Monday, January 18, 2010

Real Communities are Self-Organizing

John Michael Greer, Sharon Astyk and Rob Hopkins have made some interesting points on the topic of community, and I wish to join the fray. In all of my experience, communities — of people and animals — form instantaneously and rather effortlessly, based on a commonality of interests and needs. What takes a lot of work is not organizing communities, but preventing them from organizing — through the use of truncheons and tear gas, or evictions and mass imprisonment, or, more recently, more subtle and ultimately more successful techniques of the consumerist political economy.

Greer wonders why people don't put more work into organizing communities; after all, this is what has worked in America in the past and how a representative democracy is supposed to function. All it should take is hard work, so why don't we hop to it? To me, this smacks of the fallacy of misplaced concreteness — roughly speaking, that just because different objects at different times carry the same label ("America"), they are somehow the same object. How representative a democracy the US ever was is rather beside the point; the point is, it was once a country where people could successfully and openly self-organize, and now it isn't. Once there were strong, cohesive communities in the US, which could organize and bring pressure to bear on their elected officials. And now, as described in Robert Putnam's widely discussed book Bowling Alone (2000), there are no such strong, cohesive communities in the US, and so... they can't organize, because, I would think, there is nothing for them to organize. Existence of communities allows communities to organize; lack of community prevents communities from organizing. That's a bit of a tautology, is it not?

As an aside, I'd like to point out that the US is not much of a representative democracy any more. It's more of a hokey-pokey-ocracy: in one election cycle, you throw your right bums out and vote your left bums in, and in the next election cycle, or the one after, you do the exact opposite. (And you shake it all around in the meantime.) The bums — the Republicans and the Democrats, that is — are perpetually locked in a loving embrace, for they truly complete each other. The Democrats tend to believe that government is there to help people, which is of course impossible for a government that's chock-full of Republicans who believe in limiting the scope of government and sabotage all such efforts. The Republicans believe in limiting the scope of government, which is of course impossible for a government that's chock-full of Democrats who believe that government is there to help people, and sabotage all such efforts. You can vote for either party if you want it to fail while producing an ever larger and more useless government.

Both parties agree that the government should serve corporate interests. They are both skittish when talking about the rights of citizens, and prefer to talk about "consumers" rather than "citizens". As a nation of consumers, people in the US have no choice but to be consumers. The ones that don't have the money still get to consume things like orange jumpsuits and prison food. Foreign non-consumers also get to consume — things like depleted uranium and white phosphorus ordinance. Being a non-consumer is not an option, and the whole world must be made safe for consumerism. Organizing against consumerism amounts to biting the corporate hand that feeds you — an ungrateful and self-defeating thing to do. So you want to organize a third party? Be my guest; see you later.

Astyk makes the excellent point regarding the destruction of community through overwork and the herding of women out of the home and into the workplace. Women can't just be (unless they are rich) — they have to have an occupation, and the default occupation — "homemaker" — carries a bit of a stigma. Women have always been the backbone of any community, and the regimentation of women's lives was a brilliant move in the direction of totalitarian consumerism, because it allowed relationships even within the family, such as child-rearing, to be commercialized. Once all social interaction is centered around consumption patterns, community as a notion becomes little more than an advertising gimmick, and self-organizing properties of society become restricted to pursuing the latest commercial fashion.

Hopkins raises an interesting issue when he mentions the common criticism of intentional communities and the Transition Towns movement that it is predominantly white, educated, and middle-class. This is hardly surprising, since these are the only people who have the resources and the connections to do pretty much as they please. They can create their alternative arrangements out in the open, as long as they don't actively threaten the status quo. They can build an entire Garden of Eden if they so desire, provided they can line up the financing and pull the construction permits. That is the essence of consumer choice, isn't it? The rich get to play, while other, less privileged parts of the population, such as the immigrants, the squatters and the homeless, the chronically unemployed or underemployed, the bums (the real ones, not the ones in government), simply don't have the same options. At the same time, their need for community is much greater, and so they spontaneously self-organize, network informally, and defend their interests as best they can. They all know that "a nail that sticks up gets hammered down" and so they don't advertise their efforts or make them official or explicit.

Hopkins also makes the excellent point that the entire approach of "creating community" is patronizing and ineffective. Community regenerates spontaneously, given time, space, a commonality of interest, provided it is not too oppressed. As industrial economies continue to shrink and shed jobs, more and more people will be squeezed out to the margins of the consumerist universe, and, finding more time on their hands than they know what to do with, will start to reengage with other people in similar situations. Since their needs will often be coincident or complementary, they will form various types of temporary and informal groups. There is certainly a great deal that all of us can do to help, but "organizing" is not one of them. First and foremost, we should stop working so hard on destroying community, as we have been doing by leading overwhelmingly regimented and commercialized existences. And let's quit it with the political hokey-pokey — it's much too undignified.


Agroinnovations said...

I've read many of your articles and heard you on several podcast interviews. This article is one of your best. And you've written some great ones.

Keep at it.

fritz said...

thank you much again D. focus is nothing without knowing what we're looking at.

Anonymous said...

I agree wholeheartedly with your analysis of totalitarian consumerism. Fortunately, I think there is still something gloriously off-message and biological about having a baby; it's a kind of humanising trail which, if followed, unravels a lots of the fibres of synthetic modern life.

Thank you also for making me feel less bad about my wariness of 'community building'. I've been feeling the same way about it as I did towards those mediocre 'team building' wankers I used to encounter in a (corporate) past life.

Daniel said...

Consumerism is the problem? hell yeah. Go back to your community and start your work? No doubt. But what's that weird paragraph about the women's role within a community. Is that some post-feminist male position, that idealizes the frugal and bigot Christian US communities of the 1800's. It seems so. But there is no genetic determination on what your role in your community is. A bit of queer thinking would do you good, so your ideas would be more than just wishing back the "good old days". That's at least what I read from it.

Kraig Grady said...

The biggest energy consumer is the single family dwelling. It is this same object that keeps people at a distance from each other that makes 'organizing' difficult if not way too time consuming. True everyone can be organized online, but so far this hasn't lead to any real action beyond sharing clicks~.
Cities are machines for living and we have disfunctional ones. building are used only 50% of the time and more than 50% of the space is there for just cars and transportation. smaller areas leads to the possibility of people being able to do more with less energy.

Anonymous said...

To organize, or self-organize, you neel time and money. Our society of "high living standards" subtly convinced people to work for long hours and spend most money earned, and frequently to spend more than actual income (going into debt). If, for a variety of reasons, we move to "low living standards", as Dmitri rightly points out, there will be both more time and more need to self-organize.
So something which now seems very hard, something to add on top of already busy lives, may just happen, without requiring much planning for it.
Cheers, Riccardo

Paula said...

I've long been critical of the whole overblown "community" thing. It's good to see someone with a larger audience than me making the point. I would very much like to see some alternatives to "community organizing" percolate to the surface of post-peak discussion.

P said...

I think reading "The Coming Insurrection" is very pertinent to this discussion of organic organization vs. by "general assembly".

Note: Pay for it in cash!

Anonymous said...

Ya done hit the nail squarely on the head with this one, Big D. And a very John Robb-like post in my opinion.

Stephen Bach said...

"And let's quit it with the political hokey-pokey — it's much too undignified."


eeyores enigma said...

Thank you for that breath of fresh air.

I have to say I am getting so fed up with most internet analysis as they are mostly so obviously biased and narrow in perspective. However you do it, (I picture you getting all squinty eyed with your gun hand opened wide and osculating gently) but you manage to out draw all the others and put things into perspective for me.

Thanks and keep up the good work.

HeapSort said...

Well if it's hard work to repress communities (or community action), isn't it also hard work to resist repression?

It's one thing to pretend to an objective point of view and claim that communities are self-organizing, and quite another to ask, how do I participate in a community? or, how do I participate in an organization? or, how do I organize with other people despite not being in a community? It's no help to sit back and wait for a community to self-organize so that you can join it. That's what everyone is doing already.

Communities are groups of people who do things together. So maybe the problem isn't finding a group of people with similar ideas or feelings or desires, but finding people who will actually do something with you.

In the context of resource scarcity or peak oil or whatever, it's finding new ways to live that don't require you to be at or near retirement age and sitting on a nice fat nest egg which you've generated by participating in an economy which you can now safely walk away from and proceed to criticize from a distance.

Dmitry Orlov said...

HeapSort -

You are absolutely correct, and I am trying to do exactly as you suggest. I hope that other people will do the same, instead of simply waiting for their careers to end, or, if they already have, frittering away their savings until it's all gone and they are out of options. Right now, community is strongest among those people who find themselves on the margins of society and have already largely run out of options - the squatters, the homeless, the immigrants and the nomads. Their numbers are growing by leaps and bounds, and someday you may have to join them. Draw your own conclusions.

Unknown said...

Hopefully with time, the consumerist universe will shrink either though abandonment (my preference) or collapse of its own unsustainable weight and logic. In that case, the margins will come to us.

The system won't reform itself so I'm not sure there are any other options.

gsanford said...

"The biggest energy consumer is the single family dwelling. It is this same object that keeps people at a distance from each other that makes 'organizing' difficult if not way too time consuming."

I lived in apartments for 13 years and let me tell you, there was very little community there either.

Anonymous said...

Intentional communities are the hope of the world. For more information visit said...

From Douglas Adams [the other Addams family]

"It comes from a very ancient democracy, you see..."

"You mean, it comes from a world of lizards?"

"No," said Ford, ..."nothing so simple. Nothing anything like to straightforward. On its world, the people are people. The leaders are lizards. The people hate the lizards and the lizards rule the people."

"Odd," said Arthur, "I thought you said it was a democracy."

"I did," said ford. "It is."

"So," said Arthur, ... "why don't the people get rid of the lizards?"

"It honestly doesn't occur to them," said Ford. "They've all got the vote, so they all pretty much assume that the government they've voted in more or less approximates to the government they want."

"You mean they actually vote for the lizards?"

"Oh yes," said Ford ... "of course."

"But," said Arthur, ..."why?"

"Because if they didn't vote for a lizard," said Ford, "the wrong lizard might get in.

Jonathan Maxson said...

I have been following this evolving discussion on community organizing and decided to weigh in with my own perspective. I have heard you on a couple of podcasts and read several of your articles. I think your feedback would be valuable, if you have an opportunity to drop by.

Phlogiston Água de Beber said...

@ stevelaudig,

A more perfect description of the way things are, I would find hard to imagine.


Anonymous said...

I agree with your experience that communities form spontaneously out of common interests and needs, both in good times and bad - and would suggest that, historically, organising communities has been a response to the collective experience of oppression or hardship in one form or another rather than in anticipation of perceived future hardship.

The perverse thing is that those of us with the inclination, influence and agency to self-organise in preparation for future uncertainties are so 'comfortable' in our consumer lifestyles that we often do not notice the superficiality of many of the civilly obedient solutions that we propose.

We need not only refer to post-Soviet collapse or other examples from recent history of extreme social upheaval to find spontaneous examples of self-organising communities. For some of the marginalised 'underclasses' amongst us have already formed invisible but resilient communities in response to the gaping social divide of consumer capitalism.

I've posted on this here:

Anonymous said...

Nothing is more loathsome than a serious, true-believing community organizer.

Round Belly said...

I loved your paragraph on the appropriation of women into the workforce causing consumption patterns with in our personal family lives. This is a principal I have been studying for years and you said it so elegantly.

RanDomino said...

P said...

"The Coming Insurrection"
Note: Pay for it in cash!

Pay for it???

Larkin said...

If you want to be reassured that things will get better turn on Cable News and hear about "Green Shoots" That is about as feeble a sound bite as have ever heard.

The jobs are gone and they aren't coming back anytime soon. Along with the jobs, gone also is the technology. Financial commentator, Peter Schiff says, "It is time to put Americans back to work." Work, making what?

Certainly there are new products to develop and manufacture but the very corporations that this country gave birth to has sold it all off leaving the US hollowed out and bankrupt. burdened with crushing debt, so much so that we can no longer compete.

The very corporations that brought us cars, clothes and toys and food are morphing into privatized prisons, security companies, information gathers and private armies.

I have voted for the last time realizing that both parties are agents of the same corporate monoliths. Super organisms reaffirmed by the US supreme Court just this week as individuals just like you and me.

In keeping with the proposals in the piece written above, It really is time to re-connect personally with people around you. Begin to form real communities and give purpose to friends and even the homeless and begin to move towards self sufficiency.

The message in this little rant is to stop listening to Cable TV, they are lying to you. Begin to cultivate real and basic skills, gardening, fishing, raising chickens. Learn how to take care of a bee hive. Pretend it is a hobby, but do it.

Bonapartes Retreat said...

Excellent Dimtry!

foss said...

it seems to now take 'need' & discomfort at least, or pain actually for community to form. as u say usually the marginalized.

i think i hope for such; for myself, family/friends, neighbors, even the US.

having the gump to come together w/o pain seems a lost form of relating where at the first tough, discomforting conflict[as natural as light/dark btw] we usually revert back to our energy maintained individual shells- 'i don't really need them....'

in hunter gather times isolation was at times thought to be death -probably was a lot of that period; large predators, loss of pack hunting, meeting other clans, 'watch' at night, etc.

i figure more jobs lost, market chaos, maybe even an oil shortage or two; some kind of 'shocks' that knock us hard,hopefully with some temporary easing might help us intensify our connecting.

Jacob Gittes said...

Good essay, Dmitri. I pretty much agree. What utility do you see in joining pre-existing groups, such as JM Greer talks about in his latest ArchDruidReport post? It seems that the two of you have some disagreement here on the phenomenology of community building. A chicken/egg problem, if you will. Greer seems to think that one must be willing to join an existing community and form bonds that way.

In essence, is he saying that common experience and needs would NOT lead to community formation?

Joanne said...

I just stumbled across this blog post & don't have a huge amount of knowledge relating American political system. However I am very interested in your comments about communities and agree.

A community is a group of people who cluster together over a shared commonality, where a network is more an interconnected system.

Because communities cluster together over something common, like-mindedness occurs, rather than spending time explaining to others reasons why they believe and behave the way they do, people will start to communicate more frequently within rather than between communities.

Over time the community start to develop inside lingo, slang and eventually a whole set of complex symbols and behaviour that create gaps in the communication flow and connectedness between their community and others.

A network is the virtual infrastructure (or interconnected system) that bridges the emergent gaps in communication flow and connectedness between communities.

Communities are insular, networks connect them; allowing access to alternate opinions and behaviours, meaning broader initiative and synthesis of new ideas.

Communities happen; networks are developed and maintained.

dave said...

yes, communities are self organizing in much the same way that weather systems or variuos biomes are self organzing. in fact, all dissipative structures are self organzing, even those structures formed by such strutures(second order structure?). they are all completely dependant upon supporting conditions. humans just have the luxury of telling stories about thier's. the stories are usually along the lines of how thier structure is the best one ever, or something like that.

Unknown said...

Hi! On the topic of creating communities, we are tinkering about that a lot at Mindshare ( and came across Stephanie's work at WeCommune. She started to work on cul-the-sac community building, to relieve consumerism pressure and share resources within your street's neighbours. Here latest work in progress is the build up of a plateform on this subject. (
Pleased to meet you yesterday at the moth pcc!
Kind regards,

More info on WeCommune:
Stephanie Smith

Brad K. said...

I think there is a link between 30 and 60 second advertisements on TV - and, etc. - and ADHD/ADD diagnosis. Ads are deliberately designed to be abrasive, to be loud and colorful, an utter distraction from the "main program" - every 6 to 9 minutes.

This is quite unlike the discipline and focus of an uninterrupted day spent pulling weeds from a soybean field. (OK, so it was 45 years ago, and I was too young to get out of the task.)

Unknown said...

The Feminist movement has always made me laugh for precisely the reason mentioned in this article.

I thought the stereotype was that women were supposed to be smarter than men?

Yet for over half a century now women have been fighting for their right to be stupid corporate slaves like all the dumb men out there.

I have no problem with women in the workforce but the feminist movement convincing women that in order to be truly independent and free women they have to be slaves to consumerism is just ridiculous.

I wonder what corporations will be paying the retirement packages of the feminist movement's leaders?

If they aren't actually paying them then they should be since they owe the Feminist movement greatly.

I thought being independent meant being free to choose to do what you want, not being free to be a slave to consumerism.

And many of those who choose not be slaves then get ridiculed and told they are stuck in the past and holding women's rights back.

What a messed up world we live in today, I actually find myself hoping for the collapse to come just so we can try to start over again with a clean slate.

Unknown said...

Your comment about our inability to opt out of our role as consumers reminds me of Silvio Gesell's thought that 'real capital' was made a slave to the structure of the currency:

"‘So‐called real capital is therefore anything rather [other] than ‘real’. Money alone is true real capital, basic capital. All other capital objects are completely dependent upon the characteristics of the
existing form of money; they are its creatures; [….]’ (Gesell, 1958, p. 391)."


which gives a pretty good description & critique of Gesell's ideas.

Paul Glover said...

Localities are the incubator of all social progress. Their innovations prove that there are new paths.

I've started more than a dozen organizations dedicated to ecology and social justice, in the fields of food, fuel, housing, health care, education, transportation, finance.

When frustrated by government and Wall Street, go local and show them how.