By Basil Gala, Ph.D.
In Search of Meaning
We have evolved over millions of years as social animals. Our direct ancestors lived in bands of hunters and gatherers, as cave dwellers, in villages cultivating fields or tending animals, and a few thousand years ago in small towns and cities, where people knew their neighbors and depended on them for survival: for food, trade goods, medicines, services and protection from enemy tribes. We are the products of our evolution: all of us humans have a deep-seated need for an organic association with other people. We call foods organic which contain ample nutrition for our bodies without too many toxins. We ought to choose or build our community of people to nourish both our bodies and our spirits as community did for our ancestors. Such a goal can best be achieved today with an income-producing business of moderate size, attached to a piece of land large enough to provide fresh foods, housing, work places, and recreation for all workers, much like an Israeli kibbutz.
Is not such a community a thing of the past? How can a small company in a village compete with giant corporations? Small villages and towns abounded in America a century ago, with a manufacturing company, shops, offices, tradesmen, professionals, and a bit of government and a surrounding countryside of farms producing food locally. Such communities have disappeared or are now largely abandoned, decaying, no longer thriving. If the company town failed, the town was doomed. The people went to big cities, giant agglomerations of steel and concrete, crowded sidewalks, restaurants, factories and offices, surrounded by track homes in suburbs with front lawns and back yards, row upon row of boxy homes, with lonely residents, moving in and out with the tides of economic necessity. Are we happy and satisfied with living this way? How and why did we do this to ourselves? How do we escape this state of affairs to return to organic living? Whatever others may do or be unable to do to save themselves from alienation, how can you and I escape the masses and find a congenial and inspiring community?
Tribes of hundreds or thousands have evolved into nations of millions. The nations of India and China are over a billion people each. Villages and towns have grown and merged into megalopolis, such as New York, London, Shanghai, or Tokyo. Astronauts gaze down at night upon huge clusters of city lights. We’re captives of social evolution, prisoners of our history. The past has shaped our condition, but the future shapes it too. Time’s arrow is bidirectional. Our fate is determined by what we have experienced but also by what we want and visualize for our future.
Thinkers have written about how society should be or might become if we act in certain ways. Utopias and dystopias have emerged in literature to guide our steps. Plato presented his “Republic,” ruled by enlightened aristocracy and philosopher kings. Sir Thomas More coined the word utopia, a harmonious community existing nowhere. B. F. Skinner, the behaviorist psychologist, proposed Walden II, an integral society where people live on the land, birthing when very young, raising children in a communal fashion, and everyone working a few hours to produce the necessities for the community. George Orwell gave us “1984,” a tight society ruled by the iron fist of Big Brother, a development we have avoided in the West, but existing today in North Korea and Iran.
We have seen actual experiments in designed communities, many based on religious belief, such the Shakers, the Oneida (producers of Oneida silver), and the Mormon Church as it was in the beginning, organized by Joseph Smith, led by Brigham Young, holding together for survival, seeking the Promised Land in Utah.
Developers have drawn on the concept of village life to develop master planned communities, such as those of the Irvine Company and Mission Viejo in Orange County, or San Elijo in San Marcos, these in California. You see in planned communities such things as bike ways, mixed use buildings, parks, churches and civic centers. In California and other places, such villages bear the facade, but not the essence of ancestral communities, lacking permanence, interdependence, or emotional attachment of the residents to a tribe.
In the meantime, we make do with a network of friends, friends we lose when they or we move to another state or country, even virtual friends on Facebook and other social media. We go to our favorite bars, or we go to our customary church, synagogue or temple to recapture our tribal god, the spirit of our lost childhood village, the glow of our old township where we knew everybody’s name and everybody knew our name.
Yes, we have many kinds of communities in our mass society, people of similar interests and inclinations. We have bird-watching societies, the gay community, our political groups of the Young Republicans and Young Democrats, the Rotarians, the Elks, the Masons, the Rosicrucians, the Native American and the African American communities. Somehow these groups comfort us but they don’t quite satisfy like the old tribe, the people we knew as our people that we would defend with our blood, our people we fed when they were hungry with what little we might have in our pantry.
Our associations with like-minded people, even our family nuclear and extended, our network of friends and co-workers, flimsy and transient as they may be, these associations are valuable, adding to our happiness, safety, healthy, and longevity as shown by studies. These networks are not like the Israeli kibbutz with its attachment to the land and close relationships for survival in a hostile territory; but the kibbutz too are changing, evolving to accommodate the needs of the people, to make social functioning more efficient. The kibbutzim are not as egalitarian as they started out to be, but are still more egalitarian than our American towns and more steadfast.
Over one hundred years ago, young Jewish idealists from Russia, the Ukraine, and other places, including the United States, converged in Palestine. Funded by Zionists, they bought dry lands from Arabs and settled down in communes across Palestine. They fenced their property against Arab marauders, drilled wells for water, built simple housing, and cultivated the harsh land with manual labor initially and tractors later on, turning their dismal patch of land into a green paradise. During the war for the new state of Israel, the kibbutz provided food for the cities and the best fighters to prevail over Israel’s enemies, and later the same in the short wars that followed and expanded the territory of Israel.
That was the story for the first generation, and to some extent, the second generation of kibbutzim. In the kibbutz everything was shared and all money earned went into the commune’s treasury to be used by all equally. No one was given more than any other member. Members ate in a big dining hall, sharing food and talk like brothers and sisters. Children went to all-day nurseries and parents saw them briefly in the evening after working all day. Laundry was done by specialized workers, folded and placed at the disposal of members. Members received free medical treatment and travel was with community cars; even telephones were owned and shared by the community.
As the idealistic founders of the kibbutz aged and passed on, things changed. The kibbutz founders were highly selected and motivated; their offspring differed. The young kibbutzim wanted more material things and that share of the income which they believed they produced with superior ability or talent. Others were born or incorporated in the commune who turned out to be lazy, wasteful, or incompetent, but received equal shares. Much food was thrown away half-eaten in the dining rooms and other goods had the same fate. Most young people left the communal way of life and went to big cities, such as Tel Aviv, and abroad for a better education, job, and business opportunity. The kibbutz was left to the old and the infirm, just like many villages in Europe.
In looking for a workable model for our intentional communities, we have to consider why the old tribal units or villages have largely disappeared in the developed world. If the ancestral village was so right, so good for us, why is it gone? Could it be that living in a village was too constrained and boring compared to the pleasures and opportunities of the big city? I recall the tales of Sherwood Anderson’s “Winesburg, Ohio,” all the grotesque characters wanting to be free of the same old neighbors, longing to leave the town, to go away for some happiness in a far-away place, a big place with tall buildings, bright lights, fine restaurants, clubs, theaters, and universities.
The local tribe was good and satisfying in many ways, but in the tribe you were not an individual but a unit of the whole. You possessed tribal consciousness, never feeling as a separate entity with your own aspirations and dreams. From a practical standpoint, employment opportunities and personal growth were limited in the village. If you messed up, if you lost your job, if you were disgraced, you had to move on to the anonymity of the big city, where you could find other work, other friends, to build a new life.
If village life was so good, why did we abandon it? Those of us who have experienced community living in a village or small town have fond memories of closeness with friends and relatives, helping each other when in need, keeping in contact with known entities in the village, the one or two restaurants, cleaners, churches, theaters manned by people we knew all our lives. We remember with a warm heart our gatherings and festivals, singing, dancing, talking around a fire, children playing all around us. We left all that good stuff because we had to leave it when we could not make a living in our village and because we wanted more: an education, training, business growth, and love outside our little circle of potential mates.
People are always seeking the ideal community to join or invent in which all matters are right and pleasant. We seek the Great Society and War on Poverty, like Lyndon B. Johnson. We want to reduce the sufferings of our fellows, to level out opportunities for all, and establish a just social system where the rich don’t have too much power and the poor too little: “Liberté, égalité, fraternité,” as proclaimed in the French Revolution.
We saw such a system at work in the Soviet Union after the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. A great many young idealists devoted their lives to the building of communism, in which the people (actually the state) owned all means of production, everybody had a job, health care and housing were free or almost free, and there was food for all, at least in theory. Actually, the state was made up of commissars who reserved for themselves and their families what they wanted.
Still, the Soviet peoples worked furiously to build heavy industry, spurred on by constant state propaganda and the whips of party officials. Agriculture was managed by communes. The Soviet Union with its satellite states became like a giant kibbutz with the same outcome. New generations saw few rewards for themselves in the system, got tired of government promises of benefits to come sometime in the future, a future constantly receding in an economy burdened by inefficiency, waste, and pollution of the environment, with few amenities for the people, such as tasty food and comfortable housing, pleasant work conditions, fine transportation with private automobiles, and appliances such as the Western countries enjoyed. The Soviet Union collapsed under its own weight, giving a lesson to the Chinese Communist party, which switched to an Asian version of capitalism and semi-autonomous state enterprises with considerable success—China became the world’s factory, sacrificing the Chinese environment and contributing extensively to planetary warming.
There is a better way than socialism or capitalism in building both a just and prosperous society. In socialism, nearly all wealth goes to the state; but the state consists of those in power, as in China or Russia. A few oligarchs favored by the state amass huge fortunes together with party officials—graft is pervasive. Even if a government were to take all the wealth of the nation and distribute it equally among all adults, in a generation or two that wealth would be again in the hands of a few families.
A law of gravitation applies to money as to matter. Under normal circumstances money attracts money. The poor get poorer and the rich, richer, except in cases where playboy or playgirl heirs dissipate their inheritance. If the heirs leave the money in the hands of professional managers, as they usually do, the family’s fortune keeps growing. Rich people usually marry someone also rich to have few children who receive better health and education.
The poor, on the other hand, have many children, usually brought up in ill health, neglected, and miserably educated in third-rate schools. The poor spend what little they earn, unable to save and invest any money in order to become owners of things, like buildings or land, businesses, equipment, stocks, bonds, and other income-producing assets. The poor don’t live as long as the rest of us and in the end they don’t pass on to their offspring any privileges. Hence, the poor become even more so each year, until they revolt against the upper crust with guns or votes. They take the wealth and distribute it among themselves until the next accumulation of wealth begins again.
Usually, wealth, power, and privileges tend to become entrenched in a few dominant families of the nation. In past centuries, such a power base centered in a king, surrounded by nobles. Today, a dictator or military junta may rule a nation, controlling the army, secret police, media and the courts, as in Syria, North Korea, China, and Russia. In some democracies, such as Brazil and Mexico, influential capitalists rule similarly with their political donations and associations. Carlos Sims, the richest man in the world, lives in Mexico, where most people subsist in abject poverty.
Societies such as Mexico’s were born and have evolved in these ways. They evolved to maturity, flourished, decayed, and perished in time like any living organisms including our own bodies, colonies of cells. Any experience, stressful or pleasant changes society for better or worse. Every custom that is cultivated becomes a tradition; every law that is written persists for a while and transforms society. But powerful people also may design a society.
How, then, may we design a community that rises above socialism, capitalism, and tribalism, satisfies the primal needs of human beings, and succeeds? Let us assume we are powerful and influential enough to do that.
Our most fundamental need is survival, based on safety. Before we can do anything else, we must survive. In ancient Greece, Lycurgus was credited with founding Sparta and establishing a community based on the total devotion to a military way of life by all citizens, so that Spartans could rule over their slaves (helots) while safe from external enemies. Romulus founded Rome, Solon, Athens, Alexander the Great, Alexandria, and Peter the Great of Russia, Saint Petersburg, all these societies organized with a view to safety and dominance over neighboring societies.
For safety, rulers of old built high walls around their cities, such as the famous walls of Troy or Constantinople, they built castles with parapets and towers for the ruling family, walls and castles which were eventually besieged and torn down by enemies, walls which after canon and dynamite arrived ceased to offer safety. Today privileged people, those with money and power, live in walled compounds called exclusive communities, gated, guarded, and monitored with sensors and closed-circuit television. Such security devices work against criminals but not against a revolution of the masses.
A community survives best when it does not display its wealth, when it lies low, like soldiers in battle. Wealth attracts predators and raiders, barbarians pounding at the walls as they did to Rome and Constantinople. Society defends itself well when it relies on the courage of young people who love and respect it rather than on high walls, as the ancient Spartans did of old or the Israeli kibbutzim in recent times.
Young people, students, must believe their community structure is just towards all its members, with benefits going to those who earn them with superior ability and service and not to an entrenched elite that exploits weaker members–or students will align with workers and shake the system down to ruins. Let’s not forget the French Revolution, China’s Great Cultural Revolution, or Cambodia’s Killing Fields.
People in our ideal community should have enough wholesome, fresh, foods from land not poisoned by pesticides and chemical fertilizers. This is best done by local farmers, not by giant agribusiness corporations. Our villagers need basic medical care for accidents and infections from trained health aids, not disease doctors bent on making big incomes. The stresses of a big city cause eighty percent of illnesses and aggravate the rest. Good health is achieved best by basing our community on land, not on the cement and asphalt canyons of a large city, land in fresh air with clean waters.
In locating our community on land, we cannot turn our back to civilization and culture, learning and enterprise. Science and technology must rule in our society, motivated with the outstanding ethics of philosophers and mystics from all ages and all places where civilization has flourished most brilliantly, East and West, North and South.
If we’re not powerful enough to design a community to our liking, at least we who are free can choose where to live and with whom. We can join any of the back-to-earth movements active today in all parts of the free world from Israel and Greece to the United States and beyond. We can turn our backs to consumerism and ostentation, the blind pursuit of wealth and possessions, the daily grind of commuter jobs in the urban jungle and the return to cookie-cutter houses in giant residential developments.
In the evening and weekends we don’t need canned entertainments in theaters, television, and internet. We can enjoy our own home-made games with family, children and friends, singing and dancing together as we did in our old village square to the tunes of local musicians. We can make our own ice-cream in summer in a bucket of iced water with salt, manually cranking the handle of the container with fresh cream and fruit.