Archive for August, 2013

Wealth is not Property

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Svetlana Jovanović
[Guest post by Ellen, a long-time reader of this blog that I\’ve only just heard from recently. She makes a valid point, one I couldn\’t have made better myself. It makes me happy that a woman is making it, although that doesn\’t make it any less incendiary (for some people).]
Thank you for your series on Communities that Abide. I have been looking for a summation of successful and proven strategies for communities for some time. Reading your checklist was something of an “Aha!” moment.
Of course these communities on the whole chose fleeing from persecution. Their options were to fight, to flee, or to assimilate. Fighting back, statistically, would lead to them being destroyed. Assimilation would lead to them being destroyed in other ways, either by poisoned bodies, by military service, or by poisoned souls (for lack of a better term) which leads to suicide. So, the best option for an already autonomous and separatist group is historically to flee. That is what my great great grandfather who was born in Russia did. He fled with my great grandfather to the U.S., where he could practice his religion in peace.
Your article on What Comes First was spot on, and I couldn\’t help but make the immediate connection between false tribalism and Facebook, especially for stay-at-home mothers. Without the games, which are entertainment that I do not need in my life, facebook is all about gossip, which is just as essential as learning the language of any place you go to as quickly as possible. However, Facebook arises to the level of false tribalism because it lacks the mutual obligation component necessary for real community.
I appreciated your comments about the Russians not passing money hand to hand, not holding conversations or transacting business over a threshold, and not leaving empty bottles on a table. These things have always made me uncomfortable, and I think I know why.
Thank you for sharing the video about gender roles in the communities that abide. I laughed when you said you would channel your wife to say that men were idiots so why would women want to be like them? My cultural upbringing within the US public school system has taught me that my highest aspiration in life is to become a powerful CEO of a company, or a highly paid corporate attorney. It also taught me that women who stay home to raise children are unpaid slave labor, second-class citizens. I had internalized that, and your words sparked an understanding that my priorities were all wrong. What was I thinking? I hated working outside of the home before I had children! Furthermore, in a 100 person community, when you are female, and you have, say, even as little as 4 children all spaced out 5 years apart or so, you\’ll never be free from teaching them basic life skills, and by the time you are done bearing children, your children start bearing children, and you have to be there to support them with all of the overwhelming tasks that newborns create. The family/tribe is better off for that support that grandparents offer just by being around. Then there are many communal tasks which must get done, and sometimes females are just better suited for them, because of where the task is located, or because of the interruptibility of the task. That\’s not a mark of inferiority of either gender, but simply a matter of practicality. I do not understand how some women get offended at not being allowed to serve in combat roles in the US military. Maybe it is because your womb is so valuable that we can\’t risk you getting killed!
In my family, the same is true of the males, who we also cannot risk getting killed to enrich oil companies\’ bottom lines, or be permanently damaged with PTSD because they are not psychopaths, who are the only people who can survive combat duty unscathed by permanent mental scars caused by what they were ordered to do. Asthma in the medical records does wonders at keeping people out of the military in the US, almost as good as religious pacifism. Perhaps the third reformed church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster will be pacifist.
I cried when I figured out that it would be best for my family if I never worked outside the home again. Your recent series of articles have been helpful in replacing a bunch of stupid and nonsensical US cultural scripts in my head with something practical that works.
Communities consist, at their heart, of women and children.  A community which chooses not to bear children at greater than replacement rate is effectively choosing to die.  They will be overrun, one way or another, and cease to exist. Therefore, children, and the women who bear and raise them, become the focus of these types of communities as inevitably as a tactic of fleeing from persecution leads to not having strong ties to any one piece of land. Initially, when I read your series of articles on Communities that Abide, I thought that they were a bad idea because communities such as these would become genetically isolated.  Inbreeding tends to lead to all sorts of genetic problems over time, for example fumerase deficiency or tay sachs disease.  Further reading into the matter led me to understand that each separatist community has instances of genetic mingling with “outsiders” over the time span of generations.  It may be frowned upon, but it surely happens.
More importantly, wealth is people.  Most Americans have a very hard time wrapping their head around this concept.  They think I am talking about slavery (owning people) or something hierarchical, but I am not.  Your average public-schooled American thinks wealth is things.  They think that wealth is federal reserve notes, or stock certificates, or I suppose I have to include tangible holdable items such as gold bars, or title to 1000 acres of tenant-occupied commercial development owned free and clear within a large city, or luxury cars, or perhaps jewelry.  When I believed that wealth was things, and that my social status as a woman was tied completely to how much stuff I owned, then a couple of resultant beliefs naturally followed. First, I as a woman, I will choose to have as few children as possible, because children are a financial liability, and because every time I bear a child, my income potential as a female goes down.  Second, I will be angry at all of the men for not letting me have equal income earning potential, leading to depression.  See what happens when I believe that wealth is “things”?  My community dies out.
If, on the other hand, I believe, as many cultures throughout the world do, that my wealth is my family and my community, then some other beliefs and behaviors result. First, I will bear more children. Second, I will invest my time and effort in people, instead of maintaining the car/land/house/Internet game.  Third, it means that my social status and my value, as a woman, are completely divorced from my income earning potential. I am worthy because I am the heart and soul of my family and my community.  Fourth, this does not lead automatically to a kind of slavery where the woman is chained to the kitchen and must do what her husband says in the domestic realm. No, she is wealth, but in a way that does not make her property. It means that she is much more important and valuable than any property in the whole world. It means that if the house is burning down, and there is a billion dollars on the table and the wife is sitting next to it, the husband chooses to save the wife (or mother) over the money every single time. Coming from a place of values like that, why would I want to be “equal” in income earning potential? Such things are trivial and irrelevant. Wealth is in the people who are willing to do whatever it takes for you and for your community.

What comes first?

Lua de Proverbia

Without exception, all communities that abide have a unique and specific ideology, or faith, or set of principles, which they accept unquestioningly, and which they attempt to practice to the greatest extent possible. I decided to use the term “ideology” because it is the most neutral term and gets us away from discussing the intricacies of religion versus other types of ideology. It may be argued that all ideologies possess an element of faith. Even faith in science is still just faith: the scientist believes that the truth is discoverable through experiment rather than, say, revelation, and, as is usually the case with ideology, it is pointless to argue either way. One either accepts it, and passes, or does not, and flunks out. If you join a community, you either accept its ideology, or you don\’t join.

This makes it quite unsurprising that all communities that persist over historical periods of time possess an ideology, and they all share certain traits with regard to it: they do not debate it or question it and they spend very little time articulating it, sometimes encapsulating it in a small number of dictums, sometimes leaving much unsaid (but understood by all) by acting in accordance with an unquestioned set of taboos or prescriptions. But it is never optional, and if acting in accordance with the ideology becomes impossible, then the community faces an existential crisis that can bring it to the brink of dissolution.
It is sometimes left entirely up to the observer to try to articulate the details of the ideology of a group based on its observed behaviors, which can often seem to be a meaningless set of superstitions. For instance, if you happen to be a Russian, then you must never let money pass hand to hand but set it down on some surface; you must never carry on a conversation or hand objects over a threshold; you must never leave an empty liquor or wine bottle standing on the table; you must look at yourself in the mirror if you leave the house and return because you forgot something; and so on and so forth. If you fail to abide by any of these, then that is seen as inviting bad luck on you and those around you. Is there an underlying ideology? Probably not.
Russian taboos and superstitions are run-of-the-mill, but the Roma have elevated the use of taboo to a totalistic system, an alternative cosmology that has safeguarded their separatism and ethnic purity for something like a thousand years even as their numbers have climbed to over ten million, making them one of the largest stateless ethnic groups on the planet. Their concept of marimé, which is translated as contamination or state defilement, and the myriad taboos that are designed to avoid it, extends to everything: relations with non-Roma, to other Roma, to one\’s own children, and even to one\’s own body. Marimé is a rather more serious matter than bad luck, and those seen as contaminating or contaminated are quite likely to be shunned, which is almost a death sentence for a member of a tight-knit community that relies on mutual self-help for survival.
The Hutterites have a uniquely well-articulated ideology based on one\’s conscious acceptance of Christ as one\’s personal savior. In seeking salvation, the task of the individual is to overcome his will and to dedicate himself to serving the church, which is one and the same as the community. The specific term used is Gelassenheit, or submission: one must give oneself up totally to God through humility, obedience and sincerity; one must also give up material possessions and to suffer, even unto martyrdom. The physical realm is to be used to provide a modest living, but beyond that any surplus or excess of wealth can be put to just one purpose: to glorify God and to spread the word of God to the fallen world beyond the church/community. But in general the world is to be shunned, for it is contaminating and full of vice. Once of the vices to be avoided is the vice of intellectualism: the Hutterites do not interpret the word of God or elaborate a doctrine because the word of God is there for all to see. Thus, there are no Hutterite theologians and no Hutterite priesthood. The spiritual authority of the church/community is direct and personal, and its goal is nothing less than to restore Christianity to the way Christ practiced it.
It is notable that adherence to the ideology is never absolute, and that there is always room for compromise. The Roma are sometimes forced to spend time in prison, where they have to use the same eating utensils as non-Roma inmates, breaking a taboo. The Hutterites violate their ban on newspapers and magazines to stay abreast of the latest developments in agriculture and to participate in local politics. The Amish allow themselves to be bussed to jobs where they earn money to pay taxes. The Orthodox Jews, who cannot operate equipment on Sabbath, program elevators in high-rise buildings to continuously cycle, stopping at every floor, so that they can get, albeit slowly, where they need to go. But such deviations from the true path must remain circumscribed, and motivated by necessity rather than urge or whim, or they can easily develop into an existential crisis. One of the worst examples of such an egregious violation of stated principles that I\’ve heard of occurred at a permaculture class, where a meal was included with the course. The meal consisted of pasta and sauce… purchased at Walmart. In the context of an ideology of drawing sustenance directly from nature, is this equivalent to redefining Walmart as an edible forest garden? What\’s next? Fishing with dynamite? One begins to suspect that the permaculturalists teaching the course didn\’t believe what they were teaching and were simply there to collect the rather hefty tuition. This is the danger of ignoring ideology: the loss of esteem can be quite sudden, and painful.
How an ideology emerges to start with is usually something of a mystery. It may arrive fully formed from the mists of time, or be based on some foundational myths, or be introduced as a revelation, or some combination of these. As a counterexample, the Hutterites, as well as other Anabaptists (believers in adult baptism) got started by reading the Bible for themselves, and finding out that Christ never once mentioned a lot of the stuff the Roman priests were demanding of them, such as, specifically, infant baptism. While the priests of other denominations made excuses for introducing pedobaptism by throwing around big words like “theology” and “covenant,” the Anabaptists, seeing such intellectualism as a vice, simply stopped allowing it. This exposed them to persecution by Lutheran, Calvinist, Anglican and Catholic authorities, only strengthening their resolve.
However it is arrived at, it would appear that there are three requirements with respect to community ideology: 1. it must exist; 2. it must not be questioned; and 3. it must have practical application. It is the last point—how it is applied in daily life—that results in much deliberation and discussion, because, although exceptions are inevitable, they must be motivated by something more than whim, taste, personal predilection, or comfort and pleasure.
One commonality that all community ideologies seem to share is that they put the community\’s interests first: they all seek to block out elements from surrounding society that they find to be undesirable, be they violence or vice or other harmful practices, and they all seek to promote practices that will nurture and safeguard the inner realm. Perhaps this is all the ideology, in its purest sense, that is really needed. But then what is considered undesirable and blocked out often comes down to a question of culture, individual taste and circumstance, and this gets complicated rather quickly.
The Amish are quite notorious for their rejection of numerous elements of the “English” culture that surrounds them. They exclude cars, preferring buggies. They do not allow electricity in the house, but they allow pay-phones to be installed outside. They do not allow motor vehicles of any sort, but allow stationary internal combustion engines for pumping water, threshing grain and so on. They do not allow pictures (since the Second Commandment says “Thou shalt not create graven images”) but do allow them in their schools, for teaching children. They do not purchase clothing, sewing it themselves from cloth purchased in bulk, but they do purchase their shoes. All of these practices make them, in the eyes of the surrounding population, quaint, or strange, or old-fashioned, or downright bizarre.
But what\’s really bizarre is that if you start with the simplest possible community ideology you can, which is “My family comes first,” and then get to work systematically blocking out all that obviously harms it, you will in due course find yourself some distance down the road toward becoming rather quite like the Amish yourself. I speak from experience. Here are some examples:
1. Most people drive, but cars are quite harmful, with traffic accidents a leading cause of death. They are harmful even if you manage to stay alive. Case in point: it is required that a carbon monoxide detector be installed on boats; if CO level goes above a certain threshold, it flashes “Evacuate!” and blares an alarm. But the CO detectors are not found in cars, for a very good reason: they\’d be flashing “Evacuate!” in just about every highway tunnel and traffic jam. CO is harmful, even in relatively small doses, especially to little children. Therefore, we do not have a car. We do rent one, once in a while, if necessary.
2. Most people watch television, although it is probably the worst possible waste of time imaginable. (The US leads the world in time spent watching television per capita, with UK in second place.) Television “programming” is an apt term: it programs the mind with harmful cultural clichés and consumer behaviors, and is detrimental to maintaining a healthy culture. Therefore, we do not watch television (but we do watch Netflix). An exception is sometimes made for cultural and educational shows on channels that do not carry advertising.
3. Internet addiction is rampant. For many people, the pixels flashing on their screens replace more and more of the world, turning them into technology-dependent zombies. But Internet access is something of a necessity, and thus we have a rule: Internet cannot be used for entertainment. Exception: children can watch cartoons on Youtube (but only Russian ones, because American ones are violent). This is a hard rule to enforce, because the Internet has evolved to blur the line, and even when reading something useful, one is always just a click away from some ripe stinking nonsense.
4. Once you start reading the contents listings on packaged foods and learn what all the chemicals are and what they do to human metabolism (over 50% of Americans will have diabetes by 2020, that\’s what!) the obvious outcome is that both packaged foods from stores and fast food from restaurants is banned. All food must be prepared from scratch and from fresh ingredients. (By the way, this one step suddenly brings us into culinary alignment with the Roma, the Amish, the Hutterites and a fair number of other successful groups as well.)
5. Eliminating television and the Internet for entertainment puts the family largely out of reach of professional team sports, but, to make it explicit, these are banned as well. Professional team sports are a source of fake tribalism (while what\’s needed is the real thing). There is no such thing as Red Sox nation—just a bunch of people drinking beer while watching television. Plus, many team sports (American football and Hockey especially) glorify violence, undermining the message that violence is a symptom of a mental disorder. So, professional team sports are banned as well.
6. One of the most corrupting influences comes from marketing and advertising (with corporate underwriting in third place). I became aware of just how socially corrosive it is after working for an ad agency for a year. Most people would not buy what the ad agencies produce: nobody (but a cretin) goes to the Apple store and tries to pay for an iPod poster to frame and hang on the wall of their bedroom. And yet that is what we do when we buy advertised products: we buy the advertising. The solution is to block it out: we have a ban on publications that contain advertising, the ban on television takes care of TV ads, and AdBlocker Plus takes care of banner ads on the Internet. Some advertising does seep through, via billboards, product sponsorships and so on. The solution is to avoid any product or company that promotes itself in this “in your face” manner, and to find products and companies through careful research and word of mouth.

7. The military is another institution that promotes fake tribalism (instead of the real thing), perpetuates a culture of violence, plus (if you are even the tiniest bit religious) it\’s a bit of a concern that it routinely violates the First Commandment (“Thou shalt not kill”). The Bible provides no special dispensation for collateral damage. Serving in the military is a good way to get maimed, poisoned or killed. The military tends to find it politically expedient to deny that it caused a wide variety of mysterious injuries from which veterans suffer. The US military loses more people to suicide than to any other cause. It is therefore very important to not serve in the military. Refusing to serve in the military puts you in perfect agreement with the Roma, the Amish, the Hutterites, Orthodox Jews (even in Israel, although they seem to be in the process of losing their exemption) and many other communities that abide. Pacifism is definitely a best practice when it comes to communities that abide.

8. There are many Americans who are, on the one hand, exceptionally litigious, constantly running to the lawyers and the courts to resolve their conflicts, and, on the other, live in constant fear of lawsuits and of being held liable, demanding that people sign disclaimers and waivers and so on, and being forced to buy ridiculous amounts of liability insurance. It is best to avoid such people, and also to avoid lawyers and the courts. Doing so would align you with the Amish, who never sue and generally avoid the legal system, as well as the Roma, who only resort to official justice to bring false accusations against someone who has disobeyed an order from their internal tribal court, called kris, which is only summoned in dire situations. This is usually enough to bring the person into compliance, and the false accusation is then withdrawn.

I could go on and on, but just these few items should give you a flavor of the choices one is practically forced to make simply by taking just these two steps: accepting the “My family/tribe comes first” pledge, and translating it into action by eliminating all that can be shown, quite obviously and directly, to cause it harm. Once you manage to do this for your family, you will find yourself in a position to join forces with other families that have done the same, at which point you will be well on the way to forming a viable tribe.

Will such practices save the world? Of course not! But then is that world—a world of obese diabetics who have been turned into zombified consumers by countless hours of television-watching and Internet addiction—worth saving? And is this question even worth asking, seeing as there is a much more important question that is as yet unanswered, which is: What comes first?

How (not) to organize a community

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[This post first appeared in October of 2010 and met with a mixed reaction. Some people found it painful to hear that resilience and sustainability are often little more than middle-class hobbies, while the overwhelming trend throughout the world is toward a different kind of steady state, one characterized by something called durable disorder. However painful, the point stands.]

Dire predictions made by authoritative figures can provide the impetus to attempt great things: establish community gardens and farmer\’s markets, lobby for improved public transportation, bike lanes and sidewalks, promote ride-sharing initiatives, weatherize existing homes and impose more stringent construction standards for new ones, construct of windmill farms and install solar panels on public buildings, promote the use of composting toilets and high-efficiency lighting and so on.
In the midst of all this organizational activity neighbors get a chance to meet, perhaps for the first time, and discover a commonality of interests that leads them to form acquaintances and perhaps even friendships. As neighbors get to know each other, they start looking out for each other, improving safety and reducing crime. As the community becomes more tight-knit, it changes in atmosphere and appearance, becoming more fashionable and desirable, attracting better-educated and more prosperous residents while pricing out the undesirable element. News of these vast improvements spreads far and wide, and the community becomes a tourist mecca, complete with food festivals, swank boutiques and pricy bric-à-brac shops and restaurants.

The undesirable element is forced to decamp to a less desirable neighborhood nearby. There, it has no choice but to suffer with high levels of crime, but is typically afraid to ask the police for help, having learned from experience that the police are more likely to harass them then to help them, to arrest them for minor offenses and to round them up and deport them if they happen to be illegal immigrants. They also learn to be careful around members of local gangs and drug dealers. Since official jobs in the neighborhood are scarce, they seek informal, cash-based employment, contributing to an underground economy. Seeking safety in numbers, they self-organize along racial and ethnic lines, and, to promote their common interests, form ethnic mafias that strive to dominate one or more forms of illegal or semi-legal activity. Growing up in a dangerous, violent environment, their children become tough at a young age, and, those that survive, develop excellent situational awareness that allows them to steer clear of dangerous situations and to know when to resort to violence.
When the fossil fuel-based national economy shuts down due to the increasingly well understood local ramifications of the global phenomenon of Peak Oil, both of these communities are harmed, but to different extents and in different ways. Other countries may continue to function for another decade or even longer: these are the countries that have enough oil of their own, as well as those that were far-sighted enough to enter into long-term barter agreements with the few remaining oil producers that still have a surplus of oil for export. But suppose that our two communities are in an English-speaking country, which is likely to be afflicted with the irrational belief that the free market can solve all problems on its own, even problems with the availability of critical supplies such as oil. Just as one would expect, the invisible hand of the market fails to make itself visible, but it is plain to see that fuel is no longer delivered to either of these communities, although in the second one some fuel is likely to still be available on the black market, at prices that very few people can afford. Sooner or later, due to lack of supplies and maintenance at every level, electricity shuts off, water pumping stations cease to function, sewage backs up making bathrooms unusable, garbage trucks no longer collect the garbage, which piles up, breeding rats, flies and cockroaches. As sanitary conditions deteriorate, diseases such as cholera, dysentery and typhoid reappear and spread. The medical system requires fuel for the ambulances and running water, electricity and oil-based pharmaceuticals and disposable supplies for the hospitals and clinics to operate. When these are no longer available, the surviving residents are left to care for each other as best they can and, when they fail, to bury their own dead. Along with the other municipal and government services, police departments cease to function. Particularly important installations are guarded by soldiers or by private security, while the population is left to fend for itself.
The effect on the two communities is markedly different. The first community is superficially better prepared, being better equipped for emergencies and perhaps even having laid in emergency supplies of food and water. But being more prosperous at the outset makes a sudden transition to squalor, destitution and chaos much more of a shock. It also makes it a much more desirable target for looters. Used to living in safety and enjoying the protection of a benign and cooperative police department, the residents are not acculturated to the idea of countering violence with violence. Their response is more likely to take the form of a fruitless policy discussion rather than a spontaneous decision to go out and prophylactically bash some heads, causing the remaining heads to think twice. Unaccustomed to operating outside the law and having few connections with the criminal underworld, they are slow to penetrate the black market, which now offers the only way to obtain many necessary items, such as food, cooking fuel and medicines, including the items that had been previously looted from their own stockpiles. Worse yet, they once again become estranged from one another: their acquaintances and friendships were formed within a peaceful, civilized, law-abiding mode of social behavior. When they are forced to turn to scavenging, outright theft and looting, prostitution, black market dealing and consorting with criminals, they can no longer recognize in each other the people they knew before, and the laboriously synthesized community again dissolves into nuclear families. Where neighbors continue to work together, their ties are likely to be weak, based on altruistic conceptions of decency, mutual benefit and on personal sympathies—a far cry from the clear do-or-die imperatives of blood ties or clan or gang allegiance.
The second community is already accustomed to hardship and, not having quite so far to fall, can take the transition to mayhem, destitution and squalor in stride. The prevalence of illegal activity prior to collapse smooths the transition to a black market economy. Already resistant to the idea of relying on police protection, the residents are relieved when the police disappear from the streets, and a great deal of unofficial and illegal activity that previously had to be conducted in secret bursts out into the open. With the police no longer stirring the pot with their invasive arrests and confiscations, local criminal gangs now find themselves operating in a more stable environment and are able to carve up the neighborhood into universally recognized zones of influence, avoiding unnecessary bloodshed. The children, who are already in the habit of roaming the streets in gangs and harassing and mugging strangers, now come to serve as the community\’s early warning system in case of an organized incursion. (Not that too many people would want to venture into this area in any case, given its fearsome reputation.) Lastly, the prevalence of illegal drug dealing means that it already has a trained cadre of black market dealers who, now that official commerce has collapsed, can diversify away from drugs and branch out into every other kind of commerce. Their connections with the international narcomafia, whose representatives tend to be well organized and heavily armed, may turn out to provide certain benefits, such as an enhanced ability to move people and contraband through the now highly porous national borders. If the narcomafia ties are sufficiently strong, a narcobaron may take the community under his cartel\’s explicit protection, founding a new aristocracy to replace the now disgraced and powerless former ruling class.
Community organizing is quite wonderful, and can provide some of us with a perfectly pleasant way to while away our remaining happy days. As a useful side effect, it can provide individuals with valuable training, but it does next to nothing to prepare the community for collapse. A safe and congenial environment for you and your children is obviously very nice, much better than trying to survive among social predators. But humanity is not immune to the laws of nature, and in nature one can usually observe that the fewer are the wolves, the lamer, fatter and more numerous are the sheep. The central problem with community organizing is that the sort of community that stands a chance post-collapse is simply unacceptable pre-collapse: it is illegal, it is uncomfortable, and it is unsafe. No reasonable person would want any part of it. Perhaps the best one can do is to gather all the unreasonable people together: the outcasts, misfits, eccentrics and sketchy characters with checkered pasts and nothing better to do. Give them the resources to provide for their own welfare and keep them entertained. Keep the operation low-key and under the radar, and put up some plausible and benign public façade, or your nascent community will be discovered, shut down and dispersed by the pre-collapse officialdom. And if through some indescribable process all of these undesirable, unreasonable people manage to amalgamate and self-organize into some sort of improvised community, then you win. Or maybe they win and you lose. Either way, you would deserve credit for attempting to do something unusual: something that might have actually worked.
There may be a few people who would be willing to tackle such an assignment. If they are serious about it, they will stay well hidden, and we will never know how many of them have succeeded, because we will only learn of their existence when they fail. As for the rest of us, who are itching to do something useful within the confines of existing legal framework and economic reality, there is just one path: the path of emergency preparation, with the added twist that the emergency in question has to be accepted as permanent. Community emergency preparation is about the only type of officially sanctioned activity that may allow us to prepare for collapse.
The first and obvious part of preparing for the permanent emergency is to construct systems that will allow some, ideally most, of the population to survive in the long run without access to transportation fuels, or to any of the technology that comes to a standstill when starved of transportation fuels. The second, equally important part involves laying in sufficient emergency supplies of food, medicine, cooking fuel, temporary shelter for displaced persons, and so on, to allow some, ideally most, of the population to survive in the short run, while the transition to non-fossil-fuel-based existence is taking place. Yet another task is to organize streamlined, military-style control structures that can step in to maintain order and to provide security.
But the most important element of preparing for the permanent emergency is to devise a plan to force through a swift and thorough change of the rules by which society operates. Under emergency conditions, the current rules, laws and regulations will amount to an essentially lethal set of unachievable mandates and unreasonable restrictions, and attempting to comply with them or to enforce them is bound to lead to an appalling spike in mortality. The current way of changing the rules involves lobbying, deliberation, legislation and litigation—time-consuming, expensive activities for which there will be neither the time nor the resources. There are no non-destructive ways to decomplexify complex systems, and while systems that have physical parts fall apart by themselves, the legal framework is a system that, even in an undead state, can perpetuate itself by enslaving minds with false expectations and hopes. By default, the procedure for those who wish to survive will be to universally ignore the old rules, but this is bound to cause mayhem and much loss of life. The best case scenario is that the old rules are consigned to oblivion quickly and decisively. The public at large will not be the major impediment to making the necessary changes. Rather, it will be the vested interests at every level—the political class, the financial elite, professional associations, property and business owners and, last but not least, the lawyers—who will try to block them at every turn. They will not release their grip on society voluntarily. There is just one institution with enough power to oppose them, and that is the US military. It would be most helpful if enough high-caliber military types with lots of stars on their epaulets could step up and lay down the new law: henceforth anyone who wants to litigate their orders will do so before a military tribunal. It is heartening to see that many of the world\’s militaries, the Pentagon included, have recently woken up to the reality of Peak Oil, and are taking steps to prepare for it, while our craven and feckless politicians and businessmen continue to wallow in denial. Clearly, many Americans would rather not live under military rule, but then beggars can\’t be choosers, and, in any case, the alternative is bound to be even worse. The United States has not been invaded since 1812, but in its short history it has managed to invade other countries over 30 times. It should not come as a surprise, then, if the United States wraps up its existence by invading itself.
When taking part in community organizing activities, if your envisioned community is to survive the transition to a non-fossil-fuel-based existence, it is important to keep in mind a vital distinction: is this community going to operate under the old rules or under the new rules. The old rules will not work, but the new ones might, depending on what they are. You might want to give the new rules some thought ahead of time, perhaps even test them out, as part of your community\’s permanent emergency preparation program.

Communities that Abide—Part V: An Example of Success

Pete Ryan

P { margin-bottom: 0.08in; }Last week\’s post featured an extended excerpt from Peter Kropotkin, who counted off the main reasons of failure among communist groups: communal living, small size, and separatism from the wider world. Yes, an anarchist worker cooperative of a few dozen members that relocates into the American wilderness, shuns the world, and tries to make a go of it is likely to fail: the members will fall out with each other and live out Sartre\’s dictum that “hell is other people”; they will lose their young people who will flee to seek new experiences elsewhere; they will either become enslaved by a “big brother” or become “utterly depersonalized.” Give up the thoughts of farming and of complete self-sufficiency and zero in on the concept of gardening in close proximity to a city that can offer a stimulating environment, a market for the produce and opportunities for the children as they grow up. Keep in mind, says Kropotkin, who you are: you are not “monks and hermits of old” but industrial labor that wants to get out from under the heel of the capitalists and the rentier class.

Kropotkin talks of life animated by struggle—against social injustice in the wider society—as being essential for an active person. That struggle goes on: just last week we saw walk-outs by fast food workers in the US who thought it unfair that their wages were low enough to qualify them for public assistance and that the terms of employment often offered them only part-time work but with the condition that they be available to work at any time, precluding them from finding any other work. This is the end result of a couple of centuries of class struggle. Labor has lost. Gone are all of their gains: regulated work week and overtime pay for nights and weekends are history; guaranteed old age pensions are finished; right to public education replaced with right to attend public schools where students are taught little, tested endlessly and medicated into submission for misbehaving.
One might think that if labor has lost, then capital must have won. Indeed, on paper the capitalists are doing better than ever, with greater than ever wealth disparities, equity markets at all time highs (for how much longer?) and non-stop displays of ostentation and conspicuous consumption by those whose profits are subsidized by the Supplementary Nutritional Assistance Program that keeps their workers fed. But look at it another way: the capitalists and the rentier class are surfing on a gigantic wave of debt, and the collateral for that debt is rather doubtful. An economy that is 70%-driven by consumer spending, where 80% of the population is toying with poverty, is not too promising. If labor is the horse and capital is the rider, and the horse dies, where does leave the rider? On foot, I would think.
Kropotkin\’s story is a story of failure: industrial workers weaned on stories of social and economic progress who absorb all the right theories of anarchic organization and communist patterns of production and consumption, try to make a go of it, and fail. They cannot act like one big family because that\’s not how they are; they cannot shun the world because then their young people run away; they cannot live in small groups forever because they end up at each other\’s throats, or they end up enslaving each other, or both. Examples of failure are useful, to a point, but so are examples of success.
One such example is presented by the Hutterites, who are Anabaptists living in small agricultural colonies of 75 to 150 people predominantly in the Dakotas, Montana and the Canadian provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. They started out in Tyrol some five centuries ago. Jakob Hutter, who gives them their name, was martyred just three years after he took up preaching. They faced much persecution over the years, mostly over their communist lifestyle and their refusal to serve in the military. They spent time in various countries including Ukraine, where they did not fare well, and when they left for the United States some hundred years ago they numbered just four hundred, but now number around 42,000. For a time they had the highest birth rate of any human group, with over nine children per family.
The Hutterites are entirely communist, practicing the doctrine of “all things in common.” One of their founding episodes involved laying out all of their possessions on the ground and redistributing them based on need. They live in communal houses where each family has a separate room or apartment, but children over a certain age go and live in the Kinderhaus. They take their meals together in a separate communal kitchen and dining hall.
The Hutterites are also entirely anarchic: although they are organized into three major groups, called Leute, their governance structure does not really rise above the level of the commune. There are lines of responsibility that go to certain individuals, but all lines of authority really proceed from the full meeting of the commune, which tends to rule by consensus. They do hold elections for positions of responsibility which, when the result is a tie, are resolved by casting lots.
They refuse to send their children to outside schools, instead building school buildings right inside the commune. They separate the school day into German school and English school. The day begins and ends with German school, where the children are instructed in all things Hutterite. In the middle some time is left for the public curriculum, presented by an outside, English teacher. Grades are regarded as unimportant. There are no pictures (the Second Commandment prohibits graven images), no musical instruments, no radio or television, no newspapers or magazines (except for trade publications devoted to agriculture or mechanics). There is no higher education, because the Hutterites try to put their children to work at age fourteen or, at the latest, fifteen (as mandated by Education Canada).
Hutterite youth are allowed to leave the colony and work “in town.” If they return, to be baptized and to marry, rejoining the colony as adults (as most of them do) they are allowed to use their savings to furnish their rooms. Other than such outside earnings, the Hutterites have no money as individuals: everything they own is in fact owned by the “church.” (There are no church buildings or other physical manifestations of this church, theirs being a simple and austere faith.) Giving their youth the ability to leave and come back (no questions asked) provides an important relief valve, and also makes sure that when young people come back to rejoin the fold they do so with complete commitment and not willy-nilly, and it is the strength of this commitment that keeps the Hutterite colonies strong.
It may be interesting to ask whether the Hutterites are happier than the rest. Their way of living provides ample opportunities for hard, rather monotonous work, little opportunity for personal growth or recreation, little room for expression of individuality, and a large burden of responsibility before others. Yet they seem to have virtually no substance abuse, violence, depression or suicide, few psychiatric ailments, and generally seem content with their lot in life. It probably helps to understand what they see as their goal: it is not personal success or self-realization but harmony within the commune and living out one\’s allotted days in accordance with what they see as God\’s will.
The Hutterite notion of gender roles is strictly 16th century, and this strikes many people as unacceptable. The women have no voice (except in prevailing on their husbands) and no opportunity to compete with men. They take their meals at a separate table from the men (the children have a table of their own). It\’s tempting for some to call the Hutterites patriarchal, except that they have no archon (Greek for “ruler”) and exhibit no hierarchy. Instead, there is gender dimorphism, which exists in many species, human species included. Keeping an open mind about such things is difficult for many people, but really we have no more basis to judge the Hutterites (not being Hutterite ourselves) than we do to condemn the practices of our even more sexually dimorphic cousins—the orangutans and the gorillas. Is strict separation of gender roles essential to Hutterite success? I really have no idea. Their concept of gender roles is what it is because they, as a group, are five centuries old. They abide (which is why we are talking about them here) and their concept of gender roles abides with them. What would happen if they were suddenly forced embrace gender equality? They would probably see it as yet another episode of persecution and head yet again for lands less settled and less “progressive”… but, lucky for them, we won\’t get the chance to run that cruel experiment on them.
And so we have to contend with the fact that Hutterite communes abide whereas Kropotkin\’s anarchist worker communes have all failed. I do have an idea why that is: because of the people they involved (or, no pun intended, “evolved”). If you want to make a commune, start with some Hutterites—that seems to work almost every time; don\’tstart with some industrial workers looking for social justice and self-realization. This may seem like a terribly unfair thing to say. What do you have to do to win at this game? Become someone else? That\’s quite a trick, isn\’t it! Most of us wouldn\’t want to become Hutterites, even if we could (and we can\’t; the Hutterites aren\’t recruiting). Don\’t all of us have an inalienable right to “be yourself”? But I think it is still worth thinking about the process of becoming someone else, because the drastic changes to economy and climate that will unfold over this century will render most of us (those who manage to survive, that is) barely recognizable, making labels such as “progressive” and “conservative” about as relevant as the color of the plumage on the Dodo bird. The requirement of “being yourself” seems like a prime candidate for the leading cause of extinction, at every level. The Greenland Norse went extinct because they wouldn\’t eat fish. I suspect quite a few Americans will cook themselves to death because they will refuse to turn off the air conditioning. Giving up on being who you are is probably one of the more painful experiences a living being can go through—up there with dying and being born. But what if it\’s necessary anyway?

Thus, I feel that it is possible to form a commune that abides and succeeds; that success, however, will not be for the individuals who found it, who will have to sacrifice themselves to the cause and vanish as individuals in the process—it will be for the commune itself, in which there can be no individuals—only roles and responsibilities for someone to voluntarily accept. And few Western, empowered, rugged individuals coached in the rhetoric of human rights and invested with a great sense of self-worth and entitlement would voluntarily accept any of that. But what if there is no room for them in this gravely damaged ecosphere? There is a quote from Fight Club (the novel) that comes to mind: “You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You are the same decaying organic matter as everyone else, and we are all a part of the same compost pile.” Maybe the Hutterites have more of a sense of that than we do, which would explain their almost casual attitude toward death (versus their very serious attitude toward life). They are not put on this earth to achieve self-realization or success or status; they are put on this Earth, for a time, to do what they see as God\’s will, and their goal is to not make a mess of it. It seems like a worthy goal for our messy times.