Why is Community So Hard?

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In a recent article, I discussed one of the great challenges of creating model communities that might, when our civilization collapses later in this century, show the survivors a better way to live and make a living than the fragile, hostile, globalized, centralized, dependent, anonymous, suspicious urban and ex-urban agglomerations most of us live in now.

That challenge was and is the cult of individualism – the bizarre worldview that holds that we have a ‘right’ to acquire, possess, ‘enjoy’ and refuse to others, anything (and, if we were to be honest, anyone) we can ‘afford’ (no matter how our money was acquired), including as much property as we choose, and that we have a responsibility to and for no one except ourselves and our immediate families. The corollary of this cult worldview is that we have a ‘right’ to secure that property with guns and fences and locks, and that those who have no money or property have only themselves to blame and, in a sense, deserve to suffer illness, poverty, hunger and an early death..

The cult of individualism is likewise the cult of materialism and consumerism – our ‘value’ is a function of what we own and how much we consume.

As my friend Nelda Martinez pointed out, this pervasive and now-global worldview is the antithesis of communitarianism, and poisons every effort to make community work, because as soon as the desires or needs of the individual and those of the community are at odds, the individual always wins – s/he walks away from community, or refuses to accept its authority and the commensurate responsibility that every member of a real community must embrace. The idea that everything belongs to the community (or beyond that, that it belongs to no one and that community belongs to the land) is anathema to the cult worldview, totally irreconcilable with it. The idea that authority resides in the collective, achieved by consensus and continuously re-earned, rather than being bought by money or achieved by wielding political power coercively, is likewise unthinkable. The idea that we are individually and collectively responsible for the well-being of all life in our community and through it for all-life-on-Earth, now and for generations to come, is unfathomable.

It is hard to imagine how we could make the transition back from this only-life-we-know cult worldview to a communitarian worldview, but as Nelda explains that is precisely what we must do if we are to hope to find a sustainable alternative way to live and make a living.

In a comment on my initial post, another reader, Sue Greer-Pitt, points out that there is another major challenge to making community work in our modern civilization. That is our inherent desire to find and make a life with people like ourselves, rather than with the people who happen to be our immediate neighbours. As Sue puts it, “Community has always been about finding others like ourselves and imposing conformity. “ Our modern geographic transience, she says, can be ascribed to the fact that this “exclusive” conformity and closed-ness of homogeneous communities left most of us, in a world with an ever-exploding population, out in the cold, driven to the anonymous cities in search of those who would accept us, seeking with other “ex-communicated” people others who share our worldview with whom we can make our own exclusive community.

It’s hard to accept that this intolerance of difference and diversity, this xenophobia, with its undercurrent of racism and every other –ism, is truly the inherent nature of our species. When we were a steady-state species in a world of abundance without growth, this constant dynamic of separation and reconnection was sustainable (if disruptive). In the pre-industrial world where you could expect to meet perhaps a few hundred people in your whole life, your choices of who to live with were few, and you either settled for those you knew who you liked best, or opted for a solitary life, essentially self-selecting yourself out of the gene pool.

But when you can expect to meet and choose from among perhaps tens of thousands, even millions of people, and when at the same time the world has run out of space for new pioneer communities, and has become so monstrously overpopulated and crowded with humans that our world of abundance has become a world of previously unimaginable scarcity, competition and suffering, you have the makings of a total societal breakdown. Too much choice, too much unrealistic, impossible expectation, too much friction between heterogeneous neighbourhoods barely concealing their fear of and loathing for each other.

It would be magical thinking to believe we are going to solve the horrific problem of overpopulation and exhaustion of our resources and our natural world, or that we are going to suddenly change, on a large scale, millions of years of evolved human nature. So what can we do? How can we create viable model communities that really work, in the face of the double dilemma of the pervasive cult of individualism and our inherent and insatiable longing for homogeneity, to be comfortable with others ‘like us’, who we can work with and play with in activities that we share a love of, and share ideas with sympathetically, and just love without fear or restraint?

My friend Joe Bageant’s son says that “Community is born of necessity”. His answer to this question is that we will create workable, sustainable communitarian models when we have no other choice, when the only life we know has ceased to be.

While I think this is true, I wonder whether there are enough of us now who see the necessity of putting aside our idealism, recognizing and overcoming our individualism and desire for homogeneity, and creating what my brother calls Gravitational Communities – groups of people who have enough of a common worldview, and enough self-knowledge and self-esteem, to do the hard, post-modern pioneering work of creating model communities that really work, to show others what is possible, or at least what will be when there is no alternative.

How would we go about finding people altruistic and self-aware enough (and not too busy dealing with the all-consuming needs of the moment in industrial society) to create such model communities ‘gravitationally’? And if we found them, how would we go about creating, consensually, collaboratively, collectively, models that will serve as a beacon for others, and as perhaps the only useful legacy of civilization culture for the survivors of its collapse?

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16 Responses to Why is Community So Hard?

  1. I agree that selfishness is a problem, and I see a lot of it where I live. But it’s meaningless to ask whether or not a person is altruistic if she has nothing to be altruistic with. In a collectivist society, the resources aren’t hers to allocate, and the choice isn’t hers to make.

    I think a much better model for co-operation is found in online gift economies, because they represent purely voluntary exchanges. The open-source movement in particular is breathtaking sometimes, especially projects like Dreamwidth and Ubuntu.

    Maybe this is the reason so many gather online, instead of at home. The people “at home” want to make them be part of a collective, of one kind or another, whereas online they are seen as the individuals that they are.

  2. I also think that there’s a bit of cognitive dissonance between talking about valuing people and talking about overpopulation. I agree that when they’re supporting themselves unsustainably, though, that large populations of human beings are pretty bad for the environment.

  3. Willem says:

    If I may, I’d like to suggest you’ve written about the false choice that seems prevalent amongst modern communitarian efforts; and in some sense, “modern” can mean the last several thousand years of civilized efforts to break away from the insanity of empire and try something different.

    The false choice: the community vs. the individual.

    As Daniel Quinn once put so very well in Beyond Civilization, “communes” are that hot new idea invented by those men wearing the powdered wigs. And those same men have been saying to individuals, “do it/sacrifice it/be better for the sake of the community” since the beginning.

    Indigenous communities work precisely because they’ve found a way, from a systems level (i.e. a cultural level), to balance community needs with individual needs.

    Social technologies like Open Space Gatherings, Non-Violent Communication, Agile Teamwork (a software development team methodology, but I’ve applied it over and over outside the IT world), allow us to explore how individuals staying strong and clear about what they need actually powers the community’s efforts to survive.

    I not only don’t believe, but no longer experience, the rationale behind the line that communities don’t work because individuals don’t work. To me, that stays at the level at which we created the problem.

    We need to zoom high, and solve it from a higher level. We have to create culture and interaction so rich and affirming that no individual can live without it, once they’ve tasted it.

    I’m implementing this in my own life; but I think a thousand ways to do this exist, and I don’t offer mine as the only example. We just have to start thinking truly systemically about interaction.

    That’s the innovation behind the “Where Are Your Keys?” language learning game; we don’t ask students and teachers to work harder, or become better. We change the rules of the exchange, from the beginning. And we have seen amazing results. And I’ve been applying this kind of thinking in every area of my life that I can.

  4. prad says:

    great write-up dave.

    i don’t think individualism needs to be antagonistic towards communitarianism, but unfortunately it often appears to be. that is because it really selfishness and irresponsibility masquerading under the noble guise of individualism.

    people like schweitzer and steiner were great individualists, but they applied the quality in proper context.

  5. Randall Ross says:

    Re: Comment #1. Jared mentions a project that is very familiar to me: Ubuntu . Dave and readers, you needn’t look farther than your city neighbour (Vancouver BC) for an example of a gravitational community in progress. Ubuntu and other net-related projects are usually viewed as online communities. We’re changing that; at least in one city. People very passionate about Ubuntu and its ethos meet regularly in person in Vancouver to contribute to the project and to associate (and align) with others that care. So far, it’s working.

    Having said that, I will concur that establishing community is difficult. Sure, we’ve simplified the problem by focusing on a single domain (access to information resources) but we often see the same symptoms you so eloquently describe. The “cult of individualism” maps so tightly to the computer industry that most people are simply not willing to change (or even to consider) what happens when their computer boots. It’s incredible.

    Thanks as always for the excellent post.

    (Ubuntu Vancouver Buzz Generator).

  6. David says:

    Willem says: “We have to create culture and interaction so rich and affirming that no individual can live without it, once they’ve tasted it.”

    That sounds right. What will get people out of their houses and into a room full of strangers? What will make them start to see that they have unique gifts that others need? And how can we do this with minimal top-down effort, in ways that catalyze the self-organization of community? (Because only a self-creating and -recreating system is going to evolve and persist.)

    Interesting times we live in: have any other people in history had to wonder how to revive the things that should come naturally?

  7. Alan Post says:

    I was having a conversation with one of my communitarians this weekend in which I had something of a realization. We both work together to make our farm successful, and we both have work outside the farm we need to do. In his case, he is launching an entrepreneurial career and has a certain amount of effort he needs to expend to make it happen. He’s responsible for meeting his unique, individual needs, and he is doing that by pursuing his own career. There isn’t much help I can render in that pursuit, but he and I can help each other with those goals and needs that overlap: farming, food, and shelter.

    The more of our needs that overlap with each other, the better all of us will be at meeting that need, but at some point we each have personal responsibility for being of use. My friend’s unique needs leaves him the only person that can meet them, and there isn’t much we as a community can do to help. We’ll still be growing food together, but his needs leave him working on them alone.

  8. JayD says:

    Well, that was another helpful post and comments! I think one of the main steps to “solution” to the dilemmas that this crucial topic and forum spotlight is to co-create much more “organic community”. As in, say, grow it as much like a permaculture garden as possible. (I know Dave groks how that model applies beyond the level of “land”, and yes to the comment calling for doing it “systemically”!) Start stuff that is truly, DIRECTLY democratic in deeply including others, in such a way so neither the “joiner”/”follower” types or the “founder”/”boss” types (overt as such or covertly concealed in egalitarian concerns) are overly empowered to remain so, OR alienated and turn away. Those who “fit” and those who don’t simply freely opt in or out. I know, no big news, a no-brainer and nice concept “on paper”, but how to actually make it happen?! I have some ideas, but more importantly than any ONE coming up with “the solution” for others to follow or start their own self-absorbent version of, “we” (whoever that turns out to be) could start SOMEthing compelling and basic that feels minimally like “power over”…Which of course means maximally “power with” each other. This is tough to do within the confines of one person’s blog or self-founded IC or pretty much any other project if the playing field is essentially the same old centralized pinball game that observers may gather around or even take their turns at playing. (Thinking of the “enterprise” models which habituated humans create within their old comfort zones…”Tilt!”)

    This is NOT to say that Dave’s fine weblog is at all at fault, clearly it and others have their profound place as key fulcrum points and catalysts, etc….rather it’s ALSO to say that we (whoever is up for the challenge and i’m claiming that i for one am) need to additionally come up something(s) more truly shared as outgrowths of the more familiar and less “risky”. And the way to get that snowball rolling down the hill before the mountain melts would seem to be to first start to identify who’s interested and skilled at co-founding such entities as (an) open (source?) core group(s). One or a very few persons could mostly set it up initially, and i for one have been thinking, more than anything i’ve been thinking about, how best to do so, but the framework would have to be something others can enter and quickly feel like co-“owners” of, fully consulted on strategy, etc. Not just “yet another” anything.

    So, for those who are truly serious about all this, who’ve been productively preparing for it and embody the requisite sense of urgency, some face-to-face gathering around these not-yet-grounded concepts and questions would therefore seem to be an important goal for ASAP, no? Which is why my comment of a couple weeks ago sounded excited about a possible meetup…say, if Dave’s indeed heading to crazy California soon. Anyone have thoughts or other resources nearing readiness to be pulled into collaborative practice around this sort of stuff?

  9. Chaitanya says:

    The nature of relationship between the individual self and the larger whole is explored in great detail in Yoga and Buddhist philosophy. In fact, the root of the word “yoga” means to “Join together” (the individual and larger whole). Buddha named “Anatta” (not-self) as one of the fundamental characteristics of existence.

    May i offer a relevant quote ?:

    “The acceptance of the law of sacrifice is a practical recognition by the ego that it is neither alone in the world nor chief in the world. It is its admission that, even in this much fragmented existence, there is beyond itself and behind that which is not its own egoistic person, something greater and completer, a diviner All which demands from it subordination and service. Indeed, sacrifice is imposed and, where need be, compelled by the universal World-Force; it takes it even from those who do not consciously recognize the law, — inevitably, because this is the intrinsic nature of things. Our ignorance or our false egoistic view of life can make no difference to this eternal bedrock truth of Nature. For this is the truth in Nature, that this ego which thinks itself a seperate independent being and claims to live for itself, is not and cannot be independent nor separate, nor can it live to itself even if it would, but rather all are linked together by a secret Oneness. Each existence is continually giving out perforce from its stock; out of its mental receipts from Nature or its vital and physical assets and acquisitions and belongings, a stream goes to all that is around it. And always again it receives something from its environment gratis or in return for its voluntary or involuntary tribute. For it is only by this giving and receiving that it can effect its own growth while at the same time it helps the sum of things”. — Sri Aurobindo in “Synthesis of Yoga”.

  10. Andrew says:

    Nice to be back here. Right now I’m caught between rather grand schemes of having a big answer and little stuff that I’m actually doing locally to build community, and posting on a local blog. I think the key is doing it where you live. And I think a big change is needed . . . maybe it’ll come about with millions of local.

  11. Steve says:

    The question of how individualism is a barrier to creating the communities needed to address the challenges of transitioning away from industrial capitalism is interesting. In fact corporate developers have been putting their minds to this one a long time: how to ensure corporate culture develops to be able to meet the challenges faced by the company in a changing competitive and technical environment. I like to think of it as CULTURE, the sum of behaviours of the people and infrastructure of a society. To survive, you develop an appropriate culture. One way Peter Senge works with culture change is to bring to the surface paradigms, values ideas etc that staff have about the best way to solve their tasks. The next step is to ask how appropriate they are for the situation they are facing. The next step is to find more appropriate ways.

    But.. old habits die hard. We recently made changes in our household and I took over the family’s laundry. I have done it many times now, but it still doesn’t feel entirely like I have mastered it as a smooth weekly task. Benjamin Franklin said something about how many times you have to do something before it became a good habit.

    So our challenge with individualism is to take a look at it, its ideas, deep seated beliefs, contrast it with the task in hand and the situation and having worked out if it is appropriate work to find somethign new. And then do the new things many times until we can work it effortlessly.

    We are at a point in the time of man that there is little clarity about the task in hand, the situation, and even what are deep rooted beliefs are. It’s going to take time but it is going to be amazing. Somewhere, deep inside us all is the ability to survive in this world with very very little. We have ingenuity, communication, each other, and more. Whatever it takes we need to develop a culture that can handle energy descent.

  12. Dave says:

    Honestly Dave, I remember the idealism of my youth and experiments with communal living where we were like minded and trying to find communitarian solutions in the late sixties, early seventies. The problem we always ran up against was much more primitive and viral in my memory. It was aggression. We always ran into situations where a few members in the community began to display aggressive symptoms that expanded outward and eventually defeated the whole community. Aggression always seemed to manifest in one or two and often in three ways.

    One was aggressive dominant behavior (tricking, grabbing, bullying, intimidating). Two was aggressive passive behavior (the refusal to participate and share through mutually agreed commitments without reason). And three was the internalizing of aggression that manifests as paranoia (complaining and baiting with thoughts, rumors, and whisperings that increase divisive competitions).

    I suppose all of these behaviors could be labelled as reaching back toward learned individualistic patterns. But the raw root, it always seemed to me, was our inability as a community to redirect and defuse aggressive behaviors whenever, wherever, and however they inevitably manifested, often from many different directions at once.

  13. Survival Acres says:

    The last comments on aggression are most interesting. In tribal cultures, aggression could be directed against external entities (other tribes), and found purpose, meaning, even acceptance and need.

    Aggression also serves as natural selection by the way, so this may be deeply embedded in our DNA.

    Groups that come together from different walks of life do not have the necessary ‘outlets’ for aggressive behavior. If they did, the cohesiveness of the tribe might be better maintained (and the realization that aggression was not really a ‘fault’).

    Modern society attempts to defeat the natural selection of our primary makeup and million year history. Considering the recent developments of concepts like democracy, justice, fairness, equity, equality, we ourselves have not yet adapted to these developments. As a side issue, they are all supported by, and exist because of ‘abundance’. They all go away, rather quickly, when depletion sets in, and then we seem to ‘revert’ to something that we always were.

    I do not know yet if this is a characteristic of who we really are, or just another maladjustment due to improper cultural conditions, I only know that it does (often) happen.

    But perhaps more importantly then this is how maladjusted we are for modern society in general, which we then overlay the concepts of ‘community’ onto. Neither is a good ‘fit’, and anyone that has tried on two pairs of ill-fitting pants knows, especially if you are trying to wear them both at the same time!

    What if it actually takes a generation or two of ‘adjustments’ to actually relearn how to work and survive together in true community? And only those that could actually properly adapt were born and raised in it? Not because the individual(s) needs such time, but because the community generation itself needs that length of time to adjust its own expectations (and needs)?

    I think what I’m trying to say is what we want from community is overlaid by our own experiences, which all come from the modern world and our upbringing, which is generally very poorly adapted for community living, having little to no real experience, which also makes our expectations difficult to accurately define (or live up to).

    It is also largely misguided in many ways; what we think we want and need community for is going to be radically different in 10, 20, 40 years from today. We are “free” to experiment (and walk away), to take from society what we need, rather then make it ourselves (or do without), to reach out and get help or money or materials or even friends to talk to.

    After many failures (22 no less) I learned a couple of pointers; the lack of local connections created a ‘vacuum’ for the members which led to their eventual departure. They were also almost all entirely reliant upon the local economy and the modern notions of ‘income’ (anathema to a real community in my opinion). I failed to realize that the above issue of aggression was also there too, but it most certainly was. I called this the ‘too-many-chiefs-for-the-tribe’ syndrome, but I suppose it was the same thing.

    I’ve given up on the idea of ‘forming’ anything from people from afar, as I see this as really unrealistic and unworkable. This lead exactly to the place Dave and Sue wrote about, the anonymous search for acceptance and imposed conformity.

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  15. This is an idea or a dream in which people come together for a common purpose and work together to build a better society. It is very complicated and involves safety, shelter, water, and food. The basic human needs. New cities are going to be built that the will change history of the World.

    The cities will almost be like cites of today but have no roads and no motor vehicle traffic. The cities will be built to accommodate large and small families. All houses would be built space and energy efficient and may be built as many stories tall as desired. The vehicles that will move the people around the city are called Hun Pods and they will use the same principles as the magnetically powered trains by the Sandia National Laboratories. They would also be on a circuit connected to the computerized grid layout of the city so they would not collide in to each other, be able to move in the fastest way possible from point A to point B, and be able to be controlled at any time. They would be built under ground to not take up viable plant life growing room and to not interfere with pedestrians or bicycle traffic.

    Also along the underground tracks of the Hun Pods, electricity, water, waste water, and trash could transported to their respective places. Access points where the vehicles submerge from the sub train would be built where garages and driveways and parking spaces of today are. They will be surrounded by a small fence or building so pedestrians don’t wonder into these access points. Every where that roads would be built in a traditional city on the top of the ground crops of plants would be grown, animals raised, and trails for humans to walk and bicycle. Since no roads are in the city fire hydrants and hoses will be placed everywhere necessary in the city to protect the whole city from fire and be used to water the vegetation. Motorized vehicles will rather have to be sold or stored outside the city.

    The objectives of the idea is to create a city that is self sufficient and self contained by food distribution, public transportation, electricity, water distribution, waste management, and security. Main electricity will be attained by placing solar panels and windmills everywhere possible in the city which is used to power the city and sell excess to outside the city. Waste, Sewer, Water Purification, and Recycling and disposal centers will need to be built as soon as possible. There will be a 30 ft. fence surrounding the city to protect from attack and trafficking of illegal contraband. At certain sections of fence there would be a port where goods from outside the city would be dropped off by semi trucks or trains. They would be downloaded inspected and distributed thru the underground tracks. The fence will have monitored and controlled gates for admittance to the city. There will be an office building with large dirt parking lot in front of it. Potential residents would drive or be dropped off and apply for housing and employment inside the city or provide documentation of outside employment. Accommodations will be made for retired and disabled people. Residence entry points would be designed where each person would have to use there own badge to enter. No more than one person could enter with one badge. Visitors must get visitor badges at the office. All residents must have background checks before becoming a resident and if offences committed must take classes that correspond with the crime to “learn from their mistakes” and then be allowed in the city if current employment and current higher education enrolment had. Residence entry points will make it so that everyone in the city to have to use identification cards that will have a picture and other relevant information on it, a GPS device for tracking, and a microchip that grants access to the city, activates the Hun Pods, and will be the key to your house. It will also correspond to your finger print so that only you can use your badge. It makes cities have less crime being able to control everything that goes in and out of the city. Everyone has safety, shelter, clothing, food, and water.

    The fence surrounding the city will be on both sides of and lie parallel to the circular tracks of the above ground magnetic train that will be connected to the underground Hun Pod Tracks. This would make safe expansion possible and easy. Just build a track, connect to the initial system, load the train, make the fence, remove dirt for the laying of the Hun Pod circuit layout, lay the under ground tracks, encase the tracks, cover with dirt, ,make the access ports, build the houses, build the business district, and any other things required for the city. For expansion for today’s existing cities, vehicles, residents, weapons and other possessions needed have to be removed during remodel. Fences and outer above ground train would be lain, roads would be dug up, tracks laid, encased under the ground, access points made everywhere necessary, and plants planted, solar panels and windmills placed where the roads used to be. I suggest that the business district should be composed of a Wal-Mart, Subway, and McDonalds at least. Clothing, furniture, home improvement store, and any other company that wants to provide goods for the city also could be built. Universities and lower grade schools should also be built, and High school diploma mandatory for everyone and assistance for learning mandatory. Education is the key to the world and ignorance is the destruction. The Police department in the city weapons would be locked up and officers would only carry a stun gun, pepper spray, and handcuffs. The people in the safe cities could leave them freely but would have trouble getting back in the city if they lost their ID badge and would have to go to the office. A lost fee would be charged to make a duplicate if unable to locate and fingerprints required for verification. The vehicles left outside the city will be monitored all times and recommended to the owners to be sold. Also there will be 360 degrees surveillance of the whole city with gun torrents attached to each individual camera to protect it from possible terorist. I believe that this is not only a dream, but imagination, hope, idea, and one day reality.

    Will we all be transported by Hun Pods, live in a nice house, have food and water, have employment, have higher education available, live peacefully, have freedom, and protection? Everyone deserves heaven on earth.

    I know my idea is somewhat crazy and may have many flaws but it is a start. I would like to find a way to begin this project. Or at least to colaborate it with other people to perfect it. I wrote it about a year ago so it needs updated to reflect my new knowledge and experiences. As with everything it would need money to buy the land and materials to build this city.

  16. DT says:

    Join the Revolution – There is a better way to bring about fundamental change.

     Read “Common Sense 3.1” at ( http://revolution2.osixs.org )

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