Network for a New Culture and Community Formation

by James Everett Ward

There are several reasons to form intentional communities. While there are mundane economic advantages (due to economies of scale and avoidance of needless duplication, e.g., private kitchens and individual automobiles) in the creation of intentional communities, for our purposes social, political, emotional and spiritual reasons are much more important.

One very important reason is that intentional community can accelerate the processes of personal change and social transformation. Not only can community provide its members with a supportive base from which to pursue projects for social change, and allow them easy contact with potential collaborators, but it also can be tremendously energizing to simply be around other people who share your ideals and are actively working to realize them. This support, plus the economic advantages of community (which provide members more free time because there are fewer economic demands on them than in "normal" society), allows members to live lives more fully in accord with their ideals and desires than they otherwise could. On a more personal level, living in community allows people to form and maintain sexual relationships in an unpressured atmosphere; it also means that maintaining multiple relationships will not eat up so much of your time that it'll consume your life (as it often does when you live as an isolated individual or couple). It also means that individuals can have more time (and, often, more resources) with which to pursue their passions, to pursue their creative interests, than they otherwise would. It seems obvious that these things, taken in combination, mean that community can provide individuals the means of living much happier more fulfilling lives than they could living in straight (isolating) society.

The other very important reason for forming communities is that they provide models for others to emulate, and a means of social evolution. Human beings seem to have an innate tendency to imitate others, and this tendency seems especially strong when they see others doing things that they desire in their own lives. So, if we reach critical mass, if we form enough communities showing healthier, saner, more fulfilling ways to live, it's reasonable to expect that we'll set off a chain reaction and gradually transform the world through emulation of our models.

The question then becomes what are the critical elements of sane, healthy, fulfilling communities? Author Mark Holloway, in his book, Heavens on Earth: Utopian Communities in 19th Century America, states that the two essential elements of successful intentional communities are a common purpose outside of community for its own sake (that is, a common dedication to higher goals), and that members know each other before forming communities.

But there are many other elements to successful communities. Here are some of them, starting with Holloway's two "essential" elements:

A Purpose Beyond "Community For Its Own Sake"

In the 19th century, as today, one of the great temptations was (is) to retreat from the outside world, to set up a "safe" place to hide. Unfortunately (or, perhaps, fortunately) this was and is an inadequate basis for community. To the best of my knowledge, every community with such a retreatist central attitude has been relatively short lived and unsuccessful (or has devolved into a part of "normal" society). To succeed, intentional communities seem to need a purpose beyond community in itself.

For the most part, the purpose of successful intentional communities has been religious, but it's a mistake to conclude that the purpose of successful communities must necessarily be religious. Experience shows that some successful communities including, obviously, ZEGG have had nonreligious purposes. Concerning Brook Farm, the most attractive of the 19th-century utopian communities he describes, Holloway says: "The Brook Farmers were determined to secure as many hours as possible from necessary toil' . . . They wished to do so in order that they might use this leisure for the production of intellectual goods.' They hoped to be able to provide, not only all the necessaries, but all the elegances desirable for bodily and for spiritual health: books, apparatus, collections for science, works of art, means of beautiful amusement' all of which were to be held in common. Here, at last, was an aim worth any amount of preliminary toil, an aim the fulfillment of which would supply the one great deficiency [lack of common purpose outside of community for its own sake]."

It's worth noting that this is a broad and ill-defined goal, but it was sufficient as the basis for a vibrant community. Network for a New Culture's more ambitious and more clearly defined goals should provide an even better basis for community. Those goals are to create a world without fear and violence, to replace competition with cooperation, to heal the earth, to heal the division between the sexes, to help individuals heal themselves, to help them reach their full potential as human beings, to help them release their spiritual/sexual energies, and to provide models which will transform society through emulation.

Prior Knowledge: Know Each Other First

The other factor that Holloway lists as essential to successful intentional communities is "prior knowledge," that is, that members know each other prior to founding a community. The reasons for this, in terms of having common ideals and goals, and having the ability, willingness, and desire to work out problems, seem obvious in light of the concrete examples Holloway provides. He lists a large number of communities, most prominently New Harmony, that, though they had lofty stated goals, fell apart shortly after they were founded because they accepted complete strangers, with widely differing visions and agendas, as members. The relatively few successful intentional communities Holloway lists were comprised of individuals who knew each other prior to founding their communities. We can expect the same to be true today. So, tempting though it may be, it's almost certainly a mistake to "just do it now," to rush into forming community with strangers or with persons you barely know. Having the patience to allow potential members time to get to know each other well is a virtue when forming community.

While these two features a higher common purpose and "prior knowledge" are essential to the success of intentional communities, there are several other features that are also very important:

Willingness To Change

In any egalitarian intentional community, interpersonal tensions and conflicts will inevitably arise. This isn't surprising, as we're all products of a violent, authoritarian, emotionally and sexually repressed world; so, it's reasonable to accept that we're all far from perfect and that our beliefs and behaviors will at least to some extent reflect our social conditioning. The key questions then become: Are we willing to deal with these problems? And if so, how do we deal with them?

If the answer to the first question is "no," it seems probable that we will never move beyond the "normal" ways of (not) relating to each other and will merely produce a mini-society that's a reflection of the larger society, at least in terms of interpersonal relations. But if the answer is "yes," that leads us to the next piece of the puzzle:

Processes For Change

This sounds frightening because it conjures up an image of life as a continual therapy session. But in reality, a process for change can be something as simple as "transparency," of making a conscious effort to be open and honest about your thoughts, actions and motivations. There are a myriad of other useful processes drawn from sources as diverse as ZEGG (e.g., forum), cognitive-behavioral therapy, gestalt therapy, neuro-linguistic programming, and the human potential movement. The point is not that particular techniques are the "right" ones, but rather that we be open to change, that we be willing to experiment; if we are, we almost certainly will find the processes that are right for us and for our communities.

Democratic Desicion Making

It doesn't matter greatly what the form is, consensus, modified consensus, majority vote, or the use of different forms for different questions, as long as the decision making process is democratic and functional. Many communities adopt the consensus process for the most important decisions, such as admitting new members; modified consensus for less important decisions (setting a time limit and then adopting majority vote if consensus hasn't been reached before the time limit); and majority vote for the least important decisions.

A Minimum Of Organization

Some organization is necessary in any community, but it should be kept to the minimum necessary, and it's absolutely essential that the powers and responsibilities of any organizational structure be clearly defined and limited. Unchecked, organizational structures tend to assume ever more power, and to intrude into individuals' lives.

Individual, Not Group, Projects

Participation in every event/project should be purely voluntary. Only those members of your community who want to participate should participate, and only those who want to contribute financially should do so. (Of course, everyone should be responsible for paying for their portion of physical essentials rent/mortgage, utilities, food, etc.) By making all projects/events voluntary, you'll avoid a lot of hurt (coerced) feelings, and you'll avoid a lot of wasted time wrangling over "what we as a community should do."

A Minimum Of Rules

The recently dissolved (1991) Kerista commune in San Francisco is a good example of what can happen when this precaution is ignored, even when a community has lofty goals. (The stated goals of Kerista were similar in many ways to our stated goals.) Over the last few years there's been a lot of discussion of Kerista's dissolution by those familiar with the community, and most of those who analyzed its failure pointed their fingers at the domination of the group by its founder. This is, at best, only a partial explanation; it's necessary to ask why his domination had such unfortunate effects. The answer, I believe, is that the Keristans had no respect for individual rights and no tolerance for individual differences. They went rule crazy. They made dozens upon dozens of rules about anything and everything from spiritual beliefs to the private sexual practices of members; and they blithely assumed that as long as they made the rules "democratically" everything was fine. Well, they were wrong. Kerista adopted as its operating principle blind belief in the tyranny of the majority (which they called "democracy"), and the result was an uptight religious cult.

What the Keristans failed to understand is that the only area in which any society or community is justified in regulating its members is in the area of invasive behaviors. Once a society or community begins to regulate beliefs and noninvasive behaviors, there's no stopping it, and it eventually ends up being a rule-bound tyranny like Kerista or, on a larger scale, the United States or Iran.

Thus, it's absolutely necessary that any healthy society, large or small, regulate only invasive behaviors. In intentional communities, this would mean, for example, that the community would be justified in banning invasive practices, such as smoking in public places, but would have no business telling its members what to think, what color of clothing to wear, or what to do in bed.

In the communities we're forming, individual freedom must be a fundamental principle. So let's avoid unnecessary, invasive rules.

Spiritual Tolerance

While broad agreement about our higher goals is necessary to the success of our communities, it's also necessary to realize that there are a lot of different routes to realizing those goals. Insisting that you know the way others should follow seems arrogant. Unless you want to live in a group-think theocracy, spiritual tolerance is necessary. The most that any community can reasonably ask of its members is that they share its higher purpose and that their beliefs be noninvasive, that they don't attempt to force others to adopt their beliefs. Thus, it should be relatively easy for those holding noninvasive beliefs (e.g., pagans, atheists, Buddhists, agnostics, new agers of various sorts, etc.) to live peaceably together in a community.

One advantage of such a diversity of views is that it in itself forms a powerful check against formation of a theocratic cult. Hence spiritual tolerance should be a cornerstone of any healthy intentional community.

A Free, Open, Sex-Positive Atmosphere

This is a critical component of our emerging communities. One of our major tasks will be to create environments that in themselves act in a healing way in the area of sexuality. This is where many of our greatest doubts, insecurities, feelings of inferiority and inadequacy lie; this is where we are all, in different, often subtle, ways, laden with guilt, blame and shame.

One of the cornerstones of a new culture will be the honoring of pleasure, especially sexual pleasure, and the understanding and affirmation of its healing qualities. Sexual pleasure does not need anything to legitimize it, such as, for example, love. (Actually it gives rise to love if not blocked.) Sexual energy is life force energy. We would do well to honor it.

As for relationships and attitudes toward them, the healthiest atmosphere for freely loving people is one in which there is support for any type of loving, consensual sexual relations between adults, relationships which could be straight, gay, or bi, and which could be one to one or involve multiple partners. It's reasonable to expect that we'll all be happier, healthier and more productive if we experiment rather than attempt to live our lives in accord with pre-ordained models.

Common Ownership Of The Land

In a community where some members own the land and others rent, or are there by the grace of the owners, a caste system is inevitable. As long as some people hold more power than others, those with the power will be tempted to use it against the wishes of the less powerful, and the less powerful will find that it's simply not safe to be completely open with those who have power (however limited) over them. The difficulties this poses to those attempting to form egalitarian communities seem obvious.

It should be noted that those setting up new communities often do better to rent for a while rather than buy land/buildings immediately. The failure rate of new communities is very high, and it's a lot easier to bail out of a rental situation than an ownership situation.

A Mechanism For Getting Out

It's necessary that members be free to leave the community at any time and to take along (or to receive in a reasonable time) what they brought with them or invested in the community. If communities don't have such a provision, it leads to trouble.

The Kerista commune, for example, had a policy that when members left they took the clothes they were wearing and $600, no matter how much they had invested in the commune. The result was that a lot of members stuck around for years, even though they didn't want to be there, because they felt they couldn't afford to leave, leading to much unhappiness and, to an extent, a poisoned atmosphere. Kerista could have avoided this by having a fairer exit policy.

Peaceful Conflict Resolution

The reasons for this are obvious and need no elaboration. Suffice it to say that having friendly but non-interested third parties arbitrating or mediating disputes is often a huge aid in resolving them; and having processes such as the ZEGG-style forum available is also a huge aid.

A Means For Expelling Disruptive Members

Unfortunately, this can occasionally become necessary, even in carefully self-selected communities, and it can turn into a huge mess if there's no provision in the community charter for expelling disruptive members. Because communities normally want to avoid the possibility of cliques forcing other members out for personal reasons, it's normal for expulsion of a member to require a consensus-minus-one or minus-two vote of the entire community, or at least a super-majority (80% or 90%) vote.

A Combination Of Private And Public Space

Obviously, one of the reasons for intentional community is to live with and closely interact with others, and a certain amount of common space is necessary to that end; but almost everyone has a need for at least some privacy, so some private spaces are also necessary.

Income Sharing

The reason for this is that economic disparities equal power disparities, and it's very difficult, perhaps impossible, for individuals with widely differing incomes (and thus amounts of power) to form egalitarian relationships. Probably the easiest form of limited income sharing to implement, and one which I think most people would consider equitable, would be to adjust the amount of monthly "rent" individuals would pay (as their share of the mortgage payments, utilities, public space improvements, food for common meals, etc.) according to their income and wealth. In new communities, however, it might be simpler to simply split expenses. Due to the economies of community living, even this arrangement would very likely result in a higher standard of living at lower cost for the poorest community members than they could achieve if living alone. There are a host of other desirable features in community, but it's beyond the scope of this manual to go into them here. Some of the more obvious ones are ecologically friendly practices such as the use of solar power and organic gardening or farming, outreach activities such as a publishing house, radio station, or coffee house, and ways in which to introduce interested visitors to the community-living experience and our higher goals.