Tuesday, August 13, 2013

How (not) to organize a community

[This post first appeared in October of 2010 and met with a mixed reaction. Some people found it painful to hear that resilience and sustainability are often little more than middle-class hobbies, while the overwhelming trend throughout the world is toward a different kind of steady state, one characterized by something called durable disorder. However painful, the point stands.]

Dire predictions made by authoritative figures can provide the impetus to attempt great things: establish community gardens and farmer's markets, lobby for improved public transportation, bike lanes and sidewalks, promote ride-sharing initiatives, weatherize existing homes and impose more stringent construction standards for new ones, construct of windmill farms and install solar panels on public buildings, promote the use of composting toilets and high-efficiency lighting and so on.
In the midst of all this organizational activity neighbors get a chance to meet, perhaps for the first time, and discover a commonality of interests that leads them to form acquaintances and perhaps even friendships. As neighbors get to know each other, they start looking out for each other, improving safety and reducing crime. As the community becomes more tight-knit, it changes in atmosphere and appearance, becoming more fashionable and desirable, attracting better-educated and more prosperous residents while pricing out the undesirable element. News of these vast improvements spreads far and wide, and the community becomes a tourist mecca, complete with food festivals, swank boutiques and pricy bric-à-brac shops and restaurants.

The undesirable element is forced to decamp to a less desirable neighborhood nearby. There, it has no choice but to suffer with high levels of crime, but is typically afraid to ask the police for help, having learned from experience that the police are more likely to harass them then to help them, to arrest them for minor offenses and to round them up and deport them if they happen to be illegal immigrants. They also learn to be careful around members of local gangs and drug dealers. Since official jobs in the neighborhood are scarce, they seek informal, cash-based employment, contributing to an underground economy. Seeking safety in numbers, they self-organize along racial and ethnic lines, and, to promote their common interests, form ethnic mafias that strive to dominate one or more forms of illegal or semi-legal activity. Growing up in a dangerous, violent environment, their children become tough at a young age, and, those that survive, develop excellent situational awareness that allows them to steer clear of dangerous situations and to know when to resort to violence.

When the fossil fuel-based national economy shuts down due to the increasingly well understood local ramifications of the global phenomenon of Peak Oil, both of these communities are harmed, but to different extents and in different ways. Other countries may continue to function for another decade or even longer: these are the countries that have enough oil of their own, as well as those that were far-sighted enough to enter into long-term barter agreements with the few remaining oil producers that still have a surplus of oil for export. But suppose that our two communities are in an English-speaking country, which is likely to be afflicted with the irrational belief that the free market can solve all problems on its own, even problems with the availability of critical supplies such as oil. Just as one would expect, the invisible hand of the market fails to make itself visible, but it is plain to see that fuel is no longer delivered to either of these communities, although in the second one some fuel is likely to still be available on the black market, at prices that very few people can afford. Sooner or later, due to lack of supplies and maintenance at every level, electricity shuts off, water pumping stations cease to function, sewage backs up making bathrooms unusable, garbage trucks no longer collect the garbage, which piles up, breeding rats, flies and cockroaches. As sanitary conditions deteriorate, diseases such as cholera, dysentery and typhoid reappear and spread. The medical system requires fuel for the ambulances and running water, electricity and oil-based pharmaceuticals and disposable supplies for the hospitals and clinics to operate. When these are no longer available, the surviving residents are left to care for each other as best they can and, when they fail, to bury their own dead. Along with the other municipal and government services, police departments cease to function. Particularly important installations are guarded by soldiers or by private security, while the population is left to fend for itself.

The effect on the two communities is markedly different. The first community is superficially better prepared, being better equipped for emergencies and perhaps even having laid in emergency supplies of food and water. But being more prosperous at the outset makes a sudden transition to squalor, destitution and chaos much more of a shock. It also makes it a much more desirable target for looters. Used to living in safety and enjoying the protection of a benign and cooperative police department, the residents are not acculturated to the idea of countering violence with violence. Their response is more likely to take the form of a fruitless policy discussion rather than a spontaneous decision to go out and prophylactically bash some heads, causing the remaining heads to think twice. Unaccustomed to operating outside the law and having few connections with the criminal underworld, they are slow to penetrate the black market, which now offers the only way to obtain many necessary items, such as food, cooking fuel and medicines, including the items that had been previously looted from their own stockpiles. Worse yet, they once again become estranged from one another: their acquaintances and friendships were formed within a peaceful, civilized, law-abiding mode of social behavior. When they are forced to turn to scavenging, outright theft and looting, prostitution, black market dealing and consorting with criminals, they can no longer recognize in each other the people they knew before, and the laboriously synthesized community again dissolves into nuclear families. Where neighbors continue to work together, their ties are likely to be weak, based on altruistic conceptions of decency, mutual benefit and on personal sympathies—a far cry from the clear do-or-die imperatives of blood ties or clan or gang allegiance.

The second community is already accustomed to hardship and, not having quite so far to fall, can take the transition to mayhem, destitution and squalor in stride. The prevalence of illegal activity prior to collapse smooths the transition to a black market economy. Already resistant to the idea of relying on police protection, the residents are relieved when the police disappear from the streets, and a great deal of unofficial and illegal activity that previously had to be conducted in secret bursts out into the open. With the police no longer stirring the pot with their invasive arrests and confiscations, local criminal gangs now find themselves operating in a more stable environment and are able to carve up the neighborhood into universally recognized zones of influence, avoiding unnecessary bloodshed. The children, who are already in the habit of roaming the streets in gangs and harassing and mugging strangers, now come to serve as the community's early warning system in case of an organized incursion. (Not that too many people would want to venture into this area in any case, given its fearsome reputation.) Lastly, the prevalence of illegal drug dealing means that it already has a trained cadre of black market dealers who, now that official commerce has collapsed, can diversify away from drugs and branch out into every other kind of commerce. Their connections with the international narcomafia, whose representatives tend to be well organized and heavily armed, may turn out to provide certain benefits, such as an enhanced ability to move people and contraband through the now highly porous national borders. If the narcomafia ties are sufficiently strong, a narcobaron may take the community under his cartel's explicit protection, founding a new aristocracy to replace the now disgraced and powerless former ruling class.

Community organizing is quite wonderful, and can provide some of us with a perfectly pleasant way to while away our remaining happy days. As a useful side effect, it can provide individuals with valuable training, but it does next to nothing to prepare the community for collapse. A safe and congenial environment for you and your children is obviously very nice, much better than trying to survive among social predators. But humanity is not immune to the laws of nature, and in nature one can usually observe that the fewer are the wolves, the lamer, fatter and more numerous are the sheep. The central problem with community organizing is that the sort of community that stands a chance post-collapse is simply unacceptable pre-collapse: it is illegal, it is uncomfortable, and it is unsafe. No reasonable person would want any part of it. Perhaps the best one can do is to gather all the unreasonable people together: the outcasts, misfits, eccentrics and sketchy characters with checkered pasts and nothing better to do. Give them the resources to provide for their own welfare and keep them entertained. Keep the operation low-key and under the radar, and put up some plausible and benign public façade, or your nascent community will be discovered, shut down and dispersed by the pre-collapse officialdom. And if through some indescribable process all of these undesirable, unreasonable people manage to amalgamate and self-organize into some sort of improvised community, then you win. Or maybe they win and you lose. Either way, you would deserve credit for attempting to do something unusual: something that might have actually worked.

There may be a few people who would be willing to tackle such an assignment. If they are serious about it, they will stay well hidden, and we will never know how many of them have succeeded, because we will only learn of their existence when they fail. As for the rest of us, who are itching to do something useful within the confines of existing legal framework and economic reality, there is just one path: the path of emergency preparation, with the added twist that the emergency in question has to be accepted as permanent. Community emergency preparation is about the only type of officially sanctioned activity that may allow us to prepare for collapse.

The first and obvious part of preparing for the permanent emergency is to construct systems that will allow some, ideally most, of the population to survive in the long run without access to transportation fuels, or to any of the technology that comes to a standstill when starved of transportation fuels. The second, equally important part involves laying in sufficient emergency supplies of food, medicine, cooking fuel, temporary shelter for displaced persons, and so on, to allow some, ideally most, of the population to survive in the short run, while the transition to non-fossil-fuel-based existence is taking place. Yet another task is to organize streamlined, military-style control structures that can step in to maintain order and to provide security.

But the most important element of preparing for the permanent emergency is to devise a plan to force through a swift and thorough change of the rules by which society operates. Under emergency conditions, the current rules, laws and regulations will amount to an essentially lethal set of unachievable mandates and unreasonable restrictions, and attempting to comply with them or to enforce them is bound to lead to an appalling spike in mortality. The current way of changing the rules involves lobbying, deliberation, legislation and litigation—time-consuming, expensive activities for which there will be neither the time nor the resources. There are no non-destructive ways to decomplexify complex systems, and while systems that have physical parts fall apart by themselves, the legal framework is a system that, even in an undead state, can perpetuate itself by enslaving minds with false expectations and hopes. By default, the procedure for those who wish to survive will be to universally ignore the old rules, but this is bound to cause mayhem and much loss of life. The best case scenario is that the old rules are consigned to oblivion quickly and decisively. The public at large will not be the major impediment to making the necessary changes. Rather, it will be the vested interests at every level—the political class, the financial elite, professional associations, property and business owners and, last but not least, the lawyers—who will try to block them at every turn. They will not release their grip on society voluntarily. There is just one institution with enough power to oppose them, and that is the US military. It would be most helpful if enough high-caliber military types with lots of stars on their epaulets could step up and lay down the new law: henceforth anyone who wants to litigate their orders will do so before a military tribunal. It is heartening to see that many of the world's militaries, the Pentagon included, have recently woken up to the reality of Peak Oil, and are taking steps to prepare for it, while our craven and feckless politicians and businessmen continue to wallow in denial. Clearly, many Americans would rather not live under military rule, but then beggars can't be choosers, and, in any case, the alternative is bound to be even worse. The United States has not been invaded since 1812, but in its short history it has managed to invade other countries over 30 times. It should not come as a surprise, then, if the United States wraps up its existence by invading itself.

When taking part in community organizing activities, if your envisioned community is to survive the transition to a non-fossil-fuel-based existence, it is important to keep in mind a vital distinction: is this community going to operate under the old rules or under the new rules. The old rules will not work, but the new ones might, depending on what they are. You might want to give the new rules some thought ahead of time, perhaps even test them out, as part of your community's permanent emergency preparation program.


Andy Brown said...

I take your point about marginalized groups being better positioned if there is a sudden collapse. I'm curious why you think the police will just go away, though. One striking thing about the end of the USSR was the way in which both the criminal mafiosi and the (admittedly corrupt) domestic security forces both (in tandem or in competition) seized control of resources from a bewildered status quo. The US is different, and the scenario different, but the last few decades has seen the creation of an increasingly lawless and tribalistic police force - which is integrated right down into the smallest communities.

Maybe you were trying to keep your polemic tidy, which is fine - or maybe you see a more fragile police culture.

Wolfgang Brinck said...

Excellent article Dmitry. I would like to point out that for a part of our society, collapse has already happened and they are already living a post-collapse lifestyle. These people are erroneously referred to as homeless. Most of them do in fact attempt to establish homesteads but these are periodically raided and destroyed by the police. Nevertheless, they reestablish themselves again after a raid. Homelessness is in fact a political condition forced on a segment of our population by various zoning and property laws.
We also have a small boat village moored in a part of Oakland harbor that doesn't get much ship traffic. These are not strictly illegal as long as they move every ten days and of late, the police, strapped for funds has given up on enforcing such rules as there are. I lack the courage to take on such a life style voluntarily. However, I can't help but think that economic collapse will hardly be noticed by these people except perhaps the decline in police harassment.
The best we have managed in post collapse training is month-long camping trips where we shake down our life on the road skills and discover what is essential and what is not and where you are likely to be harassed and where not.

Professor Diabolical said...

Have to protest the base assumption that every possible road must lead to violence, chaos, and disorder. This is indeed a likely road, perhaps the most likely one, but if you are sliding down a cliff your focus is naturally on swinging wide rather than placidly resigning to gravity.

I appreciate that techno- and intentional-community types need a swift cuff on the ear as concerns reality, however human life has been a thousand ways over a thousand cultures, almost all of which didn't have access to massive energy.

We can, of course, squabble and shoot each other while the well-armed laugh at us from the castle, but if it is internal to our nature, we can also organize along the primitive lines we once had. Something more like church-communities of US c. 1810.

Trust me, they were outrageously suspicious of outsiders, often needing a letter of recommendation to move into the township, and would harass and run out travellers depending on if they liked them (shoemakers) or didn't (tinkers).

As they were a self-organizing, semi-insular community, even in "populous" places like Massachusetts, they were both their own help structure internally, and their own power structure to outsiders. --Think Revenuers vs W. Virginian moonshiners. If no one in the town/county/area will aid you in any way, how effectively can the center project their power? And if they can't, who cares about them?

Note this does not require thieves, militias, or narco-traffickers, it simply requires the internal area to, like the Roma, stay quiet, armed, and hang tight with each other against the other.

That they CAN be church-goers and law-abiders goes without saying; what gives the present center apoplexy and has been targeted in FBI and DHS bulletins are exactly these people: armed, christian, constitutionalists. That is, people who believe in morality, order, and are willing to use force to enforce it against all comers.

Not only that, but like my 1810 example, this faction has armed, prepared, planned, and intends to ally forces with other like-minded law-abiders again any attempt to enforce unaccepted outside rules from the center. This is exactly why they are so targeted, because being the least compliant, they are seen as the most dangerous to the center's power over all. The center has ALWAYS targeted ANY coherent group as the ultimate domestic threat, from Natives to Hippies. They never are, as local groups have no designs on larger power, but that doesn't stop them from going apoplexic on them.

So certainly it can be blind, Chicago-style factional killings, but it can also be other ways. In cities, I expect more of the former, as we see now. However, in the country, Amercans have no use for any outsiders at all, and can expect non-compliance and non-projection of power until they become the self-ruling force-weilding de facto communities you've been talking about.

forrest said...

Organized violence tends to have the same sort of disadvantageous consequences as organized religion: One really has to watch out for 1) Who is doing the organizing? 2) What's in it for them? & 3) Who are to be the organizees?

Some people may seem to respond better to being actually thumped on the head (or even shot dead, in the worst cases) than to more subtle forms of violence (such as for example thinking up clever reasons for calling them bad people and denying them access to whatever goodies your violence is intended to safeguard.But other people may respond by organizing a violence team of their own and playing the game their way.

Meanwhile, none of this is having a very good effect on the minds of anyone involved. I know, I know, this is just what a Quaker is supposed to say... but I am one, you know! & I can't expect other people to see things in quite the same way, or to behave in quite the same way. But what are the prospects for getting everyone to recognize everyone as fellow humans, not in need of vile disservices, thank you -- so that we could just altogether stop a) trying to hoard the goodies and b) trying to grab what anyone else is using? Peer pressure, followed if need be by an ad hoc committee to thump the offending parties on their heads? Really, people will do what they do, but organizing things can really mess them up!

k-dog said...

"The public at large will not be the major impediment to making the necessary changes. Rather, it will be the vested interests at every level"

But the vested interests can only impede if the public allows them to. And so becomes the public that is the impediment after all. A sleeping public that won't wake up and face the day. Vested interests will not release their grip on society voluntarily but the public can force them to. If the public wakes up they have no choice.

Basic rule: That which brings people together is good and that which separates and divides is bad. A large number of people and a minority of dogs are ignorant of this most basic truth. Those afflicted with the irrational belief that the free market can solve all problems are incapable of accepting this basic rule because this belief is shared by those with an edge. It fits their world view. They wish to keep their edge, sharing it gives it away. They are insane.

Recognize everyone as fellow human beings. Put together a society that concentrates on full employment, equality of health care, justice for all. Build a society that lives within its means. Build an economy centered on steady state mathematics and sustainable resource use.

In a thousand years we might have utopia if we try. If we don't try then in a thousand years we have nothing. The dirt will have us. In a thousand years everyone alive now will all be dirt of course but wishing it on the whole human race for high quality material amusements is insanity.

Trying to build a community that will endure will be a mistake if it is not done with consideration of the health of the larger society in which it embeds. Separation from the larger society is not the goal. Rejection and reformation of current values and ways of doing things is the goal. Fundamental change need not come with a heavy hand but the heavy hand of the status-quo must lift from everyone’s shoulders.

Our media is controlled, we are all surveilled (some more than others) and active censorship is looming in our future. Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission has destroyed democracy. The Fascist state now rules. We are denied the ingredients for change.

Military solution, no. We don't want to become the next Myanmar I want something better than a new crop of Bozos.

We are all in this together.

What we gonna do?

GHung said...

When Can the Military Support Civil Authorities?


Seems the US is clearing a path for (or blurring the lines between) civilian/military rule:

But a newly updated Department of Defense doctrinal publication notes that, despite this prohibition, “There are several forms of direct assistance to civilian law enforcement by military personnel that are permitted under the Military Purpose Doctrine. The Military Purpose Doctrine provides that law enforcement actions that are performed primarily for a military purpose, even when incidentally assisting civil authorities, will not violate the PCA [Posse Comitatus Act]....

...The publication introduces a new addition to the DoD lexicon: “complex catastrophe.”

As you said, "It should not come as a surprise, then, if the United States wraps up its existence by invading itself."

We don't need no damned surprises...

Razer said...

This is one of my favorite posts along with it's companion piece written as response: "But what is community?"

I also second what Wolfgang Brinck said above...

"Excellent article Dmitry. I would like to point out that for a part of our society, collapse has already happened and they are already living a post-collapse lifestyle. These people are erroneously referred to as homeless."

Also the most discriminated against and scapegoated group by the failing mainstream society as it encompasses male/female/black/brown/transgender/gay/straight ...

A somewhat dangerous situation what with a now-militarized police apparatus and massive numbers of nihilistic consumer capitalist's kids seeing no future.

Locally those kids make up loosely affiliated middle class pseudo-gangs that prey on the houseless... Shortly after school restarts in the fall is particularly treacherous as the males of the specie attempt to 'out-macho' each other.

"Kiddie Blackshirts"

Welcome to my home: http://auntieimperial.tumblr.com/post/56163299333

Rhisiart Gwilym said...

Excellent in 2010; just as good -- and as right -- now.

You can see why people, bourgeois people anyway, wouldn't be very enthused by it; but how does that make it wrong?

Seems to be based solidly on real-life observation in USSR/Russia during its collapse, quite apart from studying the record of other times and places; great combination.

I always tell anyone who'll listen that this blog and its associated publications are in a realism class virtually all of their own.

Respect and regards, Dmitry!

Anonymous said...

The lower classes already live a marginally legal lifestyle. I grew up (1940s) with my father making a living in illegal activity. There was a community network that kept us informed as well as was involved also. I believe a huge shock would be how many of our "upstanding" neighbors/friends are really predators and will quickly emerge. I haven't ever found much difference except the middle/upper class predator dresses differently, etc. The vast majority of us have a built in stereotype of a "criminal" and who is "dangerous" that will prove deadly. Many people will die on the path to healthy paranoia.

Unknown said...

I have seen this already happen in India under the guise of Nehruvian-Gandhian social liberalisation.

one group that was rich and upper middle class(activist/artistic/highly educated) have maintained their immense power and reach even in a capitalist world.People forget that networking and connections of the "changing the world" on the side of the "poor" group can put Maharajas to shame.

another group both politically and socially benefitted both from a socialist breaking of the social systems period...only to have the skills to aggressively move forward in a market economy.

It is fashionable amongst rich liberals to beat capitalism to dust but the social liberalism of superficiality and guile hardly creates or moulds a people.

it is people who invested in intensive personal growth who lost both ways..their "softeness" was always parasitically preyed upon as "goodness" but when the time came they were the ones to be stabbed on the back(both physically and figuratively).

forrest said...

I've been thinking about this further.

Can we organize a perfect system that won't be corrupted by its own future development? No. Could we do better? Yes, with constant vigilance -- which the social forces working to undermine the system would all too likely evade & subvert.

Thinking about what eventually tamed 'religion' as a mobilizer of social hostility & factional loyalties... while the example of the Quaker movement, modeling a nonviolent form of dissent, a group of dependably innocuous opponents that were too much trouble to suppress, was a major part of this, the rise of Deism probably did the most, in that religious doctrines simply ceased to be anything that most people believed in any practical sense. At that point one could still persecute people for believing Something Unfamiliar, but a lot of the fear had gone out of it.

Subduing the currently-dangerous forces of tyranny is not so simple. The power to inflict physical harm can always gain legitimacy by claiming to be "the power to protect." The power to enslave masquerades as "the power to nourish." The power to befuddle claims to be "the power to inform and educate." All three modes of maintaining 'power-over' fellow humans are more likely to be used by the same people, cooperatively, than to come into the sort of conflict that has led to occasional respites from tyranny in the past. Yes, different people will find one mode or the other better suits their tastes & talents -- but why seek to undermine other powers when it's so much easier to cooperate in keeping the rabble down, as in the current state of affairs? Small, marginal communities can't expect a lot of leisure for infighting...

sidd said...

And what will come after hyperinflation and collapse....All great movements are popular movements. They are the volcanic eruptions of human passions and emotions, stirred into activity by the ruthless Goddess of Distress or by the torch of the spoken word cast into the midst of the people.
Mein Kampf 1925 Adolf Hitler.

Anonymous said...

I think it's a little short-sighted to be focused on social collapse. The big-picture is a global habitat in decline, interacting with various human systems which will consequently collapse.

There is no higher-order out of this. It follows that a collapse of society will lead to decentralization and anarchy. As climate disruption greatly increasing due to the non-linear feedback mechanisms we've recently initiated due to industry, these groups will have to ever harden their culture, and most will have to remain roaming tribes. Cannibalism will become a norm, before the eventuality becomes of us, the realization that we are becoming a failed species. The last won't even know they are. They'll hope more are left elsewhere. It certainly had to happen sometime. That's why I'm hitting it raw, living it up, and denying all laws which get in my way of what I want. Is there much point not to live in hedonism? Be principled. Your loss!

Unknown said...

I take issue with your characterisation of the marginally criminal communities as more flexible and able to make the transition.

Criminal activity is almost exclusively focussed on subverting, interrupting, diverting and redistributing the existing production and wealth with the least possible effort. Like banking.

The difference between the present and the future will be between those able to produce - energy, food, clothes, shelter, medicines etc and those not.

The drugs they deal in are produced somewhere else, either by big pharma or peasants in Afghanistan or Colombia (now out of reach), the cars and TV's and status objects they steal are also produced by someone else, somewhere else and sold to people with surplus money. They will have no source of supply, their markets will have vanished and they have no productive skills to direct the slaves they might be able to own but not feed.

Since most people, and criminal activities, are concentrated in cities, and cities themselves are consuming systems not producing, especially of essentials, they will need to disperse into the hinterland, some of which is a hell of a long way to walk, especially for people who are hungry, thirsty and kicking cold turkey.

The marginalised will prey on the unprepared in cities, then on the prepared, then there will be a die-off of cosmic proportions.