One thing you have to do if you’re setting up a commune (especially a big one) is to meet a lot of people. Not just meet them, but meet them, really engage – compare what each other loves, what makes each other angry, dazzle them with the brilliant idea, ask about their financial and family situation, share some vulnerabilities, find out what makes them tick in time with your clock (or doesn’t).
We’ve just had one of our quarterly (there, I’ve said it in print, it is definitely now quarterly) commune weekend gatherings – lots of curious people came to find out more about A Commune in the North and we tried to find out lots about them.
We cooked together, we discussed together and we weeded together. The paths look great now!
During one part of a wide-ranging discussion (how much are personal allowances, what counts as commune vs personal spending, how many hours/week labour do we commit to), I was struck by a terrible thought – we are going to be quite earnest.
We’re all committing to challenging ourselves, overcoming trigger reactions, changing our diets and exercise habits and our propensity to bitch about each other when annoyed.
The thing is, it’s very tempting, especially when two of you are trying to not do a thing, to use humour and ‘if you do it, I’ll do it’ reasoning to choose to keep doing the thing you’re trying to change.
Easy to undermine each other’s efforts, with a self-deprecating comment or some partners-in-crime giggly enabling.
And this is how much of society is – there is a very strong cultural aversion to people taking themselves seriously. People who take themselves seriously are boring, or a bit arrogant or pretentious, or just… too earnest.
But we are engaging in a very serious business – life-changing, behaviour-changing, world-changing, revolutionary. If we don’t take ourselves seriously, is it a symptom of not really believing we can do it? If we don’t take ourselves seriously, why would anyone else?
We are approaching the business of communication very seriously indeed. We even have the ‘Bitchin in the Kitchen’ flowchart: ‘Are you annoyed with another communard?’ [Yes] ‘Is this person doing something you want them to do differently?’ [No] ‘No, I know this is my stuff’ and so on.
It’s symptomatic of trying to create shared analyses and expectations between people of vastly different cultural backgrounds.
I call it ‘the bureaucracy of the revolution’ or ‘engineered fairness’.
We’ve just started income-sharing, monitoring our daily work hours, have agreed both lunch and tea as communal meals, we’ve got daily and weekly meetings and we’re running weekly learnings.
This has led to a profusion of chat groups – for the people on the learnings, for the skate park, for the farm, members-only and (since we’re also monitoring how we spend our time, so we can have a basis for time budgeting down the line) my personal favourite, the ‘CommuneWorkDidYouDoToday?’ Signal chat.
You know you may be crossing some kind of bureaucratic overkill line once you have a group name like that.
Finding an antidote to the seriousness could be relatively straightforward – simply change the culture to one of ‘joyful earnestness’, a joy in collective progress towards our goals, joy in well-functioning relationships, to choose to be constantly re-inspired and excited by how epic the project is.
Finding an antidote to the bureaucracy is considerably harder. Perhaps we have to embrace it, practice it until it’s second nature, a habit of talking clearly, of noting hours of work after dinner each day, of noting expense claims as they happen, of planning and budgeting and reading all the messages.
The main thing is we’re trying – we’re starting systems imperfectly, giving things a go, reflecting and refining, and trying to support each other/hold each other accountable for using those systems reliably.
Can we continue to make commune life an attractive option, despite all this?
There are more and more enquiries coming in and more people coming to stay, so it doesn’t seem too off-putting – or maybe we just haven’t written about our bureaucracy on the website yet.
Either way, we will continue to organise and attend events, to demonstrate that our culture outside of work is desirable.
Our joint harvest festival and feast with the next-door church represents the other, human, community, physical side of the commune, as we shepherd the congregants to join teams of cooks, making borshch (from beetroot), apple crumble, salads and roast veg.
With food as a general focus for the commune, maybe the sociable nature of it will prove a more powerful influence than too much bureaucracy.