Communitas revisited

Goodman sketch of Manhattan
Goodman sketch of Manhattan

A review of Communitas: Means of Livelihood and Ways of Life by Paul and Percival Goodman (University of Chicago Press, 1947). (New revised edition: New York, Vintage Books, 1960, $1.25, London, Mayflower Books, 10s.).

Submitted by Steven. on November 15, 2015

A great number of books were published on both sides of the Atlantic in the years immediately after the war, on the problems and opportunities of "post-war reconstruction", especially on the physical planning of towns and cities. Few of them seem worth reading or remembering today, let alone reprinting. The one exception is Communitas, written during the war by the brothers Paul and Percival Goodman (the latter is now Associate Professor of Architecture at Columbia University). Out of print for a long time, it was a book so original and unusual, that it must have permanently affected the thinking of most of its readers, and, thanks to their continued advocacy, and the widely circulated commendations of American writers like David Riesman and Lewis Mumford, it has now appeared in a new paperback edition which lives up to the claim made by the publishers that it is one of the most fruitful and imaginative books on the building of cities that has ever been written.

The Goodman brothers see a "community plan" not as a layout of streets and houses, but as the external form of the activity going on. "It is more like a choreography of society in motion and in rest, an arrangement for society to live out its habits and ideals and do its work, directing itself or being directed. There is a variety of town schemes; gridirons, radiations, ribbons, satellites, or vast concentrations; what is important is the activity going on, how it is influenced by the scheme and how it transforms any scheme, and uses or abuses any site, to its own work and values." They examine in turn the three main types of plans which have emerged in the last hundred years, grouping them into three classes:-
A. THE GREEN BELT: Garden Cities, Satellite Towns, Corbusier's Ville Radieuse, neighbourhood housing.
B. INDUSTRIAL PLANS: The Plan for Moscow (as debated in Russia in 1935), the Lineal City of Soria y Mata, Buckmaster Fuller's Dymaxion.
C. INTEGRATED PLANS; Frank Lloyd Wright's Broadacres, Ralph Borsodi's Homestead, the Kolkhoz, the Kvutzah, the TVA.

Having discussed this miscellany of modern plans, the Goodmans turn to their own, and they state their approach in these terms:

Our concern in this book centres around the following conviction: that the multiplication of commodities and the false standard of living, on the one hand, the complication of the economic and technical structure in which one can work at a job, on the other hand, and the lack of direct relationship between these two have by now made a great part of external life morally meaningless. Economic plans to avoid unemployment, to raise the standard of living, to develop backward regions – these are useful, but they do not touch the essentially modern problems: the selective use of machine technology, the use of an available surplus, and the distance between means and ends. The concrete solutions of these problems are community plans. Our concerns are how to make the multitude of goods good for something, how to integrate the work and culture, and how to keep an integrated community plan from becoming a plan for complete slavery …

Emphasising one aspect after another, they arrive at three completely different community formulae, communities for
A. Efficient Consumption.
B. The Elimination of the Difference between Production and Consumption.
C. Planned Security with Minimum Regulation.

Each of these three is presented as a regional scheme, but they are not meant to be taken as concrete plans at all: "In the first place, there is no planning without a physical site and a particular history and population. In the second place, our formulas are extremes and abstractions, but there is no particular place without a mixture … Speaking very broadly we should say that the first formula is especially applicable to highly industrialised and populous places; the second, to places of sparse settlement, new industry and new culture; the third, to old and populous countries, with ancient cultures but relatively little modern technology."

The City of Efficient Consumption

The City of Efficient Consumption is presented as the logical environment of a consumer-centred culture. Its preliminary conditions, they conclude, are that

A population of several millions is the least economic unit. (Because the combination of mass production and variety of choice are required, and concentration of the market is the efficient solution to the problems of distribution and servicing under conditions of mass production).
Work and life centre around the market.
The moral drives are imitation and emulation.
The decoration is display.
Close by is the open country, for full flight.

The centre of the City is developed as one large air-conditioned cylinder:

In existing great cities, which have large buildings and congested downtown centres, there are always three simultaneous systems of streets: the through highways, the old city streets proper, and the corridors of large buildings. It is the through highways, coming more and more to be elevated or depressed or otherwise isolated, which carry the main stream of traffic between the city and places outside the city. And it is wrongly thought that by increasing these highways and facilitating entrance to, and egress from, the centre the congestion of the centre will be thinned out. But in the end all the highways must pour their motorcars into the city streets; for it is the city streets that join building to building; and it is at a particular building, and not at downtown as a whole, that the motorist wants to arrive. But once he has arrived at the building, he is willing to leave his car, go indoors, and use the corridors and elevators of the building to bring him to the office or department of a store where he has business.

Now it can be seen at once that the city streets, under conditions of motor traffic, on the one hand, and of increasingly large buildings, on the other, are more and more becoming intermediaries, useless for travelling and also unfit for walking and window-shopping. At the same time they cover 35 per cent of the ground space and are the subject of perhaps the most costly and elaborate of the city services: paving, traffic problems, cleaning, snow removal, etc. For servicing they are neither properly in the open (so that snow, for instance, could be simply pushed aside) nor yet indoors (protected). These streets serve as the perfect example of the non-productive, non-consumptive services which waste away the social wealth and health.

Consequently, in the City of Efficient Consumption, the bull is taken by the horns, in making the city centre one immense container, in which (1) the intermediary streets vanish, (2) "the through driveways now carry out their function to the end, bringing passengers and goods directly to stations in the container, without two speeds and without double-loading for trucks and trains", and (3) "the corridors are transfigured, assuming the functions of promenade and display which the streets performed so badly. The city has become spacious, with the spaciousness of a great departmental store."

Outside the centre is the second ring of buildings, the university, theatres, museums and libraries, the "region of the things which have been created and discovered but are not consumed in the enjoyment", and beyond is the residential zone. The role of the neighbourhood in this scheme is already well-known in our society:

In the City of Efficient Consumption, the neighbourhood is the unit of emulation and invidious imputation. This is demonstrated as follows: It is in the end unsatisfactory and indelicate to emulate or to impute economic inferiority to one's family and friends; on the other hand, to do so with total strangers is pointless. Therefore, at least for domestic display, the unit of emulation, etc., must be the neighbourhood. The residents of the neighbourhood take notice; and they are not so well known that one is embarrassed, or two transparent to be effective.

On the question of houses-versus-flats, the authors observe that

The idea that 'a man's house is his castle' refers primarily to the situation in which the house and its land maintain a productive relation of comparative self-sufficiency. Once the land is diminished, the idea is already seriously weakened. Now, as community domestic services, such as light, gas, and water, begin to invade the home, the reason for its architectural identity begins to vanish. Lastly, when these conveniences multiply, they can be provided efficiently only if the isolated unit vanishes and the services are provided for a block of units, an apartment house. These units are more and more mass-produced and larger and larger.

But we must establish also a contrary movement, to restore domestic freedom under the new architectural conditions. This can be done if we restrict the architectural imposition to its minimum function: namely, the provision of an efficient system of services. What must be provided for the family is an empty shell without partitions and (under luxury conditions) two stories high, completely serviced with light, heat, water, etc., through the columns of the building, as in a skyscraper. The uniform architectural practice has hitherto been to provide not only such services but also a standardised imitation of a house, with layout and fundamental decoration complete: partitions, panelling, and balcony, etc. But it is just these parts, which having no structural necessity, belong most to private taste, or caprice, that need not be imposed according to a standard.

And beyond the residential zone is the open country, which is "vacationland" where "there is exchanged for the existence where everything is done for one, the existence where nothing is done for one", and beyond this, because these conditions are too hard for the cityfolk, they are finally moderated (after fifty miles, which is to say, three-quarters of an hour by car on the super-highway or fifteen minutes by helicopter on the beam) into "the imitation wilderness of state parks and the bathos of adult camps."
The Goodmans' account of the City of Efficient Consumption is concluded with a description of the season of carnival, a Saturnalia of wild and playful destruction, fornication, and the remittance of instalment debts, whose principles

would be simply the satisfaction in the negation of all of the schedules and careful zoning that are so full of satisfaction in their affirmation; just as no one can resist a thrill of satisfaction when a blizzard piles up in our streets and everything comes to a standstill.

The social function of the carnival is of course to get rid of last year's goods, wipe out last year's hire purchase debts to permit new borrowing, and to engender children.
But before leaving the City of Efficient Consumption, something has to be said of its politics. The people, the authors explain, exercise no direct political initiative at all:

Try as one will, it is impossible to discover in an immense and immensely expanding industrialism a loophole where the ordinary man can intervene directly to determine his specific work on the shape of his community life; that is, to decide these matters directly on the basis of his own knowledge and power. The reason is that such an expanding economy exists more and more in its inter-relationships; and individual knowledge and, especially, power, are less and less adequate. What the people "en masse" can do is to exercise a general control such as to determine the trend of their standard of living, up or down; and in the republican form this is done by periodic votes rather than by periodic rebellions. But the political scientists as initiators must be technologists and merchandisers and a kind of economists as directors; although the actually elected representatives will forever be experts in more popular arts.

Now an existence of this kind, apparently so repugnant to craftsmen, farmers, artists, and any others who want a say in what they lend their hands to, is nevertheless the existence that is satisfactory to the mass of our countrymen; and therefore it must express deep and universal impulses. These probably centre around what Morris Cohen used to call the first principle of politics – inertia; that is, the fact that people do not want to take the trouble to rule and decide, because, presumably, they have more important things to do.

The City of Efficient Consumption is presented half sardonically, half seriously. If you really want a society in which consumer values are supreme, they say, this is what it should be like. David Riesman remarked of their treatment of this theme:

the moral of the plan comes through without ambiguity: it is a criticism of proper culture, with its drive for less work, more pay and more play, it is also an effort to reveal certain hidden elements of moral worth in modern capitalism. The criticism – the air-conditioned nightmare theme – is familiar enough among radical writers, who sometimes tend to attack with equal fervour the worst abuses, such as lynching, and the most venal foibles, such as radio commercials. But the implicit ethical defence of capitalism on the ground of its provision of bounteous consumption is seldom found outside Chamber of Commerce circles.

In a number of the points they make about a society in which productive capacity is enormously greater than the rate of consumption, they anticipate some of Galbraith's observations in The Affluent Society, in others, their fantasies of 1947 anticipate the actual planning problems of America, in the nineteen fifties and sixties. For, in the absence of cities of Efficient Consumption whose centres are one vast vehicle-less departmental store, the new American institution of the out-of-town Supermarket has developed, and has become a new focal centre for the residential belt, while the property-owners and Chambers of Commerce in the old city centres which have been made unusable for efficient consumption by the volume of traffic, have sponsored projects for motorless city centres, like that prepared for Fort Worth, Texas by Victor Gruen, who, like the Goodman brothers, points out that "The land thus reclaimed for productive purposes would represent a value of about forty million dollars which would lower the cost of the underground service road system". Such "downtown revitalisation projects" bear a marked resemblance to the City of Efficient Consumption, even though they are not worked out with the same utopian logic. The Goodman model is a fascinating mixture of satire and sensible suggestion. The notion which I have quoted of the basic apartments in which the tenant can arrange for himself the internal partitioning and fittings, which they reach through following out the idea of consumer sovereignty, has very much to be said for it. Open plan, or a series of rooms, balcony or more space inside; these questions which are determined by the whims of housing committees, speculators or architects, are much better decided by individual occupants. (Something similar is in fact being done in Italy today, simple for economic reasons).

The New Commune

But the authors' own real preferences are evidently not for the City of Efficient Consumption, but for their second model, the New Commune, where they seek the elimination of the difference between production and consumption, in a decentralised society.

They had observed in discussing the Green Belt type of plan that the impulse behind the garden city idea was a reaction against the squalor and degradation of the urban environment in the industrial revolution. The garden city plans aimed at quarantining the technology and were based on "the humane intuition that work in which people have the satisfaction neither of direction, nor of wages, is essentially unbearable; the worker is eager to be let loose and to go far away."

Mindful of Daniel Burnham's injunction to "make no little plan", they decline to see the separation of work and the rest of life as immutable, and propose an "ideal type" in which they are re-united, not by scrapping the technology, but by re-shaping it closed to human needs:

Starting from the present separation of work and home, we can achieve their closer relation from two sides: (a) returning parts of the production to home-shops or to the proximity of the homes, and (b) introducing domestic work and the productive part of family relations, which are not now considered part of the economy at all, into the style and relations of the larger economy.

Like Kropotkin and some other anarchist thinkers, they seize upon the technical possibilities for decentralisation which industrial advances and new sources of power have brought:

As to home shops, we must think of the present sudden proliferation of machine tools. Previously it could be said that the sewing machine was the only productive machine widely distributed. But now, largely because of the war, the idea of thousands of small complete machine shops, powered by electricity has become familiar. And, in general, the change from steam power to electricity and oil has relaxed one of the greatest causes for the concentration of machines about a single driving shaft. Which part of the manufacture requires a factory (for instance, an assembly line) and which does not (for instance, turning a small part) depends on the analysis of production and the proximity of plant and homes. And further, the new factories are themselves no longer nuisance buildings; many are neater and certainly handsomer than the homes and monumental buildings of some communities; therefore, the proximity of factories, home-shops, and homes is possible and desirable.

Ralph Borsodi, going back to the old conception of Aristotle, has proved, often with hilarious realism, that home production, such as cooking, cleaning, mending, and entertaining, has a formidable economic value. The problem is, without destroying the individuality of home production, to lighten and enrich it by the technical means and some of the expert attitudes which belong to public production. And vice versa, to restore to the home many services that are really most humanly satisfactory there, but are now unfeasible because of the drudgery, lack of tools, etc.

But the chief part of finding a satisfactory productive life in the environment of homes and families consists in the analysis of person relations and conditions: e.g. the productive co-operation of man and wife, which exists on farms, or the productive capacities of children and old folk, now simply excluded from the economy. But this involves sentimental and moral problems of extreme depth and delicacy which could only be solved by the experiment itself.

A chief cause, declare the Goodman brothers, of the "living meaninglessness of industrial work is that each machine worker is acquainted with only a few processes not the whole order of production; and, even worse, that the thousands of products are distributed where the worker has no acquaintance at all" and they ask whether it would not prove to be more efficient in the long run if the men were working for themselves and have a say in the distribution.

'A say in the distribution' here means not merely economic democracy or even socialist ownership. These are necessary checks, but they do not give a political meaning to industrialism as such. What is required is the organisation of economic democracy on the basis of the productive units, where each unit, relying on its own expertness and the bargaining power of what it has to offer, co-operates with, and delegates authority to, the whole of society. This is syndicalism. And to guarantee the independent say of each productive unit it must have a relative self-sufficiency; this is regionalism and the union of farm and factory.

On the diversification of individual work, they note that within any one industry work can be divided on such grounds (for instance team work and individual work, or physical and intellectual work) and the right industries can be combined in a neighbourhood (for instance, cast glass, blown glass, and optical instruments, or most important of all, in their opinion. industry and agriculture).

The problem, they say, comes down to this, "to envisage a well-rounded schedule of jobs for each man and to arrange the buildings and farms so that the schedule is feasible", and this leads them to the integration of farm and factory in a context of regionalism and regional autonomy with (a) Diversified farming as the basis of self-subsistence, and therefore, small urban centres (of about 200,000 population); (b) A number of mutually dependent industrial centres; so that an important proportion of the national economy can be under local control; (c) These industries developed around regional resources of mine, field and power.

Diversified farming alone, they observe, is economically independent, and this is why small farms have always been a root of social stability, though not necessarily of peasant conservatism. On the other hand, taking advantage of mechanisation, "they import power and small machines and pay with the products of domestic industry and cash crops farmed perhaps co-operatively with large machines. Such a farm then is the type of productive unit, independent in itself, but linked with the larger economy of the other farms and of the town."

In industry, the problem is the reverse, since every machine industry is dependent on the national economy. "But by regional independence of industries and by the close integration of factory and farm workers – factory hands taking over in the fields at peak seasons; farmers doing factory work in the winter; town people, especially children, living in the country; farmers making small parts for the factories – the industrial region as a whole can secure for itself an independent bargaining power in the national whole …"

They follow this with diagrams of the physical planning of a region on this model, a glimpse of a piazza in the town centre, and of "a farm and its children" – the farmstead being a kind of extended family house combined with a youth hostel.
But is planning on these lines worth while? Or rather, is the formulation of this kind of "ideal type" for a society, worth the effort? The Goodman's answer is this:

Now it might be said that all these provisions – small units, double markets, the selection of industries on political and psychological grounds, etc.– that all this is a strange and roundabout way of achieving a unified national economy, when at present this unity already exists with a tightness and efficiency that leaves nothing to be desired. But first, it is always a question whether the regional and syndicalist method is not more efficient and in the end, when invention, for instance, is not inhibited and the job is its own incentive. But most important of all, it must be remembered that we are here aiming at the highest and nearest ideals of external life: liberty, personal concern, responsibility and expertness; and to a say in what a man lends his hands to. Compared with these things, the present set-up, that does not even make the attempt to find living meaning in work, has nothing to offer.

Maximum Security; Minimum Regulation

In the third of their "ideal types" of community plans, the Goodman brothers describe an interim plan for "maximum security within minimum regulation".

Up to about fifty years ago, they say, more than half the productive capacity of the United States was devoted to subsistence: "subsistence could be regarded as the chief end of the economy and, although their motives were personal wealth and power, most enterprises were concerned with the subsistence market". But nowadays less than a tenth of the economy is concerned with subsistence goods (the exact figure depending on where the minimum is set, which as they point out, is a cultural rather than a medical question), and "the centre of economic interest has gradually shifted from either providing goods or gaining wealth to keeping the capital machines at work and running at full capacity, to increase further; and the social arrangements have become so complicated and interdependent that, unless the machines are running at full capacity, investment is withdrawn; and all wealth and subsistence are jeopardised". Since to neglect subsistence and security is "to breed war and social revolution", governments intervene to assure the elementary security which is no longer the first concern of the economy.

But since the forms and aims of these governments are given by the economy rather than by the elementary needs, the tack which they take is the following: to guarantee social security by subsidizing the full productivity of the economy. Or to put it financially, security is provided by insurance paid in the money that comes from the operation of the whole economy. The amazing indirectness of this mode of proceeding is brilliantly exposed by the discovery of a new human 'right' … this is the 'right' – no! not to life and liberty – but to employment! Full employment is the device by which the whole economy can flourish and yet subsistence not be jeopardised – and therefore, the curse of Adam becomes a benefit to be struggled for, just because we have the means to produce a surplus, cause of all our woes.
But the immediate result of such a solution is to tighten even closer the economic net. Whatever freedom used to come from free enterprise and free market – and it is a freedom that at one time fought on the side of human rights – is caught in regulation and taxes. In a word the union of government and economy becomes more and more complete; soon we are in the full tide of statism. This is not a question of evil intention but follows from the connection of the basic political need of subsistence with the totality of an integrated economy. Such as the indirect solution.

The direct solution which they propose, is to divide the economy into two, separating whatever provides life and security for all from the rest of the economy which provides variety, interest, convenience, emulation, luxury, wealth and power. The principle is to assure subsistence by direct production of subsistence goods and services rather than by insurance taxed on the general economy. This involves a system of double money: the 'money' of the subsistence production and consumption, and the money of the general market. (Returning to this theme in a latter essay, Paul Goodman calls them hard and soft money). The hard money of the subsistence economy is more like ration coupons, not negotiable, since "a man's right to life is not subject to trade."

To the individual, they claim, the separation of his subsistence (employing a small fraction of his labour time) from the demands and values of the general economy (employing most of his labour time), "should give a breath of freedom, a new possibility of choice, and a sense of security combined with perfect independence for he has worked directly for what he gets and need never feel the pressure of being a drain on the general society and of thinking that soon the payments will cease."

Comparing the systems of social security offered (in 1947) in Britain and America with their suggested plan, they find that the governmental plans offer:
1. Security of subsistence.
2. A tax on the general economy.
3. The necessity to maintain the economy at full production to pay the tax, therefore, governmental planning of all production, pump-priming, made work, and subsidies; a still further tax and, possibly, a falling rate of profit.
4. The insistence on the unemployed worker's accepting the third or fourth job available, in order to prevent a continuing drain on the tax fund.
5. The protecting of the workers thus coerced by regulation of the conditions of industry and investment.
As against these, they claim that their plan offers:
1. Security of subsistence.
2. The loss to the industrialist of the subsistence market and of a small fraction of the social labour.
3. The coercion of a small fraction of the social labour to produce the subsistence goods and services.
4. Economic freedom in all other respects. The authors admit, with a twinge of conscience, that their plan in effect requires a form of industrial conscription for the "universal labour service" even though it is for a short period, or for short periods of an individual's working life. ("We are touching," they remark, "on a political principle of vast importance, far beyond our scope of analysis here, namely, the principle of purity of means in the exercise of the different powers of society. Government, founded essentially on authority, uses mainly the means of personal service; economy, founded essentially on exchange, uses mainly the means of money."). They claim in fact that

This plan is coercive, but, in fact, if not in law, it is less coercive than the situation we are used to. For the great mass of wage earners it fixes a limit to the coercion to which, between capital and trade-union, they are unavoidably and increasingly subjected; for the wealthy enterpriser, who would buy substitutes, it is no more coercive than any other tax. On constitutional grounds the crucial objections to forced labour have always been either that it subjects the individual to a private enterpriser without contract (a form of slavery) or that it broadens the power of the state in abrogation of the rights against tyranny; but neither of these objections is here valid.

The minimum subsistence economy (they note that if freedom is the aim, everything beyond the minimum must be excluded) provides and distributes food, clothing and shelter, mass produced in enormous quantities and without variation of style, while medicine and transportation are provided by a financial arrangement between the subsistence and the general economies.

Now supposing that such a system, of assured subsistence and of almost complete freedom of economic ties, were put into effect; there is no doubt that for millions of people, no matter how much they might resist the idea in prospect, the first effect would be a feeling of immense relief – relief from that pressure of a daily grind and relief from the anxiety of failure in short, the feeling expressed by so many persons that they wish their vacations could last on and on. But, after this first commonplace effect had worn off, then, it seems to us, the moral attitude of a people like the Americans would be profoundly disturbed. They would be afraid not only of freedom (which releases the desires both creative and destructive, which are so nicely repressed by routine) but especially of boredom for they would imagine themselves completely without cultural or creative resources. For in our times all entertainments and even the personal excitements of romance seem to be bound up with having ready money to spend: all emotional satisfaction has been intricated into keeping the entire productive machine in motion: it is bound up with the 'standard of living', it is created by, and gets its economic role through advertising.

After the period of salutary boredom which makes people discover what they want to do with their time rather than succumb to a widely advertised suggestion, they envisage the growth of schools teaching avocations – jobs adopted for their own satisfaction rather than by economic necessity.

The authors enjoy themselves working out the architectural implications of their double economy – the "production centre" and minimal settlements of the subsistence economy. Throughout the book, they are forced by the nature of their approach, to stray out of the field of town-planning into that of economics, and it is with the views of an economist, J. K. Galbraith, that their three schemes invite comparison. In The Affluent Society (see ANARCHY 1), Galbraith argues, with the same reasoning about the small proportion of the American economy devoted to subsistence, for the divorce of production from security. In this respect he goes further than the Goodmans, but by the use of a mechanism which they reject as the indirect method. Galbraith suggests breaking the connection between income and production, not, like them, by separating subsistence from the rest, but by introducing what he calls cyclically graduated compensation – unemployment compensation which, as unemployment increases, is itself increased to approach the level of the normal weekly wage, and diminishes as full employment is approached. Each of these authors would regard the proposals of the other as a cumbersome way of achieving the same object. All their suggestions release a speculative faculty in the reader's brain, so that he conceives other solutions for himself – like making subsistence items 'free' and reserving a money economy for luxuries.

Or he may conceive of a three-decker society in which the three schemes which the Goodmans formulate co-exist. Indeed, since one of the subtle fascinations of their book is that their three "paradigms" are part-parodies as well as part-utopias, he may actually see them co-existing in a distorting-mirror image, in the contemporary world. We have the big brassy metropolitan consumer city in any world capital, we have the "intentional community" in the form, for example, of the kibbutz (the subject of some penetrating paragraphs in the new edition of Communitas), and we may even trace elements of the life of security with minimum regulation in the economic aspects of the life of America's disaffiliated beatniks (which Paul Goodman has discussed in another book), living in the interstices of the affluent society by undertaking a minimum of humble but often useful work, in order to devote the rest of their time to the pursuits of their choice.