“For the writer is still a maker, a creator, not merely a recorder of fact, but above all an interpreter of possibilities. His intuitions of the future may still give body to a better world and help start our civilization on a fresh cycle of adventure and effort. The writer of our time must find within himself the wholeness that is now lacking in his society. He must be capable of interpreting life in all its dimensions, particularly in the dimensions the last century has neglected; restoring reason to the irrational, purpose to the defeatists and drifters, value to the nihilists, hope to those sinking in despair.”
-Lewis Mumford, In the Name of Sanity
In two books, “The Book of Abundance” and “The Book of Community” and in Manifesto, Las Indias outline a model of organizing society that could start with the development of intentional communities. A new model of the economy based on the concept of abundance can be already implemented at the group level. On the other hand, the examples of group-level organizing can enrich our understanding of this desired future model. This paper uses empirical data to give some substance to the concept of abundance within an intentional community. The following is an invitation to further reflection and dreaming together. Using the stages from Dragon Dreaming method, one can consider the Utopian writings such as these by Las Indias as a stage of dreaming and the real life experiences as the stages of implementation. This analysis is a stage of celebrating and evaluation to help clarifying the goals in more practical terms.
I will use findings from my research on Acorn community to see what questions the practice raises. Communities are changing over time and their membership fluctuates, therefore it should be noted that the empirical content reflects the interviews conducted in August 2014. More details about this egalitarian community can be found in a series of three articles analyzing how Acorn’s experience can enrich the understanding of peer production model and an article on the personal experience of living in this community – see references below the text.
Making more with less
Acorn community has managed to generate more affluence thanks to sharing resources and living together. Life is cheaper there in comparison to individual living in an urban setting. In this way, communards can enjoy more with less while pursuing a meaningful work. The 42-hour labor quota includes also tasks not related to enterprise directly.
These are some examples of saving money and time thanks to collective living:
1) No one possesses one’s own car, which reduces the costs of insurance. Thanks to the skills within community, maintenance of electronics can be assured without hiring specialists.
2) Buying in bulk, dumpster diving, or exchanging products with other communities, reduces costs of food. One of the communards estimated that they spend about 1,200 dollars per person, per year on food.
3) Time is better used by mutualizing some tasks such as cooking, shopping, or declaring income for taxes.
4) By sharing tools and objects, there is less need of buying them: clothes, books, computers, kitchen tools, bikes, cars, and other stuff.
Furthermore, the communards enjoy some advantages of both city and rural living. Being surrounded by like-minded people within the community and communards from neighboring communities gives an occasion to meet people and undertake common activities. The atmosphere is different than in typical rural settings. On the other hand, they enjoy the advantages of rural living such as access to organic self-produced food, being close to nature, and no need to commute to work.
One of my interviewees reduced considerably the use of antidepressants, another one stopped drinking alcohol because they experienced less stress living in the community than in their previous lives.
The complexities of defining abundance
Las Indias defines abundance as the absence of the necessity “to work out what is produced and what not, and above all, how much access to a given product this or that person will have.” (The Book of Abundance, p.22) One of the criteria for evaluation whether a consumption choice is necessary would be its contribution to “genuine enjoyment of each.” Furthermore, trying to limit the consumption of others goes against the logic of abundance: “A life oriented to the construction of abundance, an interesting life, cannot be based on deprivation or the desire to deprive others.” (Idem, p. 71) The examples below illustrate that this definition of abundance does not take into account other aspects of produced goods. There are many nuances regarding the products: their quality, individual preferences, the environmental impact, ethical considerations, values inherent in a specific consumption pattern.
Consumption is not only about scarcity. Values are expressed by spending community money. One of Acorn’s principles in spending collective resources is that alcohol and cigarettes are bought with personal pocket money – a monthly allowance (so members can buy limited amount of these goods). An interviewee did not like the fact that once alcohol was bought with collective money to celebrate the completion of a project. Another example of this sort of reflection expressed by one of the interviewees is the proposition to count biking instead of using a car as part of labor quota. This would incite using less fuel, which is motivated by environmental considerations and not by saving money.
Food is also an issue of clashing values. Some members are vegan and the rest eats animal products. Both groups have broader reflection beyond the costs of food that are behind their choices. Vegans are motivated by the protection of animals. The carnivore camp envisions that with their diet community could gain a complete food autonomy. The community would not need to buy industrial products to replace animal products. This implies a withdrawal from the money system and the mainstream food system to counter socio-economic power relations. When aggregated, our food choices define the way the system of production is organized.
Spending collective resources to construct a new building or make similar major investment can also be a challenge to the concept of abundance. In Acorn, there were different opinions about what is the most cost-effective and the best way to construct a building. Certain individuals were more successful at getting their opinion implemented. Similar example was an investment into a machine. Some members consider machines as an additional cost with the need for maintenance that does not exceed much the gains of productivity. They are also afraid of being dependent because of the automation of work.
The definition of abundance could be also expanded to the availability of interesting work. One of the interviewees observed the scarcity of enjoyable jobs, not everyone gets to do the cool tasks such as those requiring creativity. Certainly, one could argue that if one wants to pursue some fulfilling activity, one is free to do so. However, usefulness and recognition constitutes part of work satisfaction. In Acorn, there are still some jobs that are necessary but much less attractive. For example, bringing garbage to the landfill is such a job. A person doing it found a way to make it more bearable by being accompanied by another communard. However, still this job is not the first choice. The sense of responsibility for less interesting jobs is different among members. Everyone has a different definition of what an interesting and meaningful activity is. Each activity is accompanied by an individual narrative and interpretation. For example, one of the members considered cleaning as his spiritual practice. Once more, abundance appears as something subjective.
Diverging preferences do not prevent Acorners from living together peacefully. In case of disagreements, many that I have interviewed work on themselves – trying to see the bigger picture like the advantages of staying together.
Abundance and personal development: what role is there for the community to play?
The perception of abundance evolves and can be learned or unlearned. One of the interviewees, originating from US middle class family, shared how her experiences of traveling to developing countries and living in Acorn community transformed her thinking about what one really needs in life in terms of material goods and comfort. Intentional communities in their present forms, namely with a very basic standard of living, can be venues of personal experimentation with abundance. Such an experimentation can be already undertaken in everyday life as the path of inner transformation and getting rid of compulsions that keep us in the current economic system.
If we agree that the perception of abundance is a result of inner work and learning processes, how would this translate into communal or societal practice? Let’s imagine such a situation: someone feels that to be happy, this particular thing is needed. Should the community agree and let the individual pursue it assuming that it takes time for someone to unlearn consumerist wants or rather establish conditions to re-think the want. This question is about the threshold. It is obvious that with the transformation of work, needs, conditioning and cultural context will change too.
Consumption can be chosen and changed but some consumption patterns require healing to be changed. Addictions can have many different forms that are related to consumption and patterns of behavior. Often omitted in the debates on addictions, even sugar or sweetness can be a powerful addiction leading to tooth decay, which results in the demand for dentistry (it defines what is produced). There are different theories about the causes of addictions. Bruce Anderson sees the causes of addictions in destruction of community and human connections caused by the capitalist system. Anne Wilson Schaef describes in her book “When Society Becomes an Addict” that the underlying cause of substance or behavioral addictions is the addiction to powerlessness and nonliving. Addictions serve the addicted to avoid confronting certain problems or shut down certain feelings. These are just two theories that illustrate how addictions reflect a deeper social problem rather than being an individual weakness or a matter of choice.
Acorn community’s way of dealing with addiction seems to be preventive exclusion. An interviewee mentioned that an alcoholic has been rejected in membership application. Living together with an addicted person may be challenging. It seems like this is one of the issues that communal initiatives need to study and prepare for.
The above examples illustrate defining abundance is difficult. There is no objective state of abundance. It is partly a result of inner work. The way to measure whether a community has reached the state of abundance would be to make a survey and prove that there is no frustration or lack in anybody. However, is it the aim of the society or community to never feel frustration? And if yes, what measures of working on our inner world or on our outer world would this involve?
Other articles on Acorn
Gajewska, Katarzyna (September 2016): Egalitarian alternative to the US mainstream: study of Acorn community in Virginia, US. Bronislaw Magazine
Gajewska, Katarzyna (21 July 2016): An intentional egalitarian community as a small-scale implementation of Post-Capitalism, P2P Foundation Blog.
Gajewska, Katarzyna (10 January 2016): Case study: Creating use value while making a living in egalitarian communities. P2P Foundation Blog.
Gajewska, Katarzyna (27 December 2014): An intentional egalitarian community as a small-scale implementation of postcapitalist, peer production model of economy. Part I : Work as a spontanous, voluntary contribution. P2P Foundation Blog.