Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Keenan: Twin Oaks, a Template for a Market-free Society

Currently I’m visiting Twin Oaks, a community in rural Virginia on which one chapter in Life Without Money is based. That chapter is specifically about the Twin Oaks labour credit system. Twin Oaks is an example of a hybrid, which models a strategy to a money-free world. Internally the community runs without money, they have a reasonable level of collective sufficiency, ‘one purse’ in terms of relationships with the mainstream economy and collectively decide on how and what they produce. 

One of their oldest members, Keenan, has been talking with me and just posted some papers about his views on the Twin Oaks community notice board. He's allowed us to post them. You might want to take a look at the Twin Oaks website here 

These conversations have reminded me of all the economics I learned back in my days of studying Business Management. Back in those years I consistently felt that I was being indoctrinated into a paradigm of human nature that was at odds with basic human decency. Anitra’s perspective and reading her book have given me a new lens to look at Twin Oak’s systems.

At Twin Oaks we are not bound to an irrational economic philosophy. When asked what ideology or philosophy Twin Oaks uses in guiding our decisions we can only gesture vaguely in the direction of our collective judgement. This puts us out of step with (what feels to me like) the cult-like behaviour of the mainstream society, which makes irrational decisions and creates bizarre outcomes.

Mainstream economists use money as a measure of all economic activity, right? Economists claim that the use of this common measure is a necessary prerequisite for rational economic action. So, let’s look at Twin Oaks and our collective decision-making (ostensibly free of economic ideology) and see how it stacks up against the economic structure of mainstream society.

The market and employment
The mainstream economy has unemployment, sometimes higher, sometimes lower, but there is always some unemployment. Twin Oaks has zero unemployment; Twin Oaks has always had full employment. Score one for Twin Oaks!

The mainstream economy exchanges cash for labour. Twin Oaks does not. There is plenty of work that needs doing in the world, why, then, is there unemployment? In the mainstream economy every worker wants job security; without a job there is no pay check. A person cannot casually try out being a teacher, a farmer, a mechanic, an accountant etc. Students must pick a career path early, expend lots of time and money getting the required certification and only then see what the work feels like. Additionally, it does not pay to be a dilettante in the mainstream culture. Work security comes from working full time, and work satisfaction comes (if it comes at all) from getting promotions.

Because Twin Oaks does not have a market for labour, there are no protective barriers around jobs. Anyone can try anything that they want to try. The outcome is a labour scene that is far different from the mainstream labour scene. No one works at one job; people easily switch jobs. We are almost all dilettantes here. Our labour system is rational. People are happier not having to work 40 hours at one job. People are happier not being stuck in a career they hate. And still the work of the community gets done. There is no work sabotage, or sneaking off with inventory.
Because there is no unemployment, there is no class stratification. Because there is no class stratification there is no poverty, no crime, no need to hire a police force, or live in a state of constant fear.  Doesn’t that seem like a better labour force design?

Production at Twin Oaks
Twin Oaks is hardly outside of the market economy in our businesses. Twin Oaks’s hammocks business has been thriving for over thirty-five years while other hammocks businesses have gone bankrupt. Twin Oaks’s tofu business and East Wind’s nut butter business demonstrate that a communal society can successfully start and operate a capital-intensive business using a labour credit system.

Additionally, our communal reliance on a multivariate decision-making model (i.e. common sense) rather than a linear (cash-based) economic decision-making model leads to more rational business decisions. For instance, a very well established and well-known leisure goods company approached Twin Oaks to make cotton hammocks. Twin Oaks had, at that time, slack production capacity. The offer sounded very profitable for Twin Oaks.

But Twin Oaks turned the offer down. Why? Because cotton rope is hard to work with; the rope is heavy and would have contributed to more wrist injuries. Also, cotton hammocks don’t last as long. We would be selling an inferior product at a higher price. None of the workers wanted to work with cotton hammocks. If the order had been accepted, it is likely that workers would have found work elsewhere in our community.

Health, happiness, and ethics won out over mere profit. How do you measure that decision? Literally, how can you measure happiness? Or health? Or ethics? Those considerations don’t have much of a place in the mainstream economic model. Doesn’t this make it somewhat suspect?

When another home goods import company dropped Twin Oaks hammocks, there was no desperation or impetus to start making a shoddy product, do false advertising or planned obsolescence that are common strategies for mainstream businesses. Workers switched to other work, the community expanded smaller businesses and everyone took an equal pay cut, metaphorically speaking.

In looking at production, Twin Oaks’s model works better than the mainstream model.

The photo shows rows of strawberry plants and corn in the many productive gardens at Twin Oaks with some of the community's solar panels in the background. To the right of the panels you can see the roof of their dairy (see post above for a close up.) Twin Oaks has a saw mill and practices sustainable selective forestry from its 500 acres of woodland and farm. There is a tofu making business, which relies on a regional farmer for its soy beans. They make other soy products for the market and for community consumption. Twin Oaks has bees which make honey, and help with making the community's orchards more productive. Vegetable and herb growing serves the kitchen with fresh food and drying, preserving and storing produce allows for year-round use. Hammocks and hammock chairs are made for sale and some of the community freelance for publishers in producing book indexes. They fix secondhand bikes for free use around the farm. Some members make chairs. There are communal, as well as personal, clothes and books.

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