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This Presupposition of Passivity

The conversation about community that’s unfolded in the peak oil blogosphere over the last couple of weeks has quite a few interesting features. Perhaps the most interesting, at least to me, is the unanimity with which so many voices, coming from so many different viewpoints, have agreed that the role played by ordinary Americans in the collapse of American community is that of passive victim.

That unanimity, it has to be said, does not extend much further. Any number of circumstances, and no shortage of malevolent schemes, have been offered up as the reason why Americans have had their communities taken away from them. Still, the Archdruid Report post that started the recent conversation made an entirely different suggestion: that Americans, by and large, had not “had their communities taken away from them” at all, but actively walked away from their communities, and in fact continue to do so. It’s the fact that this suggestion is apparently about as welcome as a slug in a garden salad that fascinates me.

It’s not as though this presupposition of passivity is limited to this one topic, either. Show me a social problem in America today and it’s better than even odds that the debate around it focuses on whether it’s caused by circumstances outside of anyone’s control, on the one hand, or by the machinations of some sinister cabal on the other. That such problems might occasionally, or more than occasionally, be the logical consequence of actions actively pursued by the majority of Americans is right off the radar screen of our collective conversation – and if anybody has the bad taste to suggest that unwelcome view, the usual response is to insist that some circumstances or cabal was responsible for making Americans do whatever it was they did.

I’ve come to think, as it happens, that the portrayal of ordinary Americans as helpless victims may be one of the most significant barriers in the way of the constructive changes we desperately need to make. This is as true of community as anything else. Until we understand why it is that Americans like to speak movingly about community in the abstract, but more often than not want nothing to do with it in any concrete sense, efforts to build new communities or conserve the few we’ve got left are going to go precisely nowhere. For this reason, I want to talk a little about the reasons why people in America don’t actually want community.

One of those reasons, as I’ve suggested over the last couple of weeks, is that community costs. The benefits you get from it are exactly commensurate with the investment you make in it – in time, effort, money, commitment, and more – and as with any other kind of investment, you pay in first and get paid back later. People who don’t want to pay what community costs up front, or don’t think the payback is worth the investment, are not going to invest in it. For many reasons, some of which I’ve discussed in previous posts, the great majority of Americans have embraced these attitudes in recent decades.

Still, there’s more going on here than a simple cost/benefit analysis. In my experience, there are at least two things essential to any viable community that the vast majority of Americans find completely unacceptable. The first is an accepted principle of authority; the second is a definite boundary between members and nonmembers.

You see? Odds are you bristled with outrage the moment you read that last sentence.

Consider a traditional Quaker meeting and you can see how both these requirements function, and how necessary they are. In a Quaker meeting, the principle of authority is consensus, guided by tradition and also, much more often than not, by a core of experienced and influential members. To be a member of a meeting is to accept the authority of the “sense of the meeting” in those matters it claims the right to govern. Only those who accept that authority have the right to contribute to the consensus or participate in the life of the community. Those who consistently refuse to accept the authority of the meeting’s consensus generally get disfellowshipped – that is, they find themselves on the outside of the boundary between members and nonmembers.

The same thing is true of the communities I discussed in last week’s post, the old fraternal lodges. In a Masonic lodge, for example, the principle of authority is elective democracy limited by tradition. Certain officers, elected for annual terms, are responsible for making some decisions; others must be made by a majority vote of the lodge at a regular meeting; still others are reserved to the state grand lodge, which consists of representatives from local lodges, or to the officers the grand lodge elects. A number of issues are not subject to decision at all; they belong to what Masons call the landmarks of the Craft, core traditions accepted by every regular Masonic lodge, and cannot be changed by anyone for any reason. To be a Mason is to accept the authority of the landmarks, the lodge and grand lodge, and their officers, in that very limited sphere over which they have any say – in effect, within the four walls of a Masonic lodge. To refuse to accept that authority within its proper sphere is ultimately to cease being a brother.

Now of course it’s not too hard to think of communities in which there are more abusive principles of authority and more invidious distinctions between members and nonmembers. In contemporary discourse about social issues, these bad examples get very nearly all the air time, as a result of the very common contemporary belief that authority is by definition illegitimate and boundaries are made to be broken. Still, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and it’s worth noting that attempts at community that have not established some effective means for making and enforcing decisions, and some firm distinction between those who invest their time and energy in the community and those who simply show up for the benefits and vanish when it’s time for work to be done, pretty consistently go under.

Ultimately, as this suggests, the need for a principle of authority and a boundary between members and nonmembers is a practical issue, distinct from the moral issues often confused with it. Of course moral issues apply here, as to all other human choices, but the principle of authority can be as egalitarian as the sense of a Quaker meeting or as autocratic as “il Duce is always right;” equally, the boundary between members and nonmembers, to paraphrase Martin Luther King, can be anything from the color of their skins to the content of their characters, and much else besides; but a community that has some version of both has a good chance of success, and a community that tries to do without them will fail.

I’ ve come to think that this is perhaps the single most important reason why all the enthusiastic talk about communities in the peak oil scene, or for that matter in similar subcultures, has produced so few results. Page through the archives of The Oil Drum, or any other peak oil site that’s been around for a while, and you’ll find plenty of people talking about how “we” ought to imitate the Amish, or medieval monasteries, or some other classic example of resilient community. Yet you won’t find a lot of proposals that such imitations ought to adopt the principles of authority and the very strict boundaries between members and nonmembers that have played so large a role in making these communities as successful as they have been, because very, very few people in our culture are willing to accept the core presupposition that underlies these things – the necessity, especially but not only in times of crisis, of placing the needs of the community ahead of the wants of the individual.

There’s much that could be said along these lines about the murky psychological roots of the American assumption that all authority is illegitimate and all boundaries unreasonable, and even more that could be said about the drastic spiritual consequences of that belief system, but neither of these conversations is really in keeping with the theme of this blog. Instead, I’d like to talk a bit about how the recent abandonment of community plays into the trajectory of decline our civilization is now following.

Arnold Toynbee, whose massive A Study of History remains the most comprehensive study of historical cycles, has a great deal to say about what he calls “the schism in society.” As civilizations tip over the brink into decline, he suggests, one of the core symptoms of decay is a split between the dominant minority and the rest of society. The dominant minority has lost whatever capacity it once had to inspire loyalty and emulation, but its hold on the institutions of power remains strong enough that it can’t be unseated; the rest of society, alienated from the values of the dominant minority, becomes an “internal proletariat” ripe for alternative values. When those new values emerge, usually in the form of a new religious movement, they become the framework around which new social patterns begin to coalesce – and about the time this gets well under way, the old social framework of the dying civilization, abandoned from within and assailed from without, comes messily apart.

It’s an intriguing analysis. One wrinkle Toynbee doesn’t discuss, though, is the fate of the people in between the dominant minority and the emergent internal proletariat. There are usually quite a few of them; they manage people, information, and resources within the sprawling complexity of a mature civilization; compared to the laboring classes, they have a tolerably high level of wealth and privilege, and even some influence over the political process, though nothing as much as the members of the dominant minority have at their disposal. As the schism in society opens, the ground on which they stand begins to slip away beneath their feet. On the one hand, many of them find it increasingly hard to believe in the ideals and loyalties that motivated their equivalents in earlier generations; on the other, many of them are unwilling to abandon the concrete privileges and benefits that accrue to them in their current positions. Some turn to cynicism, others to a range of uneasy attempts to serve two masters, and still others – normally the majority – simply muddle through as best they can.

Eventually, as the new value system takes shape and rises from the bottom of the internal proletariat, a good many of them will break away and align themselves with it, and provide it with the managerial and intellectual resources it needs to fulfill its own trajectory. Until a fairly late stage in the game, though, those who make that leap can count on giving up all the benefits of their place in the social order. The history of Roman Christianity provides one good example out of many. Until late in the third century, Christianity in the Roman world was largely a slave religion with a sprinkling of middle-class converts, who were regarded with the same sort of pitying contempt that most Americans direct toward those who join the Hare Krishnas. Not until the institutions of Roman society came seriously unglued did Christianity turn from a despised cult to the one remaining source of viable community in much of the Roman world; only after that happened could a Roman rhetor become a Christian bishop, say, without relinquishing the comforts of his middle-class lifestyle.

We have not reached that latter point yet. The “new values” proposed by an assortment of middle-class intellectuals in recent years all share the presuppositions of the old values they seek to replace; in terms of the Roman experience, they correspond to Stoicism, Epicureanism, and the other philosophical schools, which played a major role in the intellectual life of the Empire but contributed almost nothing to the radically different religious vision that supplanted them. A great many middle-class people in America and other industrial nations are caught in the familiar bind, no longer committed to the ideals of a declining civilization, but not yet willing to sacrifice the very tangible material benefits they get from their positions in the established order; rejecting the system in their hearts while supporting it with their actions. It’s a very awkward place to be; eventually, it will become intolerable; but until this latter point arrives, a great many people will try to have it both ways.

I’ve come to think that this dynamic lies behind a great many of the less useful cultural shifts and social trends of recent decades, and the habits of thought sketched out in this post are among these. No doubt there were plenty of Romans who responded to the conflicting demands of political and religious authority by rejecting the entire concept of authority, and dismissed the need for boundaries in the half-conscious hope that this evasion would allow them to keep a foot in both worlds while committing to neither. Certainly this sort of thing is very common today. The obsessive fixation on the isolated and supposedly independent ego that pervades contemporary culture, which Christopher Lasch once anatomized in a book more often discussed than read, has many roots; still, I suspect one of the crucial factors driving it is precisely this attempt, on the part of a great many people, to have their cake and eat it too – to enjoy the benefits of the existing order while claiming to despise its principles.

The presupposition of passivity I mentioned at the beginning of this post is one way to deal with the cognitive dissonance of this awkward position. There are already a good many others, and as the forces that are tearing modern industrial civilization apart build around us, there will doubtless be more. To the extent that it’s possible to recognize them for what they are, though, it will be easier to sidestep their more unproductive results and direct effort toward those tasks where it’s still possible to make a difference for the future.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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