The strange hybrid of Findhorn

How an intentional community can never be a world apart

We have an estate agent’s ‘For Sale’ notice up next to one of the big eco-houses here in the community. Big deal, you might say, isn’t this the normal way people sell houses? Well, in intentional communities, in fact it is not.

Think about it. An intentional community is a place where people with a shared base of values or common commitment to a project or ideology choose to live in the same place. How does that idea stack up with the reality of the market economy as mediated by the estate agents? The theory of intentional community is that the housing stock is allocated according to the needs of the community and the worth or contribution of the members. The market, of course, recognises only purchasing power.

To understand how we have reached this interesting juncture, a little historical perspective is required. Traditionally, intentional communities were highly egalitarian and communitarian in nature. So, following the lead of the Israeli kibbutz, there was little or no private property and most of that was held in common. Income was divided equally or allocated according to need.

Over the last several decades, however, society has got economically wealthier and more individualistic and these trends have spilled over into intentional communities. So, in common with the broader society, communards now want to own more things and not to have to negotiate for their use with those among whom they live.

In consequence, with some noble exceptions, the economies of intentional communities have become more or less privatised. Communards today are generally responsible for making their own income and what they earn, they keep. Findhorn, in fact, is a fascinating mix of the old and the new. At the heart of the community remains a more or less common economy – comprising about a third of the community, around 120 people – with a highly egalitarian ethic. Most of us, however, are responsible for making our income where we can.

When land here in the community came up for development in the early 1990s, the communal heart of the community had neither the cash nor the desire to develop it – its core purpose, after all, is education and spiritual enquiry, not real estate development! So, the land was parcelled up in plots that were sold to those who could afford to build.

Today, as a result we have a field covered in beautiful and highly energy-efficient houses. However, those who can afford to build ain’t necessarily those who have put in years of devoted love and care to make this such a great place to live – though, sometimes they are. Also, we lose control over future allocation of housing when those who built think it is time to move on. This has put a certain strain on the fabric of the community.

The first time a For Sale notice went up, I was very much involved personally. I had been part of a group renting a beautiful big house for a couple of years when its owner decided it was time to cash in her chips. It was not easy showing strangers around what felt very much like my home. One couple from London who were just passing saw the sign and asked how much it cost. £280,000, I almost spat out, in disgust that anyone could have access to so much capital. ‘What!!’, the woman exclaimed, barely able to contain her disbelief, sharing I imaged my own incredulity at the exorbitant price. She finally managed to catch her breath and finish her sentence: ‘So LITTLE!’

I heard a visitor recently compare Findhorn to a medieval village, with a monastery at the centre with a village clustered around it. This feels like a very appropriate metaphor. We are a strange hybrid.

Jonathan Dawson is a sustainability educator based at the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland. He is seeking to weave some of the wisdom accrued in 20 years of working in Africa into more sustainable and joyful ways of living here in Europe. Jonathan is also a gardener and a story-teller and is President of the Global Ecovillage Network.
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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.