Community: introduction

“The great enemy of freedom is the alignment of political power with wealth. This alignment destroys the commonwealth – that is, the natural wealth of localities and the local economies of household, neighborhood, and community – and so destroys democracy, of which the commonwealth is the foundation and practical means.” – Wendell Berry

What is community?

A community is a group of people who interact – usually tied to a geographical place, but not necessarily (e.g. nomadic communities; and now online communities). Humans (and in fact all primates) are social animals that have always lived in groups, from hunter-gatherer tribes and medieval villages to city neighbourhoods and business communities.

We’re focusing here on communities of place, but not just on intentional communities or ecovillages, where people come together deliberately to form community. It’s the spirit of community that’s important – people living near to each other don’t automatically make a strong community. There can be several communities in one geographical area – based on interests (music, sport, etc.), on religion, culture, age, profession etc. Individuals could be part of one or more of them, and all will contribute to the overall community of place.

All primates, including humans, evolved to live in social groups.

History

Since the dawn of humanity, we’ve lived in strong communities. It’s only recently that community has deteriorated. All humans lived in hunter-gatherer bands pre-agriculture, and some hunter-gatherer tribes survive today, with extremely strong kinship ties and sharing of resources. Agriculture allowed tribes to settle in one place, after which resources could be stored, and accumulated in the hands of a few (usually an alliance between the warrior and priestly class). Wealth concentrated, empires grew, but community remained for ordinary people.

Communities were largely rural until the end of feudalism, when enclosure of common land pushed peasants into the cities to work in the new factories, and vital skills were lost. Local economies had always been about producing useful things for some sort of exchange medium, which was then used to purchase things that other people had produced. Now the aim of the economy was to make money from money, through investments, lending money at interest, and charging rent on property. The industrial revolution brought trains, then roads, then commuting, and both local economies and community began to break down.

Front porches are popular in the US – they allow people to chat with passers-by.

Friendly (or mutual) societies grew up as a response to these developments. They were essentially social security organisations, providing insurance for sickness, accident, old age etc. for a subscription; but they provided community cohesion too, in the form of social clubs, lectures, ceremonies, emotional support for the bereaved or sick etc. They’re still strong in many poorer countries. Mutual societies provided health care in the UK before the NHS. The state caused the demise of the friendly societies in the UK by introducing mandatory national insurance in 1911 – when there were around 9 million members of registered and unregistered societies.

Communities are now being weakened further by the ‘sharing economy’ (companies like Über and Airbnb), and by corporate supermarkets and chains in every community, sucking out wealth to pay shareholders. Worse, local people drive to supermarkets and back without meeting local traders, there’s no feeling of ownership, there are fewer (and more boring) jobs than in economies of small, local businesses. We’re becoming a nation of ‘clone towns’.

Streetbank – a charity enabling people to share things in their communities.

But glimmers of hope are appearing. There’s renewed interest in local food and craft produce, and many local authorities are looking into ‘community wealth building’. In Preston, the council give contracts to local businesses to provide services for hospitals, education, police etc. and if no local business exists to provide those services, they’ll help set up and provide training for a co-op to do it.

What are the benefits of community?

Community is essential to human well-being. ‘You need a village to raise a child’, but you need a village (or at least a community – which could be urban) to support adults too. Well-being depends on meaningful interactions – to feel that you mean something to others; that you belong; that you have emotional connections; that you’d be missed if you left the community. Loss of community has caused a loneliness epidemic in the West – especially among the elderly.

How to kill community: Cradley Heath High Street (West Mids) in the 1990s and now.

Strong communities instill moral accountability, which results in less crime. Social interaction means that neighbourhoods become safer, friendlier and more interesting. It also helps us meet our practical needs (in a cost-effective way) – sharing tools or equipment, finding babysitters or people to feed your pet while you’re away etc. Online communities can’t meet our requirements for human contact in the same way.

Community often becomes stronger in times of crisis, and will be vital in case of future crashes – economic or ecological – to provide security, plus the essentials of life where long-distance transport becomes prohibitively expensive or impossible.

Economy: community-embedded local economies provide more, and more interesting, jobs. The scale of businesses (small) is important too in building community. This isn’t an ideological position – people of every political persuasion likes and benefits from living in a strong, resilient community.

Banner of the Fivehead Friendly Society (Somerset), 1865-1939

Environment: a good local social life and economy reduces the need to travel and therefore burn fossil fuels. ‘Stuff’ doesn’t have to travel so much either, and its amount can be reduced in communities where there’s lots of sharing. Plus strong communities can come together to fight the removal of or damage to natural capital such as forests or rivers.

What can I do?

Real community can’t be designed from above. We have to do it ourselves. It’s about taking responsibility for doing things in your local area to build and sustain community. The instinct to be social animals can’t really be stifled – community will always try to return. We need to counter the trends that are killing it. Decentralisation and the principle of subsidiarity are key to a vibrant community, community-based economy and potentially, governance.

Market traders bring character to, and help keep wealth in, the local economy.

Socialise

Get to know your neighbours. Smile at people – what’s the worst that can happen? Talk to an old person – offer to dig their garden, take their dog for a walk, anything they might find difficult. Join things – a drama group, Transition group, choir, sports club, supper club, book club, any club that takes your fancy. Get an allotment, start a local seed club, invite people to a picnic, volunteer, build a front porch (seriously). Ceremonies, parties and festivals are good for building community. So throw a party! Here are 300 ways to share more in communities, from Shareable.

Stand for local office – but not in a divisive, party-political way. Stand as an independent instead. That’s what they did in Frome, Somerset – and they won every seat on the council!

‘Flatpack democracy’ in Frome, where independents have taken over the council and rejected the usual divisive party politics. Inspiring stuff.

Support your local economy

Patronise local businesses and alternatives to the corporate giants. To make it easy, we’ve collated the different ways you can obtain the essentials of life from non-corporate sources on NonCorporate.org. It’s a modern take on the ‘friendly society’ approach, which includes various community-based initiatives like:

In Preston, Lancashire, the local authority has angled procurement towards local businesses, and food provision from Lancashire farms. Other councils are following suit.

We all have to make a decision. Do we want to get our food, energy, clothes and consumer goods from low-quality corporate sources, probably produced by virtual slave labour, unsustainably, with tax deftly avoided, to the detriment of your community, or do you want to consume sustainably, giving your money to people who care about good food, the environment, craft skills, quality produce and their communities? Then you have to do a bit of work to find those sources and be prepared to pay a fair price.

Become part of your local economy

You might even take it further and start or join a local initiative, so that you don’t have to work for an organisation that sucks wealth out of your (or someone else’s) community. You might work for a local business, a co-op or not-for-profit, or become a sole trader. That could mean skilling yourself up to produce something useful for your community. But be sure to support others who are doing the same. You might find the prices of artisanal goods / organic food etc. high, but you’ll be producing the same kinds of things, so you’ll be both a consumer and a producer.

You can host a restart party in your town – specialists will come along and help the public fix their broken electrical goods.

You could take it further still, and become a mover and a shaker in the local economy – there’s an awful lot you could do, from helping start community land trusts, housing co-ops, cohousing projects, hosting a REconomy event, getting your council to look at the Preston Model etc.

You could also talk to us about becoming a local convener for the Open Credit Network. As it’s based on trust, mutual credit could be the ‘glue’ that holds local economies together, and links them to others, potentially in a global system. As Tom Greco says: ‘What the world needs now is a means of payment that is locally controlled but globally useful’.


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Paul Bragman has 30 years’ experience as a community & economic regeneration practitioner in the community, voluntary and statutory sectors in the UK and developing countries. He runs Community and Economic Regeneration Consultants Ltd., offering community & economic development and organisational management services to housing associations, local authorities, voluntary and non governmental organisations.


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