Poverty, disability, ageing, mental health, belonging and identity. Politicians wrestle with these big issues, but they seem insoluble. If the answers were easy and obvious, we would already be doing them. Yet a visit to the Bruderhof community in Sussex last year gave me serious pause for thought. This is a community unlike anything I’ve experienced, with completely different norms of existence, and it has gone far further to solving some of these problems than any government ever has.
The community’s prominence has risen in recent months following a BBC documentary. The programme didn’t shy away from some of the eccentricities, oddities and controversies of the community, but in a balanced way it did strive to show how they live.
The community is housed in an old tuberculosis hospital and focuses on a nursery furniture business – a substantial and successful business. But that’s where things start to get different. Nobody draws a salary from their work. It funds the basic needs of the community and the rest is given away.
When you go home each day, you return to an allotted house and a nuclear family. Even “singles” are allotted a family with whom they live. Your first duty is to God and community – personal gain, ambition, desire and status are secondary, if there at all.
It is not a life that many people would necessarily choose. And yet my visit there last year made me question why. The sacrifices can be big, but the benefits were also very clear.
My day started in the woodwork shop where I met an elderly man, some decades beyond statutory retirement. As we, on the outside, confront issues such as isolation and loneliness among the elderly, the unaffordability of our pension system, and how we give purpose in later life, it struck me these are not questions they are wrestling with.
But it is only possible because nobody takes an income. The contribution of this elderly man was whatever he could give to the community. There were no doubt people who could work faster and longer and so he might struggle to command an average wage in a money-based economy.
But in an economy that primarily values people and their contribution, he had a reason to get up every morning, social interaction and friendships, and the ability to actively contribute whatever he was able, rather than what salaries and regulations require.
He doesn’t need to worry about a pension or being productive enough to earn a certain wage. When a million disabled people in the UK want to work but can’t, there must surely be something to learn.
At the workshop we attended a community meeting with all 300 residents and my chaperone introduced me to his wife, children and parents who I sat with. Isolation and family breakdown are the elephants in the room when it comes to our society’s mental health problems. Family stability is the biggest factor behind educational success, and where families break down poverty almost always follows. People who live alone make about a tenth of the country but almost half of all food bank users. Similarly, single people with children make up a twentieth of the population but a further quarter of foodbank users. This is not a problem the Bruderhof community has.
There are surely lessons to learn from this experience. Shouldn’t we pause and reflect, rather than ignore the mini social experiment going on in this corner of Sussex?
Does a focus on employment metrics around GDP and productivity actually exclude too many people from the wider benefits of work – can we measure the wider human experience? Could we do far more to confront the breakdown of family stability in the UK and the problems it causes – and how can we rebuild the institution of marriage without engaging in needless culture wars?
I’m not quite ready to join the Bruderhof movement yet – I’d miss my comfy sofa – but if we want to confront our insoluble problems there are lessons we can learn by expanding the parameters of our political thinking. Maybe the Overton window needs to shift a little, and maybe the Bruderhof have some of the answers we crave.
Edward Davies is Director of Policy at the Centre for Social Justice.
Image credit: “Tea break at the Cotswold Bruderhof” By Grec man used under CC BY-SA 4.0