So is Dave Pollard the next Mother Ann Lee?

December 30, 2007

Like many others I have been watching Dave Pollard’s postings within a mixture of interest and growing concern for several months now; especially since a discussion in San Jose where I discovered the degree of his engagement in Second Life. His Christmas Eve posting on polyamorism disturbed me greatly. OK I didn’t have Matt’s ironically expressed desire to find Dave’s MIC and spray graffiti on the walls, burn down the buildings and glory in its destruction but I am concerned.

Faced with some of the major issues of the age (or any age for that matter), Dave seems to be advocating a path of withdrawal to a small community, coupled with an unconventional attitude to sexuality which has disturbing historical precedents. To make it clear, I have a lot of respect for Dave, I think his concerns about the ecological and economic structure of our society are spot on. But, and it is a very big BUT, I think his current direction as to the solution is dangerous, and has an historical pattern of danger which looks to be repeating itself.

An MIC by the way is a Model Intentional Community, a development by Dave of some of the concepts of community exemplified by situated communities such as Earthaven. Dave creates a set of characteristics that such a community should have: exemplary, egalitarian replicable, educational, responsible & respectful, self-sufficient & sustainable and finally diverse. Ok that is all well and good, basic statements of value in human systems. idealistic? yes; utopian? almost certainly.

A commentary and summary of Dave’s post

Now if you were thinking of joining, and felt able to achieve all of the above then you are blessed indeed (blessed is the designation before sainthood in catholic dogma and I am using it in that sense) but then the requirements are extended to include: capacity for love, passion for the community’s shared purpose/intention, trust, emotional strength, sensitivity/openness/perceptiveness, good instincts, self-sufficiency, honesty, intelligence/critical thinking ability, curiosity, imagination, creativity, responsibility, expressiveness, flexibility, and tolerance. At this point you might want to proceed directly to Martyrdom and immediate membership of the heavenly hosts. OK I am being a bit sarcastic, but idealism is dangerous. It sets targets that people cannot achieve, ignores the need for evolution and growth and fundamentally carries the danger of …. (hold, I am coming to that, wait)

So far its all good stuff. It won’t happen, but no harm in dreams. However Dave’s follow up gets interesting. He now starts to place some fairly patriarchal (I use the word deliberately) and puritan (that one too) requirements. Members of the MIC are now expected to: Stop at one child per woman, practice radical simplicity, pledge to buy local, leave the Earth as you found it, practice bioregionalism & permaculture, cooperate & collaborate, practice consensus democracy, value everyone’s time equally, pay attention to nature, be self-sufficient, incur no debts, be generous, organic and responsible, and understand and use the power of relationships.

Again some of these are fine, impractical in many societies around the world, only viable in a late capitalist society with leisure time and natural resources to support it, but OK. However the first strikes a discordant note and introduces a longer polemic on the general themes of sexuality which is where I think it gets disturbing given some of the historical precedents. Then we move into conspiracy theories and the demonisation of the other: our civilization society deliberately contrives to keep our social units this small. It doesn’t want us to be self-sufficient and sustainable. It wants us to be dependent on it for jobs, for money, and for the things that money buys, so we continue to support it even though it is inhuman, degrading, tedious, and keeps most of us in constant struggle and misery.

At this point in my reading of Dave’s blog, the historian in me is started to do mind associations with various religious cults from the 17th Century onwards. After more condemnatory paragraphs which are excessive and would not stand up to criticism we move to the heart of the argument; marriage is condemned as a manifestation of jealousy and possessiveness. It is contrasted with the saving power (yes I am being sarcastic and do so without apology) of polyamorism, a word synonymous with swinging if you do a google search and I think in part Dave has this meaning, although sex in second life is there with the physical world. Eros, Philia and Agape are replaced with four forms of love: intellectual, emotional, sensual/aesthetic and erotic. A MIC would manifest these in different combinations between members.

Dave then poses a question: The important issue, I think, is whether such a polyamorous MIC would best manifest the behaviours consistent with sustainability, responsibility, generosity and self-sufficiency, and the operating principles listed above. Would a polyamorous community be more likely to have fewer children each generation, consume less, borrow and ‘import’ less, be more peaceful and cohesive, freer, and, perhaps most important, happier and better able to learn, imagine and adapt?

By now of course the reader will know his answer is yes. He has three grounds: (i) his instincts tell him it would, (ii)wild creatures live in this way, (iii) his own experience of polyamorism as opposed to monogamy confirms his instinct. The only empirical claim here, that wild creatures live in this way does not sustain even a mild inspection. Some species pair bond for life, others work from alpha male or female dominance of herds or colonies. Nature is simply nature, the results of co-evolutionary processes over time and it is ethically neutral, predators dominate niches and the phrase red in tooth and claw is not without justification.

The why and what of my concern

One of the main reasons for investing time in this blog, and potentially offending a few people, is that I think, as I said at the start, that Dave’s broad areas of concern about society are important. It seems to be that the route Dave is currently taking is at best a retreat from the problem, at worst a dangerous diversion that will take energy away from driving systemic change. So that is the why, but the what?

  • Firstly, this is a well established route and a dangerous one. One of the reactions to conditions of great uncertainty is to retreat into communities and isolate oneself from the problems of the world. Seeking by isolated example to initiate wider change. In some cases the assumption of the coming of the apocalypse, negates even the need for change. And the language of the apocalypse has started to enter Dave’s writings. There are many, many examples ranging at the extreme communities then end up poisoning themselves (the cults) in acts of mass suicide, to groups such as the Shakers and Mormons. The Shakers saw abstinence from sex as key, forcing them into adoption and eventual near extinction (one child per women has the same effect by the way it just takes a bit longer), the Mormons created their own form of polyamorism. There are many, many other examples and whatever the intention all these groups end up as cults, with some form of deviant (here I mean it as against the norm) sex is at the heart of the bonding, or identity of the group. Coupled with the demonisation of majority practice this approach creates a very dangerous form of elitism (and the danger is for the elite not the outside)
  • Secondly, it is poor biology, poor psychology, poor science. We evolved in extended families, hunter gather tribes and extended groups. We are not determined by that history as the more naive and doctrinaire evolutionary psychologists would have us believe, but we are influenced by it. In those societies monogamy evolved as a stabilising influence, reducing unnecessary competition and creating other links such as grandparents and the wider extended family which provided sustainable community. No naturally occurring community in human history (or nature) has been egalitarian. read some of the literature on post-natal plasticity of the human brain and the interdependencies of which love (properly understood) is an integral part and you will find no evidence, even in failure to support any of Dave’s propositions. Increasing the support for extended families, which includes ensuring that geographical areas maintain sustainable economic development is as important as any community movement here. My own extended family broke up as my generation migrated londonwards for employment. With a virtual world, and friends buying houses together (by economic necessity but it may have beneficial outcomes) we may find it easier to return to such natural support mechanisms.
  • Thirdly, this is needless distraction from the wider issue of change. I am very happy for communities such as Earthaven to exist and be created around the world. Other economic experiments such as the Grameen Bank are as if not more important. Multiple small initiatives showing that there is a different way of doing things are vital, and people prepared to make sacrifices of convention to establish them are to be praised. The witness of community is a part of the history of humanity and one that continues and needs to continue today. However to move from an Intentional community to a MIC is a step too far. It attempts top create an idealised form of community that is particular to a culture. It over defines and over specifies the requirements for membership. We need lots of little things that achieve change going on in many cultures around the world. We have no need, in fact we must not allow, issues such as sexual practice (which can vary greatly) to confuse this wider need.

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