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A short course in setting up an out-of-town commune

07 of April '22

columnist fromA&B issue 03 | 2022

I don't know whether to attribute it to the frustrations of a modern Polish liberal forced to live in the Vistula country, or to the signs of a mid-life crisis, but I've been having strange fantasies for some time now. Here I point out: those who at this point are rubbing their hands together and exercising their eye muscles to read a juicy text full of my personal fantasies about, for example, a group limping naked on the skin of a white bear, will be disappointed!

For this is not about my own nihilistic oblivion flowing from perverse sexual practices, but about a probably equally escapist desire to surround myself with the right people in the right place. Well, I was interested in ... communes. Not the commune, God forbid, the years of living in it have left me with neither sentiment nor even scientific interest in it. In this respect, I will agree with Minister Glinski, who is surely just reading these words.

Well, ladies and gentlemen, I began to wonder a few years ago why people, often educated, often very sensible and not necessarily fooled by the practices of shady gurus or the smoke of joints, decided to create a commune. Why? What were they fleeing from and to where? On what principles? How did they organize themselves? How did they live? Did they deliberately think about a long-term project, or did they get carried away by the exaltation of the moment and thoughts like "Hey, let's move in a few families to the countryside!"? The questions pressed themselves, so I decided to look for answers, collecting materials myself and with the help of students of the ASK postgraduate course at the Faculty of Architecture at the Warsaw University of Technology, who then had to do a project on the subject in international subgroups. Architectural, but also in the field of... social engineering. After all, the Polytechnic, a university that educates engineers, obliges!

"All right," some will say, "but I think it's obvious: people create commons because they want to be free!". Well, both yes and no: the communes that lasted the longest proved that the statement that "freedom is the awareness of limitations" makes sense. Because usually the attempt to create a space of new group freedom meant having to adapt to the limitations that resulted from the creation of some new format. In general, the communes that fell apart usually produced systems of governance that did not suit too many people. Here some of you will laugh that this is why our own commune, the People's Republic of Poland, had to inevitably collapse. Of course, this is just a loose association due to the similarity of concepts, because after all, we are talking about different scales....

The Farm in Tennessee

The first, and perhaps for some readers the most obvious conclusion from my and my students' inquiries is this: all these people wanted to create a project for some better future. For a longer or shorter period of time. Preferably in a place that has its potentials, but also plays a bit of a "tabula rasa" role. Take, for example, the Tennessee group The Farm, which has existed from 1971 until today. A pair of leaders, the Gaskin couple came up with a holistic blueprint for a new community from scratch. They included a framework of the various key dimensions to the community's existence. Not only did they come up with a neat spiritual story, but also the resulting sticking plan for step-by-step implementation. The thought was: since life is the most important, nay, even sacred, let's create the best possible conditions for it. Both for it to appear and for it to last.

Ina May Gaskin came from an ardent Protestant home running a Presbyterian orphanage, and her husband, a former Marine and student of influential thinker and later senator Samuel Hayakawa, had a knack for strategic thinking. And on top of that, the words just flowed from his mouth and enchanted the audience. So much so that he persuaded three hundred followers to participate in a four-month speaking tour, during which he taught in towns and cities from San Francisco to the mountains of Montana. It turned out that the Gaskins found along the way the perfect place to squeeze the juice of cosmic emanation, and they called the juice the energy that unites people. The place was cheap agricultural land interspersed with acres of forest, which they bought from a community drop. Interestingly, Gaskin planned from the beginning that the "connection to nature" was to bear good and lasting fruit in economic terms as well. The plots of land they found were great not only because of price and fertility, but also because the township was close by, and as many as three major cities and also markets for eco-products were two hours away: Nashville, Memphis and Birmingham, Alabama.

After years of living in converted school buses and patched-up demobilized tents, they electrified their land, bought even more, drilled wells, erected small wind turbines and... attracted more than a thousand more settlers. Why? Probably because the period from the Vietnam conflict to the end of the Cold War provided an opportunity to see that America was breaking down. That its elites are exploiting the people more and more shrewdly, baiting them with patriotism, sugar and cheap gasoline. That the notorious American spirit of community is being replaced by individual consumerism and that, something many Americans to this day refuse to admit to themselves, if you're not Elon Musk or Donald Trump, you're better off living, giving birth, getting sick and aging in... Canada. Anyway, I don't think much has changed in this regard, just compare insulin prices in the two countries. In the US, a country dominated by the sugar lobby and big pharma, among others, insulin is ten times more expensive than in Canada. Here I am reminded of a dark-skinned sports promoter I met at a family restaurant in Montreal. The guy moved to maple country because of his wife. As we stood over our poutine-smeared kids playing in the children's corner, he said: "Man, I've had it put into my head from childhood by the whole system that there is no better place to live than America. What bullshit!".

Let's go back to the farm: not long after the first houses were built, there also stood a school for midwives founded by Ina May Gaskin, who had a bad experience with the birth of her first son (a pincer delivery) and the premature delivery of her second son, who died the day after birth. Today, Gaskin's school, which also wrote a worldwide bestseller on "spiritual midwifery," is besieged by both women wanting to study there and women wanting to humanely... give birth there. Did I mention to you that in the U.S. there is no maternity leave, not to mention paternity leave, unless we manage to negotiate one with our employer as part of the "social package"? The farm is still going, having become self-sufficient after years of paying off debts. It makes its living from the production of tofu, soy milk, sorghum molasses, as well as from agritourism and educational workshops, where one can learn vegan cooking, meditation and chiesa. The farm's NGO, PLENTY, assists communities in need by sending carpenters to the far corners of the world, from the Bronx to Guatemala and Bangladesh.

Today there are not 1,100 people living on the farm, but only 200, but it turns out that's exactly what it takes to balance outlays with income. People here earn very little, enough to afford a vacation, but they have a social package that only a well-paid, union-affiliated white collar class representative can boast. Including a pension, but also with a whole system of community support in old age. In a word, the Gaskins, and later the community management council, came up with a flexible concept that is here to stay - and is still going strong. Interestingly, The Farm has become the inspiration for many similar initiatives around the world, sometimes, moreover, almost completely devoid of a spiritual setting, instead always focused on "green living."

The second element common to most communes is the desire to live differently from where we are uncomfortable. This "different" usually means today either "in harmony with oneself" or "in search of oneself." In the past, especially in the 19th century, it usually referred to some kind of systemic oppression, such as persecution or a low standard of living from which it was difficult to escape. It must be said that the 19th century abounded, mainly in America, with interesting examples of such groups, primarily with religious backgrounds. The New World attracted all those who were unwell and cramped in the Old. Therefore, all kinds of sectarians moved to America - Mennonites, Amish, members of the Amana Society, Sheikhs and so on. Here Mormons, Pentecostals and Jehovah's Witnesses arose.

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