New Communalism

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This movement, considered as a possible precurser of the peer to peer movement, is introduced and discussed by Nathan Cravens.


Nathan Cravens:

“We are as gods and we might as well get good at it.”[1] In the 1969 issue, that was the first line to instill the purpose of the Whole Earth Catalog. Stewart Brand, with a network of people with various views, launched a medium to network readers with others. It presented the necessary tools, used broadly, to support the needs of the rising commune movement of the time. With a readership of millions, a social movement Fred Turner calls ‘NewCommunalism’ was born. New Communalism is a term created to distinguish a group of folk during the 60s-70s that believed in forming a community of like-minded grounded in self sufficiency.

Here we describe New Communalism and the Whole Earth Catalog. Afterward, we discuss how the Whole Earth Catalog and New Communalism failed and where the gems of this movement can find a home at Open Manufacturing, a conception under discussion as a form of physical commons-based peer production at best.[2]

The New Communalists

The New Communalists were mostly young white educated men set out for the woods to build community anew. They abandoned, to the greatest degree, government regulated ways of living. Inspired by the Catalog, the word “tool” was to mean anything for use. This view, with cybernetic inspired systems focused rhetoric, linked the varied topics of the Catalog and provided the base for this informatively diverse culture. It made technology acceptable by presenting it as a means for liberation from the despair of government control. The market system therefore was embraced as it promoted the sales of gadgets asliberatory tools.

The political-centric historical discourse, simply by negating a social distinction for New Communalism, largely left the movement overlooked; or it was asserted as an unimportant blip in the radar of outcasts that represented the larger known revolutionary movement of the New Left. The New Left was in many wayscontridictory to New Communalism as it was considered a neoluddite or anti-technology worldview that went to the streets in political protest to ‘disassemble the machinery of exploitation’. It was the last significant Leftist movement within the United States. Followers of the New Left view have since, for the most part, whether under the guise of ‘Republican, Center-Left, or Libertarian’ acquiesced to a minority enriching view calledneoliberalism or the government deregulation of market Capitalism, presently under heavy scrutiny for causing the present scarcity based economic meltdown. The New Left and NewCommunalists and revolutionaries were formed in response to the disparities caused by encultured fear and the violent discrimination and war that fueled it.

New Communalism surfaced due to the conflicts of the time. Only two years after World War II, the so-called Cold War propaganda began. This means the children of the post-war baby boom were persistently racked by war propaganda in the news with the support of Industrial advertising. This approachconviently garnered a brutish cyclicity to solidify public/private interest for a populace “endlessly in need” by healthy doses of war terror. The date, October 8, 1962, marked the Cuban Missile Crisis. From here-on, this ensured the imminent fear of death by nuclear holocaust to add further fuel to the expressed explicit outrage and playful absurdity to come. 1968 marked the height of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Between 1959-75 roughly 5 million Vietnamese inhabitants were slaughtered. Fear at some point during these times met a breaking point into a cascade of playful absurdity as the seed for NewCommunalism . This glorious kaleidoscopic fantasy land of silliness was well expressed by the be-in variety-at-once theater of the Merry Prankster collective. These previous adventures or escapes from the socialised absurdity of doom at least leave us with a caricature of thehippy: an LSD tripping, long haired, face painted, drum circling freak. Finally; there was sanity in the hippy image: an abandonment of all cognitive notions at best, or at least, a will to express how one would rather live. The LSD part, I suppose, helped to secure this alternate “reality” into a colorful one. This just-in-time psychoactive ‘tool’ was used by NewCommunalists largely to break from the rigidly ascribed social norms of the echoing doomsday propaganda played to lockstep a people. When consulting Whole Earth’s content, the civil rights movement, largely focused at the time on equal rights by gender and skin color, played a small role in influencing NewCommunalism . This lack of acknowledgment is understandable due to the civil rights movement’s New Left stronghold to lobby government in a top-down approach rather than breaking taboo socially bottoms-up by participating in the dominantly white-male alternative world of community living. This era remains deeply felt by those that lived what only brief words represent here.

The Whole Earth Catalog

A simple description of Whole Earth comes from the Catalog’s ‘function’.

The WHOLE EARTH CATALOG functions as an evaluation and access device. With it, the user should know better what is worth getting and where and how to do the getting.

An item is listed in the CATALOG if it is deemed:

1. Useful as a tool, 2. Relevant to independent education, 3. High quality or low cost, 4. Not already common knowledge, 5. Easily available by mail.

This information is continually revised according to the experience and suggestions of CATALOG users and staff.

The Whole Earth Catalog with its aim to inform and display the tools to community organized people shows elements of a peer network. We’ll use a peer generated description from the scribes atWikipedia to describe elements of the catalog itself. With the Catalog opened flat, the reader might find the large page on the left full of text and intriguing illustrations from a volume of Joseph Needham’s Science and Civilization in China, showing and explaining an astronomical clock tower or a chain-pump windmill, while on the right-hand page are an excellent review of a beginners’ guide to modern technology (The Way Things Work) and a review of The Engineers’ Illustrated Thesaurus. On another spread, the verso reviews books on accounting and moonlighting jobs, while the recto bears an article in which people tell the story of a community credit union they founded. Another pair of pages depict and discuss different kayaks, inflatable dinghies, and houseboats.[1]

The best description of the Catalog is the content of the medium itself. Many Catalogs and the publications that followed are freely observable online. (

Why it Failed

The Whole Earth Catalog marks the first attempts to empower autonomous community in a fair amount of detail through media. It can be viewed as an attempt to create an informed peer group for material autonomy. In a way, the Catalog itself was open source, in that after the second issue, complete financial records for the magazine were published.[3] ‘Open source’ usually refers to the transparency andrevisability of source code used to generate a software program or content, like the Firefox web browser or Wikipedia encyclopedia. The term ‘open source’ as used within the context of Open Manufacturing broadens the term to mean ‘open’ in every facet of design construction: the blue print or details of a product design, where to generate/recycle and locate materials, and how to construct a product step-by-step for the least amount of cost for the greatest benefit, respectively. Even if the Whole Earth Catalog did not establish this aim, to its credit, the Whole Earth Catalog does have a website ( with many viewable Catalogs and the related content that followed. It is here we can view the Catalog et al. materials in light of presently available and percievably forthcoming ‘tools’.

The failure of Whole Earth to continue or meet the present aims of Open Manufacturing are this: 1) It lacked enough contributions or demand to distribute the medium. I conjecture, the content variety generated by those from governmental or Industrial institutions, however anti-government or anti-Industry, over-reflected the public/private, overshadowing the vision for materially autonomous community or the peer network to sustain it. 2) The Catalog pushed to purchase products rather than learn and procure ‘freely enough’ the resources to make them. It was not open source in Open Manufacturing terms. In sum, the paper medium was too costly without sustainable interest to publish a compendium necessary for the exhaustive infrastructural details for materially autonomous community.

If we consider the Catalog as the mind of the New Communalist body, we can assert that at some point the mind of the Catalog was not clear enough to sustain the body of the Commune. The content of the Catalog may have been thought provoking; but thought alone must have a place to rest. NewCommunalists then faced with the material deprivation that caused social conflict–mentally and physically overwhelmed–these folk could not meet the challenges and became vulnerable to the pleasures offered, actual or not, by the private/public infrastructure. It was at this juncture NewCommunalism failed as they returned to the growing suburbs in disappointment. Fortunately, by the mid 80s, roughly a decade or so later, the educated sect that prospered using the Libertarian ethos of market entrepreneurship were the first to regroup–at least in spirit–as desktop computers became available and more affordable. With computer as media, former NewCommunalists used the Whole Earth backed message board, The Well.

The Barrier of Scarcity Driven Infrasturctures

From the message boards and later the world wide web, the ability now exists to reconstruct the vision of materially autonomous community. Personal computers and use of the web are available at all public libraries within service dominant Industrial societies. Knowledge here is abundant. Knowledge on community infrastructure is available, but not yet mobilized as a unified network of physical communities, or more specifically, Intentional Communities or Transition Towns, respectively. One way to help revive the spirit of New Communalism is by describing the ways to sustain community demonstrated through visual representation, like video documentation, to express how knowledge is used to benefit personal and community living. This can begin by accessing the contents of the Catalog and its related off-shoots–like Worldchanging–and transform the proprietary into open source by adopting and demonstrating clearly what works. The media of the web to access these tools is a matter of course.

As a disclaimer, these last paragraphs may read like fantasy or outright lunacy for those unfamiliar with or unconvinced by the rhetoric of Open Manufacturing. Much like how the peer production of information presently overshadows the information economy that nurtured it, the greatest barrier may be one presently overlooked. That is, in the pitfalls and exploits of economic scarcity-based infrastructures. When reflecting on the aims of Open Manufacturing as the physicalization of commons-based peer production in ALL FORMS, this hints not only at the failures of the present scarcity-driven system, but foresees a great deal of stumbling in the dark with the aid of rough open source and peer-to-peer principles and infrastructural sketches, (including my own) presently resembling a candle in the dark against the monolith of materials and better known organizations that demonstrate the imminence of the existing megastructure. Yet, as firms continue into bankruptcy with a government unable to tax them, government will then face a crisis after taking possession of these enterprises: the inability to render ‘enough’ scarcity to continue the elegant exponential financial flows necessary to continue the scarcity model Industrial society, both rich and poor, subsist on.

Scarcity infrastructures in collapse will need to transform from proprietary to open source to the greatest extent. This collapse will provide the synergy required to drive home the Renaissance of New Communalism like a Phoenix from the ashes. This economic transformation can begin by first admitting debt created by the existing system will NEVER BE PAID AND NEVER WILL BE. Only after this admission can the widespread adoption of Open Manufacturing practice successfully surface into the mainstream as the machinery under the hood that drives the Communalist Renaissance forward. Whether officially admitted or otherwise, the scarcity collapse will be confirmed by these private/public sector crises and the subsequent social unrest for those hesitate or unwilling to make the leap. To continue present production methods that remain scarce, business models and processes must become ‘open source’ to further encourage the reduction rather than the increase of currency. Here, its a matter of presenting the case for the appropriate theoretical structure and the observation of the elements of its abundance generating practice, required to win this argument: money may dwindle into nothing, but as it does the metric will increase in value.

P2P theory gives permission to explore the case for scarce economic transition into the foreseeable peer-community infrastructure to come. For as long as this description is considered fantasy, the harder it must become before this picture is clarified and the solutions dawn and acted on.

The mind, however newborn, is ready. . ."


[1] Quoted from the Wikipedia article, Whole Earth Catalog. [2] View and participate! The Open Manufacturing Discussion List. [3] Fred Turner. 2006. ‘From Counterculture to Cyberculture’. p.90.