Atavistic Community

An introduction to the Atavist's general approach to community, in question and answer format. Can't we all just get along?



I'm not sure I need to read this: I get it, community is good. And I’m already a member of a bunch of communities, and my life still sucks, so that can't be the answer.

Most modern communities are nowhere near as powerful as they could, and should, be. A true community is not just a network of people who know each other and have one or two things in common - a community is a group of people who live together.

Live together? Like, in the same house?

Ideally, either in the same structure or in a group of structures close together.

But I don’t like other people that much. It’s hard enough living with my significant other! I can’t imagine having to live with other people too…

We would respond by paraphrasing the words of Jane Austen's Elizabeth Bennet: some of us are not very good at playing the piano, but we presume it’s because they haven’t practiced much. Our culture tells us that it’s normal to live alone or, at most, in nuclear families. As a result, we don’t learn how to live as communities anymore - how to respect each other, live generously, and solve problems collectively. We become dictators of our own mini-fiefdoms and presume the right to that level of control over our surroundings. But while living communally is difficult, especially for people, like most of us, who were raised without a real community, there is much to be gained from it.

What’s so great about living communally?

First of all, we evolved to function in community groups. Communal living satisfies psychological desires we all have - connecting intimately with others and defining ourselves as a group member, for instance. Then there are the thousand ways that living communally can help you in everyday life- if you need a ride somewhere, or someone to watch your kids while you go shopping, for instance, you'll probably be able to find someone whom you trust to help you out. Plus, living communally makes practical sense. Just as there are economies of scale in production, there are economies of scale in consumption. One kitchen can serve a dozen people just about as easily as it can serve three.

But wouldn’t you have freeloaders just taking advantage of you, scamming you by guilting you into watching their kids?

Freeloaders are a real problem in individualistic societies. People can take advantage of others’ good will, or live off of government aid. But in a community where everyone knows each other well, peer pressure makes freeloading more difficult. Nobody wants to be thought of as a bad community member, and will actually suffer if that's the group's perception of them. So, they actively try to be the best community member that they can be.

 That’s a pretty optimistic view of human nature…

Maybe. But it’s not just because we’re all such nice people, really - in communities, freeloading is discouraged by guilt and shame, as well. But I’m glad that you brought up human nature. We’ve all internalized the idea that humans are selfish, greedy animals by nature - we see evidence of this all around us, every day. But selfishness isn’t the natural state of humanity - rather, it’s a common response that humans have to scarcity, scarcity which is encouraged by our capitalist, individuated culture. If you put most any dog in an airplane, it’s going to get nervous and bark a lot. That doesn’t mean that it’s the dogs’ ‘doggy nature’ to be skittish and loud, though - it’s just that they tend to respond the same way to their external environment. If you change the environment of an animal, the animals’ ‘natural’ response will will change.

I like dogs. Can we have one?


But what if other members of my community don’t like dogs? What then?

Communities should function democratically, so you’ll have to bring it up for a vote. If you don’t like the outcome, you can consider leaving, or starting a pro-doggy branch of your community.


So I can leave at any time?


That's the best way to make sure that the community serves the interests of its members. Back in hunter-gatherer days, people always had the option to leave, to strike out on their own on the frontier. Even a couple hundred years ago in America, people unhappy with life on the east coast were free to head west and make a life for themselves. Doing so entailed certain dangers and risks, so most people would try to make things work with their communities. But communities wanted to keep their members, too, because every member contributes to the economic well-being and security of the group. 

Awesome. Good to know I'm not signing my life away. So, communities should live together and be democratic. Any other structural elements they should all have?

Yes - they should be small. Psychology suggests that our brain is well-equipped to handle interpersonal relations in a group of up to a hundred and fifty people - beyond that, it becomes impossible for everyone to know each other well enough. So a hundred and fifty should be the absolute limit. I suspect, that in modern communities, the ideal size will be less than that - maybe seventy-five or a hundred. But those are really the only universal rules.

What? No other rules?

There will be plenty of rules, but they’ll be specific to each community. One of the benefits of having functioning communities is that they will evolve to function better over time and develop their own rules and cultures. I don’t know exactly what policies will prove to be the best, but over time, ‘best practices’ will develop and become part of each community’s culture. Communities function as laboratories of democracy, marketplaces of ideas, essentially - the ideas or rules that work the best will spread as other communities adopt them or the community propagates.

Uh, did you just say 'propagates'?

Yes. Because communities that function the best will attract the most members, and will be able to support children the best, they will tend to grow. Since every community needs to stay under a hundred and fifty members, communities that function well will eventually split, or spawn off related communities.

Sounds like evolution, kind of.

Sure. Whatever works, works.

Can you use a different term to differentiate ‘Communities’, as you envision them, from the modern communities that you don’t think are good enough?

That might be less confusing. Let’s call Atavistic communities ‘Federations’. If you want to see why, click here.




Read more about Atavism here.