Don Sanderson: Thoughts on Building Community [Local]


This set out to be a comment on How to Create an Occupy Tribe, but the important issues as I see them must be addressed with more than a couple paragraphs.

It appears clear to many that survival in the coming days will require the formation of self-reliant and self-sufficient communities. How to do this seemingly remains a mystery with successes, except in narrow senses, being almost nonexistent. John Robb proposes that we form tribes and that this is happening on Wall Street without apparently recognizing the nature of successful tribes, which in fact hardly exist today.

A handful of cultural anthropologists managed to capture at least rudiments of the nature of wild tribes prior to their over-exposure by civilization. Some of their characteristics, as I recall:

  1. tribal units seldom were larger than a few dozen members;
  2. individuals were in close physical contact with all other tribal members 24 hours a day, nearly every day, throughout their lives; as a result, they closely identified with others in the tribe and shared resources and skills without question; care and protection of others was unquestioned;
  3. tribal units were closely tied to place and had been for many generations; they were self-reliant and self-sufficient in all ways, food, clothing, housing, medicinal herbs, and etc.; typically, some trade with others did occur, such as for salt;
  4. individuals acquired their culture by largely unconscious emulation of others as well as from often hearing the tribe’s myths told around the fire in the evening; shared cognitive and behavioral formulas and their meanings just naturally happened, rules did not need to be otherwise taught or enforced.

Not long after cracks formed in these structures, typically with the invasion by more dominant cultures, tribes collapsed.

Something like those tribes did form or survive in Europe in the peasant villages even until recently, especially in remote areas of little interest to the dominant culture. I had a friend who grew up in a small German village in the late thirties and early forties. He told me that the language spoken in his village was not understandable by persons living in other villages scattered around the same mountain and conversely. In effect, while Hitler was gaining control of Germany and ravaging surrounding countries, these people were cut off from the outside world by the lack of knowledge of High German. While barely in his teens, he was drafted by the German army and sent to the front. Fortunately, the war ended soon afterwards.

It would seem that life in those tribes was so simple, but it wasn’t. How is it we construct tribes, villages, with engrained cultures that promote self-reliance, self-sufficiency, and care and protection for other tribal members? How do we establish sense of place? Any attempt to form such a culture seems torn by our utter lack of knowledge of how we might survive if thrown out on the street without money. Almost none of us have any of the skills that were second nature to “primitive” tribal members or those peasants.

Whoa, you’re saying, we don’t want to go back to the fourteenth century or before. We really like our lifestyle, or at least that to which we aspire. We simply want those Wall Street mongrels, those corporate bastards, and those political crooks to go away. It appears that the Occupy Wall Street and related groups around the globe are achieving something like tribal cohesion, given common causes, but it is an illusion. Where is self-reliance and self-sufficiency? Almost without exception, they each are dependent upon the corporate world for sustenance and likely simply want a fairer distribution of what they consider the good things of life. I cry for their success as much as anyone. Still, here is history to consider. Mass movement revolutions similarly driven have happened, in France, Russia, China, and Mexico for instance. There is remarkably little evidence that the lives of the common people improved in those cases as a result. The gang in charge just changed. The Dutch revolution against Spain may be a counter example.

Back in the forties, Leopold Kohr wrote an arresting book, “The Breakdown of Nations”, which has been reviewed on this blog. His argument roughly is that when social organizations becomes too big invariably power hierarchies and resulting inequalities arise. How big is too big? He favorably quotes Aristotle to the effect that it can have no more members than one can survey from one place. In essence, it is too big if each person doesn’t personally know anyone who may be selected to represent them. Otherwise, they will only be guessing and superficial charisma and slogans will sweep the field. Doesn’t that sound familiar? From this point of view, California is too large, Mendocino County is too large, and Ukiah is too large.

Kohn admits, however, that a community must be large enough to support the craftsmen and other specialists needed to support the desired lifestyle. He wrote the book in a simpler time and could imagine several thousand inhabitants as being adequate. Let’s see. How large would a community need to be “after the revolution” to support your desired lifestyle? What part of your current lifestyle do you want to include? Your cars? Where are you going to get your fuel except from them? Where are the metals and other materials from which it is constructed to come from? Where are we to find the coal to refine those metals and where are the equipment to mine it and transportation to move it to place of use going to come from? How are the auto parts going to be manufactured and the cars assembled and where is the electricity to be generated to run the machines? Also, who builds and maintains the streets and with what equipment? All of this speaks big corporations, big government, and Wall Street. So, what are you willing to give up? Your clothing, your shoes, your food, your water, your home, your doctor, your television, your computer? Trace every one of these back and there you are. And, they all cost money, which forces you to work or become homeless and hungry. They really have you.

Worse, given that we are constantly flooded with contradictory stories and demands, from the media, from our jobs, and from our schools, no two of us share more than the most rudimentary experiences or myths. How is it we shall ever agree on anything? How do we tear down these walls without them falling on us? Piece by piece, it appears. Yes, let’s demonstrate. But, there is very little chance we will be able to affect this power structure by doing so. They have the police, they have the army. Alternately, let’s demonstrate by turning our backs on all their lures and so work for their collapse. A current instance is the drive for depositors to remove the funds from Bank of America.

I hate to always have to point this out, but there are much larger issues beginning with the rape of this Earth and the devastations now happening as a result of global warming. What good will it do humankind if the revolution doesn’t shrink our lifestyles drastically and ameliorate the effects so resulting?

Building community in this coming world will, I believe, be largely a matter of tearing down our present culture in our own lives, cutting lose of our supposed needs, our supposed social, economic, and political certainties, in every way we can… simply refusing to play their game anyway we can. We’re revolving to a place where we will only not know, not be able to rely on guide books. Can we not thrive there? Of course we can. We humans have a long successful tradition going back several hundreds of millennia of thriving in the most difficult places on Earth. How do we create community cohesion? Obviously, by loving everyone as ourselves. Don’t sell us short. We don’t need this very sick culture.