The world needs true political, cultural and intellectual diversity, not the uniformity pursued by those who march in step under the banner of "diversity." These early years of the Twenty-first Century are dominated by a kind of universalism which is a strange synthesis of "progressive" universalism, such as the doctrines of "multiculturalism" taught in university social science departments, and the "conservative" universalism of global capitalism. It is actually neither progressive nor conservative. It is a complex system for aggregating power in the service of a relatively small number of individuals.
After numerous changes of mind on social, political and philosophical questions, I've developed a healthy sense of skepticism and humility. Thus, I am not advocating some existing body of ideas such as socialism, feudalism, eco-feminism or free-market capitalism, nor does this manifesto elaborate any similar system of my own concoction. Instead, I discuss a general way of thinking about the development of social alternatives. Diverse ideas must be tried and no individual mind is capable of generating a true multiplicity of approaches to questions of human progress.
The world faces huge, almost incomprehensible dangers. I believe that the leaders of present world order are incapable of addressing them. That leaves it to the rest of us to form independent frameworks for the cultivation of collective intelligence and community strength. I hope the steps I recommend are general enough to be applied by individuals and groups of many different tendencies.
We can imagine a stable, peaceful, just, prosperous and pleasant order of human life existing in some kind of harmony with a highly diverse, fascinating, inspirational and nurturing natural world, but we don't know the details of such a world and we don't know how to get there. Those of us who are truly concerned should consider ways of thinking and living that bypass our hopelessly corrupt "intellegensia." This manifesto is intended as a step in that direction.
Why would you even care about building a better society? What is wrong with this one? What would be the main features of a society you would rather live in? What kinds of people would you like to have as co-constructors? How can you meet such people? Are you familiar with any attempts at building new societies that dramatically failed? Or ones that succeeded, even if in limited ways? What are some dangers to be avoided? What points might increase your chances of success?
You should address these issues first through personal study, observation and reflection.
Serious reading is interactive. One point of an extended period of individual study is to get comfortable with that interaction between text and yourself, outside any institutional contexts, religious or secular, public or private, that steer you towards their own interpretations of things and that tend to suppress your development as a critical thinker - even if they include courses in "critical thinking."
I have spirited arguments with the books I read. I fill the margins with comments. I enjoy many books that I disagree with. One of my favorites is The Communist Manifesto. What a wild, wacky book! Very much worth reading because it is both historically important and intellectually stimulating. But intoxication, intellectual or otherwise, is not an accurate gage of truth. Understanding the appeal of a text without being taken in by all of it will enhance your critical thinking skills.
I recommend that you read the Bible carefully from cover to cover. Use reference books (a Bible dictionary, etc.) to learn more about the peoples, cultures and technologies of Biblical times. Have several translations available. The King James Bible tends to be very poetical in many passages. The Jerusalem Bible is a more literal translation. The text and notes in it can help you understand some of the more difficult passages. You might prefer to do your main reading from yet a different translation.
If you already adhere to some Christian sect or denomination, you will probably already have some kind of framework for study and interpretation of the text. If not, I suggest that at first you avoid sectarian groups or interpretive writings. It is best, in my opinion, to learn the text itself, not systems other people have derived from it.
The Bible is the most important book in Western Civilization, but there is an added benefit to reading it that some people might not realize: A serious student, always asking, "Is this true?" or "What does this mean?" and not taking any of it lightly, is building a foundation for true critical thinking, as well as for further studies in history and literature.
If you are soon to graduate from high school, you might consider not going to college right away. Social, political, cultural and psychological subjects tend to be taught at universities from viewpoints having labels such as "liberal," or "multicultural," or even "progressive." This is often done in the name of "challenging your preconceptions."
I need to explain myself. In some ways I am an old-fashioned liberal. For America, I'd say the best system is basically market oriented, with reasonable regulations in place for things like environmental protection, worker safety, and so on. I don't fundamentally disagree with things like welfare and social security. There will always be need for reform! But I do not like the weird thing that "liberalism" has turned into. (I should mention that "mainstream conservatism," in this age of G.W.B. the mighty sky-warrior, has also mutated into something repulsive.)
The study of cultures and peoples other than one's own should be a significant part of anyone's education. But I do not like the weird cult of "multiculturalism" that now dominates academia.
As to academia's phony "progressivism," if you read their grandiosities carefully, you will find that the promoters of such notions always define themselves as "agents" or "architects," while regarding most members of academic communities and especially citizens outside of academia as objects to be manipulated by the tenured secular priesthood. The problem isn't privilege or "elitism," the problem is that the members of the elite are loyal only to each other and not to the societies supporting them in their privileged occupations.
A period of independent study can help prepare you to think critically about what universities try to teach you. You need to think especially critically about any doctrines of critical thinking, including this one! You need to prepare yourself to challenge the preconceptions of those who would challenge your preconceptions.
Your readings should include conservative books and magazines, where you will find views somewhat contrary to many of the things "taught" at universities. It is good for your mind to study well presented arguments on different sides of many issues. If you plan on attending a college where conservative views are dominant, then I'd recommend that you read some liberal books beforehand.
These days, serious conservatives tend to have a better grasp of how societies work than "liberals" or "progressives" do. How do families really work? How should they work? Are they fundamental to the upbringing of new generations, or are they mainly a mechanism for deciding who gets insurance benefits? On family and other issues, even true progressives can learn many useful things from conservative books.
The word "feminism" covers a huge range of different ideas. Some feminists are themselves interested in building new societies, and some of the topics covered by feminists could be of interest to anyone attempting to build a new society. How, for example, and why do young females try to alter their bodies to conform to socially constructed stereotypes? Should girls be exposed to healthier, more positive images of what it means to be female or attractive?
We can ask more general questions: How do boys learn how to be men? How do they develop concepts of what is attractive or unattractive in a female? How does courtship work these days? How should it work?
Once we start thinking about the constructedness of things, we naturally wonder how we might deliberately do a better job of constructing. Feminists seem to have a sense of social plasticity that conservatives lack.
Some pre-college exposure to feminist writings would give you time to think of some interesting questions, have some interesting discussions, before taking actual courses (in sociology or whatever) taught from a feminist perspective.
It is sometimes said that ideologies are mere pretexts for the exercise of power. For example, when George W. Bush talks about spreading freedom and democracy, he is justifying military intervention. When Mary Sue Coleman, President of the University of Michigan, talks about the importance of a radical preferential admissions system for the sake of a "diverse democracy," she is uttering a shibboleth pleasing to the ears of the members of the powerful cliques with whose blessings she obtained her half-million dollar per year job with all of its lush perquisites.
You need to be alert for what I call the fallacy of asymmetrical deconstruction: the words and ideas of one side of an issue are relentlessly "unmasked" as propaganda, as justifications for fundamentally illegitimate authority, while the clichés and trivialities of the other side pass without comment. The real issue of power, for most of us, has nothing to do with wanting to rule the world or enslave other people. It's a question of having the power to create for ourselves lives that are fulfilling and consistent with the better aspects of our true natures. Unmasking the agendas of a major power tripper is a worthwhile exercise, but you should also consider unmasking the agendas of the unmaskers.
It's a fine thing to read the papers to follow current events and public affairs. It is even better to ask questions like: In what ways do newspapers and other media shape or influence public opinion? How deliberate is this process? How are news stories slanted?
The media question may interest you if your main purpose is reform of our existing society. You can learn things by studying how an issue is presented. For example, the United States was involved in a rather one-sided war for a few months during 1999. When I write about it, I always refer to it as "Bill Clinton's criminal bombing campaign against the people of Yugoslavia." That's my true opinion about what it was, but I couldn't blame you if you didn't think I was being "objective." However, I've read articles in regular big-city dailies that use the term "America's humanitarian intervention in Kosovo." Now, if you question their objectivity, they might reply, "Haha! 'Objective'!! What's 'objective'?? Tee-hee.. NO ONE'S REALLY 'OBJECTIVE'! Oh my God, you are SOOO backward!!"
Gulf War II provided an even better opportunity for media analysis. Naturally, the TV network that most assiduously and obsequiously served the interests of the Bush administration continuously advertised itself as "fair and balanced."
By clipping papers, annotating the clips and filing them, you might begin to notice some interesting patterns that will help you analyze the power structures of our existing order. Plus, you will start thinking about the general question of channels of information, quality of public debate, etc., etc., and what those things should be like in your alternative society.
There are myriad ways you could study media. All are optional! If newspapers or TV do not interest you, then do not waste your time on them.
The Internet is an amazing medium for independent study. Many universities now require students to have their own computers so they can access the Internet. This is amusing, because you can learn much from the Internet without ever setting foot on university soil. And you should be able to learn great, important things at a university without ever coming within fifty feet of a Web browser. The two "media" almost seem to be inherently antagonistic. When universities start advocating the unfocused, serendipitous, non-hierarchical, ad-hoc, collaborative kinds of learning that the Internet makes possible, we should say, "Well, fine, but why should we pay tuition for that??"
Indeed! Web-based learning is a perfect sort of thing to do during a period of independent study. You can hang out on message boards or in chat rooms, learn how to use different search engines and familiarize yourself with reference resources, all for a low monthly flat fee (in most areas of the U.S.A., anyway). If you do this before going to college, then you will give yourself enough time to get over the novelty of it, plus, when you start college you will be able to concentrate on more traditional academic subjects.
With the Internet, we have an amazing potential for the interchange and development of socially progressive ideas. Anyone can find essays on it on any imaginable subject. We can share our ideas with the world. Critical thinkers who are not part of any establishment can now find each other!
Like other popular media, you do need to approach it on your own terms. The Internet can be addictive - it can absorb a great deal of thought and energy. So your own needs and interests might best be served if you stay away from it completely.
You should consider issues of personal change during your period of independent study. Even if you are the kind of sensitive, intelligent, imaginative person who cares enough about social progress to read an essay like this, you might still have a few "personality issues" - habits, reactions, "neuroses," difficulties and so on that you would like to change.
There is hope! Change is possible! Every year, millions of humans change in truly significant, often easily observable ways. Compulsions and obsessions dissipate, habitual reactions vanish, sadness melts in the sunlight, sore heads heal themselves, screwball ways of thinking are abandoned. Sometimes the changes are spontaneous, sometimes they are in response to readings or life experiences. Change can be facilitated by counseling, meditation, twelve-step programs, support groups, religious teachings or even medications.
There can be problems. One might be a false conviction of change. After the revival meeting, you're a new person, filled with the Holy Spirit. The next night, you're drunk on your ass again, whoring around in the worst parts of town! After the counseling session, you really understand yourself. The next night, you're back at the freeway rest stop, recklessly violating the terms of your parole! (Most instances of false conviction are not that obvious.)
Even a true change can lead you to give too much credit to a system or method that helped you achieve it - you could turn into just another evangelist for your favorite brand of Ancient Celtic Wisdom, or whatever. (I do not mean to disparage A.C.W. If it interests you, then learn from it what you can!) Change can also lead to an overly "psychological" way of thinking, where most of your thoughts are about your thoughts, and your conversations tend to be about the little soap operas going on in the more sordid regions of your noggin.
Still, if you can change in some significant (but probably small) way and if you can maintain a critical perspective about your self and all those things that aided your change, then you could be a valuable part of an effort to build a new society.
We think thoughts for ourselves, we learn thoughts originated by others. We learn much without realizing we are learning it. If you write essays or keep a journal, you will probably find yourself writing down thoughts very similar to ones you've read. This is not a problem, as long as you realize what is happening. We need to avoid illusions! Enlightened ordinariness is better than benighted outlandishness!
I don't claim to be particularly original. I've read a bit, I've thought a lot, I've observed, I've accepted, rejected, reconsidered, elaborated and reformulated many common ideas. This essay is worth reading because of the way I organize and present ideas, not because it contains ideas you can't find anywhere else. If you wish to be a true critical thinker, you should develop the courage to be as ordinary as I am!
Being a true critical thinker has its liabilities. If you are a conformist, naturally, you pretend to be a "critical thinker" just to get along with all the other "critical thinkers" you work or socialize with, but it is not comfortable being the real thing in a world of phonies.
If you've studied the world as it is, you probably realize there is some serious weirdness going on, particularly in America. There are connections among the outrageous conduct of public officials, the incredible stupidities uttered by university administrators, and the blatant propaganda spewed out by our presses under the heading of "news." I won't elaborate here. You need to develop your own sense of these things.
At some point, you will ask yourself, "What can I do?" Keep that question in mind for a while - you might be able to answer it!
Myriad courses of action are possible. Most of them are not very dramatic. None are "effective" if you want to make a huge difference all at once. But if you, as a reformer or as a progressive, are concerned about the future, you should not stay isolated. If you really want to be a lonesome philosopher, go ahead, but honestly, it is not a fun way to live.
My recommendation: Form a study group!
People can form study groups for different reasons, some quite mundane. If you and five or six friends wanted to check out local service businesses - auto repair shops, dentists, carpet cleaners, etc. - you could form a study group for that purpose. You could share your experiences, make lists of places to try, evaluate reports of especially good or bad service, look for patterns. For example, if everyone who goes to the local auto repair shop around the corner "needs new ball joints," then maybe it is not the place to visit.
Study groups can be set up for any interests people have in common, whether it's the music of Nine Inch Nails or the novels of Jane Austin. My own interest here is study groups set up to help analyze or reform aspects of our existing society, or to lead to the development of alternative societies. Such groups are made up of small numbers of people who have made serious commitments to work together. They are neither debating clubs nor recruitment mechanisms.
A successful group requires consensus among its members on the issues of the group's purpose, membership, form and operation. Suppose we have five people. If three of them want to study public housing and two of them want to study literary references to Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, then they should form two groups. If persons B and C both hate persons D and E, and vice versa, then they should form two groups. (Person A could belong to either group, or possibly to both.) If four people want to meet informally as time and inclination permit, but the fifth person insists on incorporating as a private club and conducting weekly meetings according to Robert's Rules of Order, then the fifth person should go looking for people with compatible personalities to form a second group.
During your individual study phase, the emphasis was on critical thinking. With a group, the emphasis is on collaborative learning. The phrase "collaborative learning" is popular in academia these days. I think it tends to be used in inappropriate contexts. If you are taking a physics class from a good professor, there is no particular need to get together on a regular basis with classmates to work all of your homework exercises. The texts, the lab exercises, the lectures, etc., plus a phone call or two if you get stuck on something, will be enough to get you through. When uttered by university administrators, "collaborative learning" might just be a code word for creepy egalitarianism. Can't have anyone thinkin' they're smarter 'n anyone else, now, can we? ('ceptin' us administraters, o' course...)
The idea is still valid. Let us suppose five people at some college are interested in various activist political groups on campus and how the local papers cover them and related issues. The members could attend different public meetings and lectures. Each person could read and clip a different daily newspaper. The group itself could meet once a week and pass clips around, talk about recent events and share ideas.
The coverage for many events and issues will be the same in all the papers. The collaborative advantage is that you only have to read one source. The sharing and discussion will help fix the events in your mind, so you save a lot of time.
Then there are the nuggets. You have to wash out a lot of gravel before you find them. Nuggets are those little pieces of information that cast a new light on things, that suggest possible connections or motives, that tend to verify something you've suspected. The best nuggets are ones that tend to disprove things you've assumed. They will tax your critical thinking skills! In the first place, many people can't even see such things. Some people automatically disregard them.
The obvious point about nuggets is that you, as a member of a study group with four other good people, can learn about them without having to read every single paper yourself. The real collaborative advantage goes beyond that. How do you interpret those odd little contrary discoveries? A group of five critical thinkers can come up with many more potential interpretations than one person working alone. Perhaps, after discussion, one interpretation will seem right. Perhaps two or three will each suggest possible directions for further inquiry.
Groups can look for curious similarities among the materials they gather. Suppose letters under three different names appear in three different papers, but each letter uses the exact phrase, "mad-dog capitalist pig imperialist." You could reasonably conclude that the letters were all written by the same person or by people who know each other or by people who have some common organizational ties. That type of conclusion isn't exactly hold-the-presses breathtaking, but it is yet another little piece of information that will help group members form better understandings of what is going on behind the scenes.
Curious similarities can also suggest corporate hanky-panky. If, for example, many letters to editors of many newspapers get printed in defense of some big corporation in legal trouble, and most of the letters make the same points, often with similar wordings, then you can suppose they are part of an organized PR campaign.
Curious omissions can be significant. For example, if racial identities are always prominent parts of stories about white-on-black crimes, but are mentioned obscurely, or not at all, in stories about black-on-white crimes, you can presume some kind of deliberateness in the asymmetry.
You can develop other categories of oddity to aid you in your analysis.
Groups don't need to have an investigatory focus. You might want to concentrate on reviewing books and other writings concerning, just for example, the history of intentional communities. Members could give oral book reports at meetings. Some of the more interesting materials could go on a common reading list.
Governance should not be too much of an issue for a small study group, but it might not be possible or desirable to avoid the subject completely. Some sort of participatory democracy or consensus decision making arrangement would work best in most cases. On the other hand, if the group has one or two members who are dominant (because they started the group, or they put much more effort into it than others), then some formal or informal recognition of their leadership might be appropriate. Regardless of the group's internal form, getting along with other people and working well with other people always take time and effort. It won't always be obvious to you exactly what it is you're learning. If you read the papers carefully, looking for oddities and thinking critically about it all, you're "obviously" learning about the topic at hand (say, "the battle over gun control"), but, more importantly, you're learning to study media content carefully and critically. Similarly, some of the lessons you learn while playing your part to develop a functioning study group and keep it functioning will be useful if you move on to forms of association that require greater levels of commitment.
Associations of study groups are a possibility. They could be complex, for example, 25 people could establish two sets of study groups, one set based on media type (newspapers, magazines, web sites, books and public meetings and lectures) and the other set based on subject (health care, labor relations, banking regulations, environmental protection and higher education). Each person would belong to one group in each set. Each group would have a representative from each group in the other set. E.g., the labor relations study group would have a representative from the newspapers group, one from the magazine group, and so on.
Inevitably, some groups will split up. If this is a simple failure to get along, then about all you can do is learn from the experience. What went wrong? Try not to dwell on any sore-headedness you might feel. Use your critical thinking skills!!
A split-up precipitated by philosophical differences or truly incompatible personality types can be a good thing. Suppose four reactionaries and four left-wingers make up an anti-war study group. Oh, it would warm my heart to see all those people getting along!! But maybe they can't. Years and years of political hostilities leave their traces. Even when we get over being sore, the former sore spots are easily inflamed. So, in order to avoid wasting time by getting tangled up in ideological differences, the reactionaries and the left-wingers might best split up into two groups, each of which could make better progress on its own.
In some cases, small groups can combine into larger groups, or form complex associations. There are many possibilities.
Being part of a study group is a form of political engagement that does not require you to act on issues you don't understand. Still, a group may decide that "action" is appropriate in some situations. The action might be a simple, loosely coordinated letter writing campaign, or it might be a long project to establish a formal student organization or political action committee. Again, many possibilities. Groups are free to avoid "action" entirely, if that is their wish.
Perhaps even more important than knowledge and habits of thought are the personal relationships developed in a study group. No matter what directions your life eventually takes, you will know people with whom you can candidly discuss serious issues. If times ever demand a high level of engagement with our current society, or serious efforts to withdraw from it, you will know people you can work with.
In any case, your critical thinking skills, your familiarity with processes of collaborative learning and your ability to have serious discussions and still get along with people will all prepare you for closer forms of association.
Cooperative living arrangements have practical advantages. By pooling resources and sharing work and expenses, you can live an economical, low-overhead life and enjoy the company of the people you are living with. You can learn a few things about working with people and getting along that you might not learn in the somewhat authoritarian environment of a workplace or in the somewhat anarchistic environment of a college dormitory.
If your motives are purely practical, then your best bet is to join an existing arrangement. Do the people in the house seem to get along? Is the place reasonably clean? What kind of reputation does the place have? Do the members sit around all day smoking weed, do they have drunken parties on the weekends, are they devoted to lives of chastity and abstinence, are they all business majors?
You have to start with some reasonable belief that you will be happy in particular group, but once you join up, you must be willing to adjust to its established ways. The wheels of local culture and procedure do not need to be re-invented.
A group of people with a common purpose might consider a cooperative living arrangement as a way of furthering that purpose. A study group, for example, might wish to move to a higher level of commitment in order to cover more material.
In these cases, the arrangement probably needs to be established from the ground up, since existing arrangements and communities might not be suitable for the purpose at hand. You are not "re-inventing" wheels; you are adapting the concept of wheel to your particular vehicle.
The adventure will involve risks. People might not get along, they might not be happy, the group could completely fall apart under the added pressure. The distances between members of a study group who live separately have a stabilizing influence. When those distances vanish, the charming quirk can become a major annoyance. The major annoyance can become an intolerable burden.
The project could have a business or technical orientation. An ability to live together cheaply, pooling resources and knowledge, and work well together can sometimes give a small group better prospects for success than gobs of venture capital. A group of people actually living together is much better able to cultivate high levels of commitment and trust than a mere "network" of loosely connected individuals.
Artistic projects could also be approached this way. One lonesome teenager, even with rich parents, would have trouble producing a weekly TV show. However, a group of five people in their early twenties, who have prepared themselves by studying individually and together, and who have gotten to know each other well by living together, might have a chance of creating an engaging drama that would actually attract a loyal audience. The inevitable difficulties in adjusting to a group living situation would provide many comic and dramatic ideas for episodes. Who knows - the results might even be better than the early seasons of Dawson's Creek.
Some groups might be interested in social reform efforts. Our existing society is screwball in so many ways, there are many possibilities. One would be to focus on large politically active organizations such as the ACLU or the National Education Association. Their internal politics are complex and obscure. The perverse nature of their external political activities is easier to learn about. The ACLU does indeed do some fine civil liberties work, and I hope they continue. But they also spend considerable energy on left-wing political initiatives and on attacking conservative politics in ways that have essentially nothing to do with "civil liberties." A worthy objective for a reform-oriented group would be reform of the ACLU itself. Or the NEA.
Helping the poor and needy is a worthy purpose. Our institutional mechanisms for providing such help often fail, because they end up serving their paid help much more than the needs they were put in place to address. There will always be room for involvement by independent monitors and activists in areas such as care for the very old, for the mentally ill, the homeless. A group of people living cooperatively and engaged in issues of this type would resemble the Students for a Democratic Society in the earlier phases of its existence, before it (and just about everyone else) went totally nuts later in the '60s.
Reform groups could concentrate on esoteric issues, such as foreign policy, which is an arena for conflicts by all kinds of interests, some obvious, some obscure. Just about everything you might read about international relations is tainted by some kind of material or ideological agenda, and it is not easy to tell which is which. Any existing institutions for formal study of foreign affairs are likely to be similarly tainted. Groups of dedicated citizens would be able to make small differences, as opposed to the essentially negligible differences that would result from purely individual efforts. An interesting possibility would be to establish some kinds of on-going contact with similar groups in foreign countries. For example, five people in the U.S.A. and another group of five people in Guatemala might accomplish a great deal of learning about the history of that country and about foreign involvement by communists as well as Yankee imperialists. If Guatemala ever became a serious issue in the U.S., there would be at least five people who would have a chance of finding their way out of the inevitable maelstrom of obfuscation.
People living cooperatively need to have something in the way of shared values, ideals and purposes. (VIPs for short - very easy to remember!) Organizational form and operational details should be consistent with the VIPs.
Here is a quirky example of shared VIPs at work. Normally, getting along, keeping interpersonal difficulties down to a minimum would be a "shared value." However, suppose five budding writers live together hoping to enhance their individual levels of creativity. Perhaps constant discord, ever shifting bi-sexual relationship triangles and frequent outbreaks of unrestrained artistic jealousy would stimulate that creativity much more than the kind of relative tranquility most of us would be comfortable with. (My own preference for a literary co-op would be a spirit of internal unity against the crazy, crazy world outside, but that's just me.)
Dogmas are like the undefined terms and axioms of a mathematical system. They are the fundamental ideas upon which ways of thought and reasoning are built. They have a large effect on the nature of a group or a society. They can be kept to a minimum, but they cannot be completely avoided. A group's dogmas would consist of its VIPs and any other "truths" it wishes to uphold. Of course, if you have too much dogma or not enough or the wrong kind or a bad combination, then your group will fail.
"Diversity" is a dogma now popular in government, academia and large business. Sometimes the worthy goal is likeness, not differentness. Universities now seem to construe their reason for existence as the providing of object lessons for students whose pre-academic lives took place solely in the company of people "just like themselves." I suspect, if you are seriously thinking about "new societies," then you are like me in some ways. You long to live in a situation where you can for once in your life talk and work with people who are "just like you" in some essential way. You do not need to be ashamed of that longing!
You will have to deal with some issues that are even more treacherous than dogma or inter-personal psychology. For example, housekeeping! It is our legacy of male chauvinism that leads us to think of housekeeping as a trivial issue. It isn't! Where do people keep their dirty laundry? Do you need "rules" for use of the washer and dryer? Who cooks, who does the dishes? How often should the floors get swept? Are tasks rotated, or do you have permanent assignments? Do you need house rules? Quiet hours? Rules about guests, drinking, smoking? Who manages the finances? How formal is the organization? Is their a house president or chairperson? Who can sign checks?
Sooner or later, someone will say, with great conviction, "My god, we are SUPPOSED to be (helping the poor, learning about Bosnia, preparing to run Bill Gates out of business or whatever), and here we are SQUABBLING about who does the flippin' dishes!!" You should calmly respond, "It is written in Manifesto for the Peoples of the Third Millennium that housekeeping issues are indeed worthy of our time." That should settle the matter once and for all.
There are other operational and organizational issues you will need to address. It might become desirable to expel people who can't seem to get along. It's a situation that needs to be handled with intelligence and sensitivity, but it is not always avoidable. We can learn from the misfits among us, but perhaps there are things we can best learn when we are not being distracted by misfits. Here is where having a stable organization structure and decision making process is highly beneficial. An unpleasant adjustment does not need to become a major crisis.
Your ultimate achievements as part of a successful cooperative living arrangement will be greater than your project work. The close friendships you form and the lessons you learn might very well last a lifetime.
The kind of cooperative living arrangements I've described are sometimes called "intentional communities." I use the word to describe something more permanent, something a cooperative living arrangement could evolve into. A CLA might involve six people leasing a house together. An IC might involve thirty people collectively buying 160 acres of land, building six houses on it and cooperatively farming it. The fact that property and quite possibly decades of people's lives are involved makes an IC a much more ambitious project. The personal consequences for failure can be serious. If you join an IC at age 25, with great energy, enthusiasm, commitment and hope, and leave at age 40, what will you have for all of your effort? Knowledge is imperfect. We humans are quite capable of making huge mistakes with our lives. Two years "wasted" as part of a CLA would not necessarily be wasted. Twenty years "wasted" in an IC might be truly wasted, and it might be difficult for you to make a decent life for yourself in the great world outside. "If things don't work out, we'll all go our own ways when the lease expires" is correct thinking for a CLA. If you are considering establishing or joining an IC, the details of what would be involved if you leave or if the whole group fails are very important. That is one of the factors that makes "cults" so dangerous. It isn't the strangeness of their beliefs, it's the fact that they demand huge amounts of effort and devotion, and, after six months or so, they deliver to their members no more enlightenment than what can be found in the self-help section of your favorite bookstore. Another aspect of cultism is the suppression of critical thought. Even to ask the question, "What if I decide I don't really like this, what if I want to leave?" is to commit an act of gross infidelity. Mainstream religions and secular ideologies also tend to suppress critical thought, but they also encourage their adherents to live normal prosperous lives.
I mention cultism at the start here because it is a serious danger. If you become part of a true intentional community, then it might very well involve foundational dogmas at odds with "mainstream" society. This variance might instill a messianic attitude, which might not be bad in itself, but it might lead you to be overly committed to the variant ideas or especially to community founders who initially expounded those ideas. Thus, you could invest a large segment of your life enriching and pleasing a leadership, but without getting much in return. Simply believing that you're doing something of some benefit to humanity isn't a bad thing. If our present order is corrupt, and I believe it is, then efforts to develop alternatives to it are noble even when they fail. But I sincerely encourage you to maintain your sense of critical thinking that you started developing during your phase of individual study. I encourage you not to let your altruistic impulses get out of hand.
As with the simpler collaborative living arrangements, the VIPs of an intentional community do not have to be explicitly progressive. Perhaps twenty people would value peace and quiet, a good night's sleep every night, good food, comradeship, energetic work and time for studying and developing their artistic and athletic talents. If they've all followed the progression from individual study to group study to group living, they might have a real chance of putting together their own little utopia. It would be a very progressive accomplishment, even if the community members were not trying to be progressive.
The over-arching spirit of our age is what I call gigantism-individualism. They are like the good guys/bad guys in a professional wrestling match: their "opposition" is a form of engaging the audience, of enhancing box office revenues. We root for one side or the other, not realizing that the opponents are really on the same side. Politically, we see Jesse Ventura, a charismatic libertarian type, happily posing for a photo with Bill Clinton, the anointed servant of the powers behind gigantic entities such as the U.S.A., NATO, the National Education Association, numerous large commercial interests and the United Nations.
We suffer from a great poverty of thought. So-called "liberals" go on and on about "community" or even "morality" when it suits some particular point they wish to make. In other contexts, they will strike dramatic postures for the sake of "individual rights." Conservatives might note the erosion of the powers of intermediate institutions - state governments, private organizations, small and medium sized business, neighborhoods and families - but the idea of creating new intermediate structures never occurs to them. Also, mainstream conservative types tend to ignore the erosiveness of capitalism itself. Plus, they have a tendency to play "bad cop" in ways that actually strengthen federal authority. The liberal/conservative power struggles are real, but as with professional wrestling matches, the "opponents" are in some significant ways actually on the same side.
Any intentional community is an alternative to gigantism-individualism. They are obviously not gigantic, and they would almost always involve some abnegation of the pure individualism we are supposed to cherish. If making up your own little personal mind on every issue in your life from preferred type of grocery bag to when and how loud you can play your stereo to whether or not to abort a late-term fetus is the one thing you value most, then you are probably quite happy living in the world as it is, with all of its noise and traffic jams, endless shopping malls, music that deafens its listeners, war criminals in high office in the United States, power-worshiping journalists, Wal-Marts sprouting up where once only weeds grew, mindless action-adventure films, fast food served ineptly by grinning idiots, fine art that sucks, publicly funded arenas for the rich spoiled brats of professional sports, racial strife constantly fueled by those claiming to oppose it, cavalier yahoos in sport utility vehicles, rude police officers and numerous, numerous opportunities to support the power structure and show that you really care. Put a check mark in one or two boxes on your tax return! Your "individual rights" are safe! (For the next decade or two, I would guess.) You need to know what you value, and if that's it, then that's what you have. It will never, never occur to you that maybe life could be better.
People who do see possibilities of achieving better lives through moderately scaled collective action are true progressives, whether they know it or not. If what you want out of collective action is more time to play baseball, instead of just watching it on TV, then may God bless you with many home runs and a happy life!
The gathering of industrialist-intellectual-individualists in Ayn Rand's novel Atlas Shrugged is a fictional example of an intentional community. (John Galt is a character in Rand's novel.) I doubt that a community based on her philosophical ideas could work in the real world. The dynamics of the actual group of people who hung out with her while she was writing her great work were perhaps at odds with the ideals expressed in it. Still, if a group of people adhering to Randian VIPs ever do try to set up a functioning intentional community, that shouldn't be much of a problem for the rest of us.
It isn't surprising that theoretical doctrines of individualism can lead to authoritarianism in practice. Similarly, a rigid insistence on logical consistency can hamper our ability to think critically. Abhorrence of social classes gives birth to social classes. Rejection of dogma becomes dogma. We do not find love until we stop looking for it. Etc., etc.
It is not a rejection of reason to note these "paradoxes." Our relationships with other people, our ideas, our attitudes and our feelings all affect each other. Formal logic is a good model for things like the workings of a digital computer. We should not expect it to be a perfect tool for understanding life and society and everything.
There is a well known college that calls itself a "laboratory of democracy." (The students, I presume, are the rats!) An intentional community should avoid that kind of pretense. It is similar to the situation we face with ourselves. There are all kinds of theories and systems and methods for personal change. Many claim to be "scientific." But science fails when the issue is your own thoughts, your own feelings, your own life. Because if you are at Point A in your life, and you try Method Q, you can't go back to Point A and try Method R and then compare results and draw a conclusion. You are the very river into which you cannot step twice. At best, our self knowledge is developed by reasonable guesses based on experience.
So it is with intentional communities and even societies. We regard some things as "bad" (authority, dogma, social classes, exclusion, selfishness, elites, censorship) and some things as "good" (democracy, equality, freedom, idealism, logic, altruism). Our reactions to these concepts, our opinions about them tend to be shaped by society and by what we read. And in this society, not surprisingly, they function more as "buttons" than as actual, operational principles. They are flags around which much righteous rabble can be roused to rally. My opinion is, if you are participating in an intentional community, and you have some hope that your community could be the beginning of a new society, you will need some amount of some kind of authority, dogma, etc., etc. You will need to avoid elevating concepts like democracy, equality or even idealism itself to the status of unassailable ideals.
What you can hope to achieve is an actual working instance of small-scale social organization. Even if all is well with your group, you still need to think critically about issues of scale. There are forms of "participatory democracy" that can work very well for a group of five or six people, but that break down completely when the group has more than a dozen members.
If you make enough money doing what you love to do you can live the kind of life you want to live. Sometimes we are not good enough at our preferred occupations to support ourselves from them. There are many wealthy musicians in the world, but there is much competition for that wealth. The markets for some kinds of work are weak. Almost no one, for example, makes a living by writing poetry.
Sometimes it is possible to accomplish things through small-scale collective action that otherwise would be possible only with substantial personal resources. In this fictitious example, a circle of folk music lovers have formed an intentional community which they call the Neo-Folk Septet. They are not rich, but they have solved the difficult problem of learning to live economically with each other and get along on terms that allow all of them to continue pursuing their artistic and cultural interests.
Suppose our NFS makes a few recordings and builds up a small group of fans. Word gets around. The "community thing" appeals to people, perhaps even more than the actual music. Other people want to join, or start similar communities. Thus, there is potential for expanding the community or beginning a movement.
It would be more like a folk movement than a pop movement. A pop movement is like pop music - it's success is based on it's appeal to common sentimentalities and emotional reactions. I happen to like a lot of pop music for that reason. Some of the songs by *NSync, The Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears and the Spice Girls are pleasant and pretty and they don't need to be anything more than that.
Pop progressivism is dangerous. The popular appeal of social ideas has little to do with their workability. In one of John Lennon's songs, there is the line, "Imagine all the people living for today." It sounds so nice! And it is indeed a very pretty song. But I suspect a world where all people really were "living for today" would be back in the stone age in a decade or two, if not sooner. Our imaginations can lead us in many directions, not all of which are forward.
A successful neo-folk culture would have its roots in interactions of personalities, ideas, events and emotional resonances. It would have narratives, shibboleths, favorite songs and other common references that would embody its accumulated knowledge and maintain a sense of group identity. According to my thinking, a neo-folk culture would also involve some amount of formal dogma. But if culture is like a song, then the tunes, the harmonies, the interplays of different voices, the colors and textures are more important than the semantic content of the words.
The root meaning of the word "perfect" is "completely done or finished." Our lives, our families, our associations, our societies, our species are always changing one way or another. We would not want them to be "perfect."
The Constitution of the United States of America was not regarded by its writers as a perfect document. It included mechanisms by which it could be changed. It also included many elements supporting a high degree of stability.
So it should be with groups. Neither adamant rigidity nor unrestrained radicalism are of much practical use. Even changes in fundamental dogmas could be contemplated for good reason.
A community that desires generational continuity should develop its own methods, styles, practices, traditions and institutions for the education of children.
The general pleasantness and security of life in "advanced" nations depends on a great deal of technical knowledge. A sound general education in all the usual subjects - history, language, arithmetic, algebra, geography, biology, health, sports, art, etc., etc. - is a foundation for the gaining of that knowledge. Practical skills such as cooking, house building, repair of machinery, agriculture, road construction, forestry, computer programming and so on should also be taught.
A community should improve over generations. We should not fall into the error of worshiping youth, but we should reasonably be able to hope that our children will grow up to be at least slightly better people than we are. At the same time, we must transmit not only static knowledge of our culture, but the ways of thinking and conversation and working together that have enabled us to be truly progressive.
Thus, education will always involve some tension between progressive and conservative tendencies, but if we believe we have arrived at some convivial, pleasant, earth-friendly way of collective living, presumably we would want our children to have the opportunity to enjoy what we have established. We can be proud of ourselves if they follow in our footsteps, more or less, up to a point, etc., because the outside world will often seem like an attractive alternative even when it isn't, especially to those who lack a first-hand knowledge of its problems.
The most fundamental political skills that need to be taught in an alternative society are a willingness to study public issues and to reflect upon them critically and to discuss them honestly with other community members. The exact mechanisms for representation, decision making, etc., will vary from group to group, but a society can not possibly be progressive if appeal to mass emotion "works" most of the time, while thoughtful reflection and honest discussion almost never make any difference at all.
The studies, reflections and discussions must be in the context of the community itself. Thus, if youth are eventually to take their places as full contributing members of the community, they need to learn the history and traditions of the community. They need to understand its foundational values and dogmas. They need to hear its stories and to read its basic texts. Ungrounded idealism and cheap universalism should be discouraged.
If study groups, intentional communities and purpose-oriented cooperative living arrangements keep increasing in number over enough decades, they would actually be a "political movement" but not the kind we are familiar with. Successful groups will provide inspirational examples for unaffiliated people. Some successful groups will decide to grow and will develop workable ways of selecting and assimilating new people. When significant numbers of people change the ways they live, that, of course, affects the larger societies they are part of.
Some individual groups will "reproduce" by fission or schism. Some factions will succeed, some will fail. Some groups will be imitated, i.e., formed by people who learned community ways from books, articles and cultural products such as songs and TV dramas, but who never actually lived in the communities they are imitating. An imitation is more likely to fail than an effort "organically" developed as described in this essay. I believe it is impossible to use any medium to convey all the details of a way of life. The "unconveyed" details could be significant. However, the inherent inexactness of attempted replication could yield variant communities superior in some ways to the original models.
Some communities will combine or form associations. All of the splittings, accretions, spontaneous generations, unions and connections, successes and failures will, over time, give adaptability and strength to the movement as a whole. Groups will develop ways of cooperating with other groups, just as they develop ways of getting along internally and ways of assimilating new people.
A community should postpone serious thought about the issue of autonomy until a generation of people born in it has reached middle age. If many communities with positive public images in the outside world have sprouted up, developed and become established, then autonomy might be a real possibility, although the achievement of it might take decades. In the mean time, living under the discipline of a functioning large political entity such as the United States of America would have advantages. "Instant autonomy," even if it were politically possible, might lead to too many "Lord of the Flies" type situations. "Here we are - masters of our fate!! So, what do we do next??"
The re-organization of people into small scale associations will benefit the larger societies they are part of. Their independence of view, the seriousness of their studies, their experiences with discussion and critical thinking will enhance the quality of political and social debate. Some self-established groups will have the energy, the integrity, the intellectual power, the cohesiveness and the endurability necessary to peacefully and effectively challenge and reform the gigantic institutions of our age.
As the number of communities and associations and autonomous entities increases, aggregations will emerge that will include enough people, enough land, enough tradition, enough knowledge to be regarded as actual new societies. The members of new societies will eventually think of themselves as new peoples.
In his book Thus Spake Zarathustra, Nietzsche wrote, "Ye have made your way from the worm to man, and much within you is still worm." Modern genetic science can tell us exactly how much within us is "still worm." You can probably find this information somewhere on the Internet.
Unlike the great atheistic prophet, I believe that even if we "surpass" much of our "human, all too human" weirdness, we will still wish to remain human. Machines might pass a Turing test someday, but they will never enjoy reading Nietzsche. The worminess of our biological bodies will be with us, lo, unto eternity!
Collectively, we have made our way from the stone age to our present transitional age. Much within us longs for the closeness of the hunter-gatherer societies of our distant foreparents.
The good gentlepersons at the upper levels of our world power structure appeal to our residual primitive consciousness by crying, "Community!! Community!!" By which they mean we should subordinate the interests of ourselves, our families and our frail associations to the interests of the gigantic forces they so effectively control.
The masters of public opinion and mass behavior have scientifically mapped the resonances of our souls. They vibrate the strings of our hearts with digital music. They have at their disposal precise statistical profiles of our needs for feelings of love and tenderness. We have not evolved to the point where we can naturally withstand these assaults on our humanity.
The slow development of authentic folk cultures is impossible in our age. The only alternative I see to the gigantism and atomization and the sheer rapidity of change that prevent such development is the deliberate cultivation of synthetic folk-like cultures.
Humanity's assault on the ecology of earth was well underway at the dawn of the Neolithic age. Our mastery of nature could be our doom. And yet we cannot abandon technology. We must reconcile the strange, infinitely arguable insights and achievements of 20th Century thought with the wisdom of the ages, even the pre-historical ages. We must also be willing to recognize the stupidities of ages past and of our own age.
New societies of reasonable size and evolved structure can best fulfill our ancient, rooted longings for connection, companionship and conviviality. Progressive communities have been created. In my humble opinion, the future of humanity depends on the continuation of that creative process.
Copyright © 2000, 2001, 2003
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