Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Communities that Abide—Part V: An Example of Success

Pete Ryan
Last week's post featured an extended excerpt from Peter Kropotkin, who counted off the main reasons of failure among communist groups: communal living, small size, and separatism from the wider world. Yes, an anarchist worker cooperative of a few dozen members that relocates into the American wilderness, shuns the world, and tries to make a go of it is likely to fail: the members will fall out with each other and live out Sartre's dictum that “hell is other people”; they will lose their young people who will flee to seek new experiences elsewhere; they will either become enslaved by a “big brother” or become “utterly depersonalized.” Give up the thoughts of farming and of complete self-sufficiency and zero in on the concept of gardening in close proximity to a city that can offer a stimulating environment, a market for the produce and opportunities for the children as they grow up. Keep in mind, says Kropotkin, who you are: you are not “monks and hermits of old” but industrial labor that wants to get out from under the heel of the capitalists and the rentier class.

Kropotkin talks of life animated by struggle—against social injustice in the wider society—as being essential for an active person. That struggle goes on: just last week we saw walk-outs by fast food workers in the US who thought it unfair that their wages were low enough to qualify them for public assistance and that the terms of employment often offered them only part-time work but with the condition that they be available to work at any time, precluding them from finding any other work. This is the end result of a couple of centuries of class struggle. Labor has lost. Gone are all of their gains: regulated work week and overtime pay for nights and weekends are history; guaranteed old age pensions are finished; right to public education replaced with right to attend public schools where students are taught little, tested endlessly and medicated into submission for misbehaving.

One might think that if labor has lost, then capital must have won. Indeed, on paper the capitalists are doing better than ever, with greater than ever wealth disparities, equity markets at all time highs (for how much longer?) and non-stop displays of ostentation and conspicuous consumption by those whose profits are subsidized by the Supplementary Nutritional Assistance Program that keeps their workers fed. But look at it another way: the capitalists and the rentier class are surfing on a gigantic wave of debt, and the collateral for that debt is rather doubtful. An economy that is 70%-driven by consumer spending, where 80% of the population is toying with poverty, is not too promising. If labor is the horse and capital is the rider, and the horse dies, where does leave the rider? On foot, I would think.

Kropotkin's story is a story of failure: industrial workers weaned on stories of social and economic progress who absorb all the right theories of anarchic organization and communist patterns of production and consumption, try to make a go of it, and fail. They cannot act like one big family because that's not how they are; they cannot shun the world because then their young people run away; they cannot live in small groups forever because they end up at each other's throats, or they end up enslaving each other, or both. Examples of failure are useful, to a point, but so are examples of success.

One such example is presented by the Hutterites, who are Anabaptists living in small agricultural colonies of 75 to 150 people predominantly in the Dakotas, Montana and the Canadian provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. They started out in Tyrol some five centuries ago. Jakob Hutter, who gives them their name, was martyred just three years after he took up preaching. They faced much persecution over the years, mostly over their communist lifestyle and their refusal to serve in the military. They spent time in various countries including Ukraine, where they did not fare well, and when they left for the United States some hundred years ago they numbered just four hundred, but now number around 42,000. For a time they had the highest birth rate of any human group, with over nine children per family.

The Hutterites are entirely communist, practicing the doctrine of “all things in common.” One of their founding episodes involved laying out all of their possessions on the ground and redistributing them based on need. They live in communal houses where each family has a separate room or apartment, but children over a certain age go and live in the Kinderhaus. They take their meals together in a separate communal kitchen and dining hall.

The Hutterites are also entirely anarchic: although they are organized into three major groups, called Leute, their governance structure does not really rise above the level of the commune. There are lines of responsibility that go to certain individuals, but all lines of authority really proceed from the full meeting of the commune, which tends to rule by consensus. They do hold elections for positions of responsibility which, when the result is a tie, are resolved by casting lots.

They refuse to send their children to outside schools, instead building school buildings right inside the commune. They separate the school day into German school and English school. The day begins and ends with German school, where the children are instructed in all things Hutterite. In the middle some time is left for the public curriculum, presented by an outside, English teacher. Grades are regarded as unimportant. There are no pictures (the Second Commandment prohibits graven images), no musical instruments, no radio or television, no newspapers or magazines (except for trade publications devoted to agriculture or mechanics). There is no higher education, because the Hutterites try to put their children to work at age fourteen or, at the latest, fifteen (as mandated by Education Canada).

Hutterite youth are allowed to leave the colony and work “in town.” If they return, to be baptized and to marry, rejoining the colony as adults (as most of them do) they are allowed to use their savings to furnish their rooms. Other than such outside earnings, the Hutterites have no money as individuals: everything they own is in fact owned by the “church.” (There are no church buildings or other physical manifestations of this church, theirs being a simple and austere faith.) Giving their youth the ability to leave and come back (no questions asked) provides an important relief valve, and also makes sure that when young people come back to rejoin the fold they do so with complete commitment and not willy-nilly, and it is the strength of this commitment that keeps the Hutterite colonies strong.

It may be interesting to ask whether the Hutterites are happier than the rest. Their way of living provides ample opportunities for hard, rather monotonous work, little opportunity for personal growth or recreation, little room for expression of individuality, and a large burden of responsibility before others. Yet they seem to have virtually no substance abuse, violence, depression or suicide, few psychiatric ailments, and generally seem content with their lot in life. It probably helps to understand what they see as their goal: it is not personal success or self-realization but harmony within the commune and living out one's allotted days in accordance with what they see as God's will.

The Hutterite notion of gender roles is strictly 16th century, and this strikes many people as unacceptable. The women have no voice (except in prevailing on their husbands) and no opportunity to compete with men. They take their meals at a separate table from the men (the children have a table of their own). It's tempting for some to call the Hutterites patriarchal, except that they have no archon (Greek for “ruler”) and exhibit no hierarchy. Instead, there is gender dimorphism, which exists in many species, human species included. Keeping an open mind about such things is difficult for many people, but really we have no more basis to judge the Hutterites (not being Hutterite ourselves) than we do to condemn the practices of our even more sexually dimorphic cousins—the orangutans and the gorillas. Is strict separation of gender roles essential to Hutterite success? I really have no idea. Their concept of gender roles is what it is because they, as a group, are five centuries old. They abide (which is why we are talking about them here) and their concept of gender roles abides with them. What would happen if they were suddenly forced embrace gender equality? They would probably see it as yet another episode of persecution and head yet again for lands less settled and less “progressive”... but, lucky for them, we won't get the chance to run that cruel experiment on them.

And so we have to contend with the fact that Hutterite communes abide whereas Kropotkin's anarchist worker communes have all failed. I do have an idea why that is: because of the people they involved (or, no pun intended, “evolved”). If you want to make a commune, start with some Hutterites—that seems to work almost every time; don't start with some industrial workers looking for social justice and self-realization. This may seem like a terribly unfair thing to say. What do you have to do to win at this game? Become someone else? That's quite a trick, isn't it! Most of us wouldn't want to become Hutterites, even if we could (and we can't; the Hutterites aren't recruiting). Don't all of us have an inalienable right to “be yourself”? But I think it is still worth thinking about the process of becoming someone else, because the drastic changes to economy and climate that will unfold over this century will render most of us (those who manage to survive, that is) barely recognizable, making labels such as “progressive” and “conservative” about as relevant as the color of the plumage on the Dodo bird. The requirement of “being yourself” seems like a prime candidate for the leading cause of extinction, at every level. The Greenland Norse went extinct because they wouldn't eat fish. I suspect quite a few Americans will cook themselves to death because they will refuse to turn off the air conditioning. Giving up on being who you are is probably one of the more painful experiences a living being can go through—up there with dying and being born. But what if it's necessary anyway?

Thus, I feel that it is possible to form a commune that abides and succeeds; that success, however, will not be for the individuals who found it, who will have to sacrifice themselves to the cause and vanish as individuals in the process—it will be for the commune itself, in which there can be no individuals—only roles and responsibilities for someone to voluntarily accept. And few Western, empowered, rugged individuals coached in the rhetoric of human rights and invested with a great sense of self-worth and entitlement would voluntarily accept any of that. But what if there is no room for them in this gravely damaged ecosphere? There is a quote from Fight Club (the novel) that comes to mind: “You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You are the same decaying organic matter as everyone else, and we are all a part of the same compost pile.” Maybe the Hutterites have more of a sense of that than we do, which would explain their almost casual attitude toward death (versus their very serious attitude toward life). They are not put on this earth to achieve self-realization or success or status; they are put on this Earth, for a time, to do what they see as God's will, and their goal is to not make a mess of it. It seems like a worthy goal for our messy times.


Unknown said...

Your post brings up a very interesting topic, namely what does it mean to have a full life?

To answer this question we must first understand that the answer to this question depends entirely on what we desire. Moreover what we desire has to be learned and is as such entirely cultural. It depends entirely on your point of view.

Try telling a member of the Spartan society that all men require peace and stability as a universal and you should count yourself lucky to leave that conversation alive. He will tell you, no, the essence of life is struggle and there is no other test as true
as to the value of a man as that which comes on the field of battle. All our concepts of universal human rights would equally be rejected as childish stupidities. He would argue instead that the life which nature has not provided with health and strength can be of no use to itself or to the state. This mode of thinking was practiced not only by the Spartans but all ancient Greeks, in fact all hunter gatherers. If the child born showed the slightest defects it would be left to die.

I bring this up because this is the true background in our history. Not peaceful coexistence but savagery and violence.

Once the lies of constant growth and prosperity are proved untrue men will be in the lookout for another God to worship. My bet would be that unless great care is taken this God will be the God of fire.

Ien in the Kootenays said...

Very interesting. I am with you on the downside of the Jungian imperative to individuate. Question: are Hutterite girls allowed time out to work in town? This is a neutral question, not a polemical one.

Andy Brown said...

Interesting. Of course such communists don't have the freedom to create their selves and psyches through consumption choices and brand selection like we do. I'm guessing though that an image of individuality totally erased is something of an outsider's view. While it's true that roles and options are circumscribed in alien ways - within those strictures a great deal of self-creation and social jockeying takes place. So take heart, ye individualists. From commune to gulag to suburban wage slavery, people find a way to live with their own crushed individuality while still waving a tattered flag of selfhood.

Unknown said...

God always did have a funny sense of humour. All of us malcontents sustaining our egos with special knowledge of the accelerating descent: we can leverage our knowledge & perhaps survive .. if we just do away with our egos. Camel, meet needles eye, and start reading jed mckenna, ha ha.

Dmitry Orlov said...

Edmond -

Your Spartans are in fact an outlier (and are remembered as such) and your comment goes off the rails entirely starting with "all hunter-gatherers".

Kevin said...

My preferred spiritual community not only would not forbid art and music, but would place them at or somewhere near the center, as is the case in traditional Balinese society, where art is an integral part of the religious life of the culture, or a society such as the artists Alex and Allyson Grey are trying to create by gathering a spiritually-oriented community around themselves on the property that has been gifted them for this purpose in New York State. I for one would rather fail at that than succeed at being a Hutterite. So I guess the takeaway for me is to have better defined what I would like to work toward, by contrast with something I basically can't the sound of.

Butch said...

Edmond-- you're half right about the Spartans and totally wrong about hunter-gatherers. War-- organised violence-- is (generally) essentially the result of imbalances of resources, and only occurs in hierarchical societies built around property ownership.

Hunter-gatherers lived in a world of plenty. Food and shelter, and human companionship etc, were abundant, property consisted in only what one could carry, and social status had to do with the number and depth of social relationships one had, which in turn had to do with how much one helped other people, primarily by giving them food. We have lots of good literature describing early North American natives (of both the settled and hunter-gatherer type): European colonisers were horrified that the Natives had no property, and a strong ethos of sharing everything (especially sexual partners and child-rearing duties), and a "system" of war where losers basically became first the slaves and then family members of the winners.

The idea that life is naturally a Hobbesian affair is wrong: most of the bad stuff-- as Marx (and Kropotkin) point out-- comes when property, rather than helping group members, becomes a status marker.

I'd suggest that folks read SEX AT DAWN (Ryan and Jetha) for a fascinating look at how much of pre-propertied life was.

Stanislav Datskovskiy said...

I have no ill-will at all for the Hutterites, and in fact wish them a good million years of their dour and stoic life. But I can't bring myself to envy them, any more than I could envy the proverbial cockroaches that will survive a nuclear war.

NomadicBeer said...

I want to step back for a second and ask what is the purpose of a community? We remember the Greek city states for their philosophy and art and science. I know I am biased but 2000 years from now nobody will remember the Hutterites even if they are still around. In a sens they are fossilized. I would prefer to look at living communities. Yes, they won't last long but just like short lived animals they evolve faster.
Our modern day culture has a lot of inertia and it's useless for the challenges we face. Aren't there communities that survived in times of crisis and then just changed? What are their commonalities?

rucafiorio said...

I wonder if communes like the Hutterites remain unchanged and eventually un-evolved because they have no 'space' to evolve, being surrounded by an alien (to them) social system. What if when these communes grow in number and have an opportunity to expand, what larger society based on their values may evolve? May we then see some society where money has no value, the group is still the value-creating entity but where the individual may flourish? Oh how I would like to live on those amazing times :)

k-dog said...

Saw a documentary on New Guinea a day ago. Hutterites separate sexes like tree people of the jungle forest in New Guinea. Without judging, separation of the sexes may be characteristic of cultures with clearly defined roles and which lack social mobility. Hutterite men work in the fields, women do cooking and other domestic chores. Separating sexes makes separation of roles more clearly defined in a clearly defined culture. Communist they may be but they have a social structure and their culture maintains it.

Our culture frayed as it is around the edges deplores 'communism' but in a brain warping contradiction pretends equal opportunity for all. The skin deep hypocrisy of a capitalist society in decay where social policies magnify class differences rather than shrinking them. Perhaps some sexual confusion results from people not knowing exactly where they fit in our social picture. Perhaps we have a gay culture that's larger than it would otherwise be in a society that was churning less. I wouldn't expect a genuine gay person to agree with me here, their life experience is different. But if they admit not all people are genuine and that some of us absorb our very substance, personality, and being from images consumed without contemplation or review of any kind they might agree. When such consumption results in social approval even murder can get popular.

It seems sad to know people must be shown how to live a decent life and can't figure it out on their own. But we have to deal with what is, and soon.

America Reforged said...

The Hutterites are a model of social stability that evolved over the last 500 years. The climate has been relatively stable over the last 500 years. The atmoshperic carbon dump of the last 1.5 centuries is now clearly changing the climate. Every society has a maximum rate of change it can tolerate and still cohere. I wonder if even the Hutterites will be able to weather the changes to the climate.

Mike said...

Dmitri, I'd just like to thank you for your patience and good humor in explaining to Westerners an understanding of life that must be very obvious to Slavic people.

I especially appreciate your references to thinkers like Kropotkin. I think it's time to look east for wisdom. Western intellectuals don't seem to have much to offer besides apologia. Although most of them don't seem to know it.

Lynford1933 said...

I did aerial infrared photography for the Hutterite Community in Washington State for a number of years. Every week during the growing season I would fly over their fields and take IR photographs. After developing the film and making prints I would deliver this packet to them the next day. I tried to get there about noon because the food was excellent and it is custom for anyone there at lunchtime to eat with the person(s) they came to see. I got to know several of the men very well and a couple of the wives. They are craft people and artists in wood and fabric as fine as any I have seen. Something that I believe is overlooked when trying to describe Hutterites is their deep religious convictions. The elder person who did the preaching was also the head manager both business and social. Though technical decisions were made by giving weight to the most qualified expert in that field, business and social decisions were made compliant to their religion. The young men would attend technical schools for the particular equipment they were using, like an SAE certified mechanic. In the surrounding area they were famous for their comforters which were hand made from down picked from their flocks of geese and for beautiful furniture they built during the “off season“. They (both men and women) bought parts and raw materials that they could not make from the nearby towns. They did not do spinning (AFAIK) but most of the clothes were hand made and tailored to the individual. Often the young men, when they came of age, would move to another Hutterite Community to work for a year or two and many returned with wives. They were not the dire people one would think of living in hardship in a commune. They were friendly and a good joke about their way of life or mine went over without animosity. All up, great people.

James Lovebirch said...

What is referred to in this post as "being yourself" appears to be the same phenomenom referred to by TLP (http://www.thelastpsychiatrist.com/) as "narcissism" and by Eckhart Tolle as "identification with the mind" in The Power of Now. "Being yourself" is actually losing yourself: you lose your sense of oneness with all people, all life around you, reality itself, and you replace it with a constant mental diarrhea of words or mental movies. You become attached to the ideas running through your head to such a degree that you attack anybody viciously who doesn't agree as those feminists did to Dmitry a while back, and you have the seemingly universal need for struggle he obserbed in the previous post. I really can't go deeper into this dysfunction in a comment while doing it any justice, unfortunately. Anyone interested should look into the works I mentioned, particularly Tolle's for a way out of it.

Anonymous said...

As a former working musician who has burned out on music, I think my chosen community would ban art & music.

Ho ho. But what I really wanted to say was, people don't really want to be individuals. I figured that out way back in the 80s, when I noticed that while Reagan et al were so fond of criticizing the supposed lockstep conformity of the Eastern Bloc, everyone around me here in America, all felt compelled to buy and wear the same blue jeans or the same couple of fashionable clothing brands. Which BTW were hopelessly unfashionable within 10 years, then came back, and now are starting to go away again (I hope).

The fact is, enormous amounts of energy must be spent on the generation & delivery of rhetoric (which in capitalism largely takes the form of advertising) to convince people that they are/want to be/should be, individuals etc. It's more profitable of course, for the owner class to have a horde of individuals each duplicating each other's efforts (e.g. each buying a car instead of all crowding onto the same bus).

Nonetheless I think that deep down, everyone wants to identify as part of a group, which is why the other half of the marketing/advertising is all about how to fit in, and exploits such themes. So the amount of individuality people are willing to give up in order to be part of a group, might be more than we think.

Anthony said...

Years ago, I read 'The Conquest of Bread' by Prince Kropotkin. I recommended this work to anyone who would listen, and quoted it with great relish. Then R. W. Reagan showed up at the WH; no one wanted to hear about class and privilege anymore. I just stumbled across this blog, and I have enjoyed reading its contents for almost two hours. Thanks, DO. And thanks for invoking the memory of my favorite member of the aristocracy!

Mark said...

Hey Roille Figners, I was wanting to say the same thing! but you covered it so well! I was also thinking of James Herriot's (All Creatures Great and Small) who observed how both men and beasts have idiosyncratic qualities. They can't help but be individuals, and members of their species. I think maybe 10% of humans have a need to express artisticly something, whatever it is. Where ever it comes from. Maybe prior lives even. But for 90% of humans, this is the first time around, and they act pretty clueless. This realm of transformation is pretty transformational though, and those who are grateful for the opportunity to transform, to become someone different in a creative way, are not resisting the deluge ahead. Hey, suffering is going to happen sometimes, then its over and something else happens. If someone bought into some static quo illusion, then they may not want to hear that change is the nature of all phenomenon. I do celebrate, and I am grateful to all those concerned with future suffering, who are thinking about how to reduce suffering. I think most of the suffering in the past was needless, that most of the suffering in the present is needless and avoidable, and that most of the suffering in the future could be avoided. There are great possibilities for happiness in future, and this blog and the contributors and commenters are really putting their minds to the task.

The Brother said...


I highly recommend you read Jared Diamonds world until yesterday. Hunter gatherers are just as capable of fighting wars as any other societies (and were also capable of being hierarchical, even if it a very flat hierarchy compared to most contemporary ones)over resource shortages/imbalances and all the other reasons

Their also typically far more violent about it, much more commonly completely wiping out defeated populations or removing them than is done today (except potentially in Africa)

RanDomino said...

Escape can work only for a tiny minority which, as you said in an earlier part, is either no threat or has nothing worth stealing. For the rest, enslavement by capitalism; unless we go on the offensive. Always and only defending merely slows the pace of defeat.