I was watching the end of a BookTV C-SPAN2 interview with Sebastian Junger for his book On Tribe and Homecoming. I had been happening to be clicking through the channels looking for something to help bring me down so I could get to sleep. However, when I clicked on the station and listened to what he said, it was like lightning in my brain:
“Affluence is a wonderful thing but the more affluent we get, the less we need to help each other. It’s just how it works. So the trick is, can we have it both ways? Can we maintain the pleasures and benefits of an affluent society and also regain — somehow regain the communal connections? I grew up in a suburb. The physical layout of the suburb made it hard for communities –that community to coalesce. It was a sprawling town where you really needed a car to get anywhere significant. Short of banning the car, how do we return to living close-knit communities of 50 or 60 people? It’s not happening.”
I disagree with Sebastian Junger’s statements here quite deeply, particularly his last sentence, but the whole of it bears dissecting from a polytheist, particularly a tribalist, perspective.
To start with, he asserts affluence is a wonderful thing. The OxfordDictionaries.com defines affluence as “The state of having a great deal of money; wealth”. I view it as a wonderful thing in being a useful thing, insofar as being able to secure one’s tribe, family, and/or self against privation, starvation, etc., and increase their ability to prosper, and empower future generations to do likewise.
Junger asks a pretty powerful question, but one that he fails, utterly, to answer himself:
“So the trick is, can we have it both ways? Can we maintain the pleasures and benefits of an affluent society and also regain — somehow regain the communal connections?”
The simple answer to Junger’s question about having it both ways is yes. How affluence in the U.S. manifests in a toxic fashion is an impediment to this, though. He starts to get at why this is with his point on how the suburb is designed, how it makes it hard for connections, but falls short of following through on it. The issue, to my take on this, is not the affluence or lack thereof, but how it is used, and the lens of extreme individualism in this country that makes communities very hard to form, and even harder to maintain.
The suburb is not designed in any way to be based on a system of reciprocity. It has no connections to living systems within itself, i.e. there is no growing of food or capability to produce things of wealth otherwise. Note when I use the word ‘wealth‘ here, I mean it in the sense of “An abundance of valuable possessions” rather than referring to money. Money is a means of carrying the value of things which produce or are, themselves, sources of wealth. In America, we took ourselves off of the precious metals that, themselves, were recognized as wealth as a means of backing the value of our money, and took ourselves to a purely arbitrary fiat money system. Our money system itself has the same problem as our suburbs: its connection to living systems and sources of wealth has been largely severed.
A suburb cannot mine for useful materials, nor can it grow an abundance of food to feed itself. It has no means of trading en mass, or really of doing anything other than providing living quarters. A homeowner may, assuming the home authority or ordinances allow, a few sources of food, but a tomato plant here or there does not an interconnected food system make. The suburbs are wholly reliant on other sources for caring for those who live in them. These people who live in the suburbs are often living very fractured lives from one another; the family next door could be starving, but because of the extreme individualist narratives the house right next to them would never know unless that family let them in to the situation at all. Suburbs, and structures that operate like them, do not concern themselves with one another, only, at most, the atomized family unit.
The problem is not the affluence these places retain, in and of themselves, but the way the affluence is used to maintain the separation between people and the things they need. It reinforces separation on a personal and communal basis. As Junger notes, communities cannot coalesce because of how suburbs are designed.
I said Junger was asking a powerful question when he asked “Can we maintain the pleasures and benefits of an affluent society and also regain — somehow regain the communal connections?” because the answer very-well could be yes. It would take concentrated effort and a reevaluation of how we live, and for what things we use our affluence. Rather than simply taking affluence out of peoples’ hands and redesigning how society functions, which I have yet to see an example of where the system did not fail, I am suggesting something else. Note, I am not saying socialist forms of government cannot work under this idea, since the Nordic Model is a good example of a society choosing the use their collective affluence in a pro-social fashion via taxes. There’s plenty of opportunity for affluence while providing for the needs of one’s people. I see this as going hand-in-hand. However, I am approaching this as a tribalist. As I have noted before, I have little hope of the U.S. ever adopting such an approach to our affluence until things start getting a lot worse for folks, or enough folks start working to change the over-culture of extreme individualism.
So let’s break this down to a tribal level. How do we maintain the pleasures and benefits of an affluent society and also regain communal connections?
For one, we need to be pretty clear on how we define affluence as a community.
Is the tribe’s conception of affluence money-based or resource based? It is my view that a resources based understanding of affluence does not play into the divisive nature that characterizes suburbs and the extreme individualism that can divide a tribe. If we understand wealth as based in resources rather than money, how does this affect how we organize ourselves, and how can we maintain our relationship(s) with the larger society in which we live? It is one thing to organize a society based on valuing resources as the form of wealth rather than money, but in the end, money is how things like taxes and debts get paid. To what degree will a given tribe need to modulate their assumptions and desires to engage with resources-as-affluence on things in order to get along as a tribe, and with the larger society that they are within?
If we look at resources as affluence, then the growing and hunting of food, crafting, and forms of industry helps form the means by how a tribe supports itself and makes bonds between its members. If money is the source of affluence, then the attainment of money is the means by which the tribe supports itself and makes bonds between members. A mixed approach allows for the needs of the tribe to meet the demands the larger community may put on it while allowing for pleasures that a purely agricultural-based community may be unable to enjoy. The ideal without considering the practicality of the tribal approach can fail if these things are not considered. While I may prefer a resource-based approach to affluence, I live in America, and property taxes and forms of payment will not be accepted in the form of animal meat, vegetables, or crafted items.
What are the pleasures we most wish to secure as a community?
As with affluence, we need to be very clear on what we mean by the word ‘pleasures’, and how we wish to pursue them. To this, I look to the second definition of pleasure: “An event or activity from which one derives enjoyment”. How we measure and work with the concept of affluence directly determines what and how we turn over excess affluence for the events and activities that help to give us enjoyment in the first place. If we define pleasures by the first definition, ‘a feeling of happy satisfaction and enjoyment’, this can leave communities flitting from emotionally-fulfilling thing to thing. That is, by pursuing the feeling of enjoyment rather than the events or activities from which we may derive enjoyment, our use of affluence beyond the basic needs will deeply affect to what end our affluence is used, and how it helps the community form cohesive relationships, and bonds of trust, friendship, love, and alliance.
If we take the idea of affluence-as-money as the organizing principle of affluence, we can already see what happens: people flit from whatever media or other money-driven entertainment they can afford that gives enjoyable stimuli. A given community is not invested in Netflix the way that content creators are, even if members of a community really enjoy a series. Certainly, a given community is not invested in Netflix in the way that a community is with a community theater, such as the Purple Rose in Chelsea, MI. Whereas Netflix eats away at time between members of a community, with some folks intentionally isolating themselves for multiple seasons at a time without Netflix providing a residual benefit to the community the watchers are part of, the same is not true of community theater. While community theater may not feature A-list actors or scripts, it does feature home-grown talent, the kinds of productions that the local communities want to see, a direct stimulation to a community’s businesses, and something for the community to call ‘theirs’. In other words, a community that values the events and activities that lead to pleasure also give rise to a whole host of benefits beyond enjoyment of the event or activity.
This is not to denigrate Netflix; such a thing would be pretty hypocritical of me, considering how much I enjoy Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and other Netflix shows. Rather, our value of what pleasure is directly impacts my physical community in the definition of pleasures being ‘An event or activity from which one derives enjoyment’ rather than ‘a feeling of happy satisfaction and enjoyment’. I live in a time and place where it is far more cost-effective, easier, and less risky to my family to invest my affluence, such as it is, in a community theater.
This is also not to say that I think things like plays and musicals in community theaters are the only viable means of making events and activities from which a community may derive pleasure. Though I am not a sports fan, there is a powerful draw to sport that a lot of Americans feel. Rather than see us continue with the current model with NHL, NBA, and other similar sports formats which are often money-driven enterprises that take a lot out of the communities where they build their stadiums while offering paltry gains in return, I would rather we engage more directly in sport and other events that occur within our direct community and between communities actually physically adjacent to one another. Why? For the same reason I appreciate community theater as the vehicle for the creation of events and activities that enjoyment is derived from: the communities involved directly benefit rather than the affluence being given to an external source. That is, the playwrights, actors, and so on that are within the community directly benefit from the affluence that is spent on the play, costumes, the theater tickets, and all the outgrowth of affluence that spreads into the community from that, such as through the local restaurants, artisans, and craftspeople. By creating an environment where the amateur and those in training can thrive, professionals are made.
For the Northern Tradition and Heathenry, this concept of feeding both the individual and the community, figuratively and literally, come from these concepts: Gebo, hamingja, and maegen. In Gebo, gift-for-a-gift, there is an exchange that strengthens, grows, tightens the ties of hamingja, the luck and bonds of a community. By Gebo being fulfilled through the fulfillment of obligation and doing well by one another, and through the increase of hamingja, does one’s personal luck, power, and ability to use that power, maegen, grow in turn. This can then be used for the benefit of tribe, and the cycle of Gebo continues to feed the good growth of hamingja and maegen.
What are the benefits we most wish to secure as a community?
A benefit is ‘An advantage or profit gained from something’. An advantage is ‘A condition or circumstance that puts one in a favourable or superior position’. A profit is ‘A financial gain, especially the difference between the amount earned and the amount spent in buying, operating, or producing something’ and is also defined as advantage and benefit. Putting this in terms of the tribe, the benefits we wish to secure a as a community are those actions and things which bring advantage to it.
The powerful thing about building up tribe is that you are not just planning for the success of your family or your generation. You are helping to lay the foundation of success for everyone coming after you. Everything you put your hands helps to lift burdens off of the next family, the next generation in the tribe. Learning how to do more things in your own home, from small repair projects or through on up to making your own furniture, gives the next generation the benefit of that experience, and the end result of that product once you have made something of quality. Heck, some families have the last names they do because their family was renowned for a trade, i.e. Coopers, Smiths, Tailors, etc. Education and practical experience are benefits for families provided that they are resources that are used, and that are passed on.
The question of “What are the benefits we most wish to secure as a community?” is pretty powerful. It asks us what things of advantage and profit do we want to actively work to bring into our community? What skills will we need to make this happen? What education, training, experiences, and resources will we need to make this happen? To some degree our own experiences, skills, and abilities will inform this. To another, this requires no small amount of discipline on a personal level, as well as a community willing and able to think in the long term. Moreover, it takes a community willing to stick to a long-term plan if the goal is fairly ambitious.
Physical infrastructure, for instance, is fairly ambitious, and requires some good planning if we hope to pass that on. The tribe or community would need to be able to handle physical upkeep, any financial costs including taxes (if applicable), and if a building has a special use, such as a power hub, network hub, greenhouse, and/or temple, you will need folks able to work with the special training to do the work associated with it. Building a solid home in and of itself requires no small amounts of skills to do, even more so if a tribe/community wishes to keep things like power and the Internet as open to it as possible. If your community can’t do the work needed to maintain it, then experts will need to be brought in from outside the community.
At some point it behooves the community to ask, then, what is a want and what truly is a need? Will this thing, activity, etc. be a long term boon to the community, or will it take from valuable resources that the community needs to survive and thrive? Not every benefit for a community will be need to have a physical gain to it.
Some of the greatest pieces of art have, if taken purely from a utilitarian perspective, little to offer. One cannot eat the Gundestrup Cauldron, but it must have carried deep, powerful import for those who made it and received it. One cannot eat art, but it suffuses our lives so deeply that it is the very means by which ideas are communicated, including this post here. Think of the countless carved stones, such as the Einang Runestone or Eggjum Runestone. Think of the countless carvings, amulets, burial mounds, and all the countless ways in which the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir were represented, understood, and known through. The benefits of art is that it communicates powerfully, resonantly, and can help us touch the Holy Powers, connect to deep aspects of culture, and communicate these things well beyond the generations we may know in this life.
The question of “What are the benefits we most wish to secure as a community?” thinking applies equally to individual families as to the communities they are part of. What are the abilities we have gravitated to? What skills do we possess? What have I learned, and what am I willing and able to learn? What are we actually able to do, or not do? What skills, abilities, and things would we encourage others in our families and communities to help us make, or provide to us?
As with the community, this question asks us to take the long view. I have a great many things I can do with my hands; what if, some day, I lose the use of my hands? Can I pass the skill on to someone else? Can I trade or encourage another to gain this skill or do that thing that I can no longer do? What skills and abilities are essential to me? What skills or abilities does my community rely on from me that need to be passed on? What skills, abilities, and things that I and my family can provide are essential to my community? These questions do not ask for self-effacement or self-abasement, but an honest appraisal of where one is, where one may be, and how one plans to work with things in the future. It need not be a purely utilitarian view, either. If I can no longer do work with my hands, such as leatherworking or woodworking, there are plenty of other ways I can help my community. There are countless ways to be a member in my community and give good Gebo to the Gods, Ancestors, vaettir, and the tribe.
Sebastian Junger rather misses the point in asking if it is possible for us to have things both ways. The planet’s answer, whether Peak Oil, climate change, or the deep income inequalities that must exist in order for the modern American way of life to exist in the first place (helping to drive the first two predicaments the more consumption is demanded for the latter) is no. Further, modern American capitalism poses the notion of ‘we have all the toys or we have nothing’ as a way to make the shackles on our lives more willing to be borne. This is thralldom by other means. However, there is a healthy difference between thralldom as the ancient Heathen cultures knew it, and the wage slavery we experience today.
Note before I begin this section that I am not, for a moment, suggesting we should go back to thralldom. I am using it to illustrate a point. Thralldom as an institution was widely practiced by ancient Scandinavian and German peoples. It was slavery. I do not see it as something to be idealized, nor repeated. I find the ways in which it differs from the yolks the middle class, working poor, and the destitute take on today via modern capitalism are useful points of comparison.
People were bought and sold like other commodities. Some thralls and their families never knew freedom; sometimes thralldom, slavery, was inter-generational. However, some thralls could and did buy their freedom. Thralls could be freed, and some were. If they chose, they could become full members of the tribe they had been sold into, or go elsewhere. They could then marry, own land, and pass it on to their heirs. The life of a thrall could end well, and one could make a name for themselves, and excel.
Modern capitalism gives no such comfort. American incomes relative to cost of living have been stagnant or going down since the 1970’s. We are required more than ever to work longer hours for less pay. We have essential freedoms denied to thralls: freedom of travel, freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom to choose our representatives. Talking about it this way, it seems there are freedoms everywhere. What American culture is exceptionally bad at talking about is how tampered these freedoms are by whether or not you can afford to exercise them.
I used to be an employee with a home healthcare company. We work with clients with a variety of needs. Some require 24 hour care. If someone does not show up to work, gets sick, etc., and I’m the only one around, I’m stuck at work. Now, let’s say I have an election coming up and I know I want to vote. If I am stuck at work because someone gets sick and I’m the only relief, I have a choice: potentially lose my job, face a permanent mark on my record for negligence, potential court action against myself and/or the company, or, exercise my right to vote. This is not an uncommon scenario.
Thralls had a clear goal they could achieve: make enough money that they could then use to buy their freedom. In the case of most Americans, we don’t even get this good of a deal. Chris Martenson, who produced the excellent Crash Course series, calls debt a claim on future human labor. When the average American hits age 5 they’re placed into kindergarten, and for the next 12 years or so they are absolutely primed with the message that going to college will enable them to have a life, make a future for themselves. What we are not told this entire time we’re working on reams of homework, projects, and whatever else our teachers want to throw at us, while living life in all its challenges, is that in order to make this dream of ‘making it’ come true, is that most of us will have to go into enough debt that we could probably have paid for at least half of the cost of a house, if not bought one outright. I have worked at McDonald’s next to folks with supposedly market-ready STEM-field Master’s degrees. The treatment teams I worked with at the home healthcare job had professionals whose loans were large enough that even if they devoted their entire yearly income to it they might only be able to pay a quarter or half of what they owed. If they were lucky, weren’t part-time, and had some years in.
Keep in mind, these degrees are mere shots at getting a job. One which may help pay some bills, but probably not enough to stock away for savings or a retirement. The minimum wage jobs have not covered the cost of living in a very long time, let alone helped the working poor to provide for their families. Americans as a whole are worse off now than the 1970’s. We are required to work longer hours for less pay just to keep roofs over our heads, food in our mouths, clothes on our backs, and all the costs of those roofs, that food, those clothes? They’re only getting more costly for us.
If debt is a claim on human labor, how many years of my labor are required to work to pay my debt off? A thrall had a set amount they had to earn in order to buy their freedom. Debt increases by a set amount of interest every year. If I can only afford to pay some of the interest because the degree I earned through years of hard work still, years on, has not netted me a job commensurate to handle the cost of living, let alone the increasing load of debt, what hope do I have of ever getting out of debt?
What good does the freedom of travel do me if the means by which I access travel are closed to me because I cannot afford it? What good does the freedom of speech do me if I can be fired from a job with little recourse if I demand respect from asshole customers or bosses? What good does the freedom to vote do me if I must choose between keeping my means of income or voting?
If the means by which my future labor is claimed on is allowed to increase every year and my means of earning release from this claim are reduced each year, will I ever be able to be released from my debt? Keep in mind that most private student loans are not discharged upon death.
From ABC News:
According to the U.S. Department of Education, if the borrower of a federal student loan dies, the loan is automatically canceled and the debt is discharged by the government. Unfortunately, private student loans do not offer the same liability protections.
In the case of federal loans my choices are to pay off the loan or die. At least if I die the federal government will not come after my estate. However, in the case of private loans, if I can’t pay back my debt and I die, my estate, if I can leave any, and my spouse is liable for the cost. Oh, and family might be too if she can’t pay. This is not something tangible like a car or a home. This cost was on what amounts to a bet: “This might be a path to a career; good luck!” Americans are being told from a young age this is ‘an investment in your future’ and that ‘this is the road to being able to live well’. If the means by which my future labor is claimed increases each year while my ability to pay the cost of living and the claim on that labor decreases, the only shelter I may have from that debt is my death.
The average college student graduates with $40,000 of debt, and many of us go back and have to borrow more when that first foray into college doesn’t land us a job, or live with what job we can find. With less people able to retire because they simply cannot afford to, the jobs many young people would be entering into cannot open up since there is less and less room to move. I cannot tell you how many ‘entry level jobs’ I have seen that require 1-4 years of experience in the field you would be entering into.
A thrall had a better shot at taking off their chains than most Americans do at getting out of debt.
Those that choose to keep the chain of debt off their neck are probably struggling. Over half of America is officially under the poverty line. If we cannot afford the cost of living how can we afford anything else? What good are freedoms if what keeps us from exercising them is privation?
Tribes offer another way. The reliance on one another, and the ability to take care of one’s own. The work done together that weaves strong ties to weather hardship, whereas a person alone could be doomed to privation the rest of their days, and to empower future generations. Bonds forged between people, and from these bonds into a powerful community each person contributes to, and is supported by.
“Can we maintain the pleasures and benefits of an affluent society and also regain — somehow regain the communal connections?”
Yes. For it to work, though, this must be a choice that all within the community make, and that all within it adhere to. We can come together and be more together than alone. We can come together and work with our Gods, Ancestors, vaettir, and one another to build strong communities. We can come together and face the challenges that would eat each of us alone together, and come out stronger for it. We can empower one another to learn, to do what is within us to do, and to build up something greater than ourselves that we can pass on to future generations: tribes whose cultures are grounded in the Holy Powers, in respect and work for the good of the community, and for the good of each of its members. Tribes whose cultures are grounded in good Gebo with the Gods, Ancestors, vaettir, and one another. We can maintain the pleasures and benefits of an affluent society andwe can regain communal connections. Moreover, we can, and I believe should, do more, and do better for our Holy Powers, ourselves, and future generations.