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.