Archives for posts with tag: Status Anxiety

I am looking at the topic of ‘communes’ or, to use the modern moniker ‘intentional communities’ – though I’ll refer to the former. With 32 years between two texts (Tobias Jones ‘Utopian Dreams‘ see below and ‘The Survivors’ by Patrick Rivers’), one might expect the cultural and political changes to leap out at you. But in this case they don’t.

The very thing that drives the study undertaken by Tobias Jones in his modern book is the same reason why all communities in Rivers’ 1975 book came into being. Quoting from ‘The Survivalists’ this being the observation that…

“Within our imposed society we concentrate on stimulating wants – which can never be satisfied – to the neglect of satisfying needs. Denied this basic satisfaction, we try to forget the loss – by chasing after more and more wants.”

To counter this, as one of the commune-starters states, they instead envisage a community which would…

“…seek to provide new technology for people who wish to live in harmony with their environment, in peace with their neighbours, and in control of their lives and their technology.”

The focus on alternative technology is far more pressing in the Rivers’ book but I imagine that these people would have been the vanguard of the new green technology. Of course, by the time we reach the communities that Jones’ visits in his 21st Century book, these technologies have created a growth sector of their own and are even courted by government to bolster their green credentials (while, I sardonically note, also pursuing nuclear power as a green alternative!) and, thus, they are accepted as the norm. Indeed, there’s no need to even mention it once we’ve established that part of the philosophy for the very being of a community is to reduce one’s impact on the environment and opt-out of ‘the system’.

Oddly, however, the title reveals an urgency in the need for breaking away from straight society in ‘The Survivors’ whereas with ‘Utopian Dreams’ that urgency is dealt with as a matter of fact, but with enough room to build dreams.

You may recall that my admiration of the Jones’ book was limited. Unfortunately, Rivers’ text is no more compelling but, like the Jones book, the topic enough keeps one going. In fact, I slightly favour the passing glimpses of reality in the ‘The Survivalists’ missing from ‘Utopian Dreams’. Take this example where Rivers is impressed by…

“…the intense and strenuous 7-days-a-week activity, but I suspect that there may be too much of it; for although the pressures of straight society are noticeably absent, people admit to feeling guilty about taking time off. If a member wants to relax, in his room, or in one of the communal rooms, or on a hillside, even though he is perfectly entitled to do so, nevertheless it is difficult for him not to feel that he is shirking, and he sense that the rest of the group feel that he ought to be doing something.”

The problem is that passages such as these are in the minority and the narrator tends to wander through communities, his interviews and even his own points so casually as to render the majority of his observations instantly forgettable.

This is a pity as there are little gems in here. Some which present the case for community living elegantly, like the interview with Berkeley University architect Sim van Der Ryn who says:

“…a home you’ve made yourself is like home-baked bread is to bought bread. It’s all part of a need people have to create more of the substance of their lives.”

Well put.

Then, at a different juncture a defender of communes tries to contextualise the move from straight society to communal living. Hence, (paraphrasing here) remove from your own home all furniture but a few blankets, a mat, table and chair. Then remove virtually all the food from the pantry leaving only a small bag of flour, some sugar, salt, a few potatoes and a handful of dried beans; dismantle the bathroom; disconnect all electricity; cancel all papers and move the family to a tool shed. They may as well add get the neighbours to move in too – and yet, this communard reports from their Californian retreat that despite these reduction in possessions, comforts and services happiness abounds as does a lack of all the diseases of modernity: depression, anxiety, loneliness, restlessness and misanthropic tendencies.

Really? I think this naïve exchange demonstrates the penchant for early commune-dwellers to strive for a reduction to medievalism; a reputation which I feel has blighted the movement ever since. Secondly, I’d like to see evidence to back up the assertions purported here that communal living clears one of all those anxieties. Although I’d like to think it true, my scepticism is raising alarm bells. It’s not proper journalism but mere opinion.

Another problem with the communes discussed in both books is that the main-players all seem middle class. Take this passage from ‘The Survivalists’:-

“The group which set up the commune comprised two architects, a management consultant, an advertising agency executive, an interior designer, a computer systems analyst, a civil engineer, two teachers and a medical laboratory technician….”

Not a single prole among them.

And this isn’t inverse class prejudice but an observation of those discussed in both texts. This suggests that communes of this nature are mostly started and run by a certain section of the middle class. Probably of, I imagine, a certain intellect and persuasion. For they have the means, the education and the profession to make it do-able, but it calls me to question the sincerity and longevity of such projects. Indeed, all the communes I Googled from the 1975 book no longer existed, whereas all those in ‘Utopian Dreams’ communes did. But will they in 2040?

‘The Survivalists’ is definitely a book about building new communities with those seeking to escape the modern technocratic society. ‘Utopian Dreams’ isn’t utopian at all – I suspect it was the name assigned the project by its publishers – but it too seeks to escape though it parades as trying to build anew. Such is the positivism of modern era, which I often find hides some of the actual truth of a situation.

I favour ‘The Survivalists’ more pragmatic approach, but ‘Utopian Dreams’ was a better source of intellectual ideas and justifications for communal living. So on this journey of these two books have I learned much?

Yes – but probably nothing conclusively. Answers to the big questions just aren’t that easy, I guess.


{book review}: It is easy to regard as cheats authors who justify their observations and arguments by serially quoting those of other great thinkers in their work.

Certainly, Tobias Jones’ own observations fail to compare with the likes of, for example, Mill or Milton of whom he quotes more than once. Indeed, for his part Jones remains little more than a journalistic observer, although to be fair he doesn’t set himself up as anything more even if he does promise to fully embed himself within the communities he and his fledgling family temporarily immerse. Putting aside my doubt over Jones’ own calibre as an original thinker there is, nonetheless, still some net gain to be had from his choice of quotations and concepts. What does it matter that we didn’t obtain such learning directly? Isn’t that the purpose of non-fiction: to observe remarkable things – not necessarily new things – and communicate these to us clearly within the context of a coherent theme? So, I chose to forgive Jones these initial misgivings.

Unfortunately, considering Jones the writer I was more than occasionally bored by his text. Even more so by his rather formulaic structure. Each chapter of ‘Utopian Dreams’ considers a different community and then as one progresses, quickly we see chapter upon chapter taking a familiar pattern: i) introduce a community through its idiosyncrasies, ii) delve a little into its past, its attitudes and aims, and then iii) deconstruct it through concepts like freedom, the value of work, or the very nature of what a community is or can be. Then finally, iv) move on to the next community in vain hope of addressing this new-found lacking, and in doing so regard the former community with a slight yet condescending derision.

Nonetheless the notion itself is highly compelling and fortunately each chapter doesn’t linger and nor does Jones.  For our attention we get to see and learn a little about an Italian new-age retreat which even has its own recognised currency (Damanhur); a Quaker retirement Community (Hartrigg Oaks) and its proximity to the Rowntree Trust; a monastery in the Nomadelfia and a place for social rehabilitation in Pilsdon.

Regrettably – as a secularist and socialist – I found little hope in the communities on offer inasmuch most appeared based on faith of one kind or another. Even with my respect for Quakerism and each community’s liberal attitudes towards education and communalism per se, Jones presents the case that all were founded on some form of supernatural core (and that includes the New Age). This is a disappointing but unconvincing conclusion: I simply don’t believe it to be true that a successful community needs faith at its core. It may be a characteristic of those communities Jones visits, but I don’t believe communalism as a concept and way of living has this as an absolute requirement.

Jones himself alludes to secular leanings, but I think he’s got doubts and is himself searching for a belonging of one kind or another. While he explores the role of faith to his somewhat unconvincing degree, he can’t deny his choice of communities speaks volumes in itself. At one point he even misunderstands or misrepresents the concern of Richard Dawkins on the subject of devoutly religious communities (p.203), as opposed to communities per se and that is either just too sloppy or suspiciously convenient for me.

Mr. Jones is at his best when considering existential issues like freedom. It might seem a logical place to start being such a fundamental principle for breakaway communities looking to escape the clutches of the state and big business, and as such one might expect it to be the theme of Chapter One, but actually it only appears in chapter 4 (of 6).

Freedom is the paradox of communalism. It offers freedom from the established norms of post modern society – a breakaway of the strangle-hold of modernity and social decay writ large, but at the same time communalism requires that we deny ourselves some personal freedoms in order to live amongst and with one another (to varying degrees depending on the nature and structure of the community). Indeed, it is building communities that we set out to purposely challenge, to the benefit of mutual cooperation, unfettered freedom and its modern byword: choice.

Here is Jones on this individual freedom versus community paradox: “Logically, they are opposites. Community is a place…where you take chunks out of your individuality in return for a place where you fit in. You sacrifice personality but get belonging. But a true community, they said echoing Weber, would be an iron cage. The cost of company, said everyone from the Stoics onward, is a reduction of freedom.” But if that freedom is the freedom for others to feed a shallow form of attainment through this new world of fake choices, then our current affluence is a rather depressing one.

Indeed, Jones rightly observes that creating a struggle between the two forces may itself be a fallacy; “I still thought the two could be complimentary. The trouble is that nothing is currently allowed to complement freedom. Freedom has become akin to a flag, raced up the pole to test our loyalty to it. Freedom has become one of those words which is hoisted to end all debate.” citing the US military operation entitled ‘Enduring Freedom’ as a poignantly trite example. The point is further qualified by his quoting Chesterton: “Most modern freedom is at root fear…It’s not so much that we are too bold to endure rules; it is rather that we are too timid to endure responsibilities.”

Jones admits his work is a journal-like foray into shared communities which takes accident and reactive pondering as its guide rather than any structured approach. I’m not entirely convinced this is of benefit to the work and would even have preferred a more academic text. Indeed, I suggested to the popular philosopher and author Alain de Botton that he instead take up the challenge, recommending ‘Utopian Dreams’ as a signpost: de Botton, I’m sure, would really get underneath the rock Jones alludes to – but only de Botton would eloquently examine the grubs and shoots that really lie beneath. Alain replied saying he’d ordered the book off Amazon, so we’ll see.  Alain’s already published on work (‘The Pleasure and Sorrows of Work’) and what’s now called affluenza (‘Status Anxiety’) so the idea of communalism could offer a solution to both those anxieties.

Certainly, it is my opinion that utopian views of the world are welcome in a time lacking ideology. And what is a utopia other than an idea or a set of visualised hopes shared and brought to life through living in a certain shape of society? A statement that ‘we can do better than this – and here’s how’. Jones’s most consistent and attractive offering for a Utopian dream is, aside from those theistic allusions, to live more simply and to do so alongside one another instead of in spite of each other.

Jones – rightly in my mind – is repulsed by our post-modern consumerist society; it’s his reason’ d’être for the entire project…

‘Our society now bears all the scars of decades of failure to teach those gentle virtues of gratitude and obligation. In an ideal community, the onus for you to take responsibility for other people is borne out of a thankfulness that someone, here, has taken responsibility for you. It’s symbiotic, joyous almost, because your relationship is based on love. In contemporary Western society, however, the instinctive mood is vindictiveness born out of years of being told one is a victim. Complaint becomes knee-jerk, litigation second nature. We can be spiteful to people because we’ll probably never see them again.’

And yet this is the very world to which he returns at the end of his ‘search for a good life’. How thoroughly depressing.

(the  topic at last night’s pub philosophy meeting lead by Prof. John Clarke MA and Emeritus Professor of History of Ideas at Kingston University)

Some points I am still pondering – help welcome…

1. Can an argument, hypothesis or idea exist independent of the philosopher – as vehicle – who propagated it? When does a hypothesis become so consumed by adherence to an ideology by its vehicle that its value decreases? Is it when we get emotional about that ideology (as we rightly do with Nazism or Communism)?

Or, would Heidegger’s reputation be different were he not a Nazi?

What if he unconditionally recanted his Nazi Party membership? Does that actually matter? Is the hypothesis bigger than the man?

Many struggled with this last night, but other examples were offered – Wagner for example; have we dismissed his music because of his attitudes that seemed entirely compatible to his Nazi admirers? Jung has the advantage of admitting he was wrong to be involved with Nazis and their sympathisers and this appears to be hardly mentioned when talking of him and his body of work today and yet with Heidegger it is always mentioned as a defining context.

2. Did Heidegger really completely reject calculative thinking (in favour of purely meditative thought)? The answer from Prof. John Clarke was ‘no’, but it seemed to me that the attitude was more binary than not. This strikes me as somewhat asinine of someone purported to be among the most influential of thinkers in the 20th Century. Then again, I’ve not read his criticism of calculative thinking, but I am surprised he sees little value in it.

Instead, Prof. Clarke referred to Heidegger’s love of poetry and the almost Taoism of the meditative critique, but this is a paradox: poetry is full of rules, syntax, craft, a necessary mathematical pulse even – it’s more than aesthetic. I guess this is the danger of only a 45minute lecture on a complex man, especially when we warned that ‘Being and Time’ (Heidegger’s greatest work) is virtually unreadable.

3. The idea of anti-modernist attitudes was floated. It seemed to me from what we heard about Heidegger was that, actually, he would’ve been more at home/peace (and perhaps enjoyed a kinder audience) had he been born 60-70 years before and entered into the circles of William Morris and the Arts & Crafts bent of British socialism as opposed to the National Socialism of Germany in the 1930’s. The argument being that the zeitgeist at the turn to first-quarter of the 20th Century saw theological and philosophical challenges to meet modernism which was running away with itself – had taken the enlightenment too far. The volk were spiritually dissatisfied with modernism. Modern life is rubbish. It was technology-led and reinforcing a soullessness which was consuming faith, culture, socio-political issues as well as the aesthetic.

The example offered from our modern understanding modernism is the endless development of, say, TV from analogue to digital to micro gadgets replacing formerly cabinet-sized beasts of the lounge (and, I assume, the depreciation in quality content in light of the increase in means and technological advancement, which was implied but not actually cited). But, I objected, this criticism is not an aspect of Heidegger. In fact, I could not think of a single philosopher who actively embraces endless developments in pure technology and thus the implication of the contrary. And the reason is clear: it is not philosophers who occupy this realm, but the forces of economics.

Perhaps we could mention Marx, but I rather think we should separate his observations on economics from his pure philosophy. Marx philosophises on the exploitation at the kernel of capitalism, but capitalism is NOT a philosophy it is a socio-economic and political structure. So, still, can you think of a pro-technology philosopher? No. And I’ll tell you why because economics of this kind thrives on mindlessness not wisdom.

So I am not entirely convinced of the value of this if all philosophers are anti-technology by their love of wisdom alone; they can be against modernism and post-modernism, but not against pure technology just as they can’t be for it; it is a personal value judgement not a system of thought.

I have been re-reading Alain de Botton’s ‘STATUS ANXIETY’, which is a great book.

Here is Alain on Rousseau and what others now call ‘affluenza’…

Was it possible, asked Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his ‘Discourse on the Origin of Inequality’ (1754), that it might in fact be the savage and not – as everyone had grown used to thinking – the modern worker who was the better off of the pair?

Rousseau’s argument hung on a thesis about wealth: that wealth does not involve having many things. It involves having what we long for. Wealth is not an absolute. It is relative to desire. Every time we seek something we cannot afford, we grow poorer, whatever our resources. And every time we feel satisfied with what we have, we can be counted as rich, however little we may actually own.

There are two ways to make people richer, reasoned Rousseau: to give them more money or to restrain their desires. Modern societies have succeeded spectacularly at the first option but, by continuously inflaming appetites, they have at the same time helped to negate a share of their most impressive achievements. The most effective way to feel wealthy may not be to try to make more money. It may be to distance ourselves – practically and emotionally – from anyone whom we consider to be our equal but who has become richer than ourselves…

In so far as advanced societies provide us with historically elevated incomes, they appear to make us richer. But in truth, the net effect of these societies may be to impoverish us because, by fostering unlimited expectations, they keep open a permanent gap between what we want and what we can afford, who we are and who we might be.