Beyond the stereotype, people are yearning for community, and longing to escape modern life's atomisation and egotis
Friday 6 May 2011
The timing is particularly poignant since so many people are yearning for community, longing to escape the atomisation and egotism of modern life. Politicians constantly bang on about community (or use the "big society" euphemism); everyone seems to complain that there's no sense of community anymore, no "glue" to our society. The C-word is so overused that Private Eye magazine even has an occasional column parodying it.
So why, when it's so desired, should community be so elusive? If politicians are desperate for it, and the public are aching for it, why won't it just materialise at the flick of a switch? Part of the problem was identified decades ago by TS Eliot who, in one of his more conservative moments, warned that the social fabric can be unpicked in a minute, but would take centuries to recreate. "You must wait for the grass to grow," he wrote, "to feed the sheep, to give wool out of which your new coat will be made. You must pass through many centuries of barbarism."
Even if we had the patience to do that, few of us enjoy the reality once we get to the promised land. Because if the rewards of community are epic, so too are the costs. Our journey in the 20th century from rigid, sometimes oppressive communities toward the freedom and loneliness of individualism was, at least on the surface, fairly pain free. But the return journey is immediately very tricky: if we really want the benefits of fellowship, we have to cash in quite a few of those freedoms. We might have to give up bad habits, or share the remote, or whatever. Many of us are far too selfish, privatised and intolerant to make a real go of it.
But it's also elusive because we're yearning for the wrong thing. Community can't be pursued: it can only ever, as Viktor Frankl once wrote of happiness, ensue. Community comes in the wake of purpose and, traditionally, that purpose was love of one's country, of one's neighbour or one's God. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said: "He who loves the community destroys the community; he who loves the brethren creates community." Even those of us who struggle with patriotism, neighbours or religion understand that the attempt to create community just for community's sake, is laughable.
And there are colossal misunderstandings and prejudices about communalism. Almost all media depictions focus on the weird and wacky cults – which are, obviously, more amusing and newsworthy than quiet, serene encampments. Books show community as something bizarre, dysfunctional or oppressive. So anyone trying to create a community has to battle against the idea that we're all nudists, constantly ingesting hallucinogens, shagging one another and slavishly following a man with a messiah complex.
But despite all this, we may be witnessing a new wave of counter-cultural communalism. Many towns and villages have a small collective of people living together according to high ideals. It's happening partly because of economics: we're in the depths of an acute crisis and yet house prices are still prohibitive. Most people struggling to buy a home have large debts, and the more visionary ones now weigh up the option of sharing a woodland or a few fields with friends and yurts – instead of paying through the nose for a pokey, overpriced flat.
Almost all the communities I visit are set up by either "new monastics" or environmentalists. The woodland shelter I co-founded two years ago was a fusion of both. That sense of rediscovering the sacred gives the new communalism a purpose and depth that was, perhaps, lacking in the past. Whereas many communes from Christiania's time were trying to show that nothing was sacred, that all rules were outmoded, modern communities are doing the opposite: they're more pious, more serious than playful, more jaded and pessimistic than exuberantly optimistic. But that is why they might last longer and why, rather than being "normalised" like Christiania, they might themselves start to normalise the "real world".