Out of the Streets, Into the Community
A Review of Karl Hess’s Community Technology
Introduction: Who was Karl Hess?
Karl Hess isn’t someone who’s often talked about or recognized in the modern day libertarian movement. And contrary to other forgotten figures in history, Hess has been forgotten in spite of his accomplishments, not because of them.
Hess started off in radio and news and soon gained prominence in conservative newspapers. Eventually, Hess became a speechwriter (and ghostwriter) for Senator Barry Goldwater during Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign. After Goldwater was defeated by Nixon, Hess became disillusioned with traditional conservatism and started associating with leftist groups such as the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the Black Panthers.
These associations led to Hess also getting involved in protests against the Vietnam War, the military-industrial complex, big business and the state. Due to his previous involvement in more mainstream politics and his now open rebellion, Hess found himself under audit by the IRS. This led to Hess writing the IRS a letter in which he stated he would no longer pay taxes due to what he felt amounted to harassment. In response, the IRS put a 100% lien on Hess’s income. In response, Hess began bartering in order to sustain himself, and he ended up becoming a notable tax resistor.
These events further radicalized Hess, and he soon began reading anarchist writers such as Emma Goldman. In the documentary Anarchism in America, Hess appeared as a notable commentator who went so far as to compare Goldman and Ayn Rand.
His study of anarchism would lead him further left and Hess would eventually focus his efforts not only on trying to refine himself but also to build community through alternative technologies.
This sort of community building is the focus of Hess’s Community Technology and was also the larger focus of Hess’s life from the early 70s till his death in ’94.
Hess practically started the libertarian movement with his essay, The Death of Politics. It was published in (of all things) Playboy in March of 1969. Its publication led to the wider recognition of the libertarian movement as an actual movement. In addition, Karl Hess helped popularize the term “anarcho-capitalism” with this essay.
Given all of these noteworthy accomplishments, why has Hess been largely forgotten?
While some certainly haven’t forgotten Hess, it’s typically otherwise. Part of the reason could be that Hess didn’t get more active in the movement until he was middle-aged. Before that, Hess had been a ghostwriter for many conservative writers and newspapers.
And even after this, Hess didn’t stay long in the mainstream libertarian movement.
As noted, Hess shifted leftwards and started spending more time with student groups and anti-authoritarian leftist associations. But then in the last ten years of Hess’s life he would turn once again and become active in the Libertarian Party from approximately 1985 to 1990. This constant changing of affiliations and late entry into the libertarian movement both likely contributed to Hess’s now relatively unknown status.
And unlike Rothbard, Hess never wrote huge volumes on economics or philosophy. The books Hess did write, such as Neighborhood Power or Dear America, are largely out of print or ignored by the libertarian movement.
I’m hopeful sites like C4SS and Libertarianism.org, repositories like Left-Liberty, and sadly abandoned projects like The Karl Hess Institute can recenter Hess within libertarian discourse. Libertarianism.org has been particularly helpful in this pursuit by archiving many long-lost Hess speeches.
Likewise, this review of Community Technology aims towards helping us remember a sadly too-often forgotten figure in the history of the libertarian movement. A figure who inspired, put his theory into practice countless times and advocated for radical conceptions of liberty that challenge the state and capitalism at their core.
Part 1: Summary
Community Technology was published in 1979 and tells the story of Karl Hess’s experiences in neighborhood organizing for self-reliance and political freedom via alternative technologies. It is fairly brief, only coming in at a little over 100 pages. The copy I have from Harper Press is in a mid-sized font with small paragraphs dominating and the phraseology, almost without exception, written in plain English, as was Hess’s custom.
As such, the book is written in a highly accessible way.
The book begins with Hess’s classic, unrelenting suspicion of institutions, especially big institutions.
Hess highlights this suspicion by criticizing everything from schools to hospitals and even cities themselves. The monster of growth is what Hess sees as one of the primary faults in America. This “monster” of course, only becomes such when growth as an end in itself outweighs the needs of the community.
As an alternative to this monster, Hess suggests we should embrace community as a place for individuality to be emphasized instead of being seen as a “indistinguishable part of the whole”. This is an attitude he sees many institutions take on, eventually reducing the individual to a cog in a machine.
To move towards an alternative community Hess advocates the use of technology. The problem with technology for Hess was that it is too often seen as a tool to be used exclusively for growth or money. But Hess demurs and calls for a “reassessment” of the proper use of technology; for it to be used to further community driven projects, not just for the pecuniary gain of large-scale organizations.
For Hess, this book is particularly for people who’d at least consider such a shift.
Throughout the book Hess tries to undermine the idea that people had when he was writing this and still unfortunately have: That community and technology aren’t necessarily related ideas. They are instead places to start and move towards bigger things. Such examples include corporate structures, governments, bureaucratic ways of dealing with human relations, etc.
Hess rejects this process, saying that the themes of anonymity, pre-packaged reality and the distancing of humans from the material world can be the only end result.
Instead of presuming this, Hess encourages us to assume that people want to live in an environment in which they have more control over their lives. They can enjoy their own work, know other people in the community and have more choice in their political arrangements.
There are arguments against such alternative communities, both theoretical and practical. Hess reviews both and finds them insufficient.
Hess notes that all of the arguments (or at least the ones he deals with) come from a “that’s just the way things are” mentality. They deny that people can adapt and change in accordance with events.
Hess also notes in the very first chapter the various problems big institutions have: anonymity, de-indvidualization of the people involved in them, pre-packaged realities for their members, and so on. He uses various examples such as schools, churches, governments and the hierarchical corporations.
In practice, he cites his own personal experiences in the community of Adams-Morgan (now simply Adams Morgan) in Washington, DC for five years. In this experiment of self-reliance and sustainability that lasted five years, 60-75 communes sprouted within just the first year. In addition, worker-managed stores opened and thrived, a community-run newspaper was created, and most importantly community governments started forming.
For Hess the “community governments” or town meetings are at the heart of a community based on what he calls “local liberty”.
The town meeting was widely attended and soon went from a handful of new-left folks mixed in with more average folks to (by the time Hess and Therese, his wife, left) 3,000 people. The biggest problems with the meetings were their inability to address neighborhood crime (which eventually led to Hess and Therese leaving), racial tensions and political differences within the town. Some people didn’t see the town meetings as a way towards “local liberty” but rather a promising start towards less self-governance.
Despite these and other tensions, the result of a lot of these experiments and attempts to get future experiments out in the community were positive. Food was grown on rooftops and in basements via aquaculture and hydroponic greenhouses, costs were cut and production was greater. Alternative ways of collecting energy were discussed and in some cases implemented. And the Institute for Local Self-Reliance was formed and still exists today.
Hess does not lament the loss of the community and instead posits in another chapter what it could’ve been like under more favorable circumstances. He imagines a mixed community, acknowledges the importance of the town meetings, decentralization and federation, the DIY ethic and more.
Further in the book we see Hess deal with the conflicts of change, whether it’s desirable, whether human nature ultimately works against communities that he dreams about. Hess once again points to the failures of current institutions via anarchist communist Peter Kropotkin, specifically Kropotkin’s book Mutual Aid.
Finally, Hess lays out some suggestions and goals for any community technology group to consider in the last two chapters. He stresses multiple times that they are merely suggestions and he would not presume to know all of the particulars of their situation.
Nonetheless, I am confident from my readings of these last two chapters that there is much to be learned from them. Hess advises demystification of technology, open access to both information and variety in where you should get your technologies from and more.
In short, Hess dreamed of a world where it isn’t revolutionary to get to know your neighbor.
It instead should be very much a part of everyday life to know, interact and have dialogue with your neighbors. Based on neighborhood organizing Hess wanted to see a material basis form. One that was foundationally built on a little hard work, the free exchange of knowledge and utopian thinking. This utopian thinking would lead to radically decentralized, autonomous, diverse and self-reliant. They weren’t islands though. Instead, these communities were part of a larger network of communues and neighborhoods. These communes and neighborhoods are themselves part of a larger network of communities. And finally, these networks can come together in federations, if necessary.
For Hess, none of this was impractical.
And as I’ll argue below, I think that holds true now more than ever.
Part 2: Analysis
While there are many things to analyze about this book, a few things in particular caught my eye. Notably, Hess’s practical and theoretical arguments for alternative communities themselves. These are themes handled periodically throughout the book but more specifically in Chapters 1 (pp. 12-15), 2 (pp. 19-23), 3 and 4.
Hess’s main goal is clear: To persuade us to get active in our own communities and organize them towards political independence, general self-reliance and sustainability. Hess wants us to do this through a specific understanding of the term “community technology” and how we may apply it.
He defines these “two crucial elements” as, “…a place in which and a way in which people can live peacefully, socially, cooperatively; and tools and techniques to provide the necessary material base for that way of living.”
The problem with community technology when Hess was living was that “community” was just a way for corporations and governments and other institutions to make themselves larger. Communities were just a way to keep growing until it’d naturally follow that the corporations and other big institutions were “needed”. Communities, therefore are simply not ends in of themselves for these institutions or for society at large. Instead whole communities become fodder for bigger and more “efficient” things to come out of them.
Adding to this technology is, instead of something local, something that is distant (pp. 5-7 for instance) from us. These types of technologies are diametrically opposed to be applied well to the needs of the community it is actually made in. Instead of us using and ruling technology, it rules us by our lack of self and exterior knowledge about how to use them. Technology has thus been relegated to be seen as something we buy and not something we create, not something for the betterment of communities.
Part of reclaiming technology is to (as Hess says) demystify it. For if we don’t technology shall rule us, or rather the individuals who control that technology will control us. The demystification must come through the free exchange and access of knowledge about things. To aid this free exchange there should be local groups dedicated to these pursuits within the community. Hence this demystification of technology must come in tandem with liberating the very concept of communities. That’s because we need a space to use the tools that’ll also liberate the space around it. Given this, the relationship of community and technology are very synergistic.
But what might this “necessary material base” for freer communities look like?
Hess lists many suggestions in chapter 2: hydroponic setups in green houses, vacant lots, rooftops, the use of aquaculture for the production of food, chicken and fish, solar energy for localized efficiency and more.
But how this material base is achieved Hess leaves up to those who share his ideas on community technology and local liberty.
Hess’s ideas speak to things like intentional communities, where people come in with certain aspirations or goals and typically work to be independent from modern society. Likewise, Hess’s alternative communities would organize autonomously under common assumptions towards free cooperation and competition.
We see this happening with political movements like the Free State Project (FSP) that. And while the FSP has certainly a bigger goal than just a community, it stems from similar ideas of intentional and alternative communities. Obviously this is not an exact comparison but I think it’s a relatively decent modern comparison.
Community and technology as concepts have, unfortunately, not changed very much from how they were viewed during the time Hess wrote Community Technology.
Technology is still viewed as a way to get people to work in hierarchically organized factories or stores. Technology is still just a way to help out the biggest corporations instead of the smallest communities struggling for more local liberty.
And as a word, community is just a term politicians use so they may seem more friendly to the “working class”. In addition, the concepts discussed here and material base for community itself as well as technology are still in the hands of the ruling class.
Given that these things still persist why did Hess think it wasn’t the optimal arrangement? And what can that tell us about how we should feel about the present?
One of the biggest impetuses for Hess feeling this way was his own personal experiences and practices.
Hess wasn’t an armchair philosopher, he was a doer first and foremost. He was a mechanical engineer, a welder, he bartered and helped build community. As such, he says that his commitments in this book don’t come from ideological blinders but his own experience. And his five years spent in Adams Morgan, as well as his time in West Virginia gave him the necessary practical insights to conclude that major institutions were deeply flawed.
The effects of treating community and technology as subservient to more “efficient” institutions are easy enough to see.
The pervasive attitudes that result from having big institutions centrally handle resources that should instead be managed through community organizing are detrimental to local liberty. One of those attitudes that occurs is the cultural attitude of consumerism.
Buying and selling in the market place are brought from the reasonable position of, “Here’s X because you need X and give me Y because I need Y and we’ll both be better off” to, as Hess says:
“Come here to buy a way of living, a way already defined and extolled in four-color brilliance. … The automobile makers do not say as the elder Henry Ford, Here is transportation you may buy, they say, Here is an entire self-image to buy … Buick Skylarks, for instance are for “free spirits”; Cadallics are for those who have “arrived”.
Hess may not be calling for the death of the advertising industry as other left-libertarians have advocated, but he certainly asks us to be skeptical of pre-packaged images we have little control over.
It’s also worth adding that Hess is also not calling for some sort of communal isolationism.
He says, for example, in the production of food that, if necessary, the community could reach out to others and not rely on itself. But what Hess doesn’t want is institutions and groups overly-shaping how the community may look from the outside. This could make communities less self-reliant than needed for local liberty to be effectively fostered.
For example, Hess holds steadfast that items like food production should be left up to the community members themselves.
Other problems still exist for the big institutions though. Besides the pervasive attitude of consumerism, the idea of anonymity-passivity is what also plagues both today and when Hess was writing Community Technology:
“Anonymity is one of those “rights” of large-scale social organization that has a double function. It keeps people compartmentalized, and thus at the mercy of the social organization rather than as cooperating actors in it. It makes it possible to evade responsibility, to be an isolated cipher in a social setting, to have at best a sort of hit-and-run relationship with the social world around one.”
In large-scale organizations people are first institutionally relegated to being passive and anonymous. And then when alternatives like Hess’s are advocated people scoff. They don’t realize that these organizations are part of why they’re able to scoff to begin with.
This sort of self-fulfillment is imilar to a criticism the 20th century anarchist without adjectives Voltairine de Cleyre made in her essay Sex Slavery about gender roles:
“Little girls must not be tomboyish, must not go barefoot, must not climb trees, must not learn to swim, must not do anything they desire to do which Madame Grundy has decreed “improper.” Little boys are laughed at as effeminate, silly girl-boys if they want to make patchwork or play with a doll. Then when they grow up, “Oh! Men don’t care for home or children as women do!” Why should they, when the deliberate effort of your life has been to crush that nature out of them. “Women can’t rough it like men.” Train any animal, or any plant, as you train your girls, and it won’t be able to rough it either.”
Likewise, if you relegate people to compartmentalized and heavily de-socialized beings, of course communities like the ones Hess’s are less likely to exist. You’ve crushed that possibility! By pre-packaging their reality, their job and their lives you’ve crushed out the sort of things Hess wants to see happen.
Overcoming this crushing of the human spirit is going to take many different methods. One of those methods is to work through the kinks of what problems Hess and Therese had in Adams Morgan, as well as demystifying the idea and use of technology. We do that by creating communities that are based on local liberty and contain a material basis for fulfilling needs of the people in those communities. Especially through the means of aquaponics, self-sustained living and so forth.
Hess’s vision of what it could be in chapter 5 is both attractive and inspiring in its participatory democracy, worker owned stores, commonly and communally owned products, as well as self-reliance via aquaculture, hydroponics, solar power. To get there we have to work on building awareness of the community technology alternative and the material basis that existed in Adams Morgan and continues to exist today.
I’ve laid out Hess’s goals and definitions well enough to finally address what his arguments in the book were for the viability of such ideas.
Here were the main arguments that Hess considered:
1. There are rules against it.
2. That’s not the way we do it.
3. Human nature just doesn’t work that way.
4. It costs too much.
5. It’s too simple (meaning my suggestion, of course).
6. It’s too complex (meaning the thing being questioned, of course).
7. You just can’t, that’s all.
8. Well, I can’t explain why not, but that’s the way it is, and, besides, if I have to explain it you wouldn’t understand anyway.
9. People just can’t o things like that on their own
a. Because they don’t want responsibility
b. Because they aren’t smart enough
c. Because they’d watch TV.
d. Because “they” won’t let them
There is also the efficiency argument, which is dealt with in chapter 2. The charge is that communities can’t provide what the larger places like cities can do (civil rights is used as an example) and simply don’t have the material basis for it.
We’ll come back to that later.
To deal with the first batch of criticisms Hess takes them on one by one.
So as not to skip sections or quote too much I am going to summarize his responses, which I also find convincing.
It largely consists of treating these responses as if they are seeing the material reality we live in as fixed. A quick glance at history will determine that people are often smart enough to change (even radically), that the rulers are often (in the end) powerless to stop it. And rationales like “you just can’t” are merely an appeal to force used by kings and priests, not by reasonable individuals.
The idea that “rules” are not a social creation but rather a fixed thing in existence goes against the history of rules. And things being too simple or complex has never stopped humanity before. The simplicity of things, as Hess notes, is the rule of the day over the hugely complex “solutions” of the big institutions in society.
In short, to assume that people can’t get off of their TVs or are bound by some sort of immovable object called “human nature” is to cut people short for what they actually are: social beings. And as we are thinking, living and breathing social beings, we want to exercise our own social mobility. If we know how to do that and how to do it easily without causing the most problems then it seems likely people will join in, if only gradually.
The efficiency argument against community boils down to the components of efficiency itself.
As Hess explains,
“If efficiency is seen in terms of satisfying the consumerist model of human life, then the anonymous city (where a person may consumer anything without appearing foolish or profligate to nose neighbors) is a splendid milieu, the production line factory a splendid workshop, and gadget-glitter technology a titillating glory. IF, on the other hand, efficiency is seen as the way in which a situation reflects the creative mode, the community mode, the human being as an active and not passive, then smaller-scale ways of living together may be viewed as serviceable.”
I am once again reminded by another point Voltairine made in her previously mentioned essay Sex Slavery about what it means to be “legitimate” or “illegitimate”:
For what is it to be legitimate, born “according to law”? It is to be, nine cases out of ten, the child of a man who acknowledges his fatherhood simply because he is forced to do so, and whose conception of virtue is realized by the statement that “a woman’s duty is to keep her husband at home…”
“What is it to be illegitimate? … To be, possibly, the child of some man contemptible enough to deceive a woman; the child of some woman whose chief crime was belief in the man she loved. … This is legitimacy and illegitimacy! Choose.
As Voltairine chose to be illegitimate according to law even if that makes her also illegitimate to nature, so too does Hess choose illegitimacy in the eyes of those who make the law. He likewise chooses this as opposed to being “illegitimate” (so to speak) to what human beings can actually accomplish.
Legitimacy or not, the right way reminds right, regardless of what the “proper authorities” say.
For Hess, the idea and practice of community technology is the right way and there’s never been a better time then right now.
Part 3: Conclusion
Building our own communities on self-reliance, local liberty, participatory democracy and alternative technologies is something that libertarians should once again consider.
One of the main reasons for its attractiveness (though it also has its flaws of course) is the benign way that we can present this and thus attract many different folks. Projects like the ones Hess talks about (such as worker owned shops, community run newspapers, having a more self-sufficient and green economy) are all things that can exist along different political lines. This is especially true if they are shown to be easily accessible and effective.
Hess advised in the book that the practices of the community technology groups should be interested in challenging the economies of scale communities are said to not be able to handle. To demystify technology so it seems something inherently public and a part of everyday life instead of a master of the public.
He further asserts that using the newly demystified technologies must be in regard to actual problems the communities are having then and there.
Hess elaborates, “A way to do this is to embed the work in the community and not confine it to exotic areas or atmospheres; to keep the work centered upon practical, immediate, and material possibilities rather than “futurist” musings…”
Hess already proves in the book that it could work back when he lived, but what about now?
In point of fact it looks even more promising with the invention of the internet.
Literally thousands of small communities online can be used to bring together people with similar beliefs about how communities should be dealt with.
One fine example of this is the Resilient Communities Project which is a project designed to create communities that, “…are decentralized[,] that anticipate risk, limit impact, and bounce back rapidly through survival, adaptability, evolution, and growth in the face of turbulent change.” which is a lot of what Hess wanted to see.
In groups like these, people share articles and discuss them with each other. They vocalize how they think the alternative technologies might be able to somehow better the community that they are in. Of course it doesn’t always go perfectly but the general concept is to do as much as that. And the fact that many of these groups most likely not only existing online but also elsewhere in real life is reason enough to suspect that Hess’s ideas are far from impractical or theoretically dead.
Of course resilient communities weren’t exactly what Hess was calling for and I’m not trying to say that any of these individuals are necessarily holding some sort of strict Hessian tradition.
Nonetheless, I think Hess would’ve found such groups admirable at least and natural allies at best due to the overlap in means and goals. I think Hess’s notions and the notions that advocates of resilient communities have are both desirable and undesirable (perhaps) in their own ways.
To conclude, Hess’s book, Community Technology is an insightful, easily accessible and an overall enjoyable read that libertarians (especially left-libertarians) should find much to learn from. I recommend it to anyone wanting to learn about community organizing within a largely apolitical context. And especially for broad-based populist movements and uprisings against the state with a strong libertarian bend to them.
By bringing technology from the sky and down to the ground and the communities back into the hands of the people, we may finally have our revolution.
I’m unsure what Hess would say about modern activism and the fact that some of the focus has really left the communities and moved on to bigger and distant things. Things like succeeding in corporations or trying to use the national or state political systems to further our goals or monkey wrench the ruling class’s goals.
But my hunch is that he (at least if he was still in the 70s framing of mind) would tell us to get off the streets and back into the communities. If we want to have a real chance at affecting local liberty and building it up from there, we must learn to shape what we can control, not what we can’t.
Shall such a strategy be adopted and applied in a successful way though?
Only time will tell.