Communes still thrive decades after the '60s, but economy is a bummer, man

by December 7, 2014 5:00AM ET

Modern utopias -- or intentional communities, as their proponents prefer -- still have to deal with dystopian finances

Student Debt
Ezra Freeman, 39, John Franklin, 31, and Sunya Marguiles, 27, work in the kitchen preparing dinner on a Sunday evening at Twin Oaks, an intentional community established in 1967 on the land of a former tobacco farm in Louisa County, Va.
Lexey Swall / GRAIN for Al Jazeera America

Sky Blue found his proper place in the world when he was 19, a college dropout who visited a Virginia commune called Twin Oaks.  Fifteen years later, he’s still there, amid a thriving mini-society spread out over 450 acres of farmland, gardens, woods and small factories.

None of the typical totems of adulthood are necessary for life in Twin Oaks. No diploma, resume or credit score are required for entry. But that doesn’t mean that the common burdens of adulthood don’t creep in — like the economy.

As the 34-year-old Blue has found, even utopias can’t escape the dystopia of a 21st-century economy. Twin Oaks was created to demonstrate how a completely classless society could work, and Blue was attracted to a life that might offer him an alternative to the drudgery of dutiful moneymaking he felt was the sole goal of his education.

Still, he didn’t intend to stay long. He’d grown up knowing Twin Oaks existed — in fact, his parents had met there — and he figured that he’d explore a range of alternatives to mainstream existence before settling on one. But after three years he had a son, and a deeper commitment to the community’s project of egalitarianism.

Sky Blue, 34, has a storied history with Twin Oaks. His parents met at Twin Oaks before he was born. He returned when he was 19 and his own child was born at Twin Oaks 12 years ago.
Lexey Swall / GRAIN for Al Jazeera America

Blue (his real, given name) took on leadership roles, including a stint as one of three Planners, the top rank in Twin Oaks’ government. Blue was serving in that role when, a few years before the global economy’s full-blown financial meltdown, Twin Oaks faced an economic crisis of its own, one that nearly derailed its financial future.

It’s not an isolated blow. In recent years, many of the U.S.’s roughly 3,000 intentional communities — a term their members tend to prefer to the word “commune” and its connotations of sex, drugs and burned-out hippies — have had to tighten budgets as the economy has slowed down. They’ve also had to grapple with how ballooning student debt may be constraining new membership. A look inside an intentional community in the midst of the economic slowdown is a look at what it’s like to live set apart from our society’s dearest economic values — acquisition and individual ownership, debt, consumption as fuel for the growth imperative — but still remain under their influence.  

What it all indicates is that moving outside of the long reach of the mainstream financial system is not so easy to do, even in utopia. 

Twin Oaks was established in 1967 on the land of a former tobacco farm. Its founders based their new society on the utopia described in “Walden Two,” the 1948 novel by behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner.

Though Twin Oaks no longer calls itself a behaviorist community, many of the structures of Skinner’s imagined society still form the core of the real one in Louisa County, Virginia, home to 91 adults and 17 children. A labor credit system requires all members to log 42 hours of work each week, and all work — helping with child care, weeding the garden, cooking for the community, weaving hammocks or pressing tofu to sell — is considered equally important, and so is equally “compensated.”

The community’s Planner-Manager system of self-government is also taken from “Walden Two.” Three rotating Planners, who serve for 18 months, are responsible for general decision-making within the community. Any decisions they make can be overturned by a member majority vote. Some 60 managers head up the more specific aspects of community functioning, such as food planning, plumbing and bike sharing.

Sharing resources allows for cheap communal living. Twin Oaks spends about $5,000 annually per member. Most everything is shared: the 17 cars; the food produced by the property’s gardens, orchard and dairy; an outdoor sauna; a fully equipped woodworking shop; and a community music room with a range of instruments. As for health care, often members will qualify for state-subsidized health care, especially since individual income is so low. The community also pays out of pocket where necessary, as well as putting funds into a catastrophic health insurance plan called PEACH run by the Federation of Egalitarian Communities, a network of income-sharing communes in North America.

Photos: A Weekend at Twin Oaks

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Each member is guaranteed a private bedroom in one of seven residences, but beyond that, most spaces are common, like the large dining hall, where two meals are served a day (and which can be easily converted for dance parties). Members receive a small allowance of between $60 and $100 each month (depending on the state of the community’s finances), for small discretionary purchases like cigarettes, chocolate or a movie in town. Otherwise, everything the community and its members need is paid for by a common treasury.

Even the decision to get pregnant has to be approved by the community’s planners, thanks to the community-wide financial impact the decision tends to have.

In other words, living within an income-sharing community like Twin Oaks means letting go of all but a modicum of financial independence. But for some, giving up financial freedom also means a liberation from something else: the fear of some unseen nightmare — job loss, serious illness — resulting in financial ruin.

Fifteen vehicles are available to check out in the community, each with its own name, and three buses make trips to Louisa, Charlottesville and Richmond each week.
Lexey Swall / GRAIN for Al Jazeera America

Regardless of the motivation, it’s a freedom that seems to be growing more appealing in recent years. Blue says Twin Oaks hit its current 91-member population cap in 2008 and has been at capacity since, after years of membership numbers fluctuating between the low 60s and high 80s. Member turnover has also slowed dramatically since the financial crisis, he adds: Before 2008, roughly 25 people joined and left the commune each year; since 2008, the number has fallen to between five and 10.

For all its vision of economic separatism, Twin Oaks hitched its growth through the 1980s and 90s on the expanding success of a hearty little company called Pier 1 Imports. Founded in 1962 as a store selling beanbag chairs and incense in San Mateo, California, Pier 1 contracted Twin Oaks in the early 1970s to produce hand-woven hammocks, allowing Twin Oaks to establish a profitable internal industry.

As Pier 1 expanded, Twin Oaks grew, too. Supplying Pier 1 created so much profitable work that Twin Oaks farmed out production to Acorn, and to other intentional communities.

“I’m not sure they necessarily cared one way or another, but Pier 1 was a significant financial driver for the communities movement for quite a while,” Blue says.

But by the early 2000s, Twin Oaks members noticed that Pier 1’s hammock demand was down. In 2004, the home furnishings company — whose stock would dive from nearly $26 in November 2003 to $0.11 in March 2009 — terminated its hammocks contract with Twin Oaks altogether.

It was as devastating as a major job loss would be for a family; it meant the disappearance of about a quarter of the community’s income. Blue and Twin Oaks’ other Planners had to scramble to find a way to cut $50,000 from the budget that year.

Today, tofu-making is Twin Oaks’ biggest business, and it’s growing, though there are concerns within the community that “out in the mainstream,” as Twin Oaks members put it, tofu is a trendy food whose popularity could soon come to an end. Apparently opting out of consumer culture doesn’t preclude the need to spend plenty of time thinking about consumer trends.

At an intentional community called Emerald Earth in rural Mendocino County, California, no central cottage industry supports members. Instead, it’s structured something like Twin Oaks in its early days: Members earn money from income-producing jobs in town, while communal living lowers costs for everyone.

But Abeja Hummel, a resident at Emerald Earth, confirms that in Mendocino County, earning potential has dropped since 2008. On top of that, per-adult monthly consumables for members have gone up, from $180 in 2009 to $265 today.

Hummel says her community is struggling to confront another problem as big as the economy itself: rising levels of student debt.

“With the cost of education skyrocketing, it is a rare person under 35 who is not burdened with debt,” she explained in a 2013 piece she wrote for Communities, a magazine for and about communes. “Our current community financial system makes it nearly impossible for the majority of young, intelligent, hardworking, educated folks to be able to live here without defaulting on loans.”

Student debt could threaten the future growth and long-term stability of Emerald Earth, and it’s a problem Hummel and her fellow community members discuss regularly. Hummel, age 42, has lived in intentional communities for most of the last 19 years. She says it “just made sense” to her that life should be built around work that has an inherent value — cultivating a vegetable garden, building a shed — rather than spending time in an office in exchange for that familiar but more abstract reward: money.  

But Hummel says Emerald Earth will soon need to start thinking much more about money — that is, how to earn it — if the community hopes to attract new members. She says Emerald Earth’s members would like to eventually develop profitable cottage industries so that indebted members could siphon some income into regular debt payments. “So far, we just haven't created that,” she says. “There are just so many other more pressing things at any moment, and none of us are really business savvy.”

Graduates burdened by student debt aren’t the only ones left outside of the economic alternative these societies provide. As many members and academics who study communes note, intentional communities are rarely started, or even sought out, by those in extreme poverty, by immigrants or by a population with much racial diversity. Instead, well-educated, middle-class whites are disproportionately the demographic that forms and lives in these groups. Part of the reason may be that the systemic barriers built into the rest of society — like lack of access to education — constrain entry into this life too.

“The poor, though they may share among themselves, typically don’t look to communal living as a way to survive,” says Donald Pitzer, founder and board member of the Center for Communal Studies and author of “America’s Communal Utopias.” ] “It’s kind of like, can [the poor] free themselves? How do you pull your own self up?”

Stephanie Fagliano has lived in various intentional communities, most recently Green Valley Village in northern California. She left recently to attend graduate school — and doubts she’ll return to community living anytime soon because of student debt — and notes that the communities she lived in were typically fairly economically and racially homogenized. “You have to know this option exists,” says Fagliano. “You have to have the confidence, hope and initiative to seek it out, and you see a class divide when you look at those factors.”

For its part, Twin Oaks is growing — not by accepting more members or increasing its population limit, but by spawning new communities in Louisa County, which are together forming their own grassroots economic network for work trades and other types of support. Acorn Community now has about 30 members. A community called Living Energy Farm was formed nearby in 2012, and another, called Sapling, established itself down the road from Twin Oaks in 2013. A similar cluster of communities has developed in northen Missouri among Sandhill Farm, Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage and Red Earth Farms, founded in 1974, 1997 and 2005, respectively.

Blue admits that he sometimes feels stifled at Twin Oaks. In 2007, he moved to Charlottesville, Virginia, where he worked to develop cooperative businesses.  But he didn’t like living in Charlottesville, and returned to Twin Oaks four years later. He says he expects to leave again, once his son Willow, now 12, turns 18. “I like to know what’s out there,” he says. “I want to help effect large-scale change.”

But he anticipates that, ultimately, he’ll end up back in an intentional community. To borrow the language of the 401(k), it’s what he’s most heavily invested in. “One of the nice things for me, at this point, is that I’ve put 15 years into this movement, and I’ve learned tremendous skills. Any community out there would be happy to have me,” he says. “That’s my retirement plan.”