Fifty Years of Utopian Intentioneering at Twin Oaks Community

A. Allen Butcher • The School of Intentioneering • Denver, Colorado • June, 2017 http://www.Intentioneers.net4thWorld@consultant.com • The Intenioneer’s Bible

Revised and Expanded: July 2, 2017

Portions of this article were previously published by the author in the 2016 book,
The Intentioneers’ Bible: Interwoven Stories of the Parallel Cultures of Plenty and Scarcity, currently available only as an ebook on Amazon.com

Portions of this article have been subsequently reprinted in an article by the same title in the Fall 2017 issue number 176 of “Communities: Life in Cooperative Culture.”

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With fifty years of cultural experimentation at Twin Oaks Community being celebrated this year, this is a good time to review what has been learned in the Twin Oaks experience of utopian “intentioneering.” While others may come up with additional lessons learned, this writing focuses upon six issues: first, that living in the Twin Oaks’ version of utopia is thought by some to be “too easy;” second, that the optimum population of such communities is so far about 100 adults; third, that a society that does not use money internally is achievable via a labor-credit system; fourth, that in an egalitarian time-based economy domestic labor or “women’s work” can be valued equally with all other labor or “men’s work” including income-generating labor; fifth, that ideological blueprints often conflict with practicality, requiring participatory governance and even dissent and social anarchy to create change; and sixth, that communal childcare in which parents give responsibility for their children to a group of parents and other experienced caregivers does not work, showing the limit of communalism, and resulting in the focus upon collective childcare and the need for the provision of communal “parentcare” instead.

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Twin Oaks was begun as an “experimental community” in central Virginia in 1967. After the community’s first five years Kathleen Kinkade, one of the co-founders, published a book about Twin Oaks titled, A Walden Two Experiment, in which she wrote on the first page that, “we are trying to make a new and better society.” Fifty years on it is time to evaluate the Twin Oaks experiment. (Kinkade, 1972, p. 1)

Kat and others used as a blueprint for the design of Twin Oaks Community the utopian novel Walden Two, published in 1948 by the Harvard psychologist B. F. Skinner, in which the author applied his ideas about behavioral science to human society. By the 1960s the book was selling at the rate of up to a quarter-million copies a year! (Altus & Morris, p. 268)

Deborah Altus and Edward Morris explain the origins of B. F. Skinner’s idea of applying behavioral science to utopian fiction in their article titled, “B. F. Skinner’s Utopian Vision: Behind and Beyond Walden Two,” published in a 2004 issue of  Contemporary Justice Review. Altus and Morris begin the story by relating a dinner conversation between Skinner and a friend during the spring of 1945. The friend’s son-in-law was returning from military service at the end of World War II and,
“Skinner mused about what young people would do when the war ended.” (Altus & Morris, p. 267)

“What a shame,” Skinner said, “that they would abandon their crusading spirit and come back only to fall into the old lockstep American life—getting a job, marrying, renting an apartment, making a down payment on a car, having a child or two.” When asked what they should do instead, he answered: “They should experiment; they should explore new ways of living, as people had done in the communities of the nineteenth century. … Young people today might have better luck. They could build a culture that would come closer to satisfying human needs than the American way of life.” (B. F. Skinner, 1979, p. 292, quoted in Altus & Morris, pp. 267-8)

As it turned out, it was not so much the “Greatest Generation” that took on communitarian social change work, it was their children in the “Baby Boom Generation,” and those who have followed, while B. F. Skinner was only one of many influences inspiring them.

A number of influences had led Skinner to his utopian idea. He had read about historic American communal societies, including the Shakers and the Oneida Community, he was particularly impressed with the fictional non-monetary economic system that Edward Bellamy had written into his 1888 utopian novel Looking Backward: 2000-1887, and he thought about the dissatisfactions that people experienced in the dominant American culture. (Altus & Morris, p. 268)

“I had seen my wife and her friends struggling to save themselves from domesticity, wincing as they printed ‘housewife’ in those blanks asking for occupation. Our older daughter had just finished first grade, and there is nothing like a first child’s first year in school to turn one’s thoughts to education.” … [Skinner’s] dinner companion insisted that he write down his ideas … [for] his ‘book about an experimental community’.” (B. F. Skinner, 1976, p. v, and 1979, p. 295, quoted in Altus & Morris, p. 268)

In the preface to the 1969 edition of Walden Two Skinner explained why he named his utopian fiction after Henry David Thoreau’s 1854 book, Walden: Or Life in the Woods. He stated that there were five principles that his and Thoreau’s book had in common, being: 1. No way of life is inevitable. Examine your own carefully; 2. If you do not like it, change it; 3. But do not try to change it through political action. Even if you succeed in gaining power, you will not likely be able to use it any more wisely than your predecessors; 4. Ask only to be left alone to solve your problems in your own way; and 5. Simplify your needs. Lean how to be happy with fewer possessions. (Skinner, 1969, p. v, quoted in Altus & Morris, p. 269)

In the preface to the 1976 edition of  Walden Two B. F. Skinner explained his concern about human civilization in a world threatened by potential nuclear war, environmental, and other catastrophes. “[E]ither we do nothing and allow a miserable and probably catastrophic future to overtake us, or we use our knowledge about human behavior to create a social environment in which we shall live productive and creative lives and do so without jeopardizing the chances that those who follow us will be able to do the same. Something like a Walden Two would not be a bad start.” (B. F. Skinner, 1976, p. xvi, quoted in Altus & Morris, p. 269)

The behavioral psychologists Deborah Altus at Washburn University, Topeka, Kansas, and Edward Morris at the University of Kansas, Lawrence, explain that, “Skinner’s premises … were no more than naturalism applied to human affairs. Naturalism is the working assumption that behavior is part of nature, and thus is lawful and orderly in its own right, a function of historical and current, environmental and biological, contingencies and contexts. Naturalism is not controversial in science—it works. It is a useful premise. Skinner’s extension of it to social justice and human wellbeing was a culmination of the Enlightenment philosophy that flowed from the Scientific Revolution. … Naturalism, though, should not be mistaken as Skinner’s utopian vision. His vision was not an end or an ism, but a means for arriving at effective premises—empirically.” (Altus & Morris, pp. 270-1)

If human behavior is subject to laws of nature which can be recognized, then it ought to be possible to identify some of those laws, although no one, Skinner, Altus, nor anyone else, has ever listed them as far as is known by this author, perhaps because they believe that each group of people must identify them “empirically” from their own experience. Yet “laws of nature” ought to hold for everyone, like gravity for example, so it should be possible to deduce and explain what the members of Twin Oaks Community have learned about communalism from our fifty years of experience with intentioneering an alternative, countercultural, parallel society to that of the mainstream, dominant culture. Following are six suggestions for the communal lessons discovered and lived in Twin Oaks’ behavioral experiment.

Utopia is Too Easy!

In 1994 Kat Kinkade (now printing the short version of her name) titled her second book about Twin Oaks, Is It Utopia Yet? An Insider’s View of Twin Oaks Community In Its 26th Year. Kat answers in her book the rhetorical question she used in her title by saying on her last page, “We’re working on it.” Yet one good method for determining whether Twin Oaks or any communal society could be called “utopia” is whether people consider that living in the community is substantially easier than living in the outside, dominant culture. The term “utopia” was created by Thomas More for his 1516 utopian fiction titled Utopia, meaning either no place or good place, and since Twin Oaks is obviously a place, and it can certainly be called a good place, then the question is whether Twin Oaks can be considered an improvement upon the dominant culture! As it turns out, various members, some former and perhaps some current members, have said that living at Twin Oaks is “too easy!”

The present author is one of those people who felt that living at Twin Oaks was too easy, since in the Twin Oaks version of utopia one always has: at least two meals provided every day in the dining hall; a warm, private room in which one can decide whether to sleep alone or to invite a friend, since marriage has none of its economic or security attributes in a non-violent, egalitarian, communal culture; a system available for managing each members’ voluntary participation in community decision-making; a sense of security since violence is not tolerated and everyone looks out for others; a beautiful natural environment to enjoy; equal access to all the clothes, toys, instruments, tools, vehicles, and other assets of the community; interesting work and skills to learn; clearly defined ways for everyone to contribute to the good of all while accumulating personal vacation time; and interesting people to meet, constantly coming from and going to other communities and places all over the world, along with occasional opportunities for oneself to travel to such places.

As long as one engages in the labor system and respects the behavior code along with all other members, a person has nothing to worry about: no or minimal use of the outside-world’s monetary system, no competition, and no oppression of any kind. Envy is minimized when everyone has the same access to goods and services, as well as opportunities for acquiring things for personal or unique needs and wants. And there is usually always someone else who is willing to volunteer to deal with the serious, onerous problems that come along. If such a life sounds too easy, then that is an indication that the reader has found utopia! Or at least as Kat has written, Twin Oaks and its related communities create over time successive “approximations of utopia.” (citation needed)

While there are always many issues, controversies, and conflicts roiling the community, a person does not have to pay attention to any of that if one wishes to avoid the stress, although each member does have to live by all community agreements, including the processes for decision-making, the property code, behavior code, and other aspects of the community’s formal and informal social contract.

What is hard is leaving communal culture. The longer a person stays in communal society the more they lose contact with their former life in the outside, and the harder it is to get reestablished in it. If they drop out of college to join community, going back to school can be very difficult, unless as former Twin Oaks member Colleen Higgins once commented, one is of the opinion that college is wasted on 20-somethings, while mature students can get more out of it. I found that to be the case, myself. Before community I had no interest in economics or politics and dropped out of college to learn alternative culture in a rural commune. After community I earned degrees in business and political science as I had learned how important these are in the design of society and culture, both the mainstream and the parallel cultures.

The hardest part for some former members in the outside world can be getting beyond the feeling that they are a pretender, or a stranger in a strange land, being in it yet never feeling that they want to do all that it takes to be a complete part of it. For some people that sentiment is why they joined community in the first place, and often when they leave community the feeling is stronger, and it never goes away. That is why people often write sentimentally about their time in community, always wanting to reconnect with others who share the experience. This is felt not only among communitarian refugees, yet also among people in the former Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. An East German woman once commented on TV that the transition from an economy where everyone was part of the same effort to everyone being in the system for themselves was hard to make. Indigenous people have always had, and will always have, that problem when they move away from tribal areas, or their tribe dissolves or is destroyed.

Because of this commonality between intentioneers (i.e., communitarians) and indigenous tribal peoples I teach via the “School of Intentioneering” that the political-economic concept of the “Fourth World” includes both indigenous tribal cultures and intentional communities, among other decentralized, self-reliant cultures. The Fourth World is comprised of small communities, tribal and ethnic cultures, and countries that are happy with their economy and society and are not trying to become mainstream, or compete as strenuously in the global, market-based, First World, which is the goal of the Third World. The Second World is state-planned economies like the former Soviet Union, although these are dwindling in number.

100-Member Limit (as of 2017)

While Skinner populated his fictional Walden Two community with 1,000 pliable members, the practical population limit for the self-willed people comprising egalitarian societies is set by the experience of Twin Oaks (TO) and East Wind (EW), currently at under 100 adults each. At whatever population level, Twin Oaks will continue to represent the standard for secular, egalitarian communal societies in America.

Kat wrote in her 1972 book about Twin Oaks that 1,000 members was “our theoretical goal.” This was one of the design parameters that she and the other East Wind cofounders took with them to Missouri, although in the initial EW bylaws the theoretical goal was reduced to 750 members, since the Walden Two idea of 1,000 did not seem to be practical. In 2010 EW reset its “membership ceiling” at 73, less than a tenth of the original goal, while the community’s 2016 population level slightly exceeded that. (Kinkade, 1973, p. 42; EW Legispol 2011, section 11.52)

Neither Twin Oaks nor East Wind seem to want to grow larger, probably because of the concern for the communication and other quality-of-life problems resulting from an ever-growing population, however slow that growth may be. In 2017 Twin Oaks is looking to purchase more contiguous land, although probably to create another communal group upon it rather than to expand its current membership. If this land is acquired and a new income-sharing community is founded upon it, that will increase the number of satellite communities of Twin Oaks in Louisa County to six, with Acorn being the largest at around 30 or 40 members.

While one may tend to think that the communal labor system, governance processes, social contract, and other aspects of these communities should be able to accommodate much larger numbers of people, TO and EW, at least, seem to have reached a practical limit. The growth of Twin Oaks is now essentially delegated to its newest satellite communities, most of them founded in the same county of Louisa, while East Wind has yet to create any communal satellites in its Ozark County.

There is much to be said about the numbers game for identifying ideal population levels for different types of intentional communities. Among primitive clans and tribes the anthropologist Robin Dunbar says that 150 people is the average human’s cognitive social limit, according to his plotting of “overall group size against the neocortical development of the brain.” Meanwhile, the paleo-anthropologist Richard Leakey writes that the number 25 is the typical limit for the clan, and 500 for the minimum size of a breeding population, constituting the “dialectical tribe” with which the individual identifies. (Leakey & Lewin, pp. 111, 113-4; Ryan & Jethá, p. 171)

Among the various forms of contemporary intentional communities: the religious Hutterites split when they reach 150; most cohousing groups have 40 to 70 adults; and some Israeli kibbutzim had over 1,000 members before they gave up communalism and became collective communities on government land trusts. The kibbutzim estimated that a population of about 350 people is needed in order to maintain a complete age-range from youngest to oldest over the generations. (citations needed)

Labor-Credit Systems Can Replace Money

There had long been the ideal, since at least the early 19th century in England, of creating an economic system which would reward workers with the full value of their labor, rather than the capitalist model of business owners taking as much from labor as they can get. Ronald Garnett explains in his 1972 book, Cooperation and the Owenite Socialist Communities in Britain: 1825-45, that, “The basis of communitarian thought was equality—economic rather than political—in that the labourer had a right to the full value of the product of [his or her] labour.” Much of the development of this theory was due to the excesses of poverty and debasement resulting from the dispossessed and deprived underclass during the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in first England, then France, Germany, and later in America and elsewhere. To create economic justice, it was believed, a society or a culture had to do away with the use of money internally and substitute something else. However, finding something which would substantially serve the ideal took about 140 years. (Garnett, p. 26)

From the mid 1820s to the early 1830s the idea of a time-based currency, so named in the present author’s School of Intentioneering, was developed in England, with the principle designer or intentioneer being the Welsh industrialist Robert Owen (1771-1858), who had earlier been influenced by Gerard Winstanley’s 1652 book The Law of Freedom and by the Quaker, John Beller’s 1695 book, Proposals for Raising a College of Industry of All Useful Trades and Husbandry, which was a call for a form of publically-supported education program designed as an intentional community. Beller’s educational-community idea has occurred to many others through time as well, from the ancient Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras, to the New England Transcendentalists at Brook Farm, to Findhorn University in Scotland. (Rexroth, pp. 151-2)

Ronald Garnett explains further that since in the 18th and 19th centuries in England there was no social safety net like welfare, the British people had long been forming associations for mutual-aid in response to being forced off ancestral lands, to being enclosed from access to the commons, and due to having to struggle to find work in the oppressive factories. By at least the 1790s there were “trade clubs” and “voluntary mutual sickness and life insurance companies” referred to as “friendly societies.” Some of these had “fellowship rites,” which Garnett states provided, “a unifying influence on working class culture.” Presumably, many “friendly societies” developed sharing systems that did not involve money. Garnett explains that, “Many social reform measures, apart from cooperation, were built on this foundation of working class consciousness.” By 1815 there were almost a million members of friendly societies, or about 8.5 percent of the British population, and nearly all of these groups were local organizations “with strong communal ties.” By the mid-19th century, “large affiliated orders were predominant,” such as the Manchester Unity of Oddfellows, with its quarter-million members in 1848. (Garnett, pp. 11-2; McLanahan & McLanahan, p. 305)

Robert Owen’s and others’ ideas about time-based economies resulted in giving workers a form of paper scrip stating the amount of time the worker had contributed, which were then redeemed in a community store for goods and services, essentially comprising an alternative exchange system to that of the official currency. The “labour theory of value” was explained by Owen as goods being “exchanged on the equitable principles of labour, for equal value of labour through the medium of Labour Notes.” The labor exchanges served to bring the trade unions into the cooperative movement. (Garnett, pp. 139, 141)

John Curl provides a simpler explanation in his 2009 book For All the People. He quotes Robert Owen’s 1821 community proposal called, Report to the County of Lanark, in which Owen writes that, “the natural standard of value is, in principle, human labour.” (Curl, p. 37)

Intermediary exchange associations were set up to facilitate the circulation of both labor notes and monetary currencies, yet the whole system imploded by 1834 as there was no standard equivalencies for converting “labor notes” into British currency, which resulted in the destruction of many cooperative societies including the first co-op stores, labor exchanges, trades syndicalism, and the movement for the eight-hour workday. (Garnett, pp. 140, 142)

Donald Pitzer in his 1997 edited work, America’s Communal Utopias, writes that, “In Britain, workers’ cooperatives and trade unions originated in Owenite activity.” Pitzer explains that Friedrich Engels, the associate and benefactor of Karl Marx, was a “critic of Owenite utopian and communitarian socialism … [who] conceded that ‘all social movements, all real advance made in England in the interests of the working class were associated with Owen’s name’.” (Pitzer, pp. 123, 133 n. 109; Engels, pp. 296-7)

Frank and Fritzie Manuel probably wrote the most detailed criticism of Marx’ and Engels’ hypocritical attitude toward “utopian socialists” in their 1979 book, Utopian Thought in the Western World. Like the communitarian scholar and kibbutz member, Yaacov Oved, the Manuel’s use the term “sneer” in describing Marx’ and Engels’ comments about the communitarians. Oved writes about Engels that, “He openly sneered at utopian experiments,” while the Manuels state that Engels’ writing titled in part, Anti-Duhring (1878) is, “spotted with similar sneers.” That is, sneers like calling communitarian settlements, “optimum little republics.” (Manuel & Manuel, p. 700; Oved, p. 428)

The Manuels state that while Marx and Engels used the term Utopian Socialist as “an epithet of denigration to be splashed onto any theoretical opponent,” at the same time their doctrine of the second phase of communism, as described in the paper, Critique of the Gotha Program, utilizes Morelly’s maxim of equality, which is itself utopian; this is the familiar, “From each according to [one’s] ability, to each according to [one’s] needs.” (Manuel & Manuel, pp. 698, 711, 715; Tucker, p. 531)

Frank and Fritzie Manuel point out that Marx’ and Engels’ Communist Manifesto (1848) is utopian, and that, “on occasion even they might lapse into utopian glossolalia.” [Example: Tucker, p. 472] (Manuel & Manuel, p. 699)

Robert Owen brought the labor notes idea to America with his communal experiment at New Harmony. However, every attempt to use forms of labor notes in intentional communities through the 19th century in America (as in Britain), such as at New Harmony in Indiana (1825-27), and at Kaweah (1885-92) and Altruria (1894-5) both in California, resulted in the labor notes system being the first thing to be abandoned as the communities began to fail.

It was Josiah Warren, called by his biographer the “first American anarchist,” who would be inspired by his time at Owen’s New Harmony community to develop the labor notes idea into a successful time-based economic system, although as a labor-exchange system not as a communal economy. John Curl explains that Warren’s store gave to its members time credit for each product they deposited, which they then used in barter for products they needed. Warren added to the bill the time it took him, the store clerk, to make the transaction. “An hour’s work was considered worth an hour’s work; no adjustment was made to account for the different hourly values of every different type of work on the capitalist market.” (Curl, p. 37)

Donald Pitzer refers to Warren’s labor exchanges as the “Time Store Cooperative Movement” (1833-63), involving first his time-store at New Harmony, then in Cincinnati (1827-30), then the Equity Community (1833-5) and Utopia (1847-51) all in Ohio, and Modern Times (1851-63) in Long Island, New York. (Pitzer, pp. 120, 130 n.68, 489) Other people adapted Josiah Warren’s Time Store model in Ohio and in Philadelphia, PA, where it was called the “Producer’s Exchange of Labor for Labor Association,” yet always as exchange systems, not for communal economies. (Cress, pp. 72-3)

By Pitzer’s count, there were a total of 29 Owenite communities: nineteen in the U.S., one in Canada, and nine in England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. They developed pre-schools and “communal” childcare systems, and at various times and to different degrees, experimented with communalism. At twelve years Modern Times was the longest lived. (Pitzer, pp. 122-3)

Eventually the labor exchange became a movement unto itself. For that discussion see book VI, chapter 7 of  The Intentioneer’s Bible, titled “Labor Exchanges versus Alternative Currencies in the U.S.” (Butcher, 2016)

As Kenneth Rexroth explains, Josiah Warren (1798-1874) anticipated many of the French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s (1809-65) theories. Proudhon published What is Property? in 1840, popularizing the phrase, “property is theft.” Karl Marx’s criticism of Proudhon assured Proudhon’s reputation as the founder of anarchism. Yet as Rexroth explains, Warren’s work predated Proudhon’s, saying that, “Warren not only anticipated Proudhon, but he was a far clearer thinker and writer, and a man who believed in testing all of his theories in practice. Marx was right about Proudhon. He was a confused thinker and a confusing writer and far from being a practical man.” (Rexroth, pp. 226, 238)

Murray Bookchin writes that Proudhon’s anarchism envisioned the exchange of products without competition or profit, with small craftsmen and collectively-owned industries organized into local and regional federations with minimal or no delegation of power to a central government. This is the basis of Bookchin’s theories of “confederal municipalism,” which he later called “communalism” in his 2015 book The Next Revolution, confusingly using the French political definition of the term as opposed to the more familiar English economic definition meaning commonly-owned property. Proudhon created a “mutual credit bank” using “labor-value certificates” which neither charged nor paid interest, similar to Warren’s time stores which functioned as Rexroth writes as “an interest-free credit union [with] loans in labor and commodities and eventually money.” (Bookchin, pp. 20-1; Dolgoff, p. 67; Hyams, pp. 85-6; Rexroth, p. 238)

While Edward Bellamy never stated the sources for the ideas which he included in his utopian fiction Looking Backward published in 1888, it is entirely possible that he was familiar with Josiah Warren’s publications, primarily his 1847 book Equitable Commerce, since both lived in Massachusetts in the 1860s and ‘70s, and Bellamy was known to have an extensive personal library.

Not until Kat Kinkade developed the vacation-credit labor system at Twin Oaks Community in the summer of 1967 would a successful communal labor-credit system be invented. Edward Bellamy had included a time-based “credit card” system in his Looking Backward utopian fiction, and from this B. F. Skinner got the idea that a community could use ledger accounts for managing individual labor contributions with no form of exchange of anything like coins or paper bills. In Walden Two Skinner wrote, “Bellamy suggested the principle in Looking Backward.” (Skinner, 2005, p. 46)

Warren, Bellamy, Skinner, and others have also suggested rewarding labor differently for different types of work in communal society. Walden House (in Wash. D.C.), Twin Oaks, and East Wind all experimented with “variable-credits” for ten years from 1966 until about 1976, rewarding some work done with more labor-credits than other work, until members decided to value all labor equally. It is an important lesson to keep in mind that variable compensation for labor is an aspect of monetary economics, while being both impractical and anathema to time-based economics.

Building upon Skinner’s idea of ledger accounts, Kat Kinkade’s brilliant innovation, called by the present author the “vacation-credit labor system,” set a weekly work quota that all members agree to meet, with vacation time earned by working over-quota. This time-based economy, called at Twin Oaks simply the “labor-credit system,” became as Twin Oaks member Mala stated to a reporter, “the glue that keeps this community together.” (Mala, quoted in Rems, 2003)

It is phenomenal how the thing that was usually given up first when communal groups failed, their time-based economy, became the most important thing that now makes them successful! Kat Kinkade essentially created the first complete alternative economic system to that of monetary economics, and sadly, very few people outside of the egalitarian communities movement know anything about it! It would seem that such an achievement would be worthy of much pride and promotion, yet most people think nothing of it. Reporters and academicians come and go and rarely ever understand the significance of Twin Oaks’ vacation-credit labor system.

Extending equality in America from the political system to the economic system was the whole point of Bellamy’s Looking Backward, which was immensely influential around the end of the 19th century. Today the labor-credit system is essentially the portal to a parallel reality existing within global monetary economics, enabling the very thing that has eluded social reformers since the early Industrial Revolution—a truly egalitarian economic system—and no one talks about it!

Feminism is ALIVE when All Labor Is Valued Equally

Along with the idea that workers ought to receive the full value of their labor, is the sentiment that all labor that directly benefits the whole community or society ought to be valued equally. The feminist ideal of domestic work or “women’s work” being valued equally with income-generating work and all other work typically performed by men, is served via the vacation-credit labor system. This is another fantastic achievement and characteristic of Twin Oaks and other egalitarian communities providing an important lesson. While feminists and others have looked for ways for women to earn money for housework as a way to create economic equality, only non-monetary, time-based economies, including labor exchanges as well as quota and anti-quota labor systems, value “reproductive work” the same as all other labor.

While people generally discount the idea that in a labor-credit economy a doctor is rewarded the same for their work as someone cleaning a barn, there have been doctors who have been members of Twin Oaks, East Wind, Ganas, and other egalitarian communities. Clearly, for many people the benefits of egalitarian economics are seen as being more important than differential compensation for labor. For this “Feminism is ALIVE” communal lesson the egalitarian ideal of valuing domestic and income work equally is a major success for Twin Oaks and its associated groups comprising the Federation of Egalitarian Communities.

Kat Kinkade wrote a letter to anthropologist Jon Wagner saying about Twin Oaks that, “absolute sexual equality is fundamental to our idea of equality, and equality is fundamental to our approach to changing society. There is no platform of our ideology that is more central.” (Kinkade, quoted in Goldenberg, p. 258)

Zena Goldenberg in her chapter titled “Feminism at Twin Oaks” in the 1993 book Women in Spiritual and Communitarian Societies in the United States, quotes Jon Wagner stating an endorsement of Twin Oaks’ egalitarian culture in his comment that Twin Oaks, “may be among the most non-sexist social systems in human history.” (Wagner, quoted by Goldenberg in Chmielewski, Kern, & Klee-Hartzell, p. 258; Wagner, pp. 37-8)

Social Anarchy Rules when Participatory Governance Upholds Idealism over Dissent

The same year that B. F. Skinner published Walden Two, Martin Buber published in his Paths in Utopia (1948) a maxim similar to what Skinner evidently believed, that the design of community cannot be set by ideology alone. While Skinner states that communities should discover their own truths through empiricism or experimentation, Buber writes, “Community should not be made into a principle; it, too, should always satisfy a situation rather than an abstraction. The realization of community, like the realization of any idea, cannot occur once and for all time: always it must be the moment’s answer to the moment’s question, and nothing more.” (Buber, p. 134)

The danger which both Skinner and Buber suggest is to be avoided is mistaking a blueprint for a principle. While holding on to the founder’s ideals for what a community is intended to be can be a unifying force, divergent views can arise from experience or from outside influences. In the cases of Twin Oaks and East Wind  it is clear that while Kat Kinkade accepted the value of experimentation, she and others were very committed to certain principles found in the book Walden Two. Kat once wrote that she read Walden Two once a year while she was founding TO and EW, and fortunately her and other’s commitment to experimentation with the ideas for governance and economics found in the book, with some modifications, did result in a successful communal model, although the communal childcare which Skinner championed, like the idea of variable credits, proved to be a failed ideal.

When the founders first settled at Twin Oaks in the late 1960s consensus decision-making process was just beginning to be developed, and some of the founders wanted to use it. Consensus, however, was not what Skinner believed in, since he had a more authoritarian form of governance in mind, which Hilke Kuhlmann calls “psychologist-kings.” (Kuhlmann, 1999, p. 41)

Skinner’s governmental model is called the “planner-manager” form of government, which at Twin Oaks evolved into much more of a participatory form of governance than Skinner imagined. Kat Kinkade waited a few months until the initial experiment with consensus process bogged down, then got the group to accept Skinner’s planner-manager model of governance. Twin Oaks’ early experiment with consensus process probably helped the planner-manager structure to become a form of participatory management. As Kuhlmann wrote, “By the early seventies, the role envisioned for the planners had shifted from omnipotent decision-makers to facilitators.” (Kinkade, 1972, pp. 51-4; Kuhlmann, 1999, p. 37)

Governance at Twin Oaks evolved toward a form of participatory decision-making, which some people likened to consensus, while the term “sociocracy” seems to be more appropriate for the TO system as it delegates authority to managers in whom decision-making responsibility is entrusted. Yet the irresistible force of participatory governance hit the immovable object of idealism in the attachment to the idea of communal childcare, resulting in the cognitive dissonance of people, like the present author, doing one thing while saying something very different about exactly what they were doing for childcare.

Many members seemed to think that of course a communal society must have communal childcare. Yet if any of us knew that all through the history of both religious and secular communalism communal childcare has been a problem when parents defer decision-making for their children to the community, they probably thought that we at Twin Oaks or at East Wind might succeed where others failed, as was the case with communal time-based economics. For two decades Twin Oaks struggled to make something work that never has worked over the long term, neither for the Hutterites, the Israeli Kibbutzim, nor for anyone else so far.

As discussed further in the next section, Twin Oaks’ experiments with communal childcare was plagued with parents refusing to follow all the agreements or decisions made at meetings by the group of parents and other caregivers. For two decades people talked about “communal childcare,” which meant parents giving decision-making power over their children to the group, while many parents refused to follow the resulting agreements or decisions they did not like. Conflicts escalated as non-compliance was met by social pressure, yet parents continued to ignore the rules they disliked. Eventually it was social anarchy that ended communal childcare at Twin Oaks, while at East Wind the story was similar yet more intense. Despite the commitment to participatory governance, the story of communal childcare in Federation communities shows how group-think can maintain commitment to a hopelessly failed ideology while policy dilemmas seem to continually reoccur. Although the successful evolution of time-based, sharing economics illustrates that people can overcome fundamental problems of communal organization, communal childcare illustrates a greater level of difficulty.

Essentially, the commitment to communal childcare at Twin Oaks resulted in people trying for two decades to make something work that was continually failing. Social pressure reinforced the status quo, while non-compliance with childcare agreements resulted in an example of social anarchy within a bureaucratic system. When the community-wide communication process at Twin Oaks in 1988 called the “Child Program Process” upheld the agreements or rules about children sleeping together in the children’s building called “Degania,” rather than with their parents in the group residences, the community failed to accurately assess the situation and to responsibly evolve the community’s fundamental ideals. Eventually the people involved caused the change by abandoning communal childcare. A similar dynamic very likely led to the end of communal children’s houses in the Kibbutz and the Hutterian Colonies, and may also have been much of the reason for the demise of the communal group that arose in Jerusalem after the death of Jesus of Nazareth, as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles in the Christian Bible. This Early Christian Church is stated by Trevor Saxby as likely having existed only around twenty years as a communal economy, or about one generation, before changing to a collective where people accumulated private property and tithed to the church. (Acts of the Apostles 2:44, 4:32, 4:34-5; Gavron, 2003, p. 727; Near, pp. 731-2; Oved, pp. 351, 361; Saxby, p. 21; see: Butcher, 2016, book I, chapter 5, “The Influence of Children Upon Society,” and book III, chapter 10, “The Christian Communalism of Anabaptism, the Free Spirit, and the Beguines”)

In participatory governance, social anarchy always “rules.” Dissent may arise in the form of another generation rebelling against the monetary system, while the next generation rebels against radical lifestyles. It is a form of “bi-polar dissent,” as when one generation moves from the country to the city, and another generation moves back-to-the-land. Lifestyle fads and formats evolve with each cycle of the generations.

Failure of Communal Childcare Shifts Focus to Collective Parentcare

Kat Kinkade’s emphasis upon feminism extended to the communal care of children. Most likely she did not know about the history of communal childcare, while she generally accepted the perspective on it that Skinner wrote into Walden Two, who himself knew nothing about communal childcare, only using the concept to help explain his behaviorist theories.

Although there is much to be said on this topic, in short there are at least two problems with communal childcare. First, in all cases, from the Hutterites, to the Israeli Kibbutzim, to the Federation of Egalitarian Communities, the biggest problem when parents give to the community the primary responsibility for their children is the lack of consistently high-quality childcare. Everything has to be worked out with the entire group of parents and care-givers, including immunizations, diet, discipline, education, and what toys the children can play with. As former Twin Oaks member Karen Stephens expresses in Ingrid Komar’s 1983 book, Living the Dream, achieving agreement on these and many other issues creates such a bureaucratic cost in meeting time that focusing upon the developmental needs of each child is often lost. (Komar, p. 240; also the comment by “mother from EW” p. 241)

It may be that having two sets of meetings is necessary in communal childcare: one for agreements about the childcare program and another about each child’s specific development. Without that division of concerns the issues over maintaining agreements among the adults tends to push the discussion about each child’s accomplishments and problems off the agenda. While more meetings might be an answer to the problems of communal childcare, it begs the question of just how much the commitment of more energy to more meetings is justified, given that the bigger problem is the high turnover rate among those who provide care to the children. The result of caregivers coming and going is that the parents end up having the most consistent relationship with their children, which can lead to parents disregarding community childcare policies with which they disagree, resulting in the failure of the communal childcare program.

The second problem with communal childcare is that members of the community who do not have children tend to question the need to pay the cost of childcare and education when in most cases the children will leave the community when they become adults. Since most communal societies maintain their membership by admitting new members, usually young adults, they do not need to support children in order to maintain or grow their membership. Yet young adults tend to have children, periodically questioning community policies regarding children. Non-parent members, usually the large majority of members, typically prefer to avoid the costs of childcare and education by restricting the number of children in the community. It is said that this is why the Catholic Church insists upon celibacy for both its monastics and its clergy. While some of the reason for that may be the desire to focus upon prayer or service, much of the reason is because children always want an inheritance, which would be a drain on Church resources. A similar concern may explain why East Wind Community permits only a token child presence of about one child for every ten adults.

Another possible explanation for East Wind Community’s policies restricting its child population would be that children cramp the party atmosphere, particularly with regard to nudity and the use of recreational consumables. Especially if the community has no school and the children must go to the local public school, culture shock can result for both the community children and for the local adults and children. Therefore, in the interest of good local public relations, East Wind restricts its child population to a token childcare program in which most of the few children that are born into the community leave with their parents by the time they reach school age. Because of its child policies the present author refers to East Wind as the Federation of Egalitarian Communities’ “party commune,” similar to the “pleasure planet” in the fictional StarTrek’s United Federation of Planets, called “Risa.” Better than Disney Land, the Federation has East Risa!!

East Wind’s anti-child policies began with its first refusal of a member’s pregnancy in 1976. At the time the community wanted to delay having children until a Twin Oaks’ style childcare building could be built and staffed. Some years later the community did create a childcare facility, yet the precedent was set that it was acceptable to refuse pregnancies and push pregnant women out of the community. Over the years East Wind’s communal childcare program experienced the same problems as at Twin Oaks and other communal societies, to where the community ended its communal program in favor of a collective system, while it continued to refuse many pregnancies, creating a small yet steady stream of East Wind pregnancy refugees.

For many years at East Wind, when a woman’s pregnancy proposal was refused she was confronted by an ultimatum to either get an abortion or leave. Eventually the community became sensitive to the abhorrence with which many people viewed this policy, and as of 2011 the community vote is simply as to whether or not the community will provide any funding for any newly-announced pregnancy. Obviously, refusing financial support for a member’s child does essentially the same thing in a communal economy as the earlier ultimatum; it is simply less overtly lacking in compassion. [Full disclosure: the present author was one of those served the child program ultimatum at East Wind, later to be accepted into Twin Oaks’ much more developed communal childcare program before it was ended.]

Twin Oaks does not have pregnancy and child policies as extreme as East Wind’s, accepting almost all births in the community, except for those whose circumstances are clearly problematic. Acorn even began a policy of welcoming single parents to the community, although it is not known to the present author how well that policy has been working. A big question is whether anyone will help these children pay for college?

There were a couple stages in the demise of communal childcare at Twin Oaks, with the Child Program Process in 1988 being an important milestone, to where sometime in the mid-1990s the community formally gave up its communal program (Kinkade, 1994, p. 146; Kuhlmann, p. 102) in favor of what may be called a “collective childcare system.”

As defined by the present author’s school-of-thought about intentional community developed in the School of Intentioneering, “collective” means the sharing of privately-owned property, which in this case means that parents do not give control over decision-making with regard to their children to the community or any group of parents and caregivers. Parents have the primary responsibility for their children in collective childcare systems, which then can look much like a childcare cooperative within a communal society.

Essentially, the lesson is that communal childcare does not work over the long term. It can work for a while, and Twin Oaks practiced communal childcare to various degrees from the mid ‘70s to the mid ‘90s. The collective form of childcare now used at Twin Oaks is probably what has been or is being adopted at Acorn and the other local communal groups with children, and probably at East Wind as well.

On the occasion of East Wind Community’s 10th Land Day holiday Kat Kinkade returned from Twin Oaks and stated during a conversation in the Music Room that a community cannot presume to be a complete alternative to the dominant culture if it does not provide for children. While the ideal of communal childcare has proven to be impractical, the methods used for providing for parental childcare as a collective within a communal society suggests that the community’s concentration needs to be upon collective “parentcare;” providing support for members who are parents in caring for their children.

(Sources on communal childcare at Twin Oaks and East Wind: Butcher, 2016, book I, chapter 5 and book VI, chapter 16; Communities no. 9, July-August 1974, pp. 10-12; Communities no. 73, winter 1987, pp. 18-22; Communities no. 76, May 1990, pp. 11-14; Communities no. 103, summer 1999, pp. 45-8; Kinkade, 1973, pp. 130-46; Kinkade, 1994, pp. 143-52; Komar, pp. 211-57; Kuhlmann, 2005, pp. 102-106)

Breaking the 50-Year Record and Realizing the Cooperative Commonwealth

With over fifty years existence this is a good time to declare the Twin Oaks utopian experiment a success! No other secular communal society in America has existed as long. The 19th century Icarian communities are a runner-up, yet they dissolved when they reached the fifty-year mark. In Israel the kibbutz movement will hold the global secular communal records for a while, having had the largest secular communal societies at over 1,100 members, and the longest lived at about ninety years of communalism so far. Yet while the term “kibbutz” used to mean “communal,” all but a small number of kibbutzim have given up communalism to where now the term “kibbutz” more generally means “intentional community.” Today as often in Israel, America, Europe, and elsewhere there are a number of small urban and rural groups utilizing an anti-quota communal economy. Keep in mind at the same time that all communal groups represent only about ten percent of the community listings in the Communities Directory, printed by the Fellowship for Intentional Community. Most intentional communities share privately-owned rather than commonly-owned property.

With a growing number of rural and urban satellite communities each pursuing their own experiment in the secular, egalitarian communal tradition pioneered at Twin Oaks, all of their adaptations and evolutions will hopefully someday comprise the basis for a comparative study of the successes and failures of these related communities.

Now arising in Louisa County, Virginia is the dynamic of an inter-dependent, growing number of communal groups around Twin Oaks. The idea of a network of communal and collective groups in local proximity in America as a force for social change has been a goal since at least the publishing of the 1884 book by Laurence Gronlund titled The Cooperative Commonwealth. Whether this is called today “radical decentralism,” “deep democracy,” “democratic confederalism,” “communal municipalism,” a “regional commonwealth,” or something else, this is a fascinating story now developing, with challenges to be identified, lessons to be debated, and glorious revelations yet to be realized and celebrated!

***

This presentation of the lessons of the intentional community tradition of Twin Oaks Community references much of the history of the countercultural, Fourth World, gifting and sharing alternatives to the dominant culture’s taking and exchanging in the First World. The stories of time-based economies and of communal childcare comprise two of the themes presented in The Intentioneer’s Bible: Interwoven Stories of the Parallel Cultures of Plenty and Scarcity, which tracks these and other themes through much of the prehistory and history of Western Civilization. As illustrated in the article above, the material in the Intentioneers presentation for the School of Intentioneering is similar to a bibliographic essay, indentifying sources of topics for further inquiry.

References:

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Butcher, A. Allen. (2016). The intentioneer’s bible: Interwoven stories of the parallel cultures of plenty and scarcity. Self-published at: Amazon.com

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