Friday, November 10, 2006

Odd Fellows

There is a little shop south of the river which has all kinds of unusual and uncommon objects in it.

One of the rooms is full of a grand assortment of Odd Fellows stuff. There are all kinds of velvety robes and hats, and all other kinds of mystical and archtypal brick a brack. Coming from a long line of 32 degreers, I know something about the Freemasons, but I know little about the Odd Fellows lodge.

Today, I saw this story about "Rebuilding Civil Society" in in the Archdruid Report blog thanks to the Energy Bulletin. Here is an excerpt.

"Alexis de Tocqueville famously described early 19th century America as a land of associations, where the needs of society were met, not by government programs or aristocratic largesse, but by voluntary organizations of common people.

The civil society of pre-imperial America thrived because people recognized that the social and personal benefits they wanted could only be bought with the coin of their own time and money.

One example worth remembering is the way that fraternal orders, rather than government bureaucracies, provided the social safety net of 19th century America. The Odd Fellows, a fraternal order founded originally in Britain, launched this process shortly after its arrival in the United States in 1819.

Odd Fellows lodges in Britain had the useful habit of taking up collections for members in need, especially to cover the living costs of those who had fallen sick – remember, this was long before employers offered sick pay – and to pay the burial costs of those who died. In the American branch of the order, this quickly evolved into a system of weekly assessments and defined benefits.

The way it worked was simple enough. Each member paid in weekly dues – 25 cents a week, roughly the equivalent of $20 a week today, was average – and the money went into a common fund. When a member in good standing became too sick to work, he received regular sick pay and, in most lodges, visits from a physician who received a fixed monthly sum from the lodge in exchange for providing care to all its members.

When a member died, his funeral costs were covered by the lodge, and his dependents could count on the support of the lodge in hard cash as well as the less tangible currency of the nationwide Odd Fellows network.

By 1900, as a result of this system Odd Fellowship was the largest fraternal order in the world. In that same year more than two thousand American fraternal orders had copied this model, and nearly half of all adult Americans – counting both genders and all ethnic groups, by the way – belonged to at least one fraternal order.

This effective and sustainable system, though, depended on the willingness of very large numbers of Americans to support their local lodges by attending meetings and paying weekly dues. Its equivalents throughout civil society had the same requirements, and with the coming of empire, these turned into a fatal vulnerability.

As the profits of American empire made it possible for governments to buy the loyalty of the middle class with unearned largesse, the old system of voluntary organizations lost its support base and withered on the vine.

With it perished the local politics of precinct caucuses and town meetings. When participation in the political system stopped being seen as an opportunity to be heard, and turned into an annoyance to be shirked, America’s democracy mutated into today’s system of elective oligarchy. " more

As social space and geographic space continues to be blurred by our communication and transportation devices, we might well find that the "Odd Fellow model" of social communion and care will be reborn through new inventions of social contract.

Which it seems are not new at all.

Forgotten maybe.

As we deal with the challenges of climate change and resource depletion, we will need to rebuild civil society, if we are to remain, well, civilized.

Cybercoops, earthfamilies, cyberstates, and odd fellows will be part of the solution.

Not so odd actually.


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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting history I was never aware of, but I have to ask, what is a 32 degreer?

10:38 AM  
Blogger oZ said...

K, The top level in masonry is the 33rd degree. The level that most masons achieve is the 32nd degree.

11:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

All the time I was growing up our churches did the same thing you described in here. Up in Abilene any member of a big Church of Christ could get help receiving medical care, a roof over their heads, a car, education, whatever, provided by other members.

THIS is why so many of them resent putting their money into government funds instead of the churches' benevolent funds. Of course that way oversimplifies it.

And back when women generally stayed at home and worked hard for no pay and were the volunteer base of each community, it made a huge difference.

I think the progressives need to talk about this. Lots of rural and small town folks have one person in the family working for pay and other folks working at home, on the farm, growing food, making clothing, taking care of the sick and helpless.

It's not a bad idea, you know.

11:44 AM  

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