Understanding Non-Monetary, Time-Based, Communal Economics

A. Allen Butcher • The School of Intentioneering • Denver, CO • June, 2018 http://www.Intentioneer.com4thWorld@consultant.com


For the non-monetary, labor-sharing economic system, why use the term “vacation-credit labor system” rather than simply “labor-credit system?” Because Outside-World people do not know or understand what makes Twin Oaks Community (T.O.C.) tick, and I think that it is essential to the egalitarian communal movement itself to help the Outside-World to better understand communalism. People often wonder how it works, and often miss the essential aspect.


By using the term “vacation-credit labor system” the most important aspect is emphasized of “the glue that keeps this community together,” as Mala T.O. once said to a visiting magazine reporter. Emphasizing the vacation aspect helps people to better understand the “secret” to Twin Oaks’ egalitarian culture, or the “silver bullet” which slays the hegemony of the monetary system. And it is not just capitalism that is replaced by labor-sharing economics, yet all monetary and non-monetary exchange systems! (Mala, quoted in Rems, 2003)


One would think that the fact that Twin Oaks has existed for over fifty years as a secular communal society would mean something to people. They might raise an eyebrow to learn of a successful secular communal society in America that has existed over half-a-century, yet I may as well be talking about life on the dark side of the moon for all that most people in the Outside really know about Twin Oaks and what it has discovered about human behavior. That could change if Twin Oaks and non-members, like myself, were more forthcoming about what makes Twin Oaks and similar communal groups successful.


At this point I’ll explain, for those readers who do not know, the most significant aspect of Twin Oaks Community’s economic system. With no use of money or other exchange system internally, something else has to be substituted. Twin Oaks’ brilliant innovation was for the community to agree to set a certain minimum amount of work per week that people have to do to maintain their membership, then as they work over the minimum required hours they accumulate vacation time. Believe it or not, it took 140 years of experimentation with what I call “time-based economies” for someone to come up with that simple idea. This is what I call the “vacation-credit labor system.” Consistently meeting that work minimum or “labor-quota” secures for the individual member equal access to all of the community’s wealth: land, buildings, equipment, food, clothing, education, healthcare, recreation, everything! That is communalism!


Failure to keep community agreements, especially the labor agreements, results in the person losing their membership and having to leave the community. This is communalism’s solution to the “free-rider” problem. As St. Paul says somewhere in the Bible: no-work; no-eat. There is a long history of Christian communalism, yet I’ll spare the reader that story, saying only that religion and charismatic leadership can sustain communalism, while secular, egalitarian communalism needs to substitute something else.


The labor-quota is one of two components of the community’s total labor supply, calculated as: number of members x weekly labor-quota = labor supply for one week’s work that benefits the community. The labor quota is typically between 35 and 45 hours per person per week; yet remember that all domestic services and all other things which the community wants to provide are included, such as: food growing or procuring, preparation and service, laundry, maintenance and construction, income-generating work, accounting and taxes, some or most childcare, and everything else that the community decides to provide for itself.


A member’s access to material assets, resources, services, and other wealth of the community is not dependent upon one’s ability to pay for them (neither monetarily nor by labor-credits), yet simply upon one’s keeping of the agreements kept by all members. Besides the egalitarian or feminist behavior-code, one of the most important of those agreements is to participate in the labor-sharing system, and the most important aspect of that is that when a member works over the weekly minimum labor-quota they earn vacation time to be used to meet the labor-quota later, whether they decide to take a “staycation” at home or travel on vacation.


That’s it! That’s the most important aspect of the glue that holds Twin Oaks together! That vacation provision is a simple thing, yet little things can make a big difference. I liken it to how the simple act of banks making loans to each other is what creates 85% of the money in the economy, called “multiple deposit creation” (printing bills and minting coins is only 15% of the money supply), and like how all of the Internet boils down to whether the electricity is on or off, represented as 1s and 0s. Simple little things can result in very big things, like a small acorn growing into a huge oak tree. So it is that the simple idea of the vacation-credit replaces debt-based monetary economics with time-based communal economics.


In my “Fifty Years of Utopian Intentioneering at Twin Oaks Community” paper (on Facebook and on my blog: http://www.Intentioneers.net) I wrote, “Reporters and academicians come and go and rarely ever understand the significance of Twin Oaks’ vacation-credit labor system.” Now I have discovered a good example of that.


In 1998 a German psychology Ph. D. candidate named Hilke Kuhlmann spent six months visiting Twin Oaks and some other communities inspired by the utopian fiction “Walden Two” written by the Harvard psychologist B. F. Skinner. Kuhlmann published her book about these communities in 2005 titled, “Living Walden Two: B. F. Skinner’s Behaviorist Utopia and Experimental Communities.” In 2005 she was assistant professor in the American Studies program at the University of Frieburg, Germany.


I was recently re-reading parts of Hilke’s book to see what she had to say about the labor-credit system and was amazed to discover, what I had missed before, that she never explains the vacation-earning provisions of Twin Oaks’ labor-credit system presented above!


How could she miss that simple yet brilliant innovation of setting a weekly work-quota that when people work over-quota they earn vacation time? If Hilke did understand that aspect of T.O.’s, E.W.’s and other communities labor systems, she says nothing about it in either her 2005 book nor her summer 1999 article in issue number 103 of “Communities” magazine titled “Walden Two Communities: What Were They All About?” Evidently, Hilke Kuhlmann never did figure out what we were all about!


In chapter 11 titled “The Labor-Credit System” of her book, Hilke writes the following:


“To ‘make quota’ meant to work for however long it would take to accumulate the number of labor credits the communards had decided upon as a weekly minimum.” (Kuhlmann, 2005, p. 108)


First of all, note Kuhlmann’s use of the term “communard.” The behavioral psychologist Deborah Altus refers to this as one example of Kuhlmann’s “pejorative tone,” while Altus’ colleague Edward Morris gives this as one of several examples of what he calls Kuhlmann’s “fascist-sounding …  rhetoric.” Personally, I think it sounds more communist, yet either way, while Kuhlmann uses the term correctly it is considered archaic and not used much today, other than in jest or endearment. Some of her tone and word use, however, needs to be forgiven since English is her second language, not her native language. Secondly, and most importantly, while Kuhlmann is technically correct in her quote above, she omits the most important part, which is that by working “over-quota” an individual accumulates vacation time. (Altus, p. 1; Morris, p. 2)


Kuhlmann’s first language is German, so her wording errors may simply be a non-native-English-speaker’s cultural faux-pas. Another language error of hers is her inappropriate use of the term “Virginian” which she uses in phrases like “the Virginian community.” The term refers to a person from Virginia, not a location, town, or anything else in Virginia. I have been making a list of Kuhlmann’s errors. For another thing, she gets Twin Oaks’ tax status totally wrong (p. 110), and commits several other factual errors, which admittedly, only a few readers like myself would ever notice.


Kulhmann’s little omission is extremely important, not only to the natural history of Twin Oaks and other egalitarian communities yet also with regard to communal theory. With the vacation-credit labor system innovation Twin Oaks has solved the problem of Karl Marx’ and Freidrich Engels’ second phase of communism. They had no better idea than Skinner or anyone else as to what a secular communal society would look like. The best that Marx and Engels could come up with was to use Morelly’s Maxim of “from each according to ability; to each according to need.” They set the goal of achieving a non-capitalist economy as an uncertain step to be taken sometime in the distant future, focusing in the interim upon what they explained as the intermediate step in Marxist communism, that of class-conflict for control of the State. And yes, the second stage of Marxist communism is a utopian theory or ideal. (See: “Critique of the Gotha Program” in Tucker, p. 531)


Essentially, Twin Oaks has gotten to where the social reformers like Owen, Fourier, and St. Simon, and the revolutionary advocates like Marx and Engels, as well as anarchists and utopian fiction writers, could only dream about: a truly egalitarian economic system.


To describe communalism from the perspective of the group as opposed to that of the individual, the present author has evolved Morelly’s Maxim to what I am calling “Allen’s Axiom” saying, “from all according to intent; to all according to fairness.”


While the behavioral psychologists Deborah Altus and Edward Morris have their own criticisms of Kuhlmann’s study, I have another to add, which cannot be attributed to language problems. The tone of Kuhlmann’s writing is rather critical and dismissive as she writes:


“Yet a closer look at the inner workings of the community reveals that the community’s claim to have found a viable alternative to capitalism may have to be modified. It seems that the most central—yet often overlooked—factor in sustaining the noncompetitive economic system is the community’s rate of membership turnover, which was as high as 25 percent per year during its first five years. … The appearance of permanence is achieved through the fact that the community is most often discussed as if it were a stable entity rather than a constantly changing body of people.” (Kuhlmann, 2005, p. 122)


Yes, membership turn-over is a fact-of-life in the communitarian movement, less so for communities like cohousing where people have to invest hundreds-of-thousands of dollars to build a house, and more so in communal societies where new members do not have to invest any money at all to join. In Twin Oaks’ first year the average length of membership lasted only a few months, while today the average length of membership is at least eight or nine years. Longevity of the community and the average age of the membership are important factors in the membership turn-over rate, yet this is true in American culture in general. Maybe things are different in Germany, yet in America people move frequently to chase down work opportunities or to simply stay housed in a rental market in which ever-rising rents can cause people to move frequently. In America the “friendly neighborhood” is disappearing to where people do not know their neighbors. This is evidently a problem in Europe as well, since the cohousing community design began in Denmark and is often referred to in America as a form of “intentional neighborhood.” Yet the turnover of personnel is ongoing in every human organization, from for-profit corporations to nonprofit organizations, and from churches to government agencies, and so it is disingenuous to criticize Twin Oaks and other communal societies for also having an ongoing membership turnover rate.


Hilke Kuhlmann repeats her membership-turnover-rate criticism again in the conclusion of her 2005 book saying, “What Twin Oaks appears to have found instead [of a “recipe” for communal success] is a structure that is perfectly suited for utilizing membership turnover …” And in an earlier 2001 book titled “The Philosophy of Utopia” edited by Barbara Goodwin, Kuhlmann contributed an article called “The Illusion of Permanence: Work Motivation and Membership Turnover at Twin Oaks Community,” in which she states almost word-for-word the same criticism she later used in her 2005 book, along with her omission of the vacation-credit system. (Kuhlmann, 2005, p. 168; Kuhlmann, quoted in Goodwin, pp. 158-9)


To add some perspective to the membership turnover rate, I once did a survey via email-list of former members of East Wind Community and found that in general people said that they joined for ideological reasons, like feminism, anti-capitalism, ecological living, etc., and left for personal reasons, like going back to college, taking advantage of travel opportunities, not being able to find an intimate relationship in community, or finding a partner and leaving to start a family outside of community, sometimes to take  advantage of offers of support from their biological families contingent upon their leaving community.


While Kuhlmann emphasizes the “illusion of permanence” that the labor-credit system gives to Twin Oaks, which carries on even as members come and go, she points out that it is precisely the turnover of membership which continually brings in new people with their infectious communal idealism. Affirming Mala’s explanation for what keeps Twin Oaks together, Kuhlmann states, “In short, the labour credit system helps to perpetuate the communal status quo.” (Kuhlmann, quoted in Goodwin, pp. 169-70)


Returning to Kuhlmann’s chapter 11 about the labor-credit system, the author writes the words “vacation” and “over-quota” yet only in reference to money and not in the context of how the labor-system works. She states:


“These days, the communards can supplement their monthly allowance nonetheless. There are three ways to do this: to work for wages off the farm in one’s own vacation time, to work ‘overquota’ in Twin Oaks production areas for minimum wage, or to receive money from relatives or friends.” (Kuhlmann, 2005, p. 110)


All of this is true enough, yet her emphasis is upon how members get private money, not what enables the community’s communalism or a person’s right to membership. She mentions above that members get vacation yet does not explain how. I emphasize this quote because it is the only place in Kuhlmann’s book or articles where she uses the word “vacation.” In her “Walden Two Communities” article it is clear that Kuhlmann does not understand the mechanics of the community’s vacation-credit labor system begun just a few months after the community was founded in 1967, since she refers only to the variable-credit system used during the community’s first decade, ending about 1976, saying:


“The main problem encountered by the communards was the impossibility of giving out enough labor credits to make every job equally desirable.” (Kuhlmann, 1999, p. 37)


While this statement was somewhat true back in the 1970s, this minimal wording for the sake of brevity only suggests why the community abandoned the variable-credit system, while ignoring the more important innovation of vacation-credits which predated the use of variable-credits, and which has continued all through the community’s history.


When Kuhlmann talks about Twin Oaks’ and other communities’ labor systems she focuses only upon the important aspect that “one hour of work equals one labor credit,” meaning that all work that benefits the community, whether considered on the Outside to be women’s work or men’s work, is considered equal in value to the community. (Kuhlmann, 2005, pp. 112, 167)


This is where I present the labor-sharing acronyms: LIVE•FREE, standing for “Labor Is Valued Equally • For Realizing Economic Equality,” as in live free of taxation (since the IRS does not tax labor systems); and ALIVE for “All Labor Is Valued Equally,” as in feminism is ALIVE in time-based economies. Valuing all labor equally that supports the community is the common aspect of all time-based labor systems, while not all of them use the vacation-credit innovation.


There is much good information in Hilke Kuhlmann’s book, making it a great resource for research into the Walden Two communities movement, yet while Kuhlmann does explain a good amount about Twin Oaks’ history of experimentation with labor-credit systems, especially giving a good explanation for what “variable-credits” were at Twin Oaks and how the membership decided against differential compensation for different types of labor in favor of One Hour = One Credit, she never mentions the vacation-credit aspect. (Kuhlmann, 2005, pp. 106-10)


This is a critical error on Kuhlmann’s part. Evidently during her six months of field research involving visits, interviews, and study of the relevant literature she never understood, or at least never wrote about, the single most important aspect of egalitarian communalism. Despite her incomplete work Hilke Kuhlmann was awarded a Ph. D., yet if it were me I would have first made her resolve her omission! As an academic observer she evidently never really understood what she was seeing, or perhaps simply forgot to ever mention it, so how could any other interested non-member be expected to understand how egalitarian communalism works, unless someone explains the vacation-credit aspect?


Twin Oaks Community’s time-based, labor-sharing economy represents the first long-term-successful non-monetary economic system of secular utopianism, on the level of what the Rule of Benedict did for Catholic monasticism, assuring a stable communal economy providing for economic equality now for over fifty years, and very few people outside of the communities movement understands it or how important it really is to the ideal and history of people’s search for an egalitarian utopia!



Altus, Deborah. (2006). [Review of the book Living Walden Two: B. F. Skinner’s behaviorist utopia and experimental communities by Hilke Kuhlmann]. Communal Societies.

Kuhlmann, Hilke. (1999 summer). Walden Two Communities: What Were They About? Communities: Journal of Cooperative Living, 103, 35-41.

Kuhlmann, Hilke. (2001). The illusion of permanence: Work motivation and membership turnover at Twin Oaks Community. In Barbara Goodwin (Ed.), The philosophy of utopia (pp. 157-171). Frank Cass Publishers: Ilford, Essex, England.

Kuhlmann, Hilke. (2005). Living Walden Two: B. F. Skinner’s behaviorist  utopia and experimental communities. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois.

Rems, Emily. (2003 winter). “Ecovillage people.” BUST magazine. http://thefec.org/about/media/bust-magazine.

Morris, Edward. (n.d.). [Review of the book Living Walden Two: B. F. Skinner’s Behaviorist Utopia and Experimental Communities by Hilke Kuhlmann]. Journal of publication unknown.

Tucker, Robert C. (1978). The Marx-Engels Reader (2nd Ed). New York: W.W. Norton & Company.


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