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Bradel's New Economics III – Sharing · 5:19pm Oct 2nd, 2015

So I tried writing this thing once, and I wasn't very happy with how it came out. You know what that means.

...you don't? Well, you should. It means it's time for an old fashioned high school style persuasive essay! (When in doubt, go with the classics!)

I started off this series by talking about crowdfunding, and how I feel it's reshaping the ability of markets to respond to changing attitudes about value[1]. I followed that up with a discussion of Kim Stanley Robinson's take on eco-economics and energy economics, Mondragon cooperativism, and ideas about postcapitalism.

Today, I want to talk about hippie communes.

A few years back, Neal Stephenson published a book I really liked[2]—Anathem. It's about a bunch of academics living in a weird combination of universities and monastic communities. Given that I'm devoutly Catholic and devoutly academic, maybe you can see why this notion would appeal to me.

Y'all are probably familiar with the idea of communes. They've been around for a long time—longer than most people who talk about communes seem to realize, I suspect. I've heard some amusing stories about Catholic monastic communities in the mid-20th century watching hippie communes springing up around them. These communes would succumb to the same problems over and over again, and fall apart. The monks would hang out in their monastaries and have a good laugh about it, because those problems were largely things the various monastic orders had had to figure out a millenium earlier.

Anyway, I'm going to be talking about communes today. Sort of, anyway. So let's get on the same page here—what is a commune?

At its core, a commune is a social group in which things are shared. What gets shared varies from commune to commune, but it usually involves living space, possessions, and income. That sounds like a bit of a nightmare recipe right there, if you leave it like that (see: "Shameless", Sundays on Showtime)—so communes usually also involve shared work, shared responsibilities, and shared decision-making. Wikipedia, unsurprisingly, has a rundown of a few common notions.

My goal with this third blog was always to lay out some ideas about future economic trends that I expect to see manifesting within our lifetimes. Feel free to think I'm a crazy person, but this is where I think we're headed.

Communes are basically a way of trying to implement utopian social philosophies, to one extent or another. I think a lot of people's visions of the positive post-scarcity future look like the old visions of communes back when hippies ruled the earth. And there's a lot to be said for that kind of utopianism. It's a long-held view of mine that we can do more good for other people than we can do for ourselves. Something as simple as giving a compliment can brighten someone's day for hours. Helping a friend to do a task they don't really like may be tiresome for you, but it's something they'll look back on for days and remember. There are reasons why this sort of utopian idealism makes sense.

But here's the thing: communes suck ass.

HaHA! I told you this was going to be a persusasive essay, but I lied! This blog is following the tried-and-true Japanese writing method of 起承転結 (Kishōtenketsu)! Welcome to the dangerous and ever-changing world of international literary theory.

Anyway, like I was saying, communes suck. It took the Catholic church mandating all sorts of crazy social rules to be able to get them to stick long-term in the monastic form. Hippie communes are kind of notorious for failing. Some groups pull them off, but the successes seem to be few and far between. And the reason for this, I think, is because being in a commune just isn't fun. Sure, if you're a filthy hippie, you've got a honeymoon month of magic mushrooms and free love before things start to go south, but then you figure out that you're living in a run-down farmhouse with half the Partridge Family, half the Manson Family, and a pair of Colombian drug mules. Trying to make other peoples' lives better is a noble ideal, but you just want to achieve some personal happiness and self-actualize a bit, and it's not happening the way you thought it would. So you stop planting alfalfa as fast as you used to, you let the dishes stack up in the sink, and the next thing you know, Mary and Martha are leading a powwow about equitable allocation of responsibilities.

So why did I spend all this time talking about them? Because despite all this, I think a particular form of them is the shape of things to come.

Last time, I made some mention of Paul Mason's thesis that the overabundance of information in a newly information-geared economy is going to disrupt the economic status quo. And I think the huge boom in fanfiction we've seen in the internet age is very emblematic of that. Fanfiction is an information product created with no appreciable expectation of monetary return.

But we're not a commune here, are we?

No. No, we're not. I'm not trying to throw you guys a curveball. To be a commune, we'd effectively need to be some sort of self-supporting community engaged in cooperative work. Actually, why don't we take that as a definition moving forward. To distinguish what I'm talking about from monasticism and hippie communes, let's call this thing I'm talking about a collaborative.

Bradel's Ad-Hoc Dictionary:
Collaborative – n. A self-supporting community engaged in cooperative work.

The community here on Fimfiction engages in a lot of cooperative work, but it's not self-supporting. We toss around a bit of Patreon funding, but not a whole lot. We do take some interesting collective actions, though—most of the ones I've seen at the behest of Bad Horse, who is probably the agent provocateur behind getting me to think about these things. Bad Horse has twice tried to drum up a Clarion scholarship for pony writers—and he's gotten a lot of funding promises, but no one's ever stepped forward to claim the scholarship. BH also put together a project to help Obabscribbler pay for her vet bills, in exchange for a reading of GhostOfHeraclitus's "Whom the Princesses Would Destroy..."

But we're just an online community of writers and pony enthusiasts. We don't have any serious pressures acting on us, aside from our own individual desires to perform and associate. And our community is primarily virtual—which, while it doesn't change the nature of the community, does affect some of the pressures the community faces.

What groups do count as collaboratives, in the way I'm defining the term?

An old saw states that every civilization is nine meals away from anarchy—essentially that starving people are liable to descend into social chaos. With that in mind, two of the groups that spring to my mind as potential recent collaboratives are the Occupy Wall Street movement and the 2011 Tahrir Square protests. Parts of the Iranian Green Revolution movement from 2009 may also be good candidates. OWS and Tahrir Square in particular were characterized by being both localized and persistent. These weren't groups of protesters who assembled, argued, and dispersed. They were (as the OWS name implies) occupiers. And as such, they needed to form some sort of functioning temporary society to organize themselves for the duration of their occupation. I don't know how the Tahrir Square protesters organized themselves, but OWS is associated with a whole Occupy Movement thing which has a fairly well defined set of structures at this point.

(For what it's worth, Occupy Wall Street bugs me in the same way Third-Wave Feminism and Noam Chomsky bug me. Call me a dinosaur, but I believe in Second-Wave Feminism.)

To me, these sorts of movements are an organic progression from the concept of smart mobs—coordinated groups coming together for short-term action, usually with technologically-mediated information links[3]. Smart mobs show hints of collective intelligence, but only a very small amount when compared with larger-scale long-duration collective action. And as an organic progression, I think they leave a lot to be desired; they exhibit a lot of kinks that have yet to be worked out. But I think we're going to see a lot more things like OWS over the coming years and decades, especially when people start to figure out how to streamline the social aspect. And I personally suspect that most of the important social principles these groups need will come from what we're already seeing in online communities like Fimfiction, where people naturally align into networks of shared interest, networks of shared activity, and hierarchies based on some combination of merit measures and networking strength.

Why do I think we're going to see more of this? Well, that ties back into the last two blog posts.

To me, crowdfunding, eco-economics, and cooperativism are all signs of dissent about market values for goods and services. I don't think markets are going away anytime soon, but I think what we're going to see is more economic disruption on the edges of society, more non-standard economic arrangements like bartering systems.

I think the economy, as it exists, is failing certain groups of people. And I think more and more of those people are going to start to realize that they can function in loose collectives that form and disperse for the achievement of certain goals—that they can provide work and expertise that is of more value within that collaborative than it would be on the open market. That's already happening in a sense, with ventures like Airbnb, UpWork, and Uber—companies designed to connect people who need certain resources with other people who have them to spare.

But I think in the coming years we're going to start to see it on a larger, non-corporate scale as well. That's already happening in places like Greece. In the Guardian article I linked last time, Paul Mason mentions a series of food co-ops, parallel currencies, and local exchange systems that have sprung up the face of the economic crisis there. As people get more accustomed to the idea of sharing time and resources, my guess is that we're going to see a lot more one-to-one trades in kind. The market as it exists is a great way to even out the availability of resources, but information is already starting to become its own form of currency in this respect. Uber, Airbnb, UpWork—these companies are all about just-in-time delivery of resources. But the most efficient delivery of resources, it should be obvious, comes from having a dedicated group of people working together in different roles to accomplish common tasks. This is why film crews have staff caterers and staff drivers instead of hiring that work out on the fly every day.

I don't think our form of society is in any danger of disappearing, but I do think we're going to see some interesting micro-societies forming and disbanding around the edges of what we have now, working to a common purpose on larger-scale projects. If Occupy Wall Street formed today, I think it would look very different from how it looked in 2009. But much more interesting than another OWS or Tahrir Square, what I'm watching for is a group of people coming together to build something they think needs building. I think that's where all of this is headed, and I think it could change the world if it starts happening.

It's fascinating, in its way. A lot of people seem to worry about the problems of social dynamics that a first Martian colony would face. I suspect we're going to solve a lot of those issues here on Earth in the next two decades, almost by accident.

[1] Okay, maybe that's not exactly what I said. But it's what people convinced me of in the comments, and I think it's a better way of stating the general point I was trying to make. I wanna look good, okay? This is my blog. It's not my fault you guys know way more about economics than I do.

[2] Full disclosure: Neal Stephenson publishes a lot of books I really like. In fact, I think Cryptonomicon is the only thing I've read by him that I didn't adore on some level.

[3] Properly defined, flash mobs are a subclass of smart mobs that appear to generate spontaneously and for the purpose of performing actions that have no goal beyond the performace of that action itself.

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Comments ( 14 )

Oh shoot! I forgot to mention, thank you to Themaskedferret for reading this over for me, and encouraging me to improve the ending (which was a lot weaker and more bland an hour ago).

Also, thanks to y'all who came out and read and enjoyed these blog posts. I'm done with the set now, so it's time to move on to other writing. Hopefully stories will be coming up next, but I would like to get into the habit of doing more fun blogging like this in the future, too.

Author Interviewer

So what you're saying is we need to become a hippie brony commune with Bad Horse as our supreme leader?

3437089 Nah, I'd side with JediMasterEd

Author Interviewer

Yet he was not namedropped in the journal. :V

So... here's a rambling response that sort of dribbled out of my over-worked brain:

There's also a purely social component to the renewed interest in variations on communal living/cooperation, and from what I can see, they are mostly a reaction against multiculturalism.

The Libertarians like the concept of "going Gault," and there have been some attempts at creating isolated communities. (Most notoriously, the disastrous Gault Gulch project in South America.) There is a strong component of economic/governmental (or lack thereof) ideology in the planning of such communities, but seen from a non-Libertarian viewpoint, they all seem to concentrate primarily on cultural differences.

Then there's the Benedict Option supporters. They, too, dislike the new evolving global culture and want to retreat into religious, monastic-like communities... only with, y'know... women and sex. They're strong on community cohesiveness and shared responsibility, but are running into problems trying to implement/enforce biblical strictures and punishments in defiance of local/state/federal laws. Several lawsuits against such communities are ongoing at this moment, concerning illegal confinement, rape, torture, and civil rights violations.

So what seems to be working as far as ideological communities go? I think isolationism is the kiss of death. It's the ones that engage with the world and are more about shared concepts rather than shared physical space that seem to be succeeding. And the only thing that makes that possible is modern communications. Hello, techno-virtual communes!

This may not be an entirely great thing. The current hyper-polarization of American politics is likely due to people of strong views being easily able to find more like-minded folk to form uncritical echo-chambers for their beliefs, which leads to an ideological feedback loop ending in extremism.

Anyway... we live in interesting times.

I can't possibly get the time to answer this properly but I will point out one problem: While these self-organizing microsocieties are powerful they do have one central unsolved problem. Violence. They cannot protect themselves adequately from overbearing force. Which, incidentally, is what I fear might happen if OWS were to happen today: they would get beaten down. And there's nothing they can do about it short of no longer being self-organizing ad-hoc microsocieties.

So I suspect this form of societal organization will thrive in the margins, but won't effect great change.


Oh, god. Bad Horse. JediMasterEd. Mmm. Who to choose?

Hey, tell you what, if one ruled, like, the night, and the other the day and they swapped over at dawn and dusk...

It could work. And, hey, Bad Horse is fascinated by the moon landings, I seem to recall.

I think that the biggest problem is that Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, the so-called Social Justice Warriors, ect. are all, well, fundamentally pretty evil. Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter are both borderline anarchistic organizations, while the Social Justice Warriors have an unpleasant resemblance to lynch mobs.

And this is I think a major danger of many of these groups - if they're driven by rage, they're probably going to be fundamentally reflective of the worst parts of human nature.

Project Chanology was pretty positive because people were being playful about it, but it terrified the Church of Scientology. And having many groups focus their gaze on people can make them feel like the Eye of Mordor just looked at them.

Indeed, I think these groups are actually behaving in largely unintelligent ways - the reason why these groups can be so dangerous is that when they're fuelled by negative emotions, driven by soundbites (or should that be soundbytes?) on Twitter, rather than behaving more intelligently, actually behave less intelligently.

I think these groups are actually the opposite of the Internet Hive Mind. The Internet Hive Mind, as I see it, is about being greater than what you are. When I'm connected to the Internet, I have a vastly greater amount of knowledge. I'm smarter than I am on my own. When I'm cut off from the Internet, I actually feel diminished, because I can't just Google some random thing and learn about it. I'm not even directly interacting with other people, but indirect interactions via Wikipedia, blog posts, articles, books, ect. makes me more than what I am, and by putting stuff out and having it reformulated by others, we build stuff up.

These sorts of flash mobs are actually very much the opposite, and largely bank on emotion rather than intellect. They're about sharing emotional feelings, which is why you had riots in response to the revelation that Michael Brown was actually a violent criminal - the group, rather than sharing the new information and incorporating it into its decision-making process, instead rejected it because it conflicted with the emotional outrage of the mob.

Rather than showing greater-than-human intelligence, as things like Wikipedia do, they show less-than-human intelligence, because instead of taking the best things people can add, instead they're taking the worst parts that people have in common - the lowest common denominator, rather than a thousand small contributions.

That's already happening in places like Greece. In the Guardian article I linked last time, Paul Mason mentions a series of food co-ops, parallel currencies, and local exchange systems that have sprung up the face of the economic crisis there.


So, about that...

They're actally the sign of societal breakdown and the destruction of altruism.

Money is an incredibly altruistic system that shows a lot of trust for your fellow man. If I produce something, I can take money in exchange for it, in faith that someone else will honor that money - without knowing either of us! - and give me resoruces in return. I can sell someone a car, then go buy melons from someone else who doesn't need a car.

It is wholly depersonalized reciprocal altruism that shows a trust in society - that even if I don't know you, you will still honor your obligations to me.

The reason these things are happening in Greece is because of a lack of altruism - a lack of trust. Barter is the result of lacking greater trust in society, of people not being willing to trade for anything other than the specific good they need, because they don't trust society to be able to provide it to them.

The Greeks are actually very selfish and non-altruistic people, as evinced by widespread corruption and an unwillingness to pay taxes and constant demands for more from other people without the notion that they have to give back.

Greece isn't a step forward - its a step backwards, away from nationalism - let alone globalism - and into tribalism. You can't trust anyone outside the group. It is a large-scale breakdown in reciprocal altruism.

what I'm watching for is a group of people coming together to build something they think needs building. I think that's where all of this is headed, and I think it could change the world if it starts happening.

On a small scale, see community gardens and green space improvements, and/or Made in Manehatten[1]. On a larger scale, Black Rock City (Burning Man) may be of interest.

[1] This episode is actually rather depressing, in a way. Public parks in major cities don't go so badly to ruin without sadly familiar amounts of government dysfunction, generally. One had higher hopes for Equestria.

So what were those rules the Catholic Church came up with to keep monasteries going, and could communes adopt them? (Besides the chastity one, that's pretty well known).

Maybe mentioning OWS was a bad choice. It seems to have just sidetracked from my point, which had basically nothing to do with OWS (and absolutely nothing to do with Black Lives Matter and Social Justice Warriors, which are so far outside the realm of this discussion I don't even know how they wandered into it).

For my purposes, the only thing I care about with OWS is that they assembled for a common purpose and their assembly lasted long enough that they wound up trying to act as a functioning society. And from what I know about the movement, I get the impression that they did a pretty poor job at that in a number of ways. It's not the only time we've had a persistent, goal-directed group acting as a miniature society in the US—the Bonus Army is perhaps the most famous example—but it's nicely proximal, and I think it's probably the first American movement of that type to have started incorporating information technology. I'm not interested here in what they were agitating for, or even the fact that they were agitating for anything at all. I don't care about resistance against them. I only care that they had a common goal, and that they formed some semblance of a cooperative society in pursuit of that goal.

I agree with Ghost that I expect this sort of thing will remain on the fringes of society—or at least I think it would be dumb to try to project out to a point where it wouldn't. Most people (at least in the US, and probably in a lot of countries) are very comfortable with the way society works, with traditional modes of ownership. I don't see any reason to think that would change, except that I think collaboratives have the potential to be much more efficient and responsive to changing circumstances. And let me highlight the "potential to be" phrasing there. Things like OWS look horribly inefficient (though I think still relatively responsive to changing circumstances). But like the film crew metaphor I mentioned, I think it almost goes without saying that a self-sustaining social unit which can provide for all its own needs while working toward a common goal is going to be more efficient than a bunch of people having to individually interact with the larger economy across a range of areas. It's a simple specialization of labor argument.

(I don't think there's much for me to respond to on the violence point or the Greece description. The violence point is going sort of skew to what I'm talking about, and I don't think I disagree with any of the Greece stuff. So it's hard for me to figure out anything to say in response to either point.)

The most famous is the Rule of Saint Benedict (which is where the Benedictine order gets its name). I can't honestly claim to know that much about how monastic life works (though I've heard a few monks talk about it from time to time). But as a quick perusal of the Wiki link ought to show, the Benedictines have rules for just about everything.

I don't think a commune would need to adopt the Rule of Saint Benedict to succeed. In fact, given that there are other competing bases for Catholic religious life (monks and nuns are commonly called "the religious", in a sort of odd term of art), I think clearly there can be other ways to succeed. But I do think the sheer depth of the rules is interesting to note—that Catholics couldn't manage to get these sorts of communities to work without putting down some seriously complicated strictures on how members were to behave. I have the (possibly uninformed) impression that a lot of communes try to work from a common set of principles and assume that joint adherence to those principles is going to be enough to make the group cohere.

3437985 Thanks for the link. I think a lot of it is a huge self-selection problem. The kind of people who join either hippie communes or go Galt usually do so because they are sick of all the rules and regulations society imposes, and then find when their commune gets into gear that its all those petty protocols that keep people from strangling each other in the first place. I suppose monks were different because they were mostly just introverted nerds who didn't want to get involved in the whole "dark ages" "stabbing people with spears" thing going on in the outside world. Maybe the moral of the story is, if you're going to found a commune/cult, just rip off the Precepts of Saint Benedict.

I was thinking about groups which got together on the internet to accomplish some real life goal; I apparently misunderstood your point with regards to them.


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