Learning from the Teachers

Moving some archive boxes recently I came across a pile of old newsletters of the Alternative Communities Movement (ACM) from the 1980’s. The ACM was run by a commune called the Teachers who had a base in Bangor and a flat in Ealing. The group was set up and revolved round a charismatic man simply know as ‘Kevin of the Teachers’. They were a controversial group and set the ACM up as sort of competitor to the Communes Network that was going at the time. I met Kevin once and found him a difficult person to have any sort of conversation with and have always been of the opinion that I would find very little in common with the Teachers.ideas and world view – So i was somewhat surprised in flicking through one of the magazines to find myself nodding in agreement to one of the editorial comments written by Michele of the Teachers. So much so that I think It is worth reproducing in full.

 Editorial Alternative Communities magazine No: 22 1986

Membership turnover in some communes is high with a virtually complete change of membership roughly every two years. The reasons for such lossess need to be analysed and the best conclusion acted upon by those communards who take it upon themselves to foster and develop their home communes. Every commune has ‘schitz-outs’ (as Kerista, an American commune. calls the events). In my home commune, people leave either because pressure was brought to bear to conform to our Code and the individual preferred to leave instead of conforming or for some reason not made clear to those remaining. The latter type of turnover executed in a highly passive/aggressive style, sometimes accompanied with largish amounts of cash taken surreptitiously. Some individuals taking this latter course will do so several times. returning in between times. These individuals are usually female, they are generally young, inexperienced for their years and proportionately incompetent, they are also arrogant, and ignorant, aggressive and friendly, selfish and idealistic, confident and insecure.

Teachers newsletterGradually over the years, such individuals mature and the more acceptable side of their behaviour becomes more dominant; this occurs with an exceptionally high level of work put into them in order to make them realise that1) they cannot blackmail the community with their anger and that 2) they can trust someone and that they can trust the environment to be on their side. In all communes I have studied, or met communards from, or visited, there have been problems surrounding contributing members and those who contribute relatively less in general and in specific ways.

 Kat Kinkade describes it well in A Walden Two Experiment:

“Competent people can hammer a nail in without bending it, tend to pick up after themselves, do not leave their tools out in the rain or try to saw through rock with a chain saw. They change into rough clothes before climbing a tree. They clean off all the drainboards as an assumed part of the job of dishwashing. they can finish mopping the kitchen floor in fifteen minutes or less. They are familiar with the practical applications of arithmetic and geometry – or grammar and spelling. They prefer order to chaos, and they are willing to put out the effort to get it. The opposite of “competent” is “irresponsible”. This is the person who has to be wakened for morning milking, gets a substitute for a dishwashing shift because of a headache, takes fifty days to get through a forty-day outside work shift, rolls a cigarette and leaves tobacco on the table, opens a pound of margarine and leaves it out without removing the waxed paper. The irresponsible member makes work and manages to do less than his full share. The competent member often picks up after the irresponsible and usually does more than a normal share of work in addition.”

Frustration and resentment develops when competent people see their energy being wasted by people who don’t contribute to a similar level. This problem is commented upon by communards who resent their work going into buying food/work/living space for people they do not respect. Talk of the need to recruit a more competent/skilled type member may occur as a symptom of this social disease. Many British communes and also communes abroad lose their competent members because these problems remain unsolved.

Many communes veer away from selecting their membership according to varying criteria; such selection. however, tends to occur covertly and without public acknowledgement. It is often thought that competence goes hand in glove with intolerance and by the very definition of competence this must to an extent be true. Competence implies and is only achieved by, an intolerance of an achievement less than one’s best effort at the time. It is common for the competent to feel aggressed against by those with lower standards and less fareaching [short-term) ambitions. The possibility of something being mishandled through incompetence being a frightening threat (whether it be the incompetent handling of say Local Education Inspectors threatening to interfere with the commune’s children, or whether it be the incompetent mechanic who fails to tighten a wheel correctly on a commune vehicle, for example). Ambitions are often therefore, put down by the majority (who statistically can be guaranteed to be mediocre in the competence stakes] as they are threatening to those who do not have them. The competent are aggravated by feelings of guilt for what they consider bad management, irresponsibility, etc. They nag and criticise and earn the dislike of all who enjoy a peaceful atmosphere; however the atmosphere is spoilt for the competent by the slackness and lack of attention to detail and general lack of craftsmanship of the incompetent. thus both sections of the community find their position painful and unpleasant, albeit for different reasons. It is also generally the case that the incompetent far outnumber the competent, so communes operating on a democratic system will lose their competent members relatively quickly. It is the lack of comfort in the environment that leads to a proportion of membership losses.

Some communards may be heard to suggest that the community should select for those who are tolerant of varying standards. It is my view that this is unrealistic. The incompetent. should they wish to join my home commune, are subject to the same Code as the competent and are educated to be less incompetent. The competent learn to tolerate to a reasonable degree – a degree that keeps the environment in balance but that does not deteriorate the environment in either direction. They learn, in fact, to be competent at tolerance or competent at managing and working with people of less competence. As long as the incompetent do not strive for improvement, so long as they are not taken seriously by the competent: the incompetent are never given the power over other people or the accounts! The negative, emotional term for this is elitism! A put-down word used to manipulate the competent by the incompetent. It is self-evident that the competent will be regarded as, and will effectively behave as leaders, regardless of their actual motives and intentions. Many communards of the soft left ilk are allergic to this fact of life, but then they all tend to be incompetent at virtually everything. “All should be equal”, with a careful avoidance of one of the main reasons of membership turnover; it is of the fixed and religiously held tenet of some communes. As long as communards avoid facing the difficulties of competent and incompetent members to thrive alongside each other, so long will a large number of communes continue to fail. The competent need to learn management techniques, statistics and choice mathematics: there is no need to re-invent the wheel.

The problem has been met before – throughout society and in modern times, in industry. It is difficult to operate a selection-only method of recruitment, it is more realistic and in the long run more likely to meet with success, if a commune states its entry criteria and after prospective members have selected themselves out as to whether the conditions are acceptable to themselves, the commune then viewing the new, member as a foundling from which possibly, if they last 3 – 6 months, a useful member can be created. As Jenny of Twin Oaks Stated about the selection method at TO., “What do we know about these people after a two-week visit? All we have are some surface impressions. Really important things like commitment to community living aren’t even visible for the first several months. Besides the poll (T.0.’s entry selection form) assumes we have to select for good members, and I think we can create them.”

Regards Michele

Alternative Communities  – magazine of the Alternative Communities Movement
No: 22 1986

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