There’s quite a lot of arguments made about how intentional communities or similar collectivist structures don’t and can’t work. Why does this interest me? One popular argument is that humans are–at their core–selfish and that there’s nothing we can do to change ourselves. A popularizer of this argument was Ayn Rand whose books are required reading for Paul Ryan staffers. She is still a household name in the U.S., especially among Libertarians. For example, Eric Michael Johnson summarizes her ideas and popularity:
Ever since Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand has been gaining prominence among American conservatives as the leading voice for the political philosophy of laissez-faire capitalism, or the idea that private business should be unconstrained and that government’s only concern should be protecting individual property rights. As I wrote this week in Slate with my piece “Ayn Rand vs. the Pygmies,” the Russian-born author believed that rational selfishness was the ultimate expression of human nature.
“Collectivism,” Rand wrote in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal “is the tribal premise of primordial savages who, unable to conceive of individual rights, believed that the tribe is a supreme, omnipotent ruler, that it owns the lives of its members and may sacrifice them whenever it pleases.” An objective understanding of “man’s nature and man’s relationship to existence” should inoculate society from the disease of altruistic morality and economic redistribution. Therefore, “one must begin by identifying man’s nature, i.e., those essential characteristics which distinguish him from all other living species.”
As Rand further detailed in her book The Virtue of Selfishness, moral values are “genetically dependent” on the way “living entities exist and function.” Because each individual organism is primarily concerned with its own life, she therefore concludes that selfishness is the correct moral value of life. “Its life is the standard of value directing its actions,” Rand wrote, “it acts automatically to further its life and cannot act for its own destruction.” Because of this Rand insists altruism is a pernicious lie that is directly contrary to biological reality. Therefore, the only way to build a good society was to allow human nature, like capitalism, to remain unfettered by the meddling of a false ideology.https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/primate-diaries/ayn-rand-on-human-nature/
Having not read Rand’s work I’m curious how this is different than the is-ought leap known as the naturalistic fallacy: https://www.britannica.com/topic/naturalistic-fallacy The Ayn Rand Lexicon tries to address this:
It is only an ultimate goal, and end in itself, that makes the existence of values possible. Metaphysically, life is the only phenomenon that is an end in itself: a value gained and kept by a constant process of action. Epistemologically, the concept of “value” is genetically dependent upon and derived from the antecedent concept of “life.” To speak of “value” as apart from “life” is worse than a contradiction in terms. “It is only the concept of ‘Life’ that makes the concept of ‘Value’ possible.”
In answer to those philosophers who claim that no relation can be established between ultimate ends or values and the facts of reality, let me stress that the fact that living entities exist and function necessitates the existence of values and of an ultimate value which for any given living entity is its own life. Thus the validation of value judgments is to be achieved by reference to the facts of reality. The fact that a living entity is, determines what it ought to do. So much for the issue of the relation between “is” and “ought.”http://aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/is-ought_dichotomy.html
This leaves me rather mystified. I agree that values depend on what the goal is. (the values of a thief are different than the values of a police officer) One wants to gain more money for themselves and the other also wants to enforce a standard of voluntary behavior when attaining money. However, why is life an “end in itself.” Ayn Rand believed that animals that evolve are selected for because of their ability to survive. However, just because one species of animal survived better than another doesn’t make it more valuable–value is the eye of the beholder. Animals going extinct are often valued more monetarily. What if an animal evolved that was out-competing us for resources and was causing our extinction? I don’t think Ayn Rand would argue that it, therefore, should wipe us out, especially if it was a species of communist insects like ants. More issues (in addition to the is-ought problem I mentioned) with Ayn Rand’s philosophy are discussed here: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ayn-rand/#Ethi
Rand in addition to selfishness advocates for capitalism:
In her own words, her philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute. (Rand 1957 : Afterword) Capitalism, “the unknown ideal”, is for her the only political-economic system compatible with this philosophy because it is the only system based on respect for human beings as ends in themselves. The free-market libertarian political movement, though largely disowned by Rand, drew—and draws—great inspiration from her moral defense of the minimal state, that is, the state whose only raison d’être is protection of individual rights.https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ayn-rand/#AynRand
This is one fact you don’t hear often. To say Ayn Rand “largely” disowned the libertarian movement may be a bit of an understatement:
What do you think of the libertarian movement?
All kinds of people today call themselves “libertarians,” especially something calling itself the New Right, which consists of hippies who are anarchists instead of leftist collectivists; but anarchists are collectivists. Capitalism is the one system that requires absolute objective law, yet libertarians combine capitalism and anarchism. That’s worse than anything the New Left has proposed. It’s a mockery of philosophy and ideology. They sling slogans and try to ride on two bandwagons. They want to be hippies, but don’t want to preach collectivism because those jobs are already taken. But anarchism is a logical outgrowth of the anti-intellectual side of collectivism. I could deal with a Marxist with a greater chance of reaching some kind of understanding, and with much greater respect. Anarchists are the scum of the intellectual world of the Left, which has given them up. So the Right picks up another leftist discard. That’s the libertarian movement. [FHF 71]
What do you think of the Libertarian Party?
I’d rather vote for Bob Hope, the Marx Brothers, or Jerry Lewis—they’re not as funny as John Hospers and the Libertarian Party. If Hospers takes ten votes away from Nixon (which I doubt he’ll do), it would be a moral crime. I don’t care about Nixon, and I care even less about Hospers; but this is no time to engage in publicity seeking, which all these crank political parties are doing. (George Wallace is no great thinker—he’s a demagogue, though with some courage—but even he had the sense to stay home this time.) If you want to spread your ideas, do it through education. But don’t run for president—or even dogcatcher—if you’re going to help McGovern. [FHF 72]
Her reason for disowning the libertarians was made quite clear and it may surprise you:
Libertarians advocate the politics you do, so why are you opposed to the Libertarian Party?
They’re not defenders of capitalism. They’re a group of publicity seekers who rush into politics prematurely, because they allegedly want to educate people through a political campaign, which can’t be done. Further, their leadership consists of men of every persuasion, from religious conservatives to anarchists. Most of them are my enemies: they spend their time denouncing me, while plagiarizing my ideas. Now it’s a bad sign for an allegedly pro-capitalist party to start by stealing ideas. [FHF 74]
I don’t often hear that libertarianism is compatible with anarchism or voluntary collectivism as the “Libertarian Socialist Caucus of the Libertarian Party” shows:
Another prominent libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick describes such:
The official purpose of Part III of ASU, “Utopia”, is to show that the minimal state is not merely legitimate and just; it is also inspiring. This purpose is advanced by sketching a framework for utopia that is inspiring and noting that this framework is highly akin to—Nozick actually says “equivalent to” (333)—the minimal state. Yet Nozick also says that the framework might not have any “central authority” (329). Still, the framework is akin to the minimal state because it is an institutional structure that enforces peaceful co-existence among voluntarily formed communities. It protects the independence of such communities and their freedom to recruit members and also protects the liberty of individuals to enter and exit communities as they respectively choose. Although Nozick is not explicit about this, we have to presume that the framework enforces the same norms of personal freedom, property, and contractual compliance that the minimal state enforces except insofar as individuals voluntarily relinquish such rights within the communities they enter.https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/nozick-political/ (accessed 2021-01-30 emphasis mine)
In fact, I would like to see a libertarian thinker who would say that voluntary collectivism is wrong. This is because Libertarians start from the position of individual rights:
As Libertarians, we seek a world of liberty: a world in which all individuals are sovereign over their own lives and are not forced to sacrifice their values for the benefit of others.
We believe that respect for individual rights is the essential precondition for a free and prosperous world, that force and fraud must be banished from human relationships, and that only through freedom can peace and prosperity be realized.
Consequently, we defend each person’s right to engage in any activity that is peaceful and honest, and welcome the diversity that freedom brings. The world we seek to build is one where individuals are free to follow their own dreams in their own ways, without interference from government or any authoritarian power.https://www.lp.org/platform/ (accessed 2019-01-02)
This is where the left and the right could potentially agree and work together. More on that may come in another post. The second problem with Ayn Rand’s argument for selfishness and capitalism is not metaphysical but factual. Eric Michael Johnson writes affirmingly of Peter Kropotkin’s discoveries:
What he found was that competition was virtually nonexistent. Instead, in every nook and cranny of the animal world, he encountered mutual aid. Individuals huddled for warmth, fed one another, and guarded their groups from danger, all seeming to be cogs in a larger cooperative society. “In all the scenes of animal lives which passed before my eyes,” Kropotkin wrote, “I saw mutual aid and mutual support carried on to an extent which made me suspect in it a feature of the greatest importance for the maintenance of life, the preservation of each species and its further evolution.” Kropotkin didn’t limit his studies to animals alone. He cherished his time in peasant villages, with their sense of community and cooperation: in these small Siberian villages, Kropotkin began to understand “the inner springs of the life of human society.” There, by observing “the constructive work of the unknown masses,” the young scientist witnessed human cooperation and altruism in its purest form.https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-prince-of-evolution-peter-kropotkin/ (accessed 2021-01-30)
. . .
He advocated that natural selection was the driving force that shaped life, but that Darwin’s ideas had been perverted and misrepresented by British scientists. Natural selection, Kropotkin argued, led to mutual aid, not competition, among individuals.
We rarely hear this. We usually take for granted that nature is a heartless matriarch who feeds one of her children to another after the slightest mistake on the former’s part. Although humans are part of the natural world, making arguments about animal societies won’t convince everyone since humans are unique creatures. More formidable still (in my opinion) is the common idea of the doctrine of original sin in Christianity. The mechanics of original sin are not often clearly delineated, yet strangely, the conclusion is that selfless expectations are bound to create disaster for humans. Fortunately, we can resolve what is possible with humans:
As, of 2010 at least 15 Kibbutzim in Israel “still follow the full traditional communal model” (there are 270 total according to this article)https://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3983699,00.html
Today there are some 260 kibbutzim and as this experiment evolved over the last century and longer, they seem to be experiencing some sort of a revival. But as most kibbutzim prove by their very existence, staying alive requires working together.https://www.jpost.com/Magazine/A-uniquely-Israeli-institution-543296
. . .
KIBBUTZ DEGANYA, which eventually split into Kibbutz Deganya Alef and Deganya Bet, developed into one of Israel’s most iconic institutions, and led the way for the hundreds of kibbutzim thereafter. It was established in October 1910 by a dozen men hailing from Russia. They were inspired to pursue the Zionist socialist vision in Palestine by working the land during what is known as the Second Aliya.
The waiting lists are the most recent in a series of changes that the kibbutz movement has undergone since the financial crisis it faced in the 1980s. And in recent years, most kibbutzim are accepting new residents only as fully fledged members, with full rights and obligations, rather than as people simply living there. Many of the arrivals are children of the kibbutz who are returning home.
Many kibbutzim simply cannot meet the demand, and it’s not just the wealthy kibbutzim near the center of the country that are a draw, but also smaller collective communities in outlying areas. Kibbutz movement secretary general Nir Meir says every year, on the eve of Shavuot, the number of babies on the kibbutzim is tallied. This year the number exceeded 3,000.https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium.MAGAZINE-kibbutzim-a-magnet-for-young-adults-1.5478900
Speaking to Haaretz, Meir attributed the growth to a number of factors. One is that the era in which kibbutzim were allowing non-members to move in, living in new neighborhoods that were being built, but not really fully part of the kibbutz community, is over. At the same time, the kibbutz movement extracted itself from its earlier financial crisis and changes on kibbutzim “made the way of life a lot more attractive,” Meir asserted.
A Tale of Two Kibbutzim and How Capitalism Doesn’t Always Trump Socialismhttps://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium.MAGAZINE-a-tale-of-two-kibbutzim-capitalism-doesn-t-always-trump-socialism-1.5984224 (accessed 2021-01-30)
Ein Dor and Yizre’el in northern Israel were both established in Ein Dor and Yizre’el in northern Israel were both established in 1948. One was privatized in 2003, while the other still serves three communal meals a day and adheres to the old kibbutz socialist ethos – can you guess which one is thriving today?
. . .
Ein Dor is certainly not a failing kibbutz today, but Almog says it isn’t the most financially successful, either.
. . .
A 30-minute drive away in the Jezreel Valley, Yizre’el is among a handful of kibbutzim that still embraces the old-fashioned principles of communal life. Here, monthly allocations are based not on job description and title, but on seniority at the kibbutz, family size and need. At Yizre’el, the mess hall is still the place where all members take their three daily meals (free of charge) and gather for events, activities and important votes.
. . .
Today, Yizre’el is one of the richest kibbutzim in Israel thanks to its controlling stake in a company that is the world’s single largest supplier of robotic pool cleaners. Maytronics, which is traded on the Tel Aviv stock exchange, has a market capitalization of 1.9 billion shekels (about $540 million). Last year, it boasted almost $200 million in sales (almost exclusively exports) and net earnings of $24 million. Maytronics, which is 60 percent owned by the members of Yizre’el, now has subsidiaries in the United States, France and Australia, and recently opened a second plant in northern Israel.
Of course, this only shows what is possible not what is likely. There are many more cities than kibbutzim. Yet, this type of system may be more common than rich westerners would know. Some societies in third-world countries operate on a similar level of sharing. For example, a sojourners commune was normal for refugees from Nicaragua:
A couple of us from Sojourners were showing the group around. We introduced them to our tenant organizers, who were helping neighbors in massive tenement buildings join together to hold landlords accountable for fair rents and repairs. We stopped in and picked up a snack at our food co-op. We took our guests into our daycare facility for preschoolers and our neighborhood center, where older children were receiving after-school tutoring and adults computer training. There we talked with the group about the structure of our life: the shared assets, communal living, prayer.
All this was met with complete silence. We got none of the tough questions and challenging arguments we were used to from detractors—or the accolades of admiration and expressions of just-how-impressive-it-all-was that spilled readily out of the mouths of supportive observers. Just polite smiles. Translation was not the problem, as the Spanish interpreter had done a marvelous job of describing it all. The spokesperson for the group thanked us for our time, and they left.
The translator came back around a few days later to explain. “They didn’t understand that this is unusual in North America,” he said. “This is how they live—looking out for one another and each other’s children, sharing their food and everything they have, praying for God’s protection.” Of course.https://www.ic.org/being-human/ (accessed 2021-01-30)
Ultimately it is your decision what to value. We can talk about what we would naturally do all day but if something is possible for one human to value I believe it is possible for others. (what a libertarian idea) On Robert Nozick, the Standford encyclopedia comments that we don’t actually know what types of communities would suit human beings:
It is inspiring to anyone who appreciates how little each of us knows about what sorts of communities best suit human beings in all their depth and diversity and how much the operation of the framework assists individuals in their discovery of and engagement in communities that enhance their respective well-being.https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/nozick-political/ (accessed 2021-01-30)
Joyce Hollyday states that she believes collectivism is even natural for humans:
Now I’m closing in on 60. As I ponder my life, I give thanks for a rich and roundabout journey that has brought me back to community by intention. I share life on a small farm in the mountains of western North Carolina with friends. I co-pastor a faith community that includes additional friends and families that are committed to living justly and in peace. I try to remind myself often that those of us who inhabit industrialized, digitalized, privatized early-21st-century North America are an aberration on our planet and in human history. That we even have to engage in conversations and write articles and organize conferences about how to “do community” speaks of our poverty and our alienation from the way of being human. We have lost sight of the fact that we are designed to live interdependently, caring for one another and sharing all that we have for the sake of the common good.https://www.ic.org/being-human/ (accessed 2021-01-30)
As it turned out, the visit by the Central Americans was not our last at Sojourners. They soon returned when they discovered the traumas and frights of our competitive and unwelcoming US culture. And as the terror in Central America escalated, Spanish began to be spoken in more and more of the homes in our neighborhood.
I have presented a rough outline of where the left and right may agree and of how human nature is compatible with intentional communities. I hope it provokes some thought.