Monday, July 21, 2014

Creating Community wherever you are, aka copping out

I often hear the claim from people that intentional communities are misguided attempts at creating community and that they find it better to just create community in the city, usually around some community gardening (Annie Leonard). I think that this is a copout, and what they are really saying is that it is easier to just continue living the way they already are, and that creating a real culture change is just too hard.

It is useful to distinguish these two goals: creating culture change and meeting one's own needs for community. People who stay in the city and try to create community with their neighbors or with people outside of their socio-economic station (as long as they don't share a household with them) are working hard on meeting their own needs for community and alleviating white guilt, but they have effectively given up on culture change. The latter is impossible given their choice as I argue further down. People who form relatively isolated intentional communities in rural areas are working hard on both fronts, but they at least have a chance at culture change.

The meme of diversity is often brought up, but I think this is a red herring. Diversity within a group is a nice ideal but not a good strategy for culture change, as history and evolutionary biology shows. All successful intentional communities have been unified about some central ideal and disunity always leads to failure. Where diversity is useful is between different groups, or within a group once the change sought for has been achieved. Diversity's main advantage within a group is as a way to assuage white guilt.

It is true that one can have a measure of community in the midst of this culture, but it will never be as deep as what is possible with a measure of cultural isolation such as some ICs are trying to implement. The reason is that many ICs are striving for much more than community. They are striving for a new culture.

It has been my claim that cultural speciation, as opposed to slow cultural adaptation (and the adaptation that is most likely to happen in our case is to dwindling petroleum), can't happen without two necessary ingredients: some measure of cultural isolation, and a change in a high level master meme. Adherents of the Religion of Progress (ROP- offer up three supposed counterexamples to the first ingredient: The feminist movement, civil rights in the US, and the advent of the internet and cell phones.

But upon close examination these are actually not counterexamples, but examples of how cultural speciation doesn't happen. The feminist movement has not achieved a more nurturing, partnership oriented culture. It has simply allowed women at the center of the US-european empire to participate in patriarchy with its culture of domination, selfishness and fragmentation. It has accelerated the decline of the family and community started after the industrial revolution. And it has turned the eye of Sauron unto divorced dads, “terrorists” and other scapegoats. If there ever has been any male privilege, there is none now—quite the opposite. Men, especially divorced dads, are the whipping posts of our culture, left mostly without meaningful work, scorned and abused. What there was before industrialization (and the immense, squandered reserve of fossil fuels that made it possible) was a gender-based specialization of labor, based mostly on biological proclivities. It was a true partnership in most cultures. With industrialization, this division of labor became unnecessary and unfair, but the root of the problem was not gender inequality, but the means of production brought about by industrialization. In effect, the feminist revolution failed at both criteria necessary for cultural speciation. First it failed to form isolated small communities where immunity from the larger culture's memetic drift could be achieved (perhaps the separatist feminist would have fared better had they put their philosophy into action). Second, it failed to change a master meme, which would have made the fitness barrier to speciation much smaller. Love, cooperation, a domestic economy and nurture would have perhaps been such memes, but equality in mainstream culture isn't.

Similarly, civil rights for afro-americans left no vestige of African cultures that may have still been present in Afro-American communities. Instead, African culture got subsumed by the larger American culture, as always happens when cultural isolation is not achieved. So now we have female CEOs of rapacious corporations, and Afro-American presidents of the world's greatest empire.

As to cell phones and the internet, these are more examples of adaptation than speciation. Most people have become more lazy, more comfortable, less able to make commitments, more shallow, but I fail to see how this constitutes a new culture. It is ROP in overdrive.

There are other examples of what Paul Goodman called “missed revolutions”, such as pacifism, real democracy, agrarianism, new urbanism and organic farming. All of them miss either the first, the second or both ingredients.

There are also plenty of examples cultures that actually survived for a long time (or still survive), because both ingredients were adopted. There are two kinds: those that exist before western culture makes contact and are able to maintain isolation, and those that bud off from western culture. Here are a few:
  1. The early Christians, especially the eastern jewish communities/churches, which kept some measure of isolation from the Roman Empire, and did not get subsumed into it, but died out eventually because they too could not maintain sufficient isolation, or perhaps because they were too dependent on the second coming, which is not a master meme.
  2. The Amish
  3. The Hutterites
  4. Numerous monastic orders, mostly Buddhist and Christian ones.
  5. A few native tribes in New Zealand, Asia, Africa, Pacific Islands and South America.
  6. The Basque, who have gradually been assimilated into western culture, but persisted in keeping their culture for a long time.

As far as I know, there are 3 existing models of cultural speciation:
  1. The ROP model, where every culture eventually “evolves” into western culture, which is the pinnacle of creation. Western culture supposedly continues to evolve towards something better and better.
  2. The Toynbee/Spengler model, expounded on recently by John Michael Greer, where new cultures rise up from the ashes (or at least the downswing) of dead (or dying) cultures, and eventually die themselves.
  3. My model, in which cultures can bud off from other cultures when both some cultural isolation and a high level master meme is changed.
The ROP model is not data-based, or rather it is based on a myopic view of history, only looking at what has happened since industrialization as having any significance, with everything before being in the realm of dark ages and barbarians (with the exception of Greek and Christian culture, which “evolved” to us). Most biologists today agree that evolution does not happen in this way, where humans (or another species) are “more evolved” than another species. Adaptation is a part of evolution, but not a way to form a new species.

The Toynbee/Spengler model certainly is supported by history, but it misses the two ingredients in my model (certainly a culture arising in a dark age, or even in the decline part of the previous culture starts off with some geographic and historic isolation from the previous dying or dead culture, and it changes a master meme or else dies out). It also misses cultures which continue to survive without decline. Perhaps those do not count as civilizations in this model. It also seems to me, though I am not sure, that this model considers the high level meme of Empire to not be mutable.

My model is based not only on history, but on evolutionary biology. In evolutionary biology, there are examples of species which do not start off as a small isolated population budding off from the mother species, but they are rare (so-called chrono-speciation). I don't think cultural speciation is much different than biological speciation, with genes replaced by memes, and vertical gene transfer replaced by horizontal meme transfer. It is also akin to sexual gene transfer, in that two people combine memes with a somewhat random assortment of the mutated and unmutated meme. In this model it is possible to get out of the cycle of decline and fall of Empires by mutating that meme.


  1. I.C. -- Interesting stuff. I got here after reading your comment at JMG's 12/03/14 column as well as his response. I discovered years ago that he was not sympathetic to thinking about forming a more comprehensive community. When I mentioned something similar, he indicated that it would have to be based in religion.

    Lately, I have reached the conclusion that the institution that you talk about would be a college that is as self sufficient as possible. see


    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Hi Matt, Yes, JMG does not like to have to cooperate with anyone on anything too concrete and close to home, except possibly his wife. I think it is part of celtic culture... Also he is not optimistic about getting funding to do anything really useful and rational, which he may be right about. He might also be right about needing to form a religion to base it on. We are thinking that Elinor Ostrom could be one of the Gurus of said religion.

      I looked at your website. Might be possible to collaborate. I highly value education and research. The college you suggest seems to be focused mostly on education?