Thursday, January 28, 2010

A history lesson worth reading.

At times in my three articles on the economic situation in Jewish communities and also on occasion in my commentaries on the chapters of Decline of the West, I made a passing mention that in the early days of Judaism on this continent, communities provided healthcare, burial services, a form of old age pensions and indigent/charity welfare, and other services for themselves. They had to, because the US government did not believe in any sort of human rights for those benefits (and it still doesn't in the case of healthcare). So to meet those community needs, various social societies sprang up. They hired a physician for a flat rate to treat their members, they operated cemeteries (including caretakers and grave diggers at a flat rate), and collected charity for the old and widows and orphans.

John Michael Greer talks about these sorts of social societies in his blog entry of last week called "Secret Handshakes," and in this day of corporate oligarchy and government indifference to the plight of the poor and lower middle classes (whose ranks are growing by leaps and bounds and have no real prospect of shrinking with unemployment and underemployment continuing to grow at a steady rate of half a million citizens per month) it is worth taking a second look at these shopworn but effective institutions. Federations, for example, could hire a family practitioner for the membership community, the same way the old social societies did, and so on and so forth.

...During the first two decades of the twentieth century, by reliable estimates, half of all adult Americans – counting, by the way, both genders and all ethnic groups – belonged to at least one fraternal lodge. The Masons, the Odd Fellows, the Knights of Pythias, the Grange, and many other orders – some 3,500 different organizations, all told – formed a crucial element in civil society in America; they had a similar role elsewhere in the English-speaking world, where they were called “friendly societies,” and a somewhat less active presence elsewhere.

What makes this explosion of voluntary communal organization particularly relevant to our time is that the old lodges weren’t simply social clubs. With few exceptions – Freemasonry, interestingly enough, was one of those – they had a vital economic role. In an age when governments didn’t consider people starving in the streets a matter of public concern, in fact, the fraternal lodges filled many of the same roles now filled by the welfare state.

Here’s how it worked. If you belonged to a local lodge of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, let’s say, you would be expected to attend lodge meetings one evening a week, and you’d pay weekly dues – the standard rate was 25 cents a week in the days when a quarter bought about as much as a $20 bill does today. The money was collected by the lodge’s financial secretary and invested by its treasurer, under the watchful eye of trustees elected by the lodge. If you became too sick to work, the lodge provided you with sick pay at an established rate; if you died, the lodge paid for your funeral, and if you left a widow and children behind, the lodge made sure they had enough money to get by, and that the children got an education.

Lodges also provided health care to their members. The arrangement, once known as “lodge trade” among doctors, makes an interesting contrast with the corrupt monstrosity masquerading as health care reform currently lumbering its way through the US Congress. Each lodge simply went out and hired a doctor, usually on an annual contract. The doctor received a flat monthly salary from the lodge, and in return provided whatever general medical care the lodge members and their families needed. If it had a large enough membership, the lodge might also hire a couple of visiting nurses and a dentist on the same basis. Notice that this arrangement gave the patients a meaningful voice in health care quality, and imposed an effective limit on prices: a doctor who provided substandard care or charged more than the lodge wanted to pay would simply find himself out of a job when his annual contract came up for renewal...

...It’s when we trace the decline and fall of the lodge system that the lessons for today’s predicament start to stand out. Membership in many lodge organizations began to fall off in the 1920s, as relative prosperity and the emergence of the first, very limited public welfare programs began to cut away at the basic rationale behind the system. That decline turned into freefall with the coming of the New Deal, and became all but total with the Great Society programs of the 1960s. Of those 3500 lodge organizations, maybe two dozen survived to the end of the 20th century...

...the core factor was simple enough; the fraternal orders went away because most Americans didn’t need them any more, and were no longer willing to pay the costs of maintaining them. Once labor unions won the right of collective bargaining, employers rather than lodges started to cover sick pay; social security and other government welfare programs provided a social safety net much sturdier than the one the lodges were able to weave from their own resources; more broadly, the immense general prosperity of American society in the wake of the Second World War made starving to death in the street a good deal less pressing a threat than it had been not too long before...

...The suburbanization of the country after the Second World War has many aspects, but one of the most important was a deliberate flight from community. A great many people who had grown up in compact urban neighborhoods or small towns fled to the anonymity of the suburbs just as quickly as they could, because in their eyes, the costs of community made it more of a burden than a benefit.

I’d like to suggest, in turn, that the reason that all the talk about community in recent years has produced so few results is that this equation still holds. Very few of the people reading this blog in America just now have ever gone hungry, or slept under a cardboard box in a back alley, or lived six to a room in a tumbledown tenement infested by rats and cockroaches, as so many people did in America as recently as the 1930s. The social safety nets established in the New Deal and Great Society eras are shredding, and they will likely shred a lot further in the not too distant future, but most Americans have not yet adjusted their thinking to the exigencies of a world where losing a job may once again mean a desperate and often futile struggle against starvation, and where those who end up on the losing side of economic change can no longer count on help from anybody.

The old fraternal orders offer a useful example of some of the things that can be done by people working together in such a world. In order to make use of that example, though, it’s going to be necessary to face up to some of the most basic, and most dysfunctional, assumptions about community in American culture today...

Now that the days have returned where a more than good chance exists being kicked out of your home and having nowhere to go but a slum of a tent city, and private for-profit healthcare drives even people with insurance into bankruptcy - not to mention the tens of millions of people left to die on the street with no access to healthcare at all - we need old-fashioned communities and old-fashioned social societies more than ever. But we're not likely to have them, because the Western cultural mindset has so contaminated the last couple of generations of people that they can't even comprehend the idea of community, much less actually act as one - as Greer talks about in this week's post.

...Until we understand why it is that Americans like to speak movingly about community in the abstract, but more often than not want nothing to do with it in any concrete sense, efforts to build new communities or conserve the few we’ve got left are going to go precisely nowhere. For this reason, I want to talk a little about the reasons why people in America don’t actually want community.

One of those reasons, as I’ve suggested over the last couple of weeks, is that community costs. The benefits you get from it are exactly commensurate with the investment you make in it – in time, effort, money, commitment, and more – and as with any other kind of investment, you pay in first and get paid back later. People who don’t want to pay what community costs up front, or don’t think the payback is worth the investment, are not going to invest in it. For many reasons, some of which I’ve discussed in previous posts, the great majority of Americans have embraced these attitudes in recent decades.

Still, there’s more going on here than a simple cost/benefit analysis. In my experience, there are at least two things essential to any viable community that the vast majority of Americans find completely unacceptable. The first is an accepted principle of authority; the second is a definite boundary between members and nonmembers...

...Page through the archives of The Oil Drum, or any other peak oil site that’s been around for a while, and you’ll find plenty of people talking about how “we” ought to imitate the Amish, or medieval monasteries, or some other classic example of resilient community. Yet you won’t find a lot of proposals that such imitations ought to adopt the principles of authority and the very strict boundaries between members and nonmembers that have played so large a role in making these communities as successful as they have been, because very, very few people in our culture are willing to accept the core presupposition that underlies these things – the necessity, especially but not only in times of crisis, of placing the needs of the community ahead of the wants of the individual.

There’s much that could be said along these lines about the murky psychological roots of the American assumption that all authority is illegitimate and all boundaries unreasonable, and even more that could be said about the drastic spiritual consequences of that belief system...

...A great many middle-class people in America and other industrial nations are caught in the familiar bind, no longer committed to the ideals of a declining civilization, but not yet willing to sacrifice the very tangible material benefits they get from their positions in the established order; rejecting the system in their hearts while supporting it with their actions. It’s a very awkward place to be; eventually, it will become intolerable; but until this latter point arrives, a great many people will try to have it both ways...

The "community" I live in is a case in point. To be blunt, there is no community. The people here have no intention of adopting a philosophy that recognizes the needs of the community as a whole and future generations is probably more important than their mythical concept of "rugged individualism" that makes no room for a sense of obligation or connection to the community as a whole. They rely too much on government to provide all their needs not understanding that such provision is becoming increasingly problematic and will eventually prove impossible under the economic conditions now unfolding. And as for the "boundaries," of which Greer speaks (taking his cue from philosopher/historian Arnold Toynbee) - well, those aren't politically correct. The generation x-ers and millennials (y-ers) of non-UO/Chereidi Judaism see little if any benefit or point in being "Jewish" and they certainly aren't willing to SACRIFICE anything for the Jewish community - not their time, their money (directly, through donations or pledges, or indirectly through relocalizing in general or supporting Jewish businesses particularly) or even with their philosophical support. They feel no real loyalty to the Jewish community and can't think of any reason why they should.

And so the community, per se, is moribound - and won't survive the yet-to-come worst part of the economic crisis. As usual, feel free to prove me wrong.


crisismaven said...

"rejecting the system in their hearts while supporting it with their actions"
Indeed and holding onto the boagt even when it drags them under water: Of Mortgage Brokers, ARMs, Attrition and Marathons

Ahavah Gayle said...

I have the same "mortgage resets" graph over on my sidebar - people don't seem to get that the amount of shadow inventory (foreclosed homes the banks are simply not marketing right now in order to avoid flooding the market) and the number of mortgage resets left to go that will further flood the housing market mean that they have ZERO chance of having their home value go back above water anytime in the next decade or so.

That amoung other things shows this crisis isn't even in the neighborhood with being "over." It's all been money down the drain, but people keep drinking the kool-aid because they don't want to deal with that reality.

All we can do now is make room for our friends and relatives who will go under as unemployment and underemployment continue to rise. It now takes 3 or 4 incomes (at median US wages) to afford a home anyway, so I guess the more the merrier.