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The Costs of Community

The point to be made in this week's post is a bit complex, and I hope that my readers will have the patience to read through an apparently unrelated story that leads to it. A few years back, I researched and wrote a book on the UFO phenomenon, somewhat unimaginatively titled The UFO Phenomenon. It was an intriguing project, not least because the acronym "UFO" has all but lost its original meaning – something seen in the sky that the witnesses don't happen to be able to identify – and become a strange attractor for exotic belief systems that fuse the modern myth of infinite progress with archaic religious visions of immanent evil and apocalyptic renewal.

Behind the myths, though, I noted the intriguing fact that the "alien spacecraft" of each decade had quite a bit in common with whatever secret aerospace projects the US military was testing at that time. From the round silver shapes of the late 1940s, when high-altitude balloons were the last word in strategic reconnaissance, to the black triangles of the early 1980s, when stealth planes were new and highly secret, the parallels were remarkable, as was the involvement of the US military in fostering the UFO furore. While plenty of things fed into the emergence of the UFO mythology, it seems pretty clear that this mythology was used repeatedly for the kind of strategic deception the Allies used to bamboozle the Germans before D-Day, to provide cover for secret aerospace projects in the US and elsewhere, not to mention plenty of less exotic situations where it was inconvenient to talk about who was flying what in whose airspace.

What interested me most about the project in retrospect was the reaction it got. I ended up on – well, let's just say a very well known radio talk show about the paranormal, and leave it at that. The host asked the usual questions, and got to the one about what I found most fascinating about the topic, so I sketched out the hypothesis I've just mentioned.

He instantly changed the subject.

I was intrigued, and as soon as the conversation allowed, I brought up the same point. He changed the subject again, so fast he must have left skidmarks on the airwaves. So I brought it up again, and the same thing happened. We had a commercial break, and after that he suddenly wanted to talk about my other books; I humored him, chatted about my other titles, worked the conversation back around to UFOs, and then brought up my hypothesis again. He changed the subject again. As soon as the next break arrived, I was off the air half an hour early, and he was inviting listeners to call in to share their favorite paranormal experiences. It's probably unnecessary to mention that I've never been invited back.

That experience was typical of the book's reception by the UFO community, and it taught me something worth knowing about that community, which is that a significant number of people who insist they believe in alien spaceships in Earth's skies don't actually believe in anything of the kind. I did hear back from some UFO believers who defended their faith in alien visitation in spirited terms. With them I have no quarrel, though I disagree with their beliefs; but much more often, the reaction I got was the one that used to be typical of liberal clergymen who no longer believed in any sort of god, but got uncomfortable, scuffed their feet, and looked out the nearest available window when anyone openly avowed atheism.

Now the point of this story is not to rehash the issue of whether UFOs are or are not alien spacecraft. It's to provide an example of a particular kind of bad faith, as the existentialists used to call it, that pervades discussions of the point I want to raise this week.

What, dear reader, if I were to propose a citizen's strategy for carrying out constructive social change in the United States that has worked in the past, not just once but repeatedly? A strategy that works from the grassroots up, requires next to no money or media coverage to set in motion, and uses off-the-shelf social technology? A strategy that also has the proven side effect of building community on a grand scale? Would you jump on it like a duck on a June bug, as my grandfather used to say, and get it under way as soon as possible? Let's make the experiment.

Glance back through American history from colonial times to the present and you'll discover that the one consistently effective strategy for citizens who seek to change the direction of their society is to organize. When Alexis de Tocqueville wrote Democracy in America not long after the Revolution, one of the things he found most remarkable about the new republic was the way that ordinary citizens who wanted to bring change to their society did it by organizing societies, lodges, movements, political parties, or any other kind of citizen's group you care to name. The same thing has been true ever since; glance back along any wave of change in American life and you'll find an organized group of citizens behind it.

It's popular to insist these days that such organizations can't possibly muster the clout needed to overwhelm, say, the power of big corporations. History says otherwise. In the 1880s, for example, corporations had even more unrestricted power in the United States than they do now, and the railroad corporations were the richest and most powerful of the lot. The Grange, an organization of farmers, took on the improbable task of breaking railroad monopolies that were forcing farm families into poverty by keeping the cost of shipping farm produce to urban markets artificially high. The short version? The Grange achieved total victory, and the railroad corporations lost the monopoly status that made their fortunes.

The key to understanding the power of citizens' organizations is that representative democracy doesn't respond to the will of individuals; it responds to pressure exerted by groups. Those who organize to put pressure on the system generally get at least some of what they want, and the longer and harder they push, the more of it they get. Those who don't organize, by their lack of organization, make themselves irrelevant to the political process.

You know this perfectly well, dear reader. Odds are you've grumbled about the influence of pressure groups in Washington DC, or your state's capitol, or city hall, or wherever. You may even support a pressure group or two yourself with the occasional donation. The obvious question, then, is why the torrent of vocal dissatisfaction with the political status quo these days or so hasn't resulted in another round of citizens' organizations rising from the grassroots, as the Abolitionists and the Grange and the Progressives and the Suffragettes and the Civil Rights movement and so many others did in their time, to influence the political process by turning popular dissatisfaction into a force for change. If it takes a pressure group to have a voice in American politics, why not organize a pressure group to give voice to those who consider themselves voiceless? For that matter, instead of griping about the lack of a viable third party, why not start one, instead of waiting for some political equivalent of Wal-Mart to package one in plastic and display it enticingly on a convenient shelf?

These aren't rhetorical questions. Much of what's wrong with the current American political system is the result of a vacuum at the center of that system – a very large empty space where organized pressure from the public used to go. Consider, for example, how political parties used to work in the United States. The basic unit was the precinct caucus, where neighbors would get together, debate issues and candidates, and organize publicity and get-out-the-vote activities for the next election. Each precinct elected representatives to the county convention, where this process was repeated, and cascaded upward through state and national conventions. These last weren't the pointless media spectacles they've become; they were working sessions where the candidates and proposals that rose up from the grassroots finally got sorted out into the slate and platform the party would offer the voters come election day.

These days precinct caucuses are moribund, and county and state conventions are little more than exercises in going through the motions; policy initiatives and candidacies begin, not with neighbors meeting in living rooms, but with media campaigns orchestrated by marketing firms and strategy sessions among highly paid party officials. Yet it wasn't some conspiracy of corporate minions who brought about that state of affairs; what happened, by and large, was that most Americans dropped out of the party system, and the professionals filled the resulting void.

It's interesting to speculate about why that took place. I suspect many of my readers have encountered Robert Putnam's widely discussed book Bowling Alone (2000), which traced the collapse of social networks and institutions straight across American society. The implosion of the old grassroots-based party system is simply one example of the trend Putnam documented. Putnam's book sparked a great deal of discussion, some of it in the peak oil community, but nearly all of that discussion fixated on the benefits that might be gained by reinventing community, and left out a crucial factor: the cost.

By this I don't mean money. Communities need regular inputs of time and effort from their members, or they collapse into mass societies of isolated individuals – roughly speaking, what we've got now. Communities also need subtler inputs: a sense of commitment, of shared purpose, of emotional connection, of trust. To gain the benefits of living in community, it's necessary to sacrifice some part of the autonomy that so many Americans nowadays guard so jealously. The same thing is true of those subsets of community already discussed – political parties, for example, or citizens' organizations, or any other framework for collective action that's more than a place for people to hang out and participate when they feel like it.

I know a fair number of people in activist circles who speak in glowing terms about community; most of them don't belong to a single community organization. I also know a fair number of people who've tried to launch community projects of one kind or another; most of these projects foundered due to a fatal shortage of people willing to commit the time, effort, and emotional energy the project needed to survive. Most, but not all; some believers in community have taken an active role in trying to build or maintain it; some projects have managed to find an audience and build a community, or at least the first rough draft of one. One of the reasons I don't dismiss the Transition Town movement, though I have serious doubts about some aspects of it, is precisely that many of the people involved in it have committed themselves to it in a meaningful sense, and the movement itself has succeeded in some places in building a critical mass of commitment and energy.

It's important, I think, to assess the ventures toward community that are under way now or have been tried in the recent past, both the successful ones and the ones that have failed, and try to get some sense of the factors that tip the balance one way or the other. It's also crucial, though, to recognize that there's a difference between fantasies of community that provides all the benefits with none of the costs, and the reality of community in which each benefit must be paid for by a corresponding commitment. I suspect the common passion among some peak oil activists for lifeboat communities that just happen to be too expensive ever to get off the ground, which often goes hand in hand with a distinct lack of enthusiasm for participation in real communities of real people that exist right now, is simply one way of evading the difference.

This is why I didn't spend this week's post advocating, say, the founding of Citizens Unions to give ordinary people pressure groups to exert influence on local, state and national governments, as so many successful citizens' pressure groups have done in the past. I think this would be an excellent idea, but if people were willing to invest time, energy, and commitment into such organizations, we'd likely already have them.

The problem we face now, though, is that uncomfortable looks, scuffing feet, and abstracted gazes out the nearest convenient window are no longer adequate responses to a situation that's rapidly spinning out of control. The costs of community may not be something most of us want to pay, but in the world that is taking shape around us, the alternative for a great many of us may be much worse. I plan to talk about that in next week's post.

Editorial Notes: Sharon Astyk has commented on John's article over at Casaubon's Book.

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