Allen Butcher

The issue of economic sharing in the context of Polyamory communities is a topic not well understood or developed. Yet I feel that the nature of this lifestyle choice is so uniquely different from the dominant culture that in order for Polyamory to eventually become an established element of our culture, a set of economic structures must be recognized as effective and appropriate to the lifestyle. Toward the goal of helping the establishment of Polyamory as a recognized component of our culture, I'll present first a basic context for classifying levels of economic sharing, and then relate that context specifically to Polyamory. Including a presentation of a technical discussion of a set of definitions for economic terms is important, I think, in order to try to establish a common terminology to enable people to understand each other when discussing these issues. These are specifically economic issues which must be understood in a light quite different from how they are defined in the society in which most of us were originally enculturated.

The fact is that economic sharing is an alternative culture, a parallel reality as I like to say, very different from the dominate society. For that reason, most people simply focus upon using the term "family" when referring to Polyamorous groups, because they simply have no other context within which to express the relationships involved. The world of intentional community, however, offers a set of detailed structures available to help understand and enjoy the experience of Polyamory. In this discussion I'll work just from the economic issues. There is much more involved in community, but economics is a primary concern and deserves some concentration.

I offer that a Polyamorous community can be recognized as a form of intentional community when it involves a minimum of three adults unrelated by blood, the sharing of a common residence, and more than one intimate relationship between them. I make the determination of the existence of an intentional community dependent upon the sharing of a common residence, or residences on contiguous properties, even though the different levels of economic sharing can be practiced when individuals live in different locations. In the case of non-contiguous residences I would simply call the group something other than an "intentional community." For this determination I make physical proximity more important than economic sharing, but this is debatable.

The range of economic agreements in community runs from sharing commonly owned property to sharing privately owned property, with mixtures between. This continuum represents three general categories which I term: communal, mixed economy and collective. Notice that I define collective specifically as sharing private property. Other people use the term differently, but in my usage collective includes cohousing (which generally uses the condominium legal structure) and cooperative (which also has a legal definition) and shared or collective houses owned by one or more individuals as a subset of the community. Mixed economy refers to holding some property in common, such as real estate or cars or some degree of income sharing less than, say, 99%. These can include legal structures enforcing commonly owned property, such as in many land trusts, or simply the stated intent and practice of sharing private property. It is important to distinguish between sharing commonly-owned property and sharing privately-owned property.

Communal refers to strictly commonly-owned property, including 99% income sharing (that last 1% refers to what people do with personal income, commonly from temporary jobs taken when on vacation from the community). The acid test here is what happens when the group disbands or individuals leave. Communal property assumes that if the Polyamorous group disbands, the common property is not divided among the members but is donated to another communal group. If the assets are divided among the former members, than the appropriate definition is that the group was a "collective Polyamorous intentional community functioning communally."

A model of communal economics is the Federation of Egalitarian Communities which offers a method of supportive association available to Polyamorous groups which decide to practice communal economic sharing. Most often, but not always, Federation communities use the 501 (d) legal tax-exempt structure for "religious and apostolic groups." Although many of these communities do not have a common religious orientation, this legal form is available since religion can not be legally defined. Generally, sharing material wealth can be considered the expression of the spiritual ideals of sharing and caring, regardless of any statement of religious affiliation, so this is an appropriate legal structure for any communal group. To describe this concept I am developing a spiritual explanation for the sharing lifestyle which I am calling "spiritual materialism." This concept may be used in relation to any form of community, communal or otherwise, whether the community upholds a secular, multi-faith, or any unified spiritual belief; but that is another topic.

The 501 (d) legal structure requires primarily community-owned businesses and a common treasury. Community funds are then budgeted to expense categories controlled by managers, and an annual economic community planning process sets the budgets. Within Federation communities there are a number of Polyamorous groups, although you wouldn't really know unless you were a member, and maybe not even then in the larger communities. So the existence of Polyamorous groups within Federation communities is a current assumption on my part based upon former experience. The beauty here is that any number of social deviations from the dominate culture may be practiced in Federation communities, as these are protected and essentially hidden by the larger community structure emphasizing above all else the cooperative culture. This permits a positive and constructive local public relations, while individual community members can experiment with any type of social arrangement. The local neighborhood or local town might assume the worst, but any negativity with regard to the nature of the sexual relationships practiced in the community (or any other aspect of the commune) is balanced by the community's emphasis upon maintaining positive public relations. (Another topic to be discussed with regard to community design.) Therefore, the economic structure is the primary community agreement, with social structures ever fluid and changeable in Federation communities. This economic structure involves labor credit or some other form of work system, creating a non-monetary internal economy, valuing all work equally whether income-producing or domestic services. This focus upon community agreements restricted to economic issues, with social issues up to individual preference, may account, in large part, for the success of these communities, now in existence for over thirty years.

What Federation communities represent is an economic structure appropriate to the Polyamorous lifestyle. However, most Polyamorous groups (as with most communities) are less than strictly communal. The famous one that functioned communally for about 20 years, but may most appropriately be seen as collective, was Kerista. Essentially, Kerista members pooled their income by depositing paychecks in a bank account (including net income from their community businesses), and disbursed funds from that common account to private accounts according to each member's needs. Funds not disbursed to individuals went toward rent, food, child expenses, transportation, group parties and vacations and other necessities. The common account, as with all other property such as cars, was in the name of individuals who managed the asset for the good of the community (the primary exception was the rural land they purchased and held in a non-profit structure, but never developed). They actually owned very little common property (with the exception noted) other than a few cars and household furnishings and appliances, as they rented nearly all of the buildings they occupied. So when they decided to disband it was a swift and legally-simple process. From my perspective, this dissolution resulted from a harsh group process, and the eventual recognition of the community's long-term denial of the manipulation of this process as a control mechanism taught by a few long-term members.

Investing in commonly owned property helps to maintain the communal intent, and either consciously or unconsciously this was avoided at Kerista. Still, Kerista's uncomplicated method of economic sharing is a good model of a "collective Polyamorous intentional community functioning communally" available to any group. The lesson from the demise of Kerista, however, is to maintain a good, fair, and non-coercive group process for community decision-making, particularly with regard to economic issues. How to do that, however, is yet another discussion.

The primary issue in discussing economic issues in Polyamorous relationships is really the intent of the group, and the economic structure chosen can affirm that shared intent. If the individuals involved decide that they want to create a structure that will serve to enforce their belief in economic sharing through the future, they can form a legal structure that affirms that ideal, and that makes it hard to change. This is the case in Federation communities. If the individuals want to simply enjoy their relationship in the present and leave the future open for quick and easy division or dissolution, there is the Kerista model. What worked well at Kerista, particularly in the urban environment, is that although they practiced income sharing, probably up to 99%, each member had their own bank account, rather than using just one community account such as in Federation communities (required by the 501 (d) legal structure). Kerista simply used their group process to determine how much money each person was to be budgeted (and disbursed to them) according to individual responsibilities to their job and to the community.

Essentially, the Federation and the Kerista models represent two types of economic structures available to any communal community (not just Polyamorous groups). Notice that both models have or had common bank accounts, they just use or used them differently. Other structures involve sharing less property. So I would suggest that there are three primary factors in the question of economic sharing:

A Polyamorous group that decides to not maintain a common bank account and commonly owned property, and to permit members to assume additional debt, would have less group process around economic issues, and therefore less long-term security assumed in the agreements made by the individuals.

I think that this is what it really comes down to: whether the group wants to affirm a set of long-term economic agreements as a means of reinforcing their commitment to each other, or whether the group wants to keep an economic structure fluid to enable simple and quick division or dissolution. Simply avoiding this issue because people want to avoid complicated economic and legal discussions serves to affirm the latter by default. Obviously, arriving at a decision on this issue would require discussing every aspect of the community, not just economic issues, which can actually provide either a wonderful bonding exercise or a recognition of unreconcilable differences, either way a healthy thing for any community. And further, arriving at agreement on these issues and making them formal can provide for larger numbers of people in the Polyamory community. Essentially, the more people involved, the more communication is necessary, which is best managed by simply recording agreements in a way that they can be retrieved and referred to at any time.

For those for whom long term economic security is important, stable communal economic structures may be a viable answer. Alternatively, avoiding communal economic structures can serve to conceal the Polyamorous group's sexual relationships from all but those who know the individuals personally, but that concealment can also serve to provide for quick change or abandonment of group or interpersonal agreements.

For Polyamorous groups maintaining a practice of sharing private property, economic agreements are obviously more fluid and changeable, depending upon the social structure. This may be preferable to most people, and might be essential when we consider that individuals generally want or need to maintain the prerogative of assuming debt. (I call the monetary system a "debt-based economy" and the labor sharing or exchanging system a "time-based economy.") The freedom to enter into individual debt is a primary determinate of the economic structure of any intentional community. The individual's freedom to borrow money to travel, for college, for health care, for children, for buying property or starting a business, or for any number of other uses, becomes a community issue where economic sharing is practiced. (And yes, mental and physical health care in community is another issue. And the Federation has a good model of a major-medical-disaster fund.) If individuals want to maintain individual freedom to assume debt in Polyamorous communities, then group economic security is less assured, as would then be practically any other agreement.

Of course, Polyamorous groups can maintain a safe and nurturing set of long-term relationships without communal economics. The issue is really whether or not people can make and keep agreements. If so, there is no need for any kind of formal (i.e., written community agreement) or legal structure. On the other hand, if people can make and keep agreements, then affirming them in formal documents or legal structures should be considered with respect to the specific benefits involved. Affirming the Polyamorous form of community through establishing formal or legal forms of economic sharing is essentially like marriage in monogamous relationships. Creating and changing such agreements then becomes a process, rather than something subject to individual spur-of-the-moment decisions, which results in a greater feeling of trust and security for everyone. We can also see the use of formal or legal communal economic agreements as the method of utilizing our individual and group relationships to material things as a means of affirming our spiritual ideals, one of the basic practices of spiritual materialism.

The point is that formal and legal structures do exist which are appropriate for Polyamorous intentional communities, and groups exist which have considerable experience with them. Taking advantage of this experience, and relating it specifically to the needs of Polyamorous communities, may be one of the most important steps for groups to take who wish to affirm that this chosen lifestyle is not a short-term fad but a viable cultural design.

Allen Butcher