Tuesday, December 12, 2017

The XIII Commandments of Communities that Abide

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Over the past two Thursdays I have run two articles (1, 2) that looked back on and more or less wrapped my efforts at trying to inspire sustainable community-building efforts in the North American context, at least of the land-based variety. I am still hopeful about the possibilities of self-sufficient homesteads, and I am continuing to work on providing a different sort of context—for building mobile, floating communities—based on Quidnon—"A Houseboat that Sails". There will be more on it soon. But to wrap up the theme that I launched over three years ago with the book shown on the left, here is a rather important excerpt from it.

The following list of... um... commandments has 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 apportions equal rights and responsibilities to both women and men, whether it’s religious or atheist, whether it’s settled, migratory or nomadic, whether it consists of farmers or carnival performers, law-abiding people or outlaws, the highly educated or the illiterate, whether it’s rigidly traditionalist or polyamorous, vegan or omnivorous...

This wide range should allow you to set aside any fears that whatever community you envision forming or joining might be excepted from following these commandments, 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.

Their 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. The difference is that while the former abide—last for many generations—the latter do not. This is an empirical result, not a theoretical one, and thus very hard to argue with based on one’s ideology or taste.

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 set of commandments is known to elicit a very wide range of reactions, most of the quite interesting, and so, if you have something to say, please don't hold back. I'll only moderate obscenities and personal attacks.


Cottage Crone said...

Good Morning, Dmitry. Thank you for another thought-provoking, interesting blog. I am struck by the resemblance of your community that abides to the Renaissance Fair which travels from Minneapolis, MN, to North Carolina, to Arizona, Colorado and back to Minneapolis and then on again, year round. I am not sure of the exact route or which states, but that is the general route. My granddaughter began working there as a parttime employee when she was in high school, continued on with parttime work while getting an education, and now lives and works there fulltime. From what I have gathered, it definitely is a community, with children who are home-schooled, peopled by artists and craftspeople and others who manage and promote and sell the products made by artists and craftspeople. Not all the artists, etc. live and travel with the Renaissance Fair, but deliver their work there to be promoted and sold by people they have hired as managers of their booths. The managers, however, do necessarily live and travel with the unit. I have always thought of it as a counter-culture, since it strikes me that many of the members have chosen to live outside mainstream culture for personal reasons, and don't know if that is exactly the same as a community. They do have self-enforcing and unwritten rules about behavior to ensure peaceful cohabitation--expulsion being the last resort. I'd be interested in learning if anyone else has experience with this nomadic and now 30-year-old type of community.

Zoltar said...

I have enjoyed the Faire's annual residence in North Carolina for years and always appreciated making the acquaintance of some of its artisans and performers. My guess is that they currently fall well short of meeting Dmitry's criteria, but that they possess many of the skills and attitudes necessary to form a community that might abide in the difficult times to come.

latheChuck said...

Along with rules for punishing those who violate the norms of the community (e.g., scorn, gossip, shunning), there needs to be a process for re-entry into the life of the community. Without penance and forgiveness, simple misunderstandings become conflict which can lead to ejection and/or rejection. When the only non-violent means of enforcing discipline is social isolation, the bridge to re-integration is cut off.

MoonShadow said...

I think I'd rather die than commit to such a community as has been described here. I'm much more suited for a Quidnon.

Rob Rhodes said...

You mentioned in passing 'taking the pledge." Have you found that a formal initiation of youths/young adults is useful, perhaps following a period of mentoring, challenges and testing? It seems to have been commonplace among preindustrial and especially preagricultural communities.

kem.erd said...

Hi Dmitry,

I see a little trouble with your community idea, which is that historically personality traits and the cognitive differences makes some people stand out naturally as the leaders of the community and make decisions and take actions on their behalf. In fact, the tone of your rule book also sets an air of authority which tacitly acknowledges this fact and absolutely exemplifies how a community leader would behave. Some of rules also seems to be written to mitigate problems related to weak minded members of the community.

In this respect, and until we are fairly confident that all the members of the community have a sound state of mind and intelligence, I don't believe direct democracy as you illustrate here would be possible, even for a small community of 150 people.

Dmitry Orlov said...

Cottage Crone -

A traveling fair is not a community but it can provide the social context for a nomadic community or communities. If you probe further, you'll probably find that there is a constellation of small groups resembling extended families, with distinct boundaries between groups in terms of what they will or will not share. Nomadism is an advanced way of being, and requires a much higher level of (fluid, flexible) organization and (portable) technology than settled living, and nomads generally do well in disrupted circumstances, in which settled communities fall apart. Being a nomad is good training for what's coming, and the children brought up in such an environment are likely to do better than the rest.

LatheChuck -

Most communities that have stood the test of time have developed their own internal forms of jurisprudence, with only the most heinous (and very rare) crimes being opened up to outside authorities to arbitrate. Internal discipline and cohesion are commonly maintained not through punishment but through the THREAT of loss of status, dishonor, shunning or expulsion.

MoonShadow -

If you can afford a whole Quidnon to yourself, that's great, but you'll still probably need crew. Nobody wants to be stuck alone on a 24/7 watch. And on a boat that's designed to comfortably house 12 people (3 individuals or couples with complete privacy) not including children in pilot berths and livestock tethered to the mast on deck, going it alone isn't going to be necessary.

Rob Rhodes -

Rites of passage are universal and every community I can think of has them. In society, they are often rather superficial: graduation ceremonies and so on. In the communities that abide they are very serious. For the Anabaptists, it is adult baptism; for the Roma, it's marriage. They signal that the boy or girl is now a man or a woman, with all the rights and responsibilities that pertain to that title.

kem.erd -

I communities that are directly democratic and govern through deliberation and consensus there is no concept of one person-one vote. Different members have different weights within the community. For any given initiative, task or project, some members' agreement is a must-have, others go along willy-nilly, a few more don't even understand what the question was, never mind come up with an answer. Children, idiots and livestock aren't consulted. Taking care of others often involves doing their thinking for them.

Isabella said...

"the founding members surrender all of their private property, making it communal,"

This is a bit vague. Does it include me surrendering my wedding ring? Engagement ring? Heirlooms and gifts from my kids? Things I've had for years? I have an ornament, probably worth about $2000 now. It was my grandmothers, and I cherish it. Would I have to "surrender" that?
It's all a bit prescriptive sounding Dmitry - and that's why they dont work. Things work if you follow the laws of the Universe, as outlined from Chaos Theory. These are
[a] that all complex entities will group based on the attraction of like / similar for like / similar. Thing is, the highest value on which we seek "like" is different among us. People have to find their own.
[b] the situation is maintained by the free running of feed back loops both positive and negative. These take a little time to establish, and you have to let them establish themselves. They are organic, in that they are caused without direct intent by the group inter-activeness.
Your rules seem to be a bit inhibitory to these things. The thing is, if you allow like to like groupings and let the feedback loops deal with change - which is a constant in order to maintain a fixed point as Heraclitus pointed out - they may want to run against your "rules".
You're trying to recreate the disaster that was Yellowstone National Park I think. Enforcing rules on a complex interactive community. In the end they did what they should have done long ago. Apart from re-introducing the wolves they had exterminated, they then just left everything alone. The wolves harassing the elk drove them away from the river valleys where they had been bark stripped the aspen causing die off which had led to build up of detritus in the rivers, slowing of rivers, increase of scum and loss of oxygen. This led to severe drop in fish, loss of beavers, and small rodents, losing the eagles and kites. By getting the elk to move away from the river valleys to avoid the wolves [who followed them] the trees grew back, the waters started to clean up, the fish stocks rose, the beavers came back, the rivers ran fast and clear and even overflowed to water the land around and change rock formations. The rodents grew back and the birds of prey returned.
You have to do the same with people. You can provide maybe land, with the availability of houses. After that you have to let things take their course.
If you note in Russia, the land release in the Far East only stipulates that it must be put to some sort of use, and cannot be sold off. Nothing else. The wily Russian government will then let people sort themselves out, which I think they now know is the only way that works.
I congratulate those making the effort though. I think it's the way of the future - and the only way that will work. AS long as you let things go their own way under Law of malum in se.

Unknown said...

Is anyone familiar with an Anabaptist group named the Bruderhof? It has members both within the US(mainly in New York State) and abroad, was allied/in communion with the Hutterites(which is one of the communities profiled in the book, isn't it?) and seem to keep many, if not all, of these commandments.

Having visited a few of their locations in the Hudson Valley region, I'd like to know what fellow readers' opinions are of them, especially those of you who have worked with/lived amongst them.

Also, while on the subject, do any of you have advice about how to square one's anarchist/non-hieararchical values with the more authoritarian/hierarchical kind held by a group like the Bruderhof? For example, what's one who believes in (or has affinity for) the teachings of a religious anarchist like Count Leo Tolstoy or a secular one like Prince Peter Kropotkin to do when presented with all the many benefits that come with membership in an authoritarian group?
Feel free to share names and/or addresses of any viable, going anarchist concerns that want young, single(though desiring marriage), unskilled men.

Francisco Ortiz said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Francisco Ortiz said...

Dear Dmitry.

I would surely buy a book from you that describes the system of lending books from Russia that you described a while ago that uses boats (I don't remember when, and where. <--Please correct me if I'm wrong).

Meanwhile, Could you gave us another freebie about that? :P

Thank you very much,