A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at.Oscar Wilde
For so many of us, the couple form and the job wind up bearing the weight of all of our hopes and dreams and need for human contact, and they were never meant to bear that weight. We need human relationships that extend beyond the romantic or the transactional.Sarah Jaffe, from “Work Won’t Love You Back”
In previous posts, I have floated the seemingly bizarre claim that the best, perhaps only, way out of our current situation, where cascading waves of ecological, economic, and political collapse are lapping at our doorsteps, is to enact this scheme:
- Get some rich people to privately fund and organize model communities, called Bigger Home Bases (BHBs), with a target size of 50-150 people each.
- These wealthy funders should be from a broad spectrum of political/cultural leanings, liberal to conservative.
- There should be 15-20 of these BHBs, spread around the country in different types of communities and landscapes: cities, suburbs, rural areas, etc.
- Members of these communities would get a Universal Basic Income equivalent, say $1000 to $1200 a month. Beyond that, there would be no other direct financial support; there would just be logistical help to link people to useful resources in their particular locations. In other words, the funders wouldn’t buy land or buildings for the communities, or pay for any major renovations or retrofitting of the properties. They would just supply the individual monthly stipends, to demonstrate the realistic options that would be possible with a national UBI.
- BHB residents would sign a commitment to remain in the communities for 18-24 months, to facilitate a true working test of concept, from formation to full running operation.
- BHBs would have charters, detailing a commitment to diversity, reduced ecological impact, mutual respect and aid, and cooperative decision making.
- BHB candidates will be selected from a broad range of backgrounds, ethnicities, religions, races, and political leanings.
- The rich patrons would fund massive social and traditional media coverage of these BHBs, to get concrete images and examples of successful group living out into the public consciousness.
- As BHBs become increasingly desirable to the wider American populace, national policies could be pursued to facilitate the transition from our failed social system to a new model based on larger domestic arrangements.
- The United States could then inspire similar changes in other parts of the world, or at least bring a more responsible ecological example to the table when tackling global problems.
So far, so good. But you might be asking this set of questions: “Why BHBs? Why would people want to live in bigger groups when it seems obvious that they just want their privacy, their space, and their own stuff? Why can’t we just make things better in the layout we have now? Why do we need something so fundamentally different?”
Well, here is my list of why we need BHBs, and why it is absolutely crucial for the United States to start down this path as soon as possible.
- The Polarized America complex must be shattered from the outside – As I have detailed in some older posts (here and here), the division of the country into Ds and Rs, libs and conservatives, is neither some cosmic accident nor a manifestation of fundamental existential differences between people. Polarization is a highly-functional and effective system, serving some very specific purposes, given the machinery of our elections and the overall infrastructure of our political system. As it has evolved over the last few decades, this Polarization complex has become all-encompassing and hermetically sealed, shutting out any other approaches to our current predicaments. There will be no lasting victory inside this system. It must be dismantled by withdrawing its energy, which can only be done with a brand new, totally different project. That new project is the BHB. Since the BHBs will all have diverse constituencies by design, they will provide concrete working examples of people transcending political polarization and striving to enact a different story with more postitive goals.
- Consumption must be drastically reduced – Ecologically, there is no way around this. Out current arrangements, where consumption is exploded out to the smallest possible units, which broadens and deepens the overall ecological damage, is unsustainable. No amount of individual or family greening will change this. BHBs can reduce consumption rapidly and significantly, through resource sharing, withdrawal of participation in large supply chains, etc. Other bullets below will flesh this out.
- Economic Necessity – It could be argued that the fundamental source of almost all of our current troubles is the decline of labor value. This is an international phenomenon, and it involves automation, globalization, financialization, supply-chain evolution, and the general maturation of business processes. While work remains a vital part of our society and our lives, the reality is that the economic value of human labor and skill is declining, and will continue to do so. After all, labor-saving technologies and processes actually — wait for it — save labor. Regular people are struggling to make ends meet. They don’t have enough retirement savings. They don’t have enough set aside for unexpected bills. They live paycheck-to-paycheck. They’re terrified of losing a job with benefits, because they know that the next job, if there is one, will pay less and take out more for health coverage. More and more jobs are part-time, contingent, contract, or gig. And these generally provide no paid sick or vacation time, and have no benefits built in. Traditional pensions are gone, labor unions are a sputtering jalopy, and social mobility (am I better off than my parents?) has ground to a halt. I won’t belabor this any longer, but suffice it to say that the individual, the couple, and the family are increasingly unable to provide a stable economic home base for people. These configurations are simply too small.
- Institutional Stability – Similar to the economic point above, if we pull back a little, we can see what capitalism does to institutions in general. Capitalism is destructive, and creatively so, in the classic Schumpeter expression. What capitalism does is fairly simple: it scours every corner of society, searching for institutional reservoirs of non-monetized value. Then it strip mines those institutions, extracting the value and converting it into commodity forms for the marketplace. In its wake, the original institutions are left empty and lifeless, while the market is inflated and energized. Economic growth is thus fostered, while older ways of life are destabilized. Despite this obvious feature of capitalism, people generally don’t like to talk about it in these terms. Conservatives want to pretend that it is something else that is wiping out our traditions: liberal permissiveness, or immigrants, or Jewish space lasers, or whatever. And liberals nervously smile at the destruction, hoping that our rootlessness will somehow prove empowering, via “flexible” gig work, or “pluralistic” family forms. But the basic truth is that capitalism wipes out any institutional formations that have stored-up, non-monetized value: labor unions, fraternal organizations, mutual aid societies, community banks, etc. More accurately, capitalism doesn’t need to wipe these things out completely. It just sucks out any marketable value, shovels that into the economy, and then moves on. The result, of course, is that solidity melts into air, and we are left with increasingly precarious home bases, all of which are heavily mediated by the marketplace and our monetary access to that marketplace. In Tocqueville’s formulation, our ‘intermediate institutions,’ the things that provided so much vitality and resiliency to America in times past, have been neutered, rendered ornamental. Our remaining support systems are either too small (individual skills, nuclear family resources), too big (sprawling government support programs), or too fleeting (schools, workplaces). In this context, BHBs are absolutely crucial, a new form of intermediary institution. BHBs would be large enough to leverage the power of scale, but small enough to provide efficient, personalized support.
- Reducing Labor – As covered in many earlier posts on this blog, the decline of labor value is fundamental and irreversible. We find it very difficult to face the fact that, while human skill and effort are still vitally important facets of our society, they are not as economically valuable as they once were. The simple fact is that businesses view labor as a cost, a cost that should be reduced as much as possible, through automation, outsourcing, part-time work, contracting, etc. Businesses will continue to relentlessly pursue the cutting of labor costs, and it is utter folly to try to force those businesses to pay more for labor than they want or need to. In this case, we should listen to what the market, the labor market, is telling us: human skill and labor are less important than they used to be, and high-paying jobs on a large scale are not necessary for a vibrant economy. Of course, there will still be lucrative jobs and careers for some — a smaller and smaller elite — but we are never going to have a Lake Wobegon economy, where everyone is paid above average. We need to stop stamping our feet about this and accept it. Instead of trying to inflate labor costs, we need to just pivot to a completely different understanding of money, and the government’s role in creating and providing money. This means Universal Basic Income right now, and Modern Money Theory quickly on its heels. UBI and MMT have been covered in earlier posts, and I don’t have room here to rehash. But in the context of why we need BHBs, the important thing is that a bigger home base would allow people to approach the labor market with more leverage, and withdraw from the outside jobscape as needed. As labor become less important to businesses, we need to match that work agnosticism in our domestic setups, which is only possible with a BHB. It makes no sense to compel maximum labor market participation for every single person, when the business world itself is telling us that this compulsion is unnecessary. Only BHBs give us the option to walk away from superfluous jobs, leaving just meaningful and efficient labor market participation from a reduced number of BHB residents.
- Self-Sufficiency – As alluded to above, what BHBs do is harness the power of numbers, taking advantages of the same scale effect as businesses: combined purchasing power, division of labor, and import substitution. This last term is usually employed in discussions of international trade, but the same concept applies to BHBs: reducing dependency on outside resources by bringing more functions ‘in-house.’ The overall economic goal here is to increase self-sufficiency, and reduce reliance on external sources of employment and production. Thinking about this BHB self-sufficiency in national policy terms is helpful. Unlike the current landscape, the national goal would NOT to get better jobs for every single person, but rather to break the power of labor compulsion itself, by allowing people to have more freedom of movement inside their domestic unit. People would have a wider range of options regarding work, including withdrawal from the outside labor force and working towards internal self-sufficiency instead. Self-reliance is a highly American virtue. BHBs just widen the sense of the economic self to be a collective group, which actually enhances personal freedom and power.
- Psychological Repair – Along with ecological and economic collapse, the third pillar of failure with our current arrangements involves psychological damage. As social primates, 99% of our tenure on the planet has been in tribal groupings. We are literally built to live intimately with groups of 25-150 individuals, and a raft of studies through the years has shown how important it is for us to have a broad web of close personal relationships. In many ways, the energy of consumer capitalism comes from our loneliness. We pursue an endless stream of products, both physical and cultural, to try and fill the void that comes with living lives that are too small and isolated. Businesses take advantage of our insulation not only by selling us stuff, but by making the workplace itself a surrogate tribe. But as Sarah Jaffe noted in the opening passage, the job was never meant to bear, and indeed cannot bear, the social weight that we have given to it. We need more close relationships than we currently have, and those relationships must go beyond the stilted conditions that exist inside any business. BHBs would give us a continuity that we no longer have with our current institutions. Our life cycles have been chopped up into precarious and incongruous portions, where any sudden, unexpected change (job loss, serious illness) could wipe out years of hard work and seeming stability. BHBs would provide an anchor, a rootedness, and a confidence in the future that is utterly lacking in most people’s lives right now. The psychological impact would be enormous.
- Reduced Domestic Gender Inequities – We (should) all know that Covid has exacerbated the already-uneven domestic workload for women. Along with wage inequalities in the workplace, many women then work the Second Shift at home, where they still do the lion’s share of the child care and home maintenance work. BHBs would explicitly target this disparity in their core charters, and would likely reverse the imbalance. Labor market trends are making women more employable than men, so it is possible that in withdrawing people from the outside workforce, BHBs would end up with more men doing in-house domestic tasks, with more of the women having external jobs.
- Reconnecting Generations – The separation and isolation of our elderly is a fracture at the core of our current social form, limiting any true connection to home at the end of life for many, and making the quality of life for seniors almost totally dependent on individual financial resources. BHBs would also make eldercare and intergenerational connection an integral part of their charters.
- Creating a New Political Locus of Power – The problem with a moralistic obsession with the nuclear family, even the smaller, non-traditional versions of it (size is the key, as should be obvious by now), is that it creates a profoundly apolitical stance at the core of our fundamental living arrangements, where we spend most of our day-to-day time. But it is an intensely political apoliticism, if that makes sense. What I mean is that the existence of sharp distinctions between economic success and failure, which is the hallmark of our new gilded age, is banished to the confines of the individual and the family, rendering it inappropriate for political discussion (this is the reason that so many people say, “just don’t bring up politics”). But at the same time, as more and more people struggle to make ends meet, the harsh conditions of life for regular people make it impossible to ignore the politics of inequality. The result is that politics becomes overly personalized and polarized, because there is no social realm of analysis and understanding beyond the small domestic frame of reference. Every political policy issue thus becomes over-freighted with individual issues of morality, worthiness, genuineness, and the like. We have become a fragmented citizenry, unable to think about our common cause in larger terms than “we’re the good guys and those are the bad guys,” which of course makes us more susceptible to fascist leaders and undemocratic projects. BHBs are the way to shatter this state of affairs, giving us a concrete way to pursue more collective goals that are still grounded in practical concerns. BHBs are a way to make the domestic more politically active, but in a way that makes the political more grounded in the real conditions and challenges that exist in people’s regular day-to-day lives, as opposed to grandiose flights of polarized fancy, where we continually wish away the very existence of tens of millions of our ‘enemies.’
- Pandemic-Proofing – Needless to say, Covid dropped a bomb into our normal arrangements. No matter what your personal or political leanings, I would bet that everyone, at some point during the pandemic, wished that they had a much bigger domestic bubble from which to operate. Put simply, we missed people – hugging them, laughing with them, bumping into them, playing with them, drinking and eating with them. And no matter how loving and creative our families were, they just could not substitute for the broader intimate connections that we all needed. And it hurt. As we return to ‘normal,’ however, it’s not quite the same. It’s not just that we have forgotten how to be social, although that is certainly a real thing. But that will come back to us. The problem is that Covid highlighted the fragility and inadequacy of our current constituent institutions. We discovered that the tiny family unit cannot bear a ton of emotional and economic weight, and the ancillary institutions of school, work, and capitalist consumption are all transitory and largely income-dependent. Covid showed us how desperately we need larger domestic groupings to weather life’s storms. And if pandemics become a more regular part of our future, as scientists are warning, then BHBs will come to be seen as indispensable and perhaps unavoidable.
That’s enough bullet points for now. You get the idea. Culturally and politically, it would be very difficult to turn the United States into a Scandinavian-style, activist social democracy. Our electoral mechanics, history of racial oppression, and stubborn resistance to all forms of centralized authority (except the military and huge corporations) make us unlikely candidates for a top-down solution to our russian-nesting-doll set of collapsing systems. Instead, we need a combination of the bottom-up living arrangements of the BHBs and the targeted top-down tool of a UBI. Harness the cultural power of social and traditional media, and you have a potent recipe for improving things very significantly, and very quickly — if it’s done right.
Building these BHBs must become a major new career track in and of itself. The labor markets have spoken on the waning economic value of our time and skill, but that doesn’t mean that our work is not important. We just have to move it inside a new social form, internal to larger and sturdier home bases. By building these communities, we can bypass the dead end of polarization, which only leads to accelerating collapse. And we can create something better, something worthy of our energy and devotion.
In short – we need BHBs now!
(Photo: Ecovillage at Ithaca – https://ecovillageithaca.org)