Sunday, November 21, 2010

But what is "Community"?


[Auf Deutsch. Vielen Dank, Alexander!]

[Оригинал]

[This is another guest post from Yevgeny, which he wrote in response to my article How (not) to Organize a Community. He poses what, to a Russian, seems an obvious question: “How (not) to organize a WHAT?” You see, upon close examination the English word “community” turns out to be all but meaningless. English speakers all assume that they know what they are talking about when they say it, but a Russian speaker who tries to translate it ends up with the following list: “society, union, locality, district, hostel, state, population, residents, communal ownership.” One begins to suspect that “community” is just a pompous and self-important way of saying “people,” just as American nannies (sorry, “daycare specialists”) refer to the little sprogs in their charge as “doing activities,” instead of “playing games” as normal, non-robotic children do. How did I manage to lose sight of this? “It's because you listen to idiots,” says my wife. In any case, it is good of Yevgeny to reel me back in.]

[Update: Looks like we ruffled some feathers in the Transition Towns neck of the woods. Here I am doing my best to bring to you stories of real survival by real Russians (so you don't have to limp along with your hackneyed Mad Max/Waterworld clichés), and for that I am painted as being part of an "apocalyptic cult" that rejects the sacred idea of "komyooniti!" This, they say, is a "direct assault on the optimism of people who accept peak oil!" I am happy to be able to assure you that this is all complete nonsense. Jean, who attended my talk in Lincoln, MA last week, wrote this: "I found you very reassuring in your reminding me that despite all the upcoming disaster life will go on; perhaps not as we would like but then perhaps not so bad either. Somehow I had lost track of that. It may not be the life we're familiar with but then it might be a better life too."]

[Update: Thank you Dave Ewoldt for straightening out the "apocalyptic cult" nonsense I quoted above. Let's be straight with each other: Transition would have required some Solutions, like Powerdown and Relocalization, to have already been implemented by now on a large scale, so we won't be making our scheduled stop there. Our next, emergency stop will be at Collapse. Let's make the best of it.]

[Update: It just keeps going. Now Eric Curren of the "apocalyptic cult" nonsense referred to above has provided some more commentary on this ever-exciting topic:  "Too much scary talk won't help us recruit people; instead, it will just scare them away," he says, and this will prevent us from "preaching beyond the peak-oil and eco-choir." So, choir, are you scared? All 16,641 of you who have visited this blog since this article got published six days ago? (That, by the way, is a stunning 0.00065% of all of humanity; we are doling out planetary salvation by the heaping teaspoon!) I for one definitely am scared—that this blog will become too popular and turn into a job—an unpaid job, of course. "Preaching"—now that does sound like a job, and may J-Zeus the hip-hop god strike me down if I ever get preachy. Believe me!—or not, and think for yourselves, because you are on your own.]

I read your article about differences in “komyooniti.” Let me ask you as a linguist, what's the most adequate Russian word for it?

It's been hammered into my head that the most important things are food, a roof over your head, security and mobility—the first two especially, and everything else is just there to tempt you. And it seems that the best way to procure food is not to take it away or steal it or buy it, but to grow it and to guard it, because there are always people to guard it from. That is, to be close to food. And when the local industrial agriculture kicks the bucket and the food will stop being delivered to the cities, won't the residents of backward little villages be the winners? You can imagine gangster raids into rural places, rifling through barns and fields, and forcing people to pay a tribute, as in feudal times—but that's only if they find enough fuel to get there and back.

I know that no matter what economic or political regime prevails, my Russian village kin will survive, provided they hold on to their land and provided climate change doesn't kill off all the flora and fauna around them. I believe that the Russian, conditioned by centuries of serfdom, the GULAG and the entire Soviet experience, is a very hardy beast, in spite of alcoholism, drug abuse and moral decay. Also, as a child of the industrial ghetto, I entirely agree that the underclass is better-prepared. Our city is a smelly, dusty port city, industrialized in the extreme. It is inhabited by exasperated, embittered, bloody-minded people. Mothers often have to bring up children by themselves because the husbands spend half the year out on the sea. The merchant marine offers about the only way to rise above poverty. The criminal element is prosperous and well-organized, just as it should be in a port city. Every child knows the names of the celebrated local criminals (the so-called “authorities”), including the legendary ones, who perished in the maelstrom of the 1990s. The little children play at Cosa Nostra and go around mugging people. Every one of them belongs to a neighborhood or even a specific courtyard. Sometimes there are wars between kids from different apartment buildings. The most important question in any meeting, during any time of day or night, is “What neighborhood are you from?” If you are unlucky enough to be from the wrong neighborhood, you might still have a straw to grasp if you know one of the local criminal “authorities.” If you decide to get the police involved, then you are in for some additional, official abuse. Smart people don't stray outside their territory in places where they don't know anyone. Children know who lives where and who would mug them, and keep out. The parents aren't particularly concerned about the safety of their children, and the children are quick enough to learn what they need: how to break noses, how to be on guard, how to talk like a gangster, how to spot easy marks for grabbing a cell phone or a wallet, how to be a street-fighter. They start from about age seven, as soon as they start going to school. This all happens quite spontaneously, without any conspiracy. This is how it will always be in my city. It's not a pleasant way to live, but it is survivable.

I have already lived through some of the experiences mentioned in Reinventing Collapse. Some of my friends took the crooked path in childhood, some have done time, some more than once. But I was certain that they won't touch me, or let anyone else touch me. On quite a few occasions they saved my skin and even helped me out with money. Some have lived with me, some I've sheltered from police: they are “our people” and the police are “the enemy”—along with the rest of the government, and we must defend “our people” from them.

None of this was the case in my father's village. There were plenty of alcoholics and drug addicts, but everyone was “our people,” and so there was no-one to fight. If any one of them got assaulted, the entire village would be out looking for the offender. Theoretically, a misbehaving stranger could get his comeuppance right there and then, but in fact street crime was all but nonexistent. Bicycles would get stolen, but that is about it.

The people there are a gregarious lot. At all the weddings, funerals, army send-offs, birthdays, anniversaries the house is full of people, there is a ton of food, and plenty of singing and dancing. Everybody has their own domestic food source, and, of course, everyone brews their own alcohol. All passers-by say hello to each other, even if they don't know each other. Friends and neighbors are treated as part of the family. Russians don't use the word “cousin”—everybody is just a brother or a sister—and that says a lot about our culture. In that village, I have so many brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews, uncles and aunts, grandfathers and grandmothers that in every tenth house they are happy to receive me. Growing up, I was bored there, and was attracted by the excitement of the concrete jungle in the city. But village was real life, the way life should be.

My father's family did not live on this land for centuries. They migrated from the hungry Urals to the fertile Kuban in the 1940s. But nothing held them back from becoming “our people” in just one generation. My grandfather had so many brothers and sisters that the village was a sort of clan—a very large family. Everybody was either related, or friends, or friends of friends, and so everybody could always find a sympathetic policeman, inspector, doctor, teacher, social worker, military representative and so on. All business was transacted in this way only: through acquaintances, which is the one and only guarantee of helpful and excellent service.

The black market flourished to such an extent that nobody depended on official employment or deliveries to stores. Many men fished illegally, and having connections at the Fisheries Service helped a lot. Everyone had kitchen gardens, chicken coops, cattle, pigs. We bought salt at the government store, and bread, although my grandmother could bake the bread just as well herself. But the most pleasant part of the black market is, of course, controlled substances. Dear reader, why do you think it is that Russia lags behind Luxembourg, Switzerland and the Czech Republic in per capita consumption of alcohol? Well, that's because actual alcohol consumption in Russia is incalculable. To say that not all of what Russians drink is purchased at a store is to say nothing. Black market alcohol manufacturing and distribution thrives in Russia as nowhere else. Superpower politicians seem to have poor memory for history. Everyone knows how the Prohibition in the USA gave rise to powerful criminal syndicates and enriched the Kennedy clan. Well, on May 17, 1985 Gorbachev passed a “dry law” which proved catastrophic for the Soviet economy. Black market production blossomed and thrived right through the 1990s. Before that law, profits from the sale of alcohol made up 25-30% of the state budget of the USSR, and so Gorbachev's decision was quite possibly the last nail in the Soviet regime's coffin.

As far as transportation, the busiest street in the village saw maybe one car a minute during the busiest part of the day, and so the air was very clean. At night the village and the surrounding farms turned dark and quiet. But even this small village was served by buses from different directions, and the drivers of these buses could be asked to stop at any house. My uncle drove one such bus, and so on special occasions our family had the bus to ourselves, to go on a mass excursion somewhere—at government expense, of course! (Everyone knew of this, and nobody was opposed.)

The level of poverty sometimes looked quite frightening, but there was something about it that provided a sense of safety and security. I remember watching news reports of street demonstrations in Moscow in 1991: a crowd chanting “Yeltsin is a traitor” marches menacingly toward a line of riot police, and a melée ensues. But we couldn't care less, because none of this had any effect on us. We were poor under the Soviets, and we were poor afterward, but we stuck together. Whenever we need to marry one of us, bury one of us, get one of us a government job, a solution always presented itself. Family celebrations never involve just the nuclear family. The house is always open, the food is brought in by the guests, and there is always a musician or two present, because after eating and drinking Russians like to sing. At moments like this you can forget that you are living in a third world country and that life is really hard. Saturday is sauna day—another excuse to receive guests, since a sauna relaxes and predisposes to conversation. These are the simple ingredients that make up a real society: Family, Clan, Home—where you feel safe in any situation.

It seems to me that Russia and other former Eastern Block countries have already gone through hell and are now on the way to recovery, while the USA and other formerly rich countries are yet to go through this hell, and nobody knows what it will look like. The take-home point is simple: to survive in a third world country, you have to know who your people are, and who are the strangers. The more of your people there are, the better, but it is absolutely unacceptable if everyone beyond the confines of your family nest is a stranger. Then there is simply no chance that you will survive.

42 comments:

John Andersen said...

Another exceptional post.

Thanks Dimitry!

This is what convinces me that here in the USA, the more we have connections with and learn from the Hispanic, Black and indigenous population, the better we'll fare in the years ahead.

Mayberry said...

Wonderful post. This is a point I've been trying to make for a long time, one which falls mainly on deaf ears. But I've got my place. My little village to go to, where I know everyone, and I'll always be welcome. We have the means to produce our own food, etc., and we will survive...

DeVaul said...

This is a great article because it addresses the one topic no American wants to honestly deal with: our complete and total lack of any sort of real community. This is why the word is used to describe almost anything, including, but not limited to, gatherings at a bowling alley.

I am not sure that America ever had any real communities to begin with, and by that I exclude native americans. What held us together was a set of laws that we all agreed to live by, and by and large we did outside of the major cities, which were mainly run by criminal syndicates (communities?).

Now that the rule of law is collapsing all around us in full view, and has been for over 30 years, beginning at the top and moving downward, the word "community" has become the catchword of the day. We are constantly being told to "build, establish, create, join, form, or somehow conjure up" a community.

Communities are not buildings or contracts. They cannot suddenly be erected or drafted. Most Americans have no interest in being part of a real community, as that would entail a loss of personal freedom or privacy or both. They want to continue being individuals while hoping that their status and person will be protected by laws and written agreements. This is especially so among the super rich, as they have no desire to share anything at all.

The shock that will hit most Americans when the collapse comes will be something that historians will talk about for centuries, as the psychological make-up of the collapsing society is totally unique in the annals of history.

I am not sure why, but for my own private reasons, I both dread and welcome the coming collapse.

Larkin said...

Someone on another forum was worried because his daughter that was suddenly without a car. He couldn't decide if it was safer for her to travel by bus or call a taxi. Hearing a story about a woman being raped by a taxi driver pushed him into a state of indecision. I couldn't resist commenting with the piece below. It is in contrast to Yevgeny's piece above.


Thank you Mass, Mainstream Media.
Someone has a mishap in a taxi or on a bus and everyone thinks the next one due to arrive holds the same uncertain potential. We live in a nation 1/3 of a billion people (300,000,000) and we are all afraid.


The TV teaches us that we must live in fear and that danger is everywhere. They magnify an isolated event and put it into your backyard or in your bedroom. Instead of communicating with your neighbor or sharing conversation on a bus with someone you may not know, we live in fear and put our faith in the police and the state.


I know a woman who drives her son, 200 yards to the school bus and then waits with him until she sees him climb on the bus. She does this because she thinks the prevalence of strange child predators is that pervasive. Thank you reality TV.

This is theater predicted by Ray Bradbury in Fahrenheit 451


When and if the state fails you and some day, it will, who will you turn to? The collapse of the extended family means most people have only 1 to 3 people to face a real crisis with? We have isolated ourselves from our own neighbors because of contrived and baseless fear.

In Cuba it is illegal not to pick up a hitchhiker just to save fuel. As a youth, I hitched across the country more than once. Now you never see a hitchhiker, why? Fear.


Certainly there is need for street smarts and an unaccompanied woman does run a higher risk and should take that into consideration and use sensible caution, but living in fear as if we are going to be the next episode on cable TV is pathological.

Take the bus and have a friendly chat while you are at it.

Raye said...

Good reminders of so many things we can expect to change.

This is how my mother's family and parts of my father's family have lived for generations. Happily, I am discovering that many of my neighbors, though they don't put it into words, are accepting that we are in the process of becoming some kind of clan. There is more sharing, more time together, more dropping in unexpectedly. It won't make the change painless, but it may help many of us get through for a while longer.

Blessings on Yevgeny, and Dmitry.

kulturcritic said...

Dmitry, this post reminds me about why I am here in Siberia, and why I prefer it to other locales (eg USA). My wife's parents live in a small neighborhood in a 50 year old building that looks as if it wants to collapse, tucked away on a dirt/broken paved/usually muddy or icey potholed path in a corner of the city.

Anna's father, Anatoly, who just turned 70 years old, has numerous friends there who are close like family. Among the many broken down garages in the alley, there is one belonging to Petrovich, a friend of Anatoly's who might as well be his long lost brother. In this garage there is parked Petrovich's very old Soviet Moskvich (auto). They call the garage "Cafe Shina" ("Shina" is the Russian for tire). So, it is here that the "rabyata" (the boys) congregate daily for some vodka or samegon (home brew) along with kielbassa, bread, pickled tomatoes, or salted fish. DO people think Russians are alcoholics, no! They always must have a reason to drink (and always with shared food). But there are 365 holidays a year here in Siberia, and always a reason to clebrate. If it is not someone's birthday, then it is the day of the police, the day of teachers, or the day of the miners,... well you get the picture. Everyone brings something to share.

And at Cafe Shina everything is laid out on newsprint, on the hood of the Moskvich, and we drink and eat and discuss politics, or current events.

Mind you, these men didn't know me, but when they met me, and when they continue to see me, they welcome me openly to join in their 'community' and share as one of their own. (even though can not understand any of my English, and little of my Russian). There is Genia, Sasha, Tony, Anatoly, Petrovich, and others. And they welcome me, and host me more genuinely than my own cousins and close friends in Manhattan. If I need help, they offer to take me to the airport, help move my furniture, repair something... whatever is required. It just comes naturally to them, and now I am like family.

I have come to understand that even today Siberia is still largely a village-oriented society. While Russia has the largest landmass on earth, it has fewer great metropolitan centers than either Western Europe or the USA. As I learned, less than one-third of Russia’s entire population lives in large urban centers. And of those living in these cities, many still prefer spending time with their "extended" families in the village or at simple forest dachas whenever they are able.

Michael Dawson said...

We have market totalitarianism here, rather than the state-based variety. The big difference is that the market variety "works," in the sense that people, to the extent they think at all, believe it and its core stories and promises, and therefore stand not just utterly atomized but mentally disarmed before it.

And some of the problem is sheer infrastructure. People move from bubble to bubble in their cars, cubicles, and television-viewing hutches, with no experience of things like kitchen gardening. Hell, Americans don't even talk to each other in the shopping mall or sports arena. Real, spontaneous conversations constitute lost advertising time for the owners of such "venues."

Scary.

Patrick Dengate said...

Living in tight, close-knit, everybody-knows-everybody-else villages isn't all idyllic.

The mother of a friend of mine grew up in a very small village in southern Germany, near the Alps. They STILL drive the cows through the main street out into the pastures every morning there. My friend romanticized the place, but her mother told her it could be claustrophobic, even suffocating. Conformity was prized, and there was little privacy. Everyone knew everyone else's business, and petty disagreements and jealousies developed among cliques (albeit tiny ones).

So, people find a way to irritate each other and not get along no matter where you go! What can you do?

xbornstubbornx said...

Dear Patrick Dengate,
the picture described above (I'm the author) is not anywhere near idyll. Furthermore, this kind of life is tough as hell. But you might be missing a point: first and foremost, it's about s u r v a v i b i l i t y. There are enough drawbacks there to make somebody want to move out to the big city at the economic growth time. The main point is: when decent people in the cities would start starving and resorting to a crime to put food on their tables, those country folks might not even notice the change. Financially, this is almost a bottom of society, all they might have for living is their old cabins and kitchen gardens. My grandfather build an adobe house and farming facilities about 50 years ago, which are still in fairly good condition. Besides clay a lot of cow manure was used. They have never had a flush toilet and rarely buy a real toilet paper, using old newspapers and old Soviet books instead (there you go, at least old doctrine had some use). They bath at their traditional sauna once a week, at the workdays they would rather just rinse their legs before going to bed, and nobody smells like bum. Oh yeah, almost forgot, there is nothing around there that would resemble something like fast internet connection if any internet connection at all. Television is still analog and barely a few channels are available. Well, I doubt our suburban population would be very happy to live like this. Our family and friends there are downright hicks with a typical pattern of behavior. Some of them might even seem ignorant, backwards people, who know little to nothing about the world beyond their habitat. Somebody very intelligent, liberal, open-minded, with a couple of college degrees, but who doesn't really enjoy performing menial tasks would feel like a space alien there.
Shall I go on? Probably not.
Yes, this is not something many people would enjoy, but the question is: do you want to keep living? Here's the recipe from the agrarian society.

Bob said...

This post brings to mind something Kurt Vonnegut said shortly before he died. In A Man Without a Country, Vonnegut posed a question but gave no answer: “What can be said to our young people now that psychopathic personalities — which is to say persons without consciences, without senses of pity or shame — have taken all the money in the treasuries of our government and corporations and made it their own?”

Shortly after the book was published, David Brancaccio interviewed Vonnegut and pressed him for an answer to the question. Vonnegut responded: “Well, you are human beings. Resourceful. Form a little society of your own. And, hang out with them. Get a gang.... One thing I found out [from the study of anthropology] was that we need extended families. We need gangs ... a nuclear family, a man, a woman and kids and a dog and cat is no survival scheme at all. Horribly vulnerable. So yes, I tell people to formulate a little gang. And, you know, you love each other.”

I’m thinking it was good advice. Join a gang.... And survive.

weeone said...

Yes, this is a very interesting post here. People in the Russian countryside are definitely better prepared to face the collapse than we Americans.

I live in a rural state (Vermont). But there's no sense of community here. I have one good neighbor that I've gotten to know and they have put in a garden, heat with wood and are making other preparations. The rest of them act like they are scared to death of me. I have no idea what they are going to do when the music stops but they certainly aren't going to help me survive.

Charles F. Oxtrot said...

An excellent companion to Dmitry's prior essay.

Some of the comments are strange. A few people seem to think modern yuppie valhalla is what people will be able to hang onto, and so there's no reason to consider simplifying, cutting back, etc... and besides, look at what ignorant hicks they are out there in the sticks!

Anyone who can't imagine living a simpler life than he or she now lives, well I'd say that person is dead inside, no matter what external signs of life may present themselves. Of course, to some of us, that idea isn't shocking or even mildly unexpected: naturally there's no living imagination in a person unable to imagine simplifying his/her wants in a wants/needs analysis.

As to Mr Dengate's example, I think it speaks only to that particular person in one particular social setting, and is not something that can be generalized to every small cluster of humans. I've lived in tiny towns before and there was nothing at all like what Dengate's friend said or supposedly experienced.

Now, if you presently live a pampered life and your plan is to move to a small isolated town where nobody wants or needs the same level of pampering, of course you're going to find them behaving as though you need to be more like them. They don't want an upscale Los Angeles or Minneapolis suburb, and they'll thank you to not bring your slice of it in with you.

This latter idea is especially significant in America, though I'd guess it's also a human thing more than an American thing... but we Americans do seem to elevate self-centeredness to new planes of existence.

pchelovod said...

"While Russia has the largest landmass on earth, it has fewer great metropolitan centers than either Western Europe or the USA. As I learned, less than one-third of Russia’s entire population lives in large urban centers. "

The question of whether the USA will start to look a lot more like this is often on my mind. At my most pessimistic, I can imagine hundreds of thousands streaming out of the cities just to get food. Dmitry, when you spoke out in Cummington this October, I asked you a question toward the end about how you saw things ultimately shaking out between rural and urban dwellers. Paraphrasing (and correct me if I'm wrong) you said you thought that people would mostly end up living in cities, largely, because of the efficiencies of urban life compared to McMansions and lots of separate ticky-tack houses. Besides, you said, it is often very boring in the country. It struck me that your answer reflected your own experiences in Russia, maybe even your own preferences.

I grew up in a small town in Maine. To this day, I can't really feel comfortable in the city-- "normal" for me is fields, forests, and cows, and my gut tells me that people are more likely to pull together in a rural setting than in an urban one. But, then again, that could be just my own upbringing.

But I think that the scene kulturcritic mentioned above (w/ the rebyata sharing food and drink on the hood of an old Moskvich, welcoming a foreign visitor) is one I also saw often in Moscow back in the 1980's. It's a classic Russian scene, I think, regardless of location. I am sad to say, I can't think of a good analogue in the US.

auntiegrav said...

I think this reflects what Dmitri said before; "Real communities are self-organizing". You cannot imagine order out of chaos, nor can you socialize individuals on demand(prison). The western capitalism has flourished on the idea of separating everyone as individuals who become consumers of all the things they can be convinced to buy in order to be unique and special, but still at least partly like everyone else. Once this system is psychologically ingrained, it is difficult to get people to think in terms of real needs and resources, or that the opposite of consumption is not frugality, but generosity. Generosity/sharing is part of real community. It is based on trust among people in many arenas, and sometimes includes strangers for some reason or another. This isn't something that can be contrived, as each member must be at least partially sincere within the networks. It happens because it works within real needs, it won't work just because people want it to work.

DeVaul said...

Auntiegrav is right. I just experienced another predictable episode in my neighborhood yesterday.

After hiring another high school kid to do work for me, I gave him an old TV that I did not want. I am disabled and cannot lift it. He took it home after he finished.

I always try to give things away, but my wife chides me for this, but it is a huge part of my religion -- a major virtue. For some reason, Asians do not give things away for free. I do not know why.

Anyway, the boy returned the next day to do more work for me, but this time he brought a friend claiming that they could work faster together. Instead, they wasted two hours talking and smoking while trying to build a firewood rack that required no more skill than making a straight cut on a 2 x 4. They could not even do that. I had to finish the job myself in the rain this morning. Took me 15 minutes.

I do not know whether it was total incompetence or a deliberate attempt to target me for money, but I failed once again to establish good relations in my area because no one is interested in such a thing. They just want money for nothing, and the money was all they cared about.

This has now happened three times, and I and my wife just want to move away. After my father died, I wanted to buy a farm and move away, but my wife said no. Now, she has changed her mind, but it is probably too late.

You cannot force other people to cooperate or act honorably or even to stop shooting out the back windows of your garage for fun. Most of the people under 25 in my area do not have any skills at all, and I fear that they will resort to violence when times get really tough because that is all they know how to do: they just take things by force.

Against a large crowd of people with that mentality, even an unorganized one, a nuclear family will not last long.

Ancona said...

Wow. I truly enjoyed that post. As a child, I too grew up in a very poor home, yet never knew we were poor. Shopping for school clothes meant going to the St. Vincent DePaul store, or to the Goodwill to get what we needed or had not yet been handed down. Thanksgiving was the same; donations from the Franciscans. We worked hard and played hard, and every family member contributed.

These days, I am significantly more prosperous, yet remember my poverty stricken childhood with a certain fondness. Those who grow up with everything can not possibly relate to those who have lived without.

Thank you for reminding me that it does not take an ipad to enjoy life.

Winfield said...

All very interesting reading. The next direction this conversation could take is, "How the environment shapes our society." Where are these different experiences taking place? What are their economies based upon. Is this at a town on the coast, in the mountains, an arid plain? These will largely shape the appropriate level of human organization.
Let us get an anthropologist to write the next essay.

June said...

DeVaul- Your comment about hiring boys to help around your place reminds me of what my grandmother used to say. She lived in a small town and often had need of a young fellow to help out around her place. Her rule of thumb was 'hire a boy, get a boy's worth of work. Hire two boys, get 1/2 a boy's worth of work. Hire 3 boys, get no work at all.' It's just human nature I guess!

xbornstubbornx said...

Thank you all for being interested in the article!
Also sorry for not being a scientist or anybody really "competent." I didn't even try to make an article, it's just a bedtime story for you. Just like in the previous case, it started with an e-mail correspondence with Dmitry in which I shared my experience. Dmitry proposed to translate it and make another guest-post, so I thought "hell yeah!" A rare opportunity to make new acquaintances with interesting people. To expand beyond it would actually be beyond my competence, thus, my conscience is clear this time. So, yeah, maybe next time let's hire an anthropologist instead of reading the rubbish of some Russian backwoodsman. Only my overwhelming ignorance doesn't let me comprehend how exactly a good, sound essay would help your community organize. Good luck.

Bukko Canukko said...

Because many of us live in cities, the challenge will be how to survive there in a more-pinched world. I'm not expecting a full-on zombie apocalypse overnight, but I have the luxury of that fantasy because I've escaped the psychotensions of the U.S. for the blandland of Canada. Yuppies here are trying to form groups, getting to know more neighbours and learning who they can depend on. There's even a woman in town who's pushing what she calls "The Two-Block Diet," where you grow what you can on your plot, you make connections with other people who grow other things on theirs, and maybe you won't starve when the crunch comes. It sounds almost Russian! I reckon Canadians won't resort to cannibalism, eh?

Kevin said...

For some reason, the warm and fuzzy Kumbaya-singing collectivist connotations implicit in the way many American "progressives" (and some others) like to use the word "community" have always creeped me out.

The Two Block Diet sounds like a great idea. Perhaps such a thing could be organized more widely with the web as an initial contact device for people local to one another, somewhat along the lines of Freecycle (which in my experience works considerably better than the fraud-fraught Craigslist). If such were local to me, I think I'd go for it.

kulturcritic said...

For those of us monitoring the immanent collapse of the American hegemony, read the attached.

http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2010-11/24/content_11599087.htm

DPW said...

So, a guy in Seattle got killed by way of a hatchet to his head, in broad daylight, 10:00 am, in front of school children. Of course the Perp was "mentally unstable"...but he was only in his early 20's. WTF is that about???

Something tells me the festering sores of this society are just starting to boil to the surface. As unemployment rises, social services are cut even further to the bone, etc., we're going to see instability like never before.

We're raised in Amerika to exalt the individual, that the self-made-man is the epitome of all that's right with our capitalist wet-dream...that needing community is weakness. The ideal is that one should be wealthy enough to buy whatever is needed.

So how will we respond? How many "nutcases" are going to come scurrying out of the woodwork in our cities, towns, whatever...

We really have no social-contract to speak of here, so what is keeping the tinder-box from blowing as soon as the food-trucks stop coming?

The one glimmer of hope I've seen is the way some of the working-class individuals showed their humanity during the snowstorm we're in here by helping others who got stuck in the snow, or taking in friends/relatives who needed a warm place to stay. I guess I can hope that as things get worse people will somehow snap out of their comfort and go into survival mode...which depends on community. Who knows, maybe we have it in us after-all. At least some of us...the ones who are committing homicide with camping tools in the middle of the city on a Monday.

bart said...

I feel ambivalent about Yevgeny's post and Dmitry's recent Schadenfreude.

I've lived in corrupt places, where you couldn't trust the government at all, and it really sucks. I also know that Soviet history is indescribably tragic. I marvel at how people in the FSU lived through it all.

But you know, shitty situations make people live in sub-optimal ways. Having to be paranoid, brutal and obsessed with the basics of life -- this is not wonderful As Yevgeny said in a comment, it is about survival.

The problem comes when survivors of such situations make generalizations based on their past. They adopt an all-purpose cynicism and knowingness, which blinds them to situations which are not as extreme.

The US, thank God, does not have the grim history of the FSU. It had a history of a pretty good government and strong communities. I've been in some of them (e.g. Hewlett Packard in its prime). They are very good places to live.

Do not under-estimate how effective they can be at survival when times get tough.

About whether communities can be developed... yes, they can. I've seen it and done it. Do these look like the places that D and Y have been in? No.

Dmitry has been very good with his X-ray vision view of US culture and its weaknesses. But that's not the whole picture.

Bart / Energy Bulletin

xbornstubbornx said...

bart,
I believe some people will be doing just fine, I just told you how my people acted in case of permanent emergency. However, I hear a lot of talks on how people in America are better than that, you underestimate them, we'll do just fine, we'll organize, community this, community that etc. Maybe they (we) will. Let's just stop beating around the bush and face the direct question: what about the food, shelter, water, security and transportation? What are these people gonna do about these exact things? I want to see that and know how are they gonna provide themselves with these things. Until that question is answered, I'm afraid we would just keep pointless talks about American can-do spirit. I don't want to sound like an arrogant prick, after all I am here in this country and not in Russia, I don't want to leave US any time soon. So I really would like to answer those questions myself.

kulturcritic said...

@ bart

"The US, thank God... had a history of a pretty good government and strong communities. I've been in some of them (e.g. Hewlett Packard in its prime). They are very good places to live."

Are you serious? HP is a community? They really have you smoked up bad. Don't they. If you really believe that HP is or was ever a community, then you must believe that those people on Facebook really are your FRIENDS; and those on Twitter really are your FOLLOWERS.

I cannot afford the time here to provide a lesson in corporate organization, hierarchy and leadership strategies. I can only suggest that you do some more exploration on your own.

Good luck bart!! And welcome to the culture of make believe!!

kulturcritic said...

@ Patrick Dengate

When the shit-hits-the-fan, Patrick, it is not going to be the minor irritations of fellow pilgrims in your village that will get under your skin.. it is going to be the unrestrained violence unleashed by the urban jungle of strangers that is going to break your back and take your life, wife and foodstuffs to satisfy their pent up frustrations and poverty.

One of the Remnant said...

Seems to me the best definition of community can be found in the works of Wendell Berry, who spoke voluminously on the subject. It is no myth, although it is, in this nation, a legend (i.e. having some factual basis, but not in evidence currently).

A related subject is 'civil society' - which can only arise from people acting together in community.

The fact of the matter is that the last century in America has witnessed an all out assault on both of these entities. Public policy seems to have been explicitly designed to 'root out' a strong sense of community among Americans - explicitly so, even. Mass media - in particular TV - also played (and plays) a powerful role.

The book to read is Bill Kauffman's 'Look Homeward, America' - which paints a picture both of the strong communities which American once featured, and the policies which annihilated them.

Community has a meaning, and remains relevant and will become moreso. In fact, odd as it may seem to most Americans, I think Yevgeny actually does a bang up job in describing community - in this passage, for example:

"We were poor under the Soviets, and we were poor afterward, but we stuck together. Whenever we need to marry one of us, bury one of us, get one of us a government job, a solution always presented itself. Family celebrations never involve just the nuclear family. The house is always open, the food is brought in by the guests, and there is always a musician or two present, because after eating and drinking Russians like to sing. At moments like this you can forget that you are living in a third world country and that life is really hard."

bart said...

@kulturcritic The case of HP is interesting because it was a community that was systematically and purposefully destroyed. I bring HP up because, in its prime, it was not only an extraordinarily good place to work, but it was commercially highly successful. It beat out many a predatory, exploitive company. Being a socialist, I don't have a rosy view of corporations, but HP and a few other high tech companies did do things right. It's good not to have black-and-white views of things.

@xbornstubbornx I don't disagree with you. American culture has lost most of its brain cells, and it is an open question how the US as a whole will respond. For myself, I've found a region where people are competent and can cooperate.

We will be able to deal with the questions you raise: "food, shelter, water, security and transportation."

However, I do not think that those are critical issues for us for the next few decades. I do not share Dmitry's views about imminent collapse.

Instead, I think there will be political conflict, as in France, with increasing economic pressure on the lower 70% of the population. During this period, social solidarity and political organizing are key. Strategies like Transition make a lot of sense as a starting point.

I've got to respect what people did in the desperate situations in the FSU that you describe. It could got that bad here, and I hope we would be able to survive as heroically as they did.

Bart / Energy Bulletin

Loveandlight said...

I myself have been socially isolated for the past 17 years, and to be sure, part of it is my own damn fault. But of all the countries in the developed world, I tend to think that only in the USA would it have been so likely that I remain this way for so long. I often ask myself how such a society can endure and deal with the realities of collapse. The answer is, it can't and it won't be able to do any such thing.

snuffy said...

Dimitry,

I am pleased you have found another fine voice for pointing out our past/future.

There was a time in America when "the community" WAS America.This was before the wealthy decided to remake our country in their own image.

Years ago,in the '50s,post war and pre-Vietnam.The time of my childhood.The type of community that had weathered the depression,,and become a industrial giant,but still had leaders and grandparents who remembered want,who had parents who watched family members die for lack of medicine,and children die for lack of food.

This "societal memory"was carefully washed out of the American mind.[I will note we have the best very psycho-analytical types working in mass-media marketing to show all Americans who they really need to be....(!)]

Some very sharp,very amoral fellows decided the best way to ensure that a safe place was made for wealth..... was a place where wealth was prized above all,where "who you were" was "how much you had".Not what you did for others[generosity]or the safety and well-being of all.

These sort of ideas come around every few hundred years.The usual result is a "French"sort of solution,where,after a while, a lot of heads get cut off.

I worry this time.The way our society has been structured,the way our hero's have been shaped,we have a long way to fall to get back to our "tribes".

I am working on 'tribe' now.I have a small holding that can be a nucleus I hope of something that can last.I hope,and I try to make friends of my neighbors. As you have pointed out,such things are mostly self-organizing.

What gives me hope is what I saw when the y2k non-event occurred.This area meta-morphed in a way that is hard to explain.I have never witnessed its like.Suddenly,everyone who was your neighbor was friend,and everyone was looking over your shoulder...to see if they could help.I can only hope that this sort of effect will occur when its clear just how screwed we all are...I can hope...

Bee good,or
Bee careful

snuffy

xbornstubbornx said...

As life goes on, my perception of human relationships evolves rapidly. Here's a little addendum.
So, I live in a rural Maine, not without help of Dmitry I found new friends who offered us a room in their house. While they are at work we look after the property and their kids, also we maintain a kitchen garden and are having plans to expand the food production. Sounds like fun and it is: the place is beautiful, just walking around the block in the full moonlight is an unforgettable feeling. It's a real rural America - ain't nothing but a classical farmland around with homes and barns built around 2 centuries ago. Well, I'm exaggerating, there is some sprawl, mcmansions sticking out of the woods here and there, c'mon, we're in USA, but the farmland is really vast. On weekends my wife goes down to southern New Hampshire to run errands for her family and I stay in Maine, 'cause I can't stand it down there. She usually stays at her sister's house, which is in the slums of the projects. The house itself is disgusting, it smells bad, it's packed with people - my in-law's children and friends who failed to provide their own housing. Also, some other people who you would characterize as a "white trash" come to visit. They eat only junk food, smoke a lot of pot, watch tv-shows all day long, play online games and change their statuses on Facebook. They couldn't give a parrot's ass about outside world, politics, community service, climate change and especially Peak Oil. Not every adult has a GED. Oh yeah, they prefer to resolve conflicts through throwing fists and calling each other names. All of their kids are born out of wedlock and have big behavioral issues. All of these people have big problems with their health and regularly visit a nearby hospital. My wife herself characterizes the place and a company as a sty. But that's not the most interesting part. Sometimes I do come here and stay overnight or two, like this weekend. And you know what? I enjoy myself. Suddenly that life in a rural Maine doesn't seem as much fun. It's just a big old cold house, constantly depressed adults, obnoxiously behaving infants with a "Little Emperor" syndrome and not a single friend around to hang out with. Here, in Nashua, NH, these people have been knowing each other for decades and they still stick together. And they do help each other, including me. For instance, I haven't cloth shopped for a year or so, because my stepdaughter's real father gave me a lot of clothes in a good condition; if I'm hurt and need a medicine (no insurance and money whatsoever) some family connections provide us with antibiotics and pain medicine. Also, my wife is a nurse, so there we go - we have sort of a free health care in the family. Their kids adore me and I take good care of them when I'm around. Sometimes we manage to have a lot of fun, whether it's a trip to the cinema, simple stroll or a board game. My sister-in-law has a biggest heart, she would help anybody. I really feel backed up,secure. Our Maine friends are very generous, nice, intelligent, educated, open-minded and progressive people and have an upper middle class income so far, and these Nashua people are one step away from being bums, but I feel more secure with them for some reason. Mutual help in the never ending struggle to survive has created invisible tights, that distantly remind me my Russian experience. I might be dead wrong but for some reason it feels right. I guess it's another little contribution to "How (not) to organize community", this time closer to the American reality. It's a pity nobody will read that, but it's just good to know this stuff at first hand.

Rick said...

I'm a bit more optimistic about the potential for developing true community in the U.S. Communities arise through bonding. What bonds communities are the same things that bond people — shared experiences, particularly overcoming hardships together. People in the U.S. aren't having these community bonding experiences primarily because of the prevalence of long-distance communications and transportation, which derive from fossil fuels. Take those away and add physical hardships (which are certainly to come), and community building will be happen organically within a matter of months and years. Community builders will appear out of nowhere, because it is a natural human trait that certain people have in abundance.

There will certainly be much whining and loss of weight, but Americans will discover that they can form strong communities just as well as the Russians.

Dave Ewoldt said...

Hi Dmitry... Thanks for your kind comment. I've posted a response to Erik Curren's latest on my blog: http://naturalsystems.blogspot.com/2010/11/for-those-of-you-following-along-at.html

Dave Ewoldt

kulturcritic said...

Dmitry

You know Eric Cullen is silly to be worried about "scary talk" and "recruiting people." This is not the fundamental issue. And while Dave Ewoldt is correct in reminding us all of the obvious, it is a pity he too does not grasp the underlying issue uniting the Triumvirate (trifecta or тройка depending upon your perspective). He states on his blog:

"As a systems thinker, this extends to examining and finding systemic solutions to the global crises I call the Triumvirate of collapse--Peak Oil, catastrophic climate destabilization, and corporatism."

What seems to underlie these and other collapse-related tipping points, is a shift in our species' self understanding and our consciousness of our relatedness to the world we inhabit. This change of perspective was due to in large measure to division of labor, specialization and the rationality it engendered. Systems thinking itself has often been guilty of the same hyper-rationality that got us here in the first place. If we are fundamentally intertwined in the "system" than we cannot study it objectively. If, on the other hand, we study it to solve its problems, then we remain to some degree objective observers in the Cartesian sense.

I believe that Dave's position is that of an "expert," again plying us with solutions for a "soft landing," in order to save the appearances, and let civilization continue, only on a new lo-lo-cal diet.

His position could easily be construed as no less "fairy dust" than those engaged in (what he calls) "the world's largest experiment in operant conditioning known as advertising."

Well, there you have it; I like stirring the pot!

Dave Ewoldt said...

Hey kulturcritic... pot stirring is good. The last thing we need today is more dogma.

What I see as underlying the Triumvirate of Collapse are force-based ranking hierarchies of domination, a disconnection from the natural world (which includes each other and our communities), and a pathological sense of an inferior other which allows exploitation for personal benefit to be legitimized. I've attempted to put all this as succinctly as possible in the following:

http://naturalsystems.blogspot.com/2010/08/in-nutshell.html

I don't see specialization itself as a fundamental problem. It is a natural aspect of healthy ecosystems and other species--ants being everyone's favorite example. What makes specialization bad is when it is used in support of hierarchies of control and when it serves to entrench disconnection.

I don't consider myself an expert. I just study relationships and report on my findings. Your mileage may vary. I do sometimes get carried away, especially when I get replies from people I greatly admire who tell me I'm on the right track. Oh, well. At least you know you're dealing with a human and not a robot. I try to be honest about it, and I have a wife and a few good friends who whack me up alongside the head when I get too far out of line.

But I believe we do have some commonalities, such as Earth being our one and only life support system, and that the universe is friendly to life and its evolution. I do believe that there is a path forward that could allow technologically advanced societies to exist in balance--or holistic integration--with a living world that could be considered to be positive progress of the human condition. It won't look at all like what we consider to be civilization today, and will only come to pass if, of course, we haven't already totally blown it.

It will require, at minimum, two major shifts from the industrial mindset of growth. 1) Accepting an ecologically sound definition of sustainability, which includes the concept of carrying capacity, which means human population can't be much above about 2 billion (and less than that for at least the next couple of centuries as we expend much effort in helping heal all the ecosystem damage we've caused). 2) Accepting that profit and power are not compatible with people and planet. A specific example is that we know how to build things to last, to be repairable, to be energy efficient, and how to control and clean up our toxic messes, but we don't because it has a negative impact on the bottom line.

The possibilities for doing things differently are based on the fact that it would actually be more natural and require less energy than what we're doing now. I don't consider it to be fairy dust, but based on demonstrable natural systems principles that have been performing quite well for billions of years to create and sustain vibrant and resilient ecosystems.

kulturcritic said...

Dave

I concur that hierarchical institutions rest at the foundation of the systematic control of life in civil society. And it is without doubt the result of a move away from more primal egalitarian kinship-based social relations prior to the birth of cities at the close of the Neolithic period. This led directly to the power based relations we find fully operational with the earliest urban environments in the ancient Near East. But, I would hypothesize that such hierarchy is a direct consequence of the radical division of labor, which led to specialization and a shrinking of any one individual’s status within the social and economic project of the precivilized tribe or clan. I would even wager that specialization directly led to the gross sense of meaninglessness, alienation and anonymity we find so prevalent today in modern industrial society; a meaninglessness that is only overcome through the consuming of ever more technological innovations and toys.

However, there is a subtler, somewhat more intractable knot that seems to me has eluded your thinking. Or perhaps you have not seen it as a problem. There are numerous indications in your writing that betray this forgetfulness. Your work is chocked full of words and phrases like “evolution,” “a path forward,” “technologically advanced societies,” “positive progress,” “improving our lot in life,” “evolving beyond growth,” “becoming better.” Aside from their moralistic overtones, such concepts strongly suggest that the fundamental hypothesis of (and belief in) unidirectional time still haunts your own thinking.

kulturcritic said...

You seem to believe that we really are “going” somewhere temporally, that time flows like a river to some future that we can make or awaits us somehow. Perhaps you fail to see that this is foundational part of “the story” they have been telling us. You say that this place we are at is “nothing more than a story” that emerges from force-based rank hierarchy. Perhaps that hierarchy is part of the story that emerges from a deluded hypothesis of unilinear time - clock time - and history?

Our “salvation” - if you will allow the metaphor - does not require some cellular transformation in the brain, as your friend and mentor Krishnamurti has suggested. Nor do we need to transcend, overcome, rise above, or improve ourselves... we need only recover what we are phylogenetically, and what has been lost sight of, that still lies dormant within us as a species. Please see my brief article, In the Territory of the Pleistocene.(http://ezinearticles.com/?In-the-Territory-of-the-Pleistocene---Our-Epistemological-Crisis&id=5049868)

Finally, there is a thorny-symbiotic relationship between the story about historical time and the evolution of written language, particularly the construction of the syllogism and how it laid the foundations of both scientific and social laws, and thereby gave necessary leverage to emerging hierarchies providing the “rational” and “universalizable” justifications for control of both nature and our fellow man.

Some food for thought! Sandy

Dead Metal Zero said...

Yevgeny,

Moved to Maine you say? Well, as a (now) fellow Mainer, I'd like to say "Welcome". I'd have to agree with you that Maine is one of the few places left mostly intact thus far. I've lived in only one other place, that being Florida. Down there, it's suburban sprawl taken to its logical end. nearly every space not occupied by a strip mall or shopping plaza is either suburb or a tourist trap.

My family here gets along relatively well, though any members beyond the immediate are scattered all over southern Maine. However, as I've said, I don't believe they really take me seriously when I talk about these kind of topics. At least, not seriously enough to think of how to prepare. Probably has something to do with age, given that I'm only 20.

In the town I live in now, I know practically nobody. Nearly everyone I knew in high school has scattered to who knows where. It feels almost like being stranded on an island.

xbornstubbornx said...

Dead Metal Zero,
it's sad. When a guy from the small town in allegedly rural state doesn't have any friends left it doesn't make any sense to me. Only in America. Well, I was told that it's an exclusive feature of Southern Maine which is rather like suburban Massachusetts. Too bad, too bad.
Been to Florida, have to agree with you again. I got pretty disgusted by the sprawl down there.
My town is Acton, near Sanford. I keep myself busy by the sports/recreation such as biking and kayaking, but in absolute solitude.

JS said...

"The village huts in the forbidden hinterland are- as dismally poor as ever, and the wretched peasant flogs his wretched cart horse with the same wretched zest. As to my special northern landscape and the haunts of my childhood-- well, I would not wish to contaminate their images preserved in my mind." - Vladimir Nabokov

Pops said...

Pretty surprising that no one here can answer the question of what makes community.

There is a simple reason "poor" people have community, and that once tight-knit "Main Street" in the US is disappearing, and that you moved away from your hometown and now snub your subdivision neighbor to socialize across town and have never met the family two doors down...

Unprecedented mobility thanks to cheap energy allows us to choose. Whereas in the past (or if you're unskilled today), going even a few miles for work or play was a big deal - today we do that for a coffee.

We can live in the city we choose, associate with those exactly like us, attend church in blessed anonymity, take our kids to soccer across town, drive mikes away from all our neighborhood to go to a How-To Build Community Seminar and on and on.

Of course we rely more on our cell phone and MasterCard than the neighbors (who, after all, had a campaign sign on their lawn for a guy we hated) - because we are rich from oil slaves, have virtually unlimited mobility and have been told we deserve every bit of individuality we can afford to buy.

Anyway, if you want to improve your survivability by improving your community, I suggest sucking up your ego and telling the neighbor hi. I'm a California Leftist-Libertarian-SomethingOrOther and I can guarantee you I had to suck it up when I moved to rural Missouri. But I have made more good neighbors here in 6 years than 45 in CA.