“Your liberals and radicals all want to govern. They want to try it their way– to show that people will be happier if the power is wielded in a different way or for different purposes. But how do they know? Have they ever tried it? No, it’s merely their guess.”
B.F. Skinner, Walden Two
In the summer of 1945 radical behavioral psychologist Burrhus Frederic, “BF”, Skinner wrote a utopian novel, entitled The Sun Is But a Morning Star, inspired by a dinner conversation he had with a friend whose son-in-law was stationed in the South Pacific about what young people would do when the war was over. During the conversation Skinner mused. “What a shame that they would abandon their crusading spirit and come back only to fall into the old lockstep American life—getting a job, marrying, renting an apartment, making a down payment on a car, having a child or two”. When asked what they should do instead, he answered, “They should experiment; they should explore new ways of living, as people had done in the communities of the nineteenth century”. “The Sun Is But a Morning Star.” is the last line of the 1854, Walden; or, Life in the Woods, written by the transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau about his two years, two months, and two day sojourn in a self-built cabin in the woods at Walden Pond. Skinner’s novel was published in 1948 as Walden Two.
“Walden Two …. describes a hypothetical community of about one thousand people living to a high degree of self-sufficiency on a large acreage of land. They run their own agriculture, industry and education and have their own doctors, dentists and so on. Each person or couple has their own private room in which they sleep and keep their private possessions. All else is owned communally. eg. Transport, kitchens, dining rooms, workshops, equipment, library etc. Some of the main values put forward in the book are: Co-operation rather than competition as the means of achieving; egality among members, no dominant leaders, elites, heroes etc; people are more important that property or profits; the overall aim of the community being the achievement of the ‘Good Life’ for its members …”
John Seymour Undercurrents 12 Sept/Oct 1975
From the mid fifties onwards Walden Two inspired a number of communal experiments in the Americas. In 1966 the ‘Waldenwoods conference’ was held in Hartland, Michigan, a gathering of over 80 people who had written to Skinner expressing interest in setting up a ‘Walden Two community’. The following year saw two attempts to get an actual community off the ground at Morningside House in Arlington, Massachusetts and Twin Oaks in Louisa County, Virginia. These were followed by other attempts to put Skinner’s ideas into practice at The sunflower House in Lawrence, Kansas, Lake Village in Kalamazoo, Michigan and perhaps most successfully at the Communidad Los Horcones in Hermosillo, Mexico.
In the UK in the October 1973 Communes Bulletin No 2 a small paragraph by two part-time teachers Sally Ross and John Seymour asking if there was any demand for a meeting to discuss the possibilities of a Walden Two type community received four replies and led to a meeting being held on their houseboat in the first weekend in November. By the end of the weekend a nucleus of four had committed themselves to attempting to set up a Walden Two type community in Britain. The four were Sally & John Seymour and Sarah Eno and Pat Boase from Cambridge. By the end of the month they had put out a newsletter outlining their proposal to others who had expressed an interest.
Over the following two years the group had a series of meetings to work out the details for the new community. The group were inspired by both Skinner’s book and by information about Twin Oaks community in the USA from its bimonthly magazine called ‘The Leaves of Twin Oaks’, which described their progress. The early editions of which had been recently published in book form as a ‘Journal of a Walden Two Commune’. In February 1975 the group now consisting of six adults and two children moved onto a small hill farm, Middle Ty Brith, in the Welsh borders 17 miles west of Shrewsbury. The new community, to be called Crabapple, consisted of a recently rebuilt 5 room house along with a series of dilapidated outbuildings, eight acres of pasture, the remains of an old orchard and about half an acre of ‘dingle’. After a few weeks working without any of their systems in place they set about trying to work out how to implement the somewhat elaborate and bureaucratic systems they had gleaned from Skinner & Twin Oaks in a small communal set up. They instigated ten ‘manangerships’ covering ; “House / Labour / Finance/ Behaviour/ Arjuna- running it/ Shrewsbury shop- setting it up/ Transport/Agriculture/ Construction & maintenance/ Visitors and information” and started to operate a labour credit system.
“… Using labour credits made us conscious of lots of things about working collectively that need consideration….it was important to see that each person pulled their weight and didn’t suspect others of not doing so. It was good to be able to get more of the work you preferred.(which doesn’t happen with a strict rota for each job.) without getting trapped in one job (as in nuclear families) It meant we could encourage each other to try new things. We made expectations and commitments clear to each other, we avoided throwing guilt and suspicion around, we avoided the sorts of roles that can pop in when everyone plays the game of waiting to see who cracks first. In which mothers cook diner because their children are hungry and it would be thought mean to cook only for some people; in which the car owner mends the communally used car before it grinds itself to bits; in which everyone slides back into old culture ideas on ownership and collective responsibility becomes just a theory …”
Pam Dawling Crabapple revisited
Differences in emphasis and interpretation of ideas led by the end of the first year to the departure of John and Sally Seymour. This led to a reassessment of “what we were doing and why” and eventually to the decision to look for a larger property to move the community to. In 1977 the group sold Middle Ty Brith and moved to Berrington Hall a rambling, slightly eccentric, Georgian rectory with a two acre walled fruit and vegetable garden, all set in some 15 acres of farmland, close to Shrewsbury. For a while they retained some ‘Walden Two’ aspects in the way that the community was run. Instead of ‘managers’ there were stewards for different areas of work and there was a formal committee of three planners whose task was supposed to be to make long term decisions, based on “community opinion and available data”, But In practice the community made decisions using consensus at open meetings of the whole group. Crabapple community continues, though not following any of Skinner’s Walden Two ideas today. Information about them can be found on the Diggers & Dreamers website.
After he left Crabapple John Seymour along with Nigel Gunton brought out a visionary proposal in 1981 for a large community in a self published paper entitled Viable Systems and Alternative Realities in which they set out to answer the question “… how do we design a viable community that allows freedom for the individual without dissolving into chaos?” Seymour and Gunton’s paper was based on the cybernetic and systems management ideas of Stafford Beer, who by the late 1970’s was living a somewhat reclusive and austere lifestyle in a remote cottage at Cwarel Isaf in the Welsh hills. Back in 1971 Stafford Beer had been contacted by Fernando Flores, finance minister in Salvador Allende’s new Chilean socialist Government for advice on incorporating Beer’s theories of cybernetics into the management of the newly nationalised sectors of Chile’s economy.
“Beer, a towering middle-aged man with a long beard, sat face to face with the horn-rimmed, mustachioed, grandfatherly president and spoke at great length in the solemn palace. A translator whispered the substance of Beer’s extraordinary proposition into Allende’s ear. The brilliant Brit was essentially suggesting that Chile’s entire economy – transportation, banking, manufacturing, mining, and more–could all be wired to feed realtime data into a central computer mainframe where specialized cybernetic software could help the country to manage resources, to detect problems before they arise, and to experiment with economic policies on a sophisticated simulator before applying them to reality. With such a pioneering system, Beer suggested, the impoverished Chile could become an exceedingly wealthy nation.” www.damninteresting.com/nineteen-seventy-three/
After a few hours of conversation Allende’s response to Beer’s audacious proposition was that Chile must indeed become the world’s first cybernetic government. Thus started Project Cybersyn an experiment in socialist economics based on democratic control and worker autonomy as opposed to the top-down command and control Soviet model. From a control room, that looked like the deck of the Starship Enterprise, Beer and his Chilean colleagues attempted to run the nations economy with realtime feedback loops through a Telex network that relayed information to and from local factories to the country’s development headquarters where it was fed into a mainframe computer.
The Cybersyn project struggled it’s ambition being in some ways far in advance of the technology available. It was also actively opposed by some factory owners and workers groups who were opposed to the Allende government. The military coup in 1973 ended the Cybersyn project, But not the influence of Beer’s concept of the Viable Systems Model or VSM which he had detailed in his 1972 book Brain of the Firm: the Managerial Cybernetics of Organization. It was these ideas that John Seymour and Nigel Gunton outlined in the first half of their paper and how they might be applied to an intentional community. The second half of the paper then goes on to imagine what a community based on these ideas might look like, with the author being taken on a fictional tour of the community set in 1984 by Sarah one of the farms ‘co-alphas’ who was looking after visitors that day:
“The site was a 90 acre farm near Orcop in Herefordshire bought about three years ago. Now there are about 100 adults living there and around 20 kids. They say this reflects the national average ration of agricultural land per capita….the farm was mechanised although the machinery was all quite aged. A pair of Fergusons 35s formed the basis, having advantage of being cheap to buy run and get parts for. Sarah reckoned the transport co-alphas were secretly in love with them….Sarah described their labour credits as being a kind of sophisticated barter system. One labour credit was worth one hour’s average work. Some people effectively earnt their living in the money economy whilst others, usually in the community core, earned theirs in the labour credit economy. Most people, though , worked part-time in each to suit their particular needs. She described it as a mixed dual economy which allowed people maximum flexibility….The main community complex had a large meeting hall / eating area – the biggest room in the place – plus kitchen, offices, utility room, laundry, library, kids rooms, lounge and video room, mostly bustling with people. The people were quite an interesting mixture. Most were in the 20-40 age range with far fewer kids and adolescents and fewest of all older people. They seem to be of the mainly ‘alternative sub culture’ for want of a better classification …” Viable Systems and Alternative Realities 1981
Stafford Beer was not the only person to devise a system for applying cybernetics to management and decision making processes. In the post war years Dutch pacifist, educator, and peace worker Kees Boeke developed a form of deep or dynamic decision making based on a 19th Century idea called Sociocracy. This has more recently started to influence intentional communities who have found that they want something other than consensus as a model for decision making. Beer’s VSM model was used in the 1980’s by the Suma wholefood co-operative to restructure their business after it had grown to a point where they were having problems with taking collective decisions.
” The problem which had triggered the VSM study was an almost universal recognition that the Wednesday meetings were not working. As the size increased, agendas were getting longer and longer, less and less was getting dealt with, arguments were common, and many people didn’t like to have departmental matters voted on by a large group, most of whom had no direct experience of the issues.” Jon Walker www.esrad.org.uk
In 1974 long-time Cambridge anarchist activist Joan Harvey, who had been running something called the Commune Services Agency and who’s daughter Sarah had been the secretary of the Communes Movement and went on to be a founder of the Crabapple community, borrowed Stafford Beer’s Brain of the Firm from Swiss Cottage Library. So taken was she with the ideas in the book that she lent it to her son-in-law Brian Eno and in doing so sparked “a quiet but highly significant revolution over the following decades in popular music.” Eno went on to become a friend of Beer’s and to use his ideas in his music. Along with artist Peter Schmidt, Brian Eno also created his own decision making system or aid called Oblique Strategies. Originally produced as a series of over a hundred individual cards each with a short lateral thinking.sentence on it aimed at helping artists (particularly musicians) break through creative blocks. Unlike the Viable Systems Model, or Sociocracy, the Oblique Strategy cards bring an element of inspired randomness into decision making. If you fancy trying out your own Oblique Strategy they are now available on line at: http://stoney.sb.org/eno/oblique.html