Posted by: terrapraeta | January 18, 2010

Community 201

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world…

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one

John Lennon, Imagine

John Michael Greer wrote, last week, about the failure of social movements and specifically, community initiatives for change. Now, in my mind, what he was writing about was not really community. Certainly not what I am striving for, in any case, but some of the points he made are still applicable, in that he talked about the fact that many people are not willing to “pay” the associated “costs” of community building:

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.

In this he is absolutely correct. But it is only the beginning of the story. While Greer advocates, throughout the post, for community based, political action – whether in the form of participation in political parties, grassroots activism, or simple, community organizations (clubs, lodges, church organizations) – he is using the word “community” in a way that I would apply the word “neighborhood.” Not that he is actually using the wrong word, but that I and others that advocate for a fundamental shift in the way we live have co-opted the word community to mean something more.

I see two problems with this: Greer is suggesting that because there are instances in our past history where grassroots political action groups have been successful, that in fact, the model is successful. Vera and I both commented, trying to point out that for every success, there are a dozen (or more) failures and that this does not a successful model make. And in fact, that a big part of the reason that these sorts of organizations have fallen by the wayside is that the very people that once believed the could make a difference with action groups have since learned that minor modifications of the status quo (the only thing that these kinds of groups have ever succeeded at) are simply not enough.

So why are there no new models existent? Why have community organizations fallen by the wayside without something else rising up to replace them? In that, I think Greer has pointed out some of the biggest culprits, and in the comments section many more came to light: tv and other modern entertainments distract; mobility (home and job) has made it far more difficult to achieve the types of relationships that these groups rely upon, individualism exaggerated by that lack of relationship.

In response to Greer’s article, Sharon Astyk’s wrote a piece suggesting that we simply don’t have the time, anymore. He pointed out in return that 19th century farmers worked much harder, longer hours than we. While I would not dispute that, there is a key missing there, as well. Farmers in that prior era did work far more hours than we do now, but there is also a qualitative difference: where our work, home life, social circles and family relationships are all segregated, for a 19th Century rural farmer, these networks significantly overlapped or were, in fact, all the same circle. As a result, the investment of time in relationship was a lifelong, day to day piece of the whole. Whereas we have to make that investment intentionally, up-front, and using time that is not already “used up” by other activities.

There is yet another piece missing, however. Anyone that has been reading for a while already knows what I am going to talk about. Sharon writes:

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.

How are we supposed to build real community in an environment where we “don’t want other people in our lives,” where it is merely accepted as a given when someone talks about “putting up with” their “boring neighbor” and “people you don’t like much”? This is at the core of our civilization adaption toward social neotony. We no longer see people, we only see other.Every single person in this world has positive and negative traits, behaviors, characteristics. It is up to every single one of us to find those characteristics in others that we find attractive, beneficial, humanizing. Because once we have identified and embraced those positive traits, then the negatives merely become one more aspect of a complex being, one more aspect to love and cherish.

Open, honest communication, acceptance and self-and-other awareness. We each need to find these things before we can even begin to build real community. Because a community based on deceit (self or other) on lies, secrets, and lack of acceptance is NOT community. It is merely neighborhood.



  1. I am liking these echoes of conversations over the various blogs… 🙂
    Yup, tp, we tried, but JMG was dead set on not hearing us. When I tried making the point one last time, he cut me off completely, accusing my of flamebaiting. I shoulda been wiser, knowing that if a person answers a genuine comment with an ad hominem, repeating the point to them is not the way to go! (blushing) Well, here is my last comment to him, for completeness. My best understanding is that this does not fit into his theories. (Quotes indicate his words):

    JMG: “if you’re going to insist on the sort of disparaging caricatures … I’m not sure the conversation will be more than wasted breath.” Are you feeling upset because you are looking for confirmation of your hypothesis? My intent was not to disparage but to challenge. I confess that your apparent claim that we are all basically hypocrites like that preacher looking out the window, and lazy to boot (people unwilling to invest time, energy and commitment, as you say) rubs me the wrong way. People walked away from those tactics en masse for a reason. Now maybe their reason was not good enough, or misled, but so far you have not made much of an argument, apart from blaming “us” all. Or am I missing something?

    And you keep simply reaffirming that those old tactics were effective, while not responding to me pointing out that they were effective piece-meal but ineffective in the long run, overall. When I pointed out the weakness, you simply said “it’s very easy and comforting to insist that the game is rigged, as an excuse for not participating.” My point answered with a polite ad hominem, implying that I am just looking for an excuse? Eh… I will be looking forward to your further analysis. Perhaps you can show us how using some aspects of the old tactics can be useful along with new ways of doing things.

    Btw… apart from any excuses… you do not believe the game is rigged?”

    We’ll see if his next essay will reflect any awareness of what we said there. On the other hand, Joe Bageant posted a fantastic rant dealing, in part, with the activist dilemma, check it out (the Bass Boat post). He says:

    “In a marvelous bit of Mobius strip logic, the activists end up working toward the success of some minute difference in national policy that serves the purposes of the established power cartels. The main difference is in the degree of profitability for the corporate state. More profit or a helluva lot more profit.”

    Yeah, now, the man can put it all in a nutshell, nah?! Joe rocks!

  2. Hey!

    Wow… I’m surprised that JMG took your comments that way. Not how I see it, then again I do myself the honor of thinking I “know” you (at least on some levels) so perhaps I read your comments differently. That whole “tone” thing. And, then again, Ive never read JMG more than sporadically over the years… he’s a bit too “authoritative” for my taste. No more than Jason, perhaps, but again… I *know* Jason 🙂 Amazing how much difference that really does make!

    I’ll go check out Joe. I love him, but I never think to go read, ‘cept once in a while……..


  3. Nice!…. Joe’s article:

  4. […] by leavergirl under community, pattern language, traps Leave a Comment  There has been a welcome flurry of posts on several blogs regarding community. I hasten to add a few thoughts of my own. Community means a […]

  5. Tp, I think JMG just did not want to deal with my criticism. Messed up his tidy hypothesis. He showed it right away, and I just kept on pushing, which did not exactly endear myself. Heh! I learned my lesson.

    It could be part of his strategy for the blog… to alienate critics. But I am not sure yet, haven’t followed him very long.

  6. I think one of the things being missed is that in the modern world the people that surround us are arbitrary. They are not related to us either genetically or psychologically. Which is to say that we have nothing in common except that we live in the same neighborhood. A community is not an arbitrary collection of people who happen to live in the same area. Trying to make yourself care about that collection of people IS exhausting. Communities of the past were different because of intertwined relationships that extended into the past and were expected to extend into the future.

    One thing that I want to emphasize. I disagree with the idea that everyone in the community has to get along. (I know that isn’t stated but your last two paragraphs seem to imply it) It is ok if someone is a disliked curmudgeon. What isn’t ok is to remove the community from that person JUST because e is a curmudgeon. However, animosity can not be allowed to endanger the community, either. What is necessary is that the each member of the community must have the survival of the community as a priority in their decision making.

    I think the short version of what I’m trying to say is. Yes, communities are built of relationships, but not all relationships in a community are “good/positive/friendly” and dealing with those “bad/negative” relationships is ALSO part of community building.


  7. “A community is not an arbitrary collection of people who happen to live in the same area.” Exactly. But this is what most folks are stuck with, and then we bemoan how hard it’s to change it.

    I agree that once you form a community, you stand by those in it even if they go thru a curmudgeonly or whatever phase. But I am expecting that the people I aim to be with will bust their ass to learn better ways of getting along than is the usual, like I am doing… I have had enough dysfunctional family in my life, with the clueless and the warped. No more.

  8. Hey!

    vera… you may well be right about JMG… disappointing…

    Jim… a couple of things… “making yourself care” about anyone is a losing battle. But coming to care about various persons really is as simple as working with them to accomplish a shared goal. And this is what I was getting at in the article. There may well be people in any given community that you don’t much *like*, but shared experiences will cause you to care about them, to love them. That’s just how it works when you immerse yourself into a group of people. And family is a really *good* example of that. I don’t much like most of my family. But of course I love them………..

    vera(again 🙂 )… yes, starting from scratch we all need to be a little bit “better,” whereas the long term goal is to make that extra effort no longer necessary (because it is “unsustainable” in its own way)


  9. In pre-neolithic hunting-gathering bands, there was an organic connection between those in the band, as well as between them and the land. Trying to create a connection with strangers, which is what urban culture is all about, seems as though it might be a less fulfilling proposition.

    There were also shared rituals, stories, mythologies, symbols, that created a strong sense of belonging. I am just afraid that there may be too much wishful thinking in the mission as it is laid out.

  10. Hey —

    Yes, exactly, swk… this is why these are exactly the things we need to be working on. If this is going to work in any sort of long term way, community must be based first on shared worldview, followed closely by shared goals… and *most* of the energy expended must be about relationship (with other community members, the land, and the other-than human people that inhabit that land). And then, most of the rest of the energy expended must be about creating story (not in the way that we now “write fiction” but rather in developing story telling, story games, teaching stories etc), and eventually mythology……..

    I don’t know about anyone else that is talking about community… but these are the goals as *I* see them.


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