Transition II

Much to my surprise the response to my last essay was entirely positive; however, two readers from widely different cultures asked me virtually the same question: How can communities be organized to survive the threat? I would like to begin to try to answer that question by talking about the farm where I grew up.

This farm was located two-miles west of LaPorte, Indiana. The town was named by French trappers as "The Door" out of the forests to the prairies of rich soil to the south. Our farm sat on the edge of the glacial boundary, on the leftover sand and clay and stones of the melted glacier. Around sixty-five acres, the soil was fertile enough to grow anything appropriate to that climate with sufficient patience and labor.

Our family consisted of three generations, eight adults and nine children, living in three separate households. Our immediate neighbors lived on parcels of one to ten acres and comprised a dozen adults and two-dozen children. By working together in completely free and informal manner, expressing an innate spirit of cooperation, all of these people survived the privations of the Depression and WWII without suffering. How?

What I remember most clearly is a spontaneous division of labor, and trade. Our family produced raw milk, chickens, eggs, fruit, cider, honey, and grains. One neighbor specialized in strawberries and sweet corn, another in vegetables, another in goat products. Food was traded within the group, and the surplus was sold in individual roadside stands.

There was no fuzzy warm feeling of family or community here, that was simply the way things were done. There was a fierce sense of property ownership, and woe betide cheats or trespassers, including children — maybe especially children who stole watermelons. Borrowed tools were returned promptly, and if a neighbor asked for help with a major job, one would be wise to arrive early and stay late, or at least until milking time.

I was born into this micro-community ten-years before it disappeared. The post-war economy offered far-flung economic opportunities to the children who grew up there, left home, and never returned. The old folks changed their focus to money, and either rented or sold off the land; their kids wound up in the suburbs somewhere, making money, and feeling a loss they could not express. Their children in turn, now pushing forty, would not understand such an expression anyway, although a vague idea of it seems to haunt some of them. There appears to be a selective urban yearning for the country life.

I saw this yearning expressed in the commune movement of the late Sixties in the US. Unless rigidly ruled by an ideological authority with a constantly changing group of adherents, most communes vanished as fast as they appeared. The fundamental problem was and is property ownership. If the major premise of any endeavor is that you don’t own yourself or anything else, the endeavor won’t survive. Communist Russia and China proved that beyond realistic doubt. Yet urban intellectuals continue to yearn for a fantasy world of individual self-sacrifice for the good of all, like the Plymouth colony before it starved and changed its ways.

One of my correspondents sent a well-written unpublished essay describing a rural set of villages in India with an emphasis on a single household of fourteen people. The woman who runs the household owns nine acres. She is also the keeper of the seeds; if the seeds run out or the crop fails, she can borrow seeds from a community supply with a payback of two seeds for one borrowed. She can feed the entire family three meals a day on the produce from one acre of land and sell the surplus from the balance of the land. She is illiterate, but the children are learning to read and write. When salesmen or bureaucrats come through the area, neighbors are warned by a recorded message distributed by hand. Something about this social model seems idyllic to the author, who would like to import it to the city.

I know nothing whatever about this region, so I take the author’s word for it. The people residing in this set of villages are practicing a simple and common version of laissez-faire capitalism, based on individual initiative, ownership, borrowing at interest, self-improvement, and community defense. I see my own family in this picture at a different level of technology, while the principal difference is literacy. The soil and the climate there must enable multiple harvests per year, although I have to doubt that it’s as simple as broadcasting seed on unprepared ground and waiting for harvest.

Seed itself is an issue, according to the author. State sponsored corporations are trying to sell these people single-harvest hybrid seeds, and discourage the use of native seeds that will reproduce identical genetic copies year after year for free. I have to agree that costly hybrids are inappropriate to poor subsistence farmers even though potential yields may be many times greater, because high-tech agriculture presupposes high-tech farmers, which they are not. The matriarch interviewed in this essay simply said no to hybrid seeds. No sale. What’s wrong with that? It doesn’t take a UN resolution to say, I won’t buy it.

This kind of rural model cannot be imported to the cities, and city dwellers would not willingly be exported to the rural model. The millions of hungry urban people require intensive mechanized agriculture with its high-yield hybrid seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides plus thoroughly educated farming practitioners and skilled banking creditors. For urban dwellers rhapsodizing on an organic garden theme in nature, I suggest they try it before they try to sell the idea: turn over an acre with a spade, break it up with a hoe, rake it out, plant it, cultivate and harvest by hand, and then talk about it. They didn’t call it back-breaking work for nothing. Even Thoreau hired a teamster with oxen and plow to break Emerson’s land at Walden.

But what about the rural spirit of cooperation, the spirit of community? I have to admit that I’ve never lived anywhere that it was missing, although I’ve only lived in North America — East, West, South, and Central, cities, slums, suburbs, and country. What I’ve experienced everywhere is a kind of give and take, live and let live, mind your own business, help when needed sort of thing. The only people I’ve learned to distrust are "public servants" and the only places that worry me are "public" places; I recommend privatizing both so that there are owners and managers who have a genuine interest in the public.

The spirit of community has been under relentless attack by the state for over a century. Their key weapons are fiat money and fiat regulation. The state abhors competition from families and communities alike, for families and communities can survive threats by spontaneous cooperation that needs no organization, no state, just as they have always done before. Intellectuals who would like to engineer this cooperative spirit into some kind of coercive state mechanism should review the history of failure of such projects. In other words, communities cannot be organized by some master agency to survive threats, but they will do it themselves if left alone.