Monday, April 28, 2014

Communities that Abide—The XIII Commandments

The manuscript for Communities that Abide is coming right along. The co-authors and I are working away, and it looks like I'll be able to start editing sometime within the next two weeks. I am shooting to have the book out in time for the 3rd annual Age of Limits Conference, which will be held over the Memorial Day weekend at the Four Quarters Interfaith Sanctuary in Artemas, Pennsylvania. I'll be running one workshop at the conference (on community formation) and moderating the discussion at another.

Please pre-order a paper copy of your book by clicking the button over on the right. You can pay using PayPal or any credit card—no checks or cash. Also, I will only ship single copies, and only within the US. I will only print the exact number of books pre-ordered, so this is the only way to get a paper copy. I'll number and sign all the copies, and ship them out in June. Then I'll publish it as an e-book via Amazon, available internationally.

In the meantime, here is an excerpt from the forthcoming book. As will quickly become clear, the sorts of communities the book addresses (ones that abide) go quite far beyond a fancy condo association with a community center, a community garden and some solar panels up on the roof.

If a community wants to abide, it probably should abide by...

The XIII Commandments of Communities That Abide

I. You Probably Shouldn't come together willy-nilly and form a community out of people that just happen to be hanging around, who don't have to do much of anything to join, and feel free to leave as soon as they get bored or it stops being fun. The community should be founded as a conscious, purposeful, overt act of secession from mainstream society, a significant historical event that is passed down through history and commemorated in song, ceremony and historical reenactment. A classic founding event is one where the founding members surrender all of their private property, making it communal, in a solemn ceremony, during which they take on new names and greet each other by their new names as brothers and sisters. The founding members should be remembered and revered for their brave and generous act. This makes the community into a self-aware, synergistic entity with a will of its own that transcends the wills of its individual members.

II. You Probably Shouldn't trap people within the community. Membership in the community should to be voluntary. Every member must have an iron-clad guarantee of being able to leave, no questions asked. That said, do everything you can to keep people from leaving because defections are very bad for morale. One good trick is to give people a vacation when they need it, and one good way to do that is to run an exchange program with another, similar community. There need not be an iron-clad guarantee of being able to come back and be accepted again, but this should be generally possible. Those born into the community should be given an explicit opportunity, during their teenage years, to rebel, escape, go out and see the world and sow their wild oats, and also the opportunity to come back, take the pledge, and be accepted as full members. When people behave badly, the threat of expulsion can be used, but that should be regarded as the “nuclear option.” On the other hand, you should probably have some rules for expelling people more or less automatically when they behave very, very badly indeed (though such cases should be exceedingly rare) because allowing such people to stick around is also very bad for morale.

III. You Probably Shouldn't carry on as if the community doesn't matter. The community should see itself as separate and distinct from the surrounding society. Its separatism should manifest itself in the way its members relate to members of the surrounding society: as external representatives of the community rather than as individual members. All dealings with the outside world, other than exchanging pleasantries and making conversation, should be on behalf of the community. It must not be possible for outsiders to exploit individual weaknesses or differences between members. To realize certain advantages, especially if the community is clandestine in nature, members can maintain the illusion that they are acting as individuals, but in reality they should act on behalf of the community at all times.

IV. You Probably Shouldn't spread out across the landscape. The community should be relatively self-contained. It cannot be virtual or only come together periodically. There has to be a geographic locus or a gathering place, with ample public space, even if it changes location from time to time. The community should be based on a communal living arrangement that provides all of the necessities. A community living in apartments scattered throughout a large city is not going to last very long; if that's how you have to start, then use the time you have to save money and buy land. A good, simple living arrangement, which minimizes housing costs while optimizing group cohesion and security, is to provide all adults and couples with bedrooms big enough for them and their infants, separate group bedrooms for children over a certain age, and common facilities for all other needs. This can be realized using one large building or several smaller ones.

V. You Probably Shouldn't allow creeping privatization. The community should pool and share all property and resources with the exception of personal effects. All money and goods coming in from the outside, including income, pensions, donations and even government handouts, should go into the common pot, from which it is allocated to common uses. Such common uses should include all the necessities: food, shelter, clothing, medicine, child care, elderly care, education, entertainment, etc. Members who become rich suddenly, through inheritance or some other means, must be given a choice: put the money in the pot, or keep it and leave the community. This pattern of communal consumption is very efficient.

VI. You Probably Shouldn't try to figure out what to do on your own. The community should have collective goals and needs that are made explicit. These goals and needs can only be met through collective, not individual, actions. The well-being of the community should be the result of collective action, of members working together on common projects. Also, this collective work should be largely voluntary, and members who are fed up with a certain task or a certain team should be able to raise the issue at the meeting and ask to be reassigned. It's great when members have brilliant new ideas on how to do things, but these have to be discussed in open meeting and expressed as initiatives to be pursued collectively.

VII. You Probably Shouldn't let outsiders order you around. It's best if the community itself is the ultimate source of authority for all of its members. It should have a universally accepted code of conduct, which is best kept unwritten and passed down orally. The ultimate recourse, above and beyond the reach of any external systems of justice or external authorities, or any individual's authority within the group, should be the open meeting, where everyone has the right to speak. People should only be able to speak for themselves: attempts at representation of any sort should be treated as hearsay and disregarded. You probably shouldn't resort to legalistic techniques such as vote-counting and vote by acclamation instead. Debate should continue until consensus is reached. To reach a consensus decision, use whatever tricks you have to in order to win over the (potentially vociferous and divisive) opposing voices, up to and including the threat of expulsion. A community that cannot reach full consensus on a key decision cannot function and should automatically split up. But this tends to be rare, because the members' status depends on them putting the needs of the community ahead of their own, and one of these needs happens to be the need for consensus. Decisions reached by consensus in open meeting should carry the force of law. Decisions imposed on the community from the outside should be regarded as acts of persecution, and countered with nonviolent protest, civil disobedience, evasion and, if conditions warrant, by staging an exodus. The time-tested foolproof way to avoid being subjected to outside authority is by fleeing, as a group. Oh, and you probably shouldn't waste your time on things like voting, trying to get elected, testifying in court, bringing lawsuits against people or institutions, or jury duty.

VIII. You Probably Shouldn't question the wonderful goodness of your community. Your community should have moral authority and meaning to those within it. It can't be a mere instrumentality or a living arrangement with no higher purpose than keeping you fed, clothed, sheltered and entertained. It shouldn't be treated in a utilitarian fashion. There should be an ideology, which is unquestioned, but which is interpreted to set specific goals and norms of behavior. The community shouldn't contradict these goals and norms in practice. It should also be able to fulfill these goals and comply with these norms, and to track and measure its success in doing so. The best ideologies are circularly defined systems where it is a good system because it is used by good people, and these people are good specifically because they use the good system. Since the ideology is never questioned, it need not be particularly logical and can be based on a mystical understanding, faith or revelation. But it can't be completely silly, or nobody will take it seriously.

IX. You Probably Shouldn't pretend that your life is more important than the life of your children and grandchildren (or other members' children and grandchildren if you don't have any of your own). If you are old and younger replacements for whatever it is you do are available, your job is primarily to help them take over and then to keep out of their way. Try to think of death as a sort of bowel movement—most days you move your bowels (if you are regular); one day your bowels move you. As a member of the community, you do not live for yourself; you live for the community—specifically, for its future generations. The main purpose of your community is to transcend the lifespans of the individual members by perpetuating its biological and cultural DNA. To this end, you probably should avoid sending your children through public education, treating it as mental poison. It has very little to do with educating, and everything to do with institutionalization. Also, if a child is forced to recite the Pledge of Allegiance in class, that creates a split allegiance, which you should probably regard as unacceptable. If this means that your community has to expend a great deal of its resources on child care and home schooling, so be it; after providing food, shelter and clothing, it's the most important job there is.

X. You Probably Shouldn't try to use violence, because it probably won't work. Internally, keep your methods of social control informal: gossip, ridicule, reprimand and scorn all work really well and are very cheap. Any sort of formal control enforced through the threat of violence is very destructive of group solidarity, terrible for morale, and very expensive. You should try to enforce taboos against striking people in anger (also children and animals). Use expulsion as the ultimate recourse. When dealing with outsiders, don't arm yourselves beyond a few nonlethal defensive weapons, don't look like a threat, stay off the external authorities' radar as much as possible, and work to create good will among your neighbors so that they will stand up for you. Also, be sure to avoid military service. If drafted, you should probably refuse to carry weapons or use lethal force of any sort.

XI. You Probably Shouldn't let your community get too big. When it has grown beyond 150 adult members, it's time to bud off a colony. With anything more than 100 people, reaching consensus decisions in an open meeting becomes significantly more difficult and time-consuming, raising the level of frustration with the already cumbersome process of consensus-building. People start trying to get around this problem by hiding decision-making inside committees, but that is incompatible with direct democracy, in which no person can be compelled to comply with a decision to which that person did not consent (except for the decision to expel that person, but most people quit voluntarily before that point is reached). Also, 150 people is about the maximum number of people with whom most of us are able to have personal relationships. Anything more, and you end up having to deal with near-strangers, eroding trust. The best way to split a community in two halves is by drawing lots to decide which families stay and which families go. Your community should definitely stay on friendly terms with the new colony (among other things, to give your children a wider choice of mates), but it's probably a bad idea to think of them as still being part of your community: they are now a law unto themselves: independent and unique and under no obligation to consult you or to reach consensus with you on any question.

XII. You Probably Shouldn't let your community get too rich. Material gratification, luxury and lavish lifestyles are not good for your community: children will become spoiled, adults will develop expensive tastes and bad habits. If times ever change for the worse, your community will be unable to cope. This is because communities that emphasize material gratification become alienating and conflicted when they fail to provide the material goods needed to attain and maintain that level of gratification. Your community should provide a basic level of material comfort, and an absolutely outstanding level of emotional and spiritual comfort. There are many ways to burn off the extra wealth: through recruitment activities and expansion, through good works in the surrounding society, by supporting various projects, causes and initiatives and so on. You can also spend the surplus on art, music, literature, craftsmanship, etc.

XIII. You Probably Shouldn't let your community get too cozy with the neighbors. Always keep in mind what made you form the community to start with: the fact that the surrounding society doesn't work, can't give you what you need, and, to put in the plainest terms possible, isn't any good. Over time your community may become strong and successful, and gain acceptance from the surrounding society, which can, over time, become too weak and internally conflicted to offer you any resistance, never mind try to persecute you. But your community needs a bit of persecution now and again, to give it a good reason for continuing to safeguard its separateness. To this end, it helps to maintain certain practices that alienate your community from the surrounding society just a bit, not badly enough to provoke them into showing up with torches and pitchforks, but enough to make them want to remain aloof and leave you alone much of the time.


This list of... um... commandments was been put together by looking at lots of different communities that abide. It is not dependent on what exact kind of community it is: whether it's patriarchal or grants equal rights to women, whether it's religious or atheist, whether it's settled, migratory or nomadic, whether it consists of farmers or carnival performers, law-abiding or outlaw, highly educated or illiterate, whether it's homophobic or LGBT-friendly, vegan or paleo... The only commonality is that they all have children, bring them up, and accept them into the community as adult members. These are biological communities that function as tiny sovereign nations, not one-way social institutions where people join up and die, such as monasteries, retirement homes, hospices and suicide cults. This wide range should allow you to set aside any fears that whatever community you envision forming or joining might be excluded, because, given the very wide range of variations between the communities I examined, finding an exact match to what you happen to like is, first, exceedingly unlikely and, second, completely irrelevant to uncovering the common traits that underpin their success.


steeleweed said...

Just a heads-up:
My security software warned me that may contain malware. I was on that site a long time ago, so something must have been added. They should install/run some security tools.

AA said...

I'm also looking for a ride to the Age of Limits conference. I could also be at the Baltimore airport at 3:00 pm. And I could contribute some money to the gasoline kitty for the drive from Baltimore.

dale said...

Dmitry, you are so many steps ahead you might as well haver written a guide to how to fly to the moon. Where I live, which is I think is common USA, the capability of forming real community is about as likely as the capability to fly to the moon. Communities that abide are an intriguing way beyond this dystopia, but I don't see it happening. What is happening -- just last weekend here -- was a local TED conference. Chock full of entrepreneurs, technologists, social networkers and positive thinkers, just about every false dogma of the empire in a sold out jam packed circle jerk. Even the very few people here who will entertain an alternative narrative + show up at something like Occupy, attract too many who need to be "the guy" or "the girl". Participants do not see how the group fulfills their needs. Resentments and pettiness follow and the group disintegrates.

Wolfgang Brinck said...

I expect that you could find common cause with a self-selected band of people whose values and vision you shared but that once you joined a community and brought up children in it, its values and vision would have to be more attractive than whatever the outside world had to offer or the children would drift away and the community would shrivel as the original members died. Membership in the community would have to offer more benefits, emotional, social, spiritual, intellectual than the outside world could provide.
I suspect that part of the staying power of a community would also be that it is sufficiently different from the surrounding world that anyone brought up within that community would find life outside the community so alien and uncomfortable that it would be unattractive.
Even more extremely, in the past, leaving the community might have been impossible because neighboring communities were hostile and would not accept new members from outside.
The power of a modern state is that it will accept and absorb strays from an embedded community and allow them to live. If the community allows members to leave, then either its birth rate has to be sufficient to keep up numbers or it must have some mechanism for letting outsiders join. 150 people is a relatively small number so that statistical misfortunes such as disease or economic misfortune could easily bring membership below a level where survival of the community's values and institutions would be difficult.

My donkey said...

"The ideology... can't be completely silly, or nobody will take it seriously."

What about the idea of an omniscient and omnipresent entity who is undetectable? Not only does God know everything about everything, but there is nowhere that He is not present; even the seeming vacuum of interstellar space is jam-packed with His holy Godness.

If that isn't silly, what is?

And yet many millions of Christians seriously believe it, and communities of Christians have been abiding for quite some time now.

When it comes to humans believing in ideologies, I seriously think that silly is good, but sillier is better, and silliest is best.

Dmitry Orlov said...

Dale -

I can't imagine you being any more wrong. The many of the communities I studied are right here in the US and number in the hundreds of thousands. The fact that you (and most other people) are entirely unaware of their existence is a testament to their success. The posers at TED or Occupy are entirely beside the point.

AA -

Email me directly and I'll see what can be done.

Wolfgang -

The fact is, it's almost trivial for a community of the sort I describe to achieve vastly better results than the surrounding population, which come to be seen as a bunch of lepers. Especially in the US, society is so utterly sick (leading the world in a long list of negatives, like rape, abuse, drug abuse, incarceration, teenage pregnancy, teenage STDs, children born into poverty, yadda-yadda) that, given a better choice, living out in it can seem like a fate worse than death.

Dmitry Orlov said...

My Donkey -

An omnipotent, omnipresent deity is not as silly as it gets. How about household gods that are statuettes which need to be appeased by being smeared with lard or having water poured over them? How about a sacred covenant with the elves that live in a rock? And so on.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for reminding me about the conference, as I usually read about it too late. I live in Baltimore. I have a 2003 economy-sized car with four seats and a small trunk. Big people wouldn't want to sit in back for very long.

Dmitry Orlov said...

Donald -

Please email me directly.

Reverse Developer said...

Feeling you belong to a tight knit, supportive, long standing group is the ultimate empowerment, short of actually leading such a group. there is the first rub.

The fact that this requires separating "my people" from "the others" is the second rub. The division is arbitrary in its inception, genetically speaking. The initial condition then veers onto the social rut that is a sort of passive eugenics.

Nature imposes limits, environmental and genetic. But Something in us does not love the rubric of exclusion. Given resource surpluses we satisfy our latent appetite for diversity.

Mormon, and Judaic sects must number in the millions in the US. Though a rough typology, these are communities that abide outside of the 150 limit. They endure as more or less successful eugenic programs, retaining even their objective of taking care of their own.

If you want to know why mainstream US society fails to hold allegience, look no further. We withhold and exclude rights and privileges based upon our narrow definition of "family": white, european, DAR royal lineage, whatever fantasies etc...Now that family is outnumbered. too bad the experiment did not allow for diversity in the family.

All families that abide by exclusion will all come to this fate eventually. The "Jewish people" have been singularly successful if you measure by time. Though the latest mitochondrial DNA analysis suggests that many if not most people identifying Jewish may not actually be direct descendants of the original tribes. Mormons welcome converts but it is known that there is a genetic hierarchy within the sect. At this time, it may be a good strategy to identify Jewish or Mormon for the very reasons Dimitry points out. How long that will continue to be true is interesting for many reasons. If resource limitations really do impress selection pressure for smaller communities, would we expect to see factionalization of larger communities.

More interesting, what is it about Christianity that has kept the abiding communities on a fringe relative to the Mormons and Jews. Is it because Christianity hews to a long association with states and its own institutional hierarchies? Dimitry's discussion of consensus decision making and individual political agency is instructive here.

Unknown said... little subversive anarchist. Undermining the American dream and all. Suddenly I had an image of the Cage Match of the Century. In one corner, we have Dmitry "Kropotkin" Orlov, and in the other James Michael "The Archdruidic Mason" Greer. I would buy a ticket to that!

Dmitry Orlov said...

William -

The dream is dead, or haven't you noticed? And there isn't enough daylight between me and Greer to make for an interesting debate.

Unknown said...


Wonderful sampling of the new book, though it is an important enough subject to warrant your taking all the time you need to explore fully. Please don't rush it just for the Age of Limits Conference.

Regarding the Conference and your presentation; community in any of the many flavors in which it comes is certainly the single most important mitigation we can make in the face of systemic collapse. Any set of economic and social living arrangements that makes a defined group of persons more interdependent upon each other is functioning community. If those arrangements tie them to shared stewardship of The Land, even better

Regarding steelweed's malware warning, this dates to late last year when we changed hosting servers. Refresh your malware/browser cache,and the warning should go away.

Regarding donalfagan's ride offer I have posted you privately, but would like to point out to anyone reading that these kind of informal offers of help are what allow poor non-profits to produce events like The Age of Limits Conference. Donald, Thanks!
Given Four Quarters 15 year history as a self-identified community, almost all of your observations mirror our own experience. To take just one of your points:

"II. You Probably Shouldn't trap people within the community. "
The other side of this valid point is that you should not be too eager to have people "join."

Four Quarters is income sharing (community owned businesses) and very small with only 5 full permanent members and 2-3 living as full staff. We require at least a three year term (preferably more) before considering a person as a professed full member. During that time we are prohibited from accepting any kind of gift of money from them, as our want of money would be the worst possible reason for accepting someone as a member. In fact we insist that they have money saved away, so that in the event, they have the means to leave with grace. With people who have been with us for 2-3 years before deciding to move on, we almost always make a substantial gift of money to purchase a car, or provide the start-up funds for an apartment. For us, the summed value of these parting gifts has been far larger than the summed value of gifts we have received. Come the -Zombie Apocalypse-, I doubt we can be so generous.

The net effect is that we discourage "joiners" and make it very easy to leave. We are looking for the long-term keepers, and realize that because we are so small and income sharing, we should be VERY discriminating with who we accept for the long term.

Many "Intentional Communities" provide for some form of private ownership/control within a modified condominium model, where the common land is jointly owned, with domestic home-sites privately controlled and transferable. How such a community controls or influences to whom the home-site is transferred by the present "owner" becomes a very important issue of balancing the ease with which an individual can exit the community (by transferring their monetary investment), with the communities needed ability to filter potential future members and define its' social boundaries. Some communities following this model have fallen into the trap of funding improvements to the common land with sales fees from new members, and in the process of seeking out continued membership fee income, diluting the original common values that self identified the community at its' founding.

I like to say that big "C" Community is being so deeply invested that you can't leave when things don't go your way. In our case that is not a monetary investment; but rather our shared emotional investment in each other and our joint ties to the land. Our shared history, struggles and successes. All points you have made well.

Community building is a slow organic process that cannot be rushed.

best wishes

Orren Whiddon

Tom Gaspick said...

In Commandment X you say, " to create good will among your neighbors so that they will stand up for you."

Then in Commandment XIII you say, " helps to maintain certain practices that alienate your community from the surrounding society just a bit, not badly enough to provoke them into showing up with torches and pitchforks, but enough to make them want to remain aloof and leave you alone much of the time."

How do you square that circle?

Dmitry Orlov said...

Tom -

Think about bats. People like them because they eat bugs. Some people even build them bat houses. But most people don't like bats enough to let them fly around their bedrooms at night.

Unknown said...

Stimulating, thanks. My own coupla years in intentional community met maybe half of the commandments, not enough to last but enough to convince me that the dream is real and worth kindling. I don't think anyone who has had a taste of selfresponsibility/adulthood (which community gives and requires) can really enjoy the infantile alienated perks of mainstream life. Run away & hide in, sure; enjoy, no.

Having found functional ICs rare and many of their starters/joiners chronicly unsuitable, i've found some of the same benefits from a small stable unintentional-but-semiconciously-willing community. Its too soon to light up a wickerman but i will carefully file the commandments list for seeding further down the road .. touch wood.

Ekkar said...

Very good. Thank you.

Sam said...

Interesting that your conclusions are almost the exact opposite of what has been found to work in practice in UK land based projects.

Projects that had longevity in the UK tend to have privately managed land, where people generate their own income and can act autonomously. Communities built on autonomy but sharing resources and time voluntarily were those that were most successful in Rebecca Hoskins review:

Dmitry Orlov said...

Sam -

"Projects" is another category I didn't consider, along with "institutions" like prisons and death cults. UK is a smallish place and its culture was thoroughly crushed by many centuries of being governed by particularly oppressive empire. Nevertheless, last I checked, the Travelers are going strong in the UK and in Ireland, and they follow all of the principles I outlined. So there is hope even for the English-ridden.

Anonymous said...

Wolfgang, though I don't belong to an intentional community I grew up on a farm among the Amish. Perhaps this altered my view of my own society; I can't say for sure. I do find myself to be an outsider and stranger to my own society however. The things that matter to me are laughed at, for the most part, by those among my contacts in the wider world.

Unknown said...

Communal living certainly has its advantages and doing things in groups can be so much more productive. I have to disagree with commandment V though. Not rewarding those who work hard and are more productive always causes resentment. It nearly killed off the Pilgrims when there collectivism failed. Human nature is a funny thing and some things don't change over the millennium. If we to look at a current successful group, like the many Amish cultures, they do things both collectively and privately. They build barns and houses collectively, but farms and businesses such furniture makers and different crafts are private so those don't work hard cannot leach off those that do.

I don't consider Travelers, or Gypsy's part of your communities that abide due to the fact that they have a long history of theft and deceit which causes them to be ostracized by those that lives around them.


Dmitry Orlov said...

Jeff -

In many cultures, those who achieve great things for their community can be rewarded more effectively in non-material ways. This is a cultural trait that the Pilgrims did not possess, being English.

Your decision to exclude the Travelers is invalid, because you judge them by external standards, which they regard as illegitimate. They don't practice theft an deceit against each other. See Commandment VII.

neil said...

Irish travellers have far and away the highest violent death rate of any irish population group, killed by other travellers in savage intergenerational feuds, as well as drunken rows.

Unknown said...

Pooling property doesn't work so great when the community fizzles and you can't live there anymore, yet the Board of Directors keeps not only the 100 acres you were sharing, but your house you put all your savings and six years of work into, without compensating you in any way outside of a big middle finger.

Dmitry Orlov said...

I understand that Irish Travelers are not Roma but something else entirely. But saying that they are *worse* than the surrounding settled society doesn't help explain why they abide, does it? Perhaps their murder rate is high, but nevertheless their communities are less psychologically less oppressive? What do you think explains their resilience, great numbers, and ability to win concessions from local councils?

Dmitry Orlov said...

I guess they must have violated quite a few of the commandments to end up loke that. Which ones? I don't have time to look at the article. Perhaps you can add that detail. The commandments are there for a reason. Violate them, and bad things happen to the community and its members.

Anonymous said...

The thirteen commandments are great, and make sense. Are there any examples of sea-going folk (as you like the going-to-sea option) that have worked this out? Pirates?

Dmitry Orlov said...

There will be a chapter in the book on that.

neil said...

Certain aspects of their lifestyle are attractive. There is a very strong group identity despite the high level of violence. Resentment from the settled population contributes to their separate existence. The high level of endogamy, very early marriage and high birthrate explain their persistence. Conversely, it is unusual for a traveller, particularly a man, to reach 65 years of age.

Anonymous said...

I mostly biked thru Ireland, but did take one bus tour to the Aran Islands. I remember our tour-bus guide disparaging some "tinkers" we passed (just before she did an obviously-canned spiel for this "Durty Nelly's" tourist trap). Those were the Travellers, and they hail from Irish stock, and some claim they have been nomadic since before the Vikings while others believe they were displaced during the potato famine. Not that those are mutually exclusive.

Anyway the men don't live that long, but in terms of community survival, is the longevity of the men that important?