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We need a new culture!

Wow…it’s been 6 weeks since my last blog post, a period of just trying to make it from day to day; of total immersion in self, friends, and family…energy and enthusiasm in short supply.

But reading a book on the history of anarchism and preparing to host a Eugene Mutual Aid Society table at a “Green Faire” tomorrow has revived my revolutionary, or at least evolutionary, spirit. I put together a presentation for the latter that emphasizes preparing for “energy descent” (peak oil, high gas prices), economic contraction or collapse, or whatever else may come down the pike — perhaps the west coast’s 1,000-year earthquake. Not in individual survivalist or “green lifestyle” middle-class homeowner mode, but together, in groups, as a community, using the anarchist principle of mutual aid. That is, or would be, revolutionary!

As my 3-sided poster to put on the table says, “Mutual aid societies are formed by people in free and voluntary association, who agree to abide by the unwritten mutual aid agreement: ‘If you’re in need, I’ll help you; if I’m in need, I trust you to help me,’ and ‘I agree to meet my own needs to the best of my ability.’ There are other things on the poster, too, about forming affinity groups;  meeting with them to talk about helping each other be more self-sufficient; and networking with other groups, using the sppkescouncil model. Nothing too alarming, though I did throw in a little section about anarchism at the bottom.

But think about the mutual aid thing for a minute. Done right, done fully, it’s communism. Not communism as in the Soviet Union or Red China, but in the true, idealistic sense of the word: putting everything you have in the pot to share. Common ownership of land, factories, and other resources — not by a party run by bosses, but by democratic local assemblies or spokescouncils. Only “owning” your house — which you’d share, if big enough, for as long as you needed to live in it.

I think this kind of economic equality is necessary for democracy, because political rights are worthless if you’re sick, hungry, broke, or homeless. It’s also necessary for peace, and for us to mature into fully adult humans. It can’t be arrived at by a violent revolution — we can only have it by deciding voluntarily to share and be truly caring and generous over and over, every day. This would be quite a change for us “I’ve got mine, and I can’t afford to care about you” Americans. We might be able to ease into it gradually by following the example of small groups who’ve already done or are doing it. More likely, the collapse of the economy will force us into it, or something much worse, all of a sudden. Either way, this is what I think the immediate or near future will ask of us. And we’ll say “yes,” if we want to live up to our full potential, ethically and spiritually.

I say all this having just asked my housemate of three years to leave, because I’m tired of sharing space with her (or probably anyone) 24/7. We were going to have a “community” of two, and “learn about sharing,” but we ended up with a landlord-tenant relationship, stilted “How are you?”s and “Have a good morning”s, and petty grievances about cooking odors and crumbs on the kitchen counter. By ending our house-sharing arrangement now, I think we may be able to save our friendship, and actually enjoy spending time together again here and there.

I think it would have been easier for both of us if we’d been on a par financially and both owned a share of the house, but either way, sharing’s hard — at least for folks raised in this culture. When we try it we end up worrying about whether we’ll have enough for ourselves — enough solitude and privacy in my case, perhaps enough to eat in a future example. We also worry about whether others are putting the same amount of effort into the common project. My housemate never offered to mow the lawn, for example, even though she enjoyed the yard’s beauty, and I never saw her sweep or vacuum the kitchen or living room. That’s no way to form community. The question of the future may be whether we should feed an able-bodied person who hasn’t worked, or worked hard enough, to support the community.

I say, “We need a new culture,” because I think a lot of this is cultural. After toddlerhood, our culture stopped encouraging us to share. And it presents no models of true sharing or caring. Change is hard, but the difficulties we’ll have in learning to share pale in comparison — at least for me — with the pain of knowing that, because resources aren’t shared equally now, people, including children, are suffering and dying unnecessarily — while we or our children or grandkids buy more toys and luxuries with which to entertain ourselves.

I get impatient, because I’ve held these beliefs for 50 years — and tired, because I’m 68 years old, and sometimes feeling that age. I’m excited that some of the things I’ve been thinking about for so long may finally be coming to fruition, at least here and there. And I also feel that most of this will be for folks younger than me to do. I think the role of elders is to withdraw more and more from the fray, and meditate, wander around the garden, paint a picture or write a poem, enjoy present moments, and prepare for death by spending more and more time on soulful things, big and small.

But that’s another great thing about anarchism — I don’t have to do more than one person’s share, because the rest of you are responsible, thinking adults, too, and in whatever way you see fit, you’re doing and will do yours…I also believe everyone will have an elder’s share of leisure time in the sort of local community economy I have in mind. What’s not to like?

A way for everyone to be heard in the Occupy movement

Wanting to do more than just write and talk about the Occupy movement, I’ve been thinking I should go to one of the General Assembly meetings of our local group, (anticipating the frustration I’d probably feel as one of 200 people trying to be heard has kept me away so far). I told my friend J. I thought there should be some system of meeting in smaller groups (like the talking-stick circles I’ve mentioned before on this site) that could then send a representative to a similarly small group at the next level. The next day she sent me a link to a post on our local Occupy website about the Folkmote system, apparently a “cultural universal” until industrial capitalism started taking over more and more of our lives and world.

A few days later, J., C., and I went to a meeting at a downtown park at which Warren Weisman, a local proponent of the system, explained it to about 20 interested people. He said the folkmote system extends the natural trust and cooperation found within tribal groups to voluntary 20-30-person groups of family, friends, and neighbors who see each other on a regular basis and like and trust each other. The groups make decisions by consensus and, when appropriate, send representatives to adjacent or “higher”-level groups. Federated groups are organized in a wheel rather than a hierarchy, with the original groups on the outer circle and intermediate groups on spokes leading to a central hub. The “federated communities are responsible for all public services and manage all aspects of village life.” Folkmote members are “bound together by an unwritten, voluntary mutual aid agreement: ‘When you are in need, I will come to your aid; when I am in need, I trust you to help me; and I agree to meet my own needs to the best of my ability.’ Groups can be territorial, work-related, or based on any other interest or affinity, and, ideally, an individual would be a member of more than one group.

A folkmote system can also be organized quickly in a large group of strangers by asking people to move to a group associated with their favorite color, then to a group associated with their favorite fruit. Folkmote is a “robust system in a catastrophe, government distributed down to the neighborhood level.” We would all benefit by taking more responsibility at the local level for meeting needs, but – barring catastrophe – we can take as much time as we need to do this, just as the nonviolent nature of the Occupy movement allows us to take our time.

The basic meeting discusses who needs what and who has surplus to share. In the Cairo Tahrir Square movement people used this system to defend and care for their own neighborhoods. “Leadership comes up from below, and everybody has a say,” Warren told us. “It’s like you’re constantly plugged into craigslist. It’s community building – building trust up over time.” He gave the following historical examples of folkmote organizations: medieval guilds, the Committees of Safety and Correspondence in the original 13 colonies, the Paris Commune of 1871, the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War, and the Zapatistas. He added, “We’re all already in one or more of them. Who do you call on in an emergency?” Interestingly, according to Warren, Occupy Wall Street is switching from the General Assembly format to a spokescouncil, a localized folkmote. (“Folkmote” means “a gathering of ordinary people.”)

Warren mentioned that Marx had anarchist Mikhail Bakunin kicked out of the 1st International because the latter was against strong centralized leadership and believed people could govern themselves best. The folkmote system and mutual aid are inherent in anarchist theory and practice, as is decentralization in all spheres (decentralization militates against takeover by a minority or conquest by an alien force). Anarchist Peter Kropotkin advocated decentralized food production, as have many concerned about “energy descent” and/or economic collapse. Warren reminded us that anarchy doesn’t mean “chaos;” it means “replacing government with self-organization.”

Thinking again of the Occupy movement, someone asked, “How do you keep solidarity?” and Warren answered that there are no guarantees, but that organizations moving in the same direction could form common “fronts.”

J., C., and I plan to talk to our neighbors – maybe by inviting the closest ones to a purely social event – and others interested in sharing or bartering resources. (See also your local freecycle list – ours can be found by Googling “Freecycle Eugene.”)

I thought it was interesting that halfway through Warren’s presentation we had to move to another area of the park, because a noisy group of about 20 tough-looking young adults, mostly male and some passing a marijuana pipe, started congregating near us. People just naturally form into groups.

To summarize, I quote from a letter Warren wrote to the editor of our local weekly paper prior to our meeting. “I hope the Occupy Wall Street movement maintains its beautiful, diversified, vibrant anarchist roots and doesn’t become just another worthless reform movement. Representative democracy is inherently vulnerable to corruption and needs to be replaced with something better. Like the mutual aid societies people have lived in since Paleolithic times…where everyone has a say in government and we can be responsible for our own administration and public services at the neighborhood level, even in the biggest cities. Where there are work-at-home and cottage industry opportunities for people to not have to be wage slaves. A system that can never be hijacked by any self-appointed ‘superior’ minority.” In the same letter, Warren notes that the Occupy movement is ‘propaganda through deed,’ though more nonviolent than earlier American anarchists, shut down by the government, along with anti-war protestors and ‘Wobblies’ (member of the International Workers of the World) during World War I.

Warren said our local Occupy movement didn’t seem that interested in switching to a folkmote system right now, but if others organized that way they could send representatives to the local General Assembly meetings and ask to form committees, if appropriate, with the local movement. I’ve also recently experienced great responsiveness via e-mail from local Occupiers to a site suggestion I made, and have yet to explore all the possibilities of using our local Occupy website.

To be continued…

P.S. Re: ‘propaganda through deed’ and the Occupy movement, a local Occupier told a university official that the movement isn’t “camping;” it’s occupying. (Our local group is currently occupying an area owned by the state university.)