Labor System Experimentation in Egalitarian Intentional Communities

in Social Analysis
Author:
Mari Hanssen Korsbrekke Senior Researcher, Western Norway Research Institute, Sogndal, Norway mhk@vestforsk.no

Search for other papers by Mari Hanssen Korsbrekke in
Current site
Google Scholar
PubMed
Close

Abstract

Intentional communities are social movements that are centrally concerned with producing new forms of social organization through experimentation with labor organization. Exploring the experiments of one of these communities, this article analyzes how members (communards) imagine how work can be organized to build a more egalitarian mode of life. Communards’ attitudes toward sharing work while balancing the needs of the community and the individual provide valuable insights into the sometimes paradoxical dynamics and practical relationships between power, hierarchy, justice, and equality. The article highlights how egalitarian life is perceived to come to fruition often through joy and playfulness, which must be balanced with more bureaucratic and rule-bound egalitarian social structures. Furthermore, the article argues that labor should be a central domain in grappling with egalitarian possibilities.

In rural Virginia in the United States, a hub of interconnected ‘intentional communities’ (ICs) is making great strides toward egalitarian experimentations. While they come in many forms, shapes, and sizes, ICs are commonly designed around collective values that often involve shared resources and responsibilities. In these ICs, ‘egalitarianism’ is a local vernacular defined by a specific skill set that helps to make communal life work. This article explores the intense efforts invested in developing and refining that vernacular skill set—for instance, figuring out how to economically produce commodities without giving up on ideals of freedom, equality, fun, sharing, and togetherness. In the context of the Twin Oaks community, in particular, I explore how communards imagine and act in egalitarian labor, and the social tensions produced among members in the course of establishing what an ‘egalitarian person’ is, or what is considered to be ‘egalitarian’.

I argue that these topics reveal paramount values and paradoxes of leading an explicitly egalitarian life. I address a tension between bureaucratic regulations, which assure that the community will stay sustainable and viable, and a desire for solidarity, equity, sharing, and meaningful and playful labor. This highlights the social processes and negations that take place when egalitarianism is a primary focus in everyday life, and when an egalitarian life is a communal desire. The article is based on data gathered during 18 months of participant observation, spanning from when I was a visitor and a member of the community from 2015 to 2016, as well as shorter stints of fieldwork between 2017 and 2022.

How to Be Egalitarians?

Organizations that are analyzed as ‘new social movements’ (NSMs) are often conceptualized by both scholars and members to be utopian in orientation and are typically thought of as differing from classical social movements. For instance, NSMs are utopian in the sense that they are “spaces in which the good life is explored and pursued” (Sargisson 2007: 393). Henrietta Moore (1990: 14) argues from the anthropological perspective that the importance of looking to such utopian social experiments lies in understanding “the idea of willed social change.” Such an impulse for change is also what I see as the basis of trying to live a fully egalitarian life.

The ICs that I have explored are deeply connected to their heritage from the alternative community and counterculture movements that sprang up during the political turmoil of the 1960s, some of which included long-standing utopian orientations. Twin Oaks was founded in 1967 by a group inspired by Marxism and the psychologist B. F. Skinner. Its members wanted to recreate the utopian experiment that Skinner ([1948] 2005) had laid out in his book Walden Two. In it, Skinner conceived of a community where his ideals of behavioral modification would be implemented. Individuals would be encouraged to combat negative emotions, and competitiveness would be socialized away through positive reinforcement. He also drew on notions of human engineering and perfectionist movements that aimed at influencing behavior and biology toward refinement and a more ideal human nature for the nineteenth century.1 Skinner imagined a world in which people could experiment with better ways to live a life in equality and freedom. Despite being critiqued by many for its intimation of totalitarianism through the rejection of the concept of free will, the book gained interest in some milieus, and several Walden Two communities were established (Kuhlmann 2005; Skinner [1948] 2005). Although it has left behind many of the initial fundamentalist behavioral ideas, the Twin Oaks community still navigates with some of the systemic frameworks imagined by Skinner. As I will come back to, the management system that allows for leadership positions to be voluntary and to rotate is still central for running the community. Also, as was crucial for Skinner, work is never to be pursued merely for capital accumulation or wages alone, but for ascertaining full and sustainable ‘working lives’ for its members.

For the founders of Twin Oaks, Skinner's behaviorism outlined an experimental approach to organizing society. The community would separate people into various divisions of laborers, believing that some were more suited for leadership roles, and others more suited for other jobs. While the community's membership grew quickly, newer members became increasingly disillusioned with the experiment, and opted for a more egalitarian and flexible arrangement.

One of the founding members of Twin Oaks, Kat Kinkade, who has written extensively about her experiences in the movement, tended to attribute more meaning to equality and collaboration than to behaviorist social engineering: “The idea of equality; we define it as no member envying or having cause to envy another member. Twin Oaks is one big experiment … Basically, Twin Oaks is setting out to do two things. One is to create a society fit for humans to live in, the other one is to create humans fit to live in that society” (BBC 2017). Twin Oaks2 is today a self-defined intentional community that has room for about one hundred members who run several businesses together. Furthermore, they are connected to other ICs through the Federation of Egalitarian Communities and other networks. Members share most resources and live together in various buildings on around 450 acres of farmland. The community has several shared buildings for businesses and communal kitchens and eating spaces, as well as seven housing buildings where the members each have a room. The farm produces vegetables and has a chicken and dairy program. The community businesses produce seeds, hammocks, and tofu for sale, and smaller income services include indexing and book sales. In its written constitution, the community frames its egalitarian ideals around the elimination of hierarchies between people, cooperative social organization, shared property, equal access to resources, anti-classism, feminism, environmentalism, non-violence, and anti-discrimination (Twin Oaks Community 2016).

There is a constant demand for a fair amount of commitment to the community and for everyone to be given work that fits their abilities. Egalitarians need to feel that they have contributed equally to their peers and have gained fair access to resources, but they tend to protest when such fairness is demanded of them. The priority is always to uphold equality as being equally committed to the communal project and to the creation of safe and harmonious relationships while producing a form of sameness. There is also an attempt to control, downplay, and even exclude certain differences and behaviors—notably differences of status and, in some cases, political stances, toxic masculinities, competitiveness, and so forth. The community requires of the egalitarian communards to be able to ‘perform’ equality and in that way to contribute to ‘producing’ egalitarian life despite their individual differences. I will expand on this performative egalitarianism by considering the social processes that reveal the everyday contestations and negations that are involved with and have an impact on egalitarianism. The initiation processes of becoming a communard reveal the practicalities of experimentation with egalitarian forms of life.

Joining an Egalitarian Movement

Anyone who wishes to become a member of Twin Oaks must undertake a three-week visitor period. Communard novices are asked to participate in regular labor tasks, various orientation talks, social activities, interviews, and training before the community at large will vote “yes,” “no,” or “visit again” on their pending membership. The community puts great effort into assessing the potential of novices to be able to uphold their end of the commitment, and this process can lead to the exclusion of those whom they see as not fitting in. This can happen because of a myriad of reasons, for instance, outstanding debts, health problems, transgressions of rules, difficulty with labor, or lack of understanding of the social structure and social norms. Children who grow up in the community will have to go through the same procedure when they reach adulthood. Although the rejection of child members happens rarely, it can happen. To my knowledge, the most common rejections of people born in the community are based on doubts about whether they can uphold their labor quota due to difficulties they sometimes find in transitioning abruptly to full quota.

To become a member, one must commit to living intentionally with others. In the Twin Oaks community, this means that one must work as many hours as everyone else and commit to the common norms and values that the membership has agreed to. Commitments are also formalized through written contracts with regard to following the community's bylaws and its policy system. The policy system is the result of over 50 years of experimentation in the form of a digital folder (see Twin Oaks Community 2016). It states rules of conduct, shared core values, descriptions of the various organizing systems in place, and information on institutional developments that have led to the current policy. To become an egalitarian communard, as is explicitly stated in the rule book, it is important to overcome aspects of the capitalist mode of production, especially those of alienation, greed, and selfishness. For novices, a key lesson is to pay attention to the nature of work as a shared and participatory mode of life. They also have to let themselves be trained in a quite complicated bureaucratic system that keeps track of the work being done in the various operations while making sure that all members contribute equally.

It sometimes comes as a surprise to the novices that living in the community requires such a degree of commitment to hard work, discipline, and long hours. But they also come to acknowledge that it is the sharing of resources resulting from this communal labor system that allows for more equal distribution, non-hierarchical resource management, and flexible work arrangements for everyone. For the communards, what could be considered hard work or long hours is not necessarily equated with what is seen as the precarious labor of an average American work life. Community work has other qualities to it, and many types of activities, which are not perceived as labor in mainstream society, result in ‘labor credits’ at Twin Oaks. Importantly, communards may take labor hours for household chores, elderly care, mental health care for other members, or childcare. Even recreational activities, holidays, or activism on the outside of the community may count as hours taken for labor credits. For instance, tofu workers can assign a certain number of hours to do exercise out of the factory since this also prevents physical injury while working. With this arrangement, more of everyday life activities are labor creditable, thus allegedly producing more egalitarian ways of relating to labor. It also allows for flexibility and, over time, develops an innovativeness among members over what forms and modes of work to prioritize in negotiations. Making childcare, cooking, and cleaning labor creditable alleviates inequalities that are often associated with gendered divisions of labor, as is frequently pointed out in communal gatherings.

The ideal of ‘wagelessness’ in the ‘sharing economy’ (Parsons 2014) at Twin Oaks is seen as opposing the dispossession and precarity produced by the working conditions many Americans face in the outside world. Members receive only an allowance of approximately US$100 a month, and there is no room for saving money or building wealth. The movement's members often talk about “voluntary simplicity,” “voluntary poverty,” “degrowth,” and a new economic paradigm that will allow for self-adaptive learning to be more just, virtuous, and fulfilling, as well as socially, politically, and environmentally sustainable. By forgoing opportunities to accumulate financial capital, they seek to figure out if this holds the potential to disassemble asymmetries produced through capitalist precarity. Sharing economies is as a way for them of ‘doing economy’ that rests on the sharing of human and physical assets, “a different way of living that is based on connectedness and sharing rather than ownership and conspicuous consumption” (ibid.). However, this moral economy creates and reproduces particular social structures, vulnerabilities, cultural norms, and relationships that position people along what I interpret to be a spectrum of how well they navigate egalitarianism. The practicalities of solving such problematic paradoxes may also allow for further experimentation with egalitarian life forms.

The Twin Oaks community has created an extensive system to organize the actual work in addition to the meaning of the work that is being done. What is considered ‘good’ or equitable labor influences the way members construct new visions for a more egalitarian future and life, both for the group and for themselves as individuals. Exploring the everyday generative micro-politics of such labor experimentation, we can come to understand how the labor system must integrate various tensions about what it means to achieve equality, equity, and justice, framed in the egalitarian vernacular. The negotiations about what egalitarianism is—or what it should be—often happen when trying to assess problems and formulate solutions to them.

Communards often discussed what egalitarianism means to them, pointing to the basic interpretations of the concept while also pointing out paradoxes within it. Long-time communard Vance once said: “Well, it means equal access to decision making and resources.”3 After I explained my interest in the egalitarian concept in a neighboring IC, Tash, a Twin Oaks intern, told me: “If you're looking for egalitarianism, you're not going to find it there, so good luck. That place is not egalitarian!” When I asked her why, she replied that it was “dominated by the founders.”

Hierarchies that are established through charismatic leadership or social status still seem to be a factor. Living an egalitarian life in ICs comes with problems of collectively producing common understandings and norms that assure that the community does not upend because of conflicts related to disagreements over something not being ‘egalitarian enough’.

Organizing Egalitarian Labor

At Twin Oaks, labor participation relies on everyone fulfilling a quota. At the time of my fieldwork, this was around 42 to 43 hours a week. Almost all labor is credited equally: one hour of work produces one labor credit. For the most part, all members decide what work tasks they would like to have. The labor is organized into around 100 areas, ranging from cooking, cleaning, organizing recreational activities, bureaucratic work, planning, and childcare to farming or work in income-producing businesses, mainly tofu, seeds, and hammock production. The work is budgeted through a direct democratic process whereby communards vote over which areas should be prioritized within their available hourly budgets based on how many members the community has. The community has created what it believes to be an emancipatory and more just way of working, as compared to the alienation of outside workers.

The labor scheduling is an elaborate, analogue process: members initially put in a labor sheet, in which they express their preferences about what they want to do the following week, and that information is then processed by the labor scheduling team. The team will first schedule all the work in the biggest income-producing area, which is tofu, before assigning the rest. The labor sheets are then posted in a public space for revisions from the members, where they have a chance to put in any last changes. They will then be processed again and all the sheets copied into a folder called “the people finder,” which will be conveniently displayed in two different places on the farm. Individual sheets are kept so that the members can keep track throughout the week of what gets done. Each labor area is assigned a budget of hours, and managers will keep track of their work areas’ budgets and make sure that the work gets done within reasonable time frames.

It has been noted that even though intentional communities are set up to be alternatives to capitalism, they still fit well into the ideals of Protestant ethics of capitalist labor. Analyses of these ICs often pose this as an unspoken tension within community life (see Kuhlmann 2001), but I would argue that among communards this is an accepted concern in work life that does not represent an innate failure of the movement. Rather, it is an important driver of egalitarian momentum to create a viable production of goods, but without alienation and exploitation.

Approaching work and property in a new way becomes an intrinsic part of this process to alleviate harmful hierarchies. Concepts such as ‘hierarchy’ and ‘inequality’ are part of egalitarian vernacular. Value-mastering hierarchies (Bruun et al. 2011) and egalitarian values and behavior become intrinsic features of the inclusionary process. During events where value-mastering has gone awry—when there is tension or conflict because a member has transgressed egalitarian values—the inegalitarian processes become explicitly and immediately highlighted and taken up in communal discourse. These social processes are complex and show both rigidity and pragmatism as members pursue egalitarian ideals through creating or enforcing a process that aims to ensure more harmony and less tension. Solidarity can also occur between the ‘perpetrator’ and the community when trying to find ways of cooperating in order to solve the issues, or in how the community at large responds. During fieldwork in 2016, this problematic was highlighted by recent developments inside the community and in society at large, especially due to increased societal tensions around feminism and race. These tensions seeped into everyday life and work and highlighted the need for further experimentation.

At this point the community was again going through a slump in membership and was struggling to keep up the production of tofu as not enough members would sign up for shifts. Therefore, the labor scheduling team had recently decided to cut some production days to avoid putting too much strain on the communards, some of whom had taken on too much of this type of labor and were getting burned out. In my opinion, this contributed to a sense of urgency to delve deeper into experimentation with ways of improving the labor system and increasing the community's economic resilience without relying on tofu production. Some members felt discouraged and wanted to find ways of adapting to a smaller income for the community and perhaps lowering labor quotas. When talking about her life, my interlocutor Freya discussed the kinds of work she was involved with and what it meant for her to work in a community where almost everything is shared: “Sometimes I think we need to move completely away from, say, like factory work. It feels too oppressive to work in a factory while we are trying to create a real alternative. I don't want to work in there, a lot of people don't. It's loud and hard!”

Tofu production had been a business at Twin Oaks for many years. After the community lost a bigger contract for hammock production, it needed to quickly create revenue to support its members. Tofu was seen as what communards could deem a ‘righteous livelihood’, as it would involve labor that would be more in line with their ideology or ethics. The business could produce an alternative protein to meat with locally sourced soy. While some members were more skeptical of these developments, the community over time built a steady and solid income from tofu, tempeh, and soysage products. However, the strain of running a factory is often a big worry for the community.

The neoliberal workings of the corporatization of the state that now shape the precarity of the lives of so many workers in America affected many members deeply. They had a burning desire to work in ways that were different from what they felt were oppressive conditions ‘in the mainstream’. Many who came to the community had been traumatized through work—having been badly treated or pushed to treat others badly—or had suffered various forms of precarity. Living in the community introduced them to new ways of organizing and socializing through labor, engaging in what they believe is a more ethical economic outcome.

Egalitarian Forms of Labor

In the fall of 2016, the murmurs around the dinner tables at Twin Oaks about recent conflicts surrounding the tofu factory were frequent. There were many reasons why people did not want to work with tofu. Some members were concerned with the environmental impact that the tofu production had, requiring a high amount of electricity and water and producing a lot of plastic waste. A few were concerned that soy, the main ingredient in tofu, was not healthy enough due to its high estrogen content and that the soy-based produce, like tofu or tempeh, would affect the buyers’ health. A bigger tension was the fear that the work was so undesirable and so hard that it had already resulted in workers suffering from ‘tofu burnout’ or ‘tofu fatigue’, or even permanent damage to their bodies. At Twin Oaks these tensions also reflected concrete and long-standing problems that the community faced after financially investing in a factory extension that proved to be very difficult to implement. Despite seven years of investment of resources, the extension was still not fully functioning. A dedicated group believed that if the community at large committed to the extension and devoted the time needed, they could have it up and running soon. This would make it possible to produce more tofu faster and would also relieve a lot of the physical burden of tofu production.

Demeter, a member who had been at Twin Oaks for four years, had joined the community to pursue what she believed was a life more in line with her ideals. Her Jewish heritage had taken her to a kibbutz in Israel where she got a sense of what it would be like to live cooperatively with others: rather than feeling inadequate as she had in the mainstream, she felt supported there. She eventually found out about Twin Oaks while at a meditation retreat in upstate New York and decided to try it.

One day, when Demeter was doing a very stressful cooking shift, making dinner for the whole community, I had to interrupt her to ask for help with the problematic tofu packager, which is infamous for its technical difficulties at Twin Oaks. Demeter was calm and in a good mood. I was at that point a ‘packing honcho’, the person in charge of the tofu packing process. This job involves directing helpers to cut tofu into the correct size, weighing it, putting it in place into the plastic molds in the machine, taking care of the setup of the machine, and checking the packages for damage, air, and contamination. It also entails putting the packed tofu into the big water pasteurizer, lifting it over to the chiller, and then rechecking the seals of the packages for damage. Tofu shifts could end up being quite intensive, with a lot of uncomfortable lifting, and one is in constant danger of getting burns from the pasteurizer, hot water, or hot equipment.

The packager had started blowing extra air into the packets of tofu, as well as refusing to align the front label correctly, so all the tofu I was packing needed to be repacked. After some minutes of myself and Demeter trying to figure out what was wrong, Demeter concluded:

I see that the arm isn't going up as high as it should, it might need some oil, but the bottom film is also messed up … I think that, well, the universe is just trying to tell us something with this. Like, this isn't a good or, like, “right” livelihood. I think we should start cutting production to two days a week or something, it's just not worth this … Like how much time and stress does this cause us? Digby was in here the other day crying for hours because the packager fucked their whole schedule up—and they still needed to finish and then go milk the cows afterward.

Demeter felt that it was partly because we were experiencing a huge flow of new members coming in who still needed to be trained properly, but also that if the communards did not show more interest in the work, the “community should listen.” Tofu work was uncomfortable and hard for people to execute. The hammock and seeds businesses were now seen as more ‘righteous’, or as a more ethically sound way of making a living.

Acorn, a sister community, had started a seed business years ago, and Twin Oaks was getting more involved with this work. Producing organic non-GMO seeds, which would feed generations to come with carefully manufactured plants that were disease resistant, was often communicated as an investment in the future, not only a way for Twin Oaks to make money. Seeds were also connected to the eco-feminism and even the spiritual aspects of the worship of nature—both ideational orientations central to many members on the farm. Moreover, seed production was seen to ensure greater livability on the land, as the seeds are tested and cultivated for various geographical needs. This was work that people “put love into,” as Demeter said.

Demeter and I decided to put some of the ready-cut tofu into barrels of water to be packed the next day, knowing that it would take a while to fix the problem. While we were working, we put on the tofu work playlist one of the communards had made, mostly with high-tempo house music. We got the work done in 20 minutes, taking some time to dance around with the other people on the shift. The workers in the factory laughed at the member Sparkles who was on top of the pasteurizer twerking as the rest jumbled around getting the tofu curdled and pressed while dancing along.

This type of play often occurs during hard work in the community, producing moments of ‘togetherness’ and fun. It clearly shows that members are pulled toward finding a multifaceted relationship with work that does not just reinforce an economic ethic of production.

Play and Work

This jumbled scene of activity due to unforeseen events is not an uncommon affair at Twin Oaks. It shows us some of the elements of solidarity and the forms of movement that are created when the work scene is meant to function without explicit inequalities. Clearly, the play and comedy alleviate tensions and stress, and they can also allow members to work more efficiently, for instance, to the rhythm of high-tempo music. Play and fun are often part of the social reality that comes into existence while working together, and often we see performances where play has a serious connotation, such as when members comment on the discomforts of work.

Joining a community demonstrates a process where the limits of egalitarian participation are extrapolated and mediated by the communards, and sometimes forms of solidarity take the shape of communitas—moments of anti-structure and ‘flow’, as portrayed by Victor Turner (1982) in his theory of liminality. Turner (1969: 307) argued that the desire for liminality or more permanent liminal anti-structure and communitas was a motivating factor for the surge of similar alternative movements in the 1960s. Understanding the egalitarian dynamics of moving in and out of communitas is in my view pivotal to understanding how value and meaning are created in the Twin Oaks experiment. According to Turner, ecstatic communitas is always in friction with various forms of pressure to the social body, and provides a release for these tensions. Enjoyment and excitement in communal work have some aspects of such a liminal space, which is necessary for maintaining the correct boundaries and fulfilling the needs of the community. Liminal communitas can, for instance, be motivated by actively engaging in egalitarian ‘play-work’ that promotes new ways of working, or flow can emerge when events that require immediate problem solving happen, as in the example above. In Turner's framework, ‘play’ can be understood as a negotiation between subjective and objective reality where experience and values are in a continuous flux (Csikszentmihalyi 1981). In anthropology, play has been seen in relation to the status of non-work, as in the lack of productivity (Malaby 2009). However, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1997: 110), who was highly influential on Turner's theories of ‘flow’, draws attention to the creative process of work, where people have a sense of “almost automatic, effortless, yet highly focused states of consciousness.” Turner (1982: 59, 85) argues that this can be experienced like liminal occasions when subjects, through communitas and the togetherness of rites, get to experience a form of social leveling, solidarity, empathy, or social flow. We can add, then, that play in work also highlights egalitarian values.

Play-work is one way to denaturalize the hardships of labor, to reframe it by making fun of it, to make it less serious and pressing. In play-work, the members of the community instead look toward each other to emphasize the value and idiosyncrasies of each person in the work crew. Communards tend to seek out such liminal moments in the workday, which create breaks from exhaustion and release from the pressure of the quotas. This also becomes essential to upholding the values of community egalitarianism.

Dancing and music are often a part of the playfulness introduced to many work areas, and games are invented around gardening and production. Getting-to-know-you games, or what they call “transparency” tool games, are used for a kind of ritualized socialization where members cultivate fun, connectedness, shared desires, and values. Transparency tools are used to delve into people's personal histories, to process emotions, and to build trust and understanding. The group can do a round where members start a conversation by filling in a sentence, such as “if you really knew me, you would know ….” Another game, “step into the circle,” can be used to find common ground. Members will stand in a circle and take a step forward if they resonate with a statement, for example, “step into the circle if you have been arrested during a protest.” Afterward, members will follow up with questions and storytelling. Games can be a way to desire the Other in terms of taking time to appreciate fellow members, but also a way to express possible other worlds and to commence a reconstruction of reality through the temporary reality of the game (see Deleuze and Guattari 2015: 411–412). This destabilization of the separation between work and leisure lets communards demonstrate their creativity (Goggin 2011) and find ways of relating to work and one another in that creative space.

Having fun on shifts was in some areas of the farm an accepted facet of the desire for social connectedness and leveling during work, and it allowed for making mundane repetitive tasks more bearable. However, as communards also phrase it, play or enjoyment can conflict with what needs to get done. At this time, the community was also planning to downsize the garden exponentially for the next season and struggled to get all the work done; the fewer than normal hands-on-deck affected not only tofu production. Play during work could in these times be frowned upon. For instance, if during a garden shift too much time and resources are spent on games, the garden manager will tell people to let go of the fun and work faster. Play here seems to hold an intrinsic function with high egalitarian stakes, but at the same time, when the community is pressed, too much play or a leisurely or slack attitude toward work—or even the labor system itself—will be heavily reprimanded. For example, if members do not regularly hand in their labor sheets for inspection and work delegation, it is a serious break of rules and will be sanctioned.

Figure 1:
Figure 1:

Playing the word-guessing game ‘contact’ while planting seedlings. Photograph © Mari Hanssen Korsbrekke

Citation: Social Analysis 66, 3; 10.3167/sa.2022.660302

Assessing the Egalitarian: Conflict and Ritual in the Community

As I have emphasized above, egalitarianism in Twin Oaks is not just a social value system, but should be understood as a processual skill set fit for creating a good communal life. Conflicts within the community are central for that process as they reveal a need to reassess the community's success in accomplishing egalitarianism and balancing an individual's pursuit of happiness in work against the bureaucratic formation and actual needs of the group. Either the communards develop more egalitarian subjectivity and the knowledge and skills to work well with others, or they risk failing as egalitarians.

By exploring these tensions, we can see how those new forms of anxieties surrounding labor dominate the members who come to the community. While sometimes the meaning of work is transformed into what communards reference as a “good,” “righteous,” or “right livelihood,” members will also argue that despite the effort of making all work equally valued, the community still produces a form of a class system in some cases. This class system is derived from certain divisions that happen over time in different labor areas. For instance, some members would argue that they perceive a form of alienation or exploitation of certain workers who pick high-intensity labor areas, or those who cannot perform as well as others and end up not contributing an equal amount of labor. They argue that egalitarian politics of redistribution should instead shape new relationships to production—namely, relationships that foster solidarity, co-ownership, co-stewardship, equality, and non-exploitative leadership. Initiaives such as income sharing (pooling the income of members into the collective), play, and co-ownership can be seen as bringing about that cohesion.

In 2016 a member had gone through a ‘feedback’, a communal evaluation practice with ritualistic elements. A form of organized sharing circle that takes place out in the open, a feedback allows individuals to address the problems at hand before the community discusses its thoughts and recommendations. The members receiving the feedback can choose to speak for themselves or have an advocate speak for them. The member in question, Wolf, had struggled to meet the required labor quota of 43 hours a week and had been through several rounds of committing to different ‘labor contracts’. These are often pre-emptive contracts that allow members to gradually ‘pay back’ the labor that they had not been able to fulfill. When members still do not make up for the lost labor credits, they will often be asked to go through a feedback. Wolf had struggled for a long time to make quota. He was on the brink of being excluded because he was not able to fulfill his duties as a member of an egalitarian community.

During the feedback, many members communicated that they did not want to live with someone who could not do his fair share of the work and that the community was especially pressed in those days and did not have many resources to support Wolf or the kind of problematics that affected the situation. Others were saddened that the community could not offer support to members going through difficult periods, and pointed to the communal policy that states “each to Co's ability.” The expression ‘Co’ is used in the community colloquially and in its co-produced policy to denote either ‘communard’ or a non-binary person. Much time and effort are put into the process of feedbacks and contract processes. Hours of meetings, negotiations, planning, and follow-up efforts are required to see if members are fulfilling the criteria set in their contracts. The feedbacks can be painful and tumultuous. Events like these highlight tensions, but they also allow for the community to come together to resolve problems. Conflict during these liminal phases can happen. Comparatively, Megan Havard (2018) studies processes where pilgrims along the Camino de Santiago experience communitas and conflict simultaneously during the liminoid phases of the ritual. Havard explains that moments of conflict—due to, for example, differences in the group, inconsiderate behavior, or competitiveness—are temporary disruptions of communitas. This calls for a nuanced view on communitas, as it allows for moments of conflict that would otherwise be dividing, which in these spaces can lead to personal growth or resolution. This happens similarly during feedbacks at Twin Oaks. These are stressful periods where people can renavigate their common values, try to find new solutions, or point to their failures or hypocrisies and thus work through the issues. Differences are sought to be overcome in order to achieve greater understanding and viable solutions.

All these procedures connected to conflict resolution and negotiations over the meaning of egalitarianism in the feedback are highly bureaucratic. It is performed in the same way every time, with formal processes impacting it before, during, and after. It is in this sense that I perceive the feedback to be a ritual for the community. The event focuses attention on ambiguities within the collective exploration of what living together should entail in egalitarian ways, and may also lead to greater understanding between members of the problematics that affect the situation. Liminal qualities of the ritual are dedicated to rehearsing—through speech—practical issues of the community that are not only, for instance, solely ‘joyous’. It can involve togetherness expressed through distress and pain, similarly to how Edith Turner (2012) has argued that communitas and flow can also appear among those in distress, such as refugees. During a feedback, committee members may express anger and pain, but also care and love for the member receiving it. This is an opportunity for communards to hear how much people care about them and how they wish to resolve the conflict, generating moments of emotional release and renewed togetherness. If feedbacks are successful, members reintegrate and renew their commitments to the community. At other times, the disruption of communitas may prove too difficult to overcome.

Wolf himself constantly philosophized over commitment and community. He believed that there were members and structures within the Twin Oaks community that were too oppressive. The first time I met him, we were all in a pensive mood after yet another heated conflict based on disputes between white males and feminist politics. “Rules,” he said, “are the first steps toward oppression.” He felt that signing a contract would be a form of solidifying the lack of trust in this relationship. While smoking in a small communal smoking shack in the evening, he explained to a group of us that his verbal communication of his intentions of improvement, his cooperation with the “Care Team,” and his willingness to go to the doctor should be enough to show that he wanted to change for the better, and that a contract was unnecessary. He also did not agree to some of the terms laid out in the contract and felt like he might not be able to work as much as the community had set out for him. The intention behind the contracts, however, is to allow for the community to experiment with ways of correcting behavior by tailoring solutions to the problem. When ICs safeguard certain egalitarian forms, they choose to seek a greater form of sameness highlighted through commitment and consent from individuals to correct their behavior. For some individuals this can be experienced as ‘too egalitarian’, and they are not able to perform within that framework. The exclusionary effect of egalitarianism is highlighted in cases like these. Wolf was not able to reintegrate and left soon after. In these cases, the liminoid space fails to create the preferred outcome. If the members initially wanted an exclusion, they should have instead called for an expulsion process, which happens on occasion, but rarely.

One of the members who had spoken out for Wolf about changing the labor system had ended up in a feedback process himself over issues surrounding his own labor. Luke had not been handing in his labor sheets to collect his hours in the labor balance budget. It became an issue of principle for Luke not to go along with the quota system. He thought it should be obvious and plain for all to see that he was working and fulfilling his duties. This was clear to everyone since he was a manager. Luke had previously suggested changes to the labor system that would ensure greater solidarity with members, namely, by making others’ surplus labor quota available for those in need. He also believed that this conflict was related to certain hierarchical tendencies to control him, and he especially emphasized his identity as a black man. He eventually received a feedback due to his failure to hand in his labor sheets and later left for a BIPOC-only community farm. The departures of Wolf and Luke show the tensions within egalitarian life, as they highlight the compromises in the processes generated to produce egalitarian life. These members failed to be egalitarians, and the community was in a sense both too egalitarian and not egalitarian enough to reintegrate them. When egalitarianism is at stake, there are limits to the force of a community's playfulness and togetherness.

When visiting Twin Oaks again in the spring of 2022, I saw that the community had gone through significant changes, some of which were due to lockdowns and COVID-19 restrictions that stayed in place longer than those for the general public. The community had lost many members, and membership turnover was higher than when I had last visited in 2018. Momentum within tofu work was lost, production was down, and Twin Oaks was amping up its other businesses, like seed production for a neighboring community's business. The community had chosen to cut tofu production to ensure that the members left on the work did not burn out, and it had proven itself to be quite resilient through crisis by experimenting with ways of negotiating solutions on how to keep the community running.

Conclusion

The cases of Demeter, Wolf, and Luke demonstrate the balance that needs to be achieved in the community. They highlight tensions and frictions within what one may refer to as the ‘Twin Oaks way’ of becoming an egalitarian communard. Egalitarian negotiations are here concerned with the degree and form of freedom and control, and the policing and self-policing that the community should demand. As I have noted, joining a community demonstrates a process where the limits of egalitarian participation are extrapolated and mediated by the communards, sometimes leading to forms of solidarity and communitas as liminal moments of anti-structure and ‘flow’ (V. Turner 1982). Understanding the pull toward creating exceptional moments in social processes is pivotal to understanding how value and meaning correlate to the experiment. The community creates a structure of control that is meant to guide individuals back into its set criteria for being egalitarian, thus underlining how certain desires create friction and tensions within egalitarianism. Some members argue that despite the effort of making all work equally valued, the community still produces a form of a class system in some instances, while in others the meaning of work is transformed into what they reference as ‘morally righteous’ ways of working.

In a way, we see here two different methods of egalitarian negotiations—one that is based on equal contribution, solidarity between workers, and resource requirements, and the other centered in a need for fulfillment and a sense of moral equilibrium. The labor contracts are also a way of experimenting with solutions, as is the flexibility of the direct democratic process of voting over resources and budgeting. When community members turn to play during work or experience communitas during feedbacks, they are exhibiting different modes of egalitarian life negotiations and the steps it takes to create meaningful and just labor.

I have come to consider how these negotiations demonstrate that communards develop their own skill sets for egalitarian problem solving with little resources available. It is an approach to governance that redefines production into modes of cooperation, where wages, products, and social relationships are shared for a better future constitution of work. The innovation within the flexible work system lies in the momentum of discussion where some of the members start to collaborate around creating new forms of organization. This system fosters ownership, solidarity, and resilience through economic and organizational transformation. It shows egalitarian life as a transitory open-ended potential, full of promises and the desire to overcome the paradoxes and contradictions within it.

Acknowledgments

I would like to thank Knut Rio, Bjørn Enge Bertelsen, and Ragnhild Freng Dale for their critical comments, which contributed to improving this article. My gratitude also goes to the Twin Oaks community for continuous collaboration. This article builds on research from the project “Egalitarianism: Forms, Processes, Comparisons,” and was made possible through funding from Western Norway Research Institute.

Notes

1

The ‘human perfectionist movement’ is an umbrella notion for various social experiments that sought to bring about a new time, a new human, or ‘Heaven on Earth’ (Kirkbride 2006).

2

The IC exists on “the traditional territory of the Monacan and Mannahoac peoples (now merged as the Monacan Indian Nation), known to its inhabitants as Amai Amañuhkañ (‘The Country of the People of the Land’).” See https://www.twinoaks.org/about-twinoaks-community/welcome.

3

All interlocutors’ names have been anonymized.

References

  • BBC. 2017. “In Search of the Dream—Episode 2: Build It and They will Come.” BBC Four Utopia Series, 15 August. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b090w6y3.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bruun, Maja Hojer, Gry Skrædderdal Jakobsen, and Stine Krøijer. 2011. “Introduction: The Concern for Sociality—Practicing Equality and Hierarchy in Denmark.” Social Analysis 55 (2): 119. https://doi.org/10.3167/sa.2011.550201.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Csikszentmihalyi, Mihalyi. 1981. “Some Paradoxes in the Definition of Play.” Play as Context: 1979 Proceedings of the Association for the Anthropological Study of Play, ed. Alyce Taylor Cheska, 1425. West Point, NY: Leisure Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Csikszentmihalyi, Mihalyi. 1997. Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery of Invention. New York: HarperCollins.

  • Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. 2015. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Brian Massumi. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Goggin, Joyce. 2011. “Playbour, Farming and Leisure.” Ephemera: Theory and Politics in Organization 11 (4): 356368. https://ephemerajournal.org/sites/default/files/11-4goggin.pdf.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Havard, Megan E. 2018. “When Brother Becomes Other: Communitas and Conflict along the Camino de Santiago.” International Journal of Religious Tourism and Pilgrimage 6 (2): 8997. https://arrow.tudublin.ie/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1216&context=ijrtp.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kirkbride, Robin. 2006. “Utopian Religions in America: The Shakers, the Oneida Perfectionists and the Mormons, an Issue of Survival.” Senior Honors Theses and Projects 55. https://commons.emich.edu/honors/55.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kuhlmann, Hilke. 2001. “The Illusion of Permanence: Work Motivation and Membership Turnover at Twin Oaks Community.” In The Philosophy of Utopia, ed. Barbara Goodwin, 157171. London: Routledge.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kuhlmann, Hilke. 2005. Living ‘Walden Two’: B. F. Skinner's Behaviorist Utopia and Experimental Communities. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Malaby, Thomas M. 2009. “Anthropology and Play: The Contours of Playful Experience.” New Literary History 40 (1): 205218. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20533141.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Moore, H. L. 1990. “‘Visions of the Good Life’: Anthropology and the Study of Utopia.” Cambridge Journal of Anthropology 14 (3): 1333. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23817289.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Parsons, Adam. 2014. “The Sharing Economy: A Short Introduction to Its Political Evolution.” openDemocracy, 5 March. https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/transformation/sharing-economy-short-introduction-to-its-political-evolution/.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Sargisson, Lucy. 2007. “Strange Places: Estrangement, Utopianism, and Intentional Communities.” Utopian Studies 18 (3): 393424. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20719884.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Skinner, B. F. (1948) 2005. Walden Two. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing.

  • Turner, Edith. 2012. Communitas: The Anthropology of Collective Joy. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

  • Turner, Victor. 1969. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

  • Turner, Victor. 1982. “Liminal to Liminoid, in Play, Flow, and Ritual: An Essay in Comparative Symbology.” In From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play, 2060. New York: Performing Arts Journal Publications.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Twin Oaks Community. 2016. “Digital Twin Oaks Policies.” https://www.twinoaks.org/policies.

Contributor Notes

Mari Hanssen Korsbrekke is a Senior Researcher at Western Norway Research Institute and obtained her PhD from the University of Bergen. Her interests include utopian politics, governance and social movements particularly with regard to egalitarian ideologies, sustainability problematics, natural disasters, and climate change transformation in Norway, Poland, and the United States. A recent co-written publication is titled “Advancements of Sustainable Development Goals in Co-production for Climate Change Adaptation Research” (Climate Risk Management, 2022). E-mail: mhk@vestforsk.no

  • Collapse
  • Expand

Social Analysis

The International Journal of Anthropology

  • Figure 1:

    Playing the word-guessing game ‘contact’ while planting seedlings. Photograph © Mari Hanssen Korsbrekke

  • BBC. 2017. “In Search of the Dream—Episode 2: Build It and They will Come.” BBC Four Utopia Series, 15 August. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b090w6y3.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bruun, Maja Hojer, Gry Skrædderdal Jakobsen, and Stine Krøijer. 2011. “Introduction: The Concern for Sociality—Practicing Equality and Hierarchy in Denmark.” Social Analysis 55 (2): 119. https://doi.org/10.3167/sa.2011.550201.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Csikszentmihalyi, Mihalyi. 1981. “Some Paradoxes in the Definition of Play.” Play as Context: 1979 Proceedings of the Association for the Anthropological Study of Play, ed. Alyce Taylor Cheska, 1425. West Point, NY: Leisure Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Csikszentmihalyi, Mihalyi. 1997. Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery of Invention. New York: HarperCollins.

  • Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. 2015. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Brian Massumi. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Goggin, Joyce. 2011. “Playbour, Farming and Leisure.” Ephemera: Theory and Politics in Organization 11 (4): 356368. https://ephemerajournal.org/sites/default/files/11-4goggin.pdf.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Havard, Megan E. 2018. “When Brother Becomes Other: Communitas and Conflict along the Camino de Santiago.” International Journal of Religious Tourism and Pilgrimage 6 (2): 8997. https://arrow.tudublin.ie/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1216&context=ijrtp.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kirkbride, Robin. 2006. “Utopian Religions in America: The Shakers, the Oneida Perfectionists and the Mormons, an Issue of Survival.” Senior Honors Theses and Projects 55. https://commons.emich.edu/honors/55.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kuhlmann, Hilke. 2001. “The Illusion of Permanence: Work Motivation and Membership Turnover at Twin Oaks Community.” In The Philosophy of Utopia, ed. Barbara Goodwin, 157171. London: Routledge.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kuhlmann, Hilke. 2005. Living ‘Walden Two’: B. F. Skinner's Behaviorist Utopia and Experimental Communities. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Malaby, Thomas M. 2009. “Anthropology and Play: The Contours of Playful Experience.” New Literary History 40 (1): 205218. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20533141.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Moore, H. L. 1990. “‘Visions of the Good Life’: Anthropology and the Study of Utopia.” Cambridge Journal of Anthropology 14 (3): 1333. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23817289.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Parsons, Adam. 2014. “The Sharing Economy: A Short Introduction to Its Political Evolution.” openDemocracy, 5 March. https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/transformation/sharing-economy-short-introduction-to-its-political-evolution/.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Sargisson, Lucy. 2007. “Strange Places: Estrangement, Utopianism, and Intentional Communities.” Utopian Studies 18 (3): 393424. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20719884.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Skinner, B. F. (1948) 2005. Walden Two. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing.

  • Turner, Edith. 2012. Communitas: The Anthropology of Collective Joy. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

  • Turner, Victor. 1969. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

  • Turner, Victor. 1982. “Liminal to Liminoid, in Play, Flow, and Ritual: An Essay in Comparative Symbology.” In From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play, 2060. New York: Performing Arts Journal Publications.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Twin Oaks Community. 2016. “Digital Twin Oaks Policies.” https://www.twinoaks.org/policies.

Metrics

All Time Past Year Past 30 Days
Abstract Views 0 0 0
Full Text Views 715 429 31
PDF Downloads 393 201 9