Involuntary Communalism in the Age of George Bush- How a Sixties Dream Became a Working ClassNecessity
" It's time we stop children, what's that sound Everybody look what's going round"
During the late 1960's, those song lyrics served as an anthem for a youth based counterculture that emerged out of the civil rights and anti-war movements. Challenging individualism, consumerism and the ideal of the self-contained nuclear family, hundreds of thousands of young people chose to live in communal spaces where people shared housing, food, child care, and household responsibilities. Some of these communal experiments took place in rural areas and sought complete self-sufficiency by growing their own food, but the majority were formed in cities and towns by people who worked in the mainstream economy, but chose to share their incomes, as well as their living space, with like minded people who saw competitive individualism as a destructive force.
Most of these communal experiments gradually disintegrated as the idealism which inspired them diminished, and as the people who launched them, many of whom were college educated, moved into professional occupations.
But though the ideological support for communalism is substantially weaker than it was forty years ago, the number of people living communally is actually far greater! The driving force for this new communalism is almost entirely economic. Because of stagnant wages and rising costs for housing, transportation and health care, large portions of the American working class are no longer able to live in nuclear family units and are sharing living space relatives, friends, and to an increasing degree, with complete strangers.
You can see this not only in the Bronx, where large portions of the population, whether in public housing, privately owned apartment buildings or two and three family houses, are living doubled and tripled up, but in working class suburbs where most people live in detached houses with garages and lawns. In the Springs, a working class neighborhood in East Hampton where I have a vacation house, half of the houses on my block have more than two families living in them. This is not only true of the houses on my street owned by Mexican immigrants, where between two and five families share split level houses originally built for one. but in a number of houses in which white, and mixed race couples, share space.
The days when working class men and women could marry early and to move into their own private home are disappearing fast. The disparity between working class wages and the money needed to purchase and heat a home makes that ideal nearly impossible for a nuclear family without incurring incredible debt For a while, escalating credit card limits and the creation of sub prime mortgages inspired millions of families to take that risk but now those families face interest rates that are in danger of swallowing up their investment and forcing them into foreclosure. When you add to that increasing energy costs, the private home, for most working class people is fast becoming an "endangered species." The only way most working class families will be able to meet their mortgage payments and fuel costs is by sharing those costs with other families, or taking in boarders who pay rent
None of this is going to change any time soon. The days of inexpensive fuel and lavishly available credit are gone, perhaps forever. The entire culture of postwar America, built around the private home and the private automobile, is becoming dysfunctional for large sections of the population. Working class people, and increasingly middle class Americans, will have to share space, and resources and services to have a decent life style. And government needs to adapt to the this through investment in public transportation, high quality affordable health care, and affordable rental housing.
The "ownership society" where the ideal living unit is the private home is no longer compatible with the place of the US in the global economy. Ideals of solidarity and sharing and sacrifice which have long sincegone out of fashion, but which are lived realities for many working class people, have to be restored to a place of honor in the American political and cultural tradition
Individualism and consumerism need to be contested in every sphere of our culture, not just because they are morally questionable, but because they increasingly provide poor guidance for how to live well in the world we not inhabit.