Tuesday, August 2, 2011

critique of amish society

Whenever thinking people encounter my proposals for local economies, they point out that this already exists with the amish, and why not go join them. Though there are many commendable things about amish culture (which I will discuss later), I want to explain why as a whole it does not appeal to me.

First of all, the amish are in Karl Popper's terms, a closed society. That means that they do not tolerate critique, that they are not open to other ways of doing things and other beliefs. A while ago, I saw a documentary in which an amish born therapist described how he was rudely attacked by an amish elder for having questions about something that was not up for questioning. I cherish the open aspect of our culture, as imperfect as it is (and open to improvement). Perhaps the amish are not totally closed, but change takes much longer in amish culture. Since not all change is for the better, perhaps that is not such a bad thing.

Some leftists will point out that our society may not be that much more open than the amish. Leftist critiques of our culture have pointed out that the kind of change that happens in our culture is superficial or negative, and that dissent can only go so far. Fashion and technology change, but the mode of production, consumption and ownership of goods has not changed in a while. One can critique all sorts of things about our economic system, but at the end of the day one is forced to participate in it or live in demoralizing and humiliating conditions. Of course it is not a black or white proposition and a minimal amount of participation is possible, without having to live in dire conditions. Nevertheless I think that the amount of influence most people have on their external circumstances is small, and the open aspect of our culture is not that helpful to change that (people who have been through state communism and fascism should read Erich Fromm's Escape From Freedom before they disagree). Where the open aspect of our society makes more of a difference is to people's internal psychological states.

Second, it seems to me that the amish are rather subdued and tame. They have eliminated the extremes of human emotions in favor of a calm middle ground. They do not suffer from depression, but neither do they have ecstasy.

Third, the amish are not strictly a local economy, even for basic needs. They do trade with the global economy, sometimes pretending that they are selling their own products when it might be manufactured partially in China (I saw an advertizement for an amish made wood stove and when researching it more closely, the stove was made in China, and only a stove addition was amish made). They employ power tools and electricity from the global economy in their workshops.

Another critique of amish culture is their blinders to the effects of uncontrolled reproduction. They are starting to feel the effects of a finite land base as more and more young men have to take jobs in “english” factories instead of farming. Perhaps the meme of uncontrolled reproduction is somehow linked to the meme of a closed society. If the amish meme network were able to propagate itself better memetically, perhaps it would not need to propagate itself as much genetically. Perhaps unbridled reproduction is a parasitic meme in humans, increasing it's own fitness and that of the population in the short run, but hurting itself and the population in the long run.

Back to the commendable aspects of amish culture mentioned at the beginning of this article. There are two I want to discuss:
1. Intimate community and
2. Long-term community sustainability.

Is it possible that one of the necessary ingredients for both of these desirable aspects is a closed society? Having a foundation of values (usually religious) certainly seems to help form community intimacy, and prevent the ideological conflicts that lead to people leaving and communities breaking apart. I think this is the same issue in committed couple relationships (usually marriage) and possibly in larger groups of people such as nation states. I believe, but do not have empirical evidence, that though a non-negotiable foundation can be helpful for intimacy and sustainability, that love and commitment could form an equally strong foundation. And that a foundational belief could be the belief in openness and ability to question everything, in a loving, or at least civil way, with a desire to improve, not just to critique.


  1. Beautiful, Iuval. This is well-reasoned, and I would love to discuss it further with you, but I don't have any outstanding critiques of what you've said. I have things I wonder about, like, is depression/ecstasy really better than a calm middle ground? Perhaps the latter comes from a certain kind of repression of the full spectrum of possible human experience, but who's to say that experiencing everything to its fullest is really the best thing life has for us? Maybe that's the romantic's dream, but maybe those able and willing to restrain their most extreme emotions ultimately have the stabler and happier life, even if not ecstatic.
    Another thing I wonder about is your final paragraph. Your idea is very enticing to me, but I wonder. I guess I wonder because of my limited faith in the capability of us humans. How many of us, especially as you widen the circle beyond a committed couple, will be able to hold to one another on a foundation of love and commitment without a more concrete (such as religious or political) system to bind us together? I hope you are right. I think it is the future of humanity, if humanity has a future.
    ps. I am attracted to the idea of slow change and am glad you acknowledge its value, even as you question whether it can get us to where you think we should go. I wonder if the Amish, despite their lived commitment to slow change, have let the quick change of our technological culture creep in through the back door (as you describe) and failed to continue to challenge our system in profound ways. Maybe the real problem of the "tameness" of the Amish is not in their lack of depression/ecstasy (and I think you should interview a few Amish about that) but in their lack of bold confrontation of our culture. They were tired of being persecuted in Europe, I understand that, but maybe it's time for them to become revolutionary again, if they want to maintain the integrity of their witness--both to the world and to their children--maybe they have been too content to hold to their principles among themselves rather than challenging and needling the larger society to repent of its excesses and abuses. I don't know. It's easy to criticize others. They can continue to lead by example if they want to, but I think their example will only be compelling if they maintain their integrity.
    I went on much longer than I expected to!

  2. I like what you say about the tameness of the amish. I think their lack of ability to challenge our culture is innate and is directly related to their lack of ability to self-critique. They are taught to accept, not to challenge. From an evolutionary perspective, openness and self-critique may have greater survival value than closedness. So I think as long as love and openness are around, we will survive, and hopefully thrive. I think either by itself is not sufficient.

    As you point out, leading by example is not sufficient, as many people do not have the context to understand the example and distort it to fit their current worldview. That is why Ghandi, Jesus and the Possibility Alliance also advocate political direct action to challenge the existing culture.

    As far as the happy and stable middle ground of human experience, I suppose it is a personal choice. But think of what the world would be like without the greatest music, art, dance, litterature, science, engineering, and mystical religious experience?! OK, the amish did produce some quilts and stoves, but not much else that comes from ecstacy and the boldness to question.

  3. Hi Iuval,
    I enjoyed reading your blog about intentional community and the Amish. Regarding what Jessica wrote above and you commented on regarding the extremes of emotion. I wonder if the premise is true that these extremes are necessary to produce good music and art. Maybe good music and art are a energy that moves through human beings and takes from through us. The extremes of emotion could be something we fabricate in our minds and attache to this energy taking form.
    Emotion in my experience, becomes more intense (extreme) when I turn away from it or crave it. When I can relax into the emotion, whatever it is, there is a kind of equilibrium that is stable and centered.

    From my conditioning in this culture I have a great attachment to all kinds of emotions, just as one loves comfort food like Mac and cheese. I never feel well when I eat it but still I eat it sometimes. The same is true with emotions:: when I indulge in them by chasing after them or pushing them away, the experience does not live up to the expectation.

    I think great music and art could come from relaxing into emotion, however it may be simpler--the art or magic may be just for you are whomever you are with in the moment.
    When I think of great art I think of art that is in museums or music that is in concert halls. It's big and we have a lot of stories in our culture about how it makes us superior to animals and other cultures. I think these kinds of stories keep us trapped in mateialistic heirarchical prisons.

    I would love to talk to you again about what you are doing in ATL but my phone crashed and I lost your number. If you still have mine would you call me?

    PS--I love this: "As you point out, leading by example is not sufficient, as many people do not have the context to understand the example and distort it to fit their current worldview. That is why Ghandi, Jesus and the Possibility Alliance also advocate political direct action to challenge the existing culture."

    Susan from Hawaii