Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Communities that Abide—Part IV: Causes of Failure

Up until now in this series my approach has been to present what works: the set of practices which, when put together into a package, allow communities to last a long time—in some cases, for many centuries. Many readers found this exposition useful, while others found some of the practices disagreeable. This week I will now take the opposite approach, and concentrate on what has been proven to not work, or to work very badly. In a follow-up to the previous post, which expounded on the superiority of communism in both production and consumption when it practiced at the scale of the commune, I now present a chapter I rather freely translated from Peter Koropotkin's Anarchy, which explains how such experiments fail socially in spite of their initial success in achieving self-sufficiency.

Small Communist Communities: What Causes them to Fail

by Peter Kropotkin
Anarchy, pp. 253-260

Some readers will venture to guess that it will be in organizing communal labor that the communists are likely to fail, thinking that this is where many communities have failed already. There are numerous books that express this opinion. It is, however, entirely erroneous. When communist communities failed, the reasons for their failure usually had nothing to do with communal labor.

First, let us note that nearly all such communities have been founded with semi-religious fervor as their driving force. Their founders had decided to become “heralds of mankind” or “champions of great ideas” and, consequently, to adhere to strict rules of pettily restrictive morality, to be “reborn” thanks to communal life and, finally, to give all of their time, both during and outside of work, to their commune, living exclusively for its sake.

However, imposing such requirements meant following in the footsteps of the monks and hermits of old, needlessly demanding of people that they become something other than who they happen to be. Only recently have there been founded communes (predominantly by worker-anarchists) without any such lofty strivings, but with the simple economic goal of putting an end to being continually robbed by the owner-capitalists.

Another mistake made by the communists was in attempting live as one family of brothers and sisters. To this end, they would settle under a single roof, where they were forced to spend their entire lives in the presence of these same “brothers and sisters.” But such cohabitation in close quarters is no easy feat: even two brothers, the sons of the same parents, don't always find it easy to share a house or an apartment. Besides, family life doesn't suit everyone. This is why it is always a grave error to impose the idea of living as “one big family.” Instead, it is better to provide everyone with the maximum amount of freedom and the greatest privacy possible for the internal life of each family. For example, the Russian Dukhobors [in Canada] live in separate cabins, and this arrangement helps to preserve their semi-communist communities much more than would life in a single monastery. The first condition for the success of a commune should be to give up the thought of a phalanstère and to live in separate houses, as they do in England.

Second, [let's be clear that] a small, isolated commune cannot last a long time. It is well known that people who are forced to live very close together, on a ship or in jail, and receiving very little stimulation from outside, after a while simply can't stand each other [...]. In a small commune it is enough for any two people to become rivals, or to develop an enmity toward each other, in order for the commune to fall apart. It is actually quite surprising that such communes can last for quite a while, all the more so considering that they often seek seclusion from others.

This is why, when founding an isolated commune of just ten, twenty or even a hundred people, you should realize ahead of time that it is unlikely to outlast three or four years. And if it were to last longer, this would be regrettable, because it would prove that its members have either become enslaved by one of their number, or have become utterly depersonalized. But since it is possible to predict that after three, four or five years a part of the commune's membership will want to separate, it makes sense to, at the very least, have dozen or two such communes bound together into a union. In that case, anyone who, for one reason or another, wants to leave their commune, can switch places with someone else in another one. Otherwise the commune falls apart or (as happens in most cases) falls into the hands of one of the members—the most shrewd and clever “brother.” Thus, to all those who are forming communist communities, I recommend very strongly entering into a union with other such communities. This idea did not come from theory, but from the experience of recent years, especially in England, where several communes fell into the hands of certain “brothers” specifically due to the absence of a wider organization.

Small communes which were founded over the past three or four decades have failed for another important reason: they shunned the outside world. But struggle, and life animated by struggle, are essential for any active person, more important than being well fed. The need to live among people, to dive into the current of social life, to fight alongside others, to live the lives of others and to suffer their sufferings is especially strong in the young generation. This is why [...] as soon as young people approach eighteen or nineteen years of age, they inevitably abandon their commune if it does not form part of the entire society. Youth inevitably flees communes if they are not united with the rest of the world and do not take part in its life. Meanwhile, the majority of communes (with the exception of two, which were founded next to large cities by our friends in England) seek first of all to flee into the wilderness. Really now, imagine yourself between sixteen and twenty years of age, trapped in some small communist commune somewhere in the wilds of Texas, Canada or Brazil. Books, newspapers, magazines, pictures tell you of large beautiful cities, where intense life pours forth like a wellspring—in the streets, in theaters, at public gatherings. “Now that's life!” you say to yourself, “while here we have death—or, worse than death, slow stupefaction! Misery? Hunger? So I'll experience misery and hunger; but let it be a battle rather than moral and mental degradation, which is worse than death.” And with these words you abandon the commune. And you are right to do so.

And so we see the kind of mistake that was made by the Icarians and other communists who founded their communes in the wilds of North America. Taking land for free or buying it cheaply in places that had barely been settled, they compounded the difficulty of adjusting to their new way of life with all of the usual difficulties of homesteading in the wilderness, away from cities and major roads. As we have learned from their experiences, these difficulties are very serious. It is true that they obtained land for next to nothing; but the experience of the commune near Newcastle proved to us that, from a material point of view, a commune can provide for itself much faster and much better, by gardening (predominantly using greenhouses) and planting orchards, and not through field work. A ready market for their fruits and vegetables nearby provides the income to pay for the high land rents. Also, work in gardens and orchards suits a city-dweller far better than field work, especially if it involves clearing land in the wilderness. It is far better to rent land in Europe than to flee to the wilderness, and, all the more so, to dream of forming a new religious empire, as did the communists of Amana and others. Social reformers need the chance to struggle, proximity to intellectual centers, constant contact with the society they wish to reform, inspiration from science, culture, progress, which they cannot get from books alone.

It goes without saying that governance of the commune has always been the most serious impediment for all practical communists. Indeed, it is enough to read Travels in Icaria by Cabet to realize why it was impossible that the communes founded by the Icarians would last. They required total annihilation of human personality in the service of the great archpriest who was their founder. [...] Alongside these experiments, we see that those communists who reduced governance to the lowest level possible, or had no governance at all, as, for example, the Young Icaria in America, succeeded better and lasted longer than the others (35 years). It is easy to understand why: the greatest animosity between people always erupts because of politics, because of power struggles, and in a small commune power struggles inevitably lead to its dissolution. In a big city we can live side by side with our political opponents, since we are not forced into constant contact them. But how do you live with them in a small commune, where you encounter them every day, every minute? Political arguments and intrigues over power get carried over into the workshops, into the spaces where people congregate for leisure, making life intolerable.

These are the main causes for the dissolution of communes that have been founded up until now.


Alex said...

Very good stuff, Mr K. knows his stuff. Speaking from experience, I suggest his words be taken into consideration.

forrest said...

I think of my friend Shimon, who as a young man went off to Israel "to build Socialism"... [It's been awhile since we've seen him, and his health was failing when we parted. His book _The Outhouse Wars_ may still be available[?] but in any case I'm keeping the copy we bought from him!]

Anyway, he starts out on a kibbutz where the dominant tone is quite idealistic; he is able to get along sympathetically with the neighboring 'Arabs' and this is okay with his fellow members... and then the kibbutz becomes gradually very secure, prosperous. The young idealists are turning into middle class jingoist tv-watchers, and "Socialism" there is turning into Suburbia when he leaves, still emotionally tied to the people but seeing that the dream has changed.

The trouble is, utopia with a worldly-comfort orientation -- which is where the idealistic experiments culminate when they work -- has its own sources of instability. Stephen Gaskin once observed that there could be enough spiritual goods for everyone, but once physical goods became the focus, people would hoard these and deprive each other.

An enticing Wicked City nearby is both a safety valve and an exacerbation of that basic problem -- one which post-collapse communities shouldn't find that troublesome initially, but eventually will have to resolve -- not 'resolve' as in 'settling' but in the sense of continuing in a way that keeps it within limits (analogous to maintaining a boat under oneself?)

People have spiritual needs and will find/make themselves trouble if they neglect these; unfortunately (or fortunately) no institutional arrangement for satisfying these can really do the job. [For more -- too much more for most readers -- on why & on how this has worked out in the case of the Quakers, so far the best form of disorganized religion I know of, see: http://sneezingflower.blogspot.com/2012_11_01_archive.html ]

Chris said...

Governance is a challenge at any scale. I heard once that you cannot have a democracy of two people, referring to marriage equality and patriarchy (hot button issue here lately, for some). I see conflict at every scale when people have differing views. The fundamental questions remain the same:

1) What is the unifying concept or guidelines for the family/commune/village? It may not be religious, but there must be something to bring people together. People can achieve great heights, and survive incredible hardship, when properly inspired.

2) What is defined as consensus for making decisions (changes to status quo), and by what method(s) is this consensus reached?

I like the guidelines used by Occupy for finding consensus, the "modified consensus" of 90%. This empowers those who show up to get things done, but sets a high bar for agreement of those affected by decisions regarding shared resources. It would be interesting to see something like this applied on a national or global scale - would probably look very much like anarchy, in terms of rules or limitations that would be widely accepted by so large a percentage.

3) What is the status quo of your shared space, whether one home or an entire nation, when the members cannot reach consensus?

Also, how do you define "shared resources"? We all breathe the same air, and ground water and other extractable resources are usually regional rather than local in the strictest sense. The allocation and degradation of these resources should be monitored and policed by a consensus of all affected.

Personal revenue is not a shared resource, until it is shared or stolen. I would greatly prefer to see taxes abolished in most contexts. To take someone's resources in order to redistribute them according to a formula they may not desire - seems to be the very basis of tyranny. If you think I need something, try to convince me - maybe I will buy in to it if I agree. I would pay a tithe for space travel, but not for funding a national department of education to tell me what my children should be learning.

4) What are criteria for new membership ("immigration")? Any territory, whether a half-acre lot or an entire planet, has finite resources to be divided among its inhabitants. Immigration, or birth rate, should be controlled (but not prohibited) in a way that is commonly accepted.

5) How do you handle change, death, members cashing out? Is there any concept of private property ownership, and inheritance of this property? In the smallest scale, what happens to shared property or resources when a marriage or partnership is dissolved or someone dies?

Failure to answer these questions to the satisfaction of all concerned causes much human suffering, whether in families or nations.

One of the great contemporary experiments in sustainable and equitable living is an ecovillage called Dancing Rabbit. By having community ownership of property, they protect the founding vision of an ecologically sustainable settlement. However, new members are granted a 99 year lease, enough for a lifetime, and any improvements they make are owned by them, and may be transferred to heirs. They build their own homes and businesses, conduct commerce with each other and outside people/communities, and welcome visitors and applicants for entry.

I would be interested to see you evaluate some of these contemporary ecovillages, Dmitry, though I know most of them have not been around long enough to be considered in the same light as Roma or Anabaptist peoples. There does seem to be a unifying concept of living in a "sustainable" way (defined by me as living with few or no imports or extraction of resources) across many of these settlements popping up. Seems like a viable concept for those of us who see the value in a way of life that is compatible with the survival of our species and the biosphere, but were not born into such a community, and are unwilling to "find religion".

Andy Brown said...

I especially like the idea of a confederacy of communal experiments to give people a way of exiting from a failing situation - especially if their commitment (whether wealth, property or whatever) were portable somehow within the union.

Anthropologists studied any number of societies where various groups had developed strong patterns for example, of exogamy (you have to marry outside of this group) and endogamy (but you really ought to marry within this group) - as well as other ways that communal systems were both linked with and hemmed off from others.

Anonymous said...

"Small communes which were founded over the past three or four decades have failed for another important reason: they shunned the outside world."

So it sounds like Communities that Abide shun the outside world just enough.

Can you expand on that?

RaySch said...

Your series on “Communities that Abide” is really great. If I might, I would like to add an idea to the list, and I hope I can make it brief. The idea comes from Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical “Rerum Novarum” (On the Conditions of the Working Classes) published in May of 1891 before the rise of corporations and the Communist Revolution. In it he says that a fatal flaw to both Capitalism and Communism is the separation of labor from the means of production. When workers are dependent on the people who control the means of production for their livelihood, then the workers rapidly become wage slaves and discontent among the workers follows. Respect for the individual worker is necessary for the proper functioning of society.
As Capitalism and Communism seem to be the only two economic systems currently loose on our world, wage slavery seems to be becoming rampant. However, back in the 1920’s in England after the First World War, some political writers (Hilarie Belloc, G.K. Chesterton, and Vincent McNabb) held that the answer to the problem was private property, and they came up with a system called Distributism. In Distributism, the government strives to make it possible for as many people as it can to own their own homes (no mortgages allowed) and own enough land or equipment or education to provide a livelihood for them to support their families. Social interaction and working together still occur as that is part of the nature of mankind, but when the civic, business, or religious leaders says, “You must do this job or be fired,” the worker can then say, “Bug off! I don’t need your job.”
I think that this idea might be related to the parts of the article where it says, “The first condition for the success of a commune should be to give up the thought of a phalanstère and to live in separate houses, as they do in England.” and “…the greatest animosity between people always erupts because of politics, because of power struggles….” I would say that a little bit of autonomy for each person in the commune would go a long way to keeping it stable.

Avner said...

Have a look at Oxford and Cambridge Colleges. These Universities were for a very long time (and are still to some extent) federations of collleges, which were/are small communities of equals. They were, and still are to some extent, governed by their members ('Fellows') by means of direct democracy: one person one vote in open assembly (though most non-academic workers are excluded from membership. The kibbutz also has its outsiders). The Oxford college I have recently retired from was founded in the middle of the fifteenth century, and is still in some respects recognizably the same institution. I was also born on a kibbutz and lived there for more than twenty years, and the two systems have a much in common, both on the good and on the bad sides. They share some similar pathologies, and also depend on the rest of society taking an exalted view of their purpose. Both types of community have changed but have also endured, in the case of Oxbridge, for centuries.

k-dog said...

It is a problem. People who think they are best off letting others do their thinking for them are not going participate communally unless they think that's where the party is. But freethinkers work together like herds of cats, nothing gets done and wheels spin if they get together.

A well balanced person combining the best properties of the blissful ignorant and a passionate visionary is very hard to find. Collecting a group of such people together, even harder to do. And what’s the point of that anyway. An exclusive group leaves people out; almost everybody gets left out. The point is not to make exclusive groups. The point is to make groups which survive and thrive in a world of limits.

Mark Twain makes a point in Roughing It speaking of Hawaii.

Long before the missionaries braved a thousand privations to come and make [the natives] permanently miserable by telling them how beautiful and how blissful a place heaven is, and how nearly impossible it is to get there; and showed the poor native how dreary a place perdition is and what unnecessarily liberal facilities there are for going to it; showed him how, in his ignorance, he had gone and fooled away all his kinsfolk to no purpose; showed him what rapture it is to work all day long for fifty cents to buy food for next day with, as compared with fishing for a pastime and lolling in the shade through eternal summer, and eating of the bounty that nobody laboured to provide but Nature. How sad it is to think of the multitudes who have gone to their graves in this beautiful island and never knew there was a hell.

People always have plenty of advice on how others should live. There is never a shortage of this kind of advice. Brain shelf space needed for saving up self management, humility, and introspection is often given over to store up advice to give others. It is so much more fun. Giving advice to yourself is painful.

Semi-religious fervour which concentrates on lifestyles that have staying power over the long run can become a tenacious core belief. It can me made stronger by augmenting this quest with a clear understanding that creating environments which honour man's happiness are an essential part of what must be created. Communities founded with a core belief of being persistent and sustainable as their primary Raison d'être could have a more than typical staying power.

If an environment resembling one big long emergency comes to pass groups founded with a genuine intent to survive will stay together unless the adversities of the long emergency simply tear them apart. Reminders of why the group exists will be incessant. But they must be founded with a simple genuine intent or surly they will fail. Humans act socially for complex reasons, not always reasons given. Sometimes real motives are hidden and things are not what they seem. - K-Dog

Anonymous said...

@Avner said:
"They . . . also depend on the rest of society taking an exalted view of their purpose."

An important point IMO. It is important to identify the factors at work in the larger society that permit these small groups to remain "separatist," and avoid being coerced by the larger society into conformance with the general societal norms and forms.

In his work on the Civilzation of the Middle Ages, Cantor discusses the formation of monasteries in the early centuries after the fall of Rome. These places were able to come into existence and flourish within the surrounding society (which, in the early stages, was basically groups of warlords fighting for control over territory), because of the generally accepted and acknowledged spirituality of Christianity and, of course the fact that the monasteries themselves were not warlike and so not a threat. What I hadn't known until I read Cantor, was that they grew in size and wealth because they actually came to have support from the nobles, who after a while began making endowments to them of land. The nobles (warlords) viewed them as a safe haven in which some of their children could (and were sent to to) live, and were also the only place in society where their children could learn to read and write and obtain administrative skills.

However, it all initially depended on the fact that men who turned their backs on society to live spirtiual lives as Christians were held in "exalted" esteem by the larger society at that time, and this secured for them a separate place where they would be left alone.

Unknown said...

Reading Avner's comments on the colleges at Oxford and Cambridge and the elements they shared with the kibbutzim, I began to think of other sources of examples, both positive and negative.

One would be the experiments, as they turned out to be, with village-based cooperatives in China before they were merged into county-scale communes. My impression is that they failed but for very interesting reasons. I would love to suggest that someone run out to rural China quickly before the old village residents all over the country die off and collect oral histories of the period from Liberation (1949) to about 1965. The vital question would be what worked and what didn't.

A second source of examples is, of course, the writings of anthropologists about pre-European tribal communities around the world. Besides Levi-Strauss, one promising inquiry was available in the 1970's. It was a book written by Roy Prosterman that appears to be out of print. I have written him to ask how to get it. My point is that tribal societies always lived, with important variations, in ways that would fit inside your framework. Some were more warlike, while others were inclined to be peaceful. There were important differences that seemed to be common to the two broad types - property was more important to warlike tribes, for example, but they had fewer taboos on foods and more on sex that the peaceful ones. So one important kind of preparation may be to think about how we design our tribes for the future - defense vs. happiness.

Ave said...

> the most shrewd and clever “brother.”

This is a very telling aspect of why such endeavours fail.

One has to consider a community as a system. A practical analogy for it would be a machine.

A machine serves a purpose. Your car may be an ugly beater, if it still takes your from A to B, it serves its purpose and is hence considered functional.

We can consider such communities as the equivalent of a machine build on the spot with whatever parts people bring with them. This, already, is not a good method to assemble anything. But it could work. One problem is that those people have some very whacky ideas about what the machine should look like or how it even functions (the phalanstère...) or even its purpose (regenerate humanity etc.)

But this is not even the worst aspect. Before I can come to this, I have to make some precisions.
For all of us who worked in a company, we know that the engineer would run the company like this, the workers like that, the accountant has yet another view of it all etc. To make it all work together, some sort of management is required.

Systems operation is hierarchical. In my example above, if the system is a car, there must be a driver, with enough mechanical knowledge to run the thing without damaging it, and enough knowledge of the environment (street signs etc.) to reach the destination, hence fulfilling its purpose.

However, one can often find in cars a nagging person who actually sets the destination, and not seldomly also feels free to give advice on how to navigate and even on how to operate the vehicle.

(In a company, one might think this person is not present, but in fact the shareholders are filling this role.)

In communities such as the Roma, the leaders are the nagging people, and they always drive the same route. The more skilled are at the steering wheel, as always, but don't decide the direction.

(End of part 1 / 3 )

Ave said...

In fact, the worst aspect in building up these communities is that they are made up of fringe people. A lot have good intentions, but inevitably you will find freeriders and shrewd people as well. They are not of the caliber required to run the system, because another category of people are needed to keep them in check, and these people are usually not fringe people.

If we switch from the car analogy to the boat analogy, there would be a NCO (I don't know the proper naval designation) to keep order on board and a navigator to give instructions to the ship's pilot. NCOs are not typically fringe people, and come from a different culture : to put it bluntly, a colour sergeant would fail to communicate with hippies, let alone live with them.

The navigator more often than not doesn't come from the fringe but has a solid academic background typical of upper-middle class or upper class. There is no reason for him to mingle with fringe people on a daily basis.

In the survivalist community we find a lot of fringe people, many of them interesting, some shrewd people as always, and also people like Dmitry for instance which is an engineer, has analyzed the situation and has devised a solution for himself and his people (family, friends etc.).

Without « navigators », the community as a system will not serve its purpose. The boat will float and function, but will not take you from A to B because you know very well where is A but you have to find the location of B (the nature and location of B is very debatable).

On a comparable note, many doctors are not fringe people, they've spent years in university, and have not spent these years just to fix Aunt Margaret from time to time, but more often than not, for status and wealth.

BTW, I strongly suspect that, in addition to the personal reasons invoked for youngsters to leave the community, there is a conversation between at least one parent and their offspring sounding like « You have potential, you don't need to stay with us fringe people chewing on quinoa. Go to the city, if you don't make it there you can always come back. » The destiny of one's offspring is an extremely strong incentive (it is more of less the reason of existence, after all) and few parents would squander their offspring's talent just to please the thug-in-charge or an assorted community of fringe people.

(End of part 2 / 3 )

Ave said...

Now there is another aspect about why communities build up from scratch fail. For this I'll take an entirely different analogy, that of feral children. Some feral children, raised by animals, have been found unable to walk straight. They grew up walking on all fours. As surprising as it may sound, this is a hint that even the most obvious feature of mankind is cultural.

Thus, we have within our very bodies a habit which is a piece of culture derived from the Australopitechus (or whoever owns the patent) and transmitted to human offspring ever since. Actually, our bodies have even evolved from that culture.

Just like feral children, we still have the backbone to walk straight, but many of us have grown unable to use it : the art and habit of living in a community has been lost by most city dwellers. About a century ago, Kropotkin wrote (I quote from the text provided here) : « work in gardens and orchards suits a city-dweller far better than field work ». I suspect the situation is much, much worse now.

A city is a « complex society » (see Joseph Tainter : the Collapse of Complex Societies), highly hierarchical and specialized. It will crumble eventually. The problem is that complexity is killing the remaining communities worldwide (for instance, the plan to remove 250 million peasants in China to dense cities). We may not have enough of the habit left to make it.

(End of part 3 / 3 )

Mark said...

The comment about fringe people being the one's who form communities seems to need further thought. I have chosen to not contribute to modern society, to drop out of college, not to be a wage slave, not to be in debt, and not to have the largest ecological footprint possible, not to have children. I do try to empower people I know, to create harmony and possibly some beauty in a beautiful world.

Let me offer two contrasting attitudes to this dialogue: gratitude, and debt.

That I am anguished to see the world being consumed and poisoned does not preclude a feeling of gratitude for the world, and for my life. There is no need to leave society to create community, no need to be a slave to any one culture, or even any time. Who needs me to be here? Ask and answer these questions daily. I'm old enough now to regard almost everyone I meet as my children, but I can still lift rocks, and make walls. Lots of stuff I can do. I'm grateful for rocks, water for mopping, eyes to see the wheel of life turn round and round. But there are no rocks, or mops or property I'm tied to, owe payments for. I have lots of time to read books, and ponder what are people for? Which is how the book, "Limits to Growth" ends up suggesting we all think about - why share? why sustain?

I have been in debt once, for five years, to buy a new truck. I know how corrosive this is to a feeling of gratitude, thankfulness, and integrity. Ego needs to compensate for debt, with defences of all kinds. Soon you're not a wage slave, you are an amortized pillar of society, making great consumerist contributions to the Gross National Product. I drive the same truck 29 years later. Well, I've been lucky!

Jean-Paul Printemps said...

It is all very well to have self-governing tribes, but as countries have become more advanced you have colonial super-states and now a trans-statist bureaucracy. Every area of the world, as you have pointed out, is subject to statehood, which in this era is just a way for a global power structure that transcends the state to extract resources from it. Narco terror rears its ugly head in most nations in the global south. There's every indication that this element works hand in hand with forces that would dominate tribal areas. Where local autonomy is strong, tribal communities are set against each other and unprecedented bloodshed is the result. Even in Pashtun lands the Taliban is spawned from CIA-controlled fundamentalist schools in Pakistan, laying low the Afghan government in what has been described as the 1998 "blitzkrieg." How can communities abide in the face of such atrocity?

LifeSMyth said...

Jean-Paul, I think the best way for communities to deal with the issue you describe, is to be aware of how they are being manipulated into their own self destruction. Not sure how to create that. And I'm to far removed to believe I can even offer a useful suggestion.