2012-10-28

Where Did Nowhere Go?

Twin Oaks community today is very different from the eight struggling communitarians you’d have found there during the first week in 1967. While they continue to evolve, by the early 1970s, they had settled into a basic pattern and approach that is remarkably similar to what they still have today. They operate by basically the same labor-credit system they worked out within the first couple years: everyone puts in 42 hours a week cooking or cleaning or gardening or hammock-making or child rearing or machine repairing or whatever the community needs. Members turn in a preference sheet each week weighting their preferences for the jobs they’d like to work on that week, and from everyone’s preference sheets job assignments are made and posted. As long as there are enough people for each job, preferences are granted. They have a rotating manager system: each of the various areas of work and life have a go-to person who is in charge of that area for a finite term of office, and there’s an elected governing board.

One thing that’s different is the wider social context within which experiments like Twin Oaks take a large part of their meaning. Twin Oaks was once a reference in a conversation about radical new possibility. With stability and constancy has come a loss of the sense that there’s anything all that radical going on. In many ways, Twin Oaks today could be said to be one more business venture in a country with a vast array of different kinds, styles, and structures of business ventures. It’s a farm, and it runs on resident labor, flexible work schedules, and natural resources. In one sense, it’s simply a bit further out on the same continuum that includes employee-owned businesses, workplace democracy, and on-site housing. Its company values happen to include nonviolence, cooperation, and egalitarianism.

Today's Twin Oakers have more stress on the point that "this isn’t for everyone," and less wistful hope that a radical model is being built for the whole world to follow. Reading about Twin Oaks today, I repeatedly saw members quoted saying “this certainly is not utopia.”

Utopia. The word comes from the Greek for “nowhere.” And if Twin Oaks “certainly isn’t utopia,” then why isn’t it? It started out as a “utopian experiment.” If Twin Oaks is not utopia, where is? Where is radical hope kept alive? Where did nowhere go?

Russell Jacoby’s book, The End of Utopia: Politics and Culture in an Age of Apathy documents how the contemporary Western world has largely lost the vision of any future substantially different from the present. Utopia became a bad word. It came to be identified with Marxism, thence Stalin and gulags, and with dystopias like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984. “Utopian” came to mean “totalitarian.”

Huxley and Orwell offered us important cautionary tales. Neither those works of fiction nor the reality of Soviet atrocities should ever have been excuses for giving up on dreaming that we can, somehow, more or less on purpose, make a better life for all of us. We need egalitarian visioning today even more than in the late 1960s.

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This is part 3 of 4 of "Where Did Nowhere Go?"
Next: Part 4: "Where Nowhere Might Begin"
Previous: Part 2: "Twin Oaks Community"
Beginning: Part 1: "The Utopian Connection"
See also: "Odyssey: part 8: The Commune Attraction"