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Secret Handshakes

Last week’s Archdruid Report post on the costs of community called up an interesting simulacrum of community in one corner of the peak oil blogosphere, as Sharon Astyk, Rob Hopkins, and Dmitry Orlov all joined in the conversation with blog posts in response. This didn’t exactly come as an unbearable surprise; the role of community in the deindustrial world of the imminent future has been a hot-button issue in the peak oil scene since before there was a peak oil scene, and a fair percentage of the posts here that have fielded more than the usual flurry of comments have been on that confused and contested subject.

Still, it interests me that so much of the discussion, as so often happens, went on as though history has nothing to teach us. One example out of many, and by no means the worst, is Astyk’s suggestion that the reason community has fallen apart in recent decades is that so many people work so hard, and are too tired to get involved. This echoes a common plaint, but the fact remains that a century ago most Americans worked 50, 60, or more hours a week as a matter of course, and most of those hours were spent at hard physical labor. Somehow that didn’t keep a dizzying array of community groups from flourishing to an extent I think few people remember today.

I want to focus here on one particular set of those community groups, partly because they’re tolerably well documented, partly because they offer some intriguing possibilities for an age of economic contraction and social fragmentation, and partly because I happen to know a fair amount about them, and not just from my usual eccentric historical reading. In fact, most Monday evenings you’ll find me helping to preserve one of the few survivals from an all-but-forgotten world, as I don one of the few neckties I own and head over to the old brick Masonic lodge here in Cumberland.

Yes, I’m a Freemason. Some years back a series of accidents clued me in to the huge role that the old fraternal orders had in structuring American communities a century ago, and in the process I also learned that the handful of fraternal orders that still survive are rapidly going under for lack of new members. The obvious response was to apply for membership in a lodge, which I did. The results have been an experience, in almost every possible sense of the word. I’ve given and received quite a range of secret handshakes, and worn some very exotic headgear; I’ve spent evenings in mostly empty lodge halls while a handful of elderly members try to remember the details of initiation ceremonies none of them have had a chance to perform in twenty years; I’ve seen old men, proud as hawks, get teary-eyed as they reminisced about the days when the rest of the community responded to the lodges and their charitable work with something other than total indifference.

Now of course this is not the way lodges, and particularly Masonry, are portrayed in today’s popular culture, and I’m quite aware that to a certain percentage of my readers, my Masonic affiliation defines me as one or more of the 31 flavors of evil incarnate. It doesn’t matter that membership in Masonry has been dropping like a rock for decades, that most Masonic lodges are struggling to find enough members to keep their doors open, or that Freemasonry has less influence in this country than at any time since the Revolutionary War – the last Mason in the White House was Gerald Ford, for heaven’s sake. There are still plenty of people who use the Craft, as Masons like to call their oddball institution, as the perfect inkblot onto which they can project their fantasies of organized wickedness, whatever those happen to be. At a time when people can get million-dollar book contracts and all the radio air time they want to bash Masonry, it may seem a little odd that they can insist that Masons control the media and the rest of American society to boot – when’s the last time you saw something favorable about Masons on the media, by the way? – but contradictions of that sort are pretty much par for the course in our collective discourse these days.

The irony here is that all this vituperation is being flung at the last struggling remnant of what was once a huge social force in America. During the first two decades of the twentieth century, by reliable estimates, half of all adult Americans – counting, by the way, both genders and all ethnic groups – belonged to at least one fraternal lodge. The Masons, the Odd Fellows, the Knights of Pythias, the Grange, and many other orders – some 3,500 different organizations, all told – formed a crucial element in civil society in America; they had a similar role elsewhere in the English-speaking world, where they were called “friendly societies,” and a somewhat less active presence elsewhere.

What makes this explosion of voluntary communal organization particularly relevant to our time is that the old lodges weren’t simply social clubs. With few exceptions – Freemasonry, interestingly enough, was one of those – they had a vital economic role. In an age when governments didn’t consider people starving in the streets a matter of public concern, in fact, the fraternal lodges filled many of the same roles now filled by the welfare state.

Here’s how it worked. If you belonged to a local lodge of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, let’s say, you would be expected to attend lodge meetings one evening a week, and you’d pay weekly dues – the standard rate was 25 cents a week in the days when a quarter bought about as much as a $20 bill does today. The money was collected by the lodge’s financial secretary and invested by its treasurer, under the watchful eye of trustees elected by the lodge. If you became too sick to work, the lodge provided you with sick pay at an established rate; if you died, the lodge paid for your funeral, and if you left a widow and children behind, the lodge made sure they had enough money to get by, and that the children got an education.

Lodges also provided health care to their members. The arrangement, once known as “lodge trade” among doctors, makes an interesting contrast with the corrupt monstrosity masquerading as health care reform currently lumbering its way through the US Congress. Each lodge simply went out and hired a doctor, usually on an annual contract. The doctor received a flat monthly salary from the lodge, and in return provided whatever general medical care the lodge members and their families needed. If it had a large enough membership, the lodge might also hire a couple of visiting nurses and a dentist on the same basis. Notice that this arrangement gave the patients a meaningful voice in health care quality, and imposed an effective limit on prices: a doctor who provided substandard care or charged more than the lodge wanted to pay would simply find himself out of a job when his annual contract came up for renewal.

Was it a perfect system? Of course not. Those who were too poor to afford lodge membership, in particular, had few choices open to them. Those who were excluded from the mainstream lodge organizations on the basis of color or gender, interestingly enough, had more options; it’s not accidental that of the 3500 or so lodge organizations that existed in America at the beginning of the last century, some 1500 were African-American, nor that there were also many hundreds of women’s lodge organizations, some of them completely independent of male-dominated lodge organizations at a time when such independence was a very rare thing for women’s activities of any kind. There were inevitable inequities; there were lodges for the rich, lodges for the middle class, and lodges for the working class, and the benefits varied accordingly. Still, the system worked well enough to make lodges a massive social presence in 19th and early 20th century America.

It’s when we trace the decline and fall of the lodge system that the lessons for today’s predicament start to stand out. Membership in many lodge organizations began to fall off in the 1920s, as relative prosperity and the emergence of the first, very limited public welfare programs began to cut away at the basic rationale behind the system. That decline turned into freefall with the coming of the New Deal, and became all but total with the Great Society programs of the 1960s. Of those 3500 lodge organizations, maybe two dozen survived to the end of the 20th century.

The core weakness of the lodge system turned out to be the issue I brought up in last week’s post: the cost of community. As I mentioned then, too much talk about communities in recent years has focused on their benefits, and ignored the money, time, effort, and commitment that has to go into making those benefits happen. Membership in one of the surviving fraternal orders is a great corrective for this sort of fuzzy thinking. You can get community there, but it costs; there are dues to pay, meetings to attend, work to be done, and jobs that are paid only in old-fashioned titles and a sense of belonging. Lodges are also, by their nature, governed by tradition, which means that younger members generally have to develop a certain tolerance for the social habits of an earlier time. (The necktie I mentioned earlier is one example; I dislike wearing neckties, but the custom of wearing jacket and tie to lodge is fiercely upheld by elderly members who consider it a sign of basic respect, and matters are unlikely to change much while they live.) All these factors militate against the survival of lodges in today’s culture.

Now it’s only fair to mention that as the lodges began their decline, they found the skids liberally greased by several outside factors. The American Medical Association, for example, spent much of the twentieth century in a sustained campaign to break the lodge trade system. Look through back issues of the Journal of the American Medical Association from the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s and you’ll find any number of editorials denouncing lodge trade, and for good reason: the lodge trade system placed the concerns of health care consumers ahead of the financial interests of the medical profession. In the 1920s, the average doctor made only a little more than the average plumber; the end of lodge trade, and of a variety of other arrangements that subjected health care to the economic discipline of the market, was central to the shifts that produced today’s six- and seven-figure incomes for doctors.

Another outside factor not often remembered these days was the impact of the political prosecutions that broke out at intervals in 20th century America. Belonging to a group that was, or was merely accused of being, a front for a proscribed political movement too often had serious social, economic, and legal consequences during those outbreaks, and the gyrations of American cultural politics made it impossible to define much of any ground as safe. Twice – during the Palmer Raids of 1919 and 1920, and again in the McCarthy era – leftist attitudes that had been fashionable and socially acceptable not that long before suddenly turned into a massive liability for those who had held them; once – during the mass sedition trials of the early 1940s – those who were sympathetic to fascism before the war, when it looked to many people like the only alternative to Marxist revolution, found themselves in the same sort of trouble. That’s one of the factors that helped drive the anxious conformity and social detachment of the 1950s; the perceived risks of belonging to anything outside of work, and maybe a recreational association or two, were simply too high for many people.

Still, the core factor was simple enough; the fraternal orders went away because most Americans didn’t need them any more, and were no longer willing to pay the costs of maintaining them. Once labor unions won the right of collective bargaining, employers rather than lodges started to cover sick pay; social security and other government welfare programs provided a social safety net much sturdier than the one the lodges were able to weave from their own resources; more broadly, the immense general prosperity of American society in the wake of the Second World War made starving to death in the street a good deal less pressing a threat than it had been not too long before.

The Freemasons weathered these changes a little better than most other fraternal orders, and the reason is instructive. The Craft never offered sick pay or other direct financial benefits to its members, and its main functions were self-improvement, networking, and fundraising for public charities, which weren’t entirely rendered surplus by the social changes of the 1930s and 1960s. Thus Masonry’s decline was slower, and it still maintains a modest fraction of the infrastructure of lodge buildings and local groups that it had during its glory days – something that very few other fraternal orders can say these days. Even so, the steady influx of young men who used to join the Masons as a standard coming-of-age ritual has almost entirely come to a halt, because very few of those young men see any value in investing the time and energy that Masonic membership requires.

More generally, of course, that’s what happened to community in America. The suburbanization of the country after the Second World War has many aspects, but one of the most important was a deliberate flight from community. A great many people who had grown up in compact urban neighborhoods or small towns fled to the anonymity of the suburbs just as quickly as they could, because in their eyes, the costs of community made it more of a burden than a benefit.

I’d like to suggest, in turn, that the reason that all the talk about community in recent years has produced so few results is that this equation still holds. Very few of the people reading this blog in America just now have ever gone hungry, or slept under a cardboard box in a back alley, or lived six to a room in a tumbledown tenement infested by rats and cockroaches, as so many people did in America as recently as the 1930s. The social safety nets established in the New Deal and Great Society eras are shredding, and they will likely shred a lot further in the not too distant future, but most Americans have not yet adjusted their thinking to the exigencies of a world where losing a job may once again mean a desperate and often futile struggle against starvation, and where those who end up on the losing side of economic change can no longer count on help from anybody.

The old fraternal orders offer a useful example of some of the things that can be done by people working together in such a world. In order to make use of that example, though, it’s going to be necessary to face up to some of the most basic, and most dysfunctional, assumptions about community in American culture today – a task I intend to address in next week’s post.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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