Auroville: Intentional Community As Incubator of Communal Capital

Saturday, June 25, 2016: 2:30 PM-4:00 PM
56 Barrows (Barrows Hall)
Suryamayi Clarence-Smith, UC Berkeley, Berkeley, CA; Auroville, Auroville, India

Intentional community scholarship is a burgeoning field, as many ICs are in existence today and act as laboratories for experimentation and the application of alternative socio-economic theories and practices. Auroville is the largest among the longest-standing intentional communities in the world, and has the most comprehensive scope of activity. It is the intentional community that comes perhaps the closest to representing an autonomously functional socio-economic system, and as such, could offer significant insights into the practices and attitudes that foster and concretize alternative and aspirational community-driven blueprints for society. 

The first clause of the Auroville charter begins: “Auroville belongs to nobody in particular. Auroville belongs to humanity as a whole.” This philosophy is the basis for a participatory system of governance and socio-economic organization in which no particular individual or group of individuals is sovereign, rather, the whole body politic of Auroville is sovereign, so that, in Rousseau’s famous words: “whoso gives himself to all gives himself to none.” In The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx proclaims: “Capital is a collective product…Capital is therefore not a personal, it is a social power.” This is the underlying economic philosophy in Auroville, “All is essentially collective property; there is no private ownership of land or utilities within Auroville.” No individual in Auroville privately owns the land they live on, the house they live in, or the commercial or service units they may have developed in Auroville. In investing in the latter, “Aurovilians are constantly investing in the collectively owned land, housing and business.” We see here a rappel to Rousseau, who stated that “From ceding their property to the State - and thus, to themselves - they derive nothing but advantage, since they have, so to speak, acquired all that they surrendered.” 

Another key point Marx makes in The Communist Manifesto, is that “Communism deprives no man of the power to appropriate the products of society: all that it does is to deprive him of the power to subjugate the labor of others by means of such appropriation.” This thinking is directly implemented in the Auroville economic system. Everyone in Auroville works for the benefit of the community. In exchange for their work, of whatever nature it may be, they receive a stipend (“Maintenance”) from the common fund (the “Unity Fund”). Therefore, as Marx intended, every individual benefits from the products of society, but no individual income is directly extracted from the labor of others. 

The Unity Fund – Auroville’s communal fund – is financed by Auroville’s commercial units, guest and other income-generating services, which are required to donate 33% of their net profit to it, as well as by grants from international institutions and private donors.  The Budget Coordination Committee (BCC) is vested with the task of allocating Unity Fund income to community development and member maintenances (stipends). All Unity Fund contributions and disbursements are public; annual reports are shared with the community in the internal newsletter, the Auroville News & Notes. Services belong to one of 5 overarching categories: (1) “Prosperity Services,” which cater to the basic needs of Aurovilians, i.e. housing, health, and food; (2) “Municipal Services,” (3) “Administrative Services,” (4) “Education and Culture Services,” (5) “Outreach Services,” which attend to the guest industry, the bioregion, and promotion/fundraising for Auroville. Services do not operate with the intention of generating a profit, and are either free for Aurovilians (all Education and Culture Services, some Prosperity Services) or require a fixed or scaling contribution to avail of the services provided (i.e. Prosperity Services that are not fully funded or self-sufficient). Commercial units are extremely varied and typically offer a special rate to Aurovilians, in addition to contributing 33% of their profits to the Unity Fund.

Individual commercial units and services also serve as experimental sites for alternative economic practices that emphasize the collective good and participatory process, and promote access to goods and services regardless of economic power. For example, “Pour Tous Distribution Center,” the Auroville cooperative grocery store, requires a monthly contribution from members, instead of charging for individual items. Commercial units organize “gift economy” fairs in which people donate whatever they are able to afford for an item of their choice. 

It is important to note that the ultimate purpose of work, as understood within the context of Auroville is not economic gain or productiveness, but spiritual growth. Mirra Alfassa, the founding figure of Auroville, stated “Aurovilians must take up a work and do it as Yoga.” One of the community’s foundational manifestos, To Be a True Aurovilian, specifically speaks of the nature of work as  “something indispensable for the inner discovery.” 

The bedrock spiritual ideology of the community has informed its socio-economic organization. As with any utopian imaginary, attempts at concretization often fall short of expectations and the complete realization of Auroville’s ideals remain a work in progress. The community is not self-sustaining, and does not provide for all of its members in the ways it aspires to. However, as indicated by current experimentation within individual units and services, and larger practices within its economic system, the ideals remain operative in inspiring initiatives and development. That alone implies their embodiment.