Tuesday, February 02, 2016
New Release from Club Orlov Press: 150-STRONG
It is the happy end of a longish story.
In early 2013 I was invited to speak at the North House Folk School in Grand Marais, Minnesota. It is a school that teaches a wide variety of native and folk arts, from building canoes to baking bread. One of the things that this school does rather well is teach people how to become part of the community that has grown up around the school. This had been happening spontaneously for some time, and it was thought that a conscious effort in this direction would produce even better results. And so, I was invited to address this topic in a seminar.
This was a new topic for me, and so I spent a few weeks at the library researching small communities that have stood the test of time. I looked at a great many of them: religious communities, such as the Anabaptists—the Amish, Mennonites and Hutterites, as well as the Mormons in Utah and the Dukhobors in British Columbia; secular ones, such as the Kibbutzim in Israel; ethnically defined ones such as the Roma (also called Gypsies) and the Pashtun tribesmen of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
My criteria were simple: I looked at small communities that had stood the test of time—a century at least, ideally longer. What I was looking for was not their particulars (although I found them engrossing) but their commonalities. This was as diverse a set as could be imagined, defying any attempt to categorize: religious and secular, liberal and conservative, settled and nomadic, pacifist and warlike, isolationist and cosmopolitan, with different and similar roles for men and women, with and without private property, with and without a formal authority, with and without written law, democratic and authoritarian... and yet in spite of all these differences a consistent picture emerged: all of them exhibited a certain set of common traits.
Amazed by my discoveries, I presented my findings, first at the North House Folk School, and a few weeks later at the “Age of Limits” Conference at the Four Quarters Interfaith Sanctuary in Pennsylvania. While the audience at the school was very receptive and attentive, and used my presentation to jump-start a very serious set of discussions, the audience at the conference rose up in rebellion. You see, none of the communities I described as exemplifying the common set of successful traits was acceptable to every part of the audience: they were either too much of one thing, or too little of something else.
A particular sticking point was the lack of gender equality in almost all of them (the Kibbutzim were the one exception). Their lack of gender equality is not the least bit surprising, given that most of these communities were founded (and became set in their ways) a long time ago—which was the reason I thought they were worth a look. Back then “gender” was strictly a grammatical term, while the ideal of égalité was yet to be proclaimed by the French revolutionaries. Nevertheless, I was loudly criticized for holding up such retrograde communities as examples.
Since I was not interested in specifics and peculiarities, but in generalities and commonalities, I put this criticism down to certain people’s inability to see the forest for the trees, and went on to publish a collection of articles on the topic, titled Communities that Abide. In it I laid out my case, supplemented by a number of articles along similar lines by some quite illustrious contributors. In it, I distilled the set of traits that I thought were responsible for the ability of these communities to abide to “thirteen commandments,” which I playfully cast in the same form as the commandments of Pastafarianism, a.k.a. the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster: “You probably shouldn’t...” in place of “Thou shalt not...”
Although Communities that Abide sold out the initial print run and has continued to sell quite well ever since, it has left something to be desired. It’s an interesting little book, but as an organizational tool it has turned out to be quite useless. You see, it’s not just a matter of not seeing the forest for the trees—it’s more a question of there being a forest in place of an open meadow. What’s needed is not a set of recommendations (or commandments, however playfully expressed) but a set of first principles. People want to be able to think things through on their own, and come up with their own recommendations. People don’t want to just apply a recipe, no matter how scrupulously and impartially it was formulated.
He explains the urgency with which society needs to be reorganized should we wish to leave to our children a pleasant and survivable world. He explains why none of the existing large-scale systems of social control—be they capitalist or communist—would work. He lays out the basic requirements that must be fulfilled in order for a community to function well. He explains the basic principle—the reconciling principle—which can resolve conflicts as they arise. This principle cannot be based on selfishness (a.k.a. the profit motive). Also, it cannot be impersonal: it can only operate if we personally know every other person. This limits the maximum size of the community to Dunbar’s Number—around 150 individuals.
Rob manages to do all this without introducing any cultural, religious or ideological specifics. His text is so ecumenical that it is not even specifically Christian—or based on any other religion, other than a spiritual bond with our living planet—the only one we will ever know—that is universally human. His writing appeals not to any culture, class, tribe, group or party, but directly to human nature.
These are weighty matters, but Rob’s book is not a scientific treatise on the problematics of social organization: it is a textbook suitable for an introductory course. But it is also a guide that contains a call to action; not any specific set of actions—that is left entirely up to you—but perfectly general action that will bring you together with the 150 people who are closest to you in a way that will make each one of us 150-strong.