Re: Cohousing and Economies
From: Fred H. Olson (
Date: Sat, 8 Jan 2000 21:48:40 -0700 (MST)
Stephen Figgins fig [at] FIG [at] ORA.COM
is the author of the message below but due to a problem it was posted
by the Fred the list manager:  fholson@cohousing org

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This is kind of a long piece on my thoughts about economics in general
and ideas that cohousers may be interested in, including suggestions
on alternatives to just contracting out services.

When we lived as hunter gatherer's in tribal structures, our economy
was an economy of support.  Get support->give support->get support.
There was also a trade based economy, but it was small, person to
person exchanges of goods.

With the adoption of full time agricultural efforts, populations began
to grow, and material wealth began to accumulate, for several
compelling reasons a redistributive economy emerged, and that remains
the fundamental economy of nations today.  The money flows to a
wealthy elite, who then redistributes the wealth in exchange for
labor.  As emense power and privledge accumulated for that elite, a
class system emerged, the support economy, still there among smaller
groups of people took a back seat to the power generated by this

Agriculture was a lot of work, long hours of back breaking labor.  But
that labor made it possible to pay other specialists in a
redistributive economy.  An army or set of guards, for instance, to
protect the wealth, a priest caste, to help calm the masses and cement
the power of the elite.  But it also paid people to build better pots,
city improvements, eventually scribes and inventors, etc.  This is
still the foundation of our economy.  All our material wealth flows
from the lowest of the underclasses to the elite, who then pay for
special laborors.  

There is some trade of wealth among different members of the lower or
middle class.  I would place things like a Cohousing group paying some
laborers to perform tasks for them (hard physical labor, clean their
toilets or care for their lawn) as probably an example of the middle
class employing the lower class who could not themselves afford to
live in cohousing.  

The original question was in regards to an aging cohousing group
needing to pay others for physical work they could not themselves
perform.  That seems innoccuous to me.  But there is also trade
between the middle classes, you pay someone to put in wiring, or to do
the construction work, you might pay them what you get paid an hour or
more.  (on the servant issue-> As a basic rule of thumb, if you value
a contractor's time substantially less than your own, I would consider
them a servant.  Are you willing to pay them what you get paid an hour
or more?  Then I would say they are not a servant.)  Some of the money
given to traditional contracting firms is again redistributed to those
of lower class by those who employ them.

Actually in our economy in the US, a lot of money flows into the
country from the labor of those outside the country who live in real
poverty, and then once here, bounces around quite a bit between people
of higher classes, specialists paid by those importers of wealth and
slowly filtering its way up back up to the rich.  All of our wealth
and privlege rests on the backs of the poor.  Someone somewhere is
paying with their very life force for the privleges we enjoy.

The money in a redistributive economy isn't the only kind of currency
and the redistributive economy is not the only economy.  There is also
an emerging local economy in projects like Ithaca Hours, local
currency that represents a somewhat more equal distribution of wealth.
An hour is supposed to be honored as an hour, regardless of the work
being contracted.  It doesn't always work that way, but it is another
way of representing the support economy in a culture where we don't
really know each other the way tribal members new each other.

When we work for the state's money, contract with the state's money,
purchase with the state's money, we participate in a system that is
innately unfair, can never be fair, will never be fair.  Fairness has
nothing to do with the redistributive economy, which is about the
accumulation of wealth and power, drawing money from compelling the
poor to extract the natural resources of the world, and funneling that
wealth to the elite.  Whether you are directly seeking that or not you
participate - that is the redistributive economy.

I think many of us are deeply uncomfortable with this.  But there are
not a lot of other options that we see.  So we look for
rationalisations or justifications of the system.  Sometimes that
shows up in our religions. The untouchables of India must have done
something bad in a past life -> they deserve what they get. Or in
Christianity in the notion that in heaven our roles will be reversed,
the first will be last and the last first so rejoice in your opression
in life.  Sometimes it is justified by revolution - the poor will
overthrow the wealthy.  Sometimes it is justified like Andrew Carnegie
did in evolutionary terms, the poor are not the fittest.  This was the
foundations of the American dream of building a meritocracy.  You get
paid what you merit.  Merit more, we will pay you more.  But there is
definitely something there that we are uncomfortable with and feel we
must, as a culture justify.

This isn't necessarily cohousing's fight.  But I think many cohousing
people are even more concerned about inequality than are others.
Generally they are members of a privledged class, at least privledged
enough to purchase into a community, but they also have a stronger
committment than some to peace, justice and equality as seen in the
wide embrace of consensus.  It is something that cohousers might want
to think about.

Until we find ways to move to the next thing beyond civilization, I
believe the injustice issue is here to stay with us.  It is systemic
to civilization itself.  We are compelled to perform most transactions
in the coin of the realm.  But there are other options that you might
want to explore.

Is there a local currency system in your area?  Could you find people
interested in being payed in that system rather than for goverment
dollars?  Can you find a way to trade for the time, or give an equal
amount of support in some other way to those supporting you?  You may
not have the strength to perform some tasks, but perhaps you can
perform others?  Would a parent in need of some break from watching
children be willing to pick up the work for an elderly cohousing
member capable of watching kids?  If you have to contract out, is
there a cooperative you can contract with, somewhere that your money
will be more fairly distributed to the members?  Maybe a local
business or independent contractor? 

I encourage people to find ways to build the support economy more than
the redistributive economy.  Don't just reach for your wallet, find
more creative ways to build connections with those both in and outside
of your community.  Keep the wealth close at home as much as you can.
I am sure one day we will find the successor to civilization - a
system that works better for us and for our environment.  But until
then, keep the support economy strong.  Cohousing is transforming
where we live, we need transformation in how we live as well, and I
think there is really a deep connection there between cohousing and
that better future.

Stephen Figgins

Who cannot yet afford cohousing 
where he lives in Sebastopol, CA.

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