~By Tom (Tet)
I figure that now is as good a time as any to do my article on my past experience with the various forms of small-C communism, anarchy and off-the-grid living. I was, as some of you know, one of the hippies back so very long ago. I watched experiments in social structures ranging from an alternative City Council in Champaign-Urbana to Stephen Gaskin’s Farm in Tennessee. Virtually all of the ones I knew are gone now, major failures. Even Gaskin’s Farm stopped being Communistic in 1983, switching to a system where each family was expected to support itself with its own income.
I’ve lived in a multi-adult household during the early period, as well as a successful 5-10 person city block/purchased house group during the last decade. Why have the ones I’ve been part of been successful while others have failed? There are various reasons that I’ll cover in the rest of this article.
Hierarchy and Coercion.
Celine’s Second Law states that Communication is Only Possible Between Equals. This means that success in social interactions only occurs when there is no coercion on either side. Two of the mistakes made by unsuccessful communes were due to this principle being ignored. There is first of all the despot/guru model where the spiritual leader makes the rules with or without input from the populace. The most extreme example of this type, of course, was Charles Manson’s Family. A number of the surviving communes still have this structure.
The opposite extreme was the democratic model where major terms of discussion were put to a vote. These deteriorated rapidly, since the unity was quickly broken down into power blocs and cliques, sort of like 7th Grade School elections. Almost all of these communes are gone now. (If anyone knows of any that are still operating at this time, let me know, I’d love to study why.)
The successful communes I have seen have worked on a veto principle that resembles neither of the above. In order for anything controversial to happen, there has to be a unanimous consent between all of the members. In this case, since the entire membership has agreed on the item on the agenda, no one can feel that their input has been overridden. This also has a tendency to reduce the amount of risk-taking actions, since one or more members would have the good sense to realize that the risk is too high for the action. It also encourages compromise, since in order to get part of what you want, you have to be willing to give up some things you desire to get the cooperation of other people. This veto power, however, seriously limits the number of people in a working commune, since if you get too high a number, essential changes cannot be made in time to evolve to meet crises.
Inappropriate Economics for Size
I’ve been trying to find the approximate cut-off point for true Communism for some time–you know, “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs.” My guess is that it’s about 13.
Why does this occur? My theory is this: It has something to do with the Pareto Principle (the 80-20 rule.) I learned about this in Quality Control Engineering when we found out that 20% of the workers made 80% of the mistakes. A different 20% of the workers were responsible for 80% of the profit of the company.
How does this apply to commune living? The “from each…” formula only works if people have approximately equal amounts of both assets and liabilities. It is easy to select for this *if* the number of people in the commune are small enough that the statistics of small numbers are in operation. If you get large, suddenly 20% of the population is resentful, since their contribution is essential, but they’re working all of the time. At the same time, 80% of the money/materials that they make is going to support the needs of 20% of the communal population (who are, most likely, completely different people.)
This resentment eventually destroys the commune, and occurs time after time. This is why true Communism or Socialism WILL NOT WORK IN REAL LIFE WITHOUT COERCION, and inevitably leads to a loss of freedom.
Failure to deal with the rest of the world adequately.
I can best illustrate this with an example. Back around 1974, there was an alternative City Council (called the Community Council) with representatives from all of the “hippie businesses” and business collectives at that time. [There were dozens in this town, ranging from a gas station to a dressmaking collective to a restaurant. The only remainders of this period still extant are Good Vibes, Strawberry Fields and People's Performance Automotive--the rest collapsed, usually noisily and involving lawsuits.]
I was on this Council, along with my wife at the time. At one point, the Twin Cities offered us the opportunity to play Softball in the City League against teams fielded by the “straight” businesses.
Simple, right? Nope. Didn’t happen.
The people within the communes refused to deal with playing SOFTBALL with the rest of the city because a) THEY KEPT SCORE, and teams should not be fielded with the idea of competiton, but merely for the enjoyment of the play and b) THEY USED RULES.
Need I say more? Billy Joe, I can sense you staring at me in disbelief. It really happened, I swear to God.
Lack of a common belief system
Any government that wishes to rule without coercion cannot depend on a police force or an army to control civil order. The populace itself has to be primarily virtuous and in agreement with the social contract. The same is true of a commune. The successful ones consistently were picky, taking only those who were willing to commit to a social contract that ensured that the good of everyone was the top priority.
All it takes is one criminal or exploiter within a non-coercive social group in order for it to collapse. Human nature being what it is, those that were good judges of human nature lasted, those who were not, died.
Hopefully, this sheds some light on remarks that I’ve made in the past about freedom and social structure and alternative living. For those who are curious about the 60s and 70s, I hope that it also gives you the reasons (besides “hippies were stupid and stoned”) that the social experiments during that period failed and showed some of the things that could be learned from them.
~By Tom (Tet)