Sunflowervillager's Blog

Growing into community

Intentional Communities – general background November 12, 2009

Filed under: economy,organization,social investment — Saera @ 1:23 am

A lot of great stuff is going on at the Economic Geography Wiki:
I’ve also been working on my midterm for that class, a strong portion of which is general information about intentional communities. It’s a little long, and not quite finished, but it’s important background that helps clarify the wider movement that the Sunflower Village Initiative is a part of. Some of it I took out since I originally posted it here in the first place…

My diverse economy topic is Intentional Communities and their diverse economic practices. An intentional community is a community of people who live together or near each other, based on similar values, beliefs, purposes, goals, or lifestyles. Communities are set up to address such varied concerns as poverty, loneliness, supportive environments for physical or mental health, environmentally conscious living, LBGTQ friendly lifestyles, social, economic, environmental, and political justice. They are also sometimes set up as places for producers who have difficulty surviving financially in capitalist systems, such as artists, artisans, and farmers. Many communities combine a variety of these concerns. One thing that pervades is that this is a conscious choice to live with certain other people or types of people, creating a specific environment.

Some intentional communities are quite small, consisting of  only 5 to 10 people, while others are larger, sometimes numbering 100 to 200 people. As communities designed by people who live there, intentional community structures and styles vary dramatically. However, there are some elemental trends which are often found in intentional communities. For example, most intentional communities have some kind of system which allows a strong degree of democracy. One exception to this are many religious communities associated with a particular sect or order. In these cases, communities often follow the religious hierarchy. Communities which strive for a democratic system of governance often operate with one of the following forms, or some combination thereof: consensus, 2/3s vote, majority vote, board of directors, or rotating council. Some intentional communities share much of their economic activities, while others share relatively little.

Why do you think your topic is important?
My topic is important because it presents a different way about conceptualizing what community is and how it is organized. It represents a contrast to the current models, which tend to define communities in terms of random geographic location, religion, ethnicity, or income type. Often these communities are fractured, exclusive, incomplete, disempowered, or disorganized. As a group of people intentionally united around similar values, beliefs, or purposes, intentional communities have the power to be or become holistic, inclusive, empowered, organized, broadly encompassing, and locally grounded. This has strong implications for the current and future organization of our society.

What do you want other people to know about it? Why?

One of the most important realizations people can have about intentional communities is that they continue to exist, be founded, and have long term success.

What are it’s strengths and problems as an economic form or activity?
Since economic set-up varies with type of intentional community and the way that community has addressed general economy according to its values, specific strengths and weaknesses vary. One good example of this is illustrated by a closer look at ecovillages. (took this part out since I wrote it here before)

How does it vary over time and space, I.e. historically and geographically?
Intentional communities, while not always known by that name, have a long history. While it did not last very long, in one sense, the Paris Commune that was developed during the French Revolution was an intentional community. Utopian and other communities have long existed in Europe and elsewhere, sometimes in the form of monasteries or convents. In the United States in the 1800s, utopian communities and religions settlements were not unusual. The most famous of these include the Shakers, the Quakers, and Mormons. But many writers attempted Utopian communities as well, including several in the Boston area. Many people also think of the 1960s in the United States and elsewhere. In fact, this era is when many current intentional communities got started. After Haight-Ashbury became overrun with the second wave of hippies, many of the original group left the area to pursue a life closer to nature. Some of these people tried their hand at farming, only to find that it was more work than they expected. Most of them also lacked the knowledge and skills. Drug use and a high degree of transience also detracted from the success of many attempted communities. But eventually some of these groups got serious and began developing intentional communities, based on shared values such as closeness to the land, egalitarianism, and pacifism. Some of these communities, although partially successful, only lasted 1-5 years before disbanding due to such varied reasons as lack of success in farming, financial issues, lack of commitment, personal transience, and many forms of social discord. Many people today assume that these communities were all or mostly failed experiments. However, that is a myth perpetrated by peoples’ own disillusionments and ignorance. An unacknowledged wellspring of inspiration, ideas, knowledge came from the community experiments of the 60s, as well as the wealth of still extant communities, born then and thriving now.

How does it relate to other hidden and alternative economic activities and organizations?
Intentional communities sometimes have other alternative and hidden economic activities built in. According to, communes are 100% income sharing. This is highly alternative, since mainstream America rarely has that much income sharing, particularly amongst people who may not have any biological relationships. Some communes pool their individually earned incomes, while others, such as Twin Oaks, engage in communally operated industries, such as hammock making, farming, preserves and canned goods, other food products, and crafts. I am not familiar with examples, but it seems logical that an intentional community could easily set up a co-op to fund the community. Barter and housework, especially childcare, have important places in many intentional communities. It is natural for intentional communities to share housework for shared spaces and buildings. In communes of the 60s, it was common to barter clothing and personal goods, and it would make sense for much of this to continue today. Intentional communities also sometimes participate in the underground markets, including the black market. This is particularly true of any community which allows the use of marijuana or other drugs, due to their illegal nature. Because so much work in the community goes unpaid, paid in kind, or paid under the table, it tends to be unrecognized in conventional economics. I would guess that intentional communities are rarely implicated in slave or forced labor, due partially to the intentional involvement of members, but also to values of human rights and equality commonly held by intentional communities.

How does it relate to capitalist businesses, market transactions, and wage labor? Capital businesses seem to generally ignore intentional communities and their economics. However, entities such as Whole Foods sometimes have house accounts for intentional communities. Sirius is an example of this. A house account allows a representative account holder to come and shop, then charge the bill to a tab which is later paid off by the house account. This system is generally reserved for the very wealthy, non-profits, conventional businesses, or intentional communities. It allows a simplification of bookkeeping for the account holders, so that they only make payments once a month or so, instead of more frequently. Some intentional communities are initiated as a response to capitalist business models, with values flatly rejecting capitalist values.

What is being done in communities/nations to support, strengthen, undermine, or eradicate it?
One of the things that strongly undermines intentional communities is misperception. Many people have the attitude that intentional communities are only failed experiments from the 60s and that no such communities exist today. The image that intentional communities no longer exist, or else are drug-infested rejects from the 60s detracts from the spread of intentional communities as a viable economic and social alternative.


2 Responses to “Intentional Communities – general background”

  1. really well written and informative! we hear so little about intentional communities in the general media, and as you wrote in response to the last question, they are often misrepresented. i would add that yet another misrepresentation is that they are the reserve of individuals wealthy enough to have to ‘choice’ of their own community, whereas as you wrote, many of these communities support financially struggling individuals.
    i think it’s really important for the general population to be exposed to the persistence of intentional communities as functionable and viable alternatives to our very messed up general community.

  2. Saera Says:

    Thanks for your comment. It’s a tricky thing to write about in some ways because of the sheer variety of expression of the concept.

    There is good reason that some people see intentional communities as the option of more wealthy individuals. Sadly, many intentional communities do have a disproportionate population of white and middle to upper class. However, it is also true that many intentional communities struggle for economic survival and viability. Both can be true, as there is a significant cost to establishing an intentional community, due to the high cost of land, sometimes inexperience in agriculture leading to expenses in food, and other unanticipated costs. But these problems could be solved by greater education about how intentional communities work and how successful communities have overcome these and other difficulties. As you say, these are functional and viable alternatives. We just need better knowledge about what is and isn’t true of an intentional community, and more experience and exposure to them. 🙂

    Thanks so much for reading!

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