GPaul has just returned from his summer adventure in Europe visiting urban income sharing communities. He just gave a wonderful report contrasting the US communes with their European counterparts. Here are some of the highlights from his talk:
* There are perhaps 40 or 50 secular income sharing communities in Europe and national and language boundaries largely keep them from networking together or even knowing about each other
* These communities of size 60 to 80 members (and of course much smaller) use consensus decision making without any problem. [Many small US communities, including Acorn, worry that they can not grow without consensus failing them, and almost all of them are far smaller than this].
* One of the maxims suggested was “The commune is rich, the communards are poor” The objective is great shared wealth, not increased personal/private wealth.
* None of the 6 income sharing communities visited had a labor quota (though one had a non-specific requirement for members to work full time). Most FEC communities have labor obligations and several have quota – though in Acorns case it is a “soft” and untracked quota.
* European urban income sharing communities are also both asset and debt sharing (unlike their US counterparts). The US based income sharing communities (most of them in the FEC network) were culturally founded during the rise of cults. Thus part of the desire to not be asset sharing at that time was to distinguish income sharing communities from cults (which took members assets).
* Very few people move to communes in there 20s (unlike in the US where this is our biggest demographic) instead they move in during their 30s when they want to settle down and have kids.
* Minimum stays at European communes tend to be much longer (on the order of 5 years) in sharp contrast to US communities where it is often just 12 or 18 months.
This is sort of a poor representation of some of the key ideas of GPaul’s presentation, but there is more i will elaborate on in future blog posts. Especially the transnational nomadic anarchist cyberpunks.
It is just a couple of weeks before the communities conference and we are putting the finishing touches on it. I believe this will be the best Communities Conference of the 10 I have helped organize. Some amazing presenters, many interesting participants and robust and relevant content. We have a number of options for the Monday program with is Communities Clinic. If you are planning on attending the Monday program on Sept 1st, we are hoping you’ll write us and give us an idea of what kind of issues your group is dealing with and what kind of help you’re looking for. There are 10 common topics described below with various questions to help you think about what might be useful to you.
Financing and development: Almost every community needs money. How can you secure funding for improving your community? What type of fundraising options have worked for other communities and are they exportable to you? Under what conditions can you borrow money from banks or run a successful crowd funding campaign?
Ownernship and legal structures: Well before you move in, you will need to figure out what type of community you are in a legal sense. Is it a land trust, a residential worker coop, a 501D community, LLC or other structure. Come discuss what these all mean and which models would work best for you and your forming group.
Recruiting and outreach: If you have the right members, you can do almost anything. But how do you find these people (if they are not already working with you)? Many communities reach other through FIC websites and publications, others write articles in periodicals which appeal to their value sets, some buy advertisements, others speak at colleges or festivals, still others blog or recruit thru social media. What is the right mix for the people you are trying to find? What is cost effective or no cost? What places should you avoid?
Relationships and conflict resolution (problematic people and expulsion): Many European communities have no expulsion process, almost all US ones do. How do you maintain personal and emotional relationships with your membership? What do you do when relationships inside the community sour to the point where it might be necessary for the group to split or someone to leave? What have long lived communities done to successfully deal with problematic or high negative impact members?
Decision-making: The US cohousing movement has widely adopted consensus (including sociocracy models) as the way they make decisions. Some communities use voting models including super majority models. Do you have what it takes to be a charismatic leader for your community (hint this includes tremendous patience and a willingness to listen)? Does your decision model change as your group gets larger? If you can’t agree to change something are you always stuck with the status quo? These and other questions will be addressed in this participant driven workshop.
Local relations/involvement: Does it matter if you shop in the town closest to your community? Does it make sense to invite the neighbors over for tea or will it just leave them more scared than they already are? What about political protest in your own town – will this distance you from your neighbors or bring you closer? Should members doing controversial things try to avoid the community being affiliated with their work to maintain local harmony? Is it considered community work to be part of the local volunteer fire department or volunteering to teach kids to read?
Cottage industries/Cooperative business: We have started calling them “income engines”. Choosing the right business is one of the most important decisions a community can make. If you rely too much on the skills of a minority of the membership (for example web development) the community economy can collapse if these people move on. Should you be looking for something that any new member can be trained in? Is the cottage industry open to all prospective members? Can the community hire people who are not members?
The range of membership statuses: Full member, provisional member, associate member, child member, intern, guest, ward of the state, lover of member – there are many different ways someone can be at a community for a while. Especially egalitarian communities try to limit the number of membership types to try to preserve fairness. Other communities have more flexible membership policies to try to be more inclusive or more versatile for members. In this workshop we’ll discuss how all these status’ have been used and which ones might be right for your community.
Different levels of sharing: Many student coops share a few meals a week, a clothes washer, and not much else. Their academic, economic and social experiences are largely independent. Some communities try to share everything from bank accounts to businesses to boyfriends. The more you share the more benefits you’ll see but the stronger your systems and communication needs to be. This workshop will look at some of these systems and how they combat internal hording and envy. It will also help forming communities decide what they want to share – are cars too big? are clothes to personal? Can we swing a public computer? Do we want to buy box seats for the games?
Culture Creation: Communities can create their own holidays and rituals. Often these cultural aspects are the most bonding aspect of the community members life. Should we buy instruments to help catalyze a more musical community? Should our parties be mostly us and our close friends or should we invite a wider audience? How does the community value and promote artistic expression? Do we strive for transparency in our feelings or privacy? There are dozens of aspects of cultural creation that communities can consider and often influence. What you choose to focus on will determine how most people perceive you and in many cases whether you will grow and thrive.
I feel a bit like a country mouse taking the crash course in gentrification from our city mouse cousins. So we can start with the Wikipedia and Google definition:
Gentrification is a shift in an urban community toward wealthier residents and/or businesses and increasing property values.
That seems simple enough. And maybe not even bad. Crime rates go down, services increase. We want things to get better in the city, don’t we?
Film maker and NYC activist Spike Lee calls part of this problem the “motherfucking Christopher Columbus syndrome” In a recent talk at Pratt, Lee said “You can’t discover this! We been here.” He told a story of how new residents had called the police on long time residents – including Lee’s father – who were playing drums, as they had been for 50 years. The police sided with the new affluent residents and stopped the music.
But gentrification is far more than street jams getting shut down. In NYC it is the pointy edge of industrial capitalism. Real estate values in the city are so high that the economic incentives for landlords to harass, threaten and mistreat residents are hard to imagine. Especially residents who have rent controlled housing. Gentrification pits rich against poor and the poor almost always lose and get displaced.
New York City has changed a lot from the economic crisis it faced in the early 1970’s. At that time property owners unable to find tenants for their buildings and with taxes which were far outstripping rents simply walked away from buildings, especially in the lower east side of Manhattan. Abandoned urban buildings lead to squats.
Squatters came in an fixed up these buildings and made them livable. They pushed back the police at first and often after they had improved the buildings the original landlord wanted them back. Some squatters were able to hold onto their work and ultimately gain control of these buildings.
But the 1970s are long gone and real estate speculation in NYC is a very high stakes game now. Because of their potential value, owners now pay taxes on their unused and boarded up buildings. And the police and private security (aka thugs) are used to control these unused spaces and protect them from squatters.
This lead a number of people to tell us that squatting was dead in NYC.
Turns out it is not so. Traveler kids are still squatting in NYC. They are much more discreet about it than earlier generations of squatters who might graffiti the outside of buildings they control. One sign of this is that they are regularly getting busted by the police. Squatting is a high risk life style.
One friend who does risk reduction work amongst traveler kids said she would introduce me to some of these folks on our next visit. Stay tuned.
There are some tremendous pop culture holes in my life experience. Turns out the 10 years i was out of the US living in eastern Europe were the 10 years that the wildly popular TV show Seinfeld were airing. Socially critical pieces of cultural information – like who is the soup Nazi – are lost on me. I did not see Fight Club for many years. And it was not until the Twin Oaks parody of The Big Lewbowski trailer came out, did i actually see the real thing..
This video was being shown off last night at a small party at the far edge of Bed Stuy last night and i realized it is just too good to leave it unpromoted. There are lots of in-jokes for the commune, but if you have some experience with us, you might laugh as hard as i did.
One of my favorite aspects of life in the commune is that we are constantly trying new things. This is especially true in the arena of party design. Ali threw a new DJs party last night. We have a cache of regular DJs who know what we like, can get an empty dance floor hopping with the right sequence of songs and serve us well. With no disrespect for this collective resource, Ali wanted to explore some of our less conventional and newer music selection talent. She did it at the warehouse.
When designing parties, one has to make a bunch of decisions which affect the event. One of the critical ones is how much space do you create for the participants. Too little and people will leave because it is too crowded. If you create too much, the party will feel under attended and people may drift off or cluster in some smaller area.
The warehouse is huge, the night was rainy, there were three nice spaces created – the dance floor, the hangout room and the smokers lounge outside. All of the spaces had some folks, but the party would have been well served by another twenty people. Technical difficulties prevented us from hearing a few of the 30-minute sets that our alt-DJs had prepared; time to head to Acorn.
After all the sets that worked, the Acorners left en mass and we scooped up a few Oakers who were interested in continuing the evening. We considered a couple of places at Acorn to play and ultimately decided on the Rec Collective – short for Recreation Collective – a lovely single-room straw bale building which currently has no residents.
Considerably smaller, only 6 or 7 people could dance at the same time here. One person felt comfortable enough that they were able to for the first time to dance topless, earning the party at least a B grade if not an A. But the right combination of music and people who did not want to go to sleep made for an event which did not end til 4 AM when I drove home the last shuttle.
When I examine it thru a funological lens and ask “What made this after-party so charming?” Of course, part of it was the choice of music and the people interested in dancing. But as I look deeper, some of it was also that the participants all knew each other well enough to trust each other, but many had lots to learn and share with the other participants in the conversations which went on amongst the people who were not dancing.
For myself at least, there was a feeling of having taken a chance and gotten lucky. Sometimes the after-party does not really work out. Especially if they are in a different location that the original, the new site needs to be prepped, technical difficulties can derail the effort, the group needs to hold together while things are being set up and not drift off to bed or to the arms of some romantic interest they have been chatting with.
Ali is capturing funological principles & adages:
“What is the best way to run the last shuttle from the party?”
“To not do it because no one wants to go home.”
And while some people ultimately did go home at absurd o’clock, this after-party definitely had a dreamlike quality to it.
It has always struck me a odd that the decision making system most often employed by radicals and revolutionaries (in my experience) is a conservative one. While group culture can certainly effect it, consensus tends to gravitate towards the status quo, especially for complex or tricky decisions. Unable to convince everyone to try something different, the group will often keep doing what it has been doing.
I was talking to Tree on the phone about this phenomenon and she mentioned that one of the things she discovered in her research on Sociocracy was the opposite tendency. Most people who examine this Dutch developed decision technique walk away feeling like it is a more ornate and slightly different flavor of consensus. But I think Tree has identified the critical cultural difference.
Like consensus, Sociocracy uses a collection of decision making tools to help it guide the group towards resolution. There is however only a small amount of overlap between these tool sets. Sociocratic elections ask “who is best to do this job?” first, rather than “who is willing to do this job?” which often results in different people being selected than other selection methods. In my experience when the Twin Oaks visitor team was using Sociocracy, when we did it right, we could dramatically reduce the amount of time we spent talking about topics, especially by using the quick reaction round technique. This was where everyone in the group gave just a single sentence response to the proposal.
[The above graphic distinguishes Sociocracy from consensus in a way many, including Tree, find problematic - see her comment. On the question of whether Sociocracy is importantly different from consensus, we might disagree. Tree feels it is well inside the large consensus family. I think the different aspects make it at least a different dialect, and possibly even it's own language.]
The full set of Sociocratic tools and structures dwarfs formal consensus in size. There is far more overhead in learning Sociocracy. And central to the difference in these two cultures is how blocks are different. In both anyone can block. In (what I think are the better forms of) consensus decoding the blocks is the groups responsibility. Even though it often comes from a single person, the collective needs to elaborate it and then see if the proposal can be modified to address the blocking concerns.
In Sociocracy, the pressure is flipped. Your block needs to be “reasoned and paramount” if you can not convince the group it has these attributes the block does not stand. This is one of the ways sociocracy is progressive, rather than conservative.
The other, which Tree pointed out in our chat, is that Sociocracy has numerous built in tools for designing temporary solutions which will be tried out and then evaluated. Sunset clauses are regularly used in consensus, but in Sociocracy, everything is up for periodic evaluation, with an eye towards correction and refinement.
The cultural assumption of Sociocracy is “Let’s try something new, and make sure we have safeguards in place to protect us if something does not work.” While consensus more often says “if we can’t get the whole group to agree on changing, then we are better off staying where we are.”
But culture is mushy. I’ve been in consensus based activist groups which did our process on the way to the action – we started with the assumption that we had to constantly be doing things. Our critique was that the status quo around us was not working and our job was to be change agents. The culture of that affinity group was constantly advancing new things and trying novel techniques.
Just as easily you could get a persuasive intellectual in a Sociocratic setting who was always framing their objections in reasoned and paramount ways. And it would turn the organization into a discussion group.
[On a personal note: I have been remiss posting on this blog recently. It has long been my personal adage that "Excuses are like cotton candy. They have a sickeningly sweet taste but there is not much there, really." But in case you are curious, it is influenced in by extended family visits from Willows half brother Fabian from the Netherlands and his half sister Rachel from Death City visiting Twin Oaks. These lovely encounters have thrown further out of whack my engaged (not busy) schedule. Thus resulting in fewer blog posts.]
In the original myth of Prometheus, the hero ascends mount Olympus, where he fools the gods and steals fire from them [The myth then morphed into him going to the underworld.] Returning to the surface world, this fire is given to humanity and used to build civilization. But Zeus becomes angry with Prometheus and condemns him to be tortured for eternity.
Recent information made available thru the Freedom of Information Act indicates some important details of the myth have been left out. It turns out the gods knew Prometheus was coming and was planning to rob them. So the gods hid all of the good fires and left only the worst one behind for Prometheus to steal [Prometheus wrongly assumed there was only one kind of fire]. Thus Prometheus returned to earth with the wrong fire and with the wrong intent and correspondingly built the wrong society.
There is now a place for a new kind of Prometheus. One who works with the gods instead of stealing from them and uses the best fires, which the gods hid from Prometheus in the places we have only now started to look for them – in the wind, in the sea and in the sun.
It is time we started working with nature – instead of stealing from it, harnessing the power of renewable resources in wind, solar and sea-based technology. And with these we can build a new civilization.