi-level and multi-lateral organization, representational governance should have some counter-balances. In the case of Mondragon, that counter-balance was the social welfare committee of each plant, sub-cooperative and the parent Mondragon co-op. These committees addressed issues such as the rights of individual members, member benefits (vacation, sick leave, overtime, working conditions), usually in cooperative relationship with the executives and managers of the plant or other organization. Conflicts could often be resolved by discussion at the level of the social welfare committee. Self-sufficiency is also a major tenet of communitarian organizations. Amana, Oneida, Anabaptist and similar organizations all were largely self-sufficient. Being self-sufficient has major economic impacts on the group. For example, as a city worker, you purchase your food with after-tax income. As a farmer co-op member, you grow much of your own food and the value of this food does not ever register as income; thus it never enters your 1040 tax return. The same applies to biofuel, wind generated energy, recycled manures and crop waste, vehicles you fix yourself, homes the community builds for its members, water from the community wells, and many other inputs which are not purchased but taken from the land, sea, air or water. Generation of new cash flow (profits) is also critical to the success of the intentional community. The "leaky barrel" concept is that it always takes cash from the community to purchase goods and services from the "outside"; thus cash "leaks" from the "barrel". In order to refill the barrel, fresh cash from the "outside" needs to be generated. In a typical co-housing commune, individual members hold jobs on the "outside" and pay their share of the costs (capital and operational) of the co-housing. At the other extreme, the Hutterites provide all services to their members, including pocket money of about $15.00 per month per adult. Hutterites are known not only for their frugality, avoidance of "outsiders" in governance affairs, but are well recognized as traders and producers for the "outside" which generate considerable amounts of profit for the Hutterite colonies. Capital funding is also a major impediment to the formation and growth of intentional communities. At startups, no bank will loan capital. Grants are generally not available except to legally formed charities under IRC 501(c)(3) or churches. Seller financed land acquisition is probably the only route open to the formation of capital. Payments are to the "outside" thus necessitating sources of outside income. This objective can be met by outside employment of some of the members; by production for sale of goods and services; and subsidy payments, such as social security benefits, pensions, trust funds and royalties.
Incoming members can be tapped for investments. Many have equity in their homes which can be cashed out and used to purchase a share in the real estate or in the equity of the organization which in turn buys and owns the real estate. Another possibility is the purchase by a land trust foundation of the development rights to the land, thus preserving the land for the use of the community as agricultural and light industrial lands, but prohibiting the sale for other non-communitarian uses.
Some members bring value to the organization in terms of their expertise, contacts, innovation ability and productivity. Others can contribute equipment, materials and supplies which are then used for the benefit of the community. A suitable mix of intellectual, monetary and physical capital will, in most cases, lead to successful start-ups and sustained growth, leading to self-sufficiency and long-term sustainability.
The questions are, therefore, in whose hand rests the "start" button and is he or she ready to push it? Or --- having pushed the start button, what's next? Respectfully submitted,
Friday, May 13, 2005