Friday, September 12, 2014

Money, Sex, and Power in Community

I recently had an email exchange with a friend who wrote about a presentation he gave entitled, "Money, Sex and Power.” He had this to say about it:

It dealt with "happiness" via the question of whether or not one's basics needs for money, sex, and power are being met or not. And how that is foundational for developing the elements of higher consciousness: compassion, creativity, collaboration, insight, spiritual growth, etc. [My friend’s point was that people will seldom focus on those other things unless basic needs are met first.] A favorite phrase of mine is: "I've never seen anyone reach enlightenment while being chased by a pack of hungry wolves (or hungry bankers)!"

Thus, if you want to know how happy the members of any particular group are, you might first ask how well their community handles money, sex, and power as a practical matter.

When I reflect on what I know about how communities relate to money, sex, and power, it seems to me the patterns play out distinctively for each need, and it's instructive to examine them one at a time.

First though, I want to offer an overarching caveat. How members of intentional communities are faring with respect to money, sex, and power is not causally related to whether the community wades into these topics, and good answers on the individual level may not be matched by good answers on the group level. So don't conflate the two. That said, they can be related, so let's look at what intentional communities do, and how that impacts the odds of their members being happy.

In community, many people (especially those whose lives are grounded in the community and don’t work outside) are largely divorced from the day-to-day world of money. They may have already established a secure lifestyle through savings or passive income, or may have considerable access to community resources and that’s good enough. Their security is based on relationship more than money in the bank and they feel “rich.” To be clear, this does not negate my friend’s point, but it shows that money needs can be satisfied without a lot of attention to money, or, in some cases, without a lot of money.

All of that said, the majority of non-income-sharing groups (which 88-90% of intentional communities are) do not tackle the issue of members' needs for money excepting in the limited sense of what it takes from each member to cover common elements (debt load, road improvements, common facilities, capital replacement fund, etc.). That is, it's up to each household to figure out how to make enough money, and the community doesn't attempt to address it. 

It can even be worse than that. Some communities have a policy of not hiring members to provide services for the community—even when the need and the money are both present—to avoid the potential awkwardness of one member serving as another's employer.

While I think there is a lot good that can come from a community viewing itself as an economic engine and partnering with members to create flow, the other side of this coin is that most members who join non-income-sharing communities are not expecting the community to provide help with income generation, so it's not as if communities are failing to deliver on a promise.

Very few groups take this on. The overwhelming majority of communities consider this a private matter among consenting adults and that the group has no stake in sexual dynamics (outside of upholding group values around nonviolence and prohibiting illegal activities). This can get tricky when member choices lead to relationship tensions that don't resolve well (because the group is demonstrably affected by what's happening yet has no license to step in), yet it's rare for a group to create a forum to discuss what's happening.

To be sure, there have been some notable exceptions over the years—groups that expressly did take an active role in examining and promoting sexual development (and experimentation) among members—yet they stand out all the more for being exceptions rather than the rule. Here are half a dozen that did so for at least a part of their history, some contemporary; some historical:
—Kerista (who coined the term polyfidelity)
—Oneida (the 19th Century community in upstate New York that advocated for free love and practiced “stirpiculture,” a form of eugenics)
—Shakers (who were celibate)
—ZEGG (a German community which inspired the Network for a New Culture in the US)

While I agree that sex is a universal drive, that drive is not uniformly compelling for everyone. Intentional community can be a great place to find a partner if you're aligned with the group's values and it's important that your partner is as well. Otherwise, community living tends to be a house of mirrors, where things you were hoping to keep private don't tend to stay that way. 

On the plus side, it is often possible in community to weather a break-up without either party moving away. There tends to be enough no-fault support for both players, and enough psychic space to heal. This can be especially helpful when there are kids involved—yet this is more about damage control than getting one's sexual needs met.

In general, I'd say that most intentional communities want their members to be sexually satisfied, yet decline to play any significant role in helping to make that happen.

Whether communities are comfortable with it or not, all group dynamics are exercises in the use of power, by which I mean how one member influences another. (If you question this, when was the last time you were in a meeting where no one had any influence over anyone else?) The question is not so much whether people are exercising power, as it is about how they're exercising power: is it power over (for the benefit of a subset at the expense of others) or power with (for the benefit of all)?

Amazingly, despite the universality of its presence, most groups do not openly discuss it, or have a clear understanding of how to handle the situation where there's the perception that power has been used poorly. While I can sympathize with this not being easy, it doesn't get better for being ignored and it can be a large plus if the group can find the gumption and facility to address tensions related to power as they emerge.

However,  I'm using power in a different way than my friend. He was talking, I think, about having a sense of personal power—not so much the ability to influence what others do as the ability to steer one's own ship—of being able to control one's own destiny. 

I think community can help with that because individuals are likely to get more support for what they want in a community of like-valued people, where it's the norm for members to help each other. (It may be true, as John Donne avers, that no person is an island, yet we are nonetheless each distinct and life tends to be more enjoyable if you live in an archipelago, rather than off by yourself, surrounded by nothing but water in all directions. Community offers connectivity, and ameliorates isolation.) 

At the same time, it's only fair to look at how this can go the other way. In community, lives are intertwined to the point where there's greater potential for others to monkey wrench what you'd like to do, and this can be highly frustrating.

On the whole, if community members are mainly using power cleanly then you'll tend to like the results and feel happier. The reverse obtains if members often use power in service to personal agendas not broadly shared in the group. 

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