Bill Totten's Weblog

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Real Communities are Self-Organizing

by Dmitry Orlov (January 18 2010)

John Michael Greer, Sharon Astyk and Rob Hopkins have made some interesting points on the topic of community, and I wish to join the fray. In all of my experience, communities - of people and animals - form instantaneously and rather effortlessly, based on a commonality of interests and needs. What takes a lot of work is not organizing communities, but preventing them from organizing - through the use of truncheons and tear gas, or evictions and mass imprisonment, or, more recently, more subtle and ultimately more successful techniques of the consumerist political economy.

Greer wonders why people don't put more work into organizing communities; after all, this is what has worked in America in the past and how a representative democracy is supposed to function. All it should take is hard work, so why don't we hop to it? To me, this smacks of the fallacy of misplaced concreteness - roughly speaking, that just because different objects at different times carry the same label ("America"), they are somehow the same object. How representative a democracy the US ever was is rather beside the point; the point is, it was once a country where people could successfully and openly self-organize, and now it isn't. Once there were strong, cohesive communities in the US, which could organize and bring pressure to bear on their elected officials. And now, as described in Robert Putnam's widely discussed book Bowling Alone (2000), there are no such strong, cohesive communities in the US, and so ... they can't organize, because, I would think, there is nothing for them to organize. Existence of communities allows communities to organize; lack of community prevents communities from organizing. That's a bit of a tautology, is it not?

As an aside, I'd like to point out that the US is not much of a representative democracy any more. It's more of a hokey-pokey-ocracy: in one election cycle, you throw your right bums out and vote your left bums in, and in the next election cycle, or the one after, you do the exact opposite. (And you shake it all around in the meantime.) The bums - the Republicans and the Democrats, that is - are perpetually locked in a loving embrace, for they truly complete each other. The Democrats tend to believe that government is there to help people, which is of course impossible for a government that's chock-full of Republicans who believe in limiting the scope of government and sabotage all such efforts. The Republicans believe in limiting the scope of government, which is of course impossible for a government that's chock-full of Democrats who believe that government is there to help people, and sabotage all such efforts. You can vote for either party if you want it to fail while producing an ever larger and more useless government.

Both parties agree that the government should serve corporate interests. They are both skittish when talking about the rights of citizens, and prefer to talk about "consumers" rather than "citizens". As a nation of consumers, people in the US have no choice but to be consumers. The ones that don't have the money still get to consume things like orange jumpsuits and prison food. Foreign non-consumers also get to consume - things like depleted uranium and white phosphorus ordinance. Being a non-consumer is not an option, and the whole world must be made safe for consumerism. Organizing against consumerism amounts to biting the corporate hand that feeds you - an ungrateful and self-defeating thing to do. So you want to organize a third party? Be my guest; see you later.

Astyk makes the excellent point regarding the destruction of community through overwork and the herding of women out of the home and into the workplace. Women can't just be (unless they are rich) - they have to have an occupation, and the default occupation - "homemaker" - carries a bit of a stigma. Women have always been the backbone of any community, and the regimentation of women's lives was a brilliant move in the direction of totalitarian consumerism, because it allowed relationships even within the family, such as child-rearing, to be commercialized. Once all social interaction is centered around consumption patterns, community as a notion becomes little more than an advertising gimmick, and self-organizing properties of society become restricted to pursuing the latest commercial fashion.

Hopkins raises an interesting issue when he mentions the common criticism of intentional communities and the Transition Towns movement that it is predominantly white, educated, and middle-class. This is hardly surprising, since these are the only people who have the resources and the connections to do pretty much as they please. They can create their alternative arrangements out in the open, as long as they don't actively threaten the status quo. They can build an entire Garden of Eden if they so desire, provided they can line up the financing and pull the construction permits. That is the essence of consumer choice, isn't it? The rich get to play, while other, less privileged parts of the population, such as the immigrants, the squatters and the homeless, the chronically unemployed or underemployed, the bums (the real ones, not the ones in government), simply don't have the same options. At the same time, their need for community is much greater, and so they spontaneously self-organize, network informally, and defend their interests as best they can. They all know that "a nail that sticks up gets hammered down" and so they don't advertise their efforts or make them official or explicit.

Hopkins also makes the excellent point that the entire approach of "creating community" is patronizing and ineffective. Community regenerates spontaneously, given time, space, a commonality of interest, provided it is not too oppressed. As industrial economies continue to shrink and shed jobs, more and more people will be squeezed out to the margins of the consumerist universe, and, finding more time on their hands than they know what to do with, will start to reengage with other people in similar situations. Since their needs will often be coincident or complementary, they will form various types of temporary and informal groups. There is certainly a great deal that all of us can do to help, but "organizing" is not one of them. First and foremost, we should stop working so hard on destroying community, as we have been doing by leading overwhelmingly regimented and commercialized existences. And let's quit it with the political hokey-pokey - it's much too undignified.

Bill Totten


  • nice article
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    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:54 PM, January 21, 2010  

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