By Liana Tang
What do the sharing economy and the transcendentalist movement have in common?
The chaos and uncertainty that many perceive of the world today have driven people to varying states of distress and perhaps even madness. The general frustrations at industrialised, capitalist society, disdain at the failings of democracies, the futile attempts at achieving aspirations of a happy, fulfilled life — are all reasons why people may seek solace in religion, ideologies, activism. Others less fortunate turn to the destructive — substance abuse, suicide, terrorism.
The world does seem to be failing many. Pollution and extreme climate events are a regular lived experience. Democracies that were once beacons of hope have fallen to the same forces that plagued flawed states. Globalisation has concentrated wealth among some and left many behind to survive in a system where the odds are stacked against them. We see evidence of this in rising inequalities, a global decline in trust in institutions, a rise in mental illness, and much more.
It is no surprise then that we see attempts at relieving this distress through the comfort of groups that share values and beliefs that the outside world does not reflect. We are observing a rebirth of fundamentalism, and the rise of new “isms” that offer new ideals, and ideas that reaffirm ways of thinking that once were considered fringe or controversial.
These groups have not only just appeared of course, but some have reappeared, others evolved, while new ones may also be appearing. These groups may also be evolving due to changes in technology, communication and connectivity.
So let’s go back to the original question at the top of this article. What might Walden have to do with all of this?
Communes were experiments in better ways of living
William Henry Thoreau, like many other thinkers from the transcendentalist movement of the 1800s, reflected on an unorthodox way of life in the wilderness. Walden at its core explored the ideal expression of democracy: that everyone was equal in expressing themselves, experiencing something spiritual, regardless of wealth or social status.
Many such works went on to inspire the beginnings of many hippie communes in the 60s. Groups of people, like-minded in values and beliefs, wanting to build what they thought was a better society, basically got together and conducted grand experiments in the form of commune life. These microcosms of societies typically formed around agrarian activities, sharing work, income and assets. Some had more radical or even exploitative believes and practices, but many focused on working the land, sharing the hard work and were rewarded with the “luxury” of living in a community that shared the same values. Many passionate about such work believed they were building utopias, and such experiments sought to shape a more perfect society than the one they had left.
How would urban communes form?
Communes persist today. Some are successful, while others have waned. The drivers that forced many into these difficult experiments also persist today, so I thought for a moment about what the modern, urbanised commune might look like.
In fact, new drivers that could accelerate the formation of such groups have appeared. The digital economy, where platforms increasingly facilitate the exchange of goods and services, have become pervasive. These have also accelerated the growth of the sharing economy, where these goods and services are traded among more players, and scaled up tremendously.
This has led to a generation of young urbanites being used to not owning many things. A rental and exchange mentality has been normalised among many. A rise in popularity of co-living spaces has also introduced new complications: instead of renting a self-contained apartment, most co-living options offer to share facilities, and encourage bonding among its tenants through shared interests.
As youth grow weary of the failings of capitalism and lose avenues for expression of social change, might commune life be appealing?
Kinship groups: the urban commune?
Of course, commune life in the city would look quite different, but in many ways, they could share similar characteristics to that of early suburban communes: they would have shared values and beliefs — perhaps, for example, a preference to forming kinship groups for mutual support, rather than procreating and introducing children to a polluted, devastated planet. They might share work and income, already practiced by some in job-sharing or sharing gig work. They might share assets — some may come together to start small businesses.
Some may work harder than others at the businesses. Others may contribute in other ways, such as looking after children of other members, or contribute to the general upkeep of the dwelling. It would take for instance, only two members to brew the beer, but everyone enjoys the reward because there is much more than the booze at stake — it’s a whole way of life.
We can look to Israel for examples of urban communes. Urban kibbutzes, set up as more progressive versions of their agrarian predecessors, are thriving. There are hundreds across Israel. They are both secular and religious, and they vary in size and location. Typically, those in dense cities consist of families that rent out many floors of the same apartment building, and they share care-giving, education, business and job responsibilities, and sometimes share resources to cover expenses. Unified in their shared purpose to build better models of communities, these urban kibbutzes were also credited for providing much needed community support during COVID-19, primarily due to their capacities to self-organise around communal services.
This is not far divorced from early ways of living in Singapore before urban development swept across the island. Kampongs were a great example of early urban kinship groups, where you didn’t necessarily grow your own food as a community (although many did) but pretty much shared everything else — care-giving duties, resources, emotional support.
What might an urban commune look like in Singapore?
What might new kampongs or Singaporean kibbutzes look like in modern Singapore? Might we see families or individuals renting spaces near each other, operating small businesses and providing social services — entrepreneurial youth could curate commune experiences in the heart of Singaporean high rise dwellings — a chance to live in an urban farm, perhaps, while teaching yoga to the neighbourhood children?
Even if not self-sustaining nor physically isolated, these new kinship groups could have significant influence: some may become a force for change and politically agitate for new ways of working and living (their experiment after all, may show some success).
They could be peaceful and helpful to the community, and much like urban kibbutzes of Israel, become key players in the social services space. Might there come a day when kinship groups are given assistance to occupy multiple flats in a block of public housing on condition of providing community services?
Some might demand that legal recognition of members of family units be extended to kinship groups as they establish similar connections as families do. This is not entirely new. Some parts of the world for instance recognise common-law marriages where couples in “marriage-like” relationships have many of the rights and responsibilities that people do in a marriage.
Many groups may not last, some could become corrupt or fail financially: operating in a globalised world in urban areas would be expensive after all. Others could have an easier time — much like early communes in the US, some generous members could surrender large properties for their members to operate out of.
Could some members become targets for exploitation? Leaders of some failed communes have been known to prey on vulnerable members, especially as ways of life distance more substantially from the mainstream, and members feel they have no escape.
What of the loyalties of people who live in such groups? Might their kinship identities exist harmoniously with that of a city or national identity? Or might obligations to fellow citizens, to country, be at risk?
You only live once…
A generation of youth that grew up in an age of not having many things, wanting new ways to live simply in an urban environment, may be more inclined to a kinship life than other generations. There is also a growing subscription to the YOLO life among them, and given rising longevity, they do have a long life ahead of them. There might be enough motivation to use the resources available to them to build new ways of life that could still be harmonious with mainstream city life.
After all, as Thoreau mused, “why should we live with such hurry and waste of life? We are determined to be starved before we are hungry.”
Liana Tang is Deputy Director (Special Projects) at the Centre for Strategic Futures.
The views expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the Centre for Strategic Futures or any agency of the Government of Singapore.