Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Secret Handshakes

Last week’s Archdruid Report post on the costs of community called up an interesting simulacrum of community in one corner of the peak oil blogosphere, as Sharon Astyk, Rob Hopkins, and Dmitry Orlov all joined in the conversation with blog posts in response. This didn’t exactly come as an unbearable surprise; the role of community in the deindustrial world of the imminent future has been a hot-button issue in the peak oil scene since before there was a peak oil scene, and a fair percentage of the posts here that have fielded more than the usual flurry of comments have been on that confused and contested subject.

Still, it interests me that so much of the discussion, as so often happens, went on as though history has nothing to teach us. One example out of many, and by no means the worst, is Astyk’s suggestion that the reason community has fallen apart in recent decades is that so many people work so hard, and are too tired to get involved. This echoes a common plaint, but the fact remains that a century ago most Americans worked 50, 60, or more hours a week as a matter of course, and most of those hours were spent at hard physical labor. Somehow that didn’t keep a dizzying array of community groups from flourishing to an extent I think few people remember today.

I want to focus here on one particular set of those community groups, partly because they’re tolerably well documented, partly because they offer some intriguing possibilities for an age of economic contraction and social fragmentation, and partly because I happen to know a fair amount about them, and not just from my usual eccentric historical reading. In fact, most Monday evenings you’ll find me helping to preserve one of the few survivals from an all-but-forgotten world, as I don one of the few neckties I own and head over to the old brick Masonic lodge here in Cumberland.

Yes, I’m a Freemason. Some years back a series of accidents clued me in to the huge role that the old fraternal orders had in structuring American communities a century ago, and in the process I also learned that the handful of fraternal orders that still survive are rapidly going under for lack of new members. The obvious response was to apply for membership in a lodge, which I did. The results have been an experience, in almost every possible sense of the word. I’ve given and received quite a range of secret handshakes, and worn some very exotic headgear; I’ve spent evenings in mostly empty lodge halls while a handful of elderly members try to remember the details of initiation ceremonies none of them have had a chance to perform in twenty years; I’ve seen old men, proud as hawks, get teary-eyed as they reminisced about the days when the rest of the community responded to the lodges and their charitable work with something other than total indifference.

Now of course this is not the way lodges, and particularly Masonry, are portrayed in today’s popular culture, and I’m quite aware that to a certain percentage of my readers, my Masonic affiliation defines me as one or more of the 31 flavors of evil incarnate. It doesn’t matter that membership in Masonry has been dropping like a rock for decades, that most Masonic lodges are struggling to find enough members to keep their doors open, or that Freemasonry has less influence in this country than at any time since the Revolutionary War – the last Mason in the White House was Gerald Ford, for heaven’s sake. There are still plenty of people who use the Craft, as Masons like to call their oddball institution, as the perfect inkblot onto which they can project their fantasies of organized wickedness, whatever those happen to be. At a time when people can get million-dollar book contracts and all the radio air time they want to bash Masonry, it may seem a little odd that they can insist that Masons control the media and the rest of American society to boot – when’s the last time you saw something favorable about Masons on the media, by the way? – but contradictions of that sort are pretty much par for the course in our collective discourse these days.

The irony here is that all this vituperation is being flung at the last struggling remnant of what was once a huge social force in America. During the first two decades of the twentieth century, by reliable estimates, half of all adult Americans – counting, by the way, both genders and all ethnic groups – belonged to at least one fraternal lodge. The Masons, the Odd Fellows, the Knights of Pythias, the Grange, and many other orders – some 3,500 different organizations, all told – formed a crucial element in civil society in America; they had a similar role elsewhere in the English-speaking world, where they were called “friendly societies,” and a somewhat less active presence elsewhere.

What makes this explosion of voluntary communal organization particularly relevant to our time is that the old lodges weren’t simply social clubs. With few exceptions – Freemasonry, interestingly enough, was one of those – they had a vital economic role. In an age when governments didn’t consider people starving in the streets a matter of public concern, in fact, the fraternal lodges filled many of the same roles now filled by the welfare state.

Here’s how it worked. If you belonged to a local lodge of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, let’s say, you would be expected to attend lodge meetings one evening a week, and you’d pay weekly dues – the standard rate was 25 cents a week in the days when a quarter bought about as much as a $20 bill does today. The money was collected by the lodge’s financial secretary and invested by its treasurer, under the watchful eye of trustees elected by the lodge. If you became too sick to work, the lodge provided you with sick pay at an established rate; if you died, the lodge paid for your funeral, and if you left a widow and children behind, the lodge made sure they had enough money to get by, and that the children got an education.

Lodges also provided health care to their members. The arrangement, once known as “lodge trade” among doctors, makes an interesting contrast with the corrupt monstrosity masquerading as health care reform currently lumbering its way through the US Congress. Each lodge simply went out and hired a doctor, usually on an annual contract. The doctor received a flat monthly salary from the lodge, and in return provided whatever general medical care the lodge members and their families needed. If it had a large enough membership, the lodge might also hire a couple of visiting nurses and a dentist on the same basis. Notice that this arrangement gave the patients a meaningful voice in health care quality, and imposed an effective limit on prices: a doctor who provided substandard care or charged more than the lodge wanted to pay would simply find himself out of a job when his annual contract came up for renewal.

Was it a perfect system? Of course not. Those who were too poor to afford lodge membership, in particular, had few choices open to them. Those who were excluded from the mainstream lodge organizations on the basis of color or gender, interestingly enough, had more options; it’s not accidental that of the 3500 or so lodge organizations that existed in America at the beginning of the last century, some 1500 were African-American, nor that there were also many hundreds of women’s lodge organizations, some of them completely independent of male-dominated lodge organizations at a time when such independence was a very rare thing for women’s activities of any kind. There were inevitable inequities; there were lodges for the rich, lodges for the middle class, and lodges for the working class, and the benefits varied accordingly. Still, the system worked well enough to make lodges a massive social presence in 19th and early 20th century America.

It’s when we trace the decline and fall of the lodge system that the lessons for today’s predicament start to stand out. Membership in many lodge organizations began to fall off in the 1920s, as relative prosperity and the emergence of the first, very limited public welfare programs began to cut away at the basic rationale behind the system. That decline turned into freefall with the coming of the New Deal, and became all but total with the Great Society programs of the 1960s. Of those 3500 lodge organizations, maybe two dozen survived to the end of the 20th century.

The core weakness of the lodge system turned out to be the issue I brought up in last week’s post: the cost of community. As I mentioned then, too much talk about communities in recent years has focused on their benefits, and ignored the money, time, effort, and commitment that has to go into making those benefits happen. Membership in one of the surviving fraternal orders is a great corrective for this sort of fuzzy thinking. You can get community there, but it costs; there are dues to pay, meetings to attend, work to be done, and jobs that are paid only in old-fashioned titles and a sense of belonging. Lodges are also, by their nature, governed by tradition, which means that younger members generally have to develop a certain tolerance for the social habits of an earlier time. (The necktie I mentioned earlier is one example; I dislike wearing neckties, but the custom of wearing jacket and tie to lodge is fiercely upheld by elderly members who consider it a sign of basic respect, and matters are unlikely to change much while they live.) All these factors militate against the survival of lodges in today’s culture.

Now it’s only fair to mention that as the lodges began their decline, they found the skids liberally greased by several outside factors. The American Medical Association, for example, spent much of the twentieth century in a sustained campaign to break the lodge trade system. Look through back issues of the Journal of the American Medical Association from the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s and you’ll find any number of editorials denouncing lodge trade, and for good reason: the lodge trade system placed the concerns of health care consumers ahead of the financial interests of the medical profession. In the 1920s, the average doctor made only a little more than the average plumber; the end of lodge trade, and of a variety of other arrangements that subjected health care to the economic discipline of the market, was central to the shifts that produced today’s six- and seven-figure incomes for doctors.

Another outside factor not often remembered these days was the impact of the political prosecutions that broke out at intervals in 20th century America. Belonging to a group that was, or was merely accused of being, a front for a proscribed political movement too often had serious social, economic, and legal consequences during those outbreaks, and the gyrations of American cultural politics made it impossible to define much of any ground as safe. Twice – during the Palmer Raids of 1919 and 1920, and again in the McCarthy era – leftist attitudes that had been fashionable and socially acceptable not that long before suddenly turned into a massive liability for those who had held them; once – during the mass sedition trials of the early 1940s – those who were sympathetic to fascism before the war, when it looked to many people like the only alternative to Marxist revolution, found themselves in the same sort of trouble. That’s one of the factors that helped drive the anxious conformity and social detachment of the 1950s; the perceived risks of belonging to anything outside of work, and maybe a recreational association or two, were simply too high for many people.

Still, the core factor was simple enough; the fraternal orders went away because most Americans didn’t need them any more, and were no longer willing to pay the costs of maintaining them. Once labor unions won the right of collective bargaining, employers rather than lodges started to cover sick pay; social security and other government welfare programs provided a social safety net much sturdier than the one the lodges were able to weave from their own resources; more broadly, the immense general prosperity of American society in the wake of the Second World War made starving to death in the street a good deal less pressing a threat than it had been not too long before.

The Freemasons weathered these changes a little better than most other fraternal orders, and the reason is instructive. The Craft never offered sick pay or other direct financial benefits to its members, and its main functions were self-improvement, networking, and fundraising for public charities, which weren’t entirely rendered surplus by the social changes of the 1930s and 1960s. Thus Masonry’s decline was slower, and it still maintains a modest fraction of the infrastructure of lodge buildings and local groups that it had during its glory days – something that very few other fraternal orders can say these days. Even so, the steady influx of young men who used to join the Masons as a standard coming-of-age ritual has almost entirely come to a halt, because very few of those young men see any value in investing the time and energy that Masonic membership requires.

More generally, of course, that’s what happened to community in America. The suburbanization of the country after the Second World War has many aspects, but one of the most important was a deliberate flight from community. A great many people who had grown up in compact urban neighborhoods or small towns fled to the anonymity of the suburbs just as quickly as they could, because in their eyes, the costs of community made it more of a burden than a benefit.

I’d like to suggest, in turn, that the reason that all the talk about community in recent years has produced so few results is that this equation still holds. Very few of the people reading this blog in America just now have ever gone hungry, or slept under a cardboard box in a back alley, or lived six to a room in a tumbledown tenement infested by rats and cockroaches, as so many people did in America as recently as the 1930s. The social safety nets established in the New Deal and Great Society eras are shredding, and they will likely shred a lot further in the not too distant future, but most Americans have not yet adjusted their thinking to the exigencies of a world where losing a job may once again mean a desperate and often futile struggle against starvation, and where those who end up on the losing side of economic change can no longer count on help from anybody.

The old fraternal orders offer a useful example of some of the things that can be done by people working together in such a world. In order to make use of that example, though, it’s going to be necessary to face up to some of the most basic, and most dysfunctional, assumptions about community in American culture today – a task I intend to address in next week’s post.


G said...

Do the Masons still require belief in a Supreme Being of some sort as a condition for membership?

BrightSpark said...

Very interesting indeed. Whilst the lodge system is fairly universal in the western world, I wonder if that peculiar American aversion to "socialism" has added a particular dimenson on the lodge system.

As in, did Americans require the secrecy of the lodge system in order to reveal their more collective values?

Outside the lodge, the cult of the individual may have made talking about collectivism difficult, and potentially dangerous, if McCarthy types overheard. So therefore, the drive for lodge membership in the States may have been higher.

The reason I ask is because the phemonenon of people forming a group or organisation to support each other exists beyond the lodge system. Trade unions and political parties have all had contributory welfare systems that did essentially the same, and some still exist.

But perhaps the advantage of a lodge was that it was able to provide some authority, longevity and prestige to a welfare scheme. The drive to contribute came from something more than another club - those mystical elements might have proven to be almost as effective as the force of government law, and perhaps more so?

David said...

For the last few years I've been considering joining the Masons. It's funny to me now in retrospect, but my interest to join corresponds to when I began to get back into prepping for what I see, and your blog has illuminated, is a uncertain world to come. I had never connected the two until now.

BTW, I've been slowly working my way thru your past posts, and I'm currently in late 2007, when you wrote "The Age of Scarcity Industrialism".

Now two years later, witness the frenzy that China seems to be pursuing in their effort to buy up natural resources in Africa and the rest of the World. They at least seem to see clearly the coming scarcity.

John Michael Greer said...

G, yes. That's one of what Masons call the "landmarks of the Craft" -- the core traditions that are not subject to change.

BrightSpark, that's an interesting speculation. The lodge system was just about as popular in Britain, Canada, and Australia, however, and the same cult of individualism doesn't seem to have taken root there to the same extent.

David, if Masonry appeals to you, by all means contact your local lodge and talk to the brothers about joining. I've long felt that the old lodges could potentially become a crucial resource in the approaching age of crises, if they get enough new members to keep going, and especially if some of those members have a clue about the mess we're facing.

Jan Suzukawa said...

Fascinating. I had heard something about African-American lodges, but I had no idea that women had their own lodge organizations. I was also unaware that lodges used to provide medical services and other benefits.

I bought "The Long Descent" recently, and have just started reading it. For some reason I thought your book might be hard to find (possibly due to your ideas being seen as non-mainstream or even a bit radical), but basically, I walked into my local Borders and there it was. ;) I hope at some point that you post an entry along the lines of the First Steps Toward Sustainability section in your book. I had no idea that something like compact fluorescent bulbs would make such a difference. Something like that, I can do. :)

Jonathan Blake said...

I realize that this is tangential to the main point of your post, but I'm sympathetic to the decline of the lodge system and I have recently felt the desire to join a local fraternal order. Regrettably, none of them can benefit from my membership because all of them in my area (as far as I can tell) require a belief in God. Too bad for all concerned, I guess.

G said...

In that case, is there anything of that sort for an agnostic to join?

John Michael Greer said...

Jan, compact fluorescents are only one part of the picture, but anything that cuts your energy footprint is a step in the right direction.

Jonathan and G, that's generally true of all the old fraternal orders. The only ones I know of that welcomed atheists and agnostics were several of the ones founded in the 1920s to fight the Ku Klux Klan -- the Knights of the Flaming Circle, for example, admitted anybody to membership who wasn't white, male, American-born and Protestant (the requirements for Klan membership) -- and they weren't among the orders that survived the collapse of the lodge system. I suppose if a group of atheists and agnostics wanted to start, or restart, one of those they could do so fairly easily; the fraternal corporation laws are still on the books in most states, and the special IRS categories for fraternal lodges also still exist.

aangel said...

I've been thinking recently of the sorts of structures that we'll have to put in place as we contract to provide people with, well, structure. I hadn't thought much about the lodge system but I can see that it's worth looking into.

In a world in which we will no longer be able to fulfill every whim instantly to provide the squirt of dopamine we crave (the new popular song, the latest video game, the latest extreme sport and never forget the next employment "promotion"), I think we'll be much better off if we can offer people the sort of fulfillment that comes from reaching milestones inside a system of achievements that are recognized by someone other than ourselves. As meaning-seeking (and making) machines, as I look around I see that it doesn't take much to give people some sort of purpose.

The trick of course is having the meaning not be too odd...I had quite a normal conversation with a friend of a friend I was enjoying Friday night drinks at a bar a couple weeks back. The person told me quite lucidly that she abstained from alcohol because it interfered with her religion, which told her that she would not reach the next astral plane if she drank alcohol. I suppose her belief is not that different than the many odd things people believe, starting with the old bearded man who supposedly listens for wishes and then capriciously grants them, but it threw me for a loop for a moment. We are such credulous creatures that we are likely to see even more of such magical thinking soon as people start feeling lost. (Kunstler is happily exploring this theme in his post-peak novels, and his latest should be going to press soon.)

In any case, she was clearly in a structure that worked for her (as far as I could tell) and it provided her sufficiently powerful meaning that as the rest of us were enjoying various lemon drops, cosmopolitans and draft beers, she managed to abstain completely and didn't seem to mind. (Though she did leave early. Perhaps I wasn't as good as I thought I was in hiding my surprise at hearing her goal of reaching the next astral plane. Looking back, I suppose it's just different terminology for 'heaven'.)

But perhaps I'm looking at it all wrong: maybe the odder the beliefs, the more likely people will be attracted to my new lodge system. I'll have to visit the next astral plane and ask someone there if they have any advice on that.

Gene Shinai said...


A few quick question for you. Could the Friendly Societies be combined with the Medical Co-op Idea, thereby increasing their ability to provide care? Also would that combination keep the Co-ops from being taken over by big insurance? Thanks for your response.

The North Coast said...

Dr. Greer, I am glad to hear that you are a Mason. At one time, when I was a young adult, most of the men in my family were Masons, and so were most of the men that I worked with.

The Masons have been a force for the good since their inception hundred of years ago, when they opposed the domination of religion and supported the ideals of the Enlightenment.

In modern times, they have operated, among many other great charities, one of the finest children's hospitals in the world, where a child with serious injuries or illness receives his treatment totally free of charge.

We need to rebuild these great organizations while we still have the wherewithal to do so.

Michael Vassar said...

I'm very impressed by the caliber of thinking that is consistently expressed on this blog and I suspect that in person you would have even more interesting input to share. If you are ever in the San Francisco Bay area I'd be happy to meet with you in person, show you the community that the Singularity Institute has up here, offer you a place to stay for a while and see what we could learn. If you won't be out West, I would also be happy to introduce you to smart and intellectual people in the DC metro area.

Conchscooter said...

I have no desire to learn secret handshakes or wear silly hats, never mind a jacket and tie, or God forbid, stop being an atheist. I'm a Teamster which should be enough. Of course if civilization is about to collapse neither Teamsters nor Masons will be much use on my street; all my neighbors put me in mind of the statues of Easter Island, impassive with their backs to the outside world.

nutty professor said...

I always enjoy your posts when they include a good lesson or two in social history. Even more when the writing is practical; the first book of yours that I read in fact was your lodge-organizing book, which I found to be remarkably fastidious in its detail. So what is the connection between lodge/order initiations and community building, other than the potential for fictive kinship? Is this something that you deem to be essential for strong community? If not, what might replace the initiatory tradition?

Pangolin said...

Is it possible that the professionalization of the workplace led to the displacement of the lodges as a center of community life? When a young man's ability to make a living changed from apprenticing with a craftsman or finding a place in a workshop to getting a technical or professional certificate from a school of some sort that would have made a major difference.

The choices to be made would have shifted from making connections with older men in established businesses, trades or crafts to finding funding and admission to a school. Upon leaving the school, or in many cases the military, the majority would have been on equal footing in rapidly growing cities and suburbs. They were approaching strangers who were looking for proof of skills in the absence of reputation that could be checked with peers.

From 1950 through the 90's rapid growth of new suburbs and rapid technological changes in the workplace made everyone a stranger. With little or no new blood who was going to keep these lodges going? Now knowledge is available with unprecedented rapidity but the resources, social skills and wisdom to use or defer application of knowledge are out of the hands of younger adults. It's like dropping a mechanics tool kit on New Guinea highlanders.

Where lodge societies fit into this I don't know.

Jason said...

Knew we'd get the mason post sooner or later. :) If some new model, without the secret handshakes and funny hats, were to spread via the transition town movement say, it could do excellent things. But the old model is kind of toast. Look forward to next week.

Charles said...

Don't underestimate the repelling power of having to wear a funny hat.

My family has a long masonic history. My generation is the first not to have at least one member in who knows how long. Being from the Catholic side of the family, Masonry isn't really an option for me. (I was a DeMolay though).

Catholicism's acceptable alternative to the Masons is the Knights of Columbus, but I'm not really orthodox enough to be comfortable there.

The problem with the traditional lodge system isn't so much their traditional ways (except for the funny hat part) so much as the fact that most require at least lip service to some set of ideas, frequently old-fashioned and admirable enough in their own right, but rarely palatable in their entirety. I have the application for one fraternal order sitting on my desk as I type this that wants to know if I am now, or have ever in the past been a member of a communist organization. The question by itself is enough to raise my withers and to cause me to ask myself whether or not I really want to belong to such an organization.

John Michael Greer said...

Aangel, magical thinking is alive and well in modern industrial society -- those who claim not to believe in magic routinely attribute magical qualities to science and technology. You're quite right, though, that as the governing ideologies of the present day lose their hold on more people, odd belief systems are likely to replace them.

Gene, heck of a question, and not one I have the knowledge to answer conclusively. The crucial issue is whether the system you're proposing gives the health care consumer the power to negotiate on an equal footing with doctors about costs and quality of care.

North Coast, thank you -- but I'm not a doctor; my highest degree is a BA in history of ideas.

Michael, thank you! Your post didn't come with an attached email; please drop me a note via info (at) aoda (dot) org sometime.

Conchshooter, the first labor union in the US, the Knights of Labor, was basically a fraternal order for working men. Your union local might just be more relevant than you think; the collapse of civilization is a slow process, and anything that fosters the growth of local community will be useful.

Professor, that's a very complex issue. Ritual initiation is crucial to the lodge system, and the lack of some similar tool that accesses the nonrational levels of the psyche is one of the reasons so many other attempts at community don't make it; I'm not at all sure what could replace it effectively. I'll be addressing part of this in next week's post.

Pangolin, that's a plausible analysis. As to where lodges fit in -- well, generally, they don't, which is why so many have gone extinct.

Jason, the old model may not be fashionable right now but I'm by no means sure it's toast!

Charles, is that by any chance an Elks application? (I know they have that requirement, from friends who are Elks.) That line went onto the application form during the Fifties in an attempt to convince potential members that they weren't joining a Communist front organization. Yes, it can be off-putting.

Justin Patrick Moore said...

The costs of community are also evident at the local community radio station where I do a show.
It is a listener supported and member run organization. Anyone who is willing to pay the 25 dollars a year to be a member can have a say in what goes on and become involved. There have been many who have complained about the way the station has gone in the past ten years. Yet the people who do the complaining do not volunteer their time at the station to make it work better, or to implement the things they think would improve it. The people who complain haven't run for the Board of Trustees, joined any of the committees, or even showed up to the yearly meetings where a new BOT is elected. The people who are motivated then have "control" of the station, much to the chagrin of those who won't step up to the plate. They don't want to pay the costs of community.

One trend that I see as hopeful is the widespread opening of Hacker Spaces. Some require dues, some don't. These are places where tech geeks and makers can come and work on projects together with shared resources and tools. The hacker 2600 meetings also have been taking place for quite sometime, open to anybody who wants to come, in places all over the world, generally held on the first friday of every month, no dues required, just a willingness to show up and share. Talk of hackers and technology may be anathema to the general thrust of the archdruid report, but what I find fascinating about these groups is that they are willing to pay the price for community and are building if from the ground up. I also like the fact that the hacker community acts as a watchdog on the effects of technology on society, and does what it can to keep things open, exposing weaknesses and flaws along the way.

It seems to me that existing groups could learn from the Freemasonic model. I am a member of a few occult orders. They are very non-traditional and don't require dues. After reading your post I can see the benefits for the community that collecting dues could have. My wife worked at a restaraunt where they had a big metal milk jug that all the employees put their change into. If someone got pregnant, or there was a death in the circle, or a sickness, or whatever, the change got rolled up and the person was given the money. Little things like this could be implemented by people without having to join a lodge.

And then there are the co-ops... my parents used to belong to a few food co-ops while I was growing up. It's a good way for a group of people to buy things in bulk and save money. My cousin started a bike co-op down the street, and in the coming years of energy descent bike cooperatives will surely be something we need more have these things they must be paid for... the cost of community.

Tiago said...

Not to disagree with the main argument, but with a very side issue: 60 hours of physical work are not interchangeable with 40 hours of intellectual work:

Speaking for myself, after a whole day of physical work I am more than ready and willing to engage in social activities. After a whole day of intellectual work I sometimes cannot utter a sentence much less participate in community. In fact I cannot remember a single day I was even able to sustain 8 hours straight with my brain fully concentrated - it is just too much.

I use a personal anecdote just to elucidate a more general point: the drain caused by intellectual work might be bigger than the drain caused by physical work with regards the ability to socialize and engage in community.

Ariel55 said...

Dear JMG,

You remind me of Winston Churchill's description of Russia--a riddle wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a mystery. Aside from historical weird reports, I think that Masonry may be a strengthening element in fortifying what remains of society:
a gathering of like-minded individuals. Thanks for the post.


So it seems that the Lodge system of community declined for a number of reasons...aging membership and declining new member numbers. Based on this and the continued fragmentation and falling apart of community is it not perhaps a backward step in the current form of Freemasonry? I am thinking that it does not satisfy a 'perceived' need. Community groups flourish when people know about them. Access seems to be in direct proportion to the number of current active members and therefore they can only grow in both usefulness as glue for community and a way to strength the individual's resilience and growth if other avenues for access can be found. There is a traditional reluctance to 'attract' membership as part of the culture of Lodges and or Free Masons and this works quite dramatically against any form of growth.

I am also not sure many people even know what community is anymore and it's value in their lives...

Redbriars said...

I live in eastern Canada and we have a number of lodges and fraternal orders here, including what seems to be the most popular in my area, the Order of the Eastern Star. They have interesting (and to some peculiar) rituals to open and close the meetings, and I remember hearing several members expressing relief on learning that if they took certain offices they could read the recitations rather then recite from memory. The age of the members was advancing, such that worry over memory was coming to the fore.

I have an alternative take on the decline in community sociability. In the late 1970's I lived in a very remote community in northern Canada, and throughout the dark winter we had events at the community hall every night. There was bingo, for pennies per card and the prizes were gaudy knick-knacks that were prized because they were otherwise unobtainable. There were movies, 16mm movies projected onto a screen. The favourite movies were always action/adventure movies as the villain always wore black and the hero usually fought without his shirt on (pirates, westerns, etc) so it was easy for the folks who spoke no English (most of the adults) to follow the plot. There were dances twice a week, and we even had a rock band with electric guitars, not bad in a town of 110 people.

And did I mention that we had no telephone, radio or television, no roads to anywhere, and airplanes twice per month, maybe?

And then the satellite dish came, with only two channels of TV, and at the same time the VCR arrived, and within a year there were almost no community events because everyone was hone watching TV.

More than anything else, I think that when people became consumers of entertainment rather than participants in the making of entertainment, then many of the good reasons for being out and active in the community withered. Why go to Lodge and enjoy the company of your peers when you might miss the good shows on TV?

DaShui said...

Archdruid Greer,

You don't have to limit yourself to the West.Asia also had these types of groups called "Mutual Self-Help Organizations", which served the same purpose. Unfortunately, in China the Communists executed their leaders, as historically these types of groups were the basis for political opposition to the ruler.

Ana's Daughter said...

Oop, you admitted you're a Mason. Accusations of evil space alien reptilehood in 3...2...1...


I think you're right about long working hours not being a correct reason why so many people no longer join community groups. During the period which saw the greatest levels of community group activity, many people worked a five and a half or six day week, often more than 8 hours a day, and when they had a commute it frequently involved traveling by what my dad used to call shank's mare, ie your own two feet. Moreover, visit any Grange meeting today and you'll be surrounded by people who work 10 to 12 hour days of hard physical labor six to seven days a week, or farm on weekends and work in town during the week, yet have the time and energy to participate in the Grange, Junior Grange, county fair, lecturer's contests, community volunteer projects such as repainting an elderly neighbor's house, barn raisings, etc. When people want to be involved it's amazing how they can find the time. When they only want to want to be involved, that's another matter.

marielar said...

It is interesting that a fair chunk of the liberal, left-wing crowd who desire so much viable communities is dead set against what is at the core of the few really successful, sustainable communities (Amish, Mennonite, Mormons etc...). Beliefs are not quaint artefacts of those communities, they are the glue and the blueprint for social behaviors. Communities require not only the engagement of the head, but of the heart. And religion provide the answers that the heart crave. Those answers are found where no rational mind can go, its the domain of the mystics, the shamans, the prophets. My wild guess is that the most virulent critics of religion, rituals and traditions dont understand their functions. I would not mind too much if they had viable alternatives to replace what has been lost since Nietsche pronounced God dead. But by now, it should be obvious that the rabid consummer culture and mindless entertainement which filled the void left, are not only cul-the-sac which teared apart communities, but the very things that will bring much tragedy to humanity. At the core, religions, however imperfectly, give meaning and purpose to our life in face of the transience of our physical existence. When we cant find answers, the only option is one form of addictions or the other to numb the pain.

To quote Antonin Artaud:

"So long as we have failed to eliminate any of the causes of human despair, we do not have the right to try to eliminate those means by which man tries to cleanse himself of despair."

Sid said...

Hi Arch Druid,

Of course while certain ‘single’ issue – i.e. 'survival without a job in an era of limited social welfare' groups have declined due mainly to that issue also declining, one should not forget the burgeoning amount of other single and multi issue groups and clubs that have sprung up since. From sports and activities clubs (yoga, tai chi, dance, martial arts) to environmental and conservation groups (ramblers associations, woodland conservation and management to allotment groups) all mostly unpaid amateur and interest based. And lets not forget the NIMBY's (Not In My Back Yard)! And this despite the recognised fall of ‘social capital’ which reached its height in 1960 according to Robert Putnam, author of ‘Bowling alone’ in this article: “Social Capital: Measurement and Consequences” found here: (there’s a graph on page 16). I really like the bit about there being on average of 40 lawyers per 10000 employees from 1900 up to 1970 – then it starts to increase to double, while doctors and engineers have gone in the other direction!
Of course this thing called ‘social capital’ is also quite a new idea in itself, as this article from the UK Office for National Statistics points out: and has been part of the ‘capitalisation of everything’ meme.

While the historical mythsayers look back to a golden age, and future mythsayers look toward a revival and coming golden age, with the current global explosion in NGO’s and other social activist groups, one could say that as a now mythsayer, ‘community’ has never had it so good!

Best Wishes,

Michael Foley said...

What a wonderful post! I've read Theda Skocpol on the decline of organized community life and debated Robert Putnam (I used to be a political scientist) on his own silly explanations for this phenomenon, but I've never seen the economic role of the fraternal organizations laid out or put to use explaining their decline.

I'm currently active in our Grange, which has plenty of the old style about it, but which is also undergoing a renewal as aging 60's types find it a perfect place for building active support for local food security and economic relocalization. God, by the way, gets a bow in the rituals, but everyone seems to feel free to interpret these references as they wish. Why make an issue of it?

My quibble with the post, though, has to do with the larger issue of building community. Yes, I agree, it's hard, requires work, and we need to perceive some reward in it. But it happens, sometimes spontaneously, as people confront local need. I'm just reading Kirkpatrick Sale's Human Scale, where he points to the emergence of local, self-governing communities wherever central authority has broken down -- the famous Paris Commune, the village and factory soviets before the Bolshevik takeover, the neighborhood committees and worker-run factories of Republican Spain during the Civil War. And he argues, correctly I think, that small-scale self-government is the default form of human organization, going back to the paleolithic band and the village assembly found all over the world. But, as you point out, these organisms need to fulfill a need, answer to real concerns, to grow and sustain themselves. And they have to operate in defiance of higher authorities or in their abeyance.

"Building community," then, is as much political as social. We need to do it, on some level, and particularly as the state withers and convulses around us; but we need to find ways to persuade others that it really is worth the effort

Jeff BKLYN said...

"Freemasonry is not a material thing: it is a a science of the soul"

It's taken a lifetime but I intend to approach a local lodge about membership this year. After reading 'THE LOST KEYS OF FREEMASONRY' I found that the ideals described within are worth living up to. To make the point to myself that I'm serious, I started doing volunteer work during my new found free time up here in NYC. Service to community was a key point in 'LOST KEYS' To serve God is to serve man... the point stuck and I'm looking forward to finding out more.

As a long time reader, it was great to hear you thoughts on Masonry and it has definitely fueled the fire on my intentions. Thanks!

Sid said...

Hi Again,

Found it, this interesting I think link highlights the current situation:

130,000+ organisations world wide working for the environment!

Best Wishes,


John Michael Greer said...

Justin, talk about hackers and technology are anything but anathema here; I'd love to see some of the creativity in the hacker community going to find ways that at least some of the more useful end of current technology can be kept going on the much more restricted level of energy and material inputs we'll have as the industrial age winds down. More generally, though, thanks for some very good examples of what can be done!

Tiago, an interesting point. I don't find this to be true for me -- I spend my workdays typing at a computer, and find lodge meetings a welcome break from the writing.

Ariel, thank you -- I think!

Wendy, "backward" and "forward" are very equivocal terms just now. If you're standing at the edge of a cliff, a backward step may be a good idea!

Redbriars, that's also a factor, of course. I freely admit that I wouldn't get a tenth as much done if I owned a TV, which I don't.

DaShui, granted -- and the same is true of many other cultures as well. I don't happen to know anything like as much about the equivalent groups in other societies as I do about American fraternalism, though.

Ana's Daughter, true enough; I've been told to my face that because I'm a Mason, I must be one of the evil space lizards David Ickes rants about. You'd think that if people are going to take their cosmology from bad science fiction -- I wonder how many people notice that Ickes' entire theory is a rehash of that appalling old TV show V? -- they might use a little imagination, and call me a Klingon or something...

Marielar, that's perhaps the most explosive issue in this whole debate. I'll be bringing it up in next week's post.

Sid, the concept of social capital is a new thing but social capital itself is not. The fact that there are voluntary groups nowadays, similarly, doesn't mean that they exist on the same scale or exercise the same influence that they did a century ago. Funny that you'd mention martial arts schools; the kung fu school here in Cumberland closed its doors a few years ago, and the t'ai chi school where I started my training in Seattle just had to give up its building and start meeting in a local community center, because there were too few people willing to pay enough to cover the rent...

Michael, I'm baffled by the number of people who think they're disagreeing with me when they point out that community happens spontaneously in response to need. That's exactly what I've been saying -- but I've also pointing out that community falls apart just as spontaneously when people no longer feel that it's necessary. No grand plan drove the rise of the old fraternal orders, or decreed their decline and fall; the fact remains that their collapse has deprived most of us of some very valuable experience that could be of much use in the years ahead.

Jeff, Hall's book is well worth reading, for those who can handle his mysticism. Welcome in advance to the Craft!

Sid, most environmental organizations consist of a small number of paid employees and a "membership" whose involvement consists of writing a check once or twice a year. Community? Er, no.

Mark said...

Great post JMG.

My brother could tell you all about the struggle that Freemasonry is having as he and his (masonic) brothers are about to be out of a lodge in the next year as their membership has dropped to such a point that they can no longer keep it open.

But on the flip-side of that hardship, they're a lodge of young folks (about 15 members under 50, most under 30) and seem to be inspired by some of the work I've done with farming and it looks that perhaps a revival may be brewing in the lodges. It seems in the face of hardship a lot of good things can certainly be done. We'll see...

Arabella said...

aangel said: "We are such credulous creatures ..." which reminds me of something Mark Rowlands said in his book, The philosopher and the wolf. He runs through the litany of characteristics of humans that have been identified as what makes us unique from other animals and finally identifies that, in his mind, humans are the creatures that believe their own stories.

Thank you for another interesting post, JMG!

Bilbo said...

I see that Free Masons require members to swear to a belief in a Supreme Being but not to a specific religion. Since this obviously includes Druidism, I wonder if belief in a Supreme Being could be extended to a belief in Gaia. I, for one, could see myself swearing to a belief in Gaia. Does the Supreme Being have to be male?

Which brings me to another point, while a period of expansion or empire-building tends to be male dominated, there are those, such as Sharon Astyk, who believe that a period of contraction such as we are facing lend themselves more to a female oriented perspective. (I wonder how Sharon will respond to this week’s post.) How do you suggest women, especially unmarried women, work toward community building?

justapilgrim said...

Interesting that not drinking alcohol for spiritual reasons is considered "odd". It has long been part of the vows of some buddhist sects and east indian spirituality groups that have been around for ages. Interferes with progress on the path apparently. Sorry to digress but I have been on the receiving end of such judgements as the one above and found it rather mystifying.

John Michael Greer said...

Mark, that's sad to hear. I hope they can find some way to pull things together.

Arabella, good. I've thought for some time that storytelling ought to be considered the most basic of all human technologies.

Bilbo, fraternal lodges traditionally don't ask anything other than "do you believe in a Supreme Being?" There are a fair number of Wiccan men in Freemasonry, so it's fair to say that the Great Architect of the Universe (the usual Masonic term for the Supreme Being) does not necessarily have to be male! As for what women can do -- well, gender issues being what they are these days, the only safe answer a man can make to a question like that is "women need to figure that one out for themselves."

Pilgrim, choosing to drink or not drink alcohol isn't odd; belief that drinking alcohol will keep you off the astral plane is, in terms of our culture's common belief systems, a bit unusual, which was my point. (The question of just what the woman meant by "the astral plane" -- a term which has a very different meaning in most contexts -- is another issue, which I don't want to pursue here.)

John Michael Greer said...

Sid (offlist), you've already made your point, and beating a dead horse doesn't help you or the horse. Give it a rest.

BoysMom said...

Hi, Brother!
As an Eastern Star, I think there is something deep wired in our brains that responds to ritual. The 'funny hats' may be optional, the secret handshakes I think are not.
Another thing the lodges have to offer is training in rote memorization. As a girl in Job's Daughters I regularly memorized and performed competatively. I can still receit some five pages of ritual text flawlessly now, twelve years since I last competed. It is a skill that lasts for a lifetime, and will be very useful in a time of declining quantities of information. I know in older times there were people who memorized much more than I ever have, but most people today are doing well to remember their own birthdays.
One of the things we see in the youth organizations, DeMolay and Job's Daughters specificly being those I've been involved with, is the massive number of competing activities combined with the high number of two-income and single-parent families. It's very hard for young people to get involved if their parents won't or can't commit to involvement as well.
If you are interested in joining any of these organizations, go and talk to them. Many of us are forbidden by our rules from recruiting.

kerrick said...

I think maybe Sharon's argument was a little different than the way you characterized it here--what I took from it was that the kind of work most of us do for 40hrs a week tends to fragment us, rather than build community--the typical Americans go out of their communities to do their work, and the home is seen as a refuge from work. Those 50-60hr weeks of the past mostly occurred in one's own community, and a lot of one's most physical work was done with the help of community members. It doesn't take energy away from your work day to do community organizing if you're doing community organizing on breaks at the barn-raising. Even if you don't use your work day for community organizing on purpose, the people you would call to help bring in your harvest are probably much the same people you would call to help figure out what to do about that out-of-town politician messing around with your water rights. Many Americans don't know anyone they could call to organize with. I'd suggest that one reason is because they don't know anyone they can call for help on a friendly basis about anything--everything has become fee for service, and it's become fee for service because we all have to be paid to work at things we don't want to do in the first place. This, I think, implicates the kind of work we're doing in causing the breakup of communities. It's also the kind of work we do and how we're compensated for it that teaches us that any work--even the work of building community--has to come with financial remuneration or it's beneath us.

Very interesting stuff about lodges; I'll be thinking on it more when I'm done with my 40 hrs of isolating drudgery this week.

Ricardo Rolo said...

Well, the social function of the masons that you describe reminds me the acting of two associations here : the fire departements ( as I stated the week before in my comment ) and the Misericordias ( that are non-governemental welfare systems that started in Portugal in the XVI century and that worked ( and still works in a sense ) in a rather decentralized way and depending of contributions of the members...

And like I also said in the comment I made in the last week, the state in here has been very active in trying to destroy those groups of communitarian efforts either by pressing the internal elections or via other more devious means ( the portuguese state basically killed all the Misericordias except one by making the one in the capital the only entity that can run lottos in the country ... ). This to point that the communitarian efforts do not die necessarily by disease. In fact most of the communitarian effort that died in history were "murdered" by the authorities ( and this comes from ancient days: I remember a letter or Augustus to his governor of Phrigia denying the request of a city to make a citizen firefighter brigade because it feared that it would become a den of rebelious ideas and saying that all the citizen groups should be broken down exactly because of that ). I would even say that this is a constant in History and the fact is that the communitarian efforts die down as soon as the higher authorities have the means to do so. I would like to point that the breakouts of communitarian life have a good correlation with the increase of power of the central governements and that the XX century usage of fossile fuels increased the power of the governements far more than the power of the individual citizens and the breakout of communitarian efforts, because of that, correlates well with the increase of usage of fuels .

Anyway , I'm convinced that the communitarian efforts will get back, more or less orderly, as soon as the power goes down ( both the fuel one and the governemental one ;) ), mainly because there is no other way of a human community to survive without a high energy external input, either via fuel burn or other way ( old times used humans as machines and called them slaves ).

P.S As a side note, and to distone a little, Masonry can be a dark force indeed. In my country Masonry alone fommented a civil war and countless coups d'etat ( and they are the ones to say it in their official publications ), a catholic form of Masonry ( called Carbonaria, that has ,among other requirements of membership, the obligation of carrying a loaded revolver all the times ) killed a King ( the leaders of the organization were Republicans ...) and they have been working, in their own words again ( our last Mason president is a little more recent than yours ( 1995 ) and this words are from him ), to dissolve my country in a iberian or european federation ( in the name of peace between men ... ), in resume they are far more worried in doing politics and in doing good. Not justifying the "evil lizard" theories, but just pointing that organizations might be easily overtaken and start doing things that are far from the original propose or even of any benefical one. The bad name that Masonry still has pretty much comes of their heavy involvement in the XIX century European politics ( in here at a time the Parliament had so many Masons that it was made a temple inside the Parliament chambers ) that can't be exactly coined as globally positive , and it is far diferent of the experience in the Americas...

beardo said...

I always enjoy your posts. Regarding your assertion that people worked more and harder in the past, I'm sure there is a lot of truth to it. But I am under the impression that it was the increase in the pool of labor provided by the first wave of feminism that allowed the concentration of wealth to grow so dramatically from the 1960s on. As real wages declined, women entered the workforce to help cover the growing cost of living. (When the labor market couldn't grow any further, we started living more and more on credit, with predictable results.) Your mention of a typical 50-60 hour week I assume is referring to mostly one wage-earner households. My point is that at least until very recently more people were working than had been in recent memory, so maybe there is something to the argument that what little community existed before then has floundered as a result.

Jonathan Blake said...


It's fairly easy to create communities when everyone believes the same thing. From my experience inside the Mormon community, it gave a sense of instant community when I traveled to Mexico, for example, and they were teaching the same things that I would have heard at home (only in Spanish). Every Mormon chapel was home.

The price paid for this kind of community is that it can devolve into an us-vs-them antagonism. Some Mormons think of most non-Mormons as Gentiles, part of the wicked world. The community marginalizes anyone who believes too far out of the mainstream. It squelches the freedom to think and believe as our consciences dictate.

The real challenge (and what we really need today) is to create communities when everyone holds diverse beliefs. I value diversity, but it makes it hard to build a cohesive community. It's wonderful how free we are these days to hold and express controversial beliefs, but it has been one factor contributing to the balkanization of our communities.

Monolithic religions like the ones you cited may make community building easier, but you have to take the good with the bad. From my experience, it's often a bargain with the Devil.

Michael Foley:

"God, by the way, gets a bow in the rituals, but everyone seems to feel free to interpret these references as they wish. Why make an issue of it?"

I'm not sure if you're asking why a non-believer should care, but I'll answer it as if that's your question.

It comes down to personal integrity. If a community says "every member believes in a Supreme Being", I can't in good conscience belong because I would be misrepresenting my beliefs. The terms "Supreme Being" and "God" are synonymous to almost everyone. Even if I interpreted "Supreme Being" liberally for myself, to belong to such a group, most people would naturally jump to the conclusion that I believe in God, which I don't.

Now if they instead required that everyone believe in a "ground of all being", that might be a different story. ;)

dandelionlady said...

Long time reader, and I want to thank you for a lot of thought provoking reading. I just wanted to chip in here and say that for more than 10 years now, pagans in my town have been creating our own religious based community. We may not have the money that the masons had, but we've pulled together many times to help each other in times of need. My point is that I don't think we necessarily need Masonic groups to form community. We've had are ups and downs, sometimes people hate each other as much as they care. We started as a college group, and now years later we watch as a new generation of college student look towards us for leadership. We've got the community, the question that remains for me is what to do with it, and how to maintain it. There are no road maps that I've found to successful pagan community.

das monde said...

It it interesting to read about the impact of McCarthy-style scares (and more arguably, New Deal policies) on American fellowships and community building. But I am surprised to hear about evident hostility of the common media towards Masonry. Who is earning millions on those loathing books? I thought you would grumble only about fringe left or right skeptics of the apparent order. I am, of course, not in direct touch with the American media or publishing world. The first time I noticed a couple of books on Masonry in a book store was last year in the Amsterdam airport - and bought one for basic information. The books did not look of the kind you imply.

I am more familiar with individualistic community disintegration in Eastern Europe. They are recognizing now that what was lost among the freedom frenzy of the 1990s is any sense of community. Now even in the resilient Poland, which is officially the only EU country escaping this recession, 32% are living in poverty. Quite a logical consequence of the (individual or governmental) focus on the “real” money in the West rather than to each other. The individualistic fixation turns out to be quite irrational after all. If there is a part of human brain that seeks a set of firm convictions, faith in free enterprise massively replaced there traditional religions quite some time ago.

Thatcher’s programming “There is no such thing as society” often goes very smoothly in emerging markets or democracies. And sly versions of McCarthism help a lot. It is easy there to blame anything wrong on wounds of Communist past or Socialist mentality - especially when hardly anyone opposes. It is remarkable how the ideology praising individual responsibility would not take responsibility for anything happening around. Just last week I read an article ”Crawling Totalitarianism” of a long-time local intellectual, who was even a formal leader of “the” liberal party of the early 1990s. The article is nothing but trashing of progressive liberalism, crying about ideological coercion on fragile local democracy, focused attacks on Christian values, dirty campaigns on independent minds, Orwelian vocabulary, caricature political correctness, its wrong type of Western legacy, and what not. He concludes: “The crawling liberal totalitarianism is threatening the freedom of every man and the nation. Its shadow is hanging over all European Union.... The message from this man surprises me. It alone wouldn’t be decisive, but this recycling of well-honed think-tankish talking points is very common in Eastern Europe. It basically says “Don’t even think of any kind of collectivism, or you will be called a totalitarian.” Never mind that the nation is going the way of Haiti (with or without earthquakes) because of quick ignorant debts of private citizen and neo-liberal destruction of communities and the young generation. (The relation between massive indebtedness and extreme poverty is becoming unmissable, as it crawls even towards Nordic nations.)

The North Coast said...

Part of the reason for the downfall of the lodges may be their vaunted secrecy.

While I understand and sympathize with the reasons for the extreme secrecy of the Masonic Order, for example, I submit that those reasons are now obsolete and that the Order and its purposes- building a strong community that can be a source of succor in times of need, and maintain the culture in between those times- is no longer served by this secrecy.

The Masonic Order had to be very secretive during the period of the French Enlightenment, for example, for it was a revolutionary society opposed to monarchies and the Roman Church. In other words, it was subversive, and its members were endangering themselves by participating.

Nowadays, it would serve that purpose best by being as open as possible, and actively cultivating members.

Marcus said...

Just a link to something that seems relevant:

medved said...

to das monde:
It has long been on my mind that european reading of this blog (which I also share) is a bit different.
As for Poland (the country I admire) it has always been poor and religiously conservative, free masons are not likely the key element in its community building.
Somehow we will have to figure out ourselves how to do it (and the long shadow of communism is not very helpful in this enterprise).

It is the vacuum between the state and the individual that gives me the real creapy feeling.

Jason said...

@Jonathan Blake

You wink

Now if they instead required that everyone believe in a "ground of all being", that might be a different story. ;)

... but personally I think you make rather a good point. Not only Wiccans but also Buddhists or Taoists, etc., would have a problem with the 'supreme being' thing... what are we going to do, halt the ritual and discuss the equivalence issues? Why is there no acceptance of the idea of multiple possible views... they can combine, why hide them?

It's kind of absurd. Personally I'm a transpersonal/mystical kind of guy (I mean seriously, very committedly and experiencedly so) but I don't particularly care about religion... there's a lot of people around like that. Marielar, not everyone who is refusing religion is refusing the mystical! Far from it.

In the coming days when everything constrains and tightens, it would be good to be aware of fine distinctions, and how, in the world since the 'Enlightenment' (chortle) multiple spiritual understandings have profitably sprung up and borne fruit. These will now have to either adapt to the new conditions or (as JMG suspects) mostly die off.

The Transition Town movement was actually looking to address that with its Joanna Macy-style ecopsychological new age buddhist thing. Ran into some issues though... don't know where that's going.

I believe in spiritual experience but I do think the old models of communitizing it could do with a rethink in lots of ways. I have seen things work in a very sophisticated manner socially, where the shared beliefs had great room for individual distinctions. But these things have to be investigated group-by-group. Just trying to stick the Amish (or indeed the Masonic) blueprint over it doesn't work.

Like Jonathan Blake is saying, that us-v.-them thing that happens in such cases can be a difficulty. There's always 'shared religion' (viewing the idea loosely) in any community. It develops naturally, as does all human spirituality. But the massive possible variation in the way it works is something we should all be aware of.

I'll be interested to see what JMG says next week -- if he's true to character, he will point up the advantages of a trad approach. No doubt he will also maintain that when we are hungry we will happily traduce fine distinctions that our consciences would otherwise insist upon.

But in the ferment of the end of the classical era, for example, new forces of this kind sprang into being -- we are bound to see something of the kind happening again. I would much prefer something, shall we say, more sensitive to difference and local variation than some other examples I (and Jonathan Blake) could name.

And, also in JMG's terms, it would be good if we could get our Iamblichus in early this time, as they did in Japan... but that's another story. :)

James Andrix said...

I'm a member of a local "Hackerspace". A $30 per month membership pays for a large workshop/kitchen/lounge/classroom facility. It's mostly programmers and sysadmins with a few electrical engineers.

I wonder how such an organization would adapt if it's still around in 100 years.

Luciddreams said...

here is my question. Why is it that not believing in a creator god should keep one from a group who's focus isn't really proselytizing for a creator god? As in, what I believe to be, the Freemasons case. If their main concern is community and servicing mankind...what does that have to do with god?

I don't believe in a creator god. I think consciousness and "creation" have both always existed. It wasn't created, just is. So therefore I can't say I believe in the "supreme architect." However, I do have spiritual beliefs. As in I believe consciousness goes beyond the physical brain and endures after death.

I'm not trying to be difficult by posting this, but if I were to be honest than I would be excluded from massonry. What good does that do anybody? Why is it important to believe in a "supreme architect"? Sometimes tradition is just a hindrance to progress.

wylde otse said...


I'm surprised you speak so freely about Freemasonry, but, I suppose that if a murderous Roman Catholic Church of the Dark Ages is (at least temporarily) no longer burning alive anyone who disagrees with it, it is safe probably safe to examine options.

Mention in 'comments' about Africa being bought up by Chinese etc.; methinks the same is planned for N.A.
The political leaders and government here are quite as corrupt as those of Africa.

'Community' is anathema to large predatory governments and corporations. Case in point: I listened to an interview by a self-designated 'grass-roots' Haitian, and earthquake survivor', on Canadian radio. He sees the 'aid' being brought into his country as an assault on genuine community. US troops took over the university there for a command center in an effort to preserve the corrupt bought-and-paid for foreign-controlled system which has resulted the people there being the poorest and most oppressed in the Americas. The emphasis is on "security", and not distributing food widely and freely (people not in favor with the surviving "local authorities" [according to on-the-ground witnesses] are denied aid).

The immediate challenge is to prevent foreign governments and multinational corporations from buying up large tracts of land; herding an itinerant labor force into slavery conditions, not just in Haiti - but here next.
What we are witnessing in Haiti is less deliverance than opportunistic rape.

thetinfoilhatsociety said...

'Membership in many lodge organizations began to fall off in the 1920s, as relative prosperity and the emergence of the first, very limited public welfare programs began to cut away at the basic rationale behind the system. That decline turned into freefall with the coming of the New Deal, and became all but total with the Great Society programs of the 1960s.'

There's your answer right there. When one joins a lodge, or other such organization, they are both making a statement about how much money they are willing to spend for community, but also about where they would like their money to be spent in supporting that community.

Paying vastly increased taxes to do the same thing takes away both options. If I had my tax dollars that I am required to pay to do with as I wish, perhaps I would choose to join an order that provides such service for my community members. I surely would be in debt less or not at all, would have to work fewer hours and therefore have more time to devote to such a system, and more disposable money with which to invest in such a venture.

One begins to think that social welfare programs run by the govt are actually premeditated to destroy organic community in this context....

gardenserf said...


Thank you for this wonderful post. Most Americans alive today don't know the history of the Masons or their positive role in the founding of this country. They were the original Tea Partiers.

Meg said...

Having been active in small group organizing for some years - nothing so formal as a lodge, but we did our best - this is what I've learned in a nutshell, submitted in the hope it may be useful to someone:

*Groups need a common purpose. A common purpose makes the group's nature and purpose sufficiently clear to everyone, creates an objective standard of good membership and good leadership, and distracts people from focusing too much of their differences. Groups that lack one, default to managing themselves with ferocious intensity - refining their self-definition, sorting proper members from slackers and backsliders, calling for stronger leadership/different leadership/no leadersip, lamenting the lack of unity and sad slippage of standards - which inevitably destroys them.

*The biggest barrier to community is the impression that to relate to people, you have to share tastes and opinions with them. You don't especially, and in fact you're probably better off leaving that out of the equation as much as possible. Shared experiences and/or shared goals are the ticket. Do things together, and downplay the demographic or ideological differences between members as much as humanly possible. Eat together, accomplish things together, and you will find yourself bonding with people with whom you have nothing else in common.

Is this consistent with others' experience?

J Hill said...

Like several other commenters here, I run into trouble with the lodges' requirement of religious belief. That makes me wonder about the potential for the rise of new lodges. So I'm wondering whether you think starting a lodge or communal order, as opposed to joining one, is a viable option.

John Michael Greer said...

Sister Mom, excellent points. I know rote memorization is hardly popular these days, but one of the reasons so few people are able to think genuinely new thoughts these days (most so-called "innovative thinking" amounts to the rehashing of the same tired cliches) is that, having memorized nothing, they have no raw material to think with.

Kerrick, in 1900 a very large number of Americans were employed in factory wage labor; this didn't stop them from getting heavily involved in lodges, and many other forms of community as well.

Ricardo, er, calling Carboneria "a form of Masonry" is like calling chicken a form of beef or Buddhism a form of Christianity -- they're completely different organizations with very different ethoi. That being said, I know that Masonry in some Latin countries did get very political.

Beardo, that's an interesting hypothesis. I've tended to think that moving women into the work force was largely the result of the market's expansion into what had been the role of the household economy; women worked just as hard in households as they did in outside employment, after all, and produced at least as much value (though since that value was not exchanged for money, it didn't count in the eyes of economists). But I'll review that.

Jonathan, I appreciate your integrity in not being willing to avow something you don't believe!

Dandelion, granted, and I know of some very impressive things that have been done in Pagan (and, of course, other religious) communities.

Das Monde, the "liberation" of Eastern Europe was pretty much the replacement of one empire by another, using manufactured "popular revolts" as the tool du jour. It's not surprising that the result has been the dramatically increased impoverishment of many people in those nations. As for North American anti-Masonry, there's a good discussion from a Masonic point of view here.

North Coast, lodges that get rid of secrecy generally go out of existence shortly thereafter. The point of secrecy isn't that what's secret is particularly important; you can find the secrets of any lodge organization you like online these days. It's the experience of consciously keeping a secret that's important, and it's important because it's a potent tool for creating community. More on this in next week's post.

Marcus, thanks for the link.

John Michael Greer said...

Marcus, thanks for the link.

Medved, good. Community is precisely what, in a healthy society, fills the gap between the individual and the state.

Jason, let's just say you may be a bit surprised.

James, I hope the experiment gets tried.

Lucid, you don't have to proselytize for a deity to consider belief in a deity vitally important, you know.

Otse, it's embarrassing to note that nearly everything in the US media these days about Haiti is about how heroic we're allegedly being in helping the Haitians. No discussion of how much work the US has put into keeping them poor. How many Haitian presidents have we gotten rid of at this point?

Tinfoil, if "vastly increased taxes" were the culprit, why didn't lodges and other community organizations rebound in the wake of the huge tax cuts of the Reagan era? I don't buy it.

Serf, and they'd have had the common sense to figure out what the phrase "teabagging" meant before applying it to themselves, too.

Meg, this is good. A common purpose is only one of the potential sources of community, but it's an important one. More on this next week.

J Hill, it's a perfectly viable option. Some years ago I wrote a book on exactly that subject; it was aimed at the alternative spirituality scene, thus the colorful title, but it gives detailed instructions for how to organize a lodge. Mind you, it's been my least commercially successful book, but I know of a number of successful lodges that have been founded using its template.

Avery said...

I'm pleased you not only anticipated my comment in your last post but had a spectacular elaboration. You've really gotten to the heart of what "community" meant in the 19th century and why it can't be revived today. I've forwarded this to my friends and I hope it will get a lot of airtime outside the tiny peak oil blogosphere.

tgmac said...

I'm not one of nature's natural joiners. I always tend to think of Groucho Marx's comment: any club that would take me, I wouldn't join. Or as too many teachers have pointed out in the past - I don't work well with others. Paradoxically, I'm a Socialist but with a mean aversion to one party states and any form of tyranny. If anything, I veer towards an amalgamated Thomas Paine stance, and we know he was a total pain in the arse.

So, I suppose my question is: how do we non-conformists join up or get together in a non-anarchist manner? A non-conformist club is somewhat of an oxymoron.

I did note one commentators advice on setting a solid but generalised goal that binds members together without highlighting personal superficial appearances or stances. As I'm in a rural setting, does anyone have literature or actual experience about creating a loose alliance of members with some stated concrete goal or binding agent that doesn't necessarily revolve around planting spuds?

Reviewing the post, it seems a bit facetious, but this isn't my intention. I'm not particularly activated by any given possible event such as peak oil, but I do have an overwhelming feeling that stark individualism can't deal sufficeintly with today's problems and social complexity.

Has anyone had any success with geeky project clubs in a rural setting?


John said...

Serf, and they'd have had the common sense to figure out what the phrase "teabagging" meant before applying it to themselves, too.

One point- I believe the term "tea-bagging" was applied to the TEA Party movement by the professional media in a deliberate move to ridicule and marginalize the participants. It was heavily used in the reports covering the demonstrations but I never saw or heard it used by the participants themselves. This seems to be a case of Society minimizing an attempt at establishing community.
On the spirituality side-issue; not all of us who believe in a Supreme Being and Creator believe in ex nihilo creation. When an artist "creates " a work of art he arranges(organizes)the mater already present but the result is a 'new creation'

Edde said...

Greetings John Michael, stimulating post, as usual.

tgmac said: I did note one commentators advice on setting a solid but generalised goal that binds members together without highlighting personal superficial appearances or stances. As I'm in a rural setting, does anyone have literature or actual experience about creating a loose alliance of members with some stated concrete goal or binding agent that doesn't necessarily revolve around planting spuds?

I live in a semi-rural nearly 40 year old cooperative community, still going strong. It began as a "back to the land" effort w/members in search of affordable homes. Now looking for younger members to carry on (yes, we occasionally can offer affordable homes - we embraced anti-speculation restrictions).

Our community combines common land with private owned homesteads, self-reliance, a vigorous democracy, various levels of environmentalism & cooperation, and a work party ethic. Most work in town, though we're old enough so many are now at-home workers.

Grow spuds if you like. If your place is too deep in forest, stake out a plot on common land.

Since our homes & community structures got built, and many found work in town, we've had the splintering effect of dominant culture to contend with. We're now in remodel and maintenance mode, so work parties arise again. Finally, we're working to build a community economy to keep the campers on the land...

Community IS possible. It takes patience,hard work, perseverance, a sense of humor and luck.


LynnHarding said...

This "working women and loss of community" thing won't die so I have been thinking more about this exchange. When I was a young mother and also a part time college professor I noticed how much more fun the college professors were having and how much more money they made than the typical young mother. As the early feminists pointed out, housekeeping in the suburbs was a pretty lonely occupation and a woman would take up a volunteer cause to get something of a social life. The kids played in a corner while we had our meetings or they unloaded the bags at the food coop while we tried to load them up. When there was an opportunity to send the kids off to school and to go to a really good job where the purpose of work seemed to be worthwhile all the women I knew put on their suits and went off to work. Middle class and upper middle class work isn't that hard. Lots of time sitting around in meetings and having lunch and "happy hours" after work. Many women (and men) found all of the values of community right there at work. They have stayed in touch after retirement and there is a lot of support for sick people and visiting of hospitals and nursing homes etc. Of course we are talking about good white collar jobs with pensions and I understand that these are disappearing. I don't imagine that there is a lot of fun and solidarity among fast food workers at this point. But if you look at Michael Moore's portrayal of Flint, Michigan in "Roger and Me" you will see that there was a community around the good factory jobs. It is, therefore, my belief that community is not separate from work but should be part of work. There is a song called Thanksgiving Eve, with a line as follows: "What can we do with our lives but dream and hope that our dreams tie our work to our play."
What makes those old church groups and granges and lodges filled with elderly people so sad is that the economic system that created them is gone. All that is left is the terrible sadness and need.
Religion in the broadest sense underlies community as well. We have lost our belief in what constitutes meaningful work and God has been dead for over one hundred years so we are really adrift right now. (Guess what kind of professor I was.) I think you are overall correct that when "women's work" was commercialized it lost its meaning. There were certain corporations and public agencies that gave women an opportunity for awhile and pulled the pins out from under a lot of good causes that had been supported by stay at home mothers. However, I don't think that meaningful communities will be ever be built by people who don't have meaningful work. Religion without meaningful work may make desperate people feel better but that is what Marx meant when he said that "Religion is the opiate of the masses."
Thank you for your thoughtful blog. It is fun to communicate with you and your earnest readers.

martinb said...

Years ago a family friend was a Mason. He was a wonderful person, responsible citizen, good family man, ran his own business, etc, but come lodge nights we used to mock him unmercifully about wearing funny clothing and performing strange rituals. I don't want to be a Mason -- I couldn't stand the ridicule.

A very successful 20th century organization is Alcoholics Anonymous. I think it succeeds because it has a very clear and obviously useful purpose, the costs are modest (you contribute only what you can afford), and the guiding spirit and philosophy (the 12 steps) are strictly enforced, which cuts down bickering and disagreement among the members. Okay, it also excludes many people who are uncomfortable with talk of the Higher Power and the white middle-class value system, but there are other organizations they can join.

The more an organization tries to be all things to all men (and women) to enlarge its membership, the less effective it will probably be.

Ricardo Rolo said...

Ok, I guess I shold had been more specific in what I meant with a "form of Masonry" when I mentioned Carbonaria. I know that Carbonaria and Masonry are far diferent organizations, but in here in the time period in question ( end of XIX century/ beginning of the XX century ) a lot of members of the Carbonaria were masons as well ( most of the leadership of the Carbonaria indiscutebly was Mason , that is a widely known fact )and it was hard to know where the Mason started and the Carbonaria member ended and vice versa. That and and the fact that the actions of both organizations seemed ( and still seem at the light of the distance ) somehow concerted makes most of the Historians of those days in here to refer to Carbonaria as a form of Masonry, atleast in operational terms. It is my fault to not had explained this, but we have a limit of caracthers and this was a note on the margin ... Mea Culpa, anyway.

das monde said...

The neo-liberal capitalism often acts as a cultural eraser - especially when "shock doctrines" are probably employed. "Freed" economies and democracies are baptized into the global market model without much regard or interest, how those societies were working beforehand. This occurrence is not different from the first wave of Western colonizations. By now the individualistic monoculture cannot grow much more.

Therefore I am unsympathetic to the excuse of post-communist shadows. The problem in Eastern Europe is that any hint of challenge to the promised glories of free capitalism is coated with all reverence to its "truthful" economic norms. The Socialist experience is not analyzed any further beyond cliche judgments entailing that nothing of it is to be repeated anyhow.

I am stepping into tricky ground now - and I hope you can withhold your instinctual judgments. My Soviet experience is up till early youth, and I have to say, it was nothing terrible personally. The Soviet Union might had been "officially" obsessed with defense spending, but it also served and build quite a lot for common citizenry, and especially for youth. Generally, the youth had quite good egalitarian time (and education) at schools and on vacation - with all that attention gone fast with the break up of the system. Distressful conditions at orphanages have to be acknowledged - but those conditions mostly got only worse since then.

The new generation is raised with better material conditions, surely - but the egalitarian attention is gone. Responsible education and better time is increasingly only for "winner" families. Much of the youth migrated to the West for simplistic jobs - and many kids now are raised with their parents far away. And the free choices for most of them will be very limiting or rent-demanding. The national "genotypes" are going to be traumatized more than with Socialist distortions.

das monde said...

There is not much to talk about Communist community building - though the later stage Soviet Socialisms was not particularly harmful. Even the "imposed" community systems as kolkhozes were not that bad by then - and eventually it was the rural communities that had suffered most under the system collapse. Like I said, there was a full set of civilized public services. They might have been not of the better quality than in the West, and probably most functional institutions were copied from there (just as it was with all technology). I would say, the system was not competitive, but still functioning rather adequately. It is easy to say that it was unsustainable - but it was reformed away before indisputable cracks really showed up.

Particularly, whatever you suppose about the power of bureaucratic deciders there, in practice they took the public service rather seriously. Again, jokes were made about it as the quality was greatly far from exceptional. But that only shows deterioration of public service everywhere. Soviet abuses of power were soft compared with what changed in the 1990s, and Soviet egalitarianism was far from fake. Your kids had a good chance to play with the ones of your boss sometimes, so to speak. And however repressive the regime was supposed to be, it was rather easy to say out of serious trouble - unlike after the “wild” transition in Russia.

When I moved to the West in 1994, I got many sympathetic looks of the kind “Your country is so poor”. Neither me nor most of East European peers did not feel that way. What “being poor” means? We still had civilized, educated societies and services, but being obscurely ripped apart. Currency rates were set so that our salaries were evaluated to $50 per month or so. That’s why we could be called poor, as a welcome “endowment” to the “real world”. Life in the Baltic republics looked better than in the rest of the Empire, and Poland (with DDR, Czechoslovakia, etc) looked better still. The rates of subsistence poverty were just a few percent - if you really mean subsistence.

Looking retrospectively, I could share my most deranged conspiracy suspicion. If the Soviet system were to be disintegrated ”accidentally”, a very good scenario would look a lot like it happened not long ago: Smart reforms by a leader of a new generation, the control slipping away and “brotherly loves” of nations suddenly finding their logical xenophobic conclusion. The societies appeared to be well prepared for the coming consumerism, the system thrived in making joke of itself, and the ominous KGB just did nothing with its totalitarian powers and armies of informers in that short period. It is not that I recommend the Soviet system back, you know. I personally should be thankful for the world of opportunities I got just in time. But I am not blindly thankful. The Soviet experiment was a good excuse to discredit a lot of decent things.

Vic said...

JMG, what did you think of Orlov's piece?

John Michael Greer said...

Avery, thank you.

Tgmac, I'll be discussing some points relevant to this in the upcoming post. No, I don't have any experience with "geeky project clubs" in any setting, rural or otherwise.

John, I did see accounts of teabaggers using the phrase of themselves, though it got dropped fast once the colloquial meaning of the term got mentioned to them.

Edde, thanks for the insights!

Lynn, my only quibble concerning your otherwise excellent comment would focus on the issue of "meaningful" work. Do you consider digging potatoes in a field meaningful? In the not too distant future, that -- and other subsistence tasks -- are likely to make up a huge percentage of the work that needs to be done.

Martin, maybe you should join the Masons as a penance for subjecting a good man to ridicule!

Ricardo, thank you -- and of course it's a side issue; you're quite right that Masonry in the Latin world took some highly political directions it didn't go elsewhere.

Das Monde, well, I wasn't there and the information I have is of course filtered through US media. Still, it didn't escape my attention that the end of Communism in the eastern bloc coincided with a very sharp drop in the standard of living of most people in those countries.

Vic, I thought it was pleasant but a bit facile, and I note that Dmitry -- like all the other bloggers who've commented on my earlier post -- skated right past the central issue I was trying to raise: that the decline of community in recent years has been driven by a widespread belief that the costs of community are greater than the benefits. It's been quite intriguing, really, to watch people avoid that, and find reasons -- or excuses -- why some outside force took "our" communities away from us. More on this shortly.

Apple Jack Creek said...

tgmac - Does your rural area have some kind of annual fair? If you want to find an easy doorway into your local community, go to the fair and offer to help. :) This is how we met a lot of the 'core' people in our area: by being willing to lend a hand at a community event. If you're not ready for the whole big commitment of planning and meetings (we weren't, and still aren't), that doesn't mean you won't be welcome if you show up at the fair grounds during setup and offer to help pitch tents, or stay after on the last day to pick up trash.

A volunteer fire department, local library, or senior's residence might need a hand with any number of things too. "Community" is formed in a lot of ways - groups that meet for express purposes like the fair, or keeping buildings from burning down, or tidying up the grounds of the old folks' home .. that's community too, I think.

It's a good place to start anyway - and you can see where it goes from there.

rj.king said...

Here in the small town in Wisconsin that I have lived in for many years our village block has organized a neighbor’s organization that we refer to as the Block 13 Mutual Aid Society. We collectively purchased a snow blower and have one of our members handle snow removal duties for our block. Another member donated some of her yard space for a jointly managed neighborhood garden. The group began a couple of years ago because of our recognition of the importance of working together for our common interests. It is a fairly informal arrangement, and has its needs for improvement, but it basically works. I think that it is quite likely that we are going to see similar neighborhood groups develop as the world continues to change .

I agree with your assessment that lack of time due to long working hours is not a critical factor in the basic absence of organizing today. Many blog contributors have already put forward some pretty fair reasons for the lack of solidarity and its expression organizationally in viable neighborhood and workplace groups. I was for 33 years a union member, and for a part of this time a union steward at the Madison campus here in WI. The union local has a membership of several thousand, yet only about 30 members attend the monthly local meetings. Local union research discovered that many members (myself included) commuted many miles to get to work. 30 years ago most members lived much closer and participation levels were higher than today. Although there are more fundamental reasons for nonparticipation in the union local, distance can play a part in workplace organizing.

I think a more significant reason for the lack of interest in workplace, neighborhood and other organizations including lodges has more to do with market capitalism and how it tends to discourage and divert people from organizing. Chomsky has a lot to say about the profoundly negative effects of powerful advertising propaganda on us all.

The billions of dollars spent on advertising annually have partially succeeded in getting many of us to become pliable, self-centered, manipulated “consumers.” The tendency for capitalism to make almost everything imaginable into a commodity further corrodes an already damaged human psyche. A shocking as well as disgusting example of this phenomena was when former admiral Poindexter tried to create a terrorist acts futures market. One hundred years ago mass marketing was in its infancy and I think this could be a fundamental difference between then and now for organizing working people.

We need to find a means to revive basic forms of human solidarity. I am still pretty skeptical that a revival of lodges like the Masons is going to do much to change things. I believe that building inclusive democratically run neighborhood, workplace, and rural councils are the best organizational forms as we move forward.

ferencke said...

David 1/20/10 7:13
You cannot _join_ the Masons. You'll be invited...

Joan said...

Beardo brought up women entering the paid work force in large numbers since the 1960s and in JMG's reponse:
"women worked just as hard in households as they did in outside employment, after all, and produced at least as much value (though since that value was not exchanged for money, it didn't count in the eyes of economists). But I'll review that."
Having been a SAHM for 5 years after having been a professional, this is an area in which I have invested some measure of activism. In a one-earner household where one laborer (breadwinner) works 50-60 hours outside the home, but the other works unmeasured hours inside the home, there IS more flex time left within that household than in a two-earner household where BOTH work 50-60 hours outside the home AND THEN someone needs to also do the work inside the home. Not everything can be discarded or outsourced. Removing the inside-the-home laborer decreases available household time to devote to community, in my opinion.

hapibeli said...

Thought I'd add this though it doesn't address the current post, it is an interesting report on North America's current lack of honest information.

LynnHarding said...

Funny you should ask about potato patches. I am trying to get the farmers/gardeners in my town to get together to plant an acre of potatoes in the town center. I do think it is meaningful and fun as well. Potatoes are actually more fun than most farming activities and more productive on a net energy basis as well. I have heard that we can grow 25,000 pounds of potatoes on an acre of land.
Of course any activity can be dreary and downright intolerable under the wrong circumstances. My grandfather walked barefoot off of his family farm about 100 years ago and went to town to build cars.

Karel said...

Das Monde, please, no ostalgia here!

I spend first 18 years of my life as a kid of local communist she-comrade; and be sure, all that "egalitarianism" was farce. Every single relation with other people was deformed by politics (for example there wasn't true friendship between party members and other people, only calculated connections). Every time I walked with my mother through the city, I saw fear in the smiling faces of ordinary people we met as my quasi-feudalist mom started "conversation" with them. When times changed, those once nice smiling people started to berate and spit.

Surely there were no beggars in the streets (at the very least in Czechoslovakia or in Baltic states; but in Poland situation was a bit different, not to speak about Romania), but also we were not free citizens. Every little independent step was big political problem, for example effort to print a few copies of local astronomic society's magazine etc. In my country it was in fact this system who killed civic society of first Czechoslovak republic long before so called "Velvet revolution" came. So called "communism" was definitely cul de sac. Community is completely different thing.

mirror said...

From the BBC a report that echoes what you've been saying all along: "Economic growth cannot continue."

Published: 2010/01/25 14:00:32 GMT

Maria Guzman

das monde said...

JMG, the USSR collapse interpretation is rather my own way of connecting dots. Information is quite self-filtered in Eastern Europe itself. And by the way, thanks for the Masonic link.

Karel, thank you for the response. Recalling the Socialist habitat should not be a tabu here, as it would be interesting to compare civilization's long descent with the stagnation of the Soviet Empire. Would people be smiling better?

The grim demeanor of East Europeans is surely a topic of post-Communist shadows. But how puzzling it is? The obsession with calculated relations does not quite mean lack of egalitarianism, rather it shows that the Soviet egalitarianism was not valued. People minds were busy with hierarchical positioning or comparative pretensions - was it a natural consequence of forced equality, restrained freedoms, or leaking information from the West? How different was the process in various countries, starting from Russia?

Lack of spiritual connection in Communist communities is very ironic. If marching or other rituals are symbolically rather than practically important in the military or secret societies, how it came that the few Soviet rituals were viewed that cynically? Some crucial respects were missing in the system, which partly explains eventual lack of self-preservation drive.

Kirk White said...

John and all,

What a great blog! I'm sorry that I'm jumping into the discussion so late.

Here are a couple thoughts/ pieces of information:

According to almost all of the national and state (at least on the East coast) organizations of the various Masonic bodies (Blue Lodge, York Rite and Scottish Rite), membership in Masonic lodges is on the rise. Here in Vermont, our lodges are taking in several new members - most 20-somethings - a year. This is now filtering up to the York and Scottish Rite who also are showing growth for the first time in decades.

As for the "too busy" or "too tired from work" arguments - at least in my community the people who belong to lodges are also the people who own their own businesses and work 60 hours a week, have families with kids who play sports, and also belong and are active in the Rotary Club, the Business Association, the Historical Society, the school board, etc., etc. They are already service and community-oriented and find the time to do these things. To do so aligns with their values. And that is what it really comes down to, one's values. If a person values something, they will find time. If not, they will always find reasons not to. It is that simple. And in my community, if you want to be tied in with the other service-oriented people, you join organizations where they gather.... the Masons being one.

Another interesting note: According to some observers (I wish I had citations), community organizations in general, and lodges in particular, tend to grow during wartimes. The biggest booms in Masonic membership followed the Civil and Second World Wars. The speculation has been that soldiers who have been parts of a company/ team, when back at home, crave that kind of bond of working together for a common cause. Add to this the uncertainty that people in general feel during wars and times of hardship and it is easy to see how the recent Middle East conflicts and the economic crises are adding to Masonry's rebirth.

Some random notes to things people have written:

- someone wrote that you have to be invited to join the Masons. True, but you can let them know you are interested and 90% of the time they will invite you.

- whether Gaia qualifies as a Supreme Deity. No one asks you to explain your beliefs... in fact, it is forbidden to do so. So if Gaia feels Supreme to you, go ahead.

- Diversity. Someone on here alluded to Freemasons demanding conformity in thought. On the contrary, American Freemasons require that its members NOT discuss in lodge religion or politics and to avoid all arguments about beliefs, etc. They are very libertarian in that regard. What they want is people who want to do good works and grow as individuals and then create a situation where they can do so. I am about as "fringe" in my lodge as one gets. Extremely liberal, polyamorist, Pagan, long-haired, and 100% out of the closet about those things. Yet I'm a past master, very well respected, and well on my way to leading the York Rite bodies (Chapter, Council and Commandery) in Vermont. The head of Scottish Rite in Vermont is a long-time Alexandrian Wiccan. Heck, even the soon-to-be head of the Florida Knights Templars is Chic Cicero of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.

Thanks for your posts John! Maybe I'll see you again on the lecture trail this year.


Ron said...

Thank you for this. As you know, I'm a member of Mt. Constitution Lodge 88 on Orcas Island Washington, a vital Oddfellows Lodge that initiates new members almost every year. We do a number of community service projects and are positioned to rebuild some of what you talk about as we move more into the Transition to deindustrialization.

Jason said...

@Kirk White -- encouraging on the question of masonic diversity! But your blogs are a tease. :)

Karel said...

Das Monde, sorry, but it seems to me that focus here is on various resilient grassroot civic society initiatives for deindustrial future. And this is completely different topic from essentially forced top-down model of party/state/society in former USSR, or from incorporation of preexisted civic society elements (in Bohemia it was for example probably largest european cooperative movement, which started in parallel with 19th century industrialization) into imported power model and transformation of these into zombie-like tools of party control over society. At the very first, we have to demarcate state and civic society carefully; and in the East before 1989 this distinction was generally nonexistent. So: What we can offer here, if you don't want to simply repeat Dmitriy Orlov's arguments concerning individual crisis management once again?

Communist attempt to create some kind of charismatic bureaucracy (party/state/church) failed completelly after Stalin's dead, after the fall of Khrushchev the leninist erzatz cult simply rotted in peace - so even here, in the sphere of collective rituals, we have nothing to say for today.

Theo Tiefwald said...

JMG:"The suburbanization of the country after the Second World War has many aspects, but one of the most important was a deliberate flight from community."

Actually, it was often a deliberate flight from the rapidly increasing ethnic/racial diversity which was apparent in many American cities, plus pollution, crime, noise, etc - people sought to escape all of the undue complications of that.

Also, don't forget that the USA has NEVER been a very urban nation until relatively recently - during the vast bulk of American history, until just after WWII and in to the 50s-60s, most Americans lived in small towns and rural areas, not cities/suburbs.

watsonrodrig said...

A great many people who had grown up in compact urban neighborhoods or small towns fled to the anonymity of the suburbs just as quickly as they could, because in their eyes.
villas bali

Theo Tiefwald said...

"They considered the Masons to be an exclusive organization taking unfair advantage of common folk and violating the essential principles of democracy."


molly said...

My father has been a member of the local communities lodge for over 30years. The work they do locally has benefitied thousands over the years.

It will be community groups such as these that will tie people together in the coming years as peak everything comes to the fore.

Marie-Josée said...

I live in a housing coop in the heart of Montreal, Quebec, Canada and can certainly attest to the time, work, hassle and social skills required to participate in community. I find it a challenge not to roll my eyes at the comments some members make, or at the blatant stupidity of some of our members. I live in a small coop-just six apartments, and 11 members. There is a lot of work involved, especially when there are larger contracts to negotiate and see through to completion, such as major renovation work to the coop. But the benefits outweigh the costs, as I know my neihgbors and we share meals on occasion, which helps with the isolation I feel living in a large city. Another upside is the rent: $500 per month for a 51/2, and access to a yard in the heart of the city. That is about the same price we would pay if we owned a home or condo, free of debt, in municipal taxes and condo fees.

Alan said...

Sorry to join this so late....but a few points:
-there are branches of Freemasonry, typically connected to European lineages that do NOT ask you about a belief in a Supreme Being. Check out Memphis Misraim or Le Droit Humain.
-Its a tradition NOT to invite someone to a lodge. You had to have the gumption to ASK yourself. This has been changed in some jursidictions, but its a sad fact that many men THINK they have to be invited and never inquire and thus lose out on a great experience.
-The Grange has typically been arch conservative in its politics, it would be great if some newer members could at least swing it to the middle. Look at their website....there are some horrible policy statements there from the past. BUT, they have rituals based on the 4 seasons and their supreme ritual is a reinactment of the Rites of Eleusis!