The small society
Big ideas needn’t come from above. People work best from the bottom up
Lives apart: turning the sod on the sustainable community project in Cloughjordan. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Lives apart: the bike workshop at Seomra Spraoi. Photograph: Aidan Crawley
Once upon a time, if people didn’t like society they just started a new one. In the 19th century, utopian socialists such as Robert Owen, idealistic capitalists such as George Pullman and agrarian religionists such as the Shakers all established model communities. There was a belief that a good mini society might catch on, so the vogue continued into the 20th century.
Henry Ford experimented with wacky forms of government in Fordlandia, a town he established in the middle of a rainforest. In the 1930s de Valera resettled a community of Irish-speaking Connemara farmers in Co Meath. In the late 1970s Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo established Marinaleda, a communitarian society, in an Andalusian village. (It still exists.)
Since the Berlin Wall fell it has seemed as if there was only one inevitable system: global capitalism. Over the following decades people were convinced that, no matter how bad things seemed, there were no alternatives. (The writer Mark Fisher called this ideological pessimism “capitalist realism”).
More recently global capitalism has been a little unwell, and there are community-based grassroots initiatives all over the place. Some are more ambitious than others. Some wouldn’t even call themselves communities. These aren’t, for the most part, the self-contained utopian settlements of an earlier age. But they’re an interesting start.
Clonakilty Favour Exchange
Localised currencies are not new. Clonakilty Favour Exchange had its genesis when Bev Cotton and his wife, Miriam, attended a talk by Natasha Harty about a long-running local exchange trading system in Midleton. They developed their own version, in which the unit of currency was 15 minutes of work to be traded with their Co Cork neighbours.
“In recessions local communities feel powerless,” says Cotton. “People are waiting for decisions to be made by politicians or for banks to lend money or the economy to pick up. There’s a feeling of frustration. This was a way of mobilising resources with no permission needed.”
It began with 35 people. There are now 150 members. The favours exchanged have included voice therapy, computer debugging, drumming lessons, dog training, DIY, gardening, haircuts, computer repairs and various therapies. It’s been running for 18 months. “There was a sense of enthusiasm and joy and release in the people who joined,” says Cotton. “There’s something about the money-free relationship you strike up with people when you exchange favours that’s very freeing. The recession closes things down, and this opens them up . . . During the Celtic Tiger a lot of people didn’t even talk to their neighbours. We put a lot of effort into breaking that down. We organised social events. My hope is that those connections will continue.”
Other favour exchanges are cropping up, and local trading schemes have flourished abroad beyond recession. Cotton, who is taking a step back from the project, stresses that these initiatives work because of the hard work that people put into them. “It’s not a perpetual-motion machine. These things can’t run themselves . . . and there needs to be trust. I don’t think it can get going without that.”
In 2010 Dr Philip Nitschke of the Australian group Exit International came to Dublin to give a talk about euthanasia and found nowhere would host him. (He is also known as “Dr Death”.) Seomra Spraoi stepped in, attracting tabloid attention and the ire of protesters.