Reinventing Square Wheels

The issues raised in last week’s post here on The Archdruid Report cut far closer to the heart of our predicament than many of my readers may realize. It’s not just that the production of every kind of good or service in an industrial economy depends on the expectation that somebody or other can make a profit out of the deal, though of course that’s of huge importance. Every other mechanism we’ve got for circulating wealth depends directly or indirectly on the same expectation: taxes, fees, rent, interest on loans, and much else assumes that every business ought to produce enough profit that its banker, landlord, local and state governments, and so on can all be supported off a share of the proceeds without bankrupting the business.

Nowadays, that’s not necessarily a safe assumption. If you walk down the main streets in the old red brick Appalachian mill town where I live, for example, you’ll see any number of empty storefronts in excellent locations. Most of them haven’t had a tenant in forty years. Now and then a new business opens in one of these spots, or makes the attempt, but it’s very rare for one of these to be around a year after its opening. Cumberland, Maryland is a classic Rust Belt town, and the factories that were once its main employers all shut down in the early 1970s, pushing it through the same deindustrial transition that most of the rest of the United States is facing right now.

Businesses here have to survive on a very thin profit margin. The difficulty is that bankers, landlords, local and state officials, and so on still want their accustomed cut, which is substantially more than that margin will usually cover. This isn’t mere greed—they all have their own bills to pay, and an equal or larger number of people and institutions clamoring for a share of their own take.  The result, though, is that storefronts stay empty despite an abundance of unmet economic needs and an equal abundance of people who would be happy to work if they had the chance, because the businesses that could meet those needs and employ those people can’t make enough of a profit to keep their doors open. The inability of most economic activities to turn a profit in an age of contraction is already an issue at many levels, and one with which contemporary economic thought is almost completely unprepared to deal.

The one reliable way of dealing with that inability, of course, is to move productive activities into spheres that don’t depend on the profit motive. The household economy is one obvious place, and so is that expansion of the household economy—pretty much universal in dark ages—in which each family cultivates grains, legumes, and other bulk food crops for its own use on village farmland. Gift economies hardwired into the social hierarchy are also standard in such ages.  There’s a good reason why the English word “lord” comes from an  Anglo-Saxon term meaning “giver of loaves,” and it’s the same reason why generosity is always one of the most praised virtues in feudal and protofeudal societies:  from Saxon England to Vedic India to the First Nations of the Pacific Northwest coast, giving lavish gifts to all and sundry is the most important economic activity of the aristocrat.

Still, as discussed last week, religion is among other things a critically important source of motivation for unprofitable but necessary activities, and it tends to become paramount in ages of decline. There are certain complexities here, though, and the best way to grasp them is an indirect one. As so often in these essays, that route leads along unexpected byways—in this case, past two communes in rural Massachusetts, of all places, during the first half of the nineteenth century.

The first of them will be familiar only to who know the history of the Transcendentalist movement, America’s first homegrown counterculture. Its name was Brook Farm; it was founded with high hopes and much fanfare in 1841 by a bunch of Boston hippies—for all practical purposes, that’s what the Transcendentalists were—and it imploded in a series of crises in 1846 and 1847, having followed a trajectory that will be painfully familiar to anybody who watched the aftermath of the Sixties. As usual, the central conflict pitted middle-class expectations of adequate leisure, comfort, and personal independence against the hard economic realities of subsistence farming, and both sides lost; unable to support its members’ lifestyles solely from the results of their labor, the community ran through its savings and as much money as it could borrow, and when the money ran out, it went under.

One of the commune’s founding members, Nathaniel Hawthorne, set his novel The Blithedale Romance at a lightly fictionalized Brook Farm. Back when American public schools still had students read literature, you could count on getting assigned to read Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter or The House of the Seven Gables , but not The Blithedale Romance. Partly, I suspect, that was because its edgy portrayal of the psychology of the true believer, via the character of Hollingsworth the social reformer, cuts far too close to the bone; partly, though, it’s because America has long suffered from a frantic terror of all the most creative dimensions of its own past.

Brook Farm, in point of fact, was one of several hundred known communes in the United States in the 19th century, which built on a tradition going back to the late 17th; the first American commune I know of, Johannes Kelpius’ “Woman in the Wilderness” community of Rosicrucian ascetics, was founded in the trackless forests of Pennsylvania in1694. There are dozens of good books on these communities from 19th and early 20th century historians—Charles Nordhoff’s 1875 survey The Communistic Societies of the United States is a classic—and a flurry of research on them in academic circles more recently, but you’ll rarely hear about any of that in any public venue these days.

There’s a post to be written about the spectacular falsification of the American past that unfolds from our efforts to flee from our own history, but that’s a subject for another week. The point relevant now is that, during the years when Brook Farm was stumbling through its short and troubled life, there were several other communes in the neighborhood, and one that deserves special mention here was only thirty-five miles away by road.  Long before Brook Farm’s rise and long after its fall, it was a prosperous egalitarian community with around 200 members, growing all its own food and meeting all its financial needs with room to spare. The Harvard Village, as it was called, was everything Brook Farm’s founders claimed they wanted their commune to be, and it was also everything Brook Farm’s founders rejected most heatedly in practice: that is, it was a Shaker community.

Those of my readers from outside the United States may never have heard of the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, better known then and now as the Shakers. To most Americans, for that matter, those words might at most stir some vague memory of spare but elegant handicrafts and a few notes of the classic Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts.” I have yet to see a discussion of the United Society find its way into the ongoing conversation about lifeboat ecovillages. That’s a pity, because the Shaker experience has important and highly relevant lessons to teach in that context.

The United Society had its start in Manchester, England, where Ann Lee—“Mother Ann” to Shakers ever after—led a tiny group that spun off from the Quakers over the course of the 1760s. In 1774, Mother Ann and eight followers came to what was about to become the United States, and found no shortage of interest in their new gospel. From 1787 on, the United Society was run by its American converts, and these latter proceeded to accomplish one of the most remarkable feats of convergent evolution in human history: starting wholly from first principles, and with apparently no knowledge of the historical parallels, they reinvented almost every detail of classic monasticism.

Like monks and nuns everywhere, Shakers were celibate—one of Mother Ann’s revelations was that sexuality is the most potent source of human sinfulness—and lived communally, owning no personal property. Men and women lived in separate dormitories in a Shaker village and led essentially separate lives; Shaker meetinghouses, where Sunday services were held, had two doors, one for Brothers and one for Sisters, and the two sexes sat on opposite sides. Despite the rule of celibacy, there were always children in Shaker villages, some of them orphans, some left by destitute or deadbeat parents, some brought into the United Society when their parents joined; they had their own dormitories, one for girls and one for boys. The children could choose to leave or stay when they reached adulthood. To stay was to give up sexuality, family, property, and a great deal of autonomy, but it was a choice many made.

There were consolations, to be sure, and not all of them were wholly spiritual. The opportunities open to women among the Shakers were much more substantial than what was available in what Shakers called “the World.” Both sexes had equal roles in each village, each regional bishopric, and the entire Society—the Central Ministry, the body of four senior Shakers who ran the organization, always consisted of two Elders and two Eldresses. Ordinary members could expect a life of of hard work, but that was common enough in 19th century America, and the lifelong support of a close-knit community provided by the Shaker system was something most people in that rough-and-tumble era did not have.

The Shakers thus had to be on the watch for freeloaders—“bread-and-butter Shakers” was the usual term—who wanted to join the Society for the sake of free meals and medical care, but had no interest in the religion or, for that matter, in putting in an honest day’s work. Still, the United Society found so many sincere converts that new Shaker communities were being founded into the 1830s, and membership declines didn’t become an issue until well after the Civil War.  Nor is the United Society quite gone even today; there are still a few members left at the last remaining Shaker village at Sabbathday Lake, Maine, supporting themselves by the utterly traditional Shaker trade of drying and selling herbs.

Compare a Shaker community with a Christian or Buddhist monastery and the parallels are impossible to miss. The classic Christian monastic virtues of poverty, chastity, and obedience are all present and accounted for; so is the commitment to labor as a form of religious service. For that matter, the clean, simple, spare esthetic that the Shakers made famous in their furnishings and architecture has a great deal in common with the elegant simplicity that Zen Buddhism introduced to Japanese art and design, or the close equivalents in Christian monastic traditions. The parallels aren’t accidental: set out to live on a monastic plan, and the kind of simplicity prized by Shakers, Cistercians, Zen monks, and so many of their fellow monastics, has a great many practical advantages.

Whether it takes the form of a Shaker village, a Catholic abbey, a Zen Buddhist monastery, or what have you, the monastic life is one of the few consistent success stories in the history of communal living. That’s exactly the problem, of course, because the vast majority of people who imagine themselves living in a communal setting these days aren’t willing to push their enthusiasm to the point of giving up sex, family personal property, and personal autonomy.

The result, predictably enough, has been a steady stream of projects, proposals, and actual communities launched by people who want to have their cake and eat it too: that is, to live in a self-supporting communal setting while still retaining comfortable middle-class values of ownership, autonomy, and unhindered sexual activity. Brook Farm was one of those attempts, and it lasted longer than most. Throughout American history, the average lifespan of a commune has been around two years. There are counterexamples, to be sure, but it’s remarkable how often those have ended up adopting at least some of the traditional monastic values, such as community ownership of property.

There’s a wholly pragmatic reason for those failures. The kind of lifestyle most people consider normal in industrial societies is only possible if you’re helping to burn through half a billion years of stored sunlight via a modern industrial economy. You can’t support such a lifestyle with hand labor on a rural commune. Even the much less resource-intensive lifestyles of the Brook Farm era were too costly to be met by working the land, which is why Brook Farm went broke in five years. Most of the communes of the Sixties crashed and burned sooner than that: unless there was a sugar daddy available to cover the bills, the amount and kind of work the residents were willing to do usually failed to meet the costs of the lifestyles they wanted to lead, and collapse followed promptly.

The exceptions have almost all been religious communities. In the Sixties, that usually meant that they clustered around a spiritual leader who was charismatic or convincing enough to get away with telling his followers what to do. Some religious communities launched by the Sixties counterculture thus are still around; others got past the economic problems that wrecked most of their secular counterparts, only to crash headlong into one of the other standard traps that face communal projects. You can see all these same patterns traced out  in the communes launched by earlier American countercultures, from the Transcendentalists on—and by and large, the only ones that survive their founding generation are those that conform more or less precisely to the model of classic monasticism sketched out above.

I spoke of convergent evolution earlier, and the borrowing from biology is a deliberate one. Darwin’s theory, at its core, is simply a recognition that some things work better than others, and those organisms who stumble across something that works better—in physical structure, in behavior, or what have you—are more likely to survive whatever challenges they and their less gifted counterparts face together. Why one thing works better than another may or may not be obvious, even after close study, but when one set of adaptations consistently results in survival, while a different set just as consistently results in collapse, it seems quite reasonable to draw the obvious lesson from that experience.

That inference seems reasonable to me, at least. I’m quite aware that most other people in the modern industrial world don’t seem to see things that way. I can point out that X has failed every single time it’s been tried, without a single exception, and people will insist that this doesn’t matter unless I can detail the reasons why it has to fail; then, when I do so, they try to argue with the reasons. In the opening lines of his essay The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, Karl Marx commented acidly: “Hegel says somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” One of the most potent forces driving those repetitions, by turns tragic and farcical, is the endlessly repeated insistence that this time, the lessons of history don’t matter.

Thus it’s an interesting question why celibacy should be so important a factor in the long-term survival of monastic systems. Perhaps celibacy works because it prevents sexual jealousies from spinning out of control, as they so often do in the hothouse environment of communal living. Perhaps celibacy works because pair bonds between lovers are a potent source of the private loyalties that, left to run free, so often distract members of communal groups from their loyalty to the project as a whole. Perhaps celibacy works because it’s only when your followers are willing to give up sex for the cause that you can be sure they’re committed enough.  Perhaps celibacy works because all that creative energy has to go somewhere—the Shakers, like so many other monastic traditions, birthed an astonishing range of artistic and creative endeavors, from a musical corpus of more than 11,000 original hymns, through graphic arts, architecture, and a style of furniture and other crafts that’s widely considered one of the great traditions of American folk culture.

Perhaps it’s some other reason entirely. The point that needs to be kept in mind, though, is that in a monastic setting, celibacy works, and most of the other ways of managing human sexuality in that setting pretty reliably don’t. It’s possible to be utterly correct about the fact that X is the case while being just as utterly clueless about the reasons why X is the case. The fact that medieval philosophers believed that rocks fall because they’re passionately in love with the earth, and desire to be united with their beloved, thus did not prevent those same philosophers from recognizing that rocks do indeed fall when you pick them up and let go.

The value and the limitations of history as a guide to the present and the future come out of the hard fact that history tells us what happens, but not why it happens. More than three centuries of communal experiments in North America, and more than three thousand years of similar experiments elsewhere, have a lot to teach about what works and what doesn’t work when people decide to pursue a communal lifestyle. Those who are willing to learn from those experiences have a much better chance of coming up with something that works than those who insist that the past doesn’t matter and thus repeat its most common mistakes all over again. Reinventing the wheel has its uses, but if your efforts at reinvention consistently turn out square wheels, it may be helpful to look at other examples of the wheelwright’s craft and see if you can figure out what they got right and you got wrong.

Ironically, that’s an insight the Shakers could have used. I mentioned above that they managed to reinvent almost every detail of classic monasticism, but one of the few details they missed turned out to be their Achilles’ heel. Quite a few religious movements have started out wholly monastic; those that survived for more than a few generations figured out that they also needed some mode of participation for people who admired their ideals and believed in their teachings but weren’t ready to take the plunge into a celibate lifestyle. The Jain and Buddhist religions, to name only two examples, started out as wholly monastic traditions, but figured out early on that they needed to make room for laypersons as well—and discovered that the more room they made for lay involvement, the more often it happened that people got sufficiently used to the idea of monastic life to say “You know, I could live with that.” It’s by way of that process that successful monastic systems keep themselves supplied with novices.

If the Shakers had such a community of supportive lay believers as a waystation between the World and the formal Shaker life, it’s quite possible that they would be a major American denomination today. If the lack of that bridge is what finally brings the United Society’s story to an end, as seems likely just now, they won’t be the first victims of that particular trap, and doubtless won’t be the last, either. That’s why it’s important to pay attention to the lessons of history, especially when there’s reason to suspect a mismatch between your expectations and the facts on the ground. The decline and fall of contemporary industrial civilization bids fair to bring a bumper crop of that sort of mismatch into play—and in such times insisting that despite all the experience of the past, wheels ought to have square corners, is not exactly a useful habit. 

I also have a couple of announcements my readers might find of interest.. First of all, my next peak oil book, Decline and Fall: The End of Empire and the Future of Democracy in 21st Century America, is now available for preordering, at 20% off the cover price. Those of you who followed last year's posts on the end of America's empire have seen the first drafts; those who haven't – well, I'll let you decide for yourself whether or not you're in for a treat. Visit the publisher's website here to place an order.

Second, the Green Wizardry forum at is up and running again, after a somewhat rocky shift to new servers. If you're already a member, you should be able to log on without difficulty. If you're not, because the forum's had all kinds of trouble with spam, you'll need to contact the forum moderators at randomsurfer200 (at) yahoo (dot) com to get an account started.