Wednesday, January 27, 2010

This Presupposition of Passivity

The conversation about community that’s unfolded in the peak oil blogosphere over the last couple of weeks has quite a few interesting features. Perhaps the most interesting, at least to me, is the unanimity with which so many voices, coming from so many different viewpoints, have agreed that the role played by ordinary Americans in the collapse of American community is that of passive victim.

That unanimity, it has to be said, does not extend much further. Any number of circumstances, and no shortage of malevolent schemes, have been offered up as the reason why Americans have had their communities taken away from them. Still, the Archdruid Report post that started the recent conversation made an entirely different suggestion: that Americans, by and large, had not “had their communities taken away from them” at all, but actively walked away from their communities, and in fact continue to do so. It’s the fact that this suggestion is apparently about as welcome as a slug in a garden salad that fascinates me.

It’s not as though this presupposition of passivity is limited to this one topic, either. Show me a social problem in America today and it’s better than even odds that the debate around it focuses on whether it’s caused by circumstances outside of anyone’s control, on the one hand, or by the machinations of some sinister cabal on the other. That such problems might occasionally, or more than occasionally, be the logical consequence of actions actively pursued by the majority of Americans is right off the radar screen of our collective conversation – and if anybody has the bad taste to suggest that unwelcome view, the usual response is to insist that some circumstances or cabal was responsible for making Americans do whatever it was they did.

I’ve come to think, as it happens, that the portrayal of ordinary Americans as helpless victims may be one of the most significant barriers in the way of the constructive changes we desperately need to make. This is as true of community as anything else. Until we understand why it is that Americans like to speak movingly about community in the abstract, but more often than not want nothing to do with it in any concrete sense, efforts to build new communities or conserve the few we’ve got left are going to go precisely nowhere. For this reason, I want to talk a little about the reasons why people in America don’t actually want community.

One of those reasons, as I’ve suggested over the last couple of weeks, is that community costs. The benefits you get from it are exactly commensurate with the investment you make in it – in time, effort, money, commitment, and more – and as with any other kind of investment, you pay in first and get paid back later. People who don’t want to pay what community costs up front, or don’t think the payback is worth the investment, are not going to invest in it. For many reasons, some of which I’ve discussed in previous posts, the great majority of Americans have embraced these attitudes in recent decades.

Still, there’s more going on here than a simple cost/benefit analysis. In my experience, there are at least two things essential to any viable community that the vast majority of Americans find completely unacceptable. The first is an accepted principle of authority; the second is a definite boundary between members and nonmembers.

You see? Odds are you bristled with outrage the moment you read that last sentence.

Consider a traditional Quaker meeting and you can see how both these requirements function, and how necessary they are. In a Quaker meeting, the principle of authority is consensus, guided by tradition and also, much more often than not, by a core of experienced and influential members. To be a member of a meeting is to accept the authority of the “sense of the meeting” in those matters it claims the right to govern. Only those who accept that authority have the right to contribute to the consensus or participate in the life of the community. Those who consistently refuse to accept the authority of the meeting’s consensus generally get disfellowshipped – that is, they find themselves on the outside of the boundary between members and nonmembers.

The same thing is true of the communities I discussed in last week’s post, the old fraternal lodges. In a Masonic lodge, for example, the principle of authority is elective democracy limited by tradition. Certain officers, elected for annual terms, are responsible for making some decisions; others must be made by a majority vote of the lodge at a regular meeting; still others are reserved to the state grand lodge, which consists of representatives from local lodges, or to the officers the grand lodge elects. A number of issues are not subject to decision at all; they belong to what Masons call the landmarks of the Craft, core traditions accepted by every regular Masonic lodge, and cannot be changed by anyone for any reason. To be a Mason is to accept the authority of the landmarks, the lodge and grand lodge, and their officers, in that very limited sphere over which they have any say – in effect, within the four walls of a Masonic lodge. To refuse to accept that authority within its proper sphere is ultimately to cease being a brother.

Now of course it’s not too hard to think of communities in which there are more abusive principles of authority and more invidious distinctions between members and nonmembers. In contemporary discourse about social issues, these bad examples get very nearly all the air time, as a result of the very common contemporary belief that authority is by definition illegitimate and boundaries are made to be broken. Still, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and it’s worth noting that attempts at community that have not established some effective means for making and enforcing decisions, and some firm distinction between those who invest their time and energy in the community and those who simply show up for the benefits and vanish when it’s time for work to be done, pretty consistently go under.

Ultimately, as this suggests, the need for a principle of authority and a boundary between members and nonmembers is a practical issue, distinct from the moral issues often confused with it. Of course moral issues apply here, as to all other human choices, but the principle of authority can be as egalitarian as the sense of a Quaker meeting or as autocratic as “il Duce is always right;” equally, the boundary between members and nonmembers, to paraphrase Martin Luther King, can be anything from the color of their skins to the content of their characters, and much else besides; but a community that has some version of both has a good chance of success, and a community that tries to do without them will fail.

I’ ve come to think that this is perhaps the single most important reason why all the enthusiastic talk about communities in the peak oil scene, or for that matter in similar subcultures, has produced so few results. Page through the archives of The Oil Drum, or any other peak oil site that’s been around for a while, and you’ll find plenty of people talking about how “we” ought to imitate the Amish, or medieval monasteries, or some other classic example of resilient community. Yet you won’t find a lot of proposals that such imitations ought to adopt the principles of authority and the very strict boundaries between members and nonmembers that have played so large a role in making these communities as successful as they have been, because very, very few people in our culture are willing to accept the core presupposition that underlies these things – the necessity, especially but not only in times of crisis, of placing the needs of the community ahead of the wants of the individual.

There’s much that could be said along these lines about the murky psychological roots of the American assumption that all authority is illegitimate and all boundaries unreasonable, and even more that could be said about the drastic spiritual consequences of that belief system, but neither of these conversations is really in keeping with the theme of this blog. Instead, I’d like to talk a bit about how the recent abandonment of community plays into the trajectory of decline our civilization is now following.

Arnold Toynbee, whose massive A Study of History remains the most comprehensive study of historical cycles, has a great deal to say about what he calls “the schism in society.” As civilizations tip over the brink into decline, he suggests, one of the core symptoms of decay is a split between the dominant minority and the rest of society. The dominant minority has lost whatever capacity it once had to inspire loyalty and emulation, but its hold on the institutions of power remains strong enough that it can’t be unseated; the rest of society, alienated from the values of the dominant minority, becomes an “internal proletariat” ripe for alternative values. When those new values emerge, usually in the form of a new religious movement, they become the framework around which new social patterns begin to coalesce – and about the time this gets well under way, the old social framework of the dying civilization, abandoned from within and assailed from without, comes messily apart.

It’s an intriguing analysis. One wrinkle Toynbee doesn’t discuss, though, is the fate of the people in between the dominant minority and the emergent internal proletariat. There are usually quite a few of them; they manage people, information, and resources within the sprawling complexity of a mature civilization; compared to the laboring classes, they have a tolerably high level of wealth and privilege, and even some influence over the political process, though nothing as much as the members of the dominant minority have at their disposal. As the schism in society opens, the ground on which they stand begins to slip away beneath their feet. On the one hand, many of them find it increasingly hard to believe in the ideals and loyalties that motivated their equivalents in earlier generations; on the other, many of them are unwilling to abandon the concrete privileges and benefits that accrue to them in their current positions. Some turn to cynicism, others to a range of uneasy attempts to serve two masters, and still others – normally the majority – simply muddle through as best they can.

Eventually, as the new value system takes shape and rises from the bottom of the internal proletariat, a good many of them will break away and align themselves with it, and provide it with the managerial and intellectual resources it needs to fulfill its own trajectory. Until a fairly late stage in the game, though, those who make that leap can count on giving up all the benefits of their place in the social order. The history of Roman Christianity provides one good example out of many. Until late in the third century, Christianity in the Roman world was largely a slave religion with a sprinkling of middle-class converts, who were regarded with the same sort of pitying contempt that most Americans direct toward those who join the Hare Krishnas. Not until the institutions of Roman society came seriously unglued did Christianity turn from a despised cult to the one remaining source of viable community in much of the Roman world; only after that happened could a Roman rhetor become a Christian bishop, say, without relinquishing the comforts of his middle-class lifestyle.

We have not reached that latter point yet. The “new values” proposed by an assortment of middle-class intellectuals in recent years all share the presuppositions of the old values they seek to replace; in terms of the Roman experience, they correspond to Stoicism, Epicureanism, and the other philosophical schools, which played a major role in the intellectual life of the Empire but contributed almost nothing to the radically different religious vision that supplanted them. A great many middle-class people in America and other industrial nations are caught in the familiar bind, no longer committed to the ideals of a declining civilization, but not yet willing to sacrifice the very tangible material benefits they get from their positions in the established order; rejecting the system in their hearts while supporting it with their actions. It’s a very awkward place to be; eventually, it will become intolerable; but until this latter point arrives, a great many people will try to have it both ways.

I’ve come to think that this dynamic lies behind a great many of the less useful cultural shifts and social trends of recent decades, and the habits of thought sketched out in this post are among these. No doubt there were plenty of Romans who responded to the conflicting demands of political and religious authority by rejecting the entire concept of authority, and dismissed the need for boundaries in the half-conscious hope that this evasion would allow them to keep a foot in both worlds while committing to neither. Certainly this sort of thing is very common today. The obsessive fixation on the isolated and supposedly independent ego that pervades contemporary culture, which Christopher Lasch once anatomized in a book more often discussed than read, has many roots; still, I suspect one of the crucial factors driving it is precisely this attempt, on the part of a great many people, to have their cake and eat it too – to enjoy the benefits of the existing order while claiming to despise its principles.

The presupposition of passivity I mentioned at the beginning of this post is one way to deal with the cognitive dissonance of this awkward position. There are already a good many others, and as the forces that are tearing modern industrial civilization apart build around us, there will doubtless be more. To the extent that it’s possible to recognize them for what they are, though, it will be easier to sidestep their more unproductive results and direct effort toward those tasks where it’s still possible to make a difference for the future.


DeadBeat Dad said...


I'm getting a little your earlier post in DEC 2009, 'The Bomb At The Heart Of the System", you implied that our governance and trajectory stems from the collective result of an entire constellation of 'factions'. In other words, there's no conspiracy, and no one is in charge; no Man Behind The Curtain.

Are you having second thoughts...there really is a 'dominant minority' ! Who is it?... The Bankers? The Feminists?The Right wing senators? The Carbon Lobby? The Papists?

I'd love to know who is the "emergent internal proletariat"? Am I a member? If not, how do I sign up?

John, You closed with a suggestion:
"...and direct effort toward those tasks where it’s still possible to make a difference for the future."

I humbly suggest that we support nascent efforts to preserve and restore family bonds, because they form the basis of community ties. People who are alienated from their own kin are often unable to function in communities.

galacticsurfer said...

I think this phase corresponds more to the unraveling phase in Strauss and Hopwe's generational theory as described below:

The Third Turning is an Unraveling, a downcast era of strengthening individualism and weakening institutions, when the old civic order decays and the new values regime implants. During this period, individual rights become so important that the society or nation has no common purpose or direction. Individual values have a higher priority than national goals and unity.

The renewal phase is as follows:

The Fourth Turning is a Crisis, a decisive era of secular upheaval, when the values regime propels the replacement of the old civic order with a new one. The authors describe how the Crisis era ends: "The Crisis climax is human history's equivalent to nature's raging typhoon, the kind that sucks all surrounding matter into a single swirl of ferocious energy. Anything not lashed down goes flying; anything standing in the way gets flattened. Normally occurring late in the Fourth Turning, the climax gathers energy from an accumulation of unmet needs, unpaid bills, and unresolved problems. It then spends that energy on an upheaval whose direction and dimension were beyond comprehension during the prior Unraveling era. The climax shakes a society to its roots, transforms its institutions, redirects its purposes, and marks its people (and its generations) for life. The climax can end in triumph, or tragedy, or some combination of both. Whatever the event and whater the outcome, a society passes through a great gate of history, fundamentally altering the course of civilization."

I think taking a 1000 year approach to history is maybe inapporpriate when we se see that this cycle replays every 80-100 years. So in the 2030s we will be back in the 1950s type culture and our current pessimism will be forgotten and community will be strong (this consensus culture will start to break up again in the 2050s of course but that can wait).

Ornithocrates said...

The frightening thing for me is that those boundaries of ingroup/outgroup and chains of authority will almost certainly happen--they may be essential parts of primate survival--but I will, personally, always be caught in the spaces between the gears, the slippery margins that no one will claim. I wish it were not true, but I fear greatly that it must be so, and always have been.

LS said...

Hi John,

My partner Sam and I have read your last three posts with great interest. However we are wondering if we have missed the punch line? In the first post (The Costs of Community) you asked the question:

"What, dear reader, if I were to propose a citizen's strategy for carrying out constructive social change in the United States that has worked in the past, not just once but repeatedly?"

The only strategy you've mentioned is "to organise". This is reasonable, except that you have pointed out a lot of very good reasons why it no-longer happens.

We feel like we have been left hanging.

The only way to proceed, it seems, is to leave our existing society, because it is virtually impossible to do anything meaningful within it. (We have tried our darndest for a number of years to organise our own social circle toward a more sustainable future, and our efforts have gone down like a lead balloon. Even our closest friends and family members are utterly immune to our leadership attempts, which is why we were looking forward to some concrete advice from you).

Leaving society seems like the only option to us, but it is impossible to leave the way our ancestors did, by emigrating to new lands, which leaves us with only one obvious alternative: "leaving" society while staying within it (as Jim Merkel has done). This is the path that we are following, and we have sent out an invitation to others to join us, but we won't be holding our breath.

disillusioned said...

I wonder how much of this "passivity" is linked to the conscious attempts to build in the West a society based about Isaiah Berlin's negative freedom, since WW-II.

(Berlin talked about positive and negative freedom: positive is where groups rally around a cause to support a central position or authority; negative is freedom from demagogues and ideologies, replaced by concern and focus on individual liberty. Positive freedom tends to produce wars, negative a consumer culture.)

A society trained in negative freedom has been trained to live in the moment, only concerned about comfort. It is wary of movements and -isms and of talking a group position - even when it may help; the habits and skills are not there.

Seem familiar?

Andrew B. Watt said...

Well said.

I work in a boarding school, and we have clearly defined systems of authority which we nonetheless rebel against from time to time. We also have clearly defined expectations and experiences around who is a member and who is not.

Over the thirteen years that I've worked here, I've watched the glue that binds us together stretch, twist, melt, re-form, break, renew itself, and rebuild. Some people leave, new people come in, and it works, more or less, albeit with heavy stresses as you try to balance your own life against "the needs of the kids", as we say, from all over the world.

The community has had a hard time in the last few years, but we've managed in most ways to stay active and connected. As a lodge member, though, I know that it's incredibly difficult for me to contribute to more than one community; the F&AM get very little of my time and treasure, compared with my school. The reasons are obvious — in a real community, you have to give yourself to it completely, in order to get any return on the investment.

Of course that's scary to Americans. And its scary at least in part because you have no way of knowing up front if the community is a cult or a front group or anything. If the community is also a business (as mine is), things become even hairier: to leave is to lose house, work, and friends all at once.

Babaji said...

I have been actively involved with radical spiritual communities for the last 40 years. At this point I happen to be the spiritual leader of such a community, whose primary audience is America. Our experience in bringing in new members strongly aligns with your reasoning. We find that prospective members are often attracted by the potential benefits, but alienated by the need for commitment, and troubled by the ontological tension between members and non-members. We have tried to ease the transition by implementing a gradient of commitment, but find that the prospective members' family and friends frequently sabotage their involvement. Our conclusion is that there is a deep strain of anti-community conditioning in American society. The herd actively resists people splitting off and joining close-knit communities of their personal choice. They are alienated, miserable and feel like victims, but refuse to let individuals take a more proactive course toward a more connected future. At least that is how it looks from the inside of a very committed and close community.

Sam Norton said...

JMG - many thanks for this, I think it is one of your most important posts. "In my experience, there are at least two things essential to any viable community that the vast majority of Americans find completely unacceptable. The first is an accepted principle of authority; the second is a definite boundary between members and nonmembers." I see the practical rejection of this by most Protestant-derived churches as the principal reason why the Christian church cannot engage as a body with the ongoing crisis; I also suspect that the wider community as a whole won't be able to do something about the crisis until it more or less consciously distances itself from the cultural legacy of the self-same Protestantism. But as you indicate - that will involve leaving behind a great many things that people don't want to let go of yet.

Ariel55 said...

Dear JMG,

"Whine"! Yes! It's the sacrifice of individualism that makes a group, and the cost is too dear for many now. Did this have anything to do with the hippies of the sixties? Having considered myself one back then...well, it seemed like a revolution! Thanks, as always, for the post.

Charles Frith said...

That was one of the most lucid reads I've had in a long time. Hats off.

HeapSort said...

People are rational actors within their understanding of the world. They make the choices that are good,as they see it, for them or their own--their children and those who share their values. They even choose their outward belief systems according to the principles of this implicit inner value system.

Our world-view includes our predictions of how the world will change, and those predictions are themselves subject to these human tendencies. To even begin to guess at the motivations behind our actions requires deep insight into what they value and why. It's complex and unique for every person. And yet somehow, from all that individuality put together emerges seemingly coherent cultural and social trends.

As a result, all historical interpretations of cultural paradigm shifts are probably completely wrong. And because we may never have a good understanding of how history worked (we'd have to understand the motivations of all the individuals which made history happen), we will certainly never be able to predict, in detail, how people as a group will respond to their changing circumstance in the future. It's a problem on the order of predicting the evolution of future organisms or the interactions of molecules in a heated fluid.

And yet intuition refuses to accept this. And maybe intuition has powers that exceed what the dictates of reason and mathematics allow. But that's magical thinking.

it is a compelling theory that it's a matter of how long people will adhere to the status quo before breaking off and pursuing some alternate political or cultural trend. But which trend? Will it be long-lived? Will it be coherent? Will it be charismatic or transcendental or apocalyptic or utopian? Or might it be rational and scientific? Humble and austere? Tolerant of uncertainty or not?

I doubt the scientific (much to my chagrin), because the investment required is simply too high for most people, and so I expect it to be something more qualitative than quantitative. But what qualities will come down to chance, depending solely on what compelling and influential possibilities present themselves.

We are approaching a new age of prophecy. What qualities and values do you hope for in a prophet, which might entice you to follow her when you finally become unloosed from the current order?

Lance Michael Foster said...

One way to begin tweaking oneself back psychologically into this acceptance is to consider what we all do when we are unemployed, or are looking for a new job. Not idly, but after a period of desperation, when one's benefits have run out. The attitude has a major shift. There are some other aspects to building and maintaining community that is worth mentioning.

Take the example of looking for a job when you really need one. You accept the authority of those who have the situation where they can hire you. You overlook their faults of people you wouldn't be able to stand if you were in a better position economically. For a brief time, when you are hired, the world is a beautiful place and the job is your salvation. Your attitude is great as is your work ethic. But at some time, when your immediate economic needs have been met, your attitude changes, the minor things start bugging you. The place sucks, your boss is an asshole. So you slack off, and inevitably someday you find yourself unemployed and the whole thing starts all over. No job, YAY! Freedom etc. Until money get short and the desperation kicks in again.

This is the same pattern lots of people have in relationships, whether a job, a girlfriend/boyfriend, etc.

Bottom line: no person, no job, no community, no family is perfect. You look past the other guys' faults for something bigger than both of you. And they look past your faults at the good you both bring to the situation. That's how friendships, careers, marriages, communities are built and how they last.

People want to fight over authority, but they won't take responsibility. That goes either for the little guy who wants the beer without hanging around to clean up after the party, and it goes for the boss who wants worker loyalty but will fire that loyal worker if it makes the boss more money. That's how communities are destroyed. With authority, you assume responsibility for those under your authority, which also means you have to care about them as you care for yourself...or MORE than yourself. But if you don't want that kind of responsibility, don't think you can handle and maintain real authority, the kind that works when the chips are down.

In most American Indian societies, one's social standing was not measured in how much you owned, but in how much you gave away.

JMG, putting on your archdruid hat, you also know how important it is to develop the unseen part of the community as well: the development of the group egregore. Besides accepting authority and boundaries and shared values, in one worldview one reason the Catholic church continues in the world, and even in the subconscious psyches (aka Lisiewski's system) of those who consciously reject being Catholic (a cultural Catholic, aka once a Catholic, always a Catholic) is the power, scale, complexity and age of the Catholic egregore.

While egregores of nations and religions (religio: to bind together, aka the import of religion as community based on boundaries and authority)

So this is a clue:

1. Consider the American egregore. Meditate on it.
2. Consider the lifespan of any egregore: how it begins, is built, is maintained, and dies.
3. Again consider the American egregore.

JMG, you know very well how even fictitious works like the Necronomicon, Star Wars, or Star Trek, not only create and maintain communities, but can create very viable egregores...some of which can create their own realities (see E.M. Forster's "The Celestial Omnibus" ).

This is a crucial point for building and maintaining communities, whether of druids or other communities of the future: the group egregore. Or in this case, the community egregore.

'Nuff said.

Lance Michael Foster said...

PS. A good old WWII joke I heard today:

It was said that German soldiers were so obedient that they would do things obviously lethal or immoral; American soldiers were so defiant that they’d be standing there arguing with the sergeant who told them to dive-and-duck until the bomb hit them.

Armando said...

Lance makes a good point about the lack of personal resposability.

The religion of "individualism" has very cautic effects on the cohesion of a community. Individuals do not regard themselves as part of a community from the onset. One of the first things that needs to happen to reform real communities is the realization that the "lonesome cowbow" myth is a myth. This is very entrench in the American mithos and will take many traumatic experiences to unlearn.

John Michael Greer said...

DeadBeat, nah, I've been citing Toynbee for years now. The dominant minority of a society consists of an alliance of factions with enough infuence to keep a majority of the levers of power either in their hands or at least not moving in a way that undercuts them. As for the internal proletariat, your membership card is in the mail.

Surfer, in my view the generational dynamics picture is a set of small ripples on the surface of some very large waves.

Ornithocrates, notice how you're using the language of victimhood -- "caught" and the like. I don't buy that. You're choosing to stand outside, and of course that's your right -- but for heaven's sake, if you're going to make that choice, don't complain about it!

LS, no, you got the punch line. I presented that option in the course of explaining why people aren't willing to use it. There is no magic cure for our predicament; it's exactly the thing that makes the fall of a civilization so agonizing that the choices that might save it are precisely the choices nobody is willing to make.

Disillusioned, thanks for the reference! I wasn't familiar with Berlin's concept -- I'll have to look into it.

Andrew, many thanks for sharing your experience.

Babaji, this precisely parallels my own experiences in a leadership role in Druidry. As you see, I've come to the same conclusion -- most people in America don't want community; they want the benefits they think they can get from community.

Sam, no argument there.

Ariel, I think the hippies blazed some useful trails and some very counterproductive ones. One of these days it would be useful to see someone attempt a thorough retrospective of the movement and see what can be learned from it.

Charles, thank you!

HeapSort, it's tough to predict the behavior of individual molecules in a heated fluid, but you can predict the behavior of the fluid to a fine degree of accuracy. It's possible to make sense in much the same way; pay attention to the large scale, and you'll see -- as Toynbee and Spengler did -- predictable regularities emerging out of the chaos of individual actions. As for prophets, er, what do you think my job description amounts to?

Lance, the employment/unemployment metaphor is a good one. As for egregors, er, I think we're pushing the boundaries hard enough as is, without dragging in technical terms from the philosophy of magic!

Still, for those who don't know the term, an egregor (some writers spell it with a final "e") is the collective personality generated by any group. The more coherent the group, the stronger the egregor, and the wider the range of effects it can have on group members, for good or ill. Some types of groups deliberately foster the growth of an egregor and use it to cause changes in consciousness in accordance with will; others simply benefit or suffer from one, depending on circumstances.

A lot of people these days go out of their way to avoid participating in one, and it's not uncommon to see people deliberately setting out to disrupt the egregor of a group to which they belong, for reasons of the sort discussed in the post. Still, it's possible to talk about all these phenomena in other ways, and that would probably be more useful here!

Chris Lawrence said...

You are definitely right that Americans (and most westerners) are not willing to sacrifice anything, even the tiniest thing, in many cases.

I'm sick and tired about people who say the problem is the American government, not the people. That's load of bull. The American people as a whole are largely responsible for much of the destruction of our planet. Let's stop excusing them.

Tony said...

I think one point you missed when discussing the necessary ingredients of a community (acceptance of authority and the member/non-member boundary) is the geographical boundary. Many people like to talk easily about so-called internet-based communities, built around facebook or myspace or whatever, but in my opinion, if you can't reach out an touch someone, you can hardly say you're in a "community" with them, although there are probably exceptions to this rule.

I'm thinking specifically here of this discussion about "sub-cultural boundaries" in A Pattern Language, as well as analysis done by E.F. Schumacher and others.

You're right. Community takes time and effort. It also takes boundaries: social, geographic, even economic.

As an aside, thinking about economic boundaries to communities, I find it interesting how many poor and middle-class people, at least in the US, identify with the upper echelons of our economy, and how stridently opposed they are to tax increases on such people (e.g.). Makes no sense to me.

One final point before I go... you make the point, correctly I think, that people made a conscious decision to walk away from community. I suggest that previous generations made such a conscious decision. The present generation can hardly be said to have made such a decision, in many cases, because how can one walk away from something one never had nor ever experienced?

Lance Michael Foster said...

Yeah, you are probably right, JMG. No sense hearts and minds slamming shut any faster than they are already.

I just mention it because not only am I trying to help our community revive my tribal culture's egregore, I am doing something kind of interesting on the side, as an artistic venture.

Taking inspiration from your masterful construction/ reworking of the revival druidic egregore in your Druid Magic system, I have been doing the same kind of experimentation with the American historical egregore/ civic religious system.

Of course regarding all of my works, as Sir Thomas Browne says in "The Celestial Omnibus":

"It does not pay. It was not intended to pay. Many are the faults of my equipage; it is compounded too curiously of foreign woods; its cushions tickle erudition rather than promote repose; and my horses are nourished not on the evergreen pastures of the moment, but on the dried bents and clovers of Latinity. But that it pays! - that error at all events was never intended and never attained."

Trebor Resro said...

Game theory . . . prisoner's dilemma . . . Nash equilibrium . . .

Luciddreams said...

Atomization would seem to be the opperative word for American society. I am certainly atomized from the people I routinely deal with, with the exception of my wife, and some friends thousands of miles from me. For my part it seems to be more of an intellecutal seperation keeping me alienated. Which, to be honest, is saying a servicing of my own ego. But then what is truth, and can it be found intellectually?

James Howard Kunstler's analysis of the disintigration of community, based on reading "The Geography of Nowhere," would have soemthing to do with the impoverishment of public places. I'm not sure if it's the cause or the effect. For my part, I think the corporate takeover of all sectors of American life has a lot to do with it. We strive to "own" our house and the land it's on, and we strive to fill it with a bunch of consumer, widget, crap that we don't need. The ultimate manifisation of this would be the psychological disorder that leads to hoarding trash in the home. Our new churh has become Walmart, and the closest thing to community we have is standing in line waiting to pay.

I don't agree entirely with your assessment, JMG. Those capable of intellectual discourse on this subject are certianly not part of the proletariate. In my view they are the elite, and not necessarily because they are intelligent but rather willing to care. I work EMS for a living, and I deal with the proletariate on a daily basis. They are most certainly victims of their surroundings. Their level of consciousness is a direct result of their environment. They are sheep of the system, and without the public spaces "worth caring about," what are they to do? It seems their only possibility is the church.

I think their should be something more inclusive than church for people to belong. But then you have to have something in common, and what could that be?

Before I get lost in the woods I'll just say I think collapse is innevitable. There is no changing it, but your analysis is appreciated.

disillusioned said...


...if you want (and this is - hm - alongside topic rather then off) some background on the way our society has been designed using the negative / positive approach, a good primer is "The Trap" a documentary in 3 parts by Alan Curtis for the BBC, online at:

Sound is a bit out of sync alas, but most interesting.

Note that part of this social-engineering model was to STOP people co-operating, else the math fails. Alan Curtis spells the story out...

tristan said...

Egregore! Them's good eatt'n!

Okay *I* will ask the obvious question. What movement, religion, trend, fad or "rough beast slouching towards Bethlehem" do you see taking the role of Christianity?

A genuine "I have no idea" is fine but don't be coy. You must have some thoughts. If not on what it is at least on how to recognize it.


Jamie said...

I feel like there is a aspect of community that is being missed that is active. There are many organizations which harbor "communities" or "tribes" such as Burning Man or the Society for Creative Anachronism to name a couple, though there are many more. Within each thematic organization, small tribal groups grow which have coherency, mutual support and group decision making as you describe. As far as rejection of "communities", it is likely that the power dynamics of hierarchical organizations are what put people off. Ask any member of a HOA who has been harassed over minor infractions while the goal of the leadership has been to support developers or people wanting to leave instead of what can be supportive of the community. Communities will and are developing but not necessarily a repeat of older hierarchical groups like the Masons. Whether these work of course, will remain to be seen. The American experience was heavily influenced by the abuse of power by the Church in Europe as well as the democratic organizations of the Iroquois Confederation and older tribal hunter/gather societies.

Tiago said...

In a community based on pluralism and with members honest enough to show their ideas, contention/dissent and tension would be normal to some degree, I guess.

My point is not against authority per se, but trying to understand if there are clues on where the border between healthy internal discussion and group core values is broken. Especially in communities that really try to foster some degree of intellectual/emotional/spiritual liberty.

I notice that in some parts of the world (I am thinking Anglo-Saxon places, but not only those), this has been solved a lot by people restraining themselves from saying what goes in their mind most the time. Many varieties of what is called "political correctness".

I am wondering if we would be in a better place if people developed some stomach to different ideas and more honesty was permitted.

The comment above only applies to communities that self-describe as pluralistic (which, most of the times, from what I can see, are not plural at all).

Jan Suzukawa said...

There are any number of reasons why Americans don't form communities anymore, and the two reasons you've given are as good as any. Add to that the fact that, as you've noted, people want the benefits of community without wanting to pay the costs, and I agree that things don't look very good right now.

But if it will indeed be a "long descent," then there's time for all of that to change. Even us gotten-soft Americans can sacrifice, make the needed adjustments (psychologically and otherwise), and form communities in time, when and if we see the need approaching. There will be drama, yes, but we can and will get it done if need be. We're too resourceful at base to let ourselves end in chaos.

Terry said...

Author Bruce Sterling's recent observation about community:

"People form big rambunctious supportive communities when there's nothing much else to do. A hoe-down and a barn-raising, man, those were great.

"You check out modern postindustrial America and see how many single people live alone now. Awesome numbers of them. Unprecedented. Because now they can do it: the market gives them food, shelter, clothing, the works.

"They're not dependent on a commons. If it erodes, they don't suffer much from the loss."

Odin's Raven said...

There's another view, expressed as 'It's not the end of the world. It's just the end of you.' See

One may speculate on who, and what form of society is likely to replace 'us'. The foremost contender, with a strong sense of authority, little toleration for individuals who go against the community and a clear distinction between 'them' and 'us' is probably Islam.

blue sun said...

You hit it home with this third post! Sorry I'm a week behind, here are my thoughts on last week’s post; please adjust accordingly:

What's interesting in this blogosphere discussion is that no one yet has discussed *sustainable* communities. Personally, I interpret the word "community" very broadly. I think we should focus our collective discussion up front on "sustainable" community (i.e. a healthy local human society) because a lot of people today, even our leaders, are confused by the myriad un-sustainable communities that have sprung up (e.g. the internet community, the "global village," etc.).

I am glad that you are limiting the discussion to community organizations ( i.e. excluding the extended "community" of families from which they draw) because the points you make are succinct and clear. I do not want to distract from the path you are following here, but I would like to suggest that anyone interested in delving into the topic of what "community" really means (and by that I mean a sustainable local human society) read anything by Wendell Berry. Grasping what the term "healthy community" (i.e. sustainable community) means could take, who knows, a lifetime, and he has spend a lot of time on it. Another thing that is easy to lose sight of today, especially in the age of internet discussions, is that community is a concept that is always local or, in other words, always custom-made. In fact, I would venture to say it is nearly impossible to talk about "community" in general terms.

I would also suggest the Front Porch Republic website; I learned a lot about what local community means just browsing there. I would especially recommend Jeremy Beer's post on the role meritocracy has played in undermining local communities in America : (On a side note, a recent post there by John Médaille suggests that last week's Supreme Court decision has officially ushered in an age of plutocracy in America.)

One cost to community that you did not mention is exclusion. Strong, healthy, local communities such as we had 200 years ago were necessarily fragmented and local. Not everyone could belong. This is the elephant in the room that no one today dares mention. And it’s even truer of the community organizations that draw from the community at large. For example, one of the roots of outsiders’ contempt of the Masons is simply that they were a ‘secret society.’ Even if there’s nothing secret but the secret itself, people tend to resent the keepers of secrets. Nobody likes feeling excluded. And yet it will be a necessary evil as we transition to a world of resource scarcity.

blue sun said...

As for this week’s post, I hope you're not suggesting that walking away is the *only* reason for the decline of community. As you said before, there are a lot of other influences "greasing the skids." As I see it, this is a classic case of being careful what you wish for. One of the dominant cultural themes of recent history is the idea of liberating oneself from the prison of a small town, and its (implied) smothering conformity. If you generalize this analogy, then Americans started walking away once the opportunity availed itself. It only presented itself recently when we gained, among other things, our near-infinite mobility (again, see Beer article I mention above). Now that many people have won their freedom, they no longer have that smothering conformity, and, having forgotten about it, only see the benefits they have lost. In turn they regret their decision (I'm generalizing, it was also parents or grandparents who walked away), and blame other circumstances.

Conformity, as far as I can tell, is another issue that’s completely ignored in this blogosphere discussion. When "community" makes a comeback, I think that conformity will too, just as served its purpose for our ancestors years ago. If you found yourself the only gay, druid, or what have you, in your "small town," tough luck for you. Our descendants will have to conform to community norms that we don’t have to, just to get benefits we take for granted.

medved said...

Dear J M Greer,

thank you for the post, that finally did elucidate my inner conflict as of recently: Do I or not belong to an internal proletariat? ( growing up in a post-marxist society did put quite a bit of pepper into these musing).
I have joined a religious group some time ago and have observed, that serious mental effort is usually needed from both the novice and the "old dogs" if such incorporation should work. I think the willingness to undergo this effort is a good test, and encourage others in similar situation to persevere.
Many aspire to be "bishops" few accept their task is a foot solder.

Seaweed Shark said...

A most insightful and thought-provoking post. Thank you.

Couple of thoughts:

You reference the "American assumption that all authority is illegitimate and all boundaries unreasonable," as if this assumption were universal and did not require demonstration. But I think you would be hard-pressed to find any American who would agree with it. A lot of us actually do respect and obey police officers, doctors, coaches, ministers and so on. And we often do so out of love and respect, rather than cowardice or fear. I do not wholly disagree with your sentiment, but I think that reworking this in a bit softer language would not detract from your argument.

As for the rest, forgive me for being reminded of this quote from G.K. Chesterton, in one of his prophetic moments:

"It is the fashion to talk of institutions as cold and cramping things. The truth is that when people are in exceptionally high spirits, really wild with freedom and invention, they always must, and they always do, create institutions. When men are weary they fall into anarchy; but while they are gay and vigorous they invariably make rules. ... We are never free until some institution frees us; and liberty cannot exist till it is declared by authority."

quaker gardener said...


As always a most interesting post. Quakers struggle with community issues, too. The meeting's effort to support individuality while keeping particularly pushy individuals from "taking over" can use up a lot of energy. My meeting doesn't really have a "dismembership" procedure, but newcomers do tend to self-select. After awhile they either decide to stay or that they'd be happier elsewhere. Sometimes this can be painful. We also do have our share of controversies.

To me, belonging to my monthly meeting and the larger yearly meeting is something like staying married. In the latter, both partners need to have a commitment to the idea of marriage, and to the marriage itself, as something larger than each individual's merely selfish desires wants, etc. The rewards can be great.

Being in community, like staying married, is a discipline, a practice, that requires a maturing process on the part of the participants. I find that Quaker practice and community have, like my marriage, helped me to develop a strong identity, and have enabled me to accomplish things I could never have done on my own. And therein lies the creative tension at the heart of successful individual/group functioning.

This discussion reminds me of Wendel Berry's concept of "boomers" who head out for the frontier when they wreck the land or get restless, and "stickers" who stay put and make something of where they are, nurturing the land and building community. Most Americans are boomers, as might be expected, the US having been settled by boomers from other countries. (Which isn't to say that there aren't often excellent reasons to act boomerish). Not too many new places to go and despoil now, though. May as well stick around.

Thanks again for your most intelligent and though-provoking posts.

LS said...

JMG, thanks, I am glad to have that cleared up.

The secret is: there is no secret. Just some basic psychology that we can all understand.

We have had this feeling for a while now. The conclusion that we have reached (based on the impossibility of engaging anyone that we know) is that we can only look after ourselves while the future takes its course. If some people want to join us, or emulate us, then well and good, we are very happy to help.

It's a scary thought that we may get to watch the collapse of our civilisation from a position of relative comfort. But it has to be better than becoming another victim of that collapse.

Guilherme de Baskerville said...

I'm curious about your repeated quotation of Toynbee and Sprengler. I've mentioned it a long while back, but those historians aren't exact mainstream, even among contemporary historians who are very distanced from the establishment. I wish you would someday write something more in depth about your view of history, and to deal with some of the criticisms that have been leveled at this interpretation of history as inherently cyclical.

I'm mostly playing the devil's advocate, here. I do think that a cyclic view of history has many valid points and is much, much closer to reality than other narratives based on "progress" or somesuch, but there ARE some problems with the cyclic interpreation as well.

Wouldn't you say that the apocalptycal world view of meso-americans societies ended up being essentially true, due to outside factors beyound their control, namely the Conquistadores? You tend to dismiss apocalptycal thinking in our own society, day and age (specially from peak oiler "doomers" or somesuch), and you also dismiss the UFO phenomenon as essentialy something created by our own culture (which I agree with, btw), but if you went back to 1480 in Mexico and said similar things about the Aztec calendar and the gods from beyond the sea, you would be, in fact, wrong, wouldn't you say?

Anyway, just wanted to hear more about your thoughts on the subject. I thoroughly enjoy reading about your views of history :)

Peter said...

Adam Curtis, who is a documentary film maker for the BBC, produced a film which includes a good description of Isaiah Berlin's career. You can find most of Curtis' videos on the internet. He's done a number of excellent documentaries. All of them deal with themes discussed on this blog.

The Isaiah Berlin piece is in Part III of “The Trap — What Happened to our Dream of Freedom?"

jagged ben said...

"You see? Odds are you bristled with outrage the moment you read that last sentence."

Actually no...I got lost in thought regarding authority and membership in organizations I belong to (and didn't even read the sentence above for a couple minutes).

Interestingly, of the three groups I belong to that are most significant in my life, the organization that has the least collective anxiety about authority and membership is the one whose pursuits are purely recreational. You pay your dues, and are accepted to the club unless they don't like you (which rarely happens). The org with by far the most anxiety does work on a far-away foreign policy issue. Of course we are not going to turn away anyone who wants to help us, so we've had to relax membership requirements. However, since it dilutes our collective agreement on issues somewhat, relaxing membership comes as some cost to the authority of our leadership. The remaining org is political/cultural, but geographically defined. (It's also too new to have grappled with these issues seriously yet.)

There is sort of a pattern here, I suppose...

John Michael Greer said...

Chris, thank you -- but it might be worth noting, given your icon, that Canadians use more energy per capita than Americans do. (Canada and Australia are the only two nations on earth that have us beat in that regard.)

Tony, the current generation could rebuild community if it wanted to do so. It really isn't that hard. Other than that, no argument.

Lance, true enough, though a paycheck is a useful thing to have now and then.

Trebor, special applicability...more excuses.

Lucid, I agree that collapse is inevitable. The question is what can be saved from the wreck.

Disillusioned, thanks for the link.

Tristan, that's really a topic for a full post. The short form is that it will disgust and offend you. The religious movements that pick up the pieces from a failing civilization are generally those that no properly enculturated member of that civilization would even think of joining. I think it was Tacitus who referred to the early Christians as "enemies of the human race;" he was a tolerant man, but the symbolic cannibalism of the Mass and the rejection of reverence for everything that, in his eyes, made human life worth living was more than he could tolerate.

Jamie, supposedly nonhierarchical groups have power dynamics as well; they're just covert, and therefore not subject to checks and balances. I think it's quite possible that neotribal groups may take shape out of the contexts you've mentioned, but those that I've seen have a long rough road ahead of them before they can handle the harsh realities we'll face.

Tiago, good. My experience has been that the more pluralistic a group claims to be, the more dominated it is by a covert orthodoxy of some kind. There's actually a great deal of free expression and difference of opinion in formally hierarchical groups such as the Masons -- more than I've seen in a lot of allegedly liberal groups.

John Michael Greer said...

Jan, true enough. I'm not sure how resourceful we actually are at this point, but those who make it through the next round of crises will have learned to be resourceful as the price of survival.

Terry, my only quibble with Sterling's comment is the fact that he doesn't mention how self-limiting that condition is. Freedom from community is a luxury only available in an age of abundance, of the sort that's coming to an end around us now.

Raven, thanks for the link. For what it's worth, I don't expect Islam to make serious inroads here -- though the possibility of an Arab conquest of Europe in the aftermath of industrial collapse can't be ruled out.

Blue Sun, exactly. Community implies at least a certain degree of conformity, which is among the reasons why Americans fled from it just as fast as they could, and are still fleeing from it.

Medved, that's been my experience as well.

Shark, maybe I just run with the wrong crowd, but I've seen a vast number of Americans treat the idea of authority as inherently illegitimate and abusive -- unless the authority in question is given to them, in which case of course it's perfectly fine! As for the Chesterton quote, though, no argument there.

Quaker, that's an excellent metaphor: community as marriage. It certainly fits my experience, too.

LS, exactly. Exactly. All you can do is change your life, and offer help to anybody else who's willing to do the same thing.

Guilherme, that's raw material for a whole series of posts. I grant that the cyclical theory of history has problems -- any theory is a simplification, and thus inevitably an oversimplification, of the unbounded complexity of real events -- but it makes more sense of history, from my perspective, than the linear theories that underpin most mainstream historical thought.

As for apocalypses, of course they happen. They're the exception that proves the rule, the far end of the probability curve of social collapse. My critique of the current round of apocalyptic thinking is that it fails to reflect the impact of the factors that tend to slow down collapse, just as theories of perpetual progress fail to reflect the impact of the factors that are driving collapse in the first place. Still, all this has been discussed in earlier posts, and in my book "The Long Descent."

John Michael Greer said...

Peter, thanks for the reference!

Ben, nah, that was artistic license. I figured some readers would take offense, but most of the people who comment here have proven themselves to be uncommonly capable of thinking. Your experience matches mine, by the way.

Tiago said...

3 unrelated things (arguably not much related with the post, to be honest):

1. I am still completely amazed, not only by the quality of your posts, but also by the extreme quality of the people that comment here. [This does not imply agreement, of course]

2. Related to my previous comment and your response: I find interesting the dissonance between the formal and the informal. As an example, think about an hypothetical organization that propagandizes liberty, but then internally/informally (ie, in day to day reality) is very dogmatic (I've also see the opposite, by the way). More often than not, the description that a certain community makes of itself has very little to do with its internal reality.
One of the thing that haunts me is trying to devise ways to detect these inconsistencies as soon as possible. And also, how to assemble an organizational and cultural structure that is reasonably resistant to dogmatism and totalitarianism (assuming that such a thing can be coded in a community "DNA").

3. Today I was reminded of the works of Paul Feyerabend. I do find some similarities between his work and your writings.

Houyhnhnm said...

As usual, a thought-provoking post.

I wonder how much of the decline in community stems from the results of WWII where returning veterans vowed to make like better for their children, a goal that had the usual panoply of unexpected consequences, not the least of which was the rampant glorification of and relentless prolongation of youth well into middle age and beyond.

These ideas are not mine. I owe most of them to Lewis Lapham's Fortune's Child: A Portrait of the United States As Spendthrift Heir (1994) and writings of Paul Fussell, e.g. Class (1992).

It troubles me that the trend remains strong. Too many still believe the ads and commercials that stress how we "deserve" our instant and work-free gratification.

Amongst high school and college students, however, there's a promising trend. While their general lack of academic achievements depresses me, many eagerly dive into community service, and, at least in my area, this trend is rising. For example, the college where I work encourages students to volunteer for community projects and weave their experiences into required essays and such.

P.S. In case it's of interest to anyone, Warren Johnson, author of Muddling toward Frugality has put the entire MS of his new work The Gift of Peaceful Genes online here:

Richard said...

I'm wondering if you think the religious movement that will pick up the pieces is likely to be already in existence right now. I know the Christians were in existence as a persecuted minority long before Rome fell and they took over, is that the pattern in general for other societies?

Do you think the historical precedent means that this pre-collapse time is a pivotal moment, when many small movements that are persecuted, ridiculed or ignored by the mainstream have the potential for greatness later. While I know the masses of people aren't likely to follow the type of paths those of us reading this blog would prefer, I would still think it would make a huge difference for a long way into the future whether, say, the movement to come considers respect for nature important or not. Considering how Christianity taking over at the fall of the Roman empire still has such an impact close to two millennia later.

Riddley W. said...

As one who has taught Lasch's The Culture of Narcissism, I can say that there are a good many people who understand the phenomenon he describes all too well. They're the psychotherapists who are seeing increasing numbers of aging narcissists in their offices. These people don't need a dying civilization to be in pain--they are simply experiencing what happens to American individualism if you marinate it in paranoid loneliness for thirty or forty years.

The trouble with building community is that all it takes is one person with a character disorder to blow the whole thing up. It's possible that narcissists reached a critical mass in America, and therefore the people who want community can't get beyond the point at which it's likely a narcissist will join them.

The groups that are most like your pick-up-the-pieces communities, with clear notions of who's in and who's out, selfless and substantial effort for the benefit of the group, and a clear sense of identity reinforced by ritual, are the militia groups forming in the rural areas of this country. While I don't see this as good news, I see them as forming the initial conditions for the building of a new civilization.

Chaos theory suggests that any new phase in a dynamic system has a high dependence on initial conditions. Militias are communities determined to make it to the future--in fact some of them think they are the future--and they will likely set the ethics and distribution systems of a new civilization, just as long as their weapons function.

So while we may fall like Rome, I suggest what will replace us will look a lot like Sparta.

sprite said...

Great writing John - totally struck a chord with me.

Congratulations on an excellent, and always thought provoking, blog.


sprite said...


As usual, an excellent and thought provoking post. I often wonder when you have the time to write this sort of stuff. Thanks for sharing your thoughts as they are valued by the blog community

Australia has a rotten record of per capita energy consumption, you are right. But often what is overlooked is the sheer distance that 20 odd million Aussies in a country the size of the USA have to struggle with, and the crappy and severely inefficient infrastructure we have. Both these limiting factors push our energy consumption way up. One is geography - so not a lot we can do about it. The other is government driven - so until the masses vote for independents to hold the balance of power in our Upper House, nothing will really change there. I still expect Australia will top the excessive energy useage Roll of Honour for another 20 years or so.

An excellent read on why Australia is heading for the skids was publised in the mid 1970's by a well known historian called Geoffrey Blainey. The book is called "The tyranny of distance" and is pretty relevant to any country I think, not just those down Under. I hope a copy or two is floating around on or in second hand bookshops near is well worth the read.



das monde said...

JMG, you are building quite an encompassing theory. How is it to be tested? I think that explaining the passivity as dealing with pre-collapse cognitive dissonances is premature. Do concerned oildrummers look scared particularly for their own personal future? The American culture of authority trashing has no common vibes with panicking intellectuals. Its intensification and peculiar resonance with post-McCarthian conformism rather point to the elephants you like to dismiss.

Your analysis of community costs can be amended with relative considerations: people now are very sensitive in who is contributing less or benefiting more than yourself. Miniscule perceived injustices halt cooperative or tic-for-tac relations frequently, whatever potential loss of mutual benefit. And if you give a slight way, the other will seek to capitalize his theta-to-eta promotion. People seem to be lazy (or quite unable) to assess absolute costs and benefits of cooperative relations, but they enjoy being smart in gaining relative points. Ultimately, the established cultural-economic paradigm tells that no care should be taken about common goods or any egregores. That is the wisdom of Darwinian, economic and game theories that trickled down to the American and global societies.

Connections between Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and Patanjali yoga limbs or Leary’s eight circuit model might me very parallel after all, in that once basic bio-survival needs are satisfied, people start using their primate brains of social comparisons heavily. Evidence for this can be noticed in the later Communist societies, for example. A discipline of certain rituals to raise a collective consciousness looks indeed useful then.

The fate of elite and middle class people must vary a lot under a collapse, if only because awareness of the collapse would be so inhomogeneous. Some intellectuals would show appropriate public concern but get no respect. At least some resourceful individuals (and organizations) would keep themselves informed and quite prepared, but they won’t share their considerations publicly. Deceptive campaigns and manipulation of discussions, concerns are possible. Most people would not put “ends of the world” high on their priority lists for various reasons, including reliance on the wisdom of crowds and responsible opinion makers. Most people will appreciate aptly the inevitable or leveraged changes late in the game. And as the Chinese saying goes, every crisis is an opportunity, especially if you have privileged information or resources.

The raw forces of inner proletariat can be practically anticipated and directed. Some say, every revolution is betrayed and discredited; this process is hardly resolved by a proletariat alone. The French revolution is a good example. Mind you - I am not in a hopeless mood.

In the example of Christianity we see how its fortunes changed rather top-down, with the Emperor Constantine. Just 20 years ago the Theban legion was executed. Here we have a Roman administrator taking a decisive association in uncertain times, right? Allow me to notice that Christianity turned out to be particularly useful to opportunistic rulers like Constantine, unlike Stoicisms, Epicureanisms.

Jason said...

JMG: The religious movements that pick up the pieces from a failing civilization are generally those that no properly enculturated member of that civilization would even think of joining. I think it was Tacitus who referred to the early Christians as "enemies of the human race;" he was a tolerant man, but the symbolic cannibalism of the Mass and the rejection of reverence for everything that, in his eyes, made human life worth living was more than he could tolerate.

I find that fascinating because of course it sets one off thinking what the sacred cows are that will be slaughtered.

Apart from Christianity, what are the other historical examples?

the possibility of an Arab conquest of Europe in the aftermath of industrial collapse can't be ruled out.

You're second person to mention that to me recently. The first said that he thought there might one day be a need for another Charles Martel!

Mark said...

I think your descriptions are spot on for the most part. Where I live, most of the inhabitants moved out here for the very reason of not having to deal with the costs of community.

Also I'm reminded of this quote from Bill Mollison that I think is of great relevance to this topic, "...the greatest change we need to make is from consumption to production, even if on a small scale, in our own gardens.

If only 10% of us do this, there is enough for everyone.

Hence the futility of revolutionaries who have no gardens, who depend on the very system they attack, and who produce words and bullets, not food and shelter.”

bmerson said...

I wonder if the fact that people are hesitant (downright afraid?) of authority and boundaries reflects a lurking inner fear that the kind of authority and boundaries that we would create might be decidedly ugly. Is there an underlying feeling that we (as a society, or as a species) simply cannot be trusted to "do the right thing" for the "greater good", but instead that we will always act in our own short-sighted self-interest?

Maybe we don't trust boundaries and authority anymore because we don't trust ourselves anymore.

If so, perhaps the problem that must be overcome is one of self-image, with a need to make us again recognize those things and qualities that have real value, and to believe that we (as a society or species) share these values.

Unfortunately, I'm not sure what could get us from where we are now, to where we would need to be, other than time and necessity. Thoughts?


Odin's Raven said...

There seems to be two sorts or ideas of community. Most of the concern here is over the voluntary sort, but decline has also happened in the more basic natural sort, the race,religion, nationality, tribe, clan, family, agegroup, caste, class or occupation into which one is born and where one has to do the best one can, like it or not. Modernity seems to have been about the weakening and destruction of community in terms of spiritual hierarchy and natural order.

dltrammel said...

Quoting Blue Sun:
"I would especially recommend Jeremy Beer's post on the role meritocracy has played in undermining local communities in America : "

I found his description of his "new elites" very interesting:

"It is no surprise, then, that what Lasch calls the “new aristocracy of brains,” more mobile than ever and indeed committed to a “migratory way of life” as “the price of getting ahead,” has little use for Middle America, which they imagine to be “technologically backward, politically reactionary, repressive in its sexual morality, middlebrow in its tastes, smug and complacent, dull and dowdy.” America’s meritocratic elites, Lasch claims, “are at home only in transit, en route to a high-level conference, to the grand opening of a new franchise, to an international film festival, or to an undiscovered resort. Theirs is essentially a tourist’s view of the world-not a perspective likely to encourage a passionate devotion to democracy.”

The fact that our meritocracy rewards most those at home in the world of “abstractions and images” has further isolated our new elites from the rest of society by their insulation from manual labor. “The thinking classes are fatally removed from the physical side of life,” and indeed, only under such circumstances could such academic theories as “the social construction of reality” gain any purchase on the mind, concludes Lasch.

Another serious disadvantage to rule by the “best and brightest” is that, unlike the older, premeritocratic elite, with its codes of chivalry and concern for honor and family, the new elite, thinking that it owes its power to intelligence alone, has “little sense of ancestral gratitude or of an obligation to live up to responsibilities inherited from the past.” It “thinks of itself as a self-made elite owing its privileges exclusively to its own efforts.”

If you consider that true then that helps explain the position that there is no ONE set of elites, but a whole group, which share an underlying mind set, while pursuing different agendas.

dltrammel said...

Quoting Seaweed Shark:
"But I think you would be hard-pressed to find any American who would agree with it. A lot of us actually do respect and obey police officers, doctors, coaches, ministers and so on. And we often do so out of love and respect, rather than cowardice or fear. I do not wholly disagree with your sentiment"

I would disagree. IMO what you take for personal respect is actually an assumption of competence in a position. We assume a doctor knows what he is doing, so we adopt the cultural trappings of respect, saying "Yes, Sir."

The same with a judge in traffic court who you have had no contact with before. You mimic the mannerism you have been taught will give you a better outcome.

It is not until you actually know a person that respect forms.

I always laugh when I come to a stop sign, in the middle of the night, with no one around, and I still stop. Is that respect for the law or cultural conditioning?

In addition to that local bias for respect, there is another factor, impression of the group in question. We assume a higher level of competency in military members, so we give them a higher level of initial respect. Conversely we assume very little competency in politicians, and hold them in low esteem.

What has amplified that is the media culture we live in now. Bad news sells, so we hear more about a pedophilic priest, than the hundreds who do good day to day. Over time that decreases our assumption of competency we have on meeting a person from a class culture tells us should be shown respect.

DIYer said...

I am currently living like a king. My house in the burbs is a miniature kingdom, and I am free to cruise the highways in my sedan, with the added advantage that my dishwasher and garage door opener and television do not gossip about me when I'm away (Kurzweil, you're nuts)... now I'm trying to deal with the terrifying fact that this is quite a temporary arrangement.

But as I remarked a couple of posts ago, I think that the extended family (and communities) will be re-forming against the ardent wishes of their members.

sgage said...

Odin's Raven said...

"There seems to be two sorts or ideas of community. Most of the concern here is over the voluntary sort, but decline has also happened in the more basic natural sort, the race,religion, nationality, tribe, clan, family, agegroup, caste, class or occupation into which one is born and where one has to do the best one can, like it or not."

O.R., I'm SO glad you made this point. In my opinion, community is not a voluntary thing that people create and/or join. It's where you find yourself. To me, a hugely important part of "community maintenance" is precisely in getting along with people you don't agree with or even particularly like. But you do, because there you are.

I use the word "network" for self-selecting groups of like-minded folks, though these things may manifest into groups of people in close physical proximity. Then you might be able to call them a community, and they'll be finding out that there are people in their "community" that they don't agree with and don't particularly like.

I think the geographical proximity thing is really important. The people you live among are your community, like it or not.

John Michael Greer said...

Tiago, I've come to think that designing a community is a bit like designing an ecosystem -- most of the time, it doesn't work that well, as the results follow their own trajectory rather than the one you had in mind. That's my take on the reason why the actual behavior of an organization often has no relation at all to its ostensible values. A for Feyerabend, it's been too long since I've read him -- thanks for the reminder.

Hounynym, thanks for the link -- and the reflections.

Richard, it's anyone's guess at this point. Fundamentalist Christianity might have become the vehicle for the schism here in the US, but twice now -- once in the 1920s, and then again in the last few decades -- its leaders have been all too willing to sell out for a few scraps from the table of power. Now? Hard to say.

Riddley, it's only because most contemporary attempts at community lack boundaries and a principle of authority that one person with a character disorder can bring them down. I've repeatedly seen communities built along older lines, faced with such people, move swiftly to isolate and expel them, and emerge unscathed.

As for the militias, Sparta's the wrong metaphor. You're watching the first stirrings of the barbarian warbands of Dark Age America.

Sprite, thank you! It's certainly a factor that Australia and Canada are both very sparsely settled, but there are other countries that can say the same, and don't have the same sky-high energy consumption per capita. My guess is that the role these two countries play as members of the inner circle of US allies has at least as much to do with it.

Das Monde, the theory's been built for quite a while; it's just being sketched out here. How is it to be tested? The course of events is the only test available.

Jason, early Buddhism in China comes to mind -- it was just as offensive to the Confucian elite (though they later found ways of coming to terms with it, of course). Polytheist versions of the same thing tended to work by subtler shifts -- for example, the emergence of Osiris as a central focus of popular devotion in Egypt formed an effective counter to the pharaonic cult of Amun-Re.

Mark, thanks for the quote! It's spot on -- though it will take a lot more than 10%.

Bmerson, every community is at least a little corrupt, at least a little oppressive, and at least a little unfair, because every human being can be described in the same terms. If we expect our communities to live up to ideals we ourselves don't follow, we're guaranteed to be disappointed. Thus it's going to take hard necessity, and the extinction of some comfortable but dysfunctional attitudes, before communities really become possible again.

Raven, true enough.

Dltrammel, good. Lasch's analysis has had quite a bit of influence on mine, as you may have guessed.

John Michael Greer said...

DIYer, you've just sketched out, in remarkably few words, the predicament most middle class Americans face. The one difference is that they don't know it yet, and you do.

Sgage, one of these days I need to make time to talk about what Vico had to say about community. I think you'd find it useful, or at least interesting.

marielar said...

Blue Sun wrote:
"One of the dominant cultural themes of recent history is the idea of liberating oneself from the prison of a small town, and its (implied) smothering conformity."

I am not convinced at all that it is the main reason. Many are well aware of what they leave behind despite all the enticements of the city lights. The major culprits are policies of cheap food, unsustainable ressources extraction by big business and oblivious consumers. Those have destroyed the small town economy: family farm disapearance, fishery collapse, forest clearcutting for pulp and timber etc...For example, the Haiti rural exodus to Port-au-Prince had much more to do with the eradication of the Creole pig and the dumping of american rice and sugar than a desire to escape hometown conformity. The same forces were and are still at work from the dumping of cheap corn in Mexico to the fishery collapse in Newfoundland outports. The vast majority of people leave their hometown when they realize they have lost the battle of eking a living. Twenty years ago there were 25 dairy farms in my town, now, six are left. A friend of mine, one of the last horse harness and bridle maker in his region, closed shop two years ago when the market was flooded with cheap crap from China and India. One of his supplier, a Amish from Pensylvannia phoned him to ask why he was not ordering anymore metal hardwares. His business had seen a huge drop in sale as well. This is how, bit by bit, the rural communities get hollowed out and die.
In a way, it's quite ironic for people to look for all kind of far fetched conspiracies instead of examining with a critical mind their pattern of consumption. Each time we buy something, we make a moral decision. And its not complicated to connect the dots between the overtrowing of Manual Zelaya and the cheap Chiquita banana at the grocery store. This scene from Dr Strangelove capture the essence of real politik:

Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake: Colonel... that Coca-Cola machine. I want you to shoot the lock off it. There may be some change in there.
Colonel "Bat" Guano: That's private property.
Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake: Colonel! Can you possibly imagine what is going to happen to you, your frame, outlook, way of life, and everything, when they learn that you have obstructed a telephone call to the President of the United States? Can you imagine? Shoot it off! Shoot! With a gun! That's what the bullets are for, you twit!
Colonel "Bat" Guano: Okay. I'm gonna get your money for ya. But if you don't get the President of the United States on that phone, you know what's gonna happen to you?
Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake: What?
Colonel "Bat" Guano: You're gonna have to answer to the Coca-Cola company.

Sean Taylor said...

I think Riddley hit on something very important in this discussion when he brings up militias. A lot of these people “get” de-industrialization, the end of “progress”, decentralization, etc. and see it as a historic opportunity to escape the centralized social engineering that has gripped Western nations in recent times.

Aren’t our current pretensions to “multiculturalism” mostly artifacts of our prosperity? Wasn’t Martin Luther King only possible on the upslope of an ascending nation? Isn’t his vision of humanity no more natural a state of affairs than golf courses in the desert, historically speaking? As the abundance that made such utopian ideas believable recedes, won’t many of the cultural conditions associated with the “progress” of recent decades also recede? I see this trend all around me – a return to tribalism, a closing of ranks, a rejection of outsiders, and suspect that this is where we’re headed if things unwind the way people here seem to expect. Furthermore, I wonder if people here are really ready for such a post-progressive world, since it really is rather nasty in a lot of ways. It seems to me that the survivalist/militia types that Mr. Greer likes to deride are really ahead of the curve in a lot of ways, and like the Taliban post-progressives in Pakistan will come out big winners in a post-collapse world.

Cindy said...

I have been struggling for some time with idea and reality of community. Last year, I was in a city with a ‘transition town’ movement. Some of the people were quite committed to the idea yet one of the leaders showed up to a potluck with a cellophane encased cake frosted with artificial icing purchased at the mega mart! I have now moved back to a small agricultural community where many people live with ‘country values’ of helping their neighbor and living close to the land and yet their lives reflect bigoted attitudes that I can’t support. I think many of us despair of finding a community that we can fit into! I work within the existing framework, refusing to yield on my principles, working hard and hoping to reflect my beliefs by my actions. Do others share this frustration? What insights do you have to offer, JMG, on how to find the community that we all need while remaining true to who we are?

Justin Ritchie said...

The myths that form the American approach to the local community and the world have served the United States well in the 20th century. Would the world be as "well off" without Wal-Mart? Would China be as "well off" without Wal-Mart and Wally World values? I don't think so. Unfortunately what constituted success in the second half of the 20th century appears to be correlating strongly with magnitude of failure in the 2000s.

I got out of the US because I felt there were better alternatives at this moment in history. While I've only been in Canada for 6 months, at least in the area I'm located the people I've met are far more focused on making the necessary sacrifices for community. Many people here regularly have potlucks and community gatherings at a scale that was simply non-existent in the southeastern US. My friends and I never had potlucks in North Carolina. Despite consisting of the same age group as friends here in Canada (early 20s) the method of bonding with friends in NC was over shared consumption at a corporate enabled experience.

I wonder if Canada's slightly stronger tendency toward communal values makes it better prepared for the 21st century than the US? As my landlord told me though, "In most of Canada you've always had to be communal because if you didn't work together you died of the cold"

John Michael Greer said...

Marielar, personal choices have a huge role in all this, but you and Blue Sun both have part of the picture -- it's not an either/or thing.

Sean, I don't deride the survivalists or the militias. I've been known to poke fun at the idea that a cabin in the woods and a gun collection are adequate responses to a Long Descent unfolding over a couple of centuries, in a far more complex and ragged trajectory than the more simplistic analyses address, but that's hardly a dismissal of the people who hold those beliefs, you know. Nor are the Taliban particularly well placed to profit from the crisis years ahead of us; they get their legitimacy from having the US to oppose, and when we implode, they may find themselves in quite an awkward bind.

Cindy, there are no easy answers, but it may help to remember that the word "community" does not equal "everyone agrees with me." Those neighbors whose values you dislike are still your neighbors, and it might be wise to learn to get along with them.

Justin, it's entirely possible that Canada might come through this in a lot better shape than the US; it's also entirely possible that Canada could be drawn into the mess south of its borders, and crash and burn just as messily as we do. Time will tell.

Karel said...

Das Monde, you again commented "communist" period and I again see you comment as completely misleading. So I'm now going to comment this topic too - for the last time, because we certainly have no licence to kidnap discussion about JMG post to confusing memories from Eastern Europe.

I used to live in "communist" version of industrialist consumer society as you did, and as a student I take part in "Velvet revolution" of 1989. People in my country and elsewhere in former Eastern bloc surely rebelled primarily against authority they see illegitimate, against authority unable to fulfill big promise of consumerist paradise richer than that one present on the West. Maslowian interpretation of failings of the Soviet imperium you offered was always typical illusion of reformist pro-system intellectuals around Novoe vremya magazine or something of the sort. You can criticize both post-stalinist "communism" and western welfate state as two incarnations of the same industrial consumer society. But for me, the main lesson here is, how completely the state failed trying to master everything, especially making big power structures "humanly warm" and compensating for weaknesses of the market. It isn't the last word of the history, sure, but Russia is now failing again (see its contemporary demography, economy, culture, or even military) with essentially the same attempt based this time not on the "communist", but on nationalist ideology.

So JMG is right, we have to accept some forms of authority and boundaries, but main risk I see here is to focus again on some kind of centralistic and normalized reference mythos as a source of all meaning in society of uprooted individuals, for example nationalist one. This was the case of big catastrophe called "communism" - and in effect, society we both used to live was spiritually undead for decades.

Destruction of primary groups, in fact, represents common fate of all western/westernized "faustian" societies - we can see it from ancient Greece till USSR - but the last case was the extreme one. It seems to me that we now have to learn from different non-Western traditions, maybe from Asiatic ones. (You know: This "Asiatic mode of production" in late works of Karl Marx ;-)

J Hill said...

I've enjoyed (and propagated to friends) your last few posts about community. I don't know whether you have a plan laid out for future posts, but I'm hoping you spend some more time on how people without communities can find, join, or build them. In other words, I hope you won't stop at pointing out how much trouble isolated people are going to be in: that's important, but you've now made that point. The post about joining a lodge that needs members was a good start, but that may not be an option for everyone. Undoing generations of increasing isolation is a daunting prospect; people are going to need someone to teach them a better way and how to get there.

Edde said...

Hey JM Greer,

Another good one.

The question is NOT why people DON'T or can't embrace community. Rather, the question for me is what motivates people who DO commit to community.

I just returned from a board walk repair work party in our community. Turnout was respectable for a cold dreary NoFla morning. Why did my neighbors opt to come out? Why are there people calling & e-mailing every month requesting info about joining our community?

Its the volunteers of America I'm interested in.


BrightSpark said...

Sprite - I'm familiar with the tyranny of distance arguments, in fact, probably more so as I live in New Zealand, adding another two thousand miles onto the distance of Australia from everything else. And yes, our energy consumption per capita is sky high as well, most of it non-renewable.

But I don't think either Australia or New Zealand are headed for the skids. The only reason we assume so is because both countries imposed northern hemisphere models of society onto a pretty alien and fragile ecology. That will change in light of the thumping experience we are about to be delivered.

And our relatively low populations and distance from other places may lessen the impact of the stuff that will hit the northern hemisphere, although we'll all need to learn to get on with many more people from vastly different cultures as they arrive here.

tkraemer2 said...

Three cheers for John Michael Greer! What better way to learn about the real mechanics of community than to just join the Masons? Anachronistic though they are, they are walking the talk of community. And so are you.

It would seem that today's equivalent of the Roman rhetor is essential to "get it" about community. Who is this, and how will they do it?

das monde said...

Karel, there is no argument about spiritual failure of communism. Consumerist promises failed just as obviously, if that was the biggest pledge. But then the question is: What was the mission of managing communists at the later stage? (Why everyone worries about intellectuals that much?!) It seems now that higher communist functionaries did not mind the collapse and color revolutions at all. Generally, they were in step with the revolutions faster than the hopeful masses. If you look now who are the comfortable winners of the wild transition, the majority of them are former communist functionaries. Yep, some fresh faces made it as successful businessmen or politicians - but rather few compared with what was revolutionarily promised. And surely, not all communist specialists or intellectuals fare well now - rather lucky of them can stay in disregarded apartments in central Prague or Vilnius and spend their time on internet in public libraries. But the fact is: an upper-middle subclass of Socialist societies are the most comfortable winners of the new promises.

This is interesting because JMG argues that elite and middle classes have most uncertain and perilous times during a collapse. As long as the Soviet collapse is widely considered as a natural example of destined collapse, these concrete details can be tested on it. And what about the issue of passivity during the same collapse? With all respect to velvet revolutionaries, was it people’s activity that pushed the collapse? Will resilient grassroots of the global industrial collapse be a very different folk?

Santeri Satama said...

Ariel mentioned the hippie revolution and your shared image seems to be that it just vanished, puff, without leaving any marks in contemporary society!

I would rather subscribe to the hipstory that summer of love and its hangover soon transformed into something with Rainbow Gatherings as the core community - tribe and family that relates and identifies more closely with native American tribes and values than with "Babylon". With multitude of other closely related intentional communities, ecovillages etc. that are build on and continue the hippie revolution values and practices which most often based on anarchistic consensus-making even if they don't self-identify as anarchists. Such political labels rather belong to realm of anthropologists and other political scientists, and this approach should remind us that strictly shared "authority" - if the word is even justified here and I cannot but question that - is very different beast from any and all hierarchic authority. It is good to keep in mind and be critical of each of our lenses of interpretation based on our identities and experience, and perhaps experience coming from hierarchic druidic and masonic orders don't give the best qualifications to describe non-hierarchic communities that do not have even common belief system.

The Rainbow Gatherings are very interesting fenomenon as the yearly main event emerges as community for a relatively short period and then vanishes leaving no traces at the location - or often leaving the local ecosystem in better condition than before the gathering. This could at least partly explain why the border between in-tribe and out-tribe is not or if it is, less strict than you seem to be suggesting. The Rainbow community is open to anyone that chooses to come to the gathering and to my knowledge no one has been ever turned away, so instead of boundary it would seem more justified to speak about inclusive openness.

But what is perhaps the most crucial challenge of your thoughts about authority and borders of communities, at least in context of Rainbow Gatherings, is that no one can claim authority to tell what Rainbow Gatherings are - participants can only share their unique experience and point of view. This may be a fine point that don't open easily, but in essence it might be that the experience of belonging to Mother Earth and community does not exhort to presenting authoritative top-down views but each participant speaking, singing and dancing at and from the grass root level.

In my view and experience a practicioner of certain ancient arts does not really become a druid or shaman with perceived "authority" merely by hierarchic succession and position, but by fully surrendering and belonging to a community of a tribe with roots deep in the land and the ecosystem and/or "spiritworld". No matter how valuable its insight and understanding may be, shamanhood becomes social function of a shaman only when a community of people and spirits so chooses, invites and accepts.

Thank you for the opportunity to share these thoughts and I hope all potential readers keep in mind that what I've said is just one proberbial blind man touching the elefant. Aho mitakuye oyasin.

plain.ape said...

I discovered your blog about a month ago, and have been slowly reading it from the beginning. It has been, frankly, a revelation, & I wish to join the chorus of folks who have praised your insightfulness. You have even given me hope for the future. Not because the future you outline is pleasant, but because it actually exists. I had previously been swayed by the logic of the transhumanists & believed in the approach of a technological Singularity, but was sensible enough to realize that after such an event there would be no place for any actual people, that not only our bodies but also our minds would eventually be replaced by increasingly specialized machines. I was afraid that within my lifetime I would be obsolete, that I would not have nearly the social power even to prosper from the machines’ proliferation but would become as marginalized as a Haïtian farmer is today, and that all my friends and family would be pushed to the same position. You, however, have given me an effective intellectual defense against such terror. Thank you.

plain.ape said...

In addition to my previous comment, I also have a question for you, though. Several times in this blog you have said that industrial society is the greatest economic "bubble" of all. But what about life itself? Life on Earth requires constant inputs of energy from both the sun & the geothermal cycles, and which promises immortality on those sequences of nucleic acids that will participat As the 2nd Law states, all that life is doing is hurrying (in however slight a way) the heat death of the universe, as life is more efficient at turning ambient energy to useless entropy than bare rock and atmosphere.

So isn't all this talk of sustainability meaningless? I mean this as a serious question, not merely as some sarcastic, trollish jabbing. All that sustainability does is delay the inevitable, and you’re on the record as thinking little of those who long for immortality. What does it matter if it is our grand-children who are the last generation, or our great-grandchildren? If the end of life is inevitable, why bother with sustainability? Why not make like Nero, and fiddle while Rome burns? How long do you wish to postpone the end of life on earth? After all, an ecosystem populated solely by bacteria is probably more efficient at its energy use than one with eukaryotes in it, to say nothing of people. Of course, you & I both would probably much prefer a world with people to one with just bacteria, but isn't this already an admission that we're willing to trade life for pleasure? How much life are we willing to trade for how much pleasure? Surely an argument can be made that the 1st worlders who enjoy pleasure now in exchange for death later are actually making the correct choice, and that the amount of future life that they have traded is balanced out or perhaps even exceeded by the pleasure they've received in return. You can feel free to put on you archdruid hat if you want to, but I would be impressed if that could help. After all, isn't a belief in the sanctity of nature just another attempt to deny the hard reality of the investment bubble we're caught up in, different only in form from the arguments that economists make about the power of the market? And any hypothesized "world of the spirit" that is exempt from the rules of thermodynamics is just another argument for a perpetual motion machine, and you've already come down rather harshly against those.

I do not profess to believe in the above nihilism as thoroughly as it seems, but what I do believe in is intellectual integrity, and I long for a comprehensive argument that'll knock it out of the water for good. I have arguments against it and responses to it, but none of them is a knock-out blow, and even the lot of them together are not entirely satisfactory.

denisaf said...

The operation of the systems of our civilization entail using irreplaceable natural material resources (INMR - natural capital) at a high rate. This tangible INMR is now becoming scarce. Oil supply problems and the impact of climate change are just two symptoms of that holistic malaise.
People are bewildered. They have been conditioned to believe that intangible money will continue to control what happens. They do not understand that natural forces determine what is possible. Money only influences the decisions made by people.
It is no surprise that most people, including our leaders, do not know what to do as our civilization enters its senescence.

Arabella said...

@plain.ape - what an interesting concept - life as an 'investment bubble' in the really big market of universal energy!

My understanding of what JMG has said (with which I agree) is not that the human race will die off in a few generations, but that two or three billion humans (or more, perhaps) will die off in a few generations.

IMHO, even if we knew there would be no more humans in a few generations, we owe it to the myriads of other species, which have as much right to life on this planet as humans, to find a way of life that is 'sustainable.'

Problem is, I don't think there's anything that six+ billion people can do sustainably.

John Michael Greer said...

Karel, for what it's worth, I've enjoyed the debate between you and Das Monde.

J. Hill, thank you, but I think you're missing my point. People don't need to "find, join, or build community" -- they need to meet their neighbors, drop the fantasy of individual autonomy, and let community evolve, and they'll do that when, and only when, they have to. Trying to "build community" is like trying to manufacture a tree: you get a simulacrum, nothing more.

Edde, next time you're out there fixing the boardwalk, ask them!

Spark, that's the understatement of the century. New Zealand might just escape, but Australia will almost certainly go under in the face of armed and starving mass migrations from Indonesia and Malaysia. If your islands do get mass migration, don't expect them to settle down quietly next to the current residents, any more than the Saxons settled down quietly next to the Welsh!

Tkraemer, thank you. As for rhetors, that's an unfilled job description right now. Do you know of any volunteers?

Das Monde, I thought it was pretty much an open secret at this point that the various color revolutions were bought and paid for by the US. They're not a particularly good model for the crisis ahead of us; the aspect of the Soviet experience that deserves, and gets, attention is the economic and public health dimensions of the collapse, which are likely a good model for the future of America.

Santeri, every major alternative movement in American history has left behind a lingering minority that clings to the movement when everyone else turns away. The Rainbow Gatherings are a classic example, the last fading echo of the Sixties counterculture. My interactions with the Rainbow Tribe, which go back to the early 1980s, suggest to me that there are strict boundaries and powerful authority structures there -- they're simply covert, as usually happens in groups that disavow such things. Still, to each their own, and if that approach works for you, by all means pursue it.

Ape, of course sustainability is a relative term. That doesn't make it meaningless. You, personally, are going to die someday; that doesn't make it a waste of your time to take reasonable steps to maintain your health and fitness, so your odds of having a long and healthy life are good. In the same way, our species will go extinct someday, and life on Earth will go extinct someday; in the meantime, though, there's a lot of difference between actions that help maintain the stability of the biosphere and human society, and those that undermine both.

Denisaf, you're preaching to the choir! Natural laws beat economics every time; the question is how many people get that while there's still a chance to do something useful with the knowledge.

John Michael Greer said...

Arabella, good. I'd point out, though, that every human being now alive on Earth will be dead within a century or so; it's their descendants who will be alive after that. There will be a lot fewer of them, is all. My guess, for what it's worth, is that the Earth's human population will bottom out around two centuries from now around half a billion, or maybe a little less, and remain at that or a very slightly higher level for centuries to come.

Disc Monkey said...

I think a point worth throwing into the mix is the growing transient nature of our population. When you speak of the hay days of local lodges and community activism, there were a few things in place at that time that are absent now.

People tended not to move or change jobs. They got a job, worked there for 40 years and retired. They bought a house, stayed there that 40 years and retired in the same house. Today, the average first time home buyer only stays in that house for 3 years before moving. Your average worker today will change jobs 6-8 times in their working life. You had the same doctor, teachers, governing officials, and community leaders for the duration.

In that scenario, the effort you put into the community did pay dividends in the long run. But people aren't in their community for the long run anymore, so the attitude is simply, "why put in the work?"

This is compounded by the "new" communities prevalent on the internet. People don't need to see their neighbors, they have 2,642 facebook friends. These, I guess, are communities by technical definition, but don't really have any of the benefits that real people meeting in real places doing real, meaningful things have.

I guess the question in my mind is how does one foster community in an ever increasingly transient world?

Karel said...

"What was the mission of managing communists at the later stage? (Why everyone worries about intellectuals that much?!) It seems now that higher communist functionaries did not mind the collapse and color revolutions at all. Generally, they were in step with the revolutions faster than the hopeful masses. If you look now who are the comfortable winners of the wild transition, the majority of them are former communist functionaries."

Das Monde, in the end, main mission of many communist functionaries surely consisted in transformation of various very complex and time-consuming connections of "aparatchiks" (social and political capital) into very simple and much more practical money (economical capital). They started "revolutions" of 1989 themselves, so they are the winners. They also managed to isolate most ordinary people one from another, to transform "lonely crowd" into set of individualists of high consumerist expectations, willing to blindly delegate new acquired democratic power to those able to apply the finest art of jaw-jaw and empty promises (originally made by Friedrich von Hayek, Chicago boys and international financial institutions).

In the USA, throughout the social stratum of contemporary élites, you probably can't find much true willingness to transform society into something completely different - so this eastern experience dosn't fit to Americans very well. On the other hand, Americans should consider JMG's recommendation concerning community; there is simply no time to repeat "truly self-sufficient market individualist's" fallacy again and again only to find that social Robinson's game against well organized minority is always lost in advance. Eastern intellectuals failed to see this from the very start, they were not able to warn the public effectively and in time.

gardenserf said...

Americans might dislike authority, but at the same time they readily accept the leadership of anyone with the loudest microphone and slimmest teleprompter who reaches the largest audience.

Likewise, the soon-to-be leaders who will be promoted by the current leaders are the same kind of apparatchiks and yes-men who will continue the within-the-box thinking of the status quo.

Cathy McGuire said...

I love reading these posts! Best discussion on these topics that I've encountered in a long while. One point that I didn't see (tho possibly missed) is that our "walking away" from the small town communities due to the new increased ability to re-locate (combined with job pressures) is that towns (not to mention cities!)are now much more heterogeneous, which lessens the likelihood of forming local communities... I'd been musing about this from another angle, and realized your concepts overlapped.

What I'd been pondering was whether our "inclusivity" and insistence on "tolerance" (which is a noble and mostly wonderful utopian ideal) might in some ways be wearing down community and in fact backfiring. I wondered whether it would be better to go back to more homogeneous towns and areas (and I realize this is theoretical) -- say, a town that says it is anti-gay...For the record, that would be a town I wouldn't go within a 100 miles of, but that's the point -- it would be openly against my values and I'd avoid it (rather than stumbling into it and regretting it). And the people there would be less likely (maybe?) to strike out at the world if they could have their little world... maybe there'd be towns where the church bells rang for prayers... I know this happens on some level already (I just moved to a small, very right-wing town; I am not real close to any of my neighbors ;-})... but what if we just accepted that people do need to be around "their kind" and let the groups congregate and even segregate? Do we all have to have everything and every place? It's a wild thought I know... and I dont' believe that splitting off would be any excuse for unequal division of goods... but all this talk about community seems to be ignoring the very real tensions in just about every location, due to the increased pressure to accept everyone (or, perhaps, I just come from a rather politically correct location in the Pacific NW... come to think of it, my upbringing in NJ was much less than tolerant of others...)

I guess, since I agree with most that society is about to crash (whether slow or fast -- it's unsustainable), this might be one of the first things that happens: the majority "drives out" the "irritating" minority so that they can survive in the way that feels most real, most comfortable for them. Any thoughts on this?

Wrad said...

John, thank you for changing the background color to white. It makes it much easier to read for us "boomers."

christyrodgers said...

“Trying to "build community" is like trying to manufacture a tree: you get a simulacrum, nothing more.” Yes, precisely.

After admittedly only skimming this very-welcome and in-depth discussion I first want to express great gratitude for it. It is the most intelligent (clearly a moderated forum) most comprehensive, least flame-and-blame-filled discussion of this kind of topic I have yet seen. Thanks specifically for trying to link Americans, such a future-obsessed people (regardless of where we fall on the traditional political spectrum, or what our class or ethnicity is) to our history. I would only add one caveat there; much as I have also learned to find the historical example essential to a sense of human possibility, I think we still have to re-conceive how human history flows: in my view, in something like a spiral, not in circles or a straight line. So that it may actually not be enough to say “this was done before, in this society, in what seem to be even more difficult circumstances” (and really, as you yourself note, it’s the difficulty itself, the compelling need, that has always driven the move to more collectivism). We see historical patterns recur but always with crucial differences that were not previously present (time is still a one-dimensional arrow), which greatly alter what actually happens in any historical moment. In the global north we have been on a spiral farther and farther away from the material conditions that compelled more community in our forebears. There is a dawning awareness that this won’t last—but for now it still surrounds most of us, densely, almost impenetrably. But I totally agree that examples of what was once achieved collectively are still an extremely useful and inspirational thing to have—and will be more so in a time of more broadly compelling need. It is so important for modern social movements to stop reinventing the (literally) bloody wheel.

End of Part 1--sorry, much food for thought here!

christyrodgers said...

Part 2: a non-US case

I wanted to add that I saw this phenomenon of dispersal not just here in the US, the land of the lonely crowd, but in a society much closer to its own communal history, El Salvador, during and after its civil war. During the civil war the sense of community in areas that were bearing the brunt of the war (mostly rural, inhabited by poor farmers) and had chosen to ally themselves against the repressive government was intensely strong. People’s identity was so collectively defined that they astounded and inspired us with what they were able to achieve and the spirit of dignity and resilience and even joy they evoked in doing so. The carrot: they survived, on their land, with what was left of their families and their neighbors, and along the way they achieved a never-before held sense of purpose and self-worth.

After the war was over, the stick withered, but so did the carrot. When people had the opportunity to move to doing things more independently they did. There were many traumas suppressed during the war—being forced to deal with people on “your” side who’d been abusive, people who were corrupt, people who were just tedious. Once people had the ability and the economic incentive again to get further away from each other they did so.

So I want to absolutely second your acknowledgment of compelling need. In the discussion responses, while I saw a lot of excuses for our lack of community, relative freedom from material need was not often cited. Yet our blip on the historical timeline is precisely the age of the materially richest generation the earth has ever seen (in the US if not by any means in the majority of the world’s population). For now our material environment is one that still intensely reinforces our ability to avoid one another—most of us anyway. Spiritual/emotional need for community is also immensely strong and we see it returning with a vengeance, but on its own I don’t think it’s strong enough to compel most materially comfortable people to intertwine their lives very much, nor as you point out, to create particularly healthy communities if they do.

End of Part 2...

Santeri Satama said...


To give you some context, I'm currently writing a paper about (mostly missing) links between anarchy and shamanhood in anthropological and ethnografic approaches to "the original affluent societies" or native peoples, inspired greatly by experience from more local circle-meetings and other rites that share much in many aspects with Rainbow Gatherings - with which I'm familiar only through internet and anticipation of the next European Rainbow Gathering which will be hereabouts. Circle-meetings with talking stiks in turn share a lot with other dialogue-practices, and I'd like to think your blog is also one type of dialogue circle. But I don't share your sentiment that these kinds of phenomena are just fading remnants of a single hippie revolution.
The constant gripe and rumours about "insider" circles of hidden leaders nearing conspiracy theories are very common in organi(/zations)sms and gatherings that practice consensus making. The gripes are often justified, to some extent at least, so it is a well known problem that people, especially those participating in consensus circles are and should be well aware and share responsibility to keep things more open and mutual. False expectations and projections are the other side of the issue. But nobody ever said consensus building is or should be easy! :D

The starting point of this discussion about community is political and psychological, but the issue of authority and boundaries in the anarcho-spiritualistic circles I have experience from goes beyond politics and psychology, at least when defined narrowly, into the issue of holistic ecology of sustainable way of life as community of peoples sharing and participating with larger community of life and being and belonging and how this can be experienced and shared. Authority and setting boundaries for a sustainable way of life is in essence godly business and as such can come only from a sense of whole and holy.

What I'm now very vaguely thinking and sensing and suggesting is the idea growing experience of shamanhood, druidery etc. not as an individual but as a larger Circle of sharing and learning together with no formal social role of an individual or single shaman or druid in charge of rites, without hierarchos - which by no means excludes the occational role of taking public hierarchic responsibility when an individual has something meaningfull to share and knows how to avoid ego getting in the way . But I'm also all too familiar of rivalry politics of stabbing behind the back in neoshamanistis, neodruidic etc. new age circles where leadership issues of credibility together with issues of self doubt tend to rule the day and with this experience I have come to believe that way of anarchistic sharing and learning together is more fruitfull and healthy than formal hierarchies - that got us in the mess we now are. "Messiah is the one who leaves a mess behind" as U.G.Krishnamurti said. I haven't yet met a neoshaman or neodruid or any other guru that is 100 percent at home with his or her Shadow and projections and mirrors - nor do I think we should we expect such perfection from any of our beloved ones. Perfection is the worst enemy of good. :)

Aho Mitakuye Oyasin,

christyrodgers said...

Part 3:
Also wanted to cite, as others have, a sci-fi read which offers a metaphor for the “community with accepted authority and clearly defined members and non-members” paradigm/problem: John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids. Great, unromantic portrayal of a post-collapse society where two paradigms emerge, both of them fitting that description, one clearly fascistic and the other more egalitarian, anarchistic, more spontaneously evolving, if you will. Neither has effaced the other at the end of the book; egalitarianism barely hangs on by its fingernails, always threatened by authoritarianism, just like now-- go figure. Collapse is no respecter of democratic ideals, those who think "we" (whoever that is by then) will get a better shot post-collapse than we have now at achieving them, even in small communities of proximity, should read it as an extremely eloquent and still timely cautionary tale.

Anyway, thanks again. I’m so glad I found this discussion. Let’s all us thoughtful types try to ground ourselves a little more in our immediate reality and go from there, absurd and filled with abstractions as we may find that reality; it’s where we live now; it’s where we have to start.

joanhello said...

First of all, I want to link to Joreen's essay "The Tyranny of Structurelessness". The version at was written in 1996, generalized and boiled down from an early version written specifically for the feminist community in 1970, back when it was called the women's liberation movement. I think the early version, with its greater wealth of detail about how inner circles develop in theoretically egalitarian groups, is the more valuable, once you get past the specific politics of that specific time. It's at

My own experience with the early days of the Northeast Rainbow Council perfectly illustrate the way lack of a boundary between members and nonmembers encourages the tyranny of structurelessness. Rainbow Council is the meeting of those who put on the Gatherings. It is designed with the same "All are welcome, all will be treated with love and respect" super-inclusive values as the Gathering itself. The Northeast Regional group met for the first time in 1989, following the 17th national Gathering. That first meeting was relatively focused and businesslike, the first of a series aimed at putting on a regional Gathering in the Northeast, an aim successfully achieved. By the time the Council met to plan the third Northeast Regional Gathering, word was out that this was a meeting at which anyone could say anything and be certain of being listened to respectfully by a large audience. As a result, many new people showed up who had nothing to contribute but merely wanted attention. Northeast Regional Rainbow Council became a massive dysfunctional group therapy session, seldom on topic and incapable of accomplishing much of anything. All the real planning work was done that year in private conversations among the longtime volunteers, deliberately bypassing the official Council meetings. This was the last year in which I participated.

(To be continued...)

joanhello said...

Part of the problem with conventional neighborhoods and villages/towns, based on physical proximity, is that membership is determined by money. One buys one's way in. There's no sorting for intention, responsibility or trustworthiness. One advantage that tribal villages had over their modern counterparts is that tribal groups, being economically collective and recognizing no property basis for membership, could banish people who made themselves a burden on the emotional life of the group.

At the same time, tribal peoples generally had structures separate from their decision-making apparatus for dealing with emotional issues. Americans tend to have their heads in the sand when it comes to the emotional needs of groups, to deny the existence of such needs or to label any concern for them as "California woo-woo" or some similar euphemism for malingering. This illustrates the strong military element in American culture, focused on material results, contemptuous of less tangible concerns. On the other hand, when a contemporary group gets Californian enough to set up a structure for working out emotional needs, the members generally find that the handling of practical matters is greatly improved. The activist organizer Starhawk, when asked what she thought of the increasing popularity of 12-step programs in her community, reported that political meetings got down to business much more quickly.

One of the commonplaces of the intentional communities movement is that, of those set up in the Sixties, the secular ones offering a lot of individual freedom and few or no rules have mostly collapsed, while many of the ones with a spiritual basis are still around. More than one writer on the subject has attributed this difference to overt structure in the spiritual communities (encompassing clear distinctions of membership and some principle of authority even when these were not mentioned explicitly) and lack of it in the secular ones. However, it is my contention that care for the emotional needs of the group, usually incorporated into the spiritual practices, plays at least as great a role in giving spiritual communities greater resilience.

joanhello said...

I find it interesting how many poor and middle-class people, at least in the US, identify with the upper echelons of our economy, and how stridently opposed they are to tax increases on such people (e.g.). Makes no sense to me.

Not all antitax conservatives have thought this through, maybe most haven't, but the ultimate basis of their opposition to big government is a recognition that a government social safety net is an effective competitor with, and therefore a direct threat to, the older social safety nets based in the church and the family. These two institutions can claim to be havens in a heartless world only to the extent that the world remains heartless. Church and family help is also generally conditional on behavior, distinguishing between "deserving" and "undeserving" recipients and therefore functioning as a means of controlling individual behavior, pressuring people to stay in the "deserving" category. The trouble with government largesse is that it's available to everybody and thus it undermines the authority of church and family and respect for tradition in general.

John Michael Greer said...

I note from my site stats that four thousand people have read this post in the last month. On the off chance anyone knows why, I'd be delighted to find out!

Bogatyr said...

JMG, I'll suggest (not entirely facetiously) it's because this is probably the one of your posts that I most needed to revisit at this moment in time, and your question appearing in my RSS feed drew my attention back to it. The universe can work in odd ways!

More seriously, I suspect it's because there's a shift in attitudes underway. People are beginning to understand that the state is increasingly absent or adversarial, and that they're going to need backup from somewhere else in the times that are coming...