Why Do Communities Fail?

Gary Moffatt

I have previously set forth the viewpoint that the state, as an agent of corporations, is too heavily committed to third world exploitation and arms building to be dissuaded by protest, and that those of us concerned with peace should therefore concentrate on self and public education and on building an alternative society as a model for basic social change.

So how do we create this alternative society? Among community builders there is a pretty wide consensus as to the sort of society we want to build (participatory democracy, renewable energy, non-sexist work distribution etc.) and on the ultimate goal of a society based on confederations of small communities practising these ideals.

Yet most of the attempts to create such communities, or even the affinity groups leading up to them, collapse in a few months or a few years, and even the successful ones have failed to establish the sort of networking that would enable communities to work together towards common ends.

This inability to retain commitment to one another is by no means unique to the community building movement; marriages and other forms of human association are also hard-hit. But the movement to create an alternative society will likely be stymied until we come to grips with this situation. Part of the problem doubtless lies in an over-optimism which causes those taking part to waive some of the fundamental prerequisites for selecting companions in the venture, i.e.:

-A shared analysis of what social change is needed and how the members of the group will work and live together to bring it about.

-Common agreement to a written set of principles outlining what the group expects from each member and what each member expects from the group.

-A mutual understanding of the conditions of living together; what standard of cleanliness will be maintained, how work will be divided, extent to which individual privacy will be maintained, degree of communalization of property and so forth.

-A commonly accepted strategy for furthering the group's ends.

Without these prior agreements, a group's chances of working together over a long period of time for common goals are most remote. The difficulties of finding enough people to rent a house or work a piece of land often tempt those starting such a project to waive some or all of these requirements. The easier it is to get a group of people together, the more easily it will fall apart in midstream
when it fails to meet all the members' diversified expectations.

Meeting these conditions by no means assure the group's success, however. A second set of problems, harder to define and deal with than lack of consensus about means and goals but equally destructive of attempts to create social alternatives, comes into play when the members have achieved consensus. Basically, these problems are rooted in our present society's stress on individualism and competition, and consequent failure to produce people capable of socializing effectively. From the paternalistic family unit through the school system and into the social and working mainstream, we learn to compete for parental affection, high grades, good jobs, social recognition (through skill in sports and in manipulating others) and ultimately for power the ability to get others to do what we want them to. We learn to limit our acquisitiveness only by the need to manipulate those around us and avoid turning off by excessive displays of greed. With this background, it is natural that we relate to our social change projects largely in term s of the ego-gratification that we have been taught to use. We have also taught to mask our true feelings, basically to distrust even those we wish to be close to , so well that many of us tend to pull away from a group whose interrelationship is becoming so intense that the members find it necessary to discuss and explore some of their feelings.

How we can combat this tendency of our social conditioning to prevent us from combining effectively to create real social alternatives? There are no easy answers. We must work out a process for evaluating our relationships to one another and develop a field of study of individual-group relationships. Gathering the information already generated in this field by such group as Movement for a New Society would be one of the tasks of the study of economic alternatives I have proposed for OPIRG and ANVA, and will undertake with a smaller group if they turn it down.

It is curious that one of the few interesting films of the past decade devotes its entire length to a conversation between to men in a swanky restaurant. The protagonist, Andre, has come to the same conclusion through experiments in mysticism and surrealist theatre that I have through political activism, that the great majority of people have been so numbed by the onrush of events in the 20th century that they have become robotized and incapable of thinking about what they are doing. Andre seems to regard this condition as irreversible, and is drawn to quasi-mystical communities such as Findhorn which, like the medieval monasteries, will preserve humanity's precious knowledge against the onslaught of the new dark age. Personally I'm not so sure it's irreversible (people aren't inherently stupid; our society condition them that way) and am less attracted to Finhorn with its commercialism and fairies in the bottom of the garden than to those communities where the human are relying on their own efforts to demonstrate that human-scaled societies can work. Once more of these experiments start succeeding, hopefully greater numbers of people will be attracted to them and the real social alternative will emerge. But to make this happen we're got to learn from our mistakes and not repeat them every time we set up another group living situation.



Subject Headings

Activism/Radicalism  Alternative Lifestyles  Alternatives  Communities  Community Building  Economic Alternatives
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