I recently read Communities that Abide, a quirky little book whose editor and lead author, Dimtry Orlov, seeks lessons for human survival in the study of small, resilient communities such as the Roma (gypsies), the Amish and the Hutterites.
Orlov thinks such lessons are needed because industrial civilization is in danger of collapse. He writes weekly on his blog about this subject. He sees the key to survival not in stockpiling guns, ammunition, gold coins and canned food, but in human solidarity and mastery of survival skills.
He admires the anarchist thinker, Prince Peter Kropotkin, and says the three communities follow the anarchist principle of mutual aid. Community work is not based on payment of wages. Distribution of goods within the community is not based on ownership of property. Community rules are not enforced by means of violence. That’s anarchism in a nutshell.
Lack of a formal governmental structure does not, however, mean a high degree of individual freedom. Norms of behavior within the community, which are largely unwritten, are enforced my means of gossip, ridicule, peer pressure and, in extreme cases, shunning and expulsion from the group. Such means are much more controlling than a system of formal rewards and punishments, because there is nothing tangible to rebel against.
Orlov said the experience shows that the maximum size of an effective community is about 150 people. Any group larger than that starts to develop a bureaucracy, he wrote. The three groups he described are all networks of communities small enough that members can decide things in public meetings where everybody gets a chance to speak.
This fits his own experience working with high-tech start-ups in the Boston area. Every time a new company got to be larger than 150 employees, he wrote, it ceased to be a team and become a hierarchy.
My own experience is the same. I belong to a church whose congregation never seems to grow beyond 150 members. Our denominational leaders and ministers have told us we are wrong in being content not to grow. But Orlov’s book indicates that maybe growth is better achieved by spinning off new groups.
Solidarity within Roma, Amish and Hutterites is maintained through customs, some of them hidden from the outside public, that separate them from the public. Orlov said all communities that endure have a story of their founding, which they continually affirm through stories, ceremonies and historical re-enactments. Jacob Hutter led his community for only three years in the early 1500s before he was martyred for his beliefs, yet so strong was his vision and his commitment that, 500 years later, there are people called Hutterites.
The key activity of these communities, aside from providing members with food, clothing and shelter, is the rearing and home schooling of children. The greatest threat to group identity is public education, because it teaches the values of the modern world. That is not to say they all refuse to send their children to school, but they have their own schooling to teach their own values.