Dr Bill Metcalf
While most people thinking of joining or forming an intentional community would admit that money, property and accountability are important issues, they are not generally seen to be as ‘sexy’ as issues such as power, gender relations, spirituality or decision-making. Many people wanting to live in intentional community are, in fact, trying to avoid such ‘boring, bourgeois’ issues as money and property—yet will find that they are crucial to community life. Only after people have been involved for some years in intentional community living do they fully appreciate the importance of these issues.
I have written about these issues at length in my latest book, The Findhorn Book of Community Living (Findhorn, UK: Findhorn Press, 2004), and I shall discuss money, property and accountability by using edited abstracts therefrom.
Money is an issue within every intentional community—although perhaps not as big an issue as within the wider society. Most conflicts over money within intentional communities arise because of poor communication, unclear rules and weak norms. Some members can thereby feel that they are contributing too much or receiving too little, either in total or compared to others. The sources of this conflict include simply not having enough money, and disagreements over the allocation of money and financial responsibility between members, and between the individual and the collective. In some cases members agree to contribute different amounts, because they have different savings and/or income, but this requires additional trust.
There are two ‘idealised’ models of intentional community finance. In one individual members are responsible for the collective, while in the other the collective is responsible for the individual.
In the first ‘idealised’ financial model, each member is responsible for her/his own income, property and money, but contributes a stipulated amount to the collective purse, like a sort of tax. In intentional communities such as Redfield (UK), Wilhemina Ecovillage (Netherlands) and Associazione Culturale Torri Superiore (Italy), most of the collective income comes from member contributions. Each individual is responsible for her/his own expenses and communal charges, even if unable to work. Generally, property is private unless specifically collective. This is the most common financial model within newly developing ecovillage and cohousing communities around the globe.
In the second ‘idealised’ financial model, most or all income is earned by the collective, through communal businesses, and these funds are used to support members. Kommune Niederkaufungen (Germany), Darvell Bruderhof (UK), Communauté de l’Arche La Borie Noble (France) and residential staff members of Findhorn Foundation (UK) exemplify this system. Almost all members work for the collective which then feeds and houses them. Individuals either receive a personal allowance or simply request/take cash for private needs. If a member cannot work because of ill-health or old age, she/he is still cared for by the collective. Property generally belongs to the collective unless specifically allocated to individuals.
As with most such heuristic models, many intentional communities develop hybrid forms. At Damanhur (Italy), and ZEGG (Germany), for instance, some members work for and earn money from the collective while others work elsewhere but all income belongs to the individual who then contributes to the collective for her/his food and accommodation, regardless of from where that income came. At Ökodorf Sieben Linden (Germany), most members work for the collective, receiving wages from it and contributing equally to it, although a sub-group (Club99) pool all income and expenses. On the other hand, at most Kibbutzim (Israel) and at Kommune Niederkaufungen, all income goes into the collective regardless of whether the money was earned by collective or private enterprise.
Some intentional communities reduce their need for money by creating their own currency for internal transactions, while many others use local complementary currency systems such as LETS. Damanhurians have their own currency, the ‘Credito’, which increases their prosperity and, they believe, ethically anchors their exchange system to ‘values linked to the sustainability of the planet, to the respect for Humankind and all living beings, to respect for work and the added value of well thought out products created with care and love’.
Few countries have legal systems designed to facilitate property ownership by communal groups. In Israel, kibbutzim pre-dated the establishment of the nation, so communal property-holding is well provided for within their legal system. In most other countries, however, intentional communities must rely on laws which were designed for co-operatives, churches, non-profit organisations and small companies. Some countries have recently enacted legislation to facilitate cohousing and ecovillages, usually based on laws applying to high-rise home units. Within these models, individual property rights are generally greater than the rights of the collective, and this can lead to problems.
In intentional communities such as ZEGG (Germany), Darvell Bruderhof (UK) and Findhorn Foundation (UK) almost all property belongs to the collective so some potential problems do not exist—but others may arise. Not everyone is happy not to own any ‘real’ property. At some Israeli Kibbutzim, for example, housing is being reassigned from the collective to individuals. While this solves one problem it creates others such as what control the collective will have on future transfers by sale or inheritance of this now private property. Findhorn Foundation has been privatising its collective resources for many years although it still owns much property. Intentional communities, like other social groupings, must control who can be a member, and ensure that membership is used for the common good. This is relatively easy while most property is collectivised but becomes more difficult when property is privatised. Some intentional communities have failed simply because individuals have transferred their private property (housing) to others who are not interested in communal living, and who thereby drain the collective energy.
Another potential problem with collective money and property is that individuals may not feel responsible for it and may waste resources and not care for assets. The danger is that what is ‘ours’ is not the responsibility of any ‘me’. This problem was well known within many communist societies and within many kibbutzim. In general, this is rarely a problem for small groups but can become serious as the group expands.
Damanhur has a hybrid system wherein most real estate is owned by a co-operative in which members hold shares, allotted according to their investments, and these can be reimbursed if a person leaves. Members believe that this ensures that ‘ownership of communal property is not divided and that wealth remains in common, protected for those who have contributed to its acquisition’. On the other hand, Ökodorf Sieben Linden’s property is all held by one of their four co-operatives or associations from which individual members rent living space. Private ownership is precluded under their statutes.
There is no ‘best’ model for how to deal with property within an intentional community but generally, the more property that is owned collectively, the closer the group will usually be in social, spiritual and cultural ways—although this may not be a causal relationship. This very closeness and interdependence, of course, is what many would-be and current intentional community members fear, which is why we have the dramatic increase in creative hybrid forms such as cohousing. I am not putting a value judgement on how any intentional community holds their money or property but it is an important issue with far-reaching implications. To naively start off with the unquestioned assumption that private or collective ownership is best, or worst, seriously limits an intentional community’s social, environmental and political potential.
All intentional communities require a degree of mutual trust and, ideally, each member should expect to be held personally accountable. In financial matters, within some less communal groups, this may be as simple as having the audited account books available to members. In more communal groups much more may be expected. Full income-sharing groups such as Kommune Niederkaufungen, Israeli kibbutzim and Darvell Bruderhof require far more accountability because far more is at stake. Such groups might display all income and expense figures, and some groups hold meetings at which each member’s productivity and consumption are discussed. I once attended a meeting in such a group when a member requested money to fly overseas to visit his sick mother. What would be a very personal decision for most of us was made by the group after discussing that person’s contribution to the collective. He was given the money.
Accountability is crucial to good decision-making and governance within an intentional community. In brief, members who take part in decision-making should be held accountable—and those who are held accountable should be the decision-makers. In reality, however, some members may fear accountability so that they become passive observers in community governance, while others may take their accountability so seriously that they become a serious blockage to involving others in consensus decision-making. There are numerous excellent books on this thorny issue and many experienced consultants who can help an intentional community to achieve the optimum outcome.
Of course, intentional community accountability also applies beyond finances and governance. Members of most intentional communities are expected to be accountable for what they say, for their relationships, for how they treat collective assets and even for how they interact intimately. Many people find this to be one of the less attractive aspects of intentional community life, feeling that their personal autonomy is constrained by the group, and that they are no longer free ‘to be themselves’. There is some basis for this concern because accountability does entail the individual showing due respect to the collective—not a popular notion in our pathologically individualistic society. The catch is that it is individuals respecting the collective needs (and vice versa) that is essential to healthy intentional community life.
Every intentional community requires money to get started and to maintain daily life, and property on which to live. Members need to be individually and collectively accountable, at least to other members and hopefully to humanity. As a general rule, the more collectivised are money and property, the more close-knit will be the group. On the other hand, unless such highly collectivised groups have very broad and transparent accountability, the more likely they are to encounter difficulties. There is a dynamic tension between individualism and collectivism, for which each intentional community and each member must find their own compromise.