Cooperative Community in ‘Barn Raising’

I wrote my in-class micro essay on a quote from “Barn Raising” by Daniel Kemmis, and wanted to expand my initial thoughts for my post this week. As Kemmis opens his essay “Barn Raising,” he starts with this resounding proclamation which stood in stark contrast to the individualist readings from last week.

“In many instances in which public undertakings or community development initiatives are blocked, there is a latent public consensus that would be more satisfying to most of the participants that what finally emerges. But in fact this consensus rarely sees the light of day. Another way to say his is that in most cases there is more common ground, and higher common ground, than the people involved ever succeed in discovering. The common ground is there (just as it was in the stock sale or the trace race), but our prevailing way of doing things blocks us from realizing it. Our failure to realize is twofold: we do not recognize the common ground (a failure to realize its existence), and we do not make It a reality (a failure to realize its potential). This twofold failure leaves out communities poorer than they need to be.”

He goes on to describe rather communitarian experiences to drive home his point that these ideas are lived out and experienced in a context that involves others. I don’t want to fall prey to the caricature that ‘individualists’ are the extremes of anti-social or completely self-centered and care nothing for other. However, as I discussed in my post The Difficulty of Emersonian ‘Self-Reliance’ I noted the inherent tension that exists when one embraces and follows the individualist ‘ideals’ to their logical outworking. As we discussed in class, this may be why there don’t seem to be many adherents to either extreme of individualism or communitarianism, but that many fall somewhere between the extremes and fluidly move around as the context and situation requires of them.

This, however, highlights the interesting element of individualism and self-interest. While last week’s readings from Emerson and Rand in particular take a stance of the individual as autonomous from others, Kemmis develops his argument that not only is isolation and individualism an inaccurate approach when compared to one’s experience, but that taking such a posture actually harms the potential outcomes that could be had, both for the individual and the collective, and it is this ‘higher common ground’ that is to be sought by way of consensus within lived community. The ideas espoused by Kemmis in “Barn Raising” are also contrary to Sumner’s position that one’s duty is ultimately to themselves and not to anyone else. As Kemmis highlights, it is not a prerequisite that the people working together and toward consensus have to enjoy each other, but that even in spite differences that the collective can and should accomplish more together than one can in attempts at isolation. The specifics of “Barn Raising” may not resonate with those that have not experienced like in a rural community, but Kemmis does well to take the reader into the events being retold so that the audience has the opportunity to take some of the underlying ideas back to the context in which they live.

One interesting example that came to mind reflecting on this tension between communitarian and individualist ideas was the documentary series produced by Ken Burns, titled, The West (due to copyright laws, I don’t believe the episodes are freely available online but if you have Netflix or Amazon Prime, you may be able to watch them there – I found them very interesting for many reasons beyond the scope of an example here). The story of America’s western expansion is one of incredible individual ambition, effort, and struggle but also one of communitarian cooperation, innovation, and adaptation (for better and worse). The motto of Manifest Destiny stands and a rather interesting intersection of both of the often conflicting approaches.

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4 Responses to Cooperative Community in ‘Barn Raising’

  1. anapuri11 says:

    I enjoyed how you wrote this substantial post. Especially that you had tied in your previous posts with this one, presented a solid argument, and then concluded this piece with something that relates to today that is also accessible to readers to use as further research. In regards to your argument, I think it is important that you further highlighted that, “it is not a prerequisite that the people working together and toward consensus have to enjoy each other, but that even in spite differences that the collective can and should accomplish more together than one can in attempts at isolation.” This showcases the strength of communitarianism, that it brings people together with one common purpose and they move each other further.

  2. nicksalute says:

    I felt that this was a very provocative interrogation of Civic Republicanism that contrasted quite well with your previous post. Oddly enough, I actually highlighted that section of Barn Raising because I had similar thoughts on the matter. Historically, my pragmatism has pushed me into the corner of individualism over civic republicanism; my political mindset has always revolved around the idea that the idea of increased political efficacy and participation would be amazing, but the question of how exactly we would acquire this increase always seems to stifle my examination. But perhaps it is this exact method of thinking that has prevented your notion of the “cooperative community” in the first place. It is evident that Kemmis’ idea of “common ground” is not an easy concept to grasp, but the issue could lie in that we just haven’t given it enough of a chance. (I apologize for the off-topic rant)
    To come back to the ideas in your post, I agree with your claim to neutrality and I enjoyed your point that “The story of America’s western expansion is one of incredible individual ambition, effort, and struggle but also one of communitarian cooperation, innovation, and adaptation (for better and worse).” It is true that in different situations, there may not be a correct way to go about things. Some instances may require the singular thought and individual ambition, while others may require a cooperative effort; finding the balance point at which the two ideologies meet may be the key.
    Great job!

    • alphaomegawords says:

      I was reflecting on your concluding thought:

      “It is true that in different situations, there may not be a correct way to go about things. Some instances may require the singular thought and individual ambition, while others may require a cooperative effort; finding the balance point at which the two ideologies meet may be the key.”

      I think that a cursory overview of just American life from the Colonial period to the present demonstrates that there is often not a ‘singular’ way of attempting to address all situations which is often swayed by the conviction one may hold to the particular situation and often there is an interplay between the two. There are many times when it was good that an individual or a minority struck out with an idea and stuck to their convictions (i.e. Branch Rickey having the courage to bring Jackie Robinson as the first black player in Major League Baseball or the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution) in spite of opposition like the scrutiny of the other baseball owners and the cultural bigotry and the tension, friction, and hostility surrounding the emancipation of slaves. However, in both of these situations, strong individual/minority convictions led to actions and a persuasive platform that allowed for a wider communitarian discussion and eventual cultural changes.

      That is not to say that every situation will or ought to run a similar course. It just struck me as I read your comments that there is often a relationship between individualism and communitarianism that can spur someone that may be currently operating predominately in one or the other at a particular moment to move towards ‘ideals’ purported to reside with the ‘opposite’ perspective. It is possible that the binary created by the ‘ideal’ form of individualism and communitarianism is really unnecessary and ultimately unhelpful. I’d be interested to hear what others think about that.

  3. fern1007 says:

    This is a really well thought out post, and I enjoyed reading it.
    I know our political ideology is probably closer to the “individualist” side of the spectrum, but we are also both Christians. You also made the valid point that individualism and communitarian should bee seen as a spectrum.
    I like how you detail Kemmis’ idea that individualism not only hurts the collective but also the individual. For us, as Christians we feel called to help our neighbors aka human kind. Yet, I think the flaws in Kemmis’ argument are how would this type of community come about, and how would it be maintained? FORCE.
    This is where individualist take issue, and by individualist, I don’t mean only people who shun their loved ones and live in some hut out in the desert. I mean folks that believe that government force is usually wrong/bad/misguided. It isn’t that an individualist wouldn’t help in a community barn raising.. Okay, maybe Ayn Rand wouldn’t… Yet, most individualist: libertarians, conservatives or a blending of the two would help their neighbor. When I read the essay It was clear to me that the author’s mother and the neighbor who didn’t get along, yet did work together did so out of rational self-interest;and that is good.
    People who serve in their community or neighbors out of love for God is also good. Christians are called to serve. Yet, the government does not get to force communitarianism onto people. The force takes the goodness out of the action.
    Kemmis uses the term “common ground” frequently, but what does that mean? Who gets to decide? The individual or the government.

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