In January 2018, a group of artists and cultural workers based in Brussels—including us, Tiziana Penna and Anna Rispoli—committed to living from the same bank account. All income we receive through wages, unemployment, and other benefits is wired into this shared account. From there, we don’t withdraw the same amount we wired in, but whatever amount each one of us feels we need to live our life, including money for mortgage payments, rent, utilities, childcare, monthly savings, groceries, and clothes, but also for holidays, hobbies, going out, and all the unnecessary consumerism one is drawn to. The initiative is called the Common Wallet, and through it our group wants to develop more radical forms of solidarity, kinship, trust, as well as a thorough questioning of and experimenting with different possible relationships to money.
There are currently seven members in the Common Wallet—and three children associated with it—but this number fluctuates. Some of the members are single, some have partners. Some own an apartment, others do not. While we are all in the arts and culture or nonprofit field, we work in different disciplines, and we operate in Belgium as well as abroad. So far, each newcomer knew a member who was part of the project before joining. However, there are no specific selection criteria. Anyone who hears about the project and wants to fully engage with its principles could be part of it, regardless of their monthly income. The project aims at engaging with the unknown, and a diverse membership fosters learnings for everyone involved in the experiment. With this in mind, we are actively thinking about ways to diversify the membership in terms of elements like earnings and lifestyle.
As members, we don’t negotiate our individual lifestyles with each other. Instead, there is a collective approach to the cash flow, with everyone taking responsibility for the whole. There is no invasive curiosity around what the other members do or do not spend their money on. The aim is to move away from a culture of control and policing towards a culture of radical trust. There is only one rule: to commit to open and honest communication, even when it gets uncomfortable. Whatever goes wrong will have to be solved by the group. A few tools help us out: a weekly breakfast to make the community “real” and update each other on our experience within the project, irregular longer meetings used for in-depth conversations, a Telegram chat to discuss practical or urgent matters relating to the common account, a monthly secretary (rotating role) to keep track of the general ins and outs and to keep the rest of the group updated on possible cash flow bottlenecks, and an overview of expected income and average expenses over the month.
In this conversation, we discuss the values at the heart of the initiative, how redistribution offers members a sense of security, the importance of respecting all members’ individual needs, and more.
Anna Rispoli: With the Common Wallet being a project based on redistribution and solidarity, one of the concrete desires is to harmonize the oscillation of income and outcome typical of the arts sector. Some of us get a monthly fixed salary, others benefit from unemployment coverage when they don’t work, others are freelancers getting paid in big chunks only once in a while. So everybody wiring their monthly earnings into the same account is a way to assure a minimum and stable income for everybody.
Another purpose is to relativize the stress of precarity by commonizing it. The Common Wallet is an attempt to unlearn the individualistic relationship we have with money, a perspective that makes us feel alone in front of our own economical failures or successes. If money was a lover, we would be looking for a polyamorous relationship, in which money would be only one of the many elements setting the value of things.
Tiziana Penna: I joined the Common Wallet a year after its creation, and it took me a while to shift from the individualistic logic you describe to a polyamorous one. The commitment is simple: wire all of your monthly income into the common bank account, engage with each other from a place of radical trust, and be transparent. But what it really means to engage with simple values like those takes time to fully understand.
The different ways we react to money can be thought of as muscles. Many people often feel guilty or insecure around money, these reactions can happen on autopilot. When it comes to sharing money, or having gratitude and trust around money, this often requires a more conscious effort of muscles that are not used as frequently. When surrounded by other people doing the same exercise it becomes a transformational process in collective intelligence—
Anna: And these muscles become strong when you train them!
One of the principles that we claim is non-reciprocity—that is, not to look for a match between what you pay in and what you withdraw from the joint account. Even if you don’t put a lot of money in the account, you don’t need to compensate for it by giving something else, like time or services. That’s maybe the strongest resistance to the capitalist blackmail, where the poor end up serving the rich. In fact, we start from the principle that wealth is not necessarily meritocratic and it’s only partially linked to your commitment or your brilliant skills. We acknowledge the privileges that are based on social differences.
Sometimes, having a well-paid job in the art world is a consequence of a series of privileges, like race, gender, having studied, being able to say no to poorly paid jobs, having a supportive family, et cetera. Once this becomes clear, sharing income with people you trust is the most natural thing to do in the world.
Tiziana: This redistribution allows a sense of security that enables us to reflect differently on our own social position. For some members it helped to redefine their professional aspirations. I think of a production manager who now works as a dramaturg, or someone else also coming from administration who decided to focus on curatorial activities. Probably, deciding to be transparent in front of the other members forces us to look at our own blind spots.
When I joined the Common Wallet, on top of my production manager activities I sometimes used to work for companies outside of the arts without questioning their ethical responsibilities because I just needed the money. Now, when I don’t work as a production manager, I’ve learned to develop more ethical ways to earn money.
This engagement with transparency enables us to develop a certain capacity for listening—one that is cultivated within the project, which somehow radiates out into how we engage with our immediate surroundings, like with colleagues, families, friendships, et cetera.
Anna: Coming back to an attempt to position the project, it’s important to mention that Common Wallet is based on the present. That means that we only share the cash flow everybody wires monthly. What is in the past and what is in the future is a bit of a gray zone. Some of us have family heritages and others do not. Someone can inherit debt, so inheritances also have negative sides. And us, how do we deal with that? For the moment, money from the past has not really entered the picture. Maybe because, until now, we wanted to keep the level of experimentation dynamic enough to only risk the present.
Recently, we mapped our social/class privileges or asymmetries, meaning we told each other how much money we had in our personal savings account as well as information about our parents’ financial situations, which would hint at what we all might be inheriting one day. That was a strong moment of mutual exposure. Because the other big thing that we are usually trying to unlearn is the taboo of not talking about money.
Tiziana: Indeed, this mapping moment was beautiful. Some people are more comfortable than others with the notion of money invested for the future. And maybe it has to do with cushions some have and some do not have. I think that balancing these asymmetries is a next step that the Common Wallet would like to move towards, by creating a collective savings as capital for members who don’t have such cushions, which can increase their chances of getting an apartment or realizing any other individual goal.
Anna: Yes, this would be a way to really make the project sustainable in the long-term. Until now, we haven’t been able to bring forward some attempts to invest in goods together or produce money through the Common Wallet.
Tiziana: Maybe due to the fact that we put a priority on respecting the individual needs of each person. For example, we typically plan our holidays using a spreadsheet where everyone estimates how much they will need, so there is a set budget. But if someone shares their need for going on an unplanned holiday, even if cash flow is low the group will try to respect that need or desire and support it. Or when the majority of the group would like to make a decision but one person is resistant, the group prefers to avoid putting any pressure and drops the idea.
An example would be saving for Christmas presents. Last year, around Christmas time, one of us needed to pay back taxes to the government within two weeks. Someone proposed that we do not buy any Christmas presents that year, or buy cheaper ones. But one member explained that in her family offering Christmas presents is a very important tradition, so she did not want to move forward this way. Some members still lowered the costs of their Christmas presents, but in general we dropped the idea and started thinking of alternative solutions to cover the tax payment.
I think showing respect for individual needs generates trust and transparency, which are important tools for creating solidarity.
Anna: It’s true that between the very rational inclinations and the anarchistic ones within the group, the anarchistic have been dominant. We try not to make rules before they are really necessary. We decided not to think of all the things that could go wrong, like what happens if someone suddenly becomes addicted to gambling and spends all of the money, or if someone starts lying. We decided to leave it open, by giving each other this radical trust, and we all feel that everyone is trying to be as honest as they can. Also, the Common Wallet doesn’t exist formally. It’s not registered. There is no deposit or social capital.
Tiziana: And that’s also why we don’t want to be more members than a convivial table can host—though we do not have a specific limit, and this could change. Instead, we are more interested in the project multiplying or inspiring other tailor-made initiatives on ways of solidarity, and in supporting others who want to create their own financial experiments.
Bigger-scale examples like kibbutz are interesting to reflect on, as they share some similarities with what we are attempting, but they are focused only on equal redistribution and social interdependency, while we are interested in empowering the individuals as well. Individual needs and intimacy are at the core of the project.
Teaser photo credit: Author supplied.