The Wire creator David Simon spoke on the ravages of wealth inequality at last month’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas in Australia. In winding up his address Simon offered a big notion that might reconcile the fixes of the past with the problems of today.
“So how does it get better?” he asked. “In 1932, it got better because they dealt the cards again, and there was a communal logic that said nobody's going to get left behind.”
Provocative words? You bet.
With municipalities from Detroit to Stockton—never mind cities in Greece and Italy—on the edge of habitability because of financial disparity, society’s accepted mass-living constructs (aka cities) are as subject to question now as at any time in modern history. But Americans shouldn’t hold their breath waiting for a broken, lobbyist-infested Congress to embrace legislation that changes.
There’s another, more edgy way of embracing the “communal logic” Simon spoke of. Only, the iteration in mind hails from an epoch roughly three decades on the New Deal’s heels.
Think communes. But not just communes.
Despite a Reagan-era ebb, thousands of intentional communities around the planet have come together based on mutual concerns ranging from polyamory to Christianity, from homelessness to yoga. Sharing is at the heart of them all.
“There has to be awareness of the demand, of giving up what society’s current idea of what luxury is,” says Anahata Zayin. If the 280-acre Oregon commune called Alpha Farm had titles, Zayin would be its operations manager. But not only are there no titles at Alpha Farm. There aren’t paychecks or rules, only stipends and agreements.
And members don’t own much. “Luxury here is the freedom of not answering to someone,” Zayin says.
For a quarter century, he “fought the clock,” working full-time as a contractor. Zayin decided four years ago that his possessions had taken ownership of him and joined the 25 or so members of Alpha Farm. The high point of his present day might be visiting with the guy who comes to trade hay for use of the farm’s electricity or making sure the commune’s craft shop in nearby Mapleton is putting on a face good enough “to expose the greater world to what we’re doing. There’s got to be an effort for the community to expose themselves.”
“The idea of operating efficiently—not because you’re paid to do it but because you want to do it—is a really empowering philosophy,” according to Zayin.
Every commune has different principles, but consensus, um, rules. Some intentional communities are sociocracies. Others hew to responsible anarchy.
Or “wash your own dish,” as Michael Rios describes it. In 1964, Rios founded an intentional community based on polyamory. He insists that no modes of communal living can be achieved without a radical redefinition of what it means to share.
“Until you get away from the idea of ownership, nothing in the communal world is going to translate,” says the resident of Chrysalis in Arlington, Va. “Monogamy is based on ownership. This takes away from individual responsibility, personal expression.”
Whoa. Definitely a bigger commitment than the last Kickstarter campaign to which you contributed.
The world isn’t going to become one big commune overnight. No single gesture or deed is going to marginalize greed.
“There are a thousand things you do, but none of them are game changers,” says Rios. “What you’ve got to do is change your relationship to possessions. We are stewards of the earth, and that’s the attitude that communes offer, an attitude of universal connectedness.”
That’s one end of the intentional community problem spectrum. But, as humans seem wired to seek self-determination and struggle to conceive of it inside a collective, this isn’t what inhibits thriving in this milieu.
Mostly it’s the little things. Say your commune has a firm nine-cat limit, and an otherwise perfect applicant asks to bring in a kitten. Consensus may win out, but the aftermath might tear your world apart.
“Inequity does not go away as an issue just because you’re in an intentional community,” says Tom Robinson, marketing director of Breintenbush Hot Springs. “In community, the measure of where you’re truly at is the type of issues you think are important. We must be doing pretty good if all we’ve got to worry about is nine or 10 cats.
“I feel like I live an incredibly rich life,” Robinson continued, “and I live in a 20-by-10-foot cabin and have to walk 50 yards to get to a bathroom. It’s really not that much trouble.”