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How to Grow a Group Part One

In recent articles I have discussed at some length both the need to grow the Inner Circle Writers’ Group - now at over 2,500 members and growing every day - and the issues associated with doing so.

There’s a tendency to think in terms of numbers only when it comes to growing anything, especially a commercial enterprise. I have argued that chasing numbers is not the way forward either commercially or for any other reason - all too often this kind of pursuit of the notion of ‘the bigger the better’ leads to disappointment, as the realisation dawns that ‘bigger’ usually means drowning in the anonymity of disinterested masses. Anyone posting a book on Amazon and expecting it to sell because 'there are millions of people on Amazon' will have some reality on that.

There are principles at work here which are important not only for the Inner Circle Writers’ Group but for any enterprise, commercial or otherwise. These principles are so counter-cultural though, so running against the grain of what we are usually taught to think, that despite reiteration there is a resistance on the part of many to accepting them. It’s a resistance that runs deep - so deep that it underpins much of what we call the ‘modern world’.

Looking back at the last five hundred years, probably the biggest difference between how human beings respond to the world today compared with how they responded before could be said to be summed up in the word ‘compartmentation’. Ever since the Reformation, our society has been engaged in the ‘commodification’ of itself - in other words, the process of dividing things up into separate compartments and valuing them according to some kind of commercial measure, with the aim, usually, of selling them at some point.

Sociologically, this can be traced as the breakdown of what we call ‘feudalism’ and its transition towards the commerce-based society of today. In effect, ‘feudal’ as a word is misleading: as an adjective, it was an attempt to understand that earlier society in later terms by trying to break down what was happening then into component parts - scholars tried to divide up the way the mediaeval community worked in terms of an ‘exchange’ of distinct services: 'the king unified the lords who gave armed protection to the lower orders who in exchange gave them a proportion of their goods', and so on. But later scholars have questioned that perception of how it actually worked. Mediaeval society was simply so unlike our own that it defies modern categorisation. Arguably, it was a society which existed before the trend towards compartmentation existed.

Again, we run into our modern prejudices as soon as something so radical is stated. How can it possibly be said, the protester argues, that a society with such fixed rankings and distinct classes of people be said to be ‘pre-compartmentation’? It’s an interesting point. The difference is, though, that mediaeval societies saw themselves as fixed reflections of an divinely ordered and eternal system. Yes, they were ‘compartmented’, but that compartmentation was not in flux: it was as fixed as the stars above.

Only when the combined social, cultural and economic factors which made up the Renaissance and the Reformation came together - a process too long and complex to go into here - did this ‘fixity’ begin to break down and the urge to compartment begin. That compartmentation gave us, incrementally, the entirely different and almost unrecognisable social structure we have today: one in which ‘social mobility’, aspiration and change, development and ‘progress’ are tenets. So much do we ‘believe’ in these tenets now that we look back on the mediaeval world and consider its fixity to be ‘socially unjust’ and its class structures to be 'archaic' and 'primitive'.

The myth of progress is a powerful one. It makes us look back pejoratively at earlier stages of human society and conclude that they were cruder and ‘less developed’ than our own. It takes a massive effort of counter-cultural will to defy these prejudices and come to a different conclusion: that, in brief, humanity had different priorities and perceptions back then than we do now. These priorities and perceptions were not inferior to our own - in some cases, they were vastly superior - but they were almost unrecognisably different.

Part of the modern mindset -welded into the hard drive of our thinking so deeply that it seems like blasphemy to question it - are the notions of growth and commercial gain. To succeed, goes the mantra, one must grow; to be strong, one must be wealthy. Growth and wealth can only come, says this belief system, if we produce and then sell in ever-increasing amounts. These notions of growth and wealth are part of the drive to compartment everything - so that it can be measured as a commodity, valued in commercial terms, and then sold. It's all part of the idea that society is 'going somewhere', that we are 'evolving', that we need to 'survive'.

Look around: all the controversy today around politics, economics, the media, the commercialisation of identity, and so on, boils down to humanity busy compartmenting itself in order to measure, value and sell, so that it can ‘grow’ and accumulate ‘wealth’ and make 'progress'. National economies are judged by their economic growth; business, the driving engine of the economy, is powered by the need to find new commodities and to sell them to more people faster than before; our lives are full of the urgency to acquire more and more.

Of course, this gives rise to a level of material prosperity that the mediaeval person would not recognise - but nor would he or she recognise the constant drive to acquire the pointless or the shallow, to reach frantically and compulsively for ‘more’, and the disaffection and disassociation between one part of life and another which is part of the modern package.

Getting back to the question of how to grow a group, then, it turns out to be a much more interesting question than it might have first seemed to be: what are we trying to do when we say ‘grow’? To what end?

Luckily, these are not rhetorical questions: there are answers, as you will soon see.

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