To share or not to share?

IssueFebruary 2010
Feature by Woody Wood

It is always much easier when the baddies are “over there”. This is especially true for those of us who like to think of ourselves as radical: challenging capitalism, the alienated society, the system, whatever we choose to call it.

That’s why it got uncomfortable when some women challenged radical men to look at our attitudes, values, behaviour. Yet this challenge can be applied across the board, not just to sexism. Why are we living against each other? Competing in the market place, tolerating our inequalities? Truly “the system” is two inches behind our eyes.

So it always amazes me that radicals, especially radical co-operators, don’t go at least some way to sharing, pooling or equalising their incomes – voluntarily. (The state’s tax and benefit system is, in part, a form of compulsory income sharing. A “socialist” state would presumably go much further – but do we need to be coerced?)

I, and a few others, have given presentations to Radical Routes, a network of co-operatives working for radical social change, over the years – but without result.

People clearly see it as such a big step, such a mountain to climb. Yet income sharing (which is easily opted out of) is lightweight compared with many other life decisions we may take: entering marriage or a child bearing relationship; getting into a business partnership with one or more others; co-owning housing or land; even having/being a tenant or lodger. When these go wrong they can get really messy.

Fear of sharing

So it must be that it deeply challenges our “I’m in control and steering my own ship” egos. It is not largely about selfishness or resentment. People (including me I remember) are initially more freaked by being a net taker (dependent on other people to eat!) than by being a net contributor (supposedly concerned at being ripped off). Having shared all of my income for over thirty years it feels completely natural and sound. Doesn’t put everything right of course but it feels like a good platform from which to face up to our many troubling issues.

There are plenty of ways of pooling or equalising income. I don’t intend to go into the mechanics of these in detail for fear of contributing to the “zoo effect”. There are plenty of takers for reading about it, studying it, doing PhDs on it (which is head stuff); very few for living it (which is heart stuff). However, as a participant in two very different schemes I will describe them briefly.

Two models

The first group, called Snowball, is full income pooling “seventies style”: all income goes on the table every two weeks, then a series of “rounds” for taking out various needs and wants, sometimes with discussion. Natural “rainy day” conservatism leads to the building of substantial reserves, which also become the social and charitable power of the collective. This can be done at a distance but it is easier face to face.

The other group, called Solidarity, involves partial income equalisation against some agreed benchmark income (calculated monthly after deducting certain basic housing/dependent costs). Each member has control of their percentage involvement. (Could be 5% or less, which means that most of their income is untouched by the scheme.) This is very easy to operate at a distance, as ours does, between people with some interest or commitment in common (in our case to devolution and empowerment). This is mostly a numbers exercise with actual money only moving from time to time. All declarations are accepted in good faith. This scheme also naturally builds reserves and so doubles as a loans club. With about ten members it is a system that is easy to administer – however it might get a bit unwieldy with larger numbers.

The reasons why people might choose to share their incomes are many but have sometimes been grouped under five headings:

  • Fairness, Social Justice
  • Mutual Encouragement to
  • Live Modestly
  • Developing Collective Power and Solidarity
  • Challenging the Ego-self
  • Practical Advantages (e.g. income security when redundant)

    Comparing motivations can be an interesting group exercise.
    P.S. If you really want to get it on with others contact us through the editors.
Topics: Economics