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Mutualist Blog: Free Market Anti-Capitalism

To dissolve, submerge, and cause to disappear the political or governmental system in the economic system by reducing, simplifying, decentralizing and suppressing, one after another, all the wheels of this great machine, which is called the Government or the State. --Proudhon, General Idea of the Revolution

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Location: Northwest Arkansas, United States

Monday, July 31, 2006

Emma Goldman Finishing School

Via Roger on Anarchy List. Seattle Weekly has an article on the Emma Goldman Finishing School intentional community:

"Sasha Berkman," the founder, describes the idea behind it:

The theory is: Revolution is not the moment that you seize power. The revolution is the building of day-to-day alternative systems and structures.

Unlike most intentional communities, which are rural, Emma's is an urban commune situated close to the headquarters of Amazon.Com.

If you live at Emma's, you do not have to work at a paying job, but you can't spend more than $15,000 a year, no matter how much you earn. You cannot own a car, but for four hours of labor a week, you can join Emma's car co-op with three vehicles, all equally decrepit. There are home-cooked vegetarian meals most nights, though you have to be willing to eat food partially harvested from Dumpsters (somewhere between 10 percent and 20 percent of the community's food is scavenged). Illegal drugs aren't allowed, but the commune home brews its own beer. All decisions are made by consensus. Every week there is a three-hour house meeting where all the final decisions for the commune are made. You can't be lazy and live at Emma's, and it helps if you have a good sense of humor. Emma's members are white, middle-class, college-educated, dedicated nonviolent revolutionaries, currently between the ages of 23 and 40, trying to concretely realize their utopian vision in the middle of a dystopian world of war, famine, disease, and ecological devastation. Berkman explains what they are doing by quoting an old anarchist adage: We are building the new society in the shell of the old....

Emma's has adopted a modified form of income sharing called labor sharing. The fundamental principle is that an hour of anyone's time is equal to an hour of anyone else's time. In the community, and in the world its members envision, an hour that Cooper spends as executive director of a nonprofit is equal to the hour that Berkman spends taking garbage out of a Dumpster. As Cooper [director of the land trust that bought the abandoned apartment building that houses the commune] wrote, "Sharing income, resources, and property is a direct affront to our capitalistic ideology of the individual, and thus is a scary idea to entertain."

I disagree. An hour-for-hour labor exchange is the height of individualism. By acknowledging that labor is worthy of its hire, that nobody has the right to command the goods or services of another producer except through a voluntary exchange of value for value, the labor exchange honors the sovereign, equal individual.

Currently, each of Emma's members owes the community 118 hours a month. Those can be worked entirely inside the house—at the moment, two members have chosen that option—or nearly entirely outside the house at a paying job. The exception is that everyone must help clean the common areas.

People who receive income from paying jobs turn over all of their wages to the commune. In exchange for their income and household labor, members receive food, shelter, health insurance, transportation (bus passes and car co-op), a modest retirement savings, and educational expenses, including payments on student loans. Members also receive a small personal allowance, currently maxed out at $417 a month, for clothing, entertainment, hobbies, and the like. The living expenses for each member add up to around $15,000 annually, which puts them in the lowest 10 percent of income for individuals in Seattle. For Emma's members, their voluntary poverty is a living critique of capitalist consumerism.

Any money that the community receives over and above expenses and allowances is loaned to a "social justice fund" (members who leave are reimbursed over time for their financial contributions). Currently at around $100,000, the fund is part of the group's plans to help like-minded people start revolutionary projects in Seattle. "We have a distinctly expansionist strategy," says Parke Burgess, 40, a member for the last three and a half years. Burgess explains that Emma's members hope to help jump-start dozens of residential communities and worker-run collectives in the area. "Hopefully, there will be a meat-eating commune or one where they all smoke cigarettes. Our hope is to create a microcosm of Seattle in these many communities. They could be residential or a food distribution system or a zero-interest bank or risk pools instead of conventional insurance. That's a huge focus of our hope and dreams for this institution."

This sounds a bit like Mark Gillespie's idea in an article for Strike the Root:

Now, while these ICs are growing, each new community will be working to spawn others. I don't care if the community is one of rabid Christian post-millenialists or if they are the most homo of homosexuals. Start helping others to design their own communities. A smart group of an-caps could actually make this a business model. Soon a federation of radically differing communities will be in full agreement on mutual protection and mutual growth.


Blogger k. edward warmoth said...

This seems more Marxist to me, but a very good idea, none the less.

I'll look into it since I plan on heading to Seattle in the next few years.

July 31, 2006 1:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Marxist? I don't see how, as he was hardly one for voluntary collectivism. Though I suppose it could be Marxist in essence, or philosophically Marxist, if that's what Kai means.

What a cool idea. And I was almost floored by the comment about different communes allowing smoking, meat eating, etc. That seems alot more pluralist and "live and let live" than I expected from zealous revolutionaries. Of course if one honestly believes meat is murder, then allowing for a meat eating community is a no-no.

Though I wonder about the sociology of this project. Why does it always seem to be educated middle class white kids who take on these veritable vows of poverty? The last thing the people I know of lower middle class and immigrant origin want to do is rough it.


July 31, 2006 1:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

No drugs, noone's allowed to own a car? Sounds like tyranny to me. At least it's not a community of lying, thieving mutualists though.

July 31, 2006 4:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You cannot own a car, but for four hours of labor a week, you can join Emma's car co-op with three vehicles, all equally decrepit. There are home-cooked vegetarian meals most nights, though you have to be willing to eat food partially harvested from Dumpsters (somewhere between 10 percent and 20 percent of the community's food is scavenged).

Oh yeah, I'm going to give up my apartment, carnivorous meals, and car to live with people who eat from dumpsters. Fuck that with a stick.

- Josh

July 31, 2006 8:59 PM  
Blogger Charles Pooter said...

One problem with any of these commune ideas is that they will inevitably attract weirdos. When I say weirdos, I mean people with unstable or domineering personalities. In a society where these enterprises were more common it wouldn't be so much of a problem, but when you have the only commune for miles around, it will be. Of course, with the artificially inflated cost of housing in many places, many young people are already living in "communes" -- they just don't call them that.

August 01, 2006 5:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm with WP - I have no desire to live there. Some of the "rules" seem to be needlessly masochistic. It's unlikely they're going to do much to popularize their movement, or by implication, the decentralization movement in general.

However, I share the sentiment that these folks have a good strategy that more of us need to embrace or at least consider. Unfortunately, the state and it's taxes, zoning, and other laws are likely to make many otherwise viable small voluntary communities non-viable. I wish them luck.

August 01, 2006 6:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Also, I feel I should draw a distinction between implementing voluntary socialism in a work environment and implementing voluntary socialism in a home environment. The former can lead to co-ops and mutualist credit unions, while the latter can lead to weirdo communities that eat scavenged food and don't allow members to smoke or own a car. Not that communes of this sort are inherently bad - college age kids living together are also "communes", although they don't call them that - but when taken this far they often involve arbitrary restricions on the lives and happiness of individuals which are just plain creepy.

August 01, 2006 7:16 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"An hour-for-hour labor exchange is the height of individualism."

I'm still not sure how apparently abstracted amounts of labour can be kept equivalent. From my point of view, it would only be acceptable in a direct exchange where I was happy that the other person's product was actually worth the same. You need fairly tight communal awareness for this to work I think, at least in this situation.

August 02, 2006 3:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ah yes...paying the brick layer who, through hard work or skill and experience, can lay twenty bricks an hour as much as the lazy, or unskilled and inexperienced brick layer who only lays 4 bricks an hour is the "height of individualism."

Such statements that deny the difference in ability or work ethic always make me feel unclean and uneasy, like I am the presence of something that is dirty and dangerous.

I am fairly new to this site, but a am suprised Kevin would make such a statement, considering I just read his insightful discussion on sweatshops vs. forced labor.

August 04, 2006 10:48 AM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...


I think such a labor-exchange would only work under the constraints Nathan mentioned, regulated in a network of people who used moral pressure to enforce some minimum norm of quality and efficiency. The market competition would still be there, in the form of refusing to accept the labor-notes of someone known to do shoddy work.

August 04, 2006 11:26 AM  

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