John Michael Greer has a superb piece up about our reluctance to seriously consider real community and organizational strategies. I think it is well worth reading for anyone interested in this question of community – because we have to ask ourselves, if this is the tool we’ve got, why do so few of us want to do the work? Why are so few of us able to do the work?
It’s interesting to speculate about why that took place. I suspect many of my readers have encountered Robert Putnam’s widely discussed book Bowling Alone (2000), which traced the collapse of social networks and institutions straight across American society. The implosion of the old grassroots-based party system is simply one example of the trend Putnam documented. Putnam’s book sparked a great deal of discussion, some of it in the peak oil community, but nearly all of that discussion fixated on the benefits that might be gained by reinventing community, and left out a crucial factor: the cost.
By this I don’t mean money. Communities need regular inputs of time and effort from their members, or they collapse into mass societies of isolated individuals – roughly speaking, what we’ve got now. Communities also need subtler inputs: a sense of commitment, of shared purpose, of emotional connection, of trust. To gain the benefits of living in community, it’s necessary to sacrifice some part of the autonomy that so many Americans nowadays guard so jealously. The same thing is true of those subsets of community already discussed – political parties, for example, or citizens’ organizations, or any other framework for collective action that’s more than a place for people to hang out and participate when they feel like it.
I know a fair number of people in activist circles who speak in glowing terms about community; most of them don’t belong to a single community organization. I also know a fair number of people who’ve tried to launch community projects of one kind or another; most of these projects foundered due to a fatal shortage of people willing to commit the time, effort, and emotional energy the project needed to survive. Most, but not all; some believers in community have taken an active role in trying to build or maintain it; some projects have managed to find an audience and build a community, or at least the first rough draft of one. One of the reasons I don’t dismiss the Transition Town movement, though I have serious doubts about some aspects of it, is precisely that many of the people involved in it have committed themselves to it in a meaningful sense, and the movement itself has succeeded in some places in building a critical mass of commitment and energy.
I think this is absolutely a fair cop – I know a lot of people who want to build community – but only with people like them, who agree with them. I know a lot of people who do seriously want to build community – but are exhausted and overburdened by the job.
What I think Greer leaves out in this important conversation is the issue of time and energy and resources. The absent space of political and social engagement that Greer rightly points out is a result not just of a culture of autonomy, but of a culture of industrialism that demands the labor of everyone in a unified project – and leaves very little space for other work.
Consider how adamantly we are pushed into the professional workforce. We often frame this in terms of freedom and individuality – we form our identities by choosing a career, women are empowered by going out and making money in places where people monitor their bathroom breaks, rather than staying home and organizing their own work. We are allowed few breaks – minimal vacation and that reluctantly. Even maternity and medical leaves are grudging and bare-bones. Children are sent to do the hard work of school and extra curriculars – they are expected to toil in preparation for getting a career. As Juliet Schor observes in _The Overworked American_ only 19th century factory slaves worked longer hours than we do.
I think Greer overlooks this reality in his analysis, as good as it is – American political democracy flourished in part because of a sense of communalism and responsibility that is absent, but some of that is simple tiredness, and the fact that a majority of American women are now absent in the workforce all day. At the end of the day, much of the work that would have been done in the daytime (meal prep, domestic labor) is shoehorned into evenings. Families are smaller, and less likely to live together, and the erosion of community ties create a vicious circle – things we once could get for free from others, we now must work to pay for. The time that was used to make democracy is now subsumed into the workforce – and our livelihoods depend on us not undermining corporate power too much.
I don’t deny that we’re afraid of community. I don’t deny that many of us who try burn out from exhaustion and others just don’t want other people in our lives. I think Greer’s point that we have to be willing to pay the price – to deal with the fact that community doesn’t just mean working together, it means putting in the hours to talk to your boring neighbor and resolving disputes and being the subject of gossip and putting up with people you don’t like much, when it is easier not to. His point is absolutely true. But it is also true that the re-establishment of an American political power requires also that many of us disengage from the workforce – I mean that quite seriously. That doesn’t necessarily mean that this disengagement should occur on gendered terms – if anything, we’ve seen that more men are being laid off than women. But we’re going to have to find time to live on one income – by combining households and reducing costs if we’re to have a meaningful democracy – and this is not easy. I don’t understate the enormous difficulty for people, the cost to their lives. And yet, what is most needed to establish community is time, the hardest single thing to claim.
As I have said over and over again, the version of the women’s movement that succeeded in the US and around the world couldn’t have been more useful for neo-liberal growth capitalism if someone had commissioned a study. There were and are versions of feminism that critiqued this model, and they were largely shunted aside in favor of a world where everyone’s work is co-opted into the growth economy. This is not the fault of feminism, who rightly felt that who got to go out and be educated and professional should not be decided on the basis of gender. But until someone goes home again, and starts taking up the low impact domestic work, and making time for daily communal and political life, the hopes of our imagined communities are fairly faint. This may be the single hardest nut to crack for most of us – because we really do need the money, and indeed, have become dependent on what hurts us the most.