An intentional egalitarian community as a small-scale implementation of a postcapitalist, peer production economic model. Part III : imagining non-delegation and distributed coordination in the physical world

This is the third part of a series that presents egalitarian communities, mainly Acorn community in Virginia, to shed some light on the way that the postcapitalist mode of production in the physical world could work. It should be noted that the opinions presented here are not necessarily those of the founders or members of the community where I have done research. I interpret my findings with regard to their significance for this economic change and their reflection on the postcapitalist mode of production. Acorn community does not define itself as a peer production project so the following analysis is not an evaluation of the implementation of peer production theory into practice. It is instead an extrapolation from their practice to how peer production organizations in the physical world could operate in the current system and in the future.

The term peer production refers to various ways of organizing production that are distinct from the state and market logics. The main characteristics of this form of production are: 1) Self-selected spontaneous contribution of participants in the production process;{1} 2) creation of use value rather than exchange or market value, which results in free access to public goods; {2} 3) non-delegation and distributed coordination, in contrast to hierarchical state and market providers. The first article of this three-part series focused on the consequences of self-selected spontaneous contribution as a model of organizing work and the second one presented a model of producing the use value despite the necessity to survive in the capitalist system. In this article, I will examine how the principles of non-delegation and distributed coordination can be translated in the reality of the physical world. Clearly, there are some elements of Acorn’s governance that resemble this model.

Non-delegation and distributed coordination

Peer production organizations operate beyond the principle of delegation, which contrasts with hierarchical state and market providers. Peer production can create nonrepresentational democratic structures. The way the governance is organized in p2p projects has been studied, mainly based on the examples of online peer production and hacker spaces. The question of authority and the mechanisms of control and influence has been in the center of scholarly attention{3}.

Acorn community is an example of a peer production model where the majority of the decisions and execution of the decisions is based on non-delegation and decentralized coordination. In contrast to other examples of peer production, the decisions and the way of functioning of the community affects the lives of the members. In other cases of peer production, volunteering constitutes a small part of volunteers’ lives and does not affect their life conditions. Therefore, studying this example may help to imagine a system where peer production is the dominant mode of production.

During the weekly meetings, community inhabitants propose changes to the life and organization of the community. Issues that affect diverse aspects of community life are discussed. Every member must agree to a proposal for it to be passed, or a compromise must be made that everyone is comfortable with. Full members may block proposals.

Non-delegation implies that there is a small number of fixed rules. The decision making and rules are conversation-based and changeable. One of the rules is the 42-hour weekly labor quota (I wrote about it more in the first post). There are some rules for the counting of one’s working hours (although the accounting is almost purely for personal use as no one requests the report). The community has defined such activities as going to a doctor and exercising for up to two hours per week as labor-creditable. However, some of my interviewees considered the labor quota to be simply a measure to avoid exhaustion. One of the interviewees said that probably a case of physical violence would lead to expulsion but even this is not certain. It would be dealt with during a meeting.

Because of the non-delegation principle, it is impossible to use authority in order to enforce someone’s work contribution and choices. Therefore, members sometimes utilize other means of influence, such as indirect pressure or strike. If certain work is needed for which a specific person has skills, such as reparation of a device, they may feel pressure to do it without being ordered to do it explicitly. Being asked to step in is often enough of a motivation to pursue a task even if it would not be this person’s first choice. Another way of enforcing work contribution is giving up a task with which one feels overwhelmed and wait until other people find it necessary to step in. Or not.

Abundance and redistribution as governance model

David de Ugarte outlines in a post on June 8, 2015, a vision for a community where abundance solves the problems related to decision making on redistribution. By avoiding the conflicts over the use of resources, the need for collective decision making is reduced.
“That is, where one person’s decision does not drastically reduce others’ possible choices, the sphere of the decision should be personal, not collective. Collective choices, democratic methods and voting are ways of managing situations where, more or less explicitly, there is a conflict in the use of resources. They are a “last resort” imposed by scarcity. The point is to avoid, as much as possible, the homogenization that they involve.”

Indeed, collective decision making may consume a lot of time and life energy. One interviewee mentioned that someone’s membership had probably been refused because this person’s personality would imply spending a lot of time on decision-making and discussions. It is not clear whether this was the only reason to exclude this person but mentioning this example shows that members are wary of spending too much time on decision making.

The question about how resources are redistributed in the communities popped up quite frequently when I presented the experience to people curious about the community. For instance, someone asked what if someone eats a lot. Remembering how much food was composted during my stay at the Acorn, I could not imagine that this could be an issue. However, there are latent conflicts over food in the community. Some people are vegetarian or vegan, so they need an accommodation in their menu. There is a consensus that every day a vegan option should be prepared by the cook. For example, the community buys or produces animal products and buys beans to accommodate vegetarians. Some, however, would like the community to be completely self-sufficient and use home-grown animal products rather than buy vegan meat replacements.

The community has not yet arrived at a stage where money is not an issue. There is still a perception that some spending is made at the expense of other possible spending. The way money is spent is a source of discontent for many members that I interviewed. Some wished that certain investments in infrastructure and production tools had not been undertaken. One of the members said that this type of “collective” decision may cause temporary disengagement and frustration but in such moments, he considers what he has: he does not want to have an apartment and a job, so putting up with some decisions is a fair trade off for this comfort.

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Voting with hands and feet

Operating with minimum delegation or non-delegation implies that governance is produced in either daily actions or big ruptures. I call it a system of voting with hands or feet.

Voting with hands: Acorn’s members have contrasting views on the extent to which the community should participate in the money economy. While there is a consensus that the community needs to run the enterprise, there is a difference of opinion whether their subsistence should be financed by money or whether the community should engage in self-sufficiency. The members that prefer to limit dependence on money can decide to work less for the enterprise and more for achieving autonomy. For instance, one of the members who deals a lot with food defines the creation of food autonomy for the community as one of the main objectives of his work. Since there are enough volunteers who want to care for animals, the community can produce their own animal food. In this way, people can vote by their choice of activities on where the community is going.

Voting with hands has an impact on the way the community operates, so it can be considered as a decentralized decision making system. A story of a “policeman on strike” can illustrate this point. The community used to have a system of controlling expenses. Someone was “appointed” for the position of an accountant to check the expenses. This person did not enjoy the role of “policeman” and gave up this task. Since no one took over the position, in the end, the expenses are noted by everyone using the community’s money and are accessible for review. A system of transparent decentralized control has emerged. However, voting with hands can cause some animosities, which the example of one member changing the website without anyone else’s permission illustrates.

Voting with feet: Long term frustration may evolve into bringing a new community into being. For instance, some members of Twin Oaks community did not like the structured labor system in there, so they started Acorn to accommodate their more anarchist leanings. Living Energy Farm, a radically environmental community that is being created in the vicinity of these two communities is a response to frustrations about the use of resources in these communities. Voting with feet looks easy on paper but it may be preceded by longish frustration for both those leaving and the ones who stay in a community. Some Acorners told me about a group of members that used to live in the community and then left. They were close together and made well-elaborated proposals that were probably discussed among them. The rest had an impression of being dominated.

The inner transformation for a non-delegation democracy

One of my interviewees described what the governance and work organization implies for the members in emotional and psychological terms. Sometimes it may feel lonely to be the only person caring about certain work domain or project that he committed to. Since there is no way of forcing people to be more interested, he needs to make efforts to promote what he cares about. It takes systematic work and engagement to build up a reputation that gives one more influence and support for one’s project. The non-hierarchical relations imply a lot of self-responsibility but also a feeling of empowerment. There is always a recourse and possibility to intervene. Dealing with difficulties requires more dialogue – more taking into consideration the other side. Non-hierarchy stimulates personal development.

Endnotes


{1} Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams, Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything, Expanded Edition (London: Athlantic Books, 2008), 36. Pekka Himanen, The Hacker Ethic and the Spirit of the Information Age (Random House, 2002).
{2} Michel Bauwens and Sussan Rémi, Le peer to peer : nouvelle formation sociale, nouveau modèle civilisationnel, Revue du MAUSS, 2005/2 no 26, p. 193-210.
{3} Mathieu O’Neil, Cyberchiefs: Autonomy and Authority in Online Tribes ( London: Pluto Press, 2009); Mathieu O’Neil,, ‘Hacking Weber: legitimacy, critique, and trust in peer production’, Information, Communication and Society, 2014, vol. 17, no. 7, pp. 872-888; Kostakis, V., Niaros, V. & Giotitsas, C., Production and governance in hackerspaces: A manifestation of Commons-based peer production in the physical realm?, International Journal of Cultural Studies, February 2014, vol. 13, pp. 1-19.

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What is Acorn community?

Acorn community is a farm based, egalitarian, income-sharing, secular, anarchist, feminist, consensus-based intentional community of around 32 folks, based in Mineral, Virginia. It was founded in 1993 by former members of neighboring Twin Oaks community. To make their living, they operate an heirloom and organic seed business, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (“SESE”), which tests seeds in the local climate and provides customers with advice on growing their own plants and reproducing seeds. Acorn is affiliated to the Federation of Egalitarian Communities, a US network of intentional communities that commit to holding in common their land, labor, resources, and income among community members.

Information on sources

I spent three weeks in August 2014 at Acorn community in Virginia where I conducted interviews with 15 inhabitants of this community (accounting for about half of the membership). The interviews will be used in my book analyzing a scenario of a postcapitalist mode of production from a personal perspective. It will be published in Creative Commons license. My research trip has been co-financed by a Goteo crowdfunding campaign. Some inspiration comes from four public meetings with a member of East Wind community, which I organized in October 2014, in Strasbourg, France. In total, 47 people participated in these events.

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank my interviewees, Couchsurfing hosts, and Acorn community for their hospitality and their time. The following people have contributed to the Goteo crowdfunding campaign: pixocode, Daycoin Project, Olivier, Paul Wuersig, María, Julian Canaves. I would like to express my gratitude to these and eight other co-financers. I would like to thank for the editing and suggestions from GPaul Blundell, communard of Acorn, instigating organizer of Point A DC.

About the Author

Katarzyna Gajewska is an independent writer interested in wellbeing, alternative economy, food politics, and other issues. She focuses on personal and daily life in order to stimulate collective imagination and democratic debate.

For updates on my publications, you can check my Facebook page or send me an e-mail to the address to get updates by e-mail: k.gajewska_comm AT zoho.com

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