Community

By Gary Moffatt


The time has come to start a community. The purpose of this article is to explain why and how.

Small Communes Not Enough

In recent years, a number of experiments in communal and co-operative living have been undertaken; for the sake of linguistic simplicity we will refer to these as “communes” even though a vast majority have operated under co-operative rather than communal principles, i.e. all property has not been communally owned. We will used the word “commune” to designate a small group of people living together which is not large enough to supply all its own essential services; a group large enough to do this we will call a “community”.

The modern communes differ in several respects from communal living experiments of the 19th century and the depression-ridden 1930s; for instance, they have been mainly started by young people, seeking to lower rather than raise their material living standards; drugs have provided a strong motivating force both to communes which encourage their use and communes which prohibit them; much fewer people participate in each commune than in the earlier experiments.

Last May, Alternate Society announced plans to study the extent to which these communes have attained economic independence by means of a questionaire to be mailed to all those we knew of, over 100 in all. Only three or four communes returned the questionaire, a fact in itself indicates an absence of significant concern with the issue. However, on the basis of personal observation it is probably safe to say that very few counter-culture activities or their own work as a commune. They are started with money earned at straight jobs, and when the money runs out they must return to the straight jobs, which in the case of a rural commune usually entails leaving the commune either temporarily or permanently. Exceptions are those few communes which exist on charity (money from home or a government grant).In short, the communes of today are financially dependent upon the economic system they despise and seek alternatives to. This situation might be tolerable if the people involved could expect that their present sacrifices were bringing them closer to the day when they would be financially independent and be able to devote their full energy to the work of the commune, but this is rarely the case. One reason for this is that it is extremely hard to make marginal farming pay, and still harder to find a viable means of economic support if one’s commune is in the city.Another is that small communes rarely attain the inherent dynamic which would enable them to stay together for more than a relatively short period of time. People who enter communes often find that their commitment to the group and to communal living in general is not as great as they originally supposed. This is particularly true if (as is generally the case among young people from middleclass families) they have an attractive alternative to remaining with the group. A waning of enthusiasm among a few of the people in such a group can have a very contagious effect on the rest. In a group so small that one or two people are indespensable, the loss of one or two people may well trigger the break- up of the group as a whole.

Even if successful, communes do not meet the needs of large numbers of people who feel the need for alternatives-modes of living. Part of the reason for this is social – if the living arrangements are made by closely knit affinity groups, it is difficult or impossible for anyone not part of such a group to establish himself in a commune. If people who do not know each other very well agree to live together, they frequently find themselves temperamentally unsuited for the close personal interdependence which such arrangements require (the closer they come to the sort of communal living which offers a real alternative to the present system, the greater this interdependence and the ensuing problems becomes).

Need For Community

Nonetheless, the number of communal experiments is constantly increasing. Some communes do succeed, and frequently the need for alternative lifestyle causes participants in an unsuccessful commune to cling to it. There is no need in dwelling here upon our reasons for needing an alternative to the present social system; those who consider it salvageable will have to test this belief in the light of their own experiences. Not infrequently, American political refugees who come to Toronto are so impressed by that city’s absence of many of the overt causes of civil disorder in the USA that they come to take for granted its continued ability to remain viable. Never mind that an 18-year-old youth is beaten to death by Don Jail guards or a 67-year-old woman freezes to death after Hydro cuts off her heat; such occurrences are accepted by Toronto’s counter-community with virtually the same complacency that middle class displays.

It is not our purpose to try to convince anyone that the city as we know it today is not a viable mechanism; for the moment, our chief concern is to work with those who accept this proposition in developing an alternative. If people-power groups can Stop Spadina and stave off Toronto’s deterioration for a few years, they will play an essential role- we can’t develop an alternative for millions of people overnight. Hopefully, we will retain close contact with people-power groups in the city and be constantly aware of one another’s progress. Their role is create and heighten public awareness of the need to restore to their own hands the power to work out their own destinies; ours is to forge ahead and attempt to discover the means whereby this can be done. To those who consider this approach elitist, we can only reply that what can be made to work for a handful of people today may be made workable for large numbers tomorrow. If we’re lucky, that tomorrow may come before urban decline reaches the point of plague, famine or all-out civil war. The time factor does not permit us to wait until large numbers of people have become convinced; by then it may be too late. Most people tend to cling to their situation as long as it remains tenable, even if it slowly and subtly becomes less tenable year by year, rather than the risk of experimenting with something new. After a handful of pioneers have proved new ways viable, they may set out on the blazed trail-until then,all we have to offer is theories.

Why Communities Have Failed

To date, Alternate Society has published considerable material on why communities have failed. Participants have written on the failure of Cold Mountain (vol.2 no.5) and Sun Rise Hill (vol.3 no.3), while my own studies have covered the history of American experiments in community (Collective Heritage, vol.2 no.5) and intentional community in western civilization (Community Heritage, vol.3 no.6) On the basis of these studies, it would appear that the failure of previous attempts to organize communities in North America have been less an irreversible act of Providence than the result of mistakes made in their organization. The fact that some communities did no fail- the Israeli kibbutzim, certain religious communities in the USA- would appear to bear this out. The mistakes which proved fatal to the early communities may be summarized as follows: Lack of common purpose: Gordon Yaswen states in his Sun Rise Hill postmortem: “communities of people who come to community in pursuit of something other than community seem to have a better chance of survival than those where Community itself is the goal.” This may be either the furtherance of a common cause or individual pursuits to which community life will be conducive. Most of the 19th century communities which failed- the Owen experiments, the Labadists, the Tolstoy communities, the Fourierists, Orbiston, Hopedale- had advertised widely for members and broughtogether people whose only common denominator was a desire for community. Too-open membership: Owen advertised far and wide for people to come to his settlement. So did the authors of the Cherrington fiasco of 1969. Many of those who answered were unprepared to accept some of the assumptions Owen and Cherrington had made, particularly the concept that they as the main financial contributors to the settlements should retain decision making power. Those involved in the Cherrington experiment were lucky enough to learn that their differences were irreconcilable before actually putting forth the energy to start a colony; the Owenite groups had to actually live together for a few months before this became clear. Poor choice of land: This was one of the main reasons the clarion colony failed, and had an adverse effect on the original Rappite and Owenite settlements. Excessive reliance on strong leader: The settlements at Ephrate and Oneida prospered as long as the original leader remained with them, but not long thereafter (though Oneida did continue without community.) A similar fate overtook the Rappites and the Sons of Peace community at Sharon, Ontario. Bad public relations: The Taborites, Anabaptists and Diggers were dispersed (and in the first two cases massacred) because the surrounding community, was not prepared to tolerate them. A few centuries later, the Mormons were driven from Illinois for similar reasons.Obviously communities should try to establish themselves only in places where they can have a reasonable expectation of peaceful co-existence with their neighbours. Excessive dependence on people outside the community: The Spa Fields congregation was forced to break up when the leader’s employers threatened to deprive him of his livelihood, and the Ralahine experiment failed when the owner of the land gambled it away. Dictatorship by founders: The Owenite, Moravian and lcarian settlements collapsed largely because the founders pursued an authoritarian policy which many members found unacceptable. Failure to transfer ideals to younger generation: In recent times, this has caused the break-up of the Shaker community (after over a century’s successful operation) and caused severe problems to the Bruderhof and the Israeli kibbutzim. This problem is more difficult to overcome than the above-mentioned ones, all of which suggest obvious remedies.

Axioms Of Community

Based upon the preceding observations, it would seem that a modern attempt to form community should follow the following guidelines:

1. The participants should have some degree of prior acquaintanceship. Therefore, the first call for interested people to come together (which is the purpose of this article) should occur at least a year before the community becomes a physical reality.

2. All decisions regarding the community should be made by participatory democracy and consensus, with divisions of opinion settled by compromise or yielding on personal opinion for the greater good of the community. If the group cannot reach consensus there is no basis for a community. Whether there is such a basis should be established before the community is commenced.

3. Since it is unlikely that all members of the community will have participated in its planning from the beginning, those who become involved at a later stage should expect to accept whatever consensus has already been reached unless this consensus should shift at a later time.

4. The cost of establishing the community should be very carefully calculated in advance, and include enough funds to keep the community alive until it can become economically self-sufficient. Applications for financial aid should of course be made to the government and whatever private sources seem likely to respond, but under no circumstances should the community rely on such grants. This means that each participant should be prepared to chip in his share of the cost.

5. There must also be a carefully understood agreement as to the responsibilities of the individual to the group and vice-versa.

6. The cult of personal leadership should be avoided, perhaps by delegating responsibilities by lottery and rotating them frequently.

7. The group starting the community should include people with as wide a variety of skills as possible. This does NOT mean that labour will be specialized, but simply that each person will have the opportunity of learning the various skills from somebody knowledgeable.

An Alternative to Urban Living

We now pass from axioms which would seem applicable to any community attempting to establish itself in the light of failures of past experiments to a more theoretical discussion of the purposes of the particular community we would like to help start. Although it is anticipated that the community will start in a rural area, this does not necessarily indicate a back- to-the-land philosophy. As suggested earlier, there seems considerable evidence that small rural communes have failed either to become economically independent or to satisfy the personal needs of their members on a long-term basis. The attractiveness of isolation from one’s fellow man, however evident from the city, begins to pall after months or years of being experienced. Even if there is enough land for significant numbers of people to go back to(a doubtful proposition), it is very questionable whether attempting to return to a pioneer way of life is an adequate response to the problems of the 20th century. We must try not to throw technology out the window, but to have it serve man rather than the other way round. It is probable that this challenge can only be met in areas of fairly high population density. For these reasons, the eventual development of a large community is envisualized. Although the initial group may consist only 100 men, women and children, enough land should be acquired to make future expansion possible as soon as the community has become firmly established. Both the original process of getting established and the future expansion should be very carefully planned in advance. Particular care will have to be taken in the following areas: Choice of land. Land should be chosen where future expansion will be possible and the community will not be menaced by hostility of neighbours. The community’s need to grow a significant proportion of its own food must also be a consideration. Architecture. There must be a study to determine what kind of housing will supply maximum comfort for minimum capital outlay. Also, regardless of how few buildings are originally put up, they must be seen as the start of a model community. Therefore the eventual pattern for such a community must be planned in advance, with considerations of comfort, ecology and aesthetics. Diet. To stay together, the community must be adequately fed. The cost of doing this until the community achieves self-sufficiency must be carefully calculated in advance, and agreement reached as to the nature of meals. Such controversies as vegetarianism and who does the cooking must be worked out in advance.

First published in Alternate Society, 1972