by Raven Glomus
The two previous book reviews this week (books on sustainable community and collaborative groups) focused on books written about how to do collaborations (including communes and communities) well. Today I want to review a book about what not to do. It’s called Come Hell or High Water and is subtitled “a handbook on collective process gone awry”. It’s published by AK press–“one of the world’s largest and most productive anarchist publishing houses”–that also publishes a bunch of other interesting books (including adrienne maree brown’s book on Emergent Strategy which I based two blog posts here on).
As the cover illustrates, this is a funny, cynical book that has a bunch of cartoons illustrating some frustrating problems. It also has a lot of hard won lessons about how all these wonderful processes that we talk about here and which other commune building guides extol can go terribly wrong. It’s written by a couple of anarchists who believe strongly in “egalitarian collectives” but have seen the pitfalls in the process and have looked at ways that form what the authors term “predictable patterns” that can lead well-meaning groups to things like “hierarchy, mistrust, looking out only for oneself, and sometimes even underhanded scheming.”
Although this is a modest sized book (and a quick read–127 small pages) Delfina Vannuchi and Richard Singer look carefully at issues like misusing consensus, how not to do power sharing, the difference between politeness and kindness, character assassinations and banning, justice and due process and free speech, and how vagueness can lead to authoritarianism.
I’ve seen reviews of this book that complain that this book is overly ‘pessimistic’. However, I think that it provides a nice counterbalance to all the books on the wonderful things you can do with group process. (See my two previous reviews this week.) The cartoons are also a nice touch that makes the emphasis on problems easier to take.
The authors end the book with a section that they entitle “There’s hope” where they talk about how “Virtually all problems in collectives can be overcome by applying compassion, and by being thorough and even-handed in our thinking.” Sounds lovely but not easy to do, especially when things are tough.
Here’s the last paragraph in the book, which is a nice summary of their thinking:
“An egalitarian collective is meant to accept and incorporate differences and heterogeneity. The task is to create a productive, relatively peaceful community out of all the different and sometimes contradictory personalities that form the group. No collective will ever be a perfect picture of unity, but it doesn’t have to be. A working collective is more like a crazy-quilt of disparate styles, all stitched up by a common thread. Frayed edges and all, that’s what a functional egalitarian collective looks like.”
It’s a nice reminder for people living in or trying to build communes.
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