Thursday, November 09, 2006

Politics: Rebuilding Civil Society

My last two Archdruid Report posts argued that the American political system has wedged itself into the impossible position of trying to sustain an unsustainable empire, along with the even more unsustainable standards of living that the now-departing age of empire fooled Americans into seeing as their birthright. Like the bread and circuses of ancient Rome, the petroleum-fueled prosperity of 20th century America fostered a culture of entitlement in which most citizens believed that they deserved to get whatever they wanted without having to pay the full price for it. One consequence of this cultural shift has been the collapse of democratic politics in the United States.

It’s popular these days to blame this consequence on the machinations of some nefarious elite group or other, but the real responsibility lies elsewhere. Democracy takes work. Casting a ballot in elections once every year or so is not enough to keep it going, though even this minimal investment of time and effort is apparently too much for something like six-tenths of adult Americans. What makes a democratic system operate is personal involvement in the political process on the part of most citizens. Precinct organizations and caucuses, town meetings, and other political activities at the local level formed the indispensible foundation of democratic politics in the days when the United States was not yet an elective oligarchy.

These activities drew on a broader base of local community organizations – churches, civic societies, fraternal orders such as the Freemasons and the Grange, and many others – that rarely engaged in explicit political discussion and activism, but taught skills and made connections that inevitably found their way into a political context. These institutions of civil society created a context in which individuals could orient their lives to the politics of the day, and act in ways that could influence policy all the way up to the national level. People who wrestled with the nuts and bolts of the democratic process in community organizations needed no further education when time came for the precinct caucuses that chose candidates and evolved party platforms.

It’s often claimed by modern writers that these institutions of civil society thrived as they did because people didn’t have anything else to do with their time, but this says more about our own fantasies about the past than it does about historical reality. Most people a century ago worked longer hours than their descendants do today, and the popular media of their time was less technologically complex but no less widely distributed or eagerly sought than ours. The difference lay, rather, in prevailing attitudes. Alexis de Tocqueville famously described early 19th century America as a land of associations, where the needs of society were met, not by government programs or aristocratic largesse, but by voluntary organizations of common people. The civil society of pre-imperial America thrived because people recognized that the social and personal benefits they wanted could only be bought with the coin of their own time and money.

One example worth remembering is the way that fraternal orders, rather than government bureaucracies, provided the social safety net of 19th century America. The Odd Fellows, a fraternal order founded originally in Britain, launched this process shortly after its arrival in the United States in 1819. Odd Fellows lodges in Britain had the useful habit of taking up collections for members in need, especially to cover the living costs of those who had fallen sick – remember, this was long before employers offered sick pay – and to pay the burial costs of those who died. In the American branch of the order, this quickly evolved into a system of weekly assessments and defined benefits.

The way it worked was simple enough. Each member paid in weekly dues – 25 cents a week, roughly the equivalent of $20 a week today, was average – and the money went into a common fund. When a member in good standing became too sick to work, he received regular sick pay and, in most lodges, visits from a physician who received a fixed monthly sum from the lodge in exchange for providing care to all its members. When a member died, his funeral costs were covered by the lodge, and his dependents could count on the support of the lodge in hard cash as well as the less tangible currency of the nationwide Odd Fellows network. By 1900, as a result of this system Odd Fellowship was the largest fraternal order in the world. In that same year more than two thousand American fraternal orders had copied this model, and nearly half of all adult Americans – counting both genders and all ethnic groups, by the way – belonged to at least one fraternal order.

This effective and sustainable system, though, depended on the willingness of very large numbers of Americans to support their local lodges by attending meetings and paying weekly dues. Its equivalents throughout civil society had the same requirements, and with the coming of empire, these turned into a fatal vulnerability. As the profits of American empire made it possible for governments to buy the loyalty of the middle class with unearned largesse, the old system of voluntary organizations lost its support base and withered on the vine. With it perished the local politics of precinct caucuses and town meetings. When participation in the political system stopped being seen as an opportunity to be heard, and turned into an annoyance to be shirked, America’s democracy mutated into today’s system of elective oligarchy.

What happened, in effect, was that most Americans made the consumer economy their model for political participation. A consumer’s role in the economic process is limited to choosing among a selection of lavishly advertised and colorfully marketed products provided by industry. In the same way, most Americans embraced a political system in which all they had to do was choose among a selection of lavishly advertised and colorfully marketed candidates provided by the major parties. It’s not accidental that when people today complain about the low caliber of candidates offered for their vote, their tone and language aren’t noticeably different from those they use when they complain about the low quality of consumer products offered for their purchase. Absent in both cases, too, is any recognition that there might be an alternative to choosing among products somebody else made for them.

Until this attitude changes, nothing will bring back democracy to America. No institutional change, however drastic, will create a democratic nation unless the people of that nation are willing to invest the time, effort, forbearance, and resources that a democratic system needs. Nor, it probably has to be said, will throwing one set of rascals out of office, and replacing them with another set of rascals more to one’s taste, have any noticeable effect on the character of the system as a whole. Until the American people come to the conclusion that the costs of democracy are less burdensome than the costs of doing without it, America will continue to have a government of the people in name only – not because some elite group has taken it away from the people, but because the people themselves have turned their backs on it.

Nor, I think, is there much hope that peak oil, global warming, or any other aspect of our current predicament will induce them to do otherwise. Combine any of these factors with the decline of American empire, and the result you get is a future in which Americans of all classes must get by with a great deal less wealth and leisure than they think they deserve. It seems unlikely that they will respond by giving up even more of their wealth and leisure to renew a dimly remembered democratic system that, despite its many other virtues, offers no hope of regaining these things.

Instead, my guess is that the focus of the next century or so of American politics will be attempts to hang onto as much of the prosperity of empire as possible. Not all these attempts may be as hamfisted as current American foreign policy might suggest, and people of other nations might do well to be wary of proposals for some sort of “world community” emanating from American soil, no matter how apparently liberal the language in which they are phrased. The American people have already faced a choice between democracy and the profits of empire, and we know which one they chose. The fact that they will end up with neither is one of the ironies of history, but I doubt many will see it that way.

What, though, can those who value democracy do within the constraints of a collapsing empire and a declining industrial civilization? The one workable strategy, it seems to me, is rebuilding the foundations of civil society that made American democracy work in the first place. Though it’s unfashionable (and politically incorrect) to suggest this, and doubtless new forms will also need to be evolved, I think that much value remains in the old institutions of American civil society, and in particular in the handful of surviving fraternal orders – the Freemasons, the Odd Fellows, the Grange, and their equivalents. Behind lodge doors, all but forgotten even by the retirees who keep the old lodges going, lies a rich history and a wealth of proven methods that weathered every challenge except that of unearned prosperity.

Those approaches could readily be put to use again. Equally, other dimensions of civil society wait to be rebuilt or reinvented. A great many of the common assumptions of our imperial age will have to go by the boards in this process, however. In particular, the notion of entitlement needs to be an early casualty of the approaching changes. The Odd Fellows and their many equivalents did not dispense charity; they provided a means for those willing to contribute to the common welfare to spread out the risks and share the benefits of life in an uncertain world. Those who did not help others did not get help in their own times of need. This may seem harsh, but in a time of unbending ecological limits, it’s also necessary.

The 19th century was such a time and, given the realities of peak oil, global warming, and the other elements of the predicament of industrial civilization, the 21st century will be no better – and it may be worse. The one question is whether enough people will embrace the challenge of rebuilding civil society in time to make a difference on a community scale, or whether – as in the decline of so many past empires – it will be left up to small groups on the fringes of society to embrace a path of mutual aid and preserve today’s legacies for the future.

18 comments:

Adrynian said...

Very interesting. I appreciate your perspective on civil society, as I also have been considering the benefits of community organizations for getting people to participate in and contribute to creating an alternative vision of where our world and its societies are going.

One concern I have, however, is that you seem to be individualizing the lack of democracy too much. I definitely acknowledge that people have been far too complacent in their involvement with their governments, but I can't help but feel that there are also significant structural disincentives hindering those who do try to participate. You spoke several times against the idea that "the elites" have taken democracy away from people, and perhaps they didn't *plan* things this way, but they certainly have capitalized on the opportunity that was presented.

Anyone with power, as I see it, usually doesn't like challenges to that power, and really, who can be surprised at this? We've probably all been in situations where we just wanted to make the decision that we thought was "right" but we had to put up with listening to a bunch of other people meander their way through ten different tangents as they tried to achieve some kind of acceptable group consensus, assuming they even remembered what they were talking about in the first place. Democracy can be tiring and difficult and painfully slow - and despite all this, I still think it's completely worth it. But if you hold power, or think you deserve to (as many elites seem to, since they frequently come from "old money" and long lineages of power-wielders), is it really any surprise if you don't want to be bothered with listening to all these annoying upstarts who are trying to squeeze in on your turf?

There are plenty of people out there who *want* to have a voice in the decision-making process, groups who struggle constantly to be heard - aboriginals in Canada (& probably also the US) are a perfect example, although there are plenty of other kinds of community groups, as well. The Busrider's Union is a good example of a local Vancouver group composed largely, but not exclusively, of minorities, women, and underprivileged and lower class people who are trying to get Translink, the regional transit authority, to stop wasting money on expensive rail lines that will get very little ridership - but that can make their developer buddies rich - at the same time as they cut back on late-night and other bus routes, which primarily disenfranchises minorities, women, and the poor. Community groups who are trying to have their voices heard are frequently railroaded by politicians under the sway of one lobbyist group or another and upper and upper-middle class businessmen who dominate the boards of directors of these important institutions.

To suggest that it's all the individual's fault is simply irresponsible. Please don't misinterpret me, because I'm not saying it's all one way or the other, but what I am saying is that you can't dismiss the powerful forces at work that *actively and constantly* work to convince people that the only way they *can* get involved is through voting every few years.

I liken it to the problems we have with obesity in the developed world. (Please bear with me, here, because this follows from my views on how societies function in general, which I will briefly attempt to explain.) I operate from a paradigm of emergent systems; specifically, in this context, I see social groups as emergent systems, the primary essence of which can be summarized as "a higher-order/macroscopic system that is constituted in, but simultaneously exerts top-down constraints on the behaviours of, its lower-order/microscopic constituent elements." So, in this case, people are the lower-order constituent elements of the higher-order social system, and the languages, beliefs, norms, symbols, and physical and socioeconomic structures of the social system are the primary enforcers of top-down constraints on a society's constituent elements (=people). So, to get back to the analogy of obesity, we have created these physical structures that offer incentives for people to eat poor quality, high calorie food, while also living sedentary lives. We lay lots of roads; subsidize car-culture; make building suburbia easy; make taking transit and walking/cycling difficult/dangerous; make individualized transportation cheap; allow/don't tax really high-calorie, fatty, salty, sugary foods; put up fast-food restaurants everywhere; put vending machines with pop and chips in every school; serve equally poor food in school lunch programs; and so on and so on.

My point follows from the fact that people *tend* to lie on a bell-curve for many/most things, and we can shift the structural incentives - and importantly, structural constraints - on their behaviours in one direction or another (this is more or less what people mean when they talk about market-oriented measures incentives, though law-making is also part of it). I believe in free will and personal choice, but I also see it as being constrained by larger forces; in some sense, *what options* people can choose from, and their relative merits and costs, are informed/affected by these higher order constraints, even as their particular choices are still important. It's just that, as long as we make it easy for people to eat poorly and barely exercise, it really isn't surprising that so many people *choose* to eat poorly and barely exercise. Some people *will* choose differently, but they'll be fighting a powerful tide pushing in the opposite direction, and thus we can expect them to be in the minority. The same, then applies to our political systems. As long as we continue to create large, structural discincentives for people to get more involved, while at the same time spread far and wide the propaganda that democracy *just is* getting out and voting every few years (while also demonstrating that even those minimal activities matter very little to the decision-making process, since most of it is determined by special-interest lobbies and the obligations that politicians incur as they seek financial support for their election campaigns) then we really can't be surprised when very few people vote or care much at all about sacrificing their time and effort and sanity towards getting more involved in a process that doesn't want them there in the first place.

It *is* important for people to fight this tide and *try* to get involved in various ways - and I see civil society as a great stepping stone for many people that can lead to larger changes - but institutional and cultural reforms that simultaneously (1)help people realize that they *need* to get more involved, and (2)make it easier for them to do so in a meaningful way, are equally crucial if the process is going to arrive at the desired, democratic outcome.

Richard Kulisz said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Eligere said...

There is one sentence I'm unclear about: As the profits of American empire made it possible for governments to buy the loyalty of the middle class with unearned largesse, the old system of voluntary organizations lost its support base and withered on the vine.

Are you talking about Social Security? Disability? Unemployment compensation? Medicare? Farm subsidies? Other subsidies? I'm just not clear about what the unearned largesse is. I assume that you don't mean government programs to which we all contribute some part of our income, like Disability and Social Security, or am I wrong?

taran said...

Oddfellows, Masons, and the like.... are you saying civil society should rest on institutions like these?

Why is this in any way different from the Evangelical perspective on political involvement?

Maeve said...

Finally felt the need to comment, enough to create a dang blogger account so I could respond.

I believe that you are correct in your assessment that much of our societal salvation will be from community and/or fraternal orders.

Unfortunately, many "baby boomers" didn't join these orders, and the membership is often elderly. In the order my husband and I belong to, we are among a handful of members who are younger than 40. More members in the order, nationwide, die each year, than new members are inducted.

There are some of us who do believe strongly in the importance and value of these groups, however, so there is hope that something of them will continue to survive long enough to still be here when it is truly needed.

I was re-reading the Laura Ingalls Wilder books recently, and a common theme which strikes me in her writings is the concept of neighborliness. How many times they or some other family made it through terrible hardships, because they went out of their way to help strangers.

How many of us even know our neighbor's names any more, much less would be willing to lend aid as needed?

I have hope that our current societal complacency will break. There are very few of us who have not descended from people who had courage, determination, and grit, who were pro-active and intimately involved in their communities. Eventually there will be a breaking point, and that strength within all will emerge. That's my hope.

The alternative is rather depressing.

Miles said...

I think you raise an interesting and plausible conjecture about how government social safety networks compete with private social safety networks. I wonder however, even given the high membership levels in fraternal societies in the 19th century, if nearly as many (percentage-wise) people were covered and protected as are today by government safety networks. It's a researchable question.


The idea of voluntary social safety communities is attractive, but is it real or realistic? Can voluntary local groups compete with the coercive power of big capital, or does big capital require a big government counterweight? (Of course when big government is captured by big capital, as it is today, we are truly screwed.)

As for the person who asks if this is different from the evangelical churches.... no it is not that different, except that the fraternal societies were their secular counterparts.

---

I consider myself a progressive, but I've got big doubts about the substitution of large scale government programs and one size fits all models for local solutions.

I believe in local solutions and yet, I don't even have time as a working parent to be involved in my kid's school... work takes everything in terms of energy.

I believe that social connections are wealth and security, and it is hard to be involved ... hard to even find a community.

The oil fueled world enables us( and perhaps even requires us) to live geographically dispersed lives which make it difficult to actually connect on an ongoing basis to our neighbors... or really to anyone.

"Big government", "big energy", "big city", all undermine natural and local communities (churches, fraternal orders, the familiar crowd at the local bar, the neighborhood community association, whatever), by substituting for some of their functions (but not all of them).

But the one thing big institutions can't ever really do is fulfill the social connection function ("social capital", the Bowling Alone thesis, etc.)... and we probably underestimate how important that is.

John Michael Greer said...

A note to all,

While everyone is entitled to their opinion, name-calling is a waste of bandwidth (as well as an admission of intellectual bankruptcy) and posts on this blog that indulge in it will be deleted. Though I don't know that I qualify as an old coot -- I think coothood requires being a bit older than 44, which is my present age -- I do have a few old-fashioned attitudes, and this is one of them. Enough said.

John Michael Greer said...

Another round of good comments (disregarding the one bit of snarling that's been deleted). Adrynian, you're of course correct that people in the political class have taken advantage of the passivity of most Americans, and indeed encouraged it. Mind you, the structural disincentives only work because the vast majority of people are perfectly willing to play along. I may indeed be putting too much stress on the personal dimension, but it's an attempt to counter the pervasive habit of playing victim that encourages people to avoid thinking about their own role in creating the present predicament.

Eligere, all the things you've mentioned, and many that you haven't, are included in the largesse I'm referring to. Even those programs that require people to contribute routinely allow people to pay out far more than they put in -- Social Security is a good example. None of them would have been possible without the huge economic surplus generated by empire, and none of them will be sustainable when the empire goes away -- to say nothing of the impact of peak oil on what's left of our industrial economy.

Taran, I'm not suggesting that civil society should rest exclusively on fraternal orders; they were an important part of civil society, but not the whole of it. I tend to talk about them partly because I've had more experience with them than with, say, churches or other voluntary organizations, and partly because they were huge -- again, almost 50% of the American adult population belonged to them.

Maeve, kudos to you and your spouse for being active in a fraternal order! I'm pleased to say that, at least out here on the west coast, there's been a definite turnaround in the last decade or so. I came home this evening from a lodge meeting where, at 44, I was right in the middle of the age range of members present; we elected officers for the new year, and both the outgoing and incoming presiding officers are younger than I am. So I think there's hope.

Miles, I'd simply point out that the coming of peak oil means, among other things, that entitlement programs of the sort you mention will no longer be sustainable by any means. Voluntary self-help organizations probably covered a smaller fraction of the population than government aid does -- though it's a question worth researching -- but we know they're viable when energy per capita is a lot lower than it is today, while the welfare state almost certainly is not. Thus it's less a matter of arguing whether one is better than the other, and more a matter of trying to make sure there's something in place when the welfare state implodes.

Adrynian said...

John Ralston Saul, a Canadian philospher and public critic, writes about something very similar to the notion of fraternities, etc. helping people. He speaks of the idea, conveniently reemerging in this time of the diminishing welfare state, that charity can take up the slack and provide for those in need. He generally condemns this practice and provides several reasons. One, which I found very intriguing, is the fact that charities actually cost *more* to provide the same level of service, largely because they have to spend much of their efforts fundraising. This is not exactly the same as JMG's advocation of community groups providing what is essentially employment insurance - and I am aware, for example, of the Canadian government's lackluster record in providing adequate service of this sort to people who genuinely deserve it (they continually tighten the eligibility requirements, as many private insurance companies frequently do in other arenas like healthcare in the US, for example) - but I find the comparison relevant.

I would also like to quote a part of a speech he gave in 2000, which seems to nicely summarize many of the thoughts he has presented in some of his writings ("The Unconscious Civilization," for example, is excellent reading, and was my own introduction to his work). The following is taken from here, and it speaks to the importance of government funded and provided social services. I hope you find it interesting and on topic.

The point of targeted programs is that they bring back not only judgmental administration, they bring back plain old charity. This is now presented as citizens taking on more responsibility for others. But if they can afford that responsibility, they can afford the taxes which would ensure that we do not slip into a society of noblesse oblige in which those with get to chose who and how to help those without.

As Strindberg put it in his blunt and accurate way - "All charity is humiliating." Perhaps it isn't surprising that charity was one of the weapons used by the opponents of Canadian democracy in the 1840s. Sir Charles Metcalfe, the autocratic Governor, was famous for his largesse as he attempted to buy support. He was lauded by the anti-democratic elites as "a fortune spender in public charity."

Ethics are quite different. They don't require the gratitude of the recipient; i.e. the humiliation of the recipient. The ego of the donor is not stroked. There is no warm, self-indulgent feeling of having done good. Ethics are a much cooler business than charity. That is why the concept of 'arms length' goes with the public good. Ethics is about citizens being treated equally. And in that sense, it is all important that we concentrate on the difference between the role of the citizen and that of the state. The citizen owns the state and receives from it neither charity nor the generosity of noblesse oblige. What the citizen receives is meant to be, as Baldwin put it, appropriate to "the happy conduct of public affairs."


Miles, it seems to me that many people get lost in the gaping holes in the social safety net even today, and so I can't see that they would have been better protected before the advent of the welfare state and the various services that it provides (for all of its flaws). Cities have always been a very effective place to lose people in, I suspect because of their much greater capacity for anonymity. And then there are the various forms of cognitive dissonance resolution that we have traditionally used to justify people's suffering, from, "They're just not good [fill in the religion here]," or, "God must be punishing them," to the modern, "They're just lazy bums." As you say, however, it is a researchable item, though I would be surprised if someone hasn't already had something to say about it.

JMG, I'm not excusing cultures of victimisation that incentivize passivity, though I think I am trying to put them into perspective, but it's equally important to recognize that there *really are* many people who are routinely vicimized by our various political and economic, etc. institutions (not that I believe you would suggest otherwise). For all that we like to think that racism, sexism, and class privilege, etc. are things of the past, they really haven't ever gone away. Definitely, people need to use these injustices as a source of motivation to fight, rather than whine, but there is also a crucially important need to provide people with social - and structural - support in their struggles for equality and justice. Otherwise, they're just fighting against that tide of incentives and constraints that I was talking about earlier, which encourages them to just complain because if it did anything else then the system would have to *actually* change to address their concerns. Again, it's not much of a surprise, then, that so few people do take up the struggle, when there are all of these negative feedback loops in the system trying to keep things just the way they are (i.e. unequal and privileged). Struggle to make the world better is really very important in all its myriad ways, but humans also need to feel some kind of community/social support in their endeavours; otherwise, they are much more likely to eventually give up.

Having said that, I support your attempt to envision what could be the "something" that's "in place when the welfare state implodes." In that, at least, let *me* support *you*.

;)

Your writings are good stuff, which is why I keep coming back for more!

JO said...

I'm British and very concerned about the erosion and unaccountability of local democracy here in Britain and there are, of course, many similarities between our two societies... voter *"dis-engagement" with politics, a burgeoning political and establishment elite and the emergence of an "underclass" that is completely beyond the reach of mainstream society. What you propose in your article does indeed have the potential for reviving community involvement. But, what if the civil society you speak of becomes "party politicised"?
I don't know about America, but here, voluntary organisations and charities are increasingly being regulated and forced to engage in the political process or face a cut back in funding and exposure. A politicised civil society - under the guise of benign civic involvement - would do grave damage.
(* I don't believe its apathy)
www.votersrevolt.org.uk

taran said...

Jo touches on the point I was hinting at in my earlier question. Involvement in civil society is one thing, but it is quite another when it becomes politicized. While fraternal orders and churches have important roles (maybe increasingly) as institutions through which civil virtues like "neighborliness" can function, when they enter the political arena the opposite of civil virtue occurs. To take the evangelical example, a political agenda is routinely part of their congregations. The effect on society as whole is one that fosters division, distrust and even, hatred. As you, JMG, have written about convincingly before, strict division of church and state is in everyone's interest.

murph said...

John Greer,

I'm a newbee to your blog. Wife turned me on to it. I have a few comments concerning this post and some of the comments made.

I think some of your suppositions are not backed up with data, but that is for further examination.

I agree that community involvement has been, and is important on all sorts of levels. However, there is some factors that I think you left out; population density being one. Around the turn of the century The U.S. population was a fraction of what it is now. Now you are going to have to deal with concepts such as ‘social inertia’ that are much more obvious than it is with smaller populations.

It is interesting that some of the social organizations you site act as sort of an insurance agency. The next question I would have is; just what percentage of our current population could come up with the approx. $100 per month in extra premiums you use as an example. When approx. 40% of our population lives at or near the government poverty level I am not so sure that is viable. Cripes, over 40 million have no insurance for health concerns as it is.

Since there is general agreement that the current empire is not sustainable on any level, the problem that we are going to be faced with concerning population die off world wide needs to be put into the discussion. In fact, this is a world wide general cultural problem. Since only 40% of the land surface of the planet can sustain agriculture without huge inputs of energy and other resources, I would think that you must also address this in your projections on social change.

You also fail to deal with what a democratic civil society actually means. In practice, it is the subjugation of a minority to the will of the majority. Is that a system that you truly wish to continue? I’d be interested in your rational if you do.

I think you might want to reexamine the concept of leisure time that you assert our society has. It is true that the people with sufficient money may (or may not) have leisure time but I would encourage you to examine data about this. The data I have says that the less complex a society, the more leisure time is available.

I think that examining first cause might also be beneficial. I am assuming that your readers have been exposed to the concepts that Daniel Quinn put forth in his series of books and there are a great many others that have put forth variations on this. If there is any validity to their assumptions, then the very complexity of society and the cultures vision of mans place in the world is important.

It appears to me that a rather different vision of man and his place in this world is needed if we want sustainability. That the “leaders” of this culture are not so inclined to examine this is apparent. If we do indeed have a Rome type of die off, but this time in a much shorter period, this will all be forced on us and it doesn’t have to be that way. In any case, there will be quite a period of chaos. How do you envision dealing with it?

John Michael Greer said...

Adrynian, I agree with Saul's viewpoint -- and so did the old fraternal orders. Again, they didn't give out charity; they provided a framework in which people practiced mutual assistance. African-American communities in the pre-civil rights era were particularly active in this regard; there were more than 1000 African-American fraternal orders in 1900, providing economic, medical, and educational benefits to their members. These were people on the bottom of the American caste system of the time, and they accomplished a huge amount for themselves.

Your other points need a more lengthy response, and will be the subject of a blog post later on. For now, I'll just say that our differences have more to do with strategy and a sense of the possible than they do with basic social theory.

Jo and Taran, you're quite right that the institutions of civil society must keep politics at arm's length. Most fraternal orders specifically forbid any discussion of political issues at their meetings, and prohibit their leadership from taking sides in political controversies.

You might be interested to know that the Druid order I head does the same thing; we don't even allow political discussions on our email lists. It's a necessary discipline to keep out of the trap you've both described.

Another necessary discipline is a willingness to do without government funding -- Jo, you've commented that British charities are forced into politics by threats to their funding. The difference between a charity and the sort of organization I'm discussing is that, these days, charities get money from governments and big business; fraternal orders are funded by their membership. Budgets are smaller but the result is a great deal more independence.

Murph, well, of course you're right about population density, but that's a temporary problem; we've had a population bubble due to cheap abundant petroleum, and as that latter goes away, so will the surplus population. I don't think that this will happen much faster than it did, say, in the decline of Rome, but of course we'll see.

Of course most people don't have $100 a month lying around loose to spend on Odd Fellows dues! Neither did their (or my) great-grandparents. They did without other things in order to afford the cost of the fraternal social safety net. Some of the things they did without are things we now consider necessities. Before the age of cheap oil, that was the way life worked, and it will be no different in the deindustrial age of the future.

I should probably say at this point, to avoid confusion, that for many years I lived well below the poverty line, and my income isn't all that far above it even now. My wife and I have no medical insurance, and one of the reasons we don't own a car is that it costs too much. I know it's easy to talk about poverty when you haven't been there, but I have, and one of the reasons I like to talk about fraternal orders is that from my own experience of getting by on very little, I can see how the sort of network the orders provided in their heyday could accomplish an extraordinary amount.

As for Daniel Quinn, well, I've read him and many of his epigones. I'm not a great fan of his, to be honest, but the reasons for that belong in a post of their own.

How individuals can deal with the decline of industrial civilization has been the focus of the last nine posts, so you might want to have a look over the archives. There again, though, there are more posts coming -- and eventually a book, for which these posts (and discussions!) are in the way of a first draft.

Eligere said...

JMG, I can't see how paying $20 a week to an order to spread risk is in kind different from paying $20 a week to Social Security to do the same. Bear in mind that payers are putting in expensive dollars, giving the government the time value of the money either to invest or meet its current obligations, and withdrawing cheaper dollars (i.e. dollars in amounts that have not kept pace with inflation). That's assuming they live long enough. Surely the same would have been true of Odd Fellows; some would have taken out more than others, and more than they put in. So I don't see why one is earned and the other is not.

I do see one significant difference, which is that participation in a fraternal order involves tangible reliance upon others in your own community, rather than a government agency; and that may be of value. But recall that prior to Social Security, the poverty rate among the elderly was 35%, fraternities notwithstanding. These were not slackers who failed to earn wages; they were workers (and their widows and orphans) paid low or substandard wages, which were a subsidy to everyone else.

Finally, Disability is an insurance program, and it is in the nature of an insurance program that you withdraw only if the condition for which the insurance is issued occurs. I don't see why Disability is unearned. If you buy fire insurance and then your house burns down, is the payout you receive unearned?

I think you've loaded a value judgment into his part of your argument that is not necessary, and not especially helpful. The problem with Social Security is that it may simply not be sustainable in conditions of economic decline with high unemployment rates. At that point, smaller scale endeavors may be quite useful both as economic insurance and as an incubator of democratic reengagement.

murph said...

Eligere,

Your comments on government programs is interesting and is a fairly common argument. One of the perspectives that seems to not be taken into account is dependency. Davy Crockett was defeated in an election for the house (I think it was) over just this issue. I all boils down to the perception of what is the purpose of government. If we stick to the original writings and intent of the constitution, there is nothing about creating a part of society to be dependent on government largess, any of it. And it is a created system. It has been with us since 1913 mostly and along with manipulating money supply by the bankers and the creation of bust and boom times therein, the press for literally looting the public treasury for the benifit of a few, rich and poor is going to take place. The problem with these governmental systems is that they are open to manipulation and corruption, big time, regardless of who they help. It is also a method of control. What are you willing to give up to have it?

Eligere said...

Hi Murph,

Every system known to man is open to manipulation and corruption. As it happens, the Social Security system has been run without scandal and with an incredibly low administrative costs (1% of total expenditures since its passage in 1935. Compare that with the now privatized system in Britain, which was up to 15% and had to be reduced to 5% by law.

Your comment seems to conflate the Federal Reserve system (I'm guessing that's your 1913 reference) with Social Security. I don't quite see the connection you're making. But as to the intent of the framers, the phrase "promote the General Welfare," which appears in the Preamble to the Constitution, would have included schemes to secure citizens against disaster and involuntary penury. Orphanages, for example, and institutions such as public hospitals existed in 1787. What I do not think they ever intended is massive giveaways to large corporations.

Finally, the notion that anyone is independent, in the sense that they do not need others in order to survive, does not withstand scrutiny. Civilization and community are both terms for groups of people who recognize their interdependence (or should), and have banded together for mutual safety and betterment. Neither is an accident. So the notion of dependency is, in my view, artificial. And I don't think an end to dependence is what JMG is advocating. I think he's proposing interdependence on a smaller scale. But whether a large or small, or federal or local system has more merit is, it seems to me, a question of social context. In my opinion, for the past many years, Social Security, Disability, and Medicare in the US, and national health care systems around the world, have been net positives. Whether they can survive at their present level of operation is a separate question.

bryant said...

The concerns expressed about not having the time or money to participate in civil society organizations are probably valid for most ordinary citizens today, but I wonder how things will look as peak oil and deindustrialization go forward. Based on the experiences of people in the FSU, we could have abundant time but little money.

John Michael Greer said...

Eligere, I think you've missed my point. For many years now, Social Security, along with most other entitlement programs, have been set up so that most enrollees get out of the system far more money (even corrected for inflation) than they pay into it. That's the basis for my comment that these are largesse paid for by the tribute economy of the US empire.

There are moral issues involved, of course, in a system that has beggared the Third World to pay for inflated lifestyles here in the US. Still, my main point is the same as yours: as the tribute economy breaks down, government entitlement programs will go away in a hurry, and the fraternal approach will be among the best options we'll have left.

You're quite correct that poverty among the elderly was rampant in the pre-Social Security days. I'd remind you, though, that in the future ahead of us, most Americans -- old, young, and everything in between -- will be extremely poor by today's standards. That's the inescapable reality of a post-imperial, post-petroleum, and post-industrial society. The question we face is not how to prevent that -- that's impossible at this point. The question is how to ameliorate it as much as possible.