It Takes A Village

20 February 2017

On the front porch of a run-down house in Austin, Texas, in the dim light of a single bare bulb, a boy picks me up without warning, sweeping me off my feet. I shriek and laugh, clinging to him, wrapping my arms around his neck.

I have always hated being picked up. Never trusted anyone enough, even when they promised not to drop me. I can’t do trust falls, and improv exercises in drama class were always a nightmare – anything that relies on the idea of someone else stepping up, coming through, is not something I find easy to get on board with. If I can’t do it alone, chances are I won’t do it at all.

Even now, some part of my brain is screaming in protest: He is going to let you fall. You’re going to hit the concrete, it’s going to hurt and you need to get down now.

But I hold on tighter, laugh louder. Other residents of Eden – a light blue weatherboard cooperative house, under whose raccoon-infested roof live some 15 students – sit on the recycled bus seats or the damp old couch, huddled together against the chill of the night air. It was late, most of us were drunk, and though I had lived in the place only four months, I wasn’t sure I had ever felt so at home.

Between the ages of eleven and twenty my mental health was less than perfect. I spent years feeling utterly disconnected and isolated from the world, seeking distractions in order to avoid interacting with the real world, or worse, continuing to be excluded from it without an alternative focus. I felt completely alone. But studies indicate that I wasn’t– that the rates of people suffering from mental illnesses are increasing, particularly amongst young people.

“Of all the fantasies human beings entertain, the idea that we can go it alone is the most absurd and perhaps the most dangerous. We stand together or we fall apart,” writes George Monbiot in the conclusion to his Guardian article, ‘Neoliberalism is creating loneliness. That’s what’s wrenching society apart.’

A fairly obvious statement, many would think. Humans are social creatures, dependant on interactions with others. Even the most introverted among us crave intimate bonds with other people. Loneliness has serious health implications, mental and physical. So while various explanations have been offered for the high rates of mental illness in modern Western society – from increased detection, to the pathologising of normal behaviours, to heightened expectations of how happy we should be – Monbiot’s contention that it is a culture of individualism and competition, spurred on by social media and an insistence on self-reliance and personal achievement, seems believable.

We have been taught, all our lives, that the neoliberal model of both business and lifestyle –  in which we compete against one another, see other people as the thing standing in the way of our success and act for ourselves and ourselves alone – is not only a viable way of organising our lives, but the only one. In his piece, Monbiot contends that this mentality is the mainspring for modernity’s epidemic of mental illness. An atmosphere of competitive hostility is toxic and lonely. It isn’t one we can live with.

Co-operative living was perfect for a student, particularly one in a new city for a short time. An instant community to be a part of, someone else to do the grocery shopping so that not having a car wasn’t a problem, and lots of parties. But as much fun as we all had, most Inter-Cooperative Council members will not go on to live in adult co-ops.

This isn’t for a lack of them. Co-ops which cater to all people exist around the world, even in cities which don’t have the more accepted student versions – Melbourne has at least the Murundaka Cohousing Community in Heidelberg. But living in a communal space – even one which is effectively just a more social apartment block, as most adult co-ops are – isn’t seen as the normal or done thing. It’s a bit different, a bit alternative – the kind of lifestyle that is a viewed with a sideways glance and an internal– huh.

Co-ops exist as the exact antithesis of the capitalist, neoliberal model. Some are simply businesses – there are many co-op supermarkets and other stores, in which people invest in order to become ‘member-owners’, a position which gives them a say in how the store is run. The existence of non-financial stake-holders forces the business to do what is best for these people – they may be more sustainable, more ethical in regards to labour, and so on. Making money to return to shareholders is not the sole objective of the business.

Housing co-ops, however, take this a step further. Neoliberal values suggest ownership of a home as a key marker of success – living in share houses and the like is the purview of students, young people not yet established within the world. Becoming an adult involves obtaining a home, probably with a partner and children, and living there with only that group of people.

But this is not the way humans have always lived. That old cliché that it takes a village to raise a child comes from somewhere – from the fact that we work better together than alone, and maybe live that way too.

The isolation imposed upon us by modernity is incredibly unhealthy. We are not supposed to spend our lives in isolation, and it increasingly seems that we can’t, no matter how hard we try.

Co-operative living is not going to cure mental illness, nor is it going to cure all of the many ills within our society. But if a competitive and isolationist mindset is even one of the things making us sick, living and working closely with larger numbers of people – and especially with those to whom we are not related, and technically owe very little – might be one way to begin to combat it.

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