Book Review: Community Technology

Community Technology by Karl Hess

Reviewed by Jacob Peets

Voluntaryists everywhere have excellent reasons to read this book. It’s short, a mere 107 pages. It’s by Karl Hess, famous among libertarians for his open resistance of war-taxes, which led him to his life of barter and artisan labor. It gives empirical evidence that people can achieve a strong degree of local independence and self-reliance, gaining power over their own lives and escaping the power of corporations and central governments alike, and it contains plenty of ideas for how we voluntaryists can engage in direct action and achieve this sort of freedom for ourselves. Carl Watner and Wendy McElroy emphasized, in their writings, refusal to take part in the State through voting, campaigning, running for election, working for the government, or similar, calling instead for people to work together to solve problems themselves. Their motto was “neither bullets nor ballots.” This book offers us ways to transform those admirable principles into practice.

One unfortunate thing about the book is that I am not aware of any copies of it available online for free. It is possible some exist, I did not spend an immense amount of time looking, but I was unable to find any with a brief search. For such a short book many may wonder if it’s worth purchasing a copy, but, for those who do not wish to buy it, it is possible you might find a copy in your local library. And, of course, if you come to the Ozark Voluntaryists’ monthly get-togethers, we often share books and other reading material, and I shall probably bring this book along to our get-togethers in the future if anyone wants to borrow my copy.

I have a few take-aways from the book:

1) Hints of Solarpunk Before Solarpunk:

For those who haven’t heard the term “solarpunk” before, it is both a movement and an art genre. As an art genre, it is similar to steakpunk, cyberpunk, and the myraid of other “punk” genres available, but whereas those more well-known genres tend towards dystopian and post-apocalyptic stories, solarpunk tends towards lighter, more hopeful themes and depictions of utopian societies. As a movement, it entails a radical, do-it-yourself style of environmentalism.

Nora Murphy, a member of the Solarpunk Collective facebook group, describes the philosophy this way:

Solarpunk is a vision of the future through the technological eyes of today’s green movement, but with the aesthetics of the art nouveau era, and an added ethos of intersectional feminism/social justice, with a particular interest in decentralizing the West as the dominant global culture.

Community Technology was published in 1979, which, to my knowledge, was before the term “solarpunk” was ever coined. Yet, in reading the book, and thinking about it afterwards, I was struck by how solarpunkish Hess’s philosophy seemed. This passage is a good example:

With the cost of photovoltaic cells, used for the direct conversion of sunlight to electricity, falling faster than that of any other power source, there is sense to the notion of individually powering houses, apartments, workplaces, farmsteads, labs and so forth. The source of the energy will be free. Commercial cost of the photovoltaic cells already has dropped to $6000 a peak kilowatt installed, and even though that is a dozen times the cost of conventional power installations, there are at least lab-scale demonstrations which already suggest that the cost in the immediate future will drop to $1000 and not too long after to $500 a peak kilowatt. If the pace of the relative costs of photovoltaic cells and conventional power continues (the cells down, the others up), it should not be many years at all before the direct conversion of sunlight to electrical energy – at the point of use! – will be the cheapest form of nonhuman energy available to human beings anywhere on this planet.

It is not Utopian thinking that should make us gasp at this point, it is anti-Utopian thinking. How in the world could anyone in his or her right mind have available information on such a transforming power source as photovoltaic cells and not engage in Utopian thinking?

Utopias, given good tools and good neighbors, are in fact the very least we should settle for. (pages 71 – 72)

Sounds like solarpunk to me. And that’s a cool thing in my book.

2) Localism and Decentralization:

Advocates of localism will probably already know a lot about how food production can be localized. Karl Hess discusses how, for instance, hydroponics can be used to transform unused rooftops into community or household gardens, even in the middle of a city:

The land problem was easily solved. Food grows not in an abstraction called “land” but in a reality called “someplace nutritious to put down roots.” Space for this reality need be only that – space. We located a lot of it. First the rooftops. The neighborhood is one of houses, typically three-story row houses. The roofs are almost all flat. So are the roofs of the apartment houses. On very strong roofs, organic soil can be spread, or boxed, for growing vegetable. Therese and I grew such a garden. Less sturdy roofs could accommodate the lighter demands of hydroponic growing – cultivating plants in tanks of liquid nutrients or in light sand, the nutrients seeping through it. Friends who began a companion enterprise, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a still growing and prospering activity, operated a hydroponic garden with storybook success and wildly bountiful crops. They also managed to fill virtually the entire neighborhood’s demand for bean sprouts from a single basement facility. (pages 43 – 44)

Hess gives examples of other experiments as well, including successful stories of fish being grown in basements, vegetable gardens in vacant lots, solar cookers, and others:

The bacteria kept the water clean, the pumps and some well-places baffles kept the tank water moving in a strong current, the fish (which we first reared from eggs in ordinary aquarium tanks) swam strongly, ate heartily of the commercial feed that we first used as a convenience, and grew as fast as fish in streams. Surprisingly to us, the rate at which they converted their feed to flesh was better than one ounce of fish for each two ounces of food, about 500 percent more efficient than beef cattle, and as good as that champion barnyard converter, the chicken. Our installation, neatly tailored to urban basements, produced five pounds of fish per cubic foot of water. A typical basement in the neighborhood could produce about three tons annually at costs substantially below grocery store prices. (page 45)

Unless I missed it, Hess doesn’t discuss aquaponics, combining hydroponic vegetable gardens with fish tanks to create a micro-ecosystem, with the waste from the fish supplying the nutrients for the vegetables. In Fayetteville Arkansas, though, there is a place called Tricycle Farms that, at one point, had a working aquaponic setup in their basement. I attended a lecture a while back given by a volunteer there about hydroponics and aquaponics, and after the lecture they showed us the setup they had created. I imagine it is probably still there, though it is possible that they broke it down and moved it somewhere else or replaced it with some new project.

I had known, before reading this book, about the possibility of using combustion toilets, which burn the poo to sterilized ash that can be thrown in the trash or, for that matter, safely poured out on the ground in one’s backyard, as an alternative to septic systems and city sewage systems. Hess, however, offers what strikes me as an even better alternative:

City waste sewerage systems are wasteful, unnecessary, often dangerous, and certainly technologically backward. Neighborhoods are hooked into them because of history, not because of any current necessity. First of all, waste is not a problem, it is a resource. City waste systems simply ignore this. They waste the waste. In-house waste-digestion systems, now commercially available at costs as low as a thousand dollars, will convert all human and kitchen wastes into an odorless fertilizer. Some provide modest amounts of heating gas as they do it. (The average family could do all its cooking on the gas produced by its own waste.) (page 32)

I’m convinced. Not only do we have the technology to replace city sewage systems with a decentralized alternative on the household level, we can obtain a source of fuel through the process and offer an alternative to centralized provision of natural gas along with it.

Solar power and other renewable energy sources enable us to decentralize production of electricity; waste processing systems offer alternatives to city sewage and on-grid natural gas; wells and rain-catchers, along with water filtration and purification systems, offer alternatives to on-grid water; aquaponics and hydroponics offer ways for communities and households to grow their own food; radio, desktop printing setups and, today, meshnets provide us with the technology to decentralize communication. Is there anything that can’t be decentralized? Do we need central governments, (even municipalities,) or transnational corporations for anything at all?

How about transportation? Well, within a neighborhood, town, or city, I think governments often crowd out alternative forms of transportation. Fayetteville Arkansas has an exceptional bike trail, partially funded by the tax-payers through sales tax and partially funded by Wal-mart. (I know this because I emailed someone at the city years back and asked them about what sort of voluntary funding they received to supplement the funds raised through taxation. I think at some places along the bike trail there is also signage that informs passers-by that Wal-mart contributed funds for the project.)

However, if one digs into the local ordinances, the government places various restrictions on how high buildings can be built. (Rather than a blanket restriction applying to everywhere in the city, they have different rules for a variety of different circumstances, but it looks like 3 stories is the most common limit.) I do not know the rationale for this restriction for sure, but anecdotally I have heard that it is merely a matter of aesthetics, with city planners wanting to keep Fayetteville looking like a smaller town than it actually is.

I bring this up because I’m thinking that, if people were allowed to build higher they might actually do so, and if they did so then the city might take up more vertical space and less horizontal space, reducing the distance residents would need to travel to go from one place to another. In turn, it seems that this would benefit bike-riders and people on foot, as they would have less far to go to get to work, school, church, the doctor, the grocery store, and so on. Even people who own automobiles sometimes have them break down and have to find an alternative way to get to work on time. For those among the poor who own motor vehicles, it can be prohibitively expensive to fix them when they break down.

One could object to the idea of encouraging people to build denser cities, (or ceasing to discourage them,) on the grounds that it would increase congestion on roads, which is already a major problem in many areas. But encouraging people to use other means of transportation besides personal cars, from walking to bicycling to car-pooling to bus usage, can help alleviate congestion, and having shorter distances to travel can help encourage people to use these alternative modes of transit. Local businesses have incentives to help, as well, for example through offering discounts to bicyclists or taking donations to help fund bike and walking trails, because they can attract customers this way. (The Forbes article I just linked to mentions that “Boston’s Hubway bikeshare program—now with 1,600 bikes and 185 stations—offers discounts at local stores, restaurants, and coffee shops through its Bicycle Benefits deal.” So discount programs to help encourage bicycle use are not unheard of.)

Of course, environmentalists also have excellent reason to encourage people to use bike trails and alternatives to personal motor vehicles, since automobiles pump various greenhouse gases and toxins into the air.

One could also point to zoning legislation that limits home-based businesses, (of the sort seen in La Porte County Indiana, for instance, as described here and here.) The more easily people can work from home, the more easily they can avoid lengthy and regular drives to their workplace.

If any readers are worried that I might go as far as suggesting we abolish all zoning laws altogether, rest assured that this is exactly what I want to see. I think that if people have more of a sense of ownership over the public spaces where they live, parks, streets, sidewalks, etc., they might take better care of them. Gordon Douglas has written about how people in city areas often practice “Do-It-Yourself Urban Design,” improving common spaces without authorization, and often illegally, to the benefit of their local communities. I’d like to see the sort of informal, organic direct action he gives examples of spread and become more socially accepted. I think it’s possible that in the absence of zoning we could rely more widely on these sorts of means for improvement of common areas, doing away with the top-heavy governmental systems currently painting themselves as so necessary.

I’ll return to Hess’s book, though.

Hess briefly discusses services like firefighting and policing. Quite aside from the fact that it is possible to fund both of these things voluntarily, (see here for examples in the case of firefighting and here for an example in the case of policing,) these also arguably work better when decentralized. With firefighting this is probably obvious, as Hess points out it helps to spread fire-stations throughout an area so that the trucks can more quickly reach people who need them wherever they might be. Even with policing, though, decentralization can help.

The most vital of city services, police and fire protection, have always been thought of as highly localized in nature. Firefighting facilities are not concentrated in some superfirehouse. They are spread as widely as possible, and the wisdom of this policy is rarely questioned. Police protection, when centralized and withdrawn from a neighborhood setting, as has now been widely recognized, results in disadvantages rather than economies of scale. A desire to return to neighborhood-based protection is evident in most cities. Central laboratory facilities for the police might not be economically duplicated in every neighborhood; but the matter has been given little study, and with an increase in local manufacturing skills there might not be as much difficulty in providing each neighborhood with its own microscope, computer-held files, and so forth, as might be imagined. (page 34)

Elinor Ostrom’s work, by the way, offers evidence confirming this notion of low economies of scale in policing. She mentions in her essay Beyond Markets and States: Polycentric Governance of Complex Economic Systems:

In the 1970s, the earlier work on effects of diverse ways of organizing the provision of water in metropolitan areas was extended to policing and public safety. These studies directly addressed whether substantial economies of scale existed in the production of police services for urban neighborhoods as asserted in calls for reform (Daniel L. Skoler and June M. Hetler 1970). Not a single case was found where a large centralized police department outperformed smaller departments serving similar neighborhoods in regard to multiple indicators. (page 5 of the linked pdf, emphasis in original)

At this point I would like to mention that there exist alternatives to modern police, police in the sense of a specialized group of people playing a role distinct from that of ordinary citizen. Rose City Copwatch has one pamphlet discussing some ways communities can reduce their reliance on police and on the State “justice” system, and for those who like scholarly sources, (I know I do,) Vikki Law’s wonderful article Where abolition meets action: women organizing against gender violence was published in the Contemporary Justice Review, and gives empirical examples of people who successfully formed community groups that could provide education in martial arts and practical self-defense as well as help keep people safe on the street. Mutual aid can be used as successfully in defense of our physical safety as much as any other area.

Still, for those who are not convinced of the police abolitionist position, it is still worth pointing out the empirical evidence that decentralization can help in policing. Abel Tomlinson, at a recent panel discussion held by the Ozark Voluntaryists, pointed out that the higher up in the police bureaucracy one travels, and the further away from local institutions where the police know and live among the community, the more “machine-like” people start to become in their actions and decisions, and the less concern they have for the people being sifted through the system.

Regarding industry and production of everything else people need and desire, Karl Hess has some things to say as well.

Manufacturing today is thought of as a massive large-scale system by advocates of massive large-scale ownership.

It is assumed that it is appropriate to our needs mainly because of assumptions about those needs: quickly obsolescent products, package-emphasizing products, and proliferating fad products.

In point of material fact, manufacturing has undergone the sort of technological change that has characterized all science-based activities in this century – a distinct tendency toward decentralization and small-scale units. A truly modern cybernated plant, turning out a vast array of machine parts, for instance, can be housed easily in a city neighborhood, in conventional office space. It uses computers to direct its tools, and can be handily operated by workers trained in the neighborhood. Transistors, the heart of electronics, are extremely demanding of material quality and specialized tooling-up but are also quite adaptable to small-scale local production. Plastics, which have got such a bad name because of their use in disposable containers, actually include some of the finest building materials known, permanent materials far stronger than steel, and they can be fabricated in small-batch operations. Even steel production has undergone a distinct shift toward smaller-scale facilities, such as continuous slab casting. (pages 32 – 33)

I was particularly surprised by Hess’s claims regarding computer chip manufacturing, since when I bring up decentralization of production this is one of the go-to counter-examples people often try to use to argue that some industries will still require large-scale, capital-intensive production for the foreseeable future.

Hess returns to this later in the book with the following example:

Item: Acknowledged in the field as the most powerful computer in the entire world, the Cray I is made in a barn on the farm of the designer in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin. Of course, this is possible because of the relationships and availabilities of parts from many other places – but those places also represent small-scale operations in comparison with the gigantism of the dominating corporations such as General Motors. The largest manufacturer of the silicon chips that have made computers so tiny (and the decentralization of their information processes so possible) has only 8000 employees. (page 71)

Now, since the Cray I was first released, and discontinued, decades ago, and since computers have since become more complex and the circuits more miniaturized, I expect that it has become more difficult than in Hess’s time to decentralize this industry.

Still, reading Hess’s book does give me hope that small-scale, neighborhood and artisan level production can work and can compete with mass-production.

3) Economies, and Diseconomies, of Scale:

One can reasonably ask, if small-scale production can be efficient, and, for that matter, liberating, why do we not see more of it? Kevin Carson discusses this in one of my favorite articles by him, On “Economies of Scale” and Other Magical Incantations. There he briefly, but powerfully, delves into the topic of economies and dis-economies of scale and how the prevalence of mass-production over artisan labor and small, local businesses is in large part due to distortions in our society introduced and maintained by the State.

When the offsetting distribution costs were taken into account, Borsodi said, many kinds of home production were more efficient on the whole than factory production. This was true of the total costs of growing and canning one’s own tomatoes, for instance, compared to the price of tomatoes grown on big mechanized farms and processed in canneries. Likewise, when all the costs of distribution and marketing were taken into account, an electric kitchen mill was far cheaper as a source of flour than the giant mills in Minneapolis. Not to mention, in the latter case, that the freshly ground flour contained wheat germ, whereas the shelf-life requirements of a batch-and-queue distribution system resulted in mummified, denatured flour designed for storage and transport rather than consumption. In both cases, home production was cheaper, despite the higher unit cost of the production machinery itself, because — when something was consumed at the point of production — production cost was the final cost.

But the same was true of manufacturing to a considerable extent. As Borsodi pointed out, the development of electrically powered machinery had removed much of the need for large factories. The large factory, in the age of steam and water power, had resulted from the need to conserve on power from prime movers. Because there were genuine economies of scale in steam engines, it made sense to build an entire factory around a large steam engine and then run as many machines as possible off drive shafts running from that engine. But the electric motor made it possible to build a prime mover into each separate machine, site the machine as close as feasible to the point of consumption, scale production flow to preexisting demand, and scale the machine to production flow. In other words what we today call lean, demand-pull or just-in-time.

While there are of course economies of scale in different industries, forces at work that make it more efficient for a firm to grow both the size of their organization and the size of their market, there are also factors that, after a point, make larger scales less efficient.

Economic historian Gabriel Kolko discusses diseconomies of scale in his book The Triumph of Conservatism as well. On page 28 he states, “The inescapable conclusion is that mergers were not particularly formidable and successful … Most of the new mergers started out with less than monopoly control, and virtually all lost their initial share of the market. This failure … was due to the rise of important new competitors and the significant economies of size attainable at lower production levels.”

One such factor making smaller-scale production more efficient is communication costs. The larger the organizational bureaucracy of a firm, the farther information has to travel internally from the people on the ground, implementing decisions, to the people at the top, making those decisions, the more costly it becomes for people in the firm to communicate effectively.

Regarding this, I can’t help but share an amusing parable from hacker culture:

SNAFU principle /sna’foo prin’si-pl/ /n./ [from a WWII Army acronym for `Situation Normal, All Fucked Up’] “True communication is possible only between equals, because inferiors are more consistently rewarded for telling their superiors pleasant lies than for telling the truth.” — a central tenet of Discordianism, often invoked by hackers to explain why authoritarian hierarchies screw up so reliably and systematically. The effect of the SNAFU principle is a progressive disconnection of decision-makers from reality. This lightly adapted version of a fable dating back to the early 1960s illustrates the phenomenon perfectly:

In the beginning was the plan,
and then the specification;
And the plan was without form,
and the specification was void.
And darkness
was on the faces of the implementors thereof;
And they spake unto their leader,
“It is a crock of shit,
and smells as of a sewer.”
And the leader took pity on them,
and spoke to the project leader:
“It is a crock of excrement,
and none may abide the odor thereof.”
And the project leader
spake unto his section head, saying:
“It is a container of excrement,
and it is very strong, such that none may abide it.”
The section head then hurried to his department manager,
and informed him thus:
“It is a vessel of fertilizer,
and none may abide its strength.”
The department manager carried these words
to his general manager,
and spoke unto him
“It containeth that which aideth the growth of plants,
and it is very strong.”
And so it was that the general manager rejoiced
and delivered the good news unto the Vice President.
“It promoteth growth,
and it is very powerful.”
The Vice President rushed to the President’s side,
and joyously exclaimed:
“This powerful new software product
will promote the growth of the company!”
And the President looked upon the product,
and saw that it was very good.

After the subsequent and inevitable disaster, the suits protect themselves by saying “I was misinformed!”, and the implementors are demoted or fired.

Another such factor, importantly, is the cost of storing mass-produced goods for long periods of time, and of transporting them long distances. In another place in The Triumph of Conservatism, Gabriel Kolko points out the costs associated with storage of meat products, “Local slaughterers had less expense per head for refrigeration and freight, and usually had lower administration, sales, and accounting expenses as well.” (page 53)

And, of course, in the quote from Kevin Carson’s article above, the example of wheat was already mentioned. The need for long-term preservation can actually incentivize mass-producers to go with less healthy foods, whereas local producers can provide healthier foods to their customers because the food does not go through the same processing, it need not be stored as long and thus need not contain the same preservatives and other additives, and so on.

In Studies in Mutualist Political Economy Kevin Carson points out that, in subsidizing nation-wide transportation systems with the general population’s money, the U.S. federal government has “socialized” part of the costs of bringing mass-produced goods to market, while letting corporations “privatize” the gains. Without this forced redistribution of resources, it seems likely that many local communities would have preferred to invest the fruit of their labor in their own, local infrastructure. Big business could, of course, still have paid for the creation of mass-transit systems out of their own pockets, but at that point they would have had to internalize the costs of mass-production, rather than letting others foot the bill with the government’s help.

Under such circumstances, it seems likely that local producers would have a far easier time competing with transnational corporations. The higher transportation costs that go along with mass-production and distribution would be born by the large-scale companies engaging in said mass-production and distribution. Since they would bear the costs of larger-scale production themselves rather than passing the burden to tax-payers, this would shift their balance of costs and benefits and lower the scales at which production was most efficient.

The point, here, is that the fact that mass-production is so prevalent in our society today, and artisan labor and local cooperatives so scattered, rare, and seemingly inefficient by comparison, is not purely the inevitable result of economic forces beyond human control, it is, at least in part, a result of human action and choice, and this means it can be changed. We have reason to think that a decentralized world where workers own and manage their own means of production on the level of individuals, households, neighborhoods or other small groups, in which group members can have a real voice in collective action, is possible.

4) Motivations:

Of course, after all this, perhaps my readers are asking, “Why?” Why try to achieve a world of small-scale production and local self-reliance?

At a recent panel discussion on Corporatism and Structural Poverty that I participated in, one audience member expressed concern that localism would cause people to become more isolated, and thus more anti-social, perhaps even dangerous.

At the time I struggled somewhat to try and answer to my own satisfaction. I argued that localism need not entail isolation, which is true. Afterwards, thinking about the concern and my own answer, it occurred to me that I might have better expressed the core idea had I remembered the keyword “power.”

The goal is not for everyone in the world to be their own island, I do not think that is necessary to bring about in order to achieve my own values or the values of other individualists. The goal is for individuals to obtain, not just freedom in a formal sense, but independence and the ability to choose who to associate with and who to ostracize, and what form their associations with others will take. The objective is not for local neighborhoods to live on their own without interacting with the outside world, the objective is to enable people to interact with others on their own terms, to create a world where outsiders do not have power over communities or their individual members, or, if they do, (since perhaps even free association will still give the associates power of a sort over each other, in the sense of influence over each other’s lives,) to balance their power with the power of those individuals and the communities they are a part of.

I want, in other words, to minimize the power people have over others’ lives, and maximize the power people have over their own lives.

In principle, I think this goal is compatible with division of labor, communication and trade between people all over the world, and even, in some cases, large-scale collective undertakings. What I want to do is persuade people that these things are compatible, that individuals can have enough independence that society has little power over them, that people can meet their own needs without giving up their autonomy, and that people can at the same time work together towards shared goals.

Karl Hess points out, early in Community Technology, that community institutions in which people have a genuine voice can actually help people feel less isolated from others. When people control others, those being controlled can end up feeling alienated and resentful. When people create communities, talking and working with others, they can help people feel like they’re a part of something. When people rely on direct democracy or consensus to help them make important decisions, and, vitally, when they associate freely and voluntarily and they have the practical ability to leave an association if they feel the need, they can gain a sense of kinship and neighborliness with others they interact with in these ways.

The localism of Karl Hess emphasizes this kind of community building. Hess asks people to get together, work together, take part in direct action and build communities where members have a real say and get real work done, rather than waiting on the government to toss them alms. His philosophy and praxis are at once radically voluntaryist, individualist, and communitarian. The community he advocates for is real community, where people choose to associate with each other for mutual gain, and indeed gain plenty in doing so. It is not the faux “community” or “society” of voting for governing “representatives” every few years and waiting on them, they who have power we lack, to help us out, it is the real society of working together on our own terms to meet our needs and solve the problems we face.

If I haven’t yet convinced you to read this book, comment and let me know where I went wrong. 😉

“My own interest is the responsibility of people to be responsible for their own lives and, with their neighbors, for their public space and actions. To sing their own songs. To make their own inventions. To be on stage and out of the audience. To love and not just yearn.

To build and not just envy. To light that candle which is so much better than cursing the darkness. To be as much as the human condition can sustain, rather than being only what a system can allow.

To be. To do. That is community technology.”

~ Karl Hess
Community Technology
page 107


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