Archive for July, 2013

Communities that Abide—Part IV: Causes of Failure

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Up until now in this series my approach has been to present what works: the set of practices which, when put together into a package, allow communities to last a long time—in some cases, for many centuries. Many readers found this exposition useful, while others found some of the practices disagreeable. This week I will now take the opposite approach, and concentrate on what has been proven to not work, or to work very badly. In a follow-up to the previous post, which expounded on the superiority of communism in both production and consumption when it practiced at the scale of the commune, I now present a chapter I rather freely translated from Peter Koropotkin\’s Anarchy, which explains how such experiments fail socially in spite of their initial success in achieving self-sufficiency.

Small Communist Communities: What Causes them to Fail

by Peter Kropotkin
Anarchy, pp. 253-260
Some readers will venture to guess that it will be in organizing communal labor that the communists are likely to fail, thinking that this is where many communities have failed already. There are numerous books that express this opinion. It is, however, entirely erroneous. When communist communities failed, the reasons for their failure usually had nothing to do with communal labor.
First, let us note that nearly all such communities have been founded with semi-religious fervor as their driving force. Their founders had decided to become “heralds of mankind” or “champions of great ideas” and, consequently, to adhere to strict rules of pettily restrictive morality, to be “reborn” thanks to communal life and, finally, to give all of their time, both during and outside of work, to their commune, living exclusively for its sake.
However, imposing such requirements meant following in the footsteps of the monks and hermits of old, needlessly demanding of people that they become something other than who they happen to be. Only recently have there been founded communes (predominantly by worker-anarchists) without any such lofty strivings, but with the simple economic goal of putting an end to being continually robbed by the owner-capitalists.
Another mistake made by the communists was in attempting live as one family of brothers and sisters. To this end, they would settle under a single roof, where they were forced to spend their entire lives in the presence of these same “brothers and sisters.” But such cohabitation in close quarters is no easy feat: even two brothers, the sons of the same parents, don\’t always find it easy to share a house or an apartment. Besides, family life doesn\’t suit everyone. This is why it is always a grave error to impose the idea of living as “one big family.” Instead, it is better to provide everyone with the maximum amount of freedom and the greatest privacy possible for the internal life of each family. For example, the Russian Dukhobors [in Canada] live in separate cabins, and this arrangement helps to preserve their semi-communist communities much more than would life in a single monastery. The first condition for the success of a commune should be to give up the thought of a phalanstèreand to live in separate houses, as they do in England.
Second, [let\’s be clear that] a small, isolated commune cannot last a long time. It is well known that people who are forced to live very close together, on a ship or in jail, and receiving very little stimulation from outside, after a while simply can\’t stand each other […]. In a small commune it is enough for any two people to become rivals, or to develop an enmity toward each other, in order for the commune to fall apart. It is actually quite surprising that such communes can last for quite a while, all the more so considering that they often seek seclusion from others.
This is why, when founding an isolated commune of just ten, twenty or even a hundred people, you should realize ahead of time that it is unlikely to outlast three or four years. And if it were to last longer, this would be regrettable, because it would prove that its members have either become enslaved by one of their number, or have become utterly depersonalized. But since it is possible to predict that after three, four or five years a part of the commune\’s membership will want to separate, it makes sense to, at the very least, have dozen or two such communes bound together into a union. In that case, anyone who, for one reason or another, wants to leave their commune, can switch places with someone else in another one. Otherwise the commune falls apart or (as happens in most cases) falls into the hands of one of the members—the most shrewd and clever “brother.” Thus, to all those who are forming communist communities, I recommend very strongly entering into a union with other such communities. This idea did not come from theory, but from the experience of recent years, especially in England, where several communes fell into the hands of certain “brothers” specifically due to the absence of a wider organization.
Small communes which were founded over the past three or four decades have failed for another important reason: they shunned the outside world. But struggle, and life animated by struggle, are essential for any active person, more important than being well fed. The need to live among people, to dive into the current of social life, to fight alongside others, to live the lives of others and to suffer their sufferings is especially strong in the young generation. This is why […] as soon as young people approach eighteen or nineteen years of age, they inevitably abandon their commune if it does not form part of the entire society. Youth inevitably flees communes if they are not united with the rest of the world and do not take part in its life. Meanwhile, the majority of communes (with the exception of two, which were founded next to large cities by our friends in England) seek first of all to flee into the wilderness. Really now, imagine yourself between sixteen and twenty years of age, trapped in some small communist commune somewhere in the wilds of Texas, Canada or Brazil. Books, newspapers, magazines, pictures tell you of large beautiful cities, where intense life pours forth like a wellspring—in the streets, in theaters, at public gatherings. “Now that\’s life!” you say to yourself, “while here we have death—or, worse than death, slow stupefaction! Misery? Hunger? So I\’ll experience misery and hunger; but let it be a battle rather than moral and mental degradation, which is worse than death.” And with these words you abandon the commune. And you are right to do so.
And so we see the kind of mistake that was made by the Icariansand other communists who founded their communes in the wilds of North America. Taking land for free or buying it cheaply in places that had barely been settled, they compounded the difficulty of adjusting to their new way of life with all of the usual difficulties of homesteading in the wilderness, away from cities and major roads. As we have learned from their experiences, these difficulties are very serious. It is true that they obtained land for next to nothing; but the experience of the commune near Newcastle proved to us that, from a material point of view, a commune can provide for itself much faster and much better, by gardening (predominantly using greenhouses) and planting orchards, and not through field work. A ready market for their fruits and vegetables nearby provides the income to pay for the high land rents. Also, work in gardens and orchards suits a city-dweller far better than field work, especially if it involves clearing land in the wilderness. It is far better to rent land in Europe than to flee to the wilderness, and, all the more so, to dream of forming a new religious empire, as did the communists of Amanaand others. Social reformers need the chance to struggle, proximity to intellectual centers, constant contact with the society they wish to reform, inspiration from science, culture, progress, which they cannot get from books alone.
It goes without saying that governance of the commune has always been the most serious impediment for all practical communists. Indeed, it is enough to read Travels in Icaria by Cabet to realize why it was impossible that the communes founded by the Icarians would last. They required total annihilation of human personality in the service of the great archpriest who was their founder. […] Alongside these experiments, we see that those communists who reduced governance to the lowest level possible, or had no governance at all, as, for example, the Young Icaria in America, succeeded better and lasted longer than the others (35 years). It is easy to understand why: the greatest animosity between people always erupts because of politics, because of power struggles, and in a small commune power struggles inevitably lead to its dissolution. In a big city we can live side by side with our political opponents, since we are not forced into constant contact them. But how do you live with them in a small commune, where you encounter them every day, every minute? Political arguments and intrigues over power get carried over into the workshops, into the spaces where people congregate for leisure, making life intolerable.
These are the main causes for the dissolution of communes that have been founded up until now.

Interview on People First Radio


Author Dmitry Orlov says that if financial, commercial, and political collapse are met with appropriate responses, the more extreme aspects of social and cultural collapse could be prevented… (Read more)

Download mp3 directly.

The Sea Gypsy Tribe Start-up Manual

[This is a guest post from Ray, who sailed off from San Francisco some years ago and has been living as a sea gypsy ever since. Sea gypsies have a lot going for them: relative self-sufficiency and self-reliance, camaraderie, competence, mobility and plenty of free, open habitat where they can roam freely.]

In my last essay, I proposed an unusual response to the possibility of global societal collapse that previously has not been suggested.  My core message was summed up in these 30 words:

“I believe that if there is a near extinction catastrophe, a sea gypsy tribe has the best chance of both surviving and replenishing the human population in the wisest manner.”

For those of you who may not have read that article, I encourage you to do so before continuing with this one.  THAT piece provides the “why to” background information for my belief that economic, energy and ecological disasters are very possible in our near future.  It then suggests that various sea gypsy tribes scattered about the planet provide an excellent survival and re-seeding option.  THIS article provides the basic “how to” information for anyone who was inspired by my message, and would like to join our movement.  My sense is that there are three potential types of candidates.  I refer to them as Seekers, Converts and Recruits.

The Seekers are skilled ocean sailors who are already out there cruising, but who are searching for more meaning in their vagabond lives.  The frenzied, hollow, shop-til-you drop, electronic doo-dad hologram that modern life has become, was no longer tolerable; and so they sought the comfort and authenticity of Mother Ocean.  Hopefully, my essay awoke them to the probability that there are many other liked-minded sailors out there, who are also looking for their tribe.   

The second category is the Converts.  This group is also already out there enjoying the cruising life in their ocean-ready sailboats.  But their basic philosophy is very different from that of the Seekers.  Here is a good way to describe the conversion that would be necessary for them to be drawn towards the sea gypsy tribal value system.  If they previously thought that The American Dream was good for the planet, but now realize that it is extremely destructive for the planet, then they are ready to hoist their Earth Flags and join our clan.

I classify the third group as Recruits.  They have no sailing experience, but they are mindful of the lunacy of modern life and are searching for other, more fulfilling paths.  Many of the core sea gypsy tribal values resonate with them.  They understand that infinite growth on a finite planet is delusional.  They sense that the vast problems caused by too much technology cannot be fixed with more technology.  And they do not want to contribute their energy and vision to an increasingly more Orwellian police/surveillance State.  They are fed up, and they wish they had a boat and knew how to sail it.

The main purpose of this essay is to convince those Recruits that they CAN learn how to sail and they should buy a boat.  Also, I wish to reassure them that this can be done much more quickly and affordably than they might imagine.  As for the Seekers and Converts, my purpose is to help them upgrade their cruising sailboats into state-of-the-art, ocean-going survival pods.  Let’s begin!

LEARNING TO SAIL  The vast majority of sailors are NOT wealthy yachtsmen.  They are regular people who learned their skills without spending a fortune doing so.  Your local Parks and Recreation Department will often have low cost sailing instruction.  Don’t be put off if it looks like the lessons will be conducted in tiny boats, because it is actually best to learn in small craft, since they are so responsive to the moodiness of the wind.               

There are also low-cost sailing clubs in many towns as well as programs offered through community colleges.  The back of most sailing magazines will list programs where you can learn sailing.  The costs range from reasonable to extravagant.  Just hitting the docks at your local marina is a very inexpensive option.  Most sailors are pleasant, easy-going people.  If you express an interest in learning, and offer to swap some help with boat projects, you have a good chance of picking up some free instruction.  Volunteering to crew on local racing boats is another option.  You will initially be given simple tasks, but if you pay attention, you can swiftly learn a lot. There are many “how-to” books that provide excellent instruction on the basics of sailing.  Many libraries will carry some of these.  Otherwise, they can easily be googled up.

So, as you can see from the preceding inventory, there are lots of ways to learn basic sailing.  Once that is achieved you will need to acquire “cruising skills.”  In a way, this is even easier, because the sailing magazines run a steady stream of articles dealing with topics such as anchoring, dinghy selection, outboard motor repair, food provisioning, navigation and various potential emergencies at sea.  A couple of inexpensive subscriptions to sailing magazines would provide you lots of valuable information.  And many libraries have current and back issues of these periodicals.  Another excellent, inexpensive resource is the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary.  They offer many free and low-cost courses in such topics as safe boat handling, first-aid and coastal navigation.

BUYING A SAILBOAT  Just as there are many options for learning how to sail, there are also lots of ways to find a suitable boat that can be both your joy and your protector.  When friends ask for suggestions, I recommend fiberglass boats in the 30 to 45-foot range.  My preference for fiberglass is because they are light but strong.  They are also low maintenance and since they are the most prevalent on the market, they are reasonably priced.  There are certainly merits to the other hull materials – steel, aluminum, wood and ferro-cement – so if that is your preference, indulge it!

My size recommendation is based on the fact that the majority of the sea gypsy community is likely to be couples.  Less than 30 feet and things get a bit cramped.  And when it is more than 45 feet, the vessel becomes difficult for just 2 people to handle because of all of that weight and power.  Additionally, the 45 feet size should adequately take care of the needs of families with kids.

While you are learning basic sailing, you will probably start noticing boats that appeal to you.  Owners love it when a stranger approaches them and says, “That sure is a fine looking boat…what kind is she?”  By window shopping your nearby docks and by paying attention to the boats in the magazines you can become fairly knowledgeable quite swiftly.

Here is another important tip for quickly increasing your knowledge.  Go to a website called  Then click on their “brokerage” section and type in specifics such as “used, sail, fiberglass, 35 to 45 feet and under $60K.”  Most of the listings that pop up will have multiple photos of the exteriors and the interiors as well as the “specs” or specifications for that vessel.

Once you have a better sense of your needs and wishes, you can get serious in your search.  Start locally by walking the nearby docks and searching for boats with “for sale” signs.  Check the classifieds in your local newspaper and also in any free “shopper” papers.  There are also regional editions of Sailboat Trader which can usually be found at convenience stores.

Many sailboat designs have “owners’ groups” who find each other on the Web and exchange information about their boats.  So, for example, if you found yourself desiring the venerable old Pearson 424 design, you could google up their owners’ page and see if they know of any sister ships for sale.

There are many listings in the back of the sailing magazines.  Besides the glossy national publications, there are several regional ones that are published on newsprint that are also very helpful.  Latitude 38, which originates from San Francisco is a good example of one of these.  Almost all of these are free and almost all sailing magazines have complimentary online versions.

And, of course, there are also professional boat brokers.  These folks are quite different from the typical used car salesman who is trying to close the deal while you are there on the lot.  Brokers realize the magnitude of your purchase, and they don’t try to rush you into a decision.  Most marinas will have some brokerages nearby or you can locate them in the yellow pages or online.  And speaking of the differences between buying a car and a sailboat, you’ll be happy to learn about professional yacht surveyors.  This is a specialist who carefully examines the vessel and then makes a thorough written report of its strengths and deficiencies.  Banks and insurance companies require this.  But for “cash and a handshake” purchases, this is not necessary.  However, considering the value of the investment, a yacht survey is usually well worth the expense.

OUTFITTING YOUR BOAT  Hopefully, my suggestions will help you find your dream boat.  When that happy day arrives, your focus will then shift to preparing her for the rigors and joys of the open ocean.  There are a few excellent books to help guide you through this process.  My favorite is READY FOR SEA by Tor Pinney, because it is well written and contains a wealth of information that is understandable even to a novice.

It is important to emphasize that ocean sailboats are complex creatures.  There are MANY systems that are vital to a sea boat that are not needed in your house, apartment, condo or yurt.  Here is a list of some of them:

Anchors/autopilots/bilge pumps/diesels/dinghies/GPS/ham and SSB radios/life-rafts/outboard motors/radars/roller-furlers/solar panels/winches/wind generators/and windlasses

Now I realize that this might seem daunting, but most used boats on the market are already equipped with many of these systems.  And more importantly, that less-complicated but stationary house will not help you escape in the case of a societal meltdown.  Now I could devote thousands of words to arguing the merits of any of these pieces of gear, but it is far better for the novice to research this on their own.  Pore through the magazines and “how to” books and ask other sailors on your docks.  Another excellent source for information on properly outfitting your boat is the West Marine Catalog, which is available free of charge from this nationwide nautical hardware store.  Scattered within its pages are short “advisors” on just about every boat system you would desire. 

SPECIFIC SEA GYPSY TRIBE PREPARATIONS  Everything that I have described thus far would apply to anyone who wanted to wander the wide waters on their own sailboat.  Now I will outline some specific preparations for long-term self-reliance in case civilized society starts to unravel.  I emphasize that my hope is that this will never occur, nor am I claiming that it will occur.  But there is much wisdom in “hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst!”  This is the portion of this essay that is directed not just to the “Recruits” but also to the “Converts” and the “Seekers.”

The most vital needs in a survival situation are probably:


WATER  A human can survive for weeks without food, but only for a few days without water.  On a sailboat there are two basic ways to stay supplied with drinking water.  The low cost option is to “catch” water directly from rain showers.  I call this sky water and it is delicious.  I use an awning that dips towards its mid-point and funnels the rain through a hose directly into my tanks.  I let the first couple of minutes of rain wash the awning clean, and then hook the hose up to the tanks.   Then a foot-pump down at the galley sends the water to a Brita pitcher which then filters it.  In my decades of cruising I have never run out of water and that includes ocean passages of up to 30 days.

The second option is a reverse-osmosis water-maker that converts sea water into fresh water.  There are both manual and electric versions.  The electric ones only need to be run for a short period each day, in order to produce far more water than you need.  They are low maintenance and some of them can also be pumped manually if there is a problem with your ship’s electrical supply.  As for the problem of oceanic acidification, I have not heard any reports from my friends with water-makers, saying that this has become an issue.  I also assume that the manufacturers are paying close attention to this and beefing up their filters.

FOOD  Non-perishable foods are the mainstay of a survival vessel.  Most sailboats do have refrigeration systems that can be powered by solar panels and/or wind generators.  But these fridges are mostly devoted to lengthening the edibility of perishable foods such as meat, dairy products and vegetables.  On an extended voyage, or if supplies ashore are cut off, there will be no food left to cool.  So the fridge will just become a glorified beer cooler. 

Nowadays, many more boats are using freezers, which greatly increase one’s perishable food capacity.  These require far more energy, and usually necessitate running the diesel or generator for an hour or more each day.  But since this essay foresees a world without readily available petroleum, a sizable solar or wind generation capacity is required to keep a freezer functioning.

Because I have always been on the impoverished end of the sea gypsy financial spectrum, I have mostly sailed without refrigeration.  But I have not suffered because of this.  A quick inspection of my ship’s cupboards reveals the following wealth of long-term foods that are readily available from any grocery store:

Almonds/beef stew/black beans/Bragg’s liquid aminos/brown rice/canned beef/canned chicken/canned clams/canned fruits/canned salmon/canned shrimp/canned soups/canned veggies/cashews/cereal/crackers/dried fruits/egg noodles/fruit cocktail/garbanzo beans/gouda cheese/honey/jelly/lentils/long-life bread/long-life milk /mac and cheese/mayo/nutritional yeast/oatmeal/paella mix/pancake mix/pasta/peanut butter/powdered/eggs/powdered milk/protein powder/red beans/salami/sardines/spaghetti/sugar/tea/tofu/TSP/whole wheat flour/etc

This inventory should demonstrate that eating aboard an ocean-capable sailboat is not just beans and rice drudgery.  Furthermore, I supplement these supplies with freeze-dried and dehydrated foods.  I have dozens of the large #10 cans filled with such treats as beef stroganoff, chicken teriyaki and dehydrated broccoli.  A little water and a very short cooking time and you have delicious meals.

I also keep a supply of canned bacon, cheese and butter aboard.  If you google up “survival foods” you will find contact info for purchasing these extremely valuable products.  Growing my own alfalfa and mung bean sprouts has been a tradition aboard AVENTURA for many years.  A large jar of these tiny seeds will provide you months of tasty sprouts that are alive with nutrition.

There are also old sailors’ tricks for extending the life of perishable foods without refrigeration.  For example, potatoes, carrots, onions and cabbage will last quite some time if stored in cool, dark locations.  Raw eggs can be coated in Vaseline to extend their usability and I wrap apples, oranges and zucchinis in aluminum foil to help keep them fresh.

An important component of the onboard, long-term food supply will be fishing and foraging.  Fish, lobster and crab from the sea and clams, mussels, and oysters from the shore are all mighty fine and nutritious foods.  Seaweed is also something that will prove very valuable although I personally need to learn much more about identifying and harvesting the best types.

Food drying, especially fruit, seaweed and fish is also an area that requires more of my attention.  I look forward to increasing my knowledge and therefore my food independence as I research this.  Thus far my web surfing has failed to locate a good, affordable solar food dryer.  There are plenty of electric ones available, but since they must run for hours, they are a huge drain on the ship’s electrical supply.  However, there are nice solar ovens and cookers already available and one of them is high on my wish list.  Sun-baked bread is reportedly quite delicious.

In concluding this vital section, it should be emphasized that a well-provisioned sailboat can be an island of comfort and safety as the food procuring situation dangerously deteriorates for those stranded on the land during any severe catastrophe.

SHELTER  A person in his or her sailboat is like a turtle in its shell – you bring your own house with you.  This also allows you to bring along a nice supply of creature comforts as well.  My library is a constant joy for me and positioned beside it is a nice selection of movies on DVD which I can watch on this very laptop.  Plus I have plenty of music CDs on board as well.

And for high-end boats with water-makers and propane water heaters there are hot showers even a thousand miles from land.  And if there is no longer any propane, they can shower as I have contentedly done for years, by using a very low-priced but efficient solar shower.

Being able to move your comfortable shelter is probably its greatest feature.  If I was in the U.S. and some sort of societal meltdown began, I could depart in a matter of hours.  I keep my diesel fuel, water tanks, propane supply and food always topped off.  I would bid farewell to my local friends, email my more distant ones, go buy fresh fruit and meats and veggies, check the weather forecast online and get underway.

I would then set a course for one of my favorite Third World countries – probably in Central America.  There are well-considered reasons for this choice.  Because their basic infrastructure is LESS reliable than ours, they have adjusted to disruptions and can handle them better.  Because of previous problems with the transportation of food, they usually have a supply stock-piled, so they won’t become violently upset by the trucks not arriving.  And they don’t have the “entitlement” issues of the citizens of the wealthier countries that make them so dependent on governmental assistance.  Essentially, these folks have always demonstrated a better capacity to fend for themselves.

PROTECTION   In my Sea Gypsy Tribe essay I emphasized the tremendous danger that starving, heavily-armed MARAUDERS pose to land-based people.  My belief is that the only real strategy for avoiding this life-threatening likelihood is to LEAVE.  In my carefully considered opinion, staying onshore and attempting to win a seemingly endless series of firefights to protect one’s family and food is a fool’s mission.

But what about the hazards that might exist “out there?”  Let’s begin by talking about piracy.  Most of the attacks that draw a lot of media attention are directed towards large ships and not at small sailboats.  When there are incidents involving cruisers, the word gets out so quickly through ham and single-sideband radio nets, that it is easy to avoid the problem areas.  Essentially, there are only a few dangerous regions and since we know where they are, we don’t sail there.  Would you vacation in Afghanistan?

Many, if not most, countries force you to surrender any guns that you have onboard when you clear in with Customs and Immigration.  Failure to do so can result in fines, jail time and confiscation of your boat.  But the likelihood of any sort of attack is greater when close to shore than it is in open waters.  So, just when you might need your weapon, it is locked up in the Customs office.  Some sailors deal with this dilemma by hiding things deep in the boat during the inspection process, and then moving them to a more readily accessible spot when the authorities leave.

There are legal forms of protection with less stopping power but still considerable impact.  This would include flare guns, pepper spray, crossbows and spear guns.  There are also adaptor kits available that allow a flare gun to fire a shotgun shell rather than a flare.

One of the hallmarks of my personal defense strategy is that I would NEVER use lethal force just to stop a thief.  If someone is threatening me or a loved one with bodily injury, I would definitely respond appropriately, but I would not shoot my spear gun into the back of someone trying to steal my dinghy.

If I felt someone hop aboard my boat I would keep my hatches shut and blast them with my air horn from down below while switching my deck lights on and off.  If that did not convince them to leave, I would proceed to more assertive tactics.  One protective layer that I still need to investigate is a simple car alarm style horn that I could activate from down below if I sensed an intruder.  The motion-activated ones are not ideal onboard because boats are often moving due to waves and wakes.  But a manual one might be a very effective deterrent.

COMMUNICATIONS  Often when there is a severe natural disaster such as an earthquake, the normal communication systems are completely disabled.  The same would be the case in a “grid-down” emergency.  In such situations the first on the scene reports are usually transmitted via Ham radio operators.  The reason for this is because there is no intermediary infrastructure involved.  There are no cell phone towers or underground cables or bundles of fiber optic strands.  As long as the receiving and transmitting radios are functioning, communication is possible.  And since these radios can easily remain charged up using solar panels and wind generators, the ocean sailor has a far more reliable communication system than people back onshore.  In a potential collapse situation this is not just comforting but potentially lifesaving.  

CONCLUSION  In my two Sea Gypsy Tribe essays, I have attempted to convince whoever is willing to listen, that brutally hard times might await humanity.  And I have tried to persuade those open to my message, that the best way to survive such catastrophes is by escaping on a well-equipped ocean-ready sailboat.  But besides just evading these disasters, the various sea gypsy tribes scattered upon the wide waters, can also help repopulate the planet.  Hopefully as they do so, they can avoid the horrible mistakes that techno-industrial civilization made.  My dream is that they will create a Humanity 3.0 that will bequeath us Mozart without the mushroom cloud.   

Read some of Ray\’s other essays at

Communities that Abide—Part III

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Alexander Kosolapov
There are two organizing principles that self-sufficient communities can rely on in order to succeed: communist organization of production and communist organization of consumption. Both of these produce much better results for the same amount of effort, and neither is generally available to the larger society, which has to rely on the far more wasteful market-based or central planning-based mechanisms, both of which incur vast amounts of unproductive overhead—bankers, traders and regulators in the case of market-based approaches, and government bureaucrats and administrators in the case of centrally planned approaches. History has shown that market-based approaches are marginally more efficient than centrally planned ones, but neither one comes anywhere near the effectiveness of communist approaches practiced on the small scale of a commune.

Here is an extended passage from Peter Kropotkin\’s Anarchy in which he explains the benefits of communist production and consumption:

Leaving aside the question of religion and its role in organizing communist societies, it should be sufficient to point to the example of the Dukhobors in Canada to demonstrate the economic superiority of communist labor over individual labor. Having arrived in Canada penniless, they were forced to settle in an as yet unoccupied, cold part of Alberta. Due to their lack of horses, their women would hitch up to the plough 20 or 30 at a time, while the middle-aged men worked on the railroad, giving up their earnings to the commune. However, after seven or eight years all 6000 or 7000 Dukhobors achieved a level of well-being, having organized their agriculture and their life with the help of all sorts of modern agricultural equipment—American mowers and bailers, threshers, steam-powered mills—all on communal principles.
Moreover, they were able to buy land on the shores of the Pacific Ocean, in British Columbia, where they founded a colony devoted to growing fruit, which these vegetarians sorely lacked in Alberta, where apples, pears and plums do not bear fruit because their blossoms are killed off by May frosts.
And so here we have a union of 20 communist settlements, where each family lives in its own house, but all field work is done together, and each family takes from the communal stores what it needs to live. This organization, which for several years was supported by their religious idea, does not correspond to our ideals; but we must recognize that, from the point of view of economic life, it has conclusively demonstrated the superiority of communal labor over individual labor, as well as the ability to adapt this labor to the needs of modern mechanized agriculture.
A similar, contemporary example is provided by the Hutterites, who tend to be up on all the latest trends and techniques in agriculture and make productive use of industrial resources.
It stands to reason that communist production methods would outperform capitalist ones. On the one hand, you have a group of people driven to work together out of a sense of solidarity and mutual obligation, cooperating of their own free will, free to switch tasks to keep life from becoming monotonous, free to do what they believe would work best, using work as a way to earn respect and improve their social standing, knowing full well that their fellows will take care of them and their families should they ever become unable to work. On the other hand, you have commoditized human beings pigeon-holed by a standardized skill set and a job description, playing the odds in an arbitrary and precarious job market, blindly following orders for fear of ending up unemployed, relying on work to keep them and their immediate family from homelessness and starvation, and discarded once “burned out” on the set of tasks for which they are considered “qualified.” The result of all this is that 70% of the workers in the US say that they hate their job, putting a gigantic drag on the capitalist economy:
Just 30 percent of employees are engaged and inspired at work, according to Gallup\’s 2013 State of the American Workplace Report, which surveyed more than 150,000 full- and part-time workers during 2012. That\’s up from 28 percent in 2010. The rest … not so much. A little more than half of workers (52 percent) have a perpetual case of the Mondays—they\’re present, but not particularly excited about their job. The remaining 18 percent are actively disengaged or, as Gallup CEO Jim Clifton put it in the report, “roam the halls spreading discontent.” Worse, Gallup reports, those actively disengaged employees cost the U.S. up to $550 billion annually in lost productivity. (link)
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Having shown the superiority of communist production methods, let us turn to communist consumption. Kropotkin again:
In addition to these successful attempts at communism in agriculture, we can also point to numerous examples of partial communism having as its goal pure consumption, and which takes place in the many attempts at socialization taking place in the midst of bourgeois society—among private persons as well as entire cities (so-called municipal or city socialism).
What is a hotel, a cruise-ship, a boarding house, if not an attempt in this direction being made within a bourgeois society? In exchange for a certain payments—so many rubles per day—you are allowed to choose what you like from ten or more dishes, which are offered to you on board a ship or a hotel buffet, and it does not occur to anyone to account for how much you eat…
The bourgeois have understood perfectly well what a huge advantage they gain from this sort of limited communism in consumption, combined with full independence of the individual. And so they have arranged things so that, in exchange for a certain payment—so much per day or per month—all of their needs for food and shelter are satisfied without any additional worry. Luxury items, such as richly appointed rooms or fine wines, have to be paid for separately, of course, but for a payment which is the same for all, all the basic needs are satisfied, not caring how much or how little each person will consume at the common table.
Putting both production and consumption together, let us consider the case of a small farming community that grows, among other things, corn. If it were organized along communist lines, it would grow the corn, and then distribute that same corn, cook it, and eat it. If it were organized along capitalist lines, it would grow the corn, then sell it to a processor at $5 a bushel and then buy it back from a supermarket at $1.69 for a 15-ounce can (of mostly water). Disregarding the weight of the water, what they get back is around 80 times less corn. By participating in the market economy, they would effectively be allowing their corn to be taxed at a 98.75% rate.
What all of this adds up to is that communities organized along communist lines can become self-sufficient in a handful of years and quite affluent shortly thereafter. And it is affluence (along with lack of persecution from the outside) that is often at the root of their undoing. Affluence creates too many temptations, makes it difficult to distinguish needs from wants, and allows systems of mutual self-help to atrophy from disuse. But there are many ways to avoid the trap of affluence, provided its dangers are recognized early enough. One is to work less, by coming up with a long list of days during which one is not allowed to work, starting with Sunday and/or Sabbath and expanding the list from there. With a bit of effort the work schedule can be brought down to around 100 days a year. Another is to eat up the surplus by upholding certain unproductive but satisfying community standards, such as requiring fresh cut flowers on the table at every meal, high quality of polish and varnish on exterior woodwork, and intricate hand-woven banners flying at festive occasions. Yet another (popular with the Mormons) is to proselytize, recruit and spread the revolution. Yet another, popular with the Hutterites, is to have lots of children and spread out over the landscape, gobbling up and reclaiming farmland, splitting whenever a colony outgrows Dunbar\’s number of 150 in order to remain anarchic and to continue to self-govern by consensus. One more example: the Roma like to burn through fantastic sums of money by throwing lavish wedding feasts that last three days. The ways of burning off excess wealth can range from music festivals to theatrical productions to historical reenactments complete with authentic-looking props. The threat of affluence is a nice problem to have, and provided that money isn\’t allowed to pile up, creating a big temptation to re-privatize, it does not have to be damaging.
* * *
Those who chafe at the use of the word “communist” should feel reassured that no military or political “communist menace” is ever likely to reassert itself: state communism is as dead as a burned piece of wood. The one remaining, ongoing attempt at unreformed state communism is North Korea, and it is the exception that proves the rule. On the other hand, regardless of your opinions, you too are a communist. First, you are human, and over 99% of their existence as a species humans have lived in small tribes organized on communist principles, with no individual land ownership, no wage labor, no government, and no private property beyond a few personal effects. If it weren\’t for communism, you wouldn\’t be here. Second, if you have a family, it is likely to be run on communist principles: it is unlikely that you invoice your children for the candy they eat, or negotiate with your spouse over who gets to feed them. The communist organizing principle “From each according to abilities, to each according to needs” is what seems to prevail in most families, and the case where it doesn\’t we tend to regard as degenerate. From this it seems safe to assume that if you are human and draw oxygen, then you must be, in some sense, a communist.
None of this has anything to do with the communist style of government or with state communism. That state communism is an oxymoron was recognized from the outset, and it only existed as an aberration of state socialism, which can be made to work—just not very well. Nevertheless, we can learn something by looking at the principles embraced by the great International Worker\’s Movement of the 19th century. Here they are, as spelled out by Peter Kropotkin:
1. The elimination of wage labor, which the capitalist pays to the worker, since it is nothing more than a contemporary form of slavery and serfdom
2. The elimination of private property for all that which society requires for the organization of socialized production and distribution
3. The liberation of the individual and of society from that form of political enslavement—government—which serves to support and maintain a system of economic enslavement
These tenets may seem quaint and idealistic; after all, what has come of the efforts to implement them? A globalized economy of labor arbitrage that sends the work to the lowest-paid sweatshops… a population abjectly dependent on uncertain wage labor and government hand-outs… Thus, it is nothing short of remarkable that the abiding countercultural communities I have looked at all seem to embrace these tenets to a fair extent.
All of them do their best to not work for wages, refusing to be “proletarianized.” Let us look at some specific examples.
The Roma, also known as the Gypsies, are the largest abiding separatist group in existence, with their numbers known only approximately (since they usually refuse to be counted in a census and hide their identity) but are generally believed to be well in the millions. They will contract to do work as work groups (called kumpania) but never as individuals, and all the earnings are given to the Rom baro who is the self-appointed leader with the responsibility for distributing these earnings according to merit and need. This system is extended to every other type of good that is taken in from the outside; for example, aid workers are often displeased to find that their handouts don\’t necessarily go to the person they designated as the recipient but are distributed based on merit and need as they are perceived by the Roma themselves.
The Hutterites, an Anabaptist group which has its origins in 16thcentury Tyrol and which has since traversed many countries including Russia, eventually settling in the Canadian provinces of Manitoba, Alberta and Saskatchewan, as well as in Montana and the Dacotas, and number in the tens of thousands. They are growing rapidly because of their very high birth rate (highest of any human group by some estimations). They live in agrarian communes of between 75 and 150 adult members, and are entirely communist, practicing the doctrine of “everything in common.” While the Hutterites are at one end of the spectrum with regard to private property, the spectrum extends to other groups: other Anabaptist communities (Amish, Mennonite), the Mormons and the Roma all unconditionally pledge a large part of their private property to the common cause, in order to support an extensive system of mutual self-help. For example, the Amish have successfully lobbied the federal government in the US to be exempted from the Social Security system. They did not mind paying into it, seeing it as the work of charity, but they did not want their members individually receiving checks from the outside, seeing this as detrimental to their internal system of mutual self-help. Likewise, the Mormons and the Orthodox Jews run internal welfare organizations that make their communities independent of government hand-outs. Among the Roma, the social unit within which mutual self-help is practiced unconditionally is the vitsa, or clan, and within it the free sharing of individual wealth takes the place child support, insurance and retirement.
In addition to having as little as possible to do with the government, all of the above groups refuse to have anything to do with the military. The Roma escape military conscription by virtue of being nomadic and not having an address to which a conscription notice could be sent. They also make it a point to make it hard to identify them individually by maintaining an internal, secret name and an external, public name which they change frequently, especially when moving from place to place. The Hutterites are likewise pacifist, and have been forced to flee Russia for the US, then the US for Canada, to avoid conscription. The Dukhobors, who faced persecution in Russia due to their pacifism (one of their founding episodes involved gathering and burning all of their weapons) relocated to Alberta, but then were forced to relocate to British Columbia over their refusal to pledge allegiance to the provincial government. It makes perfect sense that such small, widely dispersed groups would find no use for weapons or for militarism: should they ever try to stand up to the majority militarily, they would be wiped out. Instead, their defenses include posing no threat and being willing to flee. The Roma in particular are often ready to flee on a moment\’s notice.
Although all of these groups (with the exception of the Dukhobors, who have all but dissolved in the surrounding Canadian society for reasons we will take up later) have done well to curb wage labor and private property and to remain free of the tentacles of the government, such independence is sometimes impossible to maintain: the need to pay property and land taxes forces these groups into trade with the outside, and sometimes even into wage labor. Taxes are these groups\’ Achilles\’ heel, and tax avoidance (along with avoidance of military service and compulsory public education) must be a prime objective of all groups that want to maintain their independence. Peter Kropotkin has this to say on the subject of taxation:
This is how, quietly and gradually, control of the people by the aristocracy and the rich bourgeoisie—against whom the people have once risen up, when confronting them face to face—is now exercised with the consent and even the approval of the people: under the guise of tax!
Let\’s not even talk about taxes to support the military, since by now everybody should know what to think of these. Was there ever a time when a permanent army wasn\’t used to hold the population in slavery? And was there ever a time when the regular army could conquer a land where it was confronted by an armed populace?
Take any tax, be it direct or indirect: on land, on income or on consumption, be it levied to finance government debt or to pretend to pay it off (since, you know, these debts are never repaid, but only grow). Take a tax levied to finance war, or a tax levied to pay for public education. If you study it, and discover what it leads to in the end, you will be stunned by the great power, the great might which we have relinquished to those who rule us.
A tax is the most convenient way to hold the population in poverty. It provides the means to bankrupt entire classes of people: land-owners, industrial workers—just when they, after a series of tremendous efforts, finally gain a slight improvement in their well-being. At the same time, it provides the most convenient means for refashioning government into a permanent monopoly of the wealthy. Finally, it provides a seemly pretext for accumulating weapons, which one fine day will be used for the suppression of the people should they rise up.
Like a sea monster of ancient tales, a tax provide the opportunity to entangle all of society and to redirect the efforts of individuals toward the enrichment of privileged classes and government monopolies.
And as long as the government, armed with the tax, continues to exist, the liberation of working people cannot be achieved through any means—neither through reform, nor through revolution.
* * *
A couple of months ago I was part to a conversation that included Albert Bates of The Farm in Summertown, Tennessee, at one time one of the largest hippie communes ever, and Orren Whiddon of the Four Quarters Interfaith Sanctuary in Artemas, Pennsylvania, a sprawling campground that is also a church, a monastery, winery, a precision machine shop and a school. The discussion centered on ways in which small communities can avoid becoming entangled in the tentacles of officialdom, and the conclusion was that the community stands the best chance if it is simultaneously all of the following things:
  1. A church
  2. A nature preserve
  3. A historical society
  4. Minority-owned
For those atheists who dislike the idea of church, please look into Pastafarianism. I am happy to report that the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster has just been successfully incorporated in Russia. Ladies and gentlemen, please don your pasta strainers! In the name of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Ramen!
This is a lot to think through in one week, so I will leave it at this. Next week we will take up an equally important topic of that without which no community can ever abide: children, youth, and how some of them manage to bring them up, educate them and give them the freedom to run away and come back—so as to keep them.

Interview on What Now with Ken Rose

Most memorable moment:
Ken: So do you think humanity can come together as one family, or is that hopelessly naïve?
Me: It\’s hopelessly naïve.

Listen to it here.

Communities that Abide—Part II

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Byigor Morski
This series of articles is dedicated to the idea that there is much that can be learned from the practices of communities that manage to persist over the long term with their cultures or subcultures remaining largely intact. Such communities can provide everything their members need—housing, nutrition, education, medicine, entertainment, companionship, social security and, perhaps most important of all, a sense of belonging. While their specific practices may be alien to us, their commonalities should not be.

Someone\’s refusal to consider them simply because they do not accord with maintaining a middle-class lifestyle simply signals someone\’s refusal to consider doing whatever might be necessary to survive the extinction of that lifestyle—something we might call “voluntary extinction.” This, mind you, is not altogether unhelpful; those who are waiting to drown should be thanked for all the lifeboat seats they free up while they wait. But for those wish to fight extinction tooth and nail, all options should be on the table, even the unpalatable ones.

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P { margin-bottom: 0.08inThe challenges we should face up to form a daunting list. First and perhaps most immediately dangerous is the collapse of the highly integrated, globalized forms of finance, commerce and governance that have evolved during the growth phase of industrial economies (and are becoming increasingly maladaptive in the course of its current stagnation phase). First comes the spiral of increasing austerity that starts when gradual resource depletion causes prices of many key industrial inputs, from crude oil to phosphate rock, to creep above a certain threshold: the price the population can continue paying for them. Next come the increasingly frequent shocks triggered by rapidly accelerating climate change: submerged coastlines, summertime temperatures that make many cities non-survivable once air conditioning is gone, killer hurricanes that wipe out coastal infrastructure (right around where most people live) and so on. Then, as the nation-state enters its agony, it turns predatory, and groups that lack an effective form of self-governance run a much higher risk of becoming savaged by it. Then we have to consider what happens when agriculture fails, forcing the survivors to abandon settled lifestyles and revert to nomadism. (Agriculture only appeared during the recently ended period of unusual climatic stability, and even during this period crop failures resulting in periods of starvation have not been uncommon.) The world as a whole now has a very thin reserve of staple cereals, and it will not take too many failed harvests to tip it into starvation. Looking a few decades ahead, there may not be too many rice-eaters or corn-eaters left around. Lastly, consider the fact that rising sea levels will inundate and destroy coastal nuclear installations around the world à la Fukushima Daiichi, flooding the world with carcinogenic radioactive isotopes. Industrial installations and toxic waste dumps will suffer a similar fate, releasing their load of long-lived chemical toxins. Plus, all the plastics produced since mid-20thcentury will decay—from polymers into very durable, minute monomers—a sort of toxic plastic goo that will pervade the environment for centuries, playing havoc with most living things. The combination will render much of the planet uninhabitable for geologic periods of time. (“Voluntary extinction” may be starting to sound pretty good right around now!)
“Mistakes were made”—largely over the course of the 20th century (which will probably be known as the most shameful 100 years in the history of the planet—unless we manage to make even worse mistakes during the 21st, that is). It was the century during which a species that prided itself on being sentient destroyed its environment, this in spite of having produced a handful of individuals, out of the billions, with enough intelligence and willpower to avoid doing so. The biggest mistakes are: the proliferation nuclear technology and the stockpiling of nuclear waste; fossil fuel extraction and burning; and inundating the world with the persistently toxic fruits of synthetic chemistry. The predicament of living with the legacy of these mistakes seems likely to, in the fullness of time, reduce the human population, if any should survive, to small, roving, semi-feral bands.

But let\’s not go there just yet! Let\’s take our inexorable march to perdition in many easy stages, descending this spiral staircase to hell one step at a time rather than taking a sudden headlong plunge to oblivion. That way we will at least be able to bear full witness to the terrible fruits of our folly. Let us make the best of what we still have, setting our sights neither too high nor too low, neither struggling in vain to sustain the unsustainable, nor giving up prematurely on that which still works.

Next week I promise to get into the meat of it: how all the winners in this game of survival are likely to turn out. Their commonalities make it likely that they will be:
    • autonomous, refusing to coalesce into larger groups;
    • separatist, shunning the outsiders (and those of their own number who misbehave), and interacting with the outside world as a group rather than as individuals;
    • anarchic in their patterns of self-governance—neither patriarchal nor matriarchal—with certain individuals granted positions of responsibility, but not positions of authority;
    • having an oral rather than a written code of conduct
    • communist in their patterns of production and consumption, with little use for money or markets;
    • based on a strong central ideology (or faith) which they refuse to analyze, question or debate
    • having lots of children, bringing them up as their replacements, and retiring as young as possible;
    • refusing to “work jobs,” and doing little work beyond what they consider necessary;
    • consciously rejecting much of the culture and quite a lot of the technology of surrounding society;
    • speaking their own languages or dialects, which they jealously preserve and safeguard against outside influences;
    • adhering to a certain protocol for interacting with outsiders, perhaps hiding in plain sight, perhaps through a certain “in your face” disguise that hides who they are behind a more conventional image;
    • pacifist rather than warlike, refusing to carry weapons or take part in military actions of any sort, and fleeing from danger rather than confronting it;
    • nomadic rather than settled, with minimal attachment to any one piece of land beyond its immediate usefulness to them, and willing to relocate as a group in times of danger, hardship or persecution;
    • quite happy and generally content with their lot in life, being resigned to accepting whatever life gives, and relatively unafraid of death, neither fighting it nor seeking it.

    Dave Pollard\'s Review of The Five Stages of Collapse

    I\’ve just finished reading Dmitry Orlov’s new book The Five Stages of Collapse. It made me realize that I have probably been making two fundamental errors in my thinking about how our civilization/culture will collapse, and what we should do to become more resilient in the face of that collapse (taking steps like learning new personal and collective capacities, and re-learning how to create communities).

    Communities that Abide—Part I

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    Married to the Sea
    In thinking through where we are and what awaits us, there is a very basic, simple, obvious question we can ask: Does our society work for us or against us? The US, regarded as a single community, that is; does it still function as such? Does it provide safety, security, a sense of belonging, freedom from necessity and want, meaningful opportunities to care for others, and to be cared for in return? Or has it become a cold, savage, alienating place watched over by the ubiquitous surveillance state and held together by “law and order” and the implicit threat of violence?
    Has it become a place where meaningful, satisfying work has become a rarity, and where a lifetime of servitude and workaday drudgery is coerced using the threat of marginalization and exclusion? Does it share our values, or does it willfully ignore them, squandering the taxes we pay on war toys that kill innocents, on enabling and subsidizing environmental destruction, on perpetuating an overbearing and intrusive police state in the name of security, and so on and so forth? And if that turns out to be the case, the next basic, simple, obvious question to ask is, What might we do about it? Lobby the government? Well, it\’s not a particularly popular government: a 2011 Gallup poll determined that the US Congress is less popular than King George was in the colonial days. That same year Washington Post wrote that it is less popular than either communism or Nixon during the Watergate scandal. Public Policy Polling went even further; according to them, Congress is less popular than cockroaches, lice, root canals, colonoscopies, traffic jams, used car salesmen or Genghis Khan!
    Taken as a whole, as a single community, the US is doing rather poorly. Yes, it still leads the world in propaganda, which tends to mask a lot of its problems, but beyond that the picture is not pretty. Among the world\’s developed nations, the US leads in many categories in which one would rather not lead, such as obesity, divorce rate, child abuse death, teen-age pregnancy, incarceration rate, homicide rate, percentage of children brought up fatherless and rate of sexually transmitted disease infection. It leads the world in fear, stress, anger and the use of antidepressants and antipsychotic medications. Suicide is the number one cause of injury death, having surpassed the also plentiful car accidents and fatal gunshot wounds. More US soldiers kill themselves than die in combat. A third of all employees suffer from chronic debilitating stress; half experience stress that causes insomnia, anxiety and depression; more and more people find the workplace so unpleasant that they are choosing to opt out of the workforce altogether, finding a much lower standard of living to be an acceptable tradeoff.
    The myriad social problems are so severe and so entrenched that, at this rate, any attempts to “solve” them would border on quixotic. Yes, you could switch from voting for a louse to voting for a cockroach, but is that really going to help? You could even “throw away your vote” on a third-party maggot. But you would still be voting for an American politician, even though you know what they are all like. A different and increasingly popular response is to flee to a happier land, but emigration is traumatic and painful and often causes damage to both self and community. Many of the social problems in the US stem from the fact that it is “a land of immigrants,” which is to say, a land of uprooted, lost souls. But there is another response: escape internally but remain in place by forming insular, separatist communities, with different rationales, sets of standards and codes of behavior from the surrounding society, in order to achieve better outcomes for their members. This approach is the one that is being embraced by more and more people.
    Voluntary subcultures are often formed because of dissatisfaction with society at large, and the reasons for dissatisfaction are many. Just one example: over half of the recent college and university graduates are now either working in jobs that do not require a degree, or are unemployed or underemployed. An entire generation (or two) of young people is finding that their society has led them down a garden path to debt slavery, with no fulfilling, satisfying, productive role for them to play. Given the chance, why would they not want to opt out of it? As times goes on and nothing changes for the better, their dissatisfaction grows, and we should expect their desire to opt out to only increase.
    Already the level of dissatisfaction in the US is such that some are describing it as a “pre-revolutionary sentiment.” For the time being it is being masked by various government hand-outs which are keeping the populace placated: over 50 million are now on food stamps and record numbers are on disability, supplemental security income and other government aid. The populace is kept placated with cheap or free food and public spectacles designed to reassure them: Rome\’s “bread and circuses” has been replaced with food stamps, television and the Internet. But it must be understood that this system is now being perpetuated by nothing more than money-printing and endless piling on of government debt: the federal government spends a third more than it collects in taxes. This is not a scheme that can continue in perpetuity, and although nobody can predict with any accuracy when it will stop working, we need to prepare for the day when it does.
    As we prepare, we must understand two things. The first is that little can be achieved by acting alone or as nuclear families; what is needed is a band, a clan, a tribe. The second is that we must think small: within the limits of Dunbar\’s number, which is somewhere between 100 and 230 individuals, and is commonly taken to be around 150. This number is based on the cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable personal relationships. Indeed, throughout much of human history, people lived in groups that rarely exceeded Dunbar\’s number. Larger groups are possible, but only at great expense, either in the form of exorbitant amounts of time expended on “social grooming” (a.k.a. politics) or through the imposition of authoritarian, hierarchical structures which tend to be very inefficient. Thus, larger groups are, by their very nature, less efficient, squandering resources on organizational maintenance, which smaller groups avoid. The number 150 is ubiquitous. It is the typical size of a farming village, the splitting point for a Hutterite colony, the ideal size for a military unit, and (in my experience) the point at which a tech start-up company ceases to be a start-up, becoming burdened with layers of middle management, human resources specialists, marketing and other corporate bloat. Even at Dunbar\’s number, cohesion requires that 42% or so of the time be devoted to “social grooming.”
    It is important to note that even at such small numbers a well-designed community can provide everything its members need: housing, nutrition, education, medicine, entertainment, companionship, social security and, perhaps most important of all, a sense of belonging. To people who live with the feeling that they belong to a cohesive community, where each member puts the interests of the whole ahead of their own individual interest, this is an incredible source of power. Social security, not in the sense of receiving a promised check from an anonymous institution, but in the sense of being tied in with the people around you through an informal web of obligations of mutual self-help, is equally important. These services may seem subpar from the point of view of first-world standards, but at a time when the promise of such standards rings increasingly hollow for much of the population, this point seems increasingly moot.
    A small community of this sort inevitably sets limits on most things, including one\’s individuality, but this too has a positive side. People have a strong psychological need to have well-defined limits within which to express their individuality. Lack of limits produces anomie, or loss of self. A strong, healthy sense of self requires that one\’s individuality be constrained by the needs of others. Without such constraints, expressions of individuality are reduced to meaningless gestures, self-indulgent peculiarities, expressions of personal idiosyncrasy or consumer preference. What\’s worse, the lack of meaningful social constraints often makes one feel so socially insecure that it paradoxically gives rise to a compulsive, extreme conformism. Thus we have people who have few close friends or family and who react to this rootlessness by compulsively cultivating a nondescript persona, expressing preferences for popular products and sports teams, dressing to blend in and doing everything they can to avoid awkward holes in their résumé, thus becoming virtual slaves to a fictional self that “fits in” and “belongs” and can make “fast friends,” making it possible for them to function within, and remain dependent upon, a transient social environment.
    But such dependence is becoming a serious liability. The impersonal systems on which this transient social environment depends are coming unglued. Social security is a broken promise: the Social Security trust fund has been emptied out, and the unfunded liabilities are in the trillions—well in excess of all household wealth. Other parts of the system have turned predatory: from the student loan crisis, to medical bankruptcies, to the scam that is real estate, which has resulted in record homelessness alongside a record number of empty houses—all of these developments undermine both the system and the individual who depends on it. Of course, most of the individuals have been undermined already—by a system that is designed to insert commerce, finance and government between every two people, making them into pseudo-“rugged individuals” who are, in fact, abjectly dependent on commercial and government services for their very survival.
    How do we respond in order to avoid falling prey to an increasingly desperate and predatory system? As individuals, we are almost completely powerless. We can attempt to respond as families, but most families are small and weak, built on airy notions of romantic and erotic love rather than the solid foundations of sacred duty, family honor and tribal responsibility. Strong and cohesive extended families have become something of a rarity, to be found among recent immigrant groups and in various small ethnic and religious enclaves. We can attempt to respond as informal, voluntary, casual groups, centered around community gardens and other such initiatives, but these are unlikely to ever evolve into the sorts of cohesive communities that can provide everything their members need (housing, nutrition, education, medicine, entertainment, companionship, social security and a strong sense of belonging). What is needed is more of a total system based on an alternative living arrangement. When facing adversity, such a system can form spontaneously around a church, a club, a campground and other sorts of venues. How exactly that happens is something of a mystery, but it seems that the impetus for its formation tends to be some sort of ordeal. Those who go through the ordeal together and survive are transformed by the experience, bonding with each other so strongly that everyone else—sometimes even their own families, and sometimes even their own previous identities—recede into the background or disappear altogether. This is no easy trick, but apparently it does happen.
    It may surprise some of you to learn that such communities do exist, right now, right here in the US. Some of them are relatively well-known, others disguise who they are and hide in plain sight. They are as varied as the accidents that brought them into being, but they also possess a set of commonalities that are nothing short of stunning. I have looked at a number of them, and though they are as different as groups of humans can be, from a certain level of abstraction they all look the same. To exclude all the failed experiments, the ones I looked at are the ones that have been around for a while—a century at least, preferably a few centuries, and this means that they are all pre-modern (and, being highly resistant to altering their ways, are very likely to remain so). Their attitudes toward gender equality, rights of sexual minorities, right to education, ethnic diversity or freedom of religion may, to our modern way of thinking, seem oppressive or decidedly outdated.
    What this means is that it would be impolitic to propose that any of these communities can directly serve as models. But this does not render their example any less useful, because the commonalities that unite them have nothing to do with their attitudes toward gender or religion. There are some limitations that are due to their small size; for instance, a community of a hundred or so people, with much of their attention devoted to their children and to the breeding couples which sustain their numbers, is unlikely to have a particularly active gay scene. On the other hand, it is unclear what practical constraint, if any, determines the extent of gender specialization, beyond the obvious fact that women tend to be more involved with the care of young children. Arrangements that have stood the test of time should not be dismissed out of hand simply because they seem old-fashioned; nor should they be adhered to slavishly for the sake of blindly perpetuating customs or traditions, especially if these customs and traditions seem alien and strange. But it must be kept in mind that there is an entire bookshelf of books about utopian communities that were based on various progressive principles, and the vast majority of them did not outlast the generation of their founders. Communities that abide tend to be socially conservative, and while this is hardly a candidate for a general principle, nor is it a tendency that we should allow ourselves to blithely overlook.
    Moreover, it is important to keep in mind is that the rules by which these separatist, insular communities choose to operate are set by them, not by us, making our opinions of them about as highly irrelevant as opinions can ever be. They are not the ones with a problem and we are not the ones with a solution; thus, they have no reason to be interested in us, but we have a reason to be interested in them. While there is is no reason for any of us to accept and be bound by any of their rules, the ones that they all tend to have in common are interesting because they probably have a lot to do with why these groups succeed, and we\’d be foolish to ignore them. It is these commonalities that we will focus on next.