Since my retirement I have had an extended opportunity to observe and participate in community and community building, while making sense of the local political landscape. I have been discouraged, annoyed and befuddled. However, wiser minds than my own have offered up some explanations and I am satisfied I have not lost my marbles. It is what it is.
It all began with John Michael Greer discussing the costs of community. He uses his experience drawn from writing a book about UFOs, and its reception, to draw some larger conclusions about community and he focuses on political organizing.
The key to understanding the power of citizens' organizations is that representative democracy doesn't respond to the will of individuals; it responds to pressure exerted by groups. Those who organize to put pressure on the system generally get at least some of what they want, and the longer and harder they push, the more of it they get. Those who don't organize, by their lack of organization, make themselves irrelevant to the political process.
The current lack of citizens organizing and influencing the power brokers directly, instead of using lobbyists and other professionals, can be attributed to the cost of personal engagment.
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.
Sharon Astyk weighs in, and proposes the real source of the problem; a workforce that now includes women and no longer has the time previously available because we no longer have much in the way of "free" time.
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.
Rob Hopkins, founder of the Transition Towns movement, comments on Greer and Astyk, and suggests that communities form around those with the entrepreneurial ideas.
I have struggled to find an analogy for this. The best I can come up with is a ‘Grow Your Own Crystal’ kit I had as a child. You mixed a particular chemical solution, and then dangled a piece of string coated in another solution into it. After a while crystals started to form around the string. Without the string, all that potential crystalness would have just continued to float about. With the string, it had something to latch on to, and to realise its crystal potential, as it were. Not the best analogy I ever come up with, but hopefully it gets the point across, in that rather than feeling we have to ‘create community’ from scratch, perhaps we might look at it that actually we need to make interventions around which community can form.
But Dmitry Orlov goes a step further than Hopkins and says straight out that communities are self organizing.
In all of my experience, communities — of people and animals — form instantaneously and rather effortlessly, based on a commonality of interests and needs. What takes a lot of work is not organizing communities, but preventing them from organizing — through the use of truncheons and tear gas, or evictions and mass imprisonment, or, more recently, more subtle and ultimately more successful techniques of the consumerist political economy.
Along the way he takes a side trip to bash the political system as it currently exists, and he is (in my opinion) spot on. It is worth reading.
In my own experience working with the local Transition group I have noticed that we have over 100 folks signed up to the website, but so far the maximum number of people at a large group meeting has been about 25. Over 30 came to see the film What Would Jesus Buy? It has been hard for me to watch this inertia because the issues seem so clear cut to me regarding Peak Oil and Climate Change. I fear that doing nothing is a sure recipe for disaster and it has been hard to see such low turnouts to the meetings.
Yet within this large body is a small group looking at sites for a community garden. It is energized and working hard at identifying locations, funding sources, and designs. Whether or not we are successful (I am a fully participating member) depends largely on forces outside our control. The members themselves are committed to providing healthy food and sharing their skills with all who wish to participate. As Orlov notes, we are self organizing, having come together, like Hopkins' "Grow Your Own Crystal", around a string associated with a common interest and need; raising our own food. However, scheduling meetings has proven to be a challenge as each person's time is already taken up with other activities, something both Greer and Astyk note. Overscheduling of members has led to some calendar conflicts, usually resolved. The group is a living example of the points being made by all four commentators.
Rogers Park is swarming with such groups, and I hope that each can achieve its goals and in the end help the larger community to coalesce around shared goals and visions. The future is much closer than we think and the time for action growing shorter by the day.