The Mormon/American Model for Changing Structures

June 19, 2006 | 19 comments
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I can think of four different ways to change the structures we’ve been talking about.

The haphazard way–the undeliberate way– is by far the most common.

Some changes occur deliberately through the application of external force. Lincoln freed the slaves. The structures of Southern society were ripped apart by the Civil War. The Nephite Zion grew in the space made possible by Christ smashing the tribal society that preceded it and killing the most wicked. Some changes occur deliberately through the application of persuasion and individual effort. The Civil Rights movement in this country largely succeeded this way (though after the elites were persuaded a certain amount of external force was applied). Another example might be evangelization carried out by Ammon and his brothers.

There is a third type of deliberate change that gets dismissed as mere retreat because it neither seeks to bring outside pressure or to slowly chip away from within. It instead seeks to create its own alternate structures that then serve as a model for change. America as the City on the Hill and Deseret were both examples. We hardly do this anymore. Indeed, we hardly even ever *think* of the possibilities, with notable exceptions like Kent Huff. And where some people have succeeded in going against the grain, their efforts are largely unknown, which is why I’ve always thought that Russell Fox would do far more to advance his ideas by publicizing his family’s United Order than by practically any other means.

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19 Responses to The Mormon/American Model for Changing Structures

  1. Carl Youngblood on June 19, 2006 at 3:53 pm

    Could you please include links to relevant information about Kent Huff and Russell Fox so that those of us who are less familiar with their ideas can understand your post better?

  2. Adam Greenwood on June 19, 2006 at 4:02 pm

    Kent Huff is, as he would be the first to admit, just an average Mormon fellow who has done a lot of thinking about practical ways to build Zion because no one else was. I don’t think he has a real online presence.

    Russell Fox is a coblogger here who advocates a communitarianism that is localist, economically socialist, and vaguely tradition minded and social conservative. His posts for us are here:
    http://www.timesandseasons.org/index.php?author=25&poststart=1
    and his own blog is here:
    http://inmedias.blogspot.com/

  3. Mark Butler on June 19, 2006 at 5:28 pm

    I like Russell’s model, although I might disagree with the mechanics of socialism vs. communitarianism, in terms of elements of coercion vs. stewardship and agency that typically define the debate.

    However, what I haven’t seen is a vision for a modern techno-industrial society that can work on those terms. The last large scale experiments in the United Order failed due to poor economies of scale – it was much more economically efficient to import most manufactured goods than to produce them locally. Family socialism is one thing, but we need a communitarianism for the modern world, in the end, and the legal structures of our society, make that difficult even with a coherent model. Law is social structure to a great degree, unfortunately.

    Perhaps a system of covenant could work, it is hard to say, but I would love to see a prototype of a modern industrial society organized on consecration and stewardship rather than coercion and license, as most contemporary socialisms inevitably reduce to.

  4. Reach Upward on June 19, 2006 at 6:57 pm

    For any kind of system like this to work, people must relinquish much of the individualism that we prize in our modern society in favor of a communal identity. And the community needs strong leadership. Most Mormon polygamous families worked that way. Most Hutterite communities in North America still function that way. I believe that the broader Islamic extremist culture functions to a degree in that manner.

    In the case of Mormon polygamists and modern Hutterites, the communal identity created rather closed societies that defy widespread application. In the case of the Islamic extremists, broader application in the framework of a modern society has been achieved(though it is at odds with that modern society) . All communal identity examples that I have studied end up being more societies of men (top-down rule with leaders making most of the rules or speaking for God) rather than societies of laws, such as we pursue in the U.S. (where people live by rules in which they have a say, and that are achieved by agreement and/or conflict resolution).

    Systems of covenant are only as good as the covenant makers, which means that some individuals always fall out of the system — sometimes enough to destroy the system.

    I echo Pres. Faust, who said that there is no geographic place to escape from the broader world any more. We have to live in the cultures in which we find ourselves. In a sense, Latter-Day Saints can share a communal identity and can live with an attitude of consecration, even if our modern culture does not lend itself well to full consecration of resources. Each saint has to do it themselves.

  5. Mark Butler on June 19, 2006 at 7:48 pm

    I must say that I find the socialist conception of shared ownership by the community rather problematic. Stewardship is a lot like property + responsibility. If everything is owned by everyone, then no one is responsible anymore. And indeed a stewardship should more than mere management – it should be a lifelong vocation, more like a plot of ground with a duty to cultivate and share, and less like something that can be stripped at a moments notice. We need rather more security and attachment than that – and that is why Marx was wrong with regard to alienation. Small stewardship is better than corporate ownership by the people at large, by far.

    I highly doubt that ownership of everything by one mega-religious corporation is a viable model. Indeed that seems to be the biggest difference between most socialisms and the law of consecration and stewardship.

  6. Russell Arben Fox on June 20, 2006 at 1:54 pm

    “….which is why I’ve always thought that Russell Fox would do far more to advance his ideas by publicizing his family’s United Order than by practically any other means.”

    Clearly Adam, you have decided that subtle hints are no longer working! Fair enough. A post on our family’s economic experiments, coming sometime this summer. (Since I’ll be in Spokane in July, perhaps I’ll even get my father and mother to contribute!)

    Overall, I like your typology. (Though you label your fourth method of changing social structures, the one which involves creating alternatives which serve as a model for change, as a “third type.”) You’re right that haphazard change in the most common–and, in a sense, the most human. Most of yesterday, when I wasn’t working, I was engaged in a long back-and-forth with several old friends over immigration and globalization; one point which we frequently needed to remind ourselves of is that, however well we could justify our theories, there was a built-in limit to how well any given plan can manage change. As diverse, fallen, affective, self-conscious (and usually self-centered) creatures, little human action will politely wait until the program conceived to guide it is in place. So any regime or recommendation, whether tyrannical and military, or grounded wholly in persuasion, or arising from an aspirational/prophetic model, is going to have an element of the haphazard in it. The Civil War, the civil rights movement, Joseph’s Kingdom on the Mississippi–all of them ended up doing things–taking positions, claiming land, making compromises–that weren’t at all part of “the plan.”

  7. Russell Arben Fox on June 20, 2006 at 1:54 pm

    Carl,

    I’m hardly a scholar of what it would take to build, here and now, a meaningful social and economic alternative to the Babylon in which we live. I just pick at various themes now and then. (A couple of my more ambitious efforts on this blog might be found here, here, here, here, and in comments to posts here and here. That last one I expanded upon on my own blog here.)

    That was all pretty shameless, wasn’t it? My apologies.

  8. Russell Arben Fox on June 20, 2006 at 2:04 pm

    Mark,

    “I might disagree with the mechanics of socialism vs. communitarianism, in terms of elements of coercion vs. stewardship and agency that typically define the debate.”

    Those are important terms, but I don’t think they need to be the defining ones. If “coercion” is always and in every way the opposite of stewardship and agency, then–at least in the light of popular understandings of the Council in Heaven–every family unit on earth violates the basic fundamentals of our experience on earth, because I’ve never yet seen a single family that doesn’t make use of a fair amount of “coercion” in the rearing of children, the ordering of the home, etc. Start thinking that way, and soon you’ll be opening the door to those hordes of earnest, sincere, committed liberal activists who are convinced (and rightly so!) that the family is an illiberal institution that cramps the “agency” of children.

    More broadly, I think liberal political philosophy draws much too exact lines about where collective expression ends and individual coercion begins. One can use the social contract model to attempt to distinguish between the legitimate “coercion” of a policeman pulling you over for speeding vs. a carjacking, but when you get into matters of public goods held in common (for example, the affect of pornography or divorce or recreational drug use or ostentatious wealth or unclean air on the body politic), such models are, to say the least, fairly strained. That’s not to say that I’m advocated any or every kind of centralized, socialist control as legitimate; I’m simply pointing out that a decent communitarianism (even–or perhaps especially!–of a “conservative” kind) is not necessarily so easily distinguished from what social democratic reformers are trying to do.

    “[W]hat I haven’t seen is a vision for a modern techno-industrial society that can work on those terms….Family socialism is one thing, but we need a communitarianism for the modern world, in the end, and the legal structures of our society, make that difficult even with a coherent model.”

    This is a very true, and very sobering point. Much serious communitarian thinking ultimately begins to turn into something agrarian, vaguely Heideggerian and Luddite–even crunchy–because the costs of preserving communities in the context of techno-industrial modernity (by making use of crude tools like protectionist policies and so forth) don’t seem to worth the benefits. Better to, as Adam suggests, abandon attempts to repair the fabric entirely, and just turn to family or sectarian alternatives. I have a lot of sympathy for that approach, both because I’ve seen it and because, ultimately, I think that’s the only one which is true to our mortal condition. That said, I think some communitarian, egalitarian, and/or social democratic reforms are possible. Perhaps the most engaging part of this whole theoretical inquiry for me is trying to work out criteria by which one can determine what the appropriate “level” (local, regional, national, etc.) for various collective purposes may be, and whether legal rooms exists for such to be worked out.

    “[Stewardship] should be a lifelong vocation, more like a plot of ground with a duty to cultivate and share, and less like something that can be stripped at a moments notice. We need rather more security and attachment than that–and that is why Marx was wrong with regard to alienation. Small stewardship is better than corporate ownership by the people at large, by far.”

    What you’re saying here about Marx doesn’t sound much like the Marx I know about at all. For Marx, alienation arose exactly because the centralizing and individualizing consequences of the modern industrial economy were stripping away people’s vocations, the “ground” into which they’d been historically and socially embedded. Marx’s whole complaint arose not primarily from an anger about inequality, but an anger about the insecurity and separateness that the laboring classes experienced in 19th-century Europe. He wanted to get back to “stewardship,” though he never used that word. Now, you could go on to argue that Marx’s notion that a “class” can exercise stewardship over the means of production was bonkers, and I won’t necessarily disagree with you. But that would mean we’re critiquing Marx’s solutions, not his diagnosis.

  9. Russell Arben Fox on June 20, 2006 at 2:05 pm

    Reaching,

    “In the case of Mormon polygamists and modern Hutterites, the communal identity created rather closed societies that defy widespread application.”

    Practically, you may be correct, but I don’t think this is true in principle. I can’t think of any reason why a great deal of economic and social life couldn’t be reproduced amongst decentralized, communal groups and sects. Nate Oman and I have had this argument several times, and he always wins, so I won’t rehearse the whole thing again, but basically: I don’t think the 19th-century church’s efforts to build the State of Deseret failed entirely because, what with the coming of the railroad and all, nobody wanted to just eat sugar beets any more. There was the problem of external opposition. Absent that opposition (as has been the case of the Hutterites in Canada), and what you find is….well, not necessarily a bunch of communities entirely free and clear of internal dissent, legal entanglements, economic shortcomings and so forth; not at all. But nonetheless: a bunch of communities which are, for the most part, devout, self-sufficient, strictly egalitarian and comparatively wealthy. Their biggest overall problem, in fact, isn’t that so many people want to leave the community, but rather than so many people want to join.

  10. Reach Upward on June 20, 2006 at 3:28 pm

    Hutterite communites have much more organic growth than growth from converts joining their communities nowadays. The 19th Century LDS experience, however, provided significant external and internal growth. Although it is interesting to opine what would have happened absent vehement external opposition (i.e. Could the church have achieved its current worldwide status?), the point is moot because it is impossible to screen for the multitude of variables that have helped produce the present day situation. So it is difficult to say whether a conglomeration of self-sufficient communities would invite substantial influx. Some scriptures seem to suggest this pattern, but the decomposition of tight-knit LDS communities in the transition to the 20th Century does not validate it.

  11. Ben H on June 21, 2006 at 1:45 pm

    Carl Youngblood, Kent Huff doesn’t have much of a web presence, but you can get some sense of what he has been thinking about from descriptions of his books (all of them about the building of Zion and conceptions of a “united order” in some sense) that are posted on the web:
    The first is on Joseph Smith’s time, the second on Brigham Young’s, and the third on the present and future.

  12. Mark Butler on June 21, 2006 at 2:23 pm

    I have two suggestions for nearly mandatory reading on this topic:

    Building the city of God: Community & cooperation among the Mormons
    by Leonard J Arrington, et al, Deseret Book, 1976

    Working Toward Zion: Principles of the United Order for the Modern World
    by James W. Lucas, Warner P. Woodworth, Aspen Books, 1999

    I have read and enjoyed Kent Huff’s book, Creating the Millennium, in which he outlines a lot of very creative ideas for pursuing these principles using modern technology in particular.

  13. Adam Greenwood on June 21, 2006 at 10:44 pm

    Russell,
    I don’t want a post, I want a book.

  14. Mark Butler on June 22, 2006 at 12:01 am

    Russell,

    Coercion is much different for children than for adults. The relations between adults should be based on covenant, and a rather flexible, spirit based implemenation of covenant, not some hard legalism.

    I do not disagree with Marx’s diagnosis, as a rule, but his historical determinism, and nearly all the solutions he prescribed, which like those of most radicals were highly naive and led to circumstances generally worse than those that they replaced. Violent revolution is not the prescription of a conservative, and it is highly contrary to the gospel.

    Marx should have allied himself with a communitarian Christianity, not treated religion like a drug and a delusion. And of course the dictatorship of the proletariat so far as has ever been implemented, alienates labor much worse than a country of farmers and craftsman, essentially destroying stewardship for all practical purposes. Some United Order schemes (there were very many of course) had exactly the same problem.

    In general, if Marx had properly planned for his ideas to take hold over the next millennium, instead of advocating violent revolution of no particular substance, we might all be Marxists today, and he might hold a place of honor like Plato and Aristotle.

  15. Kimball L. Hunt on June 22, 2006 at 12:10 am

    (Testing 1, 2, 3 — )

  16. Kimball L. Hunt on June 22, 2006 at 12:41 am

    (Testing: 1, 2, 3 — !)

  17. Mark Butler on June 22, 2006 at 4:28 am

    BEEEP. (white noise) This is a test of the emergency broadcast system. This is only a test. If this had been a actual emergency the attention signal would have been followed by information and instructions from local and national authorities. This concludes this test of the emergency broadcast system. We now return you to our regular programming.

  18. Kimball L. Hunt on June 22, 2006 at 4:55 am

    Yeah: YOU think it’s funny…but now most-the-bloggernacle now puts ME in their queues for that ubiquitous, brand-named, processed-pork product! Shrugs

  19. Mark Butler on June 22, 2006 at 10:24 am

    That is probably an Akismet problem. You should ask if there is some sort of web log specific white list, I have no idea why you would be getting tagged.

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