In the last issue, I declared my intention to achieve the impossible and set up a commune – a living, working, playing, caring community of about 100 people. I don’t really believe it’s possible, but I am going to talk about it a lot and am full of good intentions to give it a go, just as soon as I have some time, maybe after the conference-organising is over, maybe once I’m in the swing of my new part-time job, maybe once we’ve dealt with the moths, updated the book, organised the house meeting, circulated the co-op minutes….
...Oh, hello – what’s that? You read my article and you’re interested in joining? Really?! Wow. And you want to know more – what do I mean ‘commune’? How can you join in, what needs to be done, when are we going to make a start? Oh, er… well, er… well, of course, right away, no time like the present!*
Let’s start with my experience of Twin Oaks, a 50-year-old egalitarian community of 100 people in rural Virginia, USA.
That’s 100 people living in about 10 living groups, generating collective income together, producing a high proportion of their food together, sharing their childcare, eldercare, cooking and maintenance, sharing collective resources like internet, vehicles, power, water, woodland and the enormous pond for swimming (including beach), and getting £100/month each as an allowance beyond all their basic needs.
You can earn more by doing overtime in the businesses, but money over and above your allowance can only be spent if you are offsite for 24 hours or more, to preserve the level of equality on the farm.
If accepted as a member, you can turn up with nothing at all and get furniture, bedding, clothes and all the mozzarella and organic veg you can eat. And in return, fit and healthy adults are assigned a minimum of 42 hours of labour each week, with reductions for health, growing older and having kids. You can get labour credits for working at other egalitarian communities, organising conferences, organising parties and doing ‘movement support’ AKA activism. As long as it’s in the money and hours budget, of course.
Is it an anarchist utopia? Of course not, don’t be silly. Is it an idyllic existence, do all your worries disappear? Nope, if anything, that’s an even sillier question. But it’s pretty bloody good.
Now planning laws and the price of land in 1960s rural Virginia were far less restrictive than in 2019 Yorkshire, so we’re going to have to be creative about getting large-scale housing alongside accessible growing space and light industrial capacity. It would be amazing to be on one large site, and to build all our own structures to suit our needs. But we might end up with a few terraces in Burnley or Keighley, with a couple of warehouses down the road and the gardens a 15-minute walk away. Yes, having a lake would be dreamy, but it’s not the ‘essential’.
Our businesses will need to compete in capitalism, but their advantage will be a cheap labour force. That means they’ll need to be in a sector which can actually use large amounts of unskilled labour. At Twin Oaks, among other things, they produce tofu and hammocks (classic).
I’m thinking more along the lines of small-scale plastics recycling, producing construction materials, insulation, garden furniture (woohoo, carbon sequestration). Or maybe an oil pressing and distilling facility, for producing food-grade oils, essential oils and CBD oil**. There are almost limitless options.
Developing the culture will probably be the hardest bit of all. In the early years, we won’t have a critical mass of members who understand the general expectations – in fact, we’ll all be negotiating (probably arguing) about what the expectations should be, and most of us will struggle to think collectively rather than individually about whether fixing one’s own bike counts towards one’s labour quota.
So where do we start? There is so much to learn, so much communication and relationship-building to be done and so much work to develop, even on merely creating a core group with enough commonality of understanding and commitment.
Thus, I propose starting with study circles, both local to me and online – an initial intense period of knowledge-sharing and training, where people read agreed texts and watch recommended films and then move towards becoming a community of practice.