|We’re starting to discover that the only effective way to make the world better is from the bottom up — by creating or evolving self-sufficient communities. As we saw in New Orleans, and as we see with failed states and failed cities everywhere, top-down political and economic solutions don’t work; when they change anything at all, they seem to make matters worse.
But creating community is not easy. In Creating a Life Together Diana Leafe Christian describes some of the challenges of intentional communities — finding members, creating honest consensus, resolving disputes, finding the right place to live, keeping it sustainable. This is tough work, and most intentional communities that do work are, well, rather pathetically small. It almost seems as if, as soon as you put more than a certain number of people into one interdependent group, you need hierarchy to keep things in order. Why might this be?
In gatherer-hunter communities, there was lots of space for community members to get away from each other temporarily, and lots of space between communities. Evidence suggests that such communities or clans consisted of about 150 individuals (depending on the ecosystem) which operated via a ‘fission/fusion’ social system, where the group continually split up into smaller, constantly changing (likely to vary and optimize individual learning) ‘foraging parties’ or bands of 30-50, and then re-formed as a cohesive group. The theory is that 150 is the maximum number of individuals you can get to know well enough for meaningful social interaction, and beyond that the group starts to splinter into a more self-manageable size.
Tribes consisted in turn of several clans, and comprised 1000-2000 individuals. Bands were the optimal size for short-term collective action, clans for mutual knowledge and learning, and tribes for buffering (to optimize inter-tribal physical and cultural diversity and to minimize inter-tribal conflict, both Darwinian advantages). Interestingly, early villages and early professional armies were usually the same size as gatherer-hunter clans, and military platoons the same size as gatherer-hunter bands. The clan defined the boundaries of both collective intellectual (recognition and distinction) and physical (mutual grooming and love) behaviour.
Today we find ourselves born into societies that have no band, clan, or tribal cohesion. Instead, at the micro-level, we have substituted the nuclear family, much smaller than a band and too small to comprise a self-sufficient functional unit. And at the macro-level, we have substituted the state and corporation, hierarchical and multi-tiered constructs much larger than a tribe, and too large to function as an integral unit.
One could cynically surmise that the nuclear family was devised deliberately to be inadequate for self-sufficiency, so families were dependent on and non-threatening to the inherently dysfunctional corporation/state. One could also cynically surmise that the corporation/state is a purely cultural construct designed to organize, suppress and keep individuals from seeking more natural and effective forms of organization, by presenting them with a simple, monolithic pyramid scheme and promising them the moon and stars (fame, fortune, sex, salvation, happiness) if they dedicated their lives to climbing the pyramid.
It has been suggested, for example, that the Great Wall of China was built not to keep Mongol Hordes out, but rather to keep stooped and malnourished rice-paddy slave-families from fleeing back to the more natural life and tribal social organization of Mongolia. Once you mess with the natural band/clan/tribe cohesion, it seems, you need a brutal, hierarchical, inherently undemocratic political and economic machine to keep individuals divided and in line.
The history of our civilization has been largely one of pioneers fleeing the ghastly tyranny of the hierarchical corporation/state, slaughtering gatherer-hunter societies in the ‘unincorporated’ lands they fled to, and then, as their numbers grew, replicating the hierarchical corporation/state themselves, and then constantly warring with other corporation/states. Now we have run out of places to flee to, and, thanks to immigration laws, we do not even have a choice of which hierarchical corporation/state to ‘belong’ to. Our resultant anger, frustration and impotence is acted out with distressing frequency in both family violence and corporation/state violence.
So much for the dismal history. Let’s turn to the present and the future. Theoretically, the modern equivalent of the band should be what I have called the Natural Enterprise, a non-hierarchical partnership of around 30-50 people working towards a mutual goal of providing a living for themselves. Not all that different from the hunting bands going out to round up grub for the rest of the clan, is it?
And, theoretically, the modern equivalent of the clan should be the Intentional Community, a cohesive group of about 150 people comprising several bands, who love each other (you can’t spend 15-20% of your life physically grooming people you don’t love) and live together, their society cemented by rites and shared principles.
But most entrepreneurial businesses strive (either for ego reasons, or because their flawed organizational structure requires them to) to grow far beyond band size, without limit. And most intentional communities fail to sustain membership of much more than a dozen, far below clan size. Why might this be? Have the instinctive social dynamics that governed us for three million years been forgotten, or do they no longer apply? After three million years of making a living with 30-50 cohorts and living with and loving 150, why are humans suddenly so incapable of making a living in a small group and loving a large one?
Maybe it’s a lack of practice. Working in groups of 30-50 and living and loving in groups of 150 may be instinctive, but we lose our instincts if we don’t practice them.
Maybe it’s because we’re brainwashed, culturally conditioned by peers and media who say small business can’t compete until and unless it gets big, and by religions and politicians who say it’s wrong to physically love more than your family and wrong not to intellectually love your state.
Maybe it’s because civilization is now the only life we know, and like Lucky the dog, we keep returning to an abusive and unnatural way of life because we can’t imagine anything better.
Or maybe it’s because there is no longer space and time for pioneers to rediscover our natural social ways, and hence there are no natural models for others to emulate. Even modern gatherer-hunter cultures, now so astonishingly different from our monolithic culture that we can’t conceive of ourselves living that way, are so compromised by civilization’s encroachment on their land and depletion of their resources that their culture has been altered and pushed to the edge of extinction. There are no natural models left. There is no ‘unincorporated’ land left, clean, undeveloped land with good soils that pioneers can move to and take the time to evolve intentional communities in. In our ubiquitous globalized civilization, we must live every day with the fear of not having enough, so there is no time to imagine a better way to live.
I’ve read everything I can get my hands on on intentional communities, and what strikes me most is that their failure, just like the failure of so many new-age business models, is a failure of imagination. The intentions are good. They invest a lot of time and energy in research, and in trying to make it work. But when they run into difficulties, they keep falling back on ‘conventional wisdom’: we need a council, and committees, and voting and non-voting shares, and strategic plans, and legal agreements, and to borrow lots of money; we need to work harder, and to wait until conditions are exactly right. I appreciate that creating a new community is scary, but the social, political and economic failings of the old system are exactly what got us into this mess, and incorporating them into the new models is just asking for the same terrible results.
Perhaps what is needed to overcome this failure of imagination and the resultant relapses into old-model orthodoxy, are some guiding principles for the new models. These might include:
Not easy. But isn’t this worth striving for, more than anything else? Or am I just a hopeless idealist?
Because of the ubiquity of civilization and its oppressive rules and restrictions, the new model will need a sponsor, someone to run interference for us, deal with The Man so we don’t have to. A George Soros type, perhaps, who will, no strings attached, donate the land and buffer the members from the politicians and the lawyers and everyone else who will be threatened out of their skin by this new model.
Suppose we succeed. Suppose this new model community of 150 people proves to be sustainable, perhaps even without the ongoing need for a sponsor to buffer us from the fear and loathing (and envy) of civilized humans. Suppose the natural enterprises of this community allow the community members to be completely self-sufficient, independent of the rest of the world, trading only its surpluses to the outside world in return for occasional luxuries for its members. Suppose the love and joy among members of this community are so startling, so awe-inspiring that it causes the students studying the community, and the film crews telling its story, and then the people watching the story, to long for a similar life, to realize there is a better way to live. Then what?
Even if it were replicable, even if there were enough sponsors to bootstrap many more communities to follow this model, I think it unlikely that it would replace our civilization culture. We are not all pioneers, and many of us who aspire to be have acquired too much of the baggage of civilization to ever be able to live a natural life. To the extent that the copies of the model community compromised its principles, they would fail. And there is not enough land to accommodate more than a tiny fraction of today’s human population in such an extravagant, natural manner.
So why do it? Three reasons:
I like the ‘how to build community’ bookmark reproduced in the illustration above. It certainly can’t hurt to do these things. But I don’t believe there is any chance that we can bring about sustained change within existing communities, even if to some extent these activities are paid forward for awhile. Things are the way they are for a reason, and that reason has a billion tons and thirty millennia of inertia. It makes more sense, I think, to walk away from that inertia and to try to build something new.
That’s all I’ve got. As you’ve probably guessed, I’m trying to think my way out of the inertia of my own life. I keep hoping that an opportunity to do something this important will fall in my lap. Not likely to happen. Courage, as I keep saying, is doing what you have to do. Sooner or later, I have to do something.
Image: By Karen Kerney for Syracuse Cultural Workers
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