The limits of Community

I actually live in an intentional community (we are the 0.1%) and I want to dispel some myths, as there are a lot of people out there who seem to either have a really utopian vision of what this entails and aspire to live in one, or think its a really terrible idea that can only possibly end in failure and misery.

First off, I should cover the simple nuts and bolts of what an intentional community is. As far as I’m concerned its simply a group of people who share some of their living space, make decisions democratically and usually share some sort of ethos. It isn’t a religious group, a sex-cult, or a bunch of mad hippies who pool their income in order to grow kale and buy organic sandals (clearly it can be all of those things, but usually it isn’t).

The organising democratically bit is important, and is a big part of why many people think that intentional communities are so preposterous. We don’t have much of a culture of democracy in this country. What I mean by that is that we aren’t used to being part of organisations that are run democratically. Voting once every few years is about all that most people do to engage with a democratic structure, and lots of people don’t even do that. The idea of a small or medium sized organisation run as a democracy is simply alien to most people, and so they have no idea what that looks like. This is where the ‘that could never work’ element comes in – the idea of a group of people getting together to make decisions democratically is so alien, that many people think its impossible. Not an unreasonable assumption, given how poorly our national democracy represents the views of most of its citizens, but it should give pause to the idea that we’re a democratic society.

Lots of intentional communities have a focus of some sort. This could be as simple as living in a more environmentally friendly way, or as full on as embracing a particular type of monasticism. But most that I have visited have been fairly pragmatic. While intentional communities tend to attract a certain type of person, and have a bar to membership in that potential new members have to persuade the current members to let them in, the nature of democracy is such that the decisions made by the community as a whole tend to be the ones that its members find of most benefit, and not many people want to live as part of a community that places a lot of restrictions on how they live. And since members will change over the years, there is a natural tendency for communities with a more restrictive focus to mellow over time.

This is where the other end of the spectrum comes in. Many people who want to set up or join an intentional community have some quite impractical notions about the extent to which it will change their life, particularly in terms of the level of unity they can expect from its members. They may have an unrealistic idea, for example, of the amount of work themselves and other members are willing to put in – I know I did.

Do you want to live in a community that restricts its members dietary choices perhaps? Would you be willing to leave if in ten years time, if it turns out that the restrictive diet in question exacerbates an underlying health condition? Or perhaps your new partner subscribes to a different incompatible restrictive diet, and is not willing to live under such impositions? I am aware of an intentional community that went from being vegan to vegetarian due to a misunderstanding between the community and a new member about what the policy was, within which changing the rules seemed a lot fairer than asking the new member to leave.

Residents of intentional communities get a lot of benefits from their living situation, but a lot of the benefits simply come down to the fact that it is more economical to share some aspects of life between a group. The other benefits tend to come as a result of the social benefits of living and working with a like-minded group of people. We are social animals, and a lot of people who would find single living or being part of a nuclear family isolating take well to living in community.

The other assumption that prospective community dwellers tend towards is underestimating the negative implications of the social dynamic. For all its drawbacks, there are good reasons that wealthy nations embraced the nuclear family with such enthusiasm, and why most people who can afford to choose to live either singly, or as part of a nuclear family. Living with other people is hard work. Living with a group of other people especially so. It means putting up with the noise, bustle, mess and emotions of several other people. The upside to this of course, is that it if you can hack it, it teaches you both to be more tolerant of others, and to respect their boundaries by not making your mess and emotions their problem – essential skills in many areas of life.

Having such a fundamental part of one’s life as one’s living situation require democratic participation also has the added bonus of cementing the community together, and creating a far more cohesive group than what you might have in a shared house that isn’t an intentional community.

Of course there are arguments, and falling outs, and sometimes they test the limits of the community, occasionally to breaking point. People fall out, and people move out. An inevitable consequence of living with people is that one day you might not want to live with them any more, whether they are your spouse, your parents, or your friends. The big difference here is that intentional communities can change gradually, as members move out and other members move in, as well as member’s requirements changing over time, and so the nature of the living situation is pretty flexible.

Now on to the second part: There are quite obviously limits to what an intentional community of the pragmatic sort can achieve. If the community is there for its member’s benefit, then some members are not going to be willing to contribute more than is beneficial to them.

But what if you want more than that? What if you want your intentional community to be involved in feeding the homeless, or working the land together, or embracing “voluntary simplicity” or sharing income between the group? If that is the case, then you had best be prepared for some long discussions at the start to hash out exactly what the community’s expectations of its members are. You had also better be prepared to ask people to leave if they decide that they’ve found a new focus for their lives, and then tell them to do so if they don’t take kindly to your asking. Are you willing to make people homeless because they have become disillusioned with your way of life?

There are intentional communities that live like this. We tend to call them monasteries, or convents. Some of the stranger ones get called cults – and that may be a fair or unfair label depending on the social dynamic within them. But the nature of these sorts of community is that even fewer people want to live in them. The advantage that these communities have is a focus beyond their members – for all its faults religion does tend to bind a group of people together, and encourage them to work towards goals greater than their own.

So if you want to live in a community, you should ask yourself: Are you interested in providing yourself with affordable housing, and living with like-minded people? And more importantly, is that enough for you? If it isn’t, then will living in community allow you to find other ways to meet these needs? If you can put aside any utopian ideals you might have, you may still find there are a lot of benefits.

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Apologies for any of you who’ve been coming back to look for new posts – I’ve had a few weeks break as I’ve mostly been in fields this summer. I’ll be hopefully getting back to a weekly posting schedule now. Next week I’ll be talking about unintentional community

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