We aren’t going down yet, but we haven’t achieved long-term viability
by Matt Stannard
May 22, 2020
Solidarity Collective’s landing at this space, with its large 1878 main house, and 3-acre estate full of other structures, pasture, and abandoned junkpiles, has always been a work in progress. It wasn’t some comfortable and ready-made space, although it has striking wonderfulness all over it. Making it work was going to take time and money. Making it work as an anti-capitalist commune was going to be even more challenging, because that meant we would not exploit each other or anyone else in the restorative process. At our approaching two-year mark, we’re running out of the resources–all the resources–to make it work.
We are still fulfilling our mission: we host (now virtually) political and social events and open our resources and spaces up for a wide range of socialist, left-wing, intentional community, anti-capitalist, anti-oppression and progressive causes. We give away and sell food. We produce podcasts with hundreds of downloads per month. In some instances, resource and labor shortages, and now the pandemic, have slowed our pace, and at our last annual retreat we lamented our failure to get more projects off the ground, particularly work in anti-racist education. But we are productive and values-aligned enough that our service and output is not the reason we’ve recently come so close to calling it quits.
I point out that we’re still living our values and fulfilling our mission because the consensus of the comrades, at least now, is firmly that deciding not to live that mission and those values would mean that the work we are putting into maintaining the space of the collective wasn’t really worth it. We’re not yet ready to concede we need some kind of Cuban “special period” of capitalism, and i suspect none of us could be capitalists even if we wanted to (capitalism means exploiting the labor of wage workers for profit; on the relationship of worker-owned cooperatives to anti-capitalist politics, see the work of Richard Wolf, among others). We also recognize the limits of the cooperative model.
Finding a way to make it work means finding a way to make all of it work: the finances, the values, our sustainable and nurturing treatment of each other. Our radical egalitarianism is non-negotiable. If we were to fold, it would be cooperatively, with the expectation that everyone will do everything they could to make sure each comrade finds a stable transition and destination.
We have some good things going for us: we’re bringing in 3 new members in the next three months, we’ve gotten additional inquiries beyond those, socialist and alternative economics are surging in popularity, including in Wyoming, and we are still full of energy and ideas to push forward.
But we have some bad things going against us too: Solidarity Collective isn’t presently financially viable in the long term. None of us are remotely well-off financially, and collective ownership was the only option for owning this space. Paying our mortgage, keeping the power and heat on, feeding ourselves and others, maintaining our main work and living spaces are our top priorities, and the lights aren’t going out, nobody’s hungry, we’re warm and safe, and won’t default on the mortgage. But repairs, taxes, and project financing have put us in a slowly growing hole, such that our long-term projections are not viable without increasing our prospective membership by around 50%. In the best case scenario, climbing out of the red won’t take as long as it took us to get there, but it’s not going to be easy or quick, and our current configuration doesn’t have the resources to do it.
We have viable, if modest, business models for the enterprises we run (again, if the point was to make huge profits, we would not be operating communally or within our values), and we are exploring ways to increase our Patreon support, produce more podcasts and grow our listenership, and expand our farming operations. But these take human labor and we’re all stretched very thin.
Partnerships may work for some of them. We’re meeting twice a week, painstakingly (and emotionally) considering possibilities and propositions. We can always re-prioritize our labor but we have no room to reprioritize our financial commitments. They have been massaged and scrutinized over and over again, and we’re at the part of that slide show which shows that we will not survive long-term.
Another important factor is that it’s hard to do what we’re doing. Material and cultural cooperation isn’t just learning the skills needed to share. It also proceeds from the same general principle as socialism: that a wide scaling of shared resources can serve everyone’s needs. “From each according to ability, to each according to need” can only really meet the diverse needs of a group of people if the gives-and-takes are sustainable. Our financial, physical, and emotional resources are stretched and often broken, week after week, month after month. There is no more “from each according to” to take.
We’ve also just had some bad luck. Some of us have lost work due to Covid-19; two comrades’ jobs have been eliminated. Another has had a string of tough health issues. Expected move-ins have been delayed by the pandemic and roadbumps in people’s lives. A guest who was temporarily staying with us seriously damaged an apartment and we don’t expect them to be in any position to fund the repairs we need. At the same time, we’re aware that some unexpected good luck could turn up, as it has before. In any event, we aren’t viable if we depend on good luck and dread the bad knowing we can’t absorb it. Viability under capitalism is nothing if not highly dependent on the ability to absorb bad luck.
I write this even though what sticks out in my reflection over the last two years has been the number of times each person here (and some who have left) have risen above and beyond what might be normally expected of people. Communal heroism has been on alternating display here, from those that live at the commune and those who actively support it from the outside (whose visits and constant help has been the stuff of legend). In other words, I say this feeling strongly that each person involved with this project has at one time or another been vital to our functioning.
That’s outstanding. It confirms, for me, a lot of my beliefs about the viability of solidarity–when people’s care for others is sustained by socialized, restorative systems. We don’t presently have enough people to create or sustain all the systems we need, but we’re trying to find a way.
Why am I telling you this?
Because we’ve always been transparent about our intentions and our resources.
Because if a strong part of you or someone you know tells you that you have been wanting to join an anti-capitalist commune and you like fighting good fights with long odds, this is your opportunity to do it–get in touch and help us soberly and objectively make our decision about the future.
Because if you are fascinated by processes and challenges like these, you are welcome to follow our saga through to whatever conclusion it reaches.
Because regardless of the outcome, we have hard work ahead (dissolving or rebuilding will both take tremendous amounts of work) and we need to maintain our connections to supportive and well-wishing friends: we need the love and connection of those who care about us and what we’re doing.
Because we have accomplished a whole lot here, and that won’t change even if we end this phase of our work, and you can help us celebrate that. We need celebration too.
You can support Solidarity Collective in many ways (contact members for more information) but one easy way is to subscribe to their Patreon at this link.