Communities as Future?

25 10 2006

[8/5/2010: Originally posted in October of 2006, it seems more timely now than it was then.  I revised it fairly thoroughly, stripping out language that seemed leaden and overly ideological.]

Historically, mutual aid societies (ranging from churches to labor unions to communes) have provided members with some degree of material and social security.  The common bonds that define mutual aid societies foster healthy attitudes toward support, both from those who give it and those who receive it.

Yet, most debates for dealing with poverty often ignore these sorts of communities.  They over-emphasize the individual and are structured by an ideal of the middle class.  The middle-class income provides an individual with some financial independence, allowing them to disentangle themselves from the sort of social entanglements that often develop at lower income levels.

This sort of freedom isn’t itself bad, but it’s not the sort of freedom that is reasonably available to everyone.  Addressing poverty as if it were easily gained and maintained leads to strategies that produce temporary successes that are easily lost.

The middle-class individual and family uses a lot of resources to sustain itself and it doesn’t have deep reserves if those resources get scarce (like a bad job market).

In contrast, a community with strong legal underpinnings offer an interesting alternative.  Not only do these communities have an element of choice (often absent from communities of necessity like extended families), but can acquire a good deal of legal muscle if thoughtfully established.

Such communities, as corporate entities, have somewhat more power in negotiating insurance rates for members.  Even when that fails, the safety net of a strong community is more resilient than that of an individual or small family.  What is backbreaking for an individual or small family can become merely difficult for a large community.

Those communities can also nurture careers for those who provide services directly to members of the same community.  These aren’t exclusively ‘social service’ careers like medicine, but cultural ones, too.  The production of literature aimed at fellow community members, for example, fosters both publishing and writing careers.

Obviously, there is a lot that would need be done beyond just recognizing the values of these sorts of communities at a legislative level.  Concrete strategies for supporting them would need to be explored, considered in detail, and executed with some degree of caution.

There would have to be room for learning how best to support these communal support networks without co-opting them (and without letting them co-opt government resources for purely ideological ends).

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