- Capitalism and Alternatives -

Intentional Communities

Posted by: Barry Stoller on November 22, 1999 at 10:37:01:

'What do you do when, having gone back to the land to raise your own food, you discover that the farmers in the neighborhood are buying dressed chickens at the supermarket [at far lower prices]?'
---B.F. Skinner

SDF, carrying the torch I once carried, has forwarded the notion that intentional communities either are or can create socialist environments.

Although there is much merit in actually existing intentional communities, to consider them socialist is incorrect.

Instead of calling intentional communities socialist communities, I would suggest calling them rationalization societies. Although socialism is characterized by rationalization, it is also characterized by other things---most conspicuously the public ownership of the means of production.

Some* intentional communities publicly own what means of production they possess. They do not publicly own all the means of production they require, however. For example, the communistic Los Horcones calls themselves a 'self-sufficient' community---while receiving subsidies from the Mexican government! Other communities buy many of their necessities---such as medical care, oil, vehicles, and so on from capitalists.

Small communities, of course, do not have access to a variety of geographically diverse resources. They also lack the economies of scale that could create the sort of abundance most Americans expect. I know of no intentional community that drills their own oil, makes their own vehicles, or uses roads that they have created themselves. Thus, intentional communities rely on the productivity that capitalism has already created---and pay the prices that capital demands.

Most intentional communities live frugally yet happily by employing basic rationalization methods---shared dining halls, laundries, vehicles, etc. This reduced consumption, however, has appealed only to the 'educated middle class' who populate almost all intentional communities.(1) One obvious reason that the working poor have rejected intentional communities is because they are not at all ready to live more frugally than they already are! Another important consideration is that the membership of most intentional communities fluctuates so frequently that turnover rate is, on average, well over 50%.(2) Here we see voluntary frugality is, for most members of intentional communities, a temporary commitment.

Another possible reason for such turnover is the fact that 'small-is-beautiful' communities are limited in the work they do.

Most intentional communities are cottage industries creating products that are luxury or specialty (limited market) commodities. Twin Oaks provides apt examples of both: they produce hand-crafted hammocks that Pier One retails and designer tofu that regional restaurants purchase. Such work is labor-intensive and monotonous. Most intentional communities only produce one or two products---which narrows the job field considerably. To only make hammocks or tofu is the antithesis of Marx's vision of the well-rounded individual in The German Ideology.

Here we see that because intentional communities need many products that only capital's industrial productivity can create and because intentional communities can NOT match the socially necessary labor time required to COMPETE with capital (in fair trade), intentional communities must surrender more labor-power to capital than they get back. This surrendered labor-power usually assumes the form of labor DIRECTLY---i.e. working for capitalist endeavors.

And this relationship is capitalism---not socialism.

Can intentional communities create, through networking and the propaganda of deed, a socialism movement?

The absence of the working class in such communities does not bode well for a mass movement. The rapid turnover rate infers that such communities are, indeed, 'schools of life'---i.e. lifestyle resorts.

The lack of self-sufficiency and industrial abundance suggests that such communities can never challenge capital's property relations---or appeal to mass groups of disenfranchised workers. The fact that such communities required massive investment capital to get off the ground suggests that they are limited to the already affluent---i.e. those least likely to embrace the concerns of the working poor.

Are such communities 'better than nothing'? Of course. They encourage rationalization and community---two things that socialism characterizes.

But such communities also lack abundance and job variety---two of the most important features of socialism.


* Sirious and Ganga (to name but two well-established intentional communities) are 'live-in' communities only---which mean that their members work individually outside the community. Because the means of production are private, these intentional communities are NOT 'egalitarian' income-sharing communities. Each member has his / her separate income.


1. Communities, Winter 1997, p. 6.
2. Ibid., p. 7.

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