Jimmy's proposal

  1. Overview
  2. Duration and season
  3. Location
  4. Facilities
  5. Daily practices
  6. Relation to technologies
  7. Scale
  8. Participation and membership
  9. Classes
  10. Economic activities
  11. Intellectual activities
  12. Comparison with other institutions
  13. Legal structure
  14. Administration


This is a proposal for a planned scholarly community, different from a school, a research center, or a corporation.

It is felt by many people that I know that the topics and manner of one’s study and research are too strongly constrained within the academic and industrial universe. It would be desirable to have an environment promoting

  1. Free scholarship. The choice of solitary and collaborative programs of study is expressly permitted based on one’s own evaluation of their importance.
  2. Critical inquiry. These programs of study are expressly permitted even if they entail scrutiny and judgment of prevailing institutions.
  3. Open participation. The right to participate is not predicated on the outcome of competitive or ideological demonstrations.

The importance of (1) is not that particular individuals’ values and judgments of importance are always superior to those of the group, but rather that all individuals’ values and judgments of importance are often rendered irrelevant by institutional forces. Hence, also, the importance of (2) and (3).

These goals are not really controversial. Yet they are still unmet in the environments that I know.

If this is some inevitable price to be paid for the material and pecuniary support of groups of researchers not otherwise engaged in an economic activity, then perhaps we are just getting a bad deal for ourselves. The primary obstruction to the establishment of a community promoting free scholarship, critical inquiry, and open participation seems to be the absence of a viable economic model, and the (I think, incorrect) presumption that pre-existing models like the school, the research center, or the corporation are adequate for these purposes.

I claim that the monastic economic model is basically adequate. Viability is evinced by the fact that the monasteries were a stable, dominant presence in England and Ireland for several hundred years. Their end was not some gradual decline against the rise of modernism, but rather a very well-documented series of violent institutional actions taken by King Henry VIII of England and his civil servant Thomas Cromwell over about 5 years starting in 1536.

The proposal draws heavily from what I imagine to be the monastic economy, especially the aspects which are related to interaction with external agents, updated to account for the conditions of existence facing contemporary economic agents. There are significant differences with the monastic economy at the level of internal social organization, on account of the apparent failure of actual monasteries to promote the 3 goals enumerated above. I have attempted to emphasize pragmatism, compromising ideology where necessary in favor of increasing the likelihood that the project will actually get started.

Duration and season

There is a sizable group of individuals, students and faculty, belonging broadly to “academia”, for whom there is a notable long season during which many formal and professional obligations cease: the summer. It is not entirely a coincidence that this season exists and that it would seem to be useful for this proposal. For, this time is widely hailed by students and faculty alike as a good time for personal research and non-traditional collaboration not unlike that being proposed here.

The organization should operate a main facility for approximately 3 summer months, as opposed to permanent year-round activity. This dramatically increases the probability that the project will meet a minimum degree of success, as measured by the ability of the members to continue to participate in the activities of the organization, by allowing many members to participate without compromising prior long-term familial and professional commitments.

Far from being a financial burden on poor participants, this arrangement is expected to be regarded as a partial reprieve for scholars who would otherwise have to work in a demanding service-sector environment or the “gig economy” during this time.

If the project succeeds in establishing a seasonal community, it is not hard to imagine how the same facility could be converted to a permanent year-round community with reduced membership. I think that this transition (if it is ultimately desired) would be relatively easy in comparison with the initial establishment. Moreover, the seasonal limitation seems to make it likely that the participants would be willing to experiment with more radical practices than if they were committed more permanently. For these reasons, I will consider only the initial establishment here.


The location of the main facility of the organization should be remote in the sense that transportation between the main facility and the nearest social or economic units (e.g. towns) should be prohibitively difficult for casual travel or interaction. This arrangement is expected to encourage camaraderie among the members by limiting their casual interactions to the group and limiting their relations with outside entities to deliberate actions taken by the group as a whole (at least for the duration of the season).

Ideally the soil and vegetation conditions would be agreeable to some agricultural activities, and the climate would be mild enough to reduce the need for extensive heating or cooling systems. There would be no paved access to the main facility, which would be located approximately 15-30 miles from the nearest town. A route to the facility, intended to take a couple of days on foot, should be carefully chosen with respect to both utilitarian and aesthetic considerations.

Areas meeting these basic requirements and lying within the sphere of my personal cultural familiarity include some parts of:

  • Inland New England; Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, northern New York
  • Quebec, New Brunswick, and western Canada
  • the U.S. Northwest; Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon

Some areas more than others would seem to have the advantage of a local culture broadly agreeable to the aims of the project. Local affiliations would no doubt prove valuable in the long term.

It may not be necessary or desirable that the organization obtain legal title to the land on which we intend to operate:

Federal land. In the United States federally-administered lands cannot be purchased, but the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management regularly grants easements to both for-profit and not-for-profit organizations in explicit agreements. If we decide to pursue a site located on federal land, in my opinion it is unlikely that the federal authorities would disapprove. For tiny non-profit ventures, their (and our) principal concern is effective and responsible land stewardship.

Reservation. The descendants of the people who lived in North America before the European colonization retain formal control of certain small areas as a result of treaties with the United States and Canada, mostly ratified in the 1800s. As a result of a famous geographical mistake, the living descendants are still called in English “Indians”. Hence the “Indian reservation” system in the United States and the “Indian reserve” system in Canada. Because these more native cultures did not sanction large-scale private property contracts before the European arrival, trading schemes involving symbolic capital representations of land did not exist at that time. To the extent that their contemporary heirs still value land stewardship, as distinct from the more familiar land ownership, they might be willing to sanction a proposed site on reservation or reserve land on the condition of responsible use. If we decide to pursue this, I recommend a native employment preference for the full-time administrative positions described in the Administration section. (See also Related Reading [5]).

On the other hand, purchasing rural land in the United States is relatively easy, and may be the only option in the end. It is cheaper than you might think: a couple dozen wooded acres can be occasionally be found listed for as little as $50,000. The disadvantage would be the absence of certain formal barriers to intrusion by for-profit interests (e.g. pollution from logging, drilling, or mining).


It may or may not be necessary for the organization to build new buildings to comprise the main facility.

Building all new buildings would probably require an initial period of 4 or more seasons during which the participants, numbering approximately the same as the the eventual typical operating capacity of the facility, would labor under the direction of a hired or volunteer architect in consultation with a hired or volunteer site planner. All would presumably live, for the duration of the construction, under fairly primitive conditions.

One argument for acquiescing to modern capital-intensive building methods, involving oil-burning machinery and imported manufactured materials, is that in principle they could be used just at the beginning, in order to get the project started given a social environment poor in expertise about less capital-intensive methods. I largely accept this argument. Only, however, if the actual plan withstands the type of scrutiny described in the Relation to Technologies section. That is, the completed state of the facility should be, as much as possible, operable without the assumption that external agents will be available for consultation or maintenance using external resources.

If a site is found already possessing buildings meeting our criteria, occupation would most likely require engagement with landownership.

In either case, a sizeable capital accumulation and expenditure would be required to initiate the construction or site preparation phase.

It is conceivable that the amount of effort, capital, and the number of seasons required for the construction phase could be drastically reduced by selecting a sufficiently primitive design, intended to be improved gradually after opening as a scholarly community, during the normal course of the organization’s activities. This may be the most practical option.

The most minimal setup would still include

  • a main study and meeting hall, with a library, kitchen, and storage cellar
  • detached cottages for sleeping or private study

They should be sufficient to accomodate, say, as few as 10 and as many as 40 participants.

Depending on auxiliary economic activities, additional buildings could include utility or storage houses, a woodworking or electrical workshop, a cheesery, a brewery, … .

Daily practices

The participants should conform to a schedule of communal meals and labor which is rigid in that specific times are chosen for specific days, but partial in that the period of scholarly time is self-structured and exempt from this schedule. Those used to academic life will be correct in interpreting this, not so much an imposition of labor time, but rather as a way to constrain the labor time with a hard upper bound.

Relation to technologies

I strongly advocate the delibrate instrumental use of technologies, old and new, for the solution of technical and logistical problems facing the establishment and daily practices of the organization. The unequivocal denial of what is perceived to be a harmful technology on the basis of its being unfamiliar is what doomed the followers of the Luddites in the early 1800s, and many similar groups since then.

That means subjecting technical practices and artifacts to constant scrutiny, in order that the ones that are actually chosen be the ones that we, the humans, decide we can responsibly use to further our aims.

As an example, it may be reasonable to set up a wind-electromechanical or photo-voltaic-solar electrical power system for the purpose of powering a refrigerator in order to address the food coordination and preservation problem. Yet, the whole system:

  • refrigeration
    • acquisition,
    • daily use; equitable access,
    • long-term maintenance,
    • eventual disposal or dismemberment, and
    • recycling of the components and refrigerant capture
  • power generation and storage

should be scrutinized and planned such that the system would not be adopted if the community decides that it does not have the resources to carry out all aspects of the interaction responsibly. This will almost always (but perhaps not always) imply a non-computerized, non-networked, non-electrical version of the technological solution to a given problem; not categorically, but as a consequence of specific scrutiny. The same goes for

  • water acquisition, storage, and distribution
  • human and other organic waste disposal
  • structural maintenance and repair of buildings

Because it is so difficult to differentiate instrumental and instrumented uses of the internet, I recommend a complete absence of internet-connected and cellular-phone devices. After a few seasons of that, the participants would be in a better position to judge precisely what aspects of internet access, if any, would further their aims, and how to incorporate them.


Some typical operating capacity of the main facility should be chosen, say N=30 members. A potential scalability plan:

  • If the group of participants exceeds, say, (5/3)N, then new plans are drawn up for a clone of the main facility in a separate location, so that (5/6)N would remain and (5/6)N would populate the new facility.
  • If the group of participants drops below a certain predetermined number, the physical community is disbanded for the season (“apoptosis”).

Participation and membership

Participants of all different ages, genders, and backgrounds should expect to be welcome in the main seasonal community. Though all participants would labor in the community economic projects, the emphasis on scholarly study means that some prospective participants might be more comfortable in a more “general-purpose” community like Twin Oaks.

It is true that the participation of people who have full-time careers would be severely limited by the seasonality stipulated in Duration and Season section. To justify this limitation, consider the logical alternatives:

  1. An arrangement for the participation in the program itself to replace the full-time careers of willing participants. Defined correctly, this is a desirable and not impossible goal for the organization.
  2. Opening the general activities of the organization to casual participation by a presumably more general public.

I strongly suspect that (1) is an impossible goal initially. In the case of (2), the organization would probably not be able to promote the goals (1) and (2) stipulated in the Overview.


I propose a flat social hierarchy, with the exception of a single director with the responsibility of direction and delegation of daily activities. In matters arousing controversy, the director must generally listen and decide and not advocate.

The main purpose of the small scale of the proposed community is to create conditions under which this simple structure can succeed, without the director becoming overwhelmed and without creating a sensation of injustice among the directed. The director must generally labor to the same degree as all other members.


The organization would seek to raise funds for startup and major continuing expenses (like staff) from grant-making foundations and individual donors, including perhaps some of the really-dedicated members.

Individual participants in the seasonal community would generally be expected to contribute a sum of money in advance of actual participation in the program, intended to cover expenses establishing a minimum level of community operations, including, for example, food, for the season. I expect that this would be somewhere in the neighborhood of $2000-$3000 (in 2016 dollars).

No special member status would be conferred on those who can afford to do this. Participants who cannot afford to pay from personal income sources would not be barred from participation. They would, however, be encouraged to petition a sponsoring institution to cover the cost, like a foundation-based scholarship program if the participant is a student, or a university research/travel fund if the participant is a faculty member.

Economic activities

Obviously a detailed plan of the economy would have to wait until the legal structure, membership network, site proposals, and funding models are in place.

In accordance with an expectation of an approximately half-and-half split of the participants’ labor time between unmandated scholarly projects and mandated economic ones, we should hope to raise about half of our daily operating costs from donations and participant contributions and the other half from time-tested monkish professions like:

  • Growing fruit trees, vegetables, or grains
  • Not growing grain, but buying it and milling it
  • Raising chickens for their eggs
  • Raising cows for milk
  • Not raising cows, but buying milk, then making, selling, and eating cheese
  • Making and selling furniture

A note for expert utopians and economists: I think it is important to insist on a basic plan which is reproducible by a more or less arbitrary group of reasonably competent and interested 20-40 individuals with diverse skills. The overall plan or the actual economic activities themselves should not be so complicated as to require a PhD in Operations Research.

The economy planner should also be explicitly cautious of situations in which marginal efficiency improvement with overall labor reduction is achieved by replacing a desirable labor activity with an undesirable one (as defined by the membership).

Intellectual activities

This community might inherit an emphasis on mathematics on account of the expected demography and the physically minimal nature of mathematical study, but this is by no means a requirement. One of the benefits of the community structure proposed here, in comparison to, say, a research center, is that it is supposed to support the full range of scholarly endeavors:

  • specific and technical science or mathematics (e.g. Invariants of quaternary forms in dimension 4 under the symplectic group in characteristic 5)
  • broad and interdisciplinary science (Category theory and implementations of social choice systems)
  • historical research, linguistics research, women’s studies, music composition …

I will recommend specifically The Azimuth project. This is a network run by competent and esteemed mathematical physicist John Baez (that looks suspiciously like http://ncatlab.org) with the goal of saving the planet from human growth externalities using open-participation science. This is a rather serious task, much more important than a lot of other things you might be thinking of, and we should all consider contributing.

The legal structure of an organization is important because it establishes some predictability for the interactions that the organization will have with other agents. In the United States, the federal government is still one of the most significant other agents with which an organization will interact, because it serves as the ultimate guarantor for most contracts. Although organizations with especially large influence in a given industry are subjected to special scrutiny from regulatory authorities, the vast majority of the federal interest in most organizations just concerns taxation. For this reason, formal organizations are largely classified by the federal government by means of the Internal Revenue Service tax code (Internal Revenue Code, IRC).

Both for-profit companies and corporations and not-for-profit organizations must generally incorporate in and register with a given state in order for contracts and agreements involving the organization to be enforceable. Most not-for-profits fall under the category described in section IRC 501(c), “Religious, Educational, Charitable, Scientific, Literary…”.

Oddly, there is a separate exemption class, described in section IRC 501(d):

  • “Organizations exempt under IRC §501(d) are ones organized for the purpose of operating a communal religious community where the members live a communal life following the tenets and teachings of the organization.”
  • “All of the organization’s property is owned in community and, each member, upon leaving the organization, is entitled to no part of the community assets.”
  • “Activities often consist of farming and manufacturing.”
  • “The income of the organization goes into a community treasury that is used to defray operating expenses and the cost of supporting and maintaining the members and their families.”

I imagine that it is not a very popular class (although the IRS data on 501(c)(3)-(9) organizations is readily available, the data on 501(d)’s is not, so I don’t know for sure). It is nevertheless a relatively accurate description of the community proposed here, at least from the point of view of an external regulatory body.

The main consequence of these designations is that

  • Income received by the organization, even profit as a result of sale of goods, is generally not subject to federal income tax (and presumably state income tax, in most states).
  • Private donors to the organization can claim income deductions on their federal and state tax returns in the amount of their donation.

To obtain and maintain the designation, non-profit organizations must meet certain requirements. For example, they must have a board of directors, typically unpaid and separate from staff, meeting at least once a year. The board is ultimately responsible for decisions affecting the structure and activities of the organization. Technically they authorize the staff, e.g. a “chief executive officer”, to direct the daily activities of the organization on their behalf.

Those of you who are interested in supporting this project, but feel that you fall into the category of people pursuing full-time careers that would prevent your participation in the main community, should consider serving on the board.


The organization should have 1-2 full-time administrative staff in an office in a nearby town. They would coordinate agreements with the local government officials and businesses concerning land use and supplies, maintain the organization’s accounts, file tax disclosures, communicate with donors, etc.

I think it is important that these tasks are delegated to some sort of staff physically remote from the main facility and not to a member participant, because they principally concern the organization’s interface with other organizations and agents. These administrative tasks would probably distract the participants’ attention from the main scholarly and economic activities, just as these activities would probably distract an administrator from carrying out these tasks effectively.

Next post:

  • Detailed comparison with other institutions
  • Recreational activities
  • Budget proposal
  • What can we do now?
    • Incorporation
    • Field trips
  • Related reading
  1. The Communistic Societies of America. Charles Nordhoff, 1875
  2. Foundation. Isaac Asimov, 1951
  3. The Dispossessed. Ursula Le Guin, 1974
  4. Anathem. Neal Stephenson, 2008
  5. 9/10ths of the Law. Hannah Dobbz, 2012
Jimmy Mathews