Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Communities that Abide—Part I

Married to the Sea
In thinking through where we are and what awaits us, there is a very basic, simple, obvious question we can ask: Does our society work for us or against us? The US, regarded as a single community, that is; does it still function as such? Does it provide safety, security, a sense of belonging, freedom from necessity and want, meaningful opportunities to care for others, and to be cared for in return? Or has it become a cold, savage, alienating place watched over by the ubiquitous surveillance state and held together by “law and order” and the implicit threat of violence?
Has it become a place where meaningful, satisfying work has become a rarity, and where a lifetime of servitude and workaday drudgery is coerced using the threat of marginalization and exclusion? Does it share our values, or does it willfully ignore them, squandering the taxes we pay on war toys that kill innocents, on enabling and subsidizing environmental destruction, on perpetuating an overbearing and intrusive police state in the name of security, and so on and so forth? And if that turns out to be the case, the next basic, simple, obvious question to ask is, What might we do about it? Lobby the government? Well, it's not a particularly popular government: a 2011 Gallup poll determined that the US Congress is less popular than King George was in the colonial days. That same year Washington Post wrote that it is less popular than either communism or Nixon during the Watergate scandal. Public Policy Polling went even further; according to them, Congress is less popular than cockroaches, lice, root canals, colonoscopies, traffic jams, used car salesmen or Genghis Khan!

Taken as a whole, as a single community, the US is doing rather poorly. Yes, it still leads the world in propaganda, which tends to mask a lot of its problems, but beyond that the picture is not pretty. Among the world's developed nations, the US leads in many categories in which one would rather not lead, such as obesity, divorce rate, child abuse death, teen-age pregnancy, incarceration rate, homicide rate, percentage of children brought up fatherless and rate of sexually transmitted disease infection. It leads the world in fear, stress, anger and the use of antidepressants and antipsychotic medications. Suicide is the number one cause of injury death, having surpassed the also plentiful car accidents and fatal gunshot wounds. More US soldiers kill themselves than die in combat. A third of all employees suffer from chronic debilitating stress; half experience stress that causes insomnia, anxiety and depression; more and more people find the workplace so unpleasant that they are choosing to opt out of the workforce altogether, finding a much lower standard of living to be an acceptable tradeoff.

The myriad social problems are so severe and so entrenched that, at this rate, any attempts to “solve” them would border on quixotic. Yes, you could switch from voting for a louse to voting for a cockroach, but is that really going to help? You could even “throw away your vote” on a third-party maggot. But you would still be voting for an American politician, even though you know what they are all like. A different and increasingly popular response is to flee to a happier land, but emigration is traumatic and painful and often causes damage to both self and community. Many of the social problems in the US stem from the fact that it is “a land of immigrants,” which is to say, a land of uprooted, lost souls. But there is another response: escape internally but remain in place by forming insular, separatist communities, with different rationales, sets of standards and codes of behavior from the surrounding society, in order to achieve better outcomes for their members. This approach is the one that is being embraced by more and more people.

Voluntary subcultures are often formed because of dissatisfaction with society at large, and the reasons for dissatisfaction are many. Just one example: over half of the recent college and university graduates are now either working in jobs that do not require a degree, or are unemployed or underemployed. An entire generation (or two) of young people is finding that their society has led them down a garden path to debt slavery, with no fulfilling, satisfying, productive role for them to play. Given the chance, why would they not want to opt out of it? As times goes on and nothing changes for the better, their dissatisfaction grows, and we should expect their desire to opt out to only increase.

Already the level of dissatisfaction in the US is such that some are describing it as a “pre-revolutionary sentiment.” For the time being it is being masked by various government hand-outs which are keeping the populace placated: over 50 million are now on food stamps and record numbers are on disability, supplemental security income and other government aid. The populace is kept placated with cheap or free food and public spectacles designed to reassure them: Rome's “bread and circuses” has been replaced with food stamps, television and the Internet. But it must be understood that this system is now being perpetuated by nothing more than money-printing and endless piling on of government debt: the federal government spends a third more than it collects in taxes. This is not a scheme that can continue in perpetuity, and although nobody can predict with any accuracy when it will stop working, we need to prepare for the day when it does.

As we prepare, we must understand two things. The first is that little can be achieved by acting alone or as nuclear families; what is needed is a band, a clan, a tribe. The second is that we must think small: within the limits of Dunbar's number, which is somewhere between 100 and 230 individuals, and is commonly taken to be around 150. This number is based on the cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable personal relationships. Indeed, throughout much of human history, people lived in groups that rarely exceeded Dunbar's number. Larger groups are possible, but only at great expense, either in the form of exorbitant amounts of time expended on “social grooming” (a.k.a. politics) or through the imposition of authoritarian, hierarchical structures which tend to be very inefficient. Thus, larger groups are, by their very nature, less efficient, squandering resources on organizational maintenance, which smaller groups avoid. The number 150 is ubiquitous. It is the typical size of a farming village, the splitting point for a Hutterite colony, the ideal size for a military unit, and (in my experience) the point at which a tech start-up company ceases to be a start-up, becoming burdened with layers of middle management, human resources specialists, marketing and other corporate bloat. Even at Dunbar's number, cohesion requires that 42% or so of the time be devoted to “social grooming.”

It is important to note that even at such small numbers a well-designed community can provide everything its members need: housing, nutrition, education, medicine, entertainment, companionship, social security and, perhaps most important of all, a sense of belonging. To people who live with the feeling that they belong to a cohesive community, where each member puts the interests of the whole ahead of their own individual interest, this is an incredible source of power. Social security, not in the sense of receiving a promised check from an anonymous institution, but in the sense of being tied in with the people around you through an informal web of obligations of mutual self-help, is equally important. These services may seem subpar from the point of view of first-world standards, but at a time when the promise of such standards rings increasingly hollow for much of the population, this point seems increasingly moot.

A small community of this sort inevitably sets limits on most things, including one's individuality, but this too has a positive side. People have a strong psychological need to have well-defined limits within which to express their individuality. Lack of limits produces anomie, or loss of self. A strong, healthy sense of self requires that one's individuality be constrained by the needs of others. Without such constraints, expressions of individuality are reduced to meaningless gestures, self-indulgent peculiarities, expressions of personal idiosyncrasy or consumer preference. What's worse, the lack of meaningful social constraints often makes one feel so socially insecure that it paradoxically gives rise to a compulsive, extreme conformism. Thus we have people who have few close friends or family and who react to this rootlessness by compulsively cultivating a nondescript persona, expressing preferences for popular products and sports teams, dressing to blend in and doing everything they can to avoid awkward holes in their résumé, thus becoming virtual slaves to a fictional self that “fits in” and “belongs” and can make “fast friends,” making it possible for them to function within, and remain dependent upon, a transient social environment.

But such dependence is becoming a serious liability. The impersonal systems on which this transient social environment depends are coming unglued. Social security is a broken promise: the Social Security trust fund has been emptied out, and the unfunded liabilities are in the trillions—well in excess of all household wealth. Other parts of the system have turned predatory: from the student loan crisis, to medical bankruptcies, to the scam that is real estate, which has resulted in record homelessness alongside a record number of empty houses—all of these developments undermine both the system and the individual who depends on it. Of course, most of the individuals have been undermined already—by a system that is designed to insert commerce, finance and government between every two people, making them into pseudo-“rugged individuals” who are, in fact, abjectly dependent on commercial and government services for their very survival.

How do we respond in order to avoid falling prey to an increasingly desperate and predatory system? As individuals, we are almost completely powerless. We can attempt to respond as families, but most families are small and weak, built on airy notions of romantic and erotic love rather than the solid foundations of sacred duty, family honor and tribal responsibility. Strong and cohesive extended families have become something of a rarity, to be found among recent immigrant groups and in various small ethnic and religious enclaves. We can attempt to respond as informal, voluntary, casual groups, centered around community gardens and other such initiatives, but these are unlikely to ever evolve into the sorts of cohesive communities that can provide everything their members need (housing, nutrition, education, medicine, entertainment, companionship, social security and a strong sense of belonging). What is needed is more of a total system based on an alternative living arrangement. When facing adversity, such a system can form spontaneously around a church, a club, a campground and other sorts of venues. How exactly that happens is something of a mystery, but it seems that the impetus for its formation tends to be some sort of ordeal. Those who go through the ordeal together and survive are transformed by the experience, bonding with each other so strongly that everyone else—sometimes even their own families, and sometimes even their own previous identities—recede into the background or disappear altogether. This is no easy trick, but apparently it does happen.

It may surprise some of you to learn that such communities do exist, right now, right here in the US. Some of them are relatively well-known, others disguise who they are and hide in plain sight. They are as varied as the accidents that brought them into being, but they also possess a set of commonalities that are nothing short of stunning. I have looked at a number of them, and though they are as different as groups of humans can be, from a certain level of abstraction they all look the same. To exclude all the failed experiments, the ones I looked at are the ones that have been around for a while—a century at least, preferably a few centuries, and this means that they are all pre-modern (and, being highly resistant to altering their ways, are very likely to remain so). Their attitudes toward gender equality, rights of sexual minorities, right to education, ethnic diversity or freedom of religion may, to our modern way of thinking, seem oppressive or decidedly outdated.

What this means is that it would be impolitic to propose that any of these communities can directly serve as models. But this does not render their example any less useful, because the commonalities that unite them have nothing to do with their attitudes toward gender or religion. There are some limitations that are due to their small size; for instance, a community of a hundred or so people, with much of their attention devoted to their children and to the breeding couples which sustain their numbers, is unlikely to have a particularly active gay scene. On the other hand, it is unclear what practical constraint, if any, determines the extent of gender specialization, beyond the obvious fact that women tend to be more involved with the care of young children. Arrangements that have stood the test of time should not be dismissed out of hand simply because they seem old-fashioned; nor should they be adhered to slavishly for the sake of blindly perpetuating customs or traditions, especially if these customs and traditions seem alien and strange. But it must be kept in mind that there is an entire bookshelf of books about utopian communities that were based on various progressive principles, and the vast majority of them did not outlast the generation of their founders. Communities that abide tend to be socially conservative, and while this is hardly a candidate for a general principle, nor is it a tendency that we should allow ourselves to blithely overlook.

Moreover, it is important to keep in mind is that the rules by which these separatist, insular communities choose to operate are set by them, not by us, making our opinions of them about as highly irrelevant as opinions can ever be. They are not the ones with a problem and we are not the ones with a solution; thus, they have no reason to be interested in us, but we have a reason to be interested in them. While there is is no reason for any of us to accept and be bound by any of their rules, the ones that they all tend to have in common are interesting because they probably have a lot to do with why these groups succeed, and we'd be foolish to ignore them. It is these commonalities that we will focus on next.


Jason Heppenstall said...

I used to live nearby the 'alternative community' of Christiania in Copenhagen for several years and had ample opportunity to get to know it and its inhabitants. Originally set up 40 years ago on an abandoned naval base, it was founded on idealogical lines and was all for fee love, drugs and empowerment.

Today it is a morass of problems. Violent drug dealing gangs now fight pitched battles with the police there, and the original residents, while still there, remain mostly hidden from view and earn their income from the wider economy. The government has been threatening to bulldoze the place for years (and sell off the very valuable land to developers) but a deal was reached two years ago whereby shares were issued and the community was 'floated' and must pay tax.

Whilst ostensibly 'saving' the place, it has brought it under the rule of law and within the system. Perhaps it is impossible to have such a provocative community in a uniform and controlled state such as Denmark … at the end of the day they might have been better building their utopia on a bit of farmland and just keeping quiet about it.

Anonymous said...

Hi Dmitry, It seems the communities you're descriding are like what you've already described in The Roma and immigrant communities; can you give some descriptions of specific examples of the communities in America that you're talking about in this weeks post please.

Anonymous said...

Dmitry, in your researches you could look at The Community of True Inspiration, which enjoyed a decent communal run in Germany and the US, before losing out during the Depression. A good book about them is Amana The Community of True Inspiration by Bertha M. H. Shambaugh.

wiseman said...

The irony of sustainable communities is that they stifle free thinking individuals, conformance is imposed and those breaking the mold are often excommunicated. The other side of the coin has millions of individuals yearning to break away from the stranglehold of such communities.

People looking for resilient communities must understand that there is nothing romantic about them, after all survival is not about romance, it's about pragmatism.

Lance M. Foster said...

Some examples I know of include the Catholic community here in town, the LDS church in many places (they have some great models of taking care of each other), the Hutterites here in the state, and some of the smaller Indian reservations (the larger ones often have the same problems larger nonIndian communities have). Very small towns also often have that cohesiveness. I know some younger veterans who have developed extended families with other young veterans and their families, totalling a few dozen people who hang together. One of my drawing students mentioned she has over 200 relatives in this small city I live in, and they all get together often. And they are some rough customers :-)

I only have 10-12 relatives in town, though we are close. But I am planning on moving to my reservation in the midwest later this year, which is a very small reserve of maybe 150 (!) people in and around the land. Partly because I lost the tenuous employment I had so I cannot survive here anymore. But also because I want to get more into tribal farming and learning beekeeping from an older cousin.

Anonymous said...

Dmitry, thanks for this thoughtful teaser for next week. This gives us time to prepare mentally for the next installment (e.g. "all ye who enter - leave ego, cultural baggage and cell phones at the door please...).


Thanks for the information on the Christiania alt. com. experience.

Re: "at the end of the day they might have been better building their utopia on a bit of farmland and just keeping quiet about it."

That is what our local Amish tried to do, more or less. But there are those "taxes" you mentioned... among other pressures.

So now many "earn their income from the wider economy" by various means.

Many work for cash on neighboring industrial farms, driving and using industrial machines and equipment.

Or traveling by car, with an industrial chauffeur, to a work site to do carpentry, etc.

Or powering their country store using a small wind-turbine to run the computer, and using a very large propane tank to fuel the gas lamps in the store (note- most of the store's light, most of the time, comes only from the many sky lights).

I am not judging them, I'm just noticing the compromises they are, and have been, making. It is adversely affecting their social structure, but that is a long story I don't know enough about yet to comment on further.

Unknown said...

"What is needed is more of a total system based on an alternative living arrangement...
the impetus for its formation tends to be some sort of ordeal. Those who go through the ordeal together and survive are transformed by the experience, bonding with each other so strongly that everyone else—recede[s] into the background or disappear[s] altogether."

In terms of both addressing our society's grave defects and exploring possible strategies for survival, your blog is in the process of leaving other prominent forums in the dust.

It strikes me that the requisite ordeal you have cited is the heart of the matter. Our collective folly in failing to respond to the increasingly urgent need for fundamental change is almost certainly cooking up the Mother of All Ordeals, which will lead to living conditions which none of us would choose.

While most of us would certainly prefer an Amish lifestyle to those grim post-ordeal circumstances, few who have lived with gasoline-powered motor vehicles, microwave ovens, the Internet, etc. are likely to embrace such drastic change prior to having the Ordeal force us to do so.

The terrible irony, of course, is that a pre-Ordeal transition that would be strenuous but doable will be impossible for more than a small fraction of humanity to negotiate after the Ordeal hits.

Dispatch said...

Dmitry, can you provide a reference for this quote?: Already the level of dissatisfaction in the US is such that some political scientists are describing it as a “pre-revolutionary sentiment.” Great post. Thanks.

Unknown said...

I think my previous comment got eaten.

Basically, I'm looking forward to this series of posts and I hope one of the traits you look at is how a group survives the death of its first leader(s), since the tone of these posts seems to be how one might adopt the successful traits of older groups in new ones.

Also, when you are done, I'd love your opinion about some of the newer groups and where you think they are strong or might face trouble. Thanks.

parcel 43000092000 said...

One group I know of are conservative Jews in the US. I don't know much about them, but they seem to tend to band together in small communities and have strict rituals, such as turning off all electronics for Shabat.

My son, age 25, described to me how freeing the observance of this ritual is to him. I found that our entire family was positively affected when he chose to spent Shabat with us.

Patrick said...

Dispatch wrote: Dmitry, can you provide a reference for this quote?: Already the level of dissatisfaction in the US is such that some political scientists are describing it as a “pre-revolutionary sentiment.”

I wondered this same thing, as soon as I read the sentence. Which political scientists? Any whose names I might recognize? Curious.

RanDomino said...

Primitive communism is not necessary. Each person can be part of MULTIPLE groups of 5-30 or so, "affinity groups", at which size efficient direct democracy is possible, for specific purposes such as economic productivity or neighborhood management. These groups can coordinate with other groups based on task or proximity by using delegation (which could involve anywhere from 10 to 1000 people in a single layer of delegation). The meetings of delegations in turn can coordinate with other similar or proximal groups using another layer of delegation (which makes it between 50 and 30,000 people- your average smaller town, rural area, or larger city neighborhood). These layers of federation and delegation can keep going, with the next one including hundreds of thousands of people across tens of thousands of productive units, and so on- but the key thing to keep in mind is that the higher up you go the less frequent communication is necessary. The overwhelming majority of communication happens at the immediate level. Two levels up might require only an annual meeting and some other periodic coordination, and that's it.

Splitting humanity entirely into groups of 150 each with no system of coordination would immediately lead to crippling parochialism. We CAN have a sustainable and relatively technologically advanced society (let's not write off the Internet quite yet) without having to resort to hierarchy or each person having to personally know literally every other one.

Dmitry Orlov said...

Dispatch -

I have no idea, so I took out "political scientists." I don't know of any that I particularly listen to in any case.

RanDomino -

Sure, except none of what you mention works according to my definition of "works." The communities you describe don't out-abide anyone; they just surf the same tsuname of shit as the rest of humanity.

forrest said...

We may not need a community that "abides" in the same form so much as one that keeps its members alive long enough to make changes in that form, or to go elsewhere.

Surviving the death of its founder seems to be a sort of community milestone; many either break up then [Oneida] or change even if that founder just gets tired of running things [ie The Farm].

But much of this is from the seductive impact of the larger society expanding nearby, and in a post-collapse environment this won't be the problem; at most you'd have a disgruntled faction huffing off to scrape by somewhere else. (Leaders who take their followers with them when they die make horrific examples, but they're a rarity, and somewhat self-limiting.)

Brandon Thomson said...

I hope something like RanDomino suggests could be possible. I have a hard time getting excited about a life of subsistence farming in a group of 150, even if that is the most proven way to build a resilient community.

escapefromwisconsin said...

Dispatch, Patrick: I can provide a reference for this quote. It comes from a recent poll by Fairleigh Dickinson University:

Nearly three in 10 voters say that Americans may have to take up arms to defend their rights, according to a poll from Fairleigh Dickinson University released Wednesday.

Twenty-nine percent of voters, including 44 percent of Republicans, said that in "the next few years, an armed revolution might be necessary in order to protect our liberties." Eighteen percent of Democrats and 27 percent of independents agreed.

Poll: Armed Revolution Could Be Necessary, 29 Percent Of Voters Believe


Goat Path: as for Orthodox Jews, that also provides a good example. The New York Times did a fascinating article a while back on the poorest community in America, which is actually an orthodox Jewish community in New York City:

One lawmaker, Assemblywoman Nancy Calhoun, a Republican who represents an adjacent district in Orange County, has demanded an investigation by state officials into why Kiryas Joel received grants for the center. “They may be truly poor on paper,” Ms. Calhoun said. “They are not truly poor in reality.”

The village does aggressively pursue economic opportunities. A kosher poultry slaughterhouse, which processes 40,000 chickens a day, is community owned and considered a nonprofit organization. A bakery that produces 800 pounds of matzo daily is owned by one of the village’s synagogues.

Most children attend religious schools, but transportation and textbooks are publicly financed. Several hundred handicapped students are educated by the village’s own public school district, which, because virtually all the students are poor and disabled, is eligible for sizable state and federal government grants.

Statistically, no place comes close to Kiryas Joel. In Athens, Ohio, which ranks second in poverty, 56 percent of the residents are classified as poor.


philsharris said...

Communities can look after a basic resource (and might be sustainable, given a suitable context?)
I saw this just now - it seems relevant:

Barbara R. Jasny

Real-world challenges in how to manage public resources have frequently been met by bottom-up collective action. One area in which researchers have yet to reach consensus is the relation of group size to collective action and resource outcomes. Yang et al. use data gathered over many years from the Wolong Nature Reserve in Sichuan Province, China. Within the reserve, the administrative bureau of the National Forest Conservation Program had assigned forest parcels to groups composed of 1 to 16 households. Each group decided on a strategy for monitoring illegal activity, such as logging, and the bureau conducted assessments of how much activity had occurred. Group size had a U-shaped relation to the monitoring efforts per household and on increasing forest cover. Intermediate group sizes of 8 or 9 households were optimal in balancing between two opposing factors: free-riding (the tendency to let others in the group do the work) and within-group enforcement. These findings, as well as the demonstration that stronger social relationships within the groups and with local leaders promoted collective action, suggest strategies for effective governance.

Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 110, 10.1073/pnas.1301733110 (2013).

Starry*Gordon said...

I doubt if there are many out-abiding communities any more. The distinct communities I know about, for example the doubtless liberal commune Ganas on Staten Island, and the Hasidic communities in Brooklyn, all relate to the world through the existing economic system ('ride the same wave of shit' as you put it.) People who refused to do this, like the communal Dukhobors in British Columbia (who you should look up as a good example of autonomous survival) were deliberately destroyed by the state in which they were necessarily embedded. If there are still any independently-abiding communities, we are unlikely to know much about them, even by hearsay. Rigorous conservatism gives an illusion of permanence, but it is only an illusion; its adherents are as dependent on the larger world as everyone else.

Lance M. Foster said...

Some of you may find this book useful:

The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia, by James C. Scott (Yale, 2009).

"In the contemporary world, the future of our freedom lies in the daunting task of taming Leviathan, not evading it. Living in a fully occupied world, one with increasingly standardizes institutional modules, the two most hegemonic of which are the North Atlantic modules of individual freehold property and the nation-state, we struggle against the enormous disparities in wealth and power spawned by the former and the ever more intrusive regulation of our interdependent lives by the latter. Populations have never, as John Dunn tellingly puts it, depended 'more abjectly for their security and prosperity on the skills and good intentions of those who rule them' " (p. 324).

"Simplifying greatly, we might identify four eras: 1) a stateless era (by far the longest), 2) an era of small-scale states encircled by vast and easily reached stateless peripheries, 3) a period in which such peripheries are shrunken and beleaguered by the expansion of state power, and finally, 4) an era in which virtually the entire globe is 'administered space' and the periphery is not much more than a folkloric remnant" (p. 324).

"British and French colonial administrators, justifying the novel tax burdens they were imposing on their subjects, often explained that taxes were the inevitable price one paid for living in a 'civilized society.' By this discursive legerdemain they neatly managed three tricks: they described their subjects as effectively 'precivilized,' they substituted imperial ideals for colonial reality, and above all, they confounded 'civilization' with which was, in fact, state-making" (p. 335).

Unknown said...

The Calgary communities are so close knit are entertaining. My sister loves being apart of them and is always telling me to move up there after inviting me to parties.

SolarBob said...

political scientists are describing it as a “pre-revolutionary sentiment.”:


"...A 2014 Rasmussen poll reveals that the vast majority of Americans - upwards of an eye-popping 81 percent - believe they are not being governed with their consent.

One pollster interprets this to mean that most Americans across the political spectrum harbor a “pre-revolutionary” sentiment - meaning, they’re mad as hell that our democracy is dysfunctional, but don’t know what to do about it...."