Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

REVIEW (Take Two #2): ‘The Survivalists’

In C.Spiby, Reviews on October 21, 2010 at 3:20 pm

A variant on our ‘Double Take’ theme (where two different reviewers consider the same text), the ‘Take Two’ series of reviews consider two different texts covering remarkably similar themes. This time Carl Spiby complements his earlier look at Tobias Jones’ ‘Utopian Dreams: a search for a better life’ with ‘The Survivalists’ by Patrick Rivers and the passage of 32 intervening years.

In this second of my ‘Take Two’ series, I am looking at the topic of ‘communes’ or, to use the modern moniker ‘intentional communities’ – though I’ll refer to the former. With 32 years between these two texts, one might expect the cultural and political changes to leap out at you. But in this case they don’t.

The very thing that drives the study undertaken by Tobias Jones in his modern book is the same reason why all communities in Rivers’ 1975 book came into being. Quoting from ‘The Survivalists’ this being the observation that…

“Within our imposed society we concentrate on stimulating wants – which can never be satisfied – to the neglect of satisfying needs. Denied this basic satisfaction, we try to forget the loss – by chasing after more and more wants.”

To counter this, as one of the commune-starters states, they instead envisage a community which would…

“…seek to provide new technology for people who wish to live in harmony with their environment, in peace with their neighbours, and in control of their lives and their technology.”

The focus on alternative technology is far more pressing in the Rivers’ book but I imagine that these people would have been the vanguard of the new green technology. Of course, by the time we reach the communities that Jones’ visits in his 21st Century book, these technologies have created a growth sector of their own and are even courted by government to bolster their green credentials (while, I sardonically note, also pursuing nuclear power as a green alternative!) and, thus, they are accepted as the norm. Indeed, there’s no need to even mention it once we’ve established that part of the philosophy for the very being of a community is to reduce one’s impact on the environment and opt-out of ‘the system’.

Oddly, however, the title reveals an urgency in the need for breaking away from straight society in ‘The Survivors’ whereas with ‘Utopian Dreams’ that urgency is dealt with as a matter of fact, but with enough room to build dreams.

You may recall that my admiration of the Jones’ book was limited. Unfortunately, Rivers’ text is no more compelling but, like the Jones book, the topic enough keeps one going. In fact, I slightly favour the passing glimpses of reality in the ‘The Survivalists’ missing from ‘Utopian Dreams’. Take this example where Rivers is impressed by…

“…the intense and strenuous 7-days-a-week activity, but I suspect that there may be too much of it; for although the pressures of straight society are noticeably absent, people admit to feeling guilty about taking time off. If a member wants to relax, in his room, or in one of the communal rooms, or on a hillside, even though he is perfectly entitled to do so, nevertheless it is difficult for him not to feel that he is shirking, and he sense that the rest of the group feel that he ought to be doing something.”

The problem is that passages such as these are in the minority and the narrator tends to wander through communities, his interviews and even his own points so casually as to render the majority of his observations instantly forgettable.

This is a pity as there are little gems in here. Some which present the case for community living elegantly, like the interview with Berkeley University architect Sim van Der Ryn who says:

“…a home you’ve made yourself is like home-baked bread is to bought bread. It’s all part of a need people have to create more of the substance of their lives.”

Well put.

Then, at a different juncture a defender of communes tries to contextualise the move from straight society to communal living. Hence, (paraphrasing here) remove from your own home all furniture but a few blankets, a mat, table and chair. Then remove virtually all the food from the pantry leaving only a small bag of flour, some sugar, salt, a few potatoes and a handful of dried beans; dismantle the bathroom; disconnect all electricity; cancel all papers and move the family to a tool shed. They may as well add get the neighbours to move in too – and yet, this communard reports from their Californian retreat that despite these reduction in possessions, comforts and services happiness abounds as does a lack of all the diseases of modernity: depression, anxiety, loneliness, restlessness and misanthropic tendencies.

Really? I think this naïve exchange demonstrates the penchant for early commune-dwellers to strive for a reduction to medievalism; a reputation which I feel has blighted the movement ever since. Secondly, I’d like to see evidence to back up the assertions purported here that communal living clears one of all those anxieties. Although I’d like to think it true, my scepticism is raising alarm bells. It’s not proper journalism but mere opinion.

Another problem with the communes discussed in both books is that the main-players all seem middle class. Take this passage from ‘The Survivalists’:-

“The group which set up the commune comprised two architects, a management consultant, an advertising agency executive, an interior designer, a computer systems analyst, a civil engineer, two teachers and a medical laboratory technician….”

Not a single prole among them.

And this isn’t inverse class prejudice but an observation of those discussed in both texts. This suggests that communes of this nature are mostly started and run by a certain section of the middle class. Probably of, I imagine, a certain intellect and persuasion. For they have the means, the education and the profession to make it do-able, but it calls me to question the sincerity and longevity of such projects. Indeed, all the communes I Googled from the 1975 book no longer existed, whereas all those in ‘Utopian Dreams’ communes did. But will they in 2040?

‘The Survivalists’ is definitely a book about building new communities with those seeking to escape the modern technocratic society. ‘Utopian Dreams’ isn’t utopian at all – I suspect it was the name assigned the project by its publishers – but it too seeks to escape though it parades as trying to build anew. Such is the positivism of modern era, which I often find hides some of the actual truth of a situation.

I favour ‘The Survivalists’ more pragmatic approach, but ‘Utopian Dreams’ was a better source of intellectual ideas and justifications for communal living. So on this journey of these two books have I learned much?

Yes – but probably nothing conclusively. Answers to the big questions just aren’t that easy, I guess.

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