Collective Living 101

When I came downstairs this morning I found a note on the whiteboard in the kitchen. It was from Will to everyone: Is it possible to “reserve” the washing machine for Wednesday morning? he wrote. I need to do house laundry. Will’s note reminded me that I hadn’t yet done my own household chore, which this week is to clean the bathrooms. I should have done it on Sunday evening during our 6:00 to 7:00 housecleaning hour, but this week everyone was busy with one thing or another and we didn’t come together as we often do with the music cranked up loud and the whole household sweeping and scrubbing like professional cleaning crew. So this morning after breakfast I spent a half an hour or so cleaning the bathrooms accompanied by nothing but the peaceful sound of the ceiling fan in the kitchen and the chickens clucking outside.

Last year Will asked us each to name a city we had visited or would like to visit. He wouldn’t say why he wanted the information; he said we’d figure it out. A few days later he tacked up a neatly redone version of our weekly chore chart with each of the six areas of responsibility assigned a city name. Cleaning the porch and yard and taking the trash cans out for pick up is now Centralia; kitchen cleaning is Tucson; the bathrooms are Barcelona;laundry and dusting—Will’s job this week—is Vilnius; sweeping and mopping is Reykjavik; and cooking Sunday dinner is Dakar. We rotate through the jobs so that no one has to do any particular job more often than once every six weeks

I thought about Barcelona—Barcelona the city, not Barcelona the bathroom–as I wiped out the bathtub. I’d like to visit Barcelona some day; I’d like to see Gaudi’s cathedral and Park Guell, and I’d like to go to the place where the most successful modern anarchist experiment flourished during the Spanish Civil War. I once found a 1936 Time Magazine report from anarchist Catalonia called “Anarchism Without Beards”. The reporter was surprised to find the streets peaceful, the shops open, and the worker-run factories operating at full capacity. “Under Anarchism,” he explained “there can be no Dictator such as Stalin, no President such as Roosevelt, in short no Bigwig.”

That’s true. There are no Stalins, no Roosevelts and no Bigwigs at our house. There are six equal and autonomous individuals (seven counting Skye, who is as autonomous as an eight-year-old can be) who share responsibilities and household expenses, who care about the ups and downs of each other’s lives, and who share a common perspective on the world. We sit down together every Monday evening at 9:00 for our weekly house meeting to discuss whatever practical things have come up, we eat together at least once a week, and we talk and laugh a lot. Because it’s a relatively inexpensive way to live, none of us works full time for money, but we all have busy lives. Although our house doesn’t have an explicit theme it is implicitly a household of artists and activists. I’m the only non-musician in the house; one of the pleasures of living the way I do now is hearing Jodi practice the banjo in her room or Will play his kora next door or Crystal try out something new on her accordion.

I set up the collective house five years ago in what had been my nuclear family home. Before I made the change I visited a couple of collective houses and read what scanty information I could find on the internet. It’s surprising how little information there is out there. The lack of information makes collective living seem exotic and somehow antithetical to human nature. It’s not. Basically collective living is the way we all live and work when things are going well—when we like each other, when we trust each other, when we work out conflicting views without having to take it to a higher authority,

I did find one account by someone who had lived in several different collective living situations. His experience included rural and urban collectives, large and small collectives, diverse and fairly homogeneous collectives but he said that the successful ones had four practices in common: the members met together regularly; they ate together regularly; they maintained an agreed-upon level of tidiness; and they were very intentional about admitting new members. All of those four things have proved to be crucial; when we’ve neglected any one of them for any length of time the whole household has gotten a little out of sorts.

All of us will live in a variety of situations over the course of one lifetime: in a nuclear family, in a dormitory, with a romantic partner, by ourselves, maybe in a nursing home, a group home, or a prison. All of those living situations, desirable or not, are in the mainstream. Why is collective living so far off the mental map for most people? It makes all kinds of economic sense, it provides companionship and practical help, and—of increasing importance in the way the world is going right now—it is an ecologically responsible way to live.

I’d love to create a place on the internet for people to come with questions and answers about collective living. Please don’t be shy about joining in the conversation!

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “Collective Living 101

  1. Susan

    Hi,

    Wow, this seems like a really good idea of how anarchism does work in the real world. Do you guys pay utilities and stuff like that? Do you grow your own food or buy it? Do you vote on things or agree through consensus?

  2. lizseymour

    Yes, we pay utilities, though I don’t think we use six times what one of us would use. Sharing the cost makes frills like high-speed internet and unlimited long distance phone plans a lot more reasonable. We’ve started a garden and are trying to move towards an “edible landscape” where everything in the yard has some practical purpose, though I think it’s unlikely we’ll ever be able to grow enough to feed the whole household. We do try to shop local as much as possible–at the farmer’s market and at a natural foods co-op, but we also get a lot of our food free. Some of it’s the produce that’s left over from Food Not Bombs and some of it comes from–yes–dumpster diving. It’s amazing how much money we save that way, and it’s a lot of fun too. All of our decisions are made by consensus, which can take longer but works a thousand times better than voting. Voting is predicated on winners and losers; I think it would be very hard to go on living in a situation where one felt consistently out-voted. The other great thing about consensus is that it often produces solutions that no one person could have thought of on his or her own. It took some learning on my part, but I’m sold.

    • Sam Shields

      That sounds great! I applaud you on your “edible landscape” vision. Exactly how does consensus decision making work?

  3. i love this concept. i’ve been reading, learning, and writing some about this sort of living… thanks for finding my blog… i look forward to learning from your world.

  4. I found this site via Freakonomics, which I read regularly. Thank you for this post, and the great example of collective living. As someone who is slowly working with his chosen family to create an ever larger collective environment I appreciate the wisdom and insight you’ve shared here.

    We recently filled our last bedroom of our huge apartment (4 bedrooms in Chicago), and we’re slowly making plans to purchase a home when we have more money and a few other family members ready to move in. As your home is a musicians, ours is a home of mystics. All of us are spiritually aware and active in our communities. And as I’ve noticed extensively, like many collective living environments, we all have artistic creative bents that make living interesting. I’ll be reading as we go!

  5. Mani

    “Why is collective living so far off the mental map for most people? It makes all kinds of economic sense, it provides companionship and practical help […]”

    You’ve answered your own question: It’s off the mental map because it’s not in the mainstream AND because there are options, in the mainstream that also make “all kinds of economic sense” and provide “companionship and practical help.”

    Further, as you’ve pointed out, there’s a dearth of supporting experience and information for the shift from “mainstream” to collective living – whereas the mainstream, by virtue of being mainstream, is swimming in an ocean of shared experiences. And, like it or not, some dreams and ambitions become incredibly difficult without access to the mainstream and its resources. What does collective living offer to support such pursuits, that is not better handled by instead finding one’s way in the “mainstream”?

    You can navigate brooks and streams if you like – but if you’re looking for that special island, the big rivers will get you into the ocean much faster and more assuredly. Either way, you only need to know how to sail when you get there.

  6. You are invited to Barcelona whenever you want 🙂

  7. Fred Pincus

    I wonder if anyone knows about any studies that have been done about various kinds of collective living in the 1970s (plus or minus a decade). I’m writing a memoir about my experiences during those years and I’d like to get a broader context of what was going on.

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