It was a delight to read so many thoughtful writers commenting on John Michael Greer’s article on Community. Although it was a while ago, I thought I would add a my own comments here. This will be a two-part post.
The Community of “Fun” and the Hunger of the Middle Class
Real “community” doesn’t produce the same warm, fuzzy feelings it did at summer camp (whether the sleep-away or the ‘Dirty Dancing’ kind). It also lacks the excitement and spirit of your high school athletics team. No one has the job of orienting you and helping you make new friends, or settling disputes when all hell breaks lose. If you try to “create community” with fun group exercises and neat activities, it is tough to do it in any meaningful way, because those already active in the community don’t need it (but will probably show up anyway…they get involved in everything!), and those who aren’t active, don’t. There’s no ‘instant-clan,’ unless organizers manage to keep that ‘summer camp’ feeling of fun. That requires a lot of fossil fuel, and let’s face it, when the going gets tough, do we really want people who demand a good time before they’ll keep showing up? No, while fun might bring them in, I believe the serious among us need more than entertainment to stay involved.
The excitement of Transition Towns suits the middle-class because they need to have a feeling of community more than other social classes. Perhaps it isn’t the working-class “Nascar” families that Kunstler rails against, who’ll become the biggest losers of this economic calamity, but middle and upper-middle class professionals. We’ve been brought up on the notion of ‘success’ as an ever expanding paycheck, and a ladder leading us ever higher. We’ve chosen education and career ‘advancement’ that has kept us moving from place to place. Many of us have moved from good neighborhoods to better neighborhoods, never quite stopping long enough to know the people around us deeply or invest in one single “patch of ground.” And “success” has locked us into an increasing amount of monthly debt, requiring more, not less time at work.
The Tie That Binds
The fabric, the very woven connection between people, between parents and their children, between families and extended families, is a loss that can’t be bought with the extra incomes and in fact, often stretch this very fabric. We’ve offered the kids “quality time,” iPods and high-speed internet instead of belly-to-belly conversations, or expecting them to be needed working members of our clan. These same kids are, themselves, often fried from years of being shuffled off from school to after-school, to sports and then to musical lessons. Working-class parents can’t afford those kind of extra-curricula activities for their kids. Kids are sent back home to the ‘old neighborhood’ and are watched by grandparents or the neighbors. Professionals might call this “sub-standard” care, because it lacks the developmentally appropriate toys and the video reading programs, but it has other benefits few people talk about. The kids get to know the people who they live around, play around, and eventually grow into adulthood around. They marry neighborhood sweethearts and high school football stars. Sure, the houses are smaller, but nobody cares if you put in a garden on your front lawn, or repair your beater car in your driveway.
Necessity brings the working-class closer, where they are forced to get to know (and sometimes hate) the very people they are required to live among. Most don’t have the ‘luxury’ of moving away to a better area, as they get older and more experienced in their jobs. They aren’t trying to “look good” to maintain some notion of professional status. They complain about their parents or relatives “knowing their business,” but studies tell us they are healthier mentally (but not physically) than their wealthier counterparts, who barely know their families or their kids after the parental equivalence of “speed dating.” Yes, the middle-class needs an intense injection of something called “community,” if only once a month, and all the better if it happens with people who share a similar class perspective, a similar philosophy and similar fears.
The working classes, take part-time work to stay home more to raise children not because they are more devoted parents, but because few women of that class can make enough to justify the expense. The additional salary often barely covers the cost of child care, clothing, and other necessities connected to full-time work, so they work at night when someone is home, or during school hours. For many, this ‘one and a half earner’ household will change as children grow older, and can be left alone, but the connections to their neighborhoods will be secure by then.
The women aren’t often left lonely in their working-class neighborhoods during the day. They have friends around, family around, to contact and ask for help. This is even more true of the very poor. I know I generalize, and it isn’t true for everyone in that class, but I believe it is true that necessity creates community. If you are a single mother in an office job, there is no point working, if all of your salary goes to childcare. The more you can get help, the more successfully you can survive. But that help, when it comes from local neighborhood people rather than institutions, provides “community” connections that can be quite valuable.
Work as Community
Anyone who’s watched television shows like “The Office” knows for certain that co-workers can provide their own type of ‘community,’ but instead of summer camp, it can feel more like prison camp. If you work in the same small town you also live in, chances are that you experience a heightened sense of community, whether that’s a good feeling or not. Before fossil fuel, it was common to work where you lived, because traveling more than a mile or two every day just didn’t make sense. Now adays, it is more typical for people to travel one way 16 miles taking 26 minutes or more to do so. In a rural area, it can easily be twice that.
Whether you like your co-workers or not, chances are you ‘have to’ be there every day (if you want to keep it), and ‘have to’ get along, if just superficially. Like summer camp, alliances form, back-stabbing happens, and people help out their friends, while tattling on their enemies. This happens in real communities too.
Companionship, Common Need, and The Favor Bank
While work can provide a sense of community, employment lacks the sine qua non of true community life, and I’d define that as ‘companionship’ and ‘common need.’ These two things can happen at work, for example when your best buddy covers for you when you’re late, but the situation does not automatically pull for it, as a condition of employment.
I agree with Greer that most people get the ‘companionship’ part, but lack a clear grasp of how essential ‘common need’ is. Most people hate to be ‘dependent’ upon other people for ‘favors.’ Despite the world functioning interpersonally as a ‘favor bank,’ we’ve shrunk down the “borrowers” and “lenders” to as few people as possible. The poor and the working class have an extended favor bank out of necessity. It is a point of pride for those shifting to the higher classes, that they don’t have to rely on their families or friends for stuff anymore. They don’t have to borrow things, they can buy their own. They can take a shuttle to the airport, so they don’t have to ask for a ride. We have “professionals” take care of our kids, instead of grandparents or neighbors. A pity.
People Who Need People are Lucky?
Religious teachings say “it is better to give than to receive” and social and clinical psychology has proven that to be absolutely true for emotional and health reasons. The average person who “gets” but never “gives back” suffers terribly. You can make an old person sick just by never allowing them to return the favor. If you want to kill a person off quickly, make them totally dependent on you, and prevent them from reciprocating in any meaningful way. Nursing homes do this. Always do for them, and if they try to do back, refuse their help, or treat it as if what they give you is worthless, lame or even harmful. You can watch their health deteriorate after a while.
This may be why many folks work hard never to be ‘indebted’ to anyone. They can’t stand that feeling of being given to, without immediately evening the score. They always have to ‘pay the check.’ It’s one of the reasons why professional ‘do-gooders’ are resented by the very people they thought should be grateful. So the give and take of mutual indebtedness is best, instead of one-way.
The Poverty of Affluence
Orlov points out correctly that communities form quickly and effortlessly among the poor, but they also form quickly and internationally among those who have lived with several generations of uber-wealth. The multi-generational super-rich, who never knew want, suffer the poverty of needing nothing. This affliction is so uncomfortable, it is only relieved by being around other multi-generational super-rich families who suffer the same affliction. See the documentary “Born Rich.”
The very wealthy used to promote the old-fashioned feeling of being “fortunate” to be rich and “responsible” to give back to a society that made them that way. But alas, giving away wealth is very hard to do if what you are hoping for is true gratitude. Giving away wealth publicly exposes the individual to the risk of being taken advantage of. Few people want to reveal their great wealth to anyone who does not also share their great fortune.
We humans tend to regard a healthy (tax beneficial) endowment from a very wealthy person as less meaningful than a smaller endowment from a person of lesser means. It is a lot easier to demonstrate friendship materially if you are poor than if you are extremely wealthy. No matter how much you give, the belief is that you could have given more. While communities welcome the contributions of our wealthiest members, there remains the belief that this is the natural order of things: The rich have a “duty” to give and the rest of us have a “right” to receive. Who we define as “wealthy” varies with our social class.
Community does have within it the requirements for reciprocity, but this reciprocity can’t be applied in equal measure between people of all social classes. People of means are expected to give “until it hurts” (and we imagine it never does), while the those of lesser means give smaller contributions that seem to mean more. We assume it is going to “hurt,” even if their contribution is relatively small.
Poverty, Greed and Reciprocity
What about the person who feels entitled to get and never to give? Humans like to help others, but we don’t expect this to go on one-way forever, and we don’t expect those who “get” as displaying an obvious sense of entitlement. What’s returned doesn’t have to be material, it can be given in mutual support, time, or attention.
In addition, often those who feel most entitled to “get,” never quite feel that they get enough. These people risk social ostracism in tight-knit communities, although they might get by more easily in larger cities.
But how do we know who “gets” without returning the gesture?
We’ll cover that in our next segment…