My interest in the compound is ethically suspect. Compounds in general are suspect. I’m intentionally using the word compound to evoke “family compound”, because it isn’t an open “cooperative”, not an aspirational “commune”. The compound resident wants to cultivate interdependence with the Us while withdrawing and becoming independent from the Them. This is a repudiation of the need to work to bring the Them into the Us (and when necessary to bludgeon the Them into realizing our Us is part of their Us whether they like it or not).
And yet somehow it’s easier to imagine that life would work better within Dunbar’s number, isn’t it? Whether that’s true or not – I’m certainly dependent enough on e.g. the pharmaceutical industry to laugh at Full Anprim – there is something we are not doing well in contemporary post-industrial American society, and maybe monastery towns were a good model for… something.
This seems like a cool way of having things organized even absent any withdrawal from society or radical economic arrangement. I live in a condo building where there are cool shared amenities, but every single unit also has a full kitchen, laundry machines, etc. etc. so I only really see my neighbors on the roof or in the elevators. While I have no regrets about this in the age of COVID, it doesn’t seem efficient or desirable broadly. How have amenities been shared throughout the history of urban life?
I’m not sure how tightly I think we should bind the idea of the compound to the idea of the farm. Cohousing for people not engaged in cooperative production still seems valuable. On the other hand, this is such an important bit and I don’t know where else to put it:
This theory that family farms are inherently more environmentally sustainable than other farms is empirically questionable, and it says little about whether the ethic of care extends to workers who sell their labor to family farmers, and less still about the long history of farm owners using patriarchal authority to exploit the uncompensated labor of their dependents. Organizing farming around private property relations and heteropatriarchal family units is certainly neither natural nor the only way to organize sustainable or even agroecological agriculture.
It’s instructive to compare that fantasy to some of the pre-Columbian indigenous societies that Bittman also cites for more natural approaches. Agriculture in the Americas prior to colonization was tremendously varied. Many indigenous agricultural systems were grander in scale than settler-colonial farmsteads and involved the coordinated labor and expertise of large communities; all were organized around radically different conceptions of property, stewardship, and kinship, and much of it was more ecologically sustainable than colonial agricultural practices. In the agricultural systems common to the native peoples of what is now the northeastern United States, to give one example, farming was usually women’s work, and it fortified matriarchal kinship structures.
By contrast, British settler-colonial farmsteads used the labor of a single family, and the farms were the legal property of a patriarch. What distinguished New England colonial farmsteads from Algonquin agriculture was not a proximity to nature, but, rather, a politically enforced system of property relations that allowed land to be owned, exploited, traded, and inherited. And as the management of those landscapes went from indigenous agriculture at various scales to smaller-scale settler-colonial farmsteads, it often became more extractive, driven by different notions of what should be produced and how, and by the fact that some farm products were destined for markets. When settlers exterminated buffalo and replaced them with cattle, first on the open range and then on enclosed ranches, soil, biodiversity, and indigenous foodways all suffered. It is odd to conclude from all this that agriculture should more closely resemble the settler-colonial ideal of small family farms than what it displaced.