Monday, August 27, 2007

Living together

A somewhat serendipitous and slightly random collection of links today, but over the last few days I've run across a remarkable number of readings on the topic of communal living.

At Click Opera, Momus has a nice little post on Lohmühle which is...rather hard to describe, really. They describe themselves as a 'Gesamtkunstwerk', as Momus points out, 'a synthesis of the arts, Eden, playground, field of experimentation, lifelong residence, inspiration, childhood dream, magnet, community, paradise.'

He observes:

We probably all have an inner hippy who'd be happy to live without running water or electricity in a shed surrounded by enormous sunflowers. I know I do. I confine my inner hippy to a 22 metre square area of my soul, to stop him taking over all my desires.
I'm not sure if I'd want to universalise this assumption, but I do have my own inner hippie (sorry, that's the way I learned to spell it...), and there are moments when he finds a settlement like this ramshackle little village appealing.

How 'radical' this dream is, of course, can be questioned:

Lohmuehle is terribly German -- not unlike the gardening allotments you see in Berlin suburbs. Of course, here the petit bourgeois Protestantism is tempered with radical protest -- in the bushes nestle banners against deportation or yuppification. And although all the allotment fences have been removed and the Protestant virtues of self-sufficiency and autonomy have been tilted slightly towards communitarianism and anarchism, this is essentially a rather conservative pastoral dream -- to opt out of the rat race, to live organically, to wash in water pumped up by hand from the water table, to gather rainwater from the eaves and electricity from the sun.
Not that being 'radical' is necessarily the point.

There are reasons, though, to wonder whether something like this is really all it's cracked up to be:

But isn't it cold in winter? "You burn wood in the stove and your ass gets cold when you go to the chemical toilet. In summer, if it's hot, it's worse. You rot like melted Emmenthal."
My inner long-hair, I think, has rather more need for comfort than some.

In a very different context, there's an interesting article at the New York Times on changes in the culture of the Kibbutz. Having gone through a series of crises in the 1980s, many of the Israeli collective communities appear to have gone through a successful reform process.

But starting in the 1980s, when socialism was on a global downward spiral and the country was mired in hyperinflation, Israel’s 250 or so kibbutzim seemed doomed. Their debt mounted and their group dining halls grew empty as the young moved away.

Now, in a surprising third act, the kibbutzim are again thriving. Only in 2007 they are less about pure socialism than a kind of suburbanized version of it.

On most kibbutzim, food and laundry services are now privatized; on many, houses may be transferred to individual members, and newcomers can buy in. While the major assets of the kibbutzim are still collectively owned, the communities are now largely run by professional managers rather than by popular vote. And, most important, not everyone is paid the same.

Once again, people are lining up to get in.

The article is certainly interesting, but it has its annoying tics. The reference to 'shedding socialism' turns out to be not so clear-cut: there seems to have been some privatisation and the more austere aspects of the movement have faded. However, they've hardly become bastions of turbo capitalism:
“What we love here is the simplicity,” said Boaz Varol, 38, who rides his bike along wooded pathways to work at the swimming pool, once for communal use, that he rents and runs as a private business at Kibbutz Yasur, in the rolling hills of the Western Galilee, northeast of Haifa. “Everyone does what they want, we have our independence, but without the kind of competition you find outside.”

And, furthermore, the apparent renaissance of kibbutz living appears to have included those kibbutzim that have resisted 'renewal':

Not all kibbutzim followed this kind of strategy. About 30 percent stuck to their socialist principles. But many of them are flourishing, too.

“I get calls every day from people who want to join,” said Yaniv Sagee, the secretary of Kibbutz Ein Hashofet. “I don’t have room for them.”
Now, anyone with extensive personal experience group houses knows the downsides of having to share your lives with others. (Excellent literary versions of these downsides can be found in Doris Lessing's The Good Terrorist and T.C. Boyle's Drop City.)

And, my own experiences help to keep my own inner hippie confined to his mental room.

And then there's another, far more disturbing world of communal life, far away from those of Lohmühle and the kibbutzim.

Although calling it 'communal' is probably stretching the meaning of the term.

At Reason, I ran across a fascinating article on 'the Mesa':

In 15 square miles of abandoned land, about 400 misfits—aging hippies, disillusioned veterans, teenage runaways—have built a community where no one cares if you smoke pot, fire your rifle all day, let your kids drive your car, or walk around naked in the desert heat. It's a landscape of beat-up old trailers, shacks jerry-rigged from recycled materials, solar panels, little farms, greenhouses, and at least one tipi. "Where I live is the last remaining land of America that is left," says Dreadie Jeff, another Mesa resident. "You can do what you fucking want there."

Doing what you fucking want, of course, has its up-sides and down-sides too.

The Mesa, says Randy, represents "everything about America we loved and feared." The love, in her brother's words, is for "that pure sense of American democracy. Even though they were disillusioned with the government, they still loved the concept of America." The fear reflected the constant potential for violence, which at one point led the filmmakers themselves to think about getting armed.

I'm not surprised. Here's the trailer.

Remember: 'You don't shoot your neighbour.'

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