Once again we see a resurgence of interest in intentional communities and in Utopian experiments in living communally. Even Time Magazine is advocating such ways of living as a solution to the problems of modern living.
Over the last ten years I have made forays into alternative living; finding and testing out Utopian intentional communities. My intention was originally to escape from the dog-eat-dog world of capitalism and join one such community. However the results of these life experiments threw up a body of evidence that, I feel, disproves the viability of such forms of living.
The following are observations from residential visits to the Findhorn Foundation, Scotland, an ecological communal farming community on the border between Scotland and England, and an anarchist commune in Wales, with further observations on Auroville, India, Esalen, California and the history of Utopian attempts since the middle ages. Intended as evidence of what can go wrong within communal living experiments, these points may also shed some light on why hundreds of such communities since the 19th century did not survive beyond one generation and frequently collapsed after only a few years. It is hoped that lessons can be learned from honestly admitting to these failures.
Both Findhorn and Auroville were established as separatist Utopias, retreats from the western world, created in the 1960s. Bound together by loose aggregations of diverse belief systems these were intentional communities — communities forged not by history, culture or clan but by the intention to be self-sustaining Internationalist Utopian communities. While many such ventures failed (478 intentional communities since the 1820s have now shrunk to 112 worldwide in the last 30 years) these are now two of the largest spiritual centers in the world. They have large residential communities of around 200 each, while at the same time supporting themselves by running courses for numbers of visitors (Findhorn has 1,200 paying guest per year and Auroville over 50,000 visitors.)
Both communities originated from the mixed bag of ideals within the hippie era, but have now developed ways to survive within capitalism. Both have moved away from self-subsistence as a means of economic survival towards what could be termed Spiritual Tourism or Spiritual Education.
On their own terms, they are thriving, however, viewed through the prism of their own claims about themselves and their founding beliefs, they have problems. And not only that, they have problems in common, which are shared with other intentional communities and this is evidence that these kinds of issues are systemic and intrinsic and maybe even foundational to intentional communities.
The following are things I have diagnosed from first-hand observation that go wrong when we try to turn Utopia into a real location. As my ventures involved other intentional communities as well, rather than explain all of their contexts, and to protect anonymity, I refer throughout to several of the communities as “Community X.”
Being Model Humans
“If everyone was to behave like us then the world would be a better place — we would be able to get rid of guilt, inequality, competition, greed and anger.”“If we all ate less and were less materialistic the world would be a better place.” “Only by changing ourselves can we change the world, by our living example.”
This is the one foundational belief system of every intentional community that all members can agree on. This was also the justification that the hippies used for practically everything. The theory goes like this: Instead of acting in the world, all you have to do is become a peaceful, non-violent person — a model human, and others will follow your model. This is how you change the world, by focusing entirely upon yourself.
The results of this experiment are, generations later, clear — changing yourself became a vast industry of self-help books and courses, dietary, fitness and personal “spiritual” planning regimes — a form of obsessive self-focusing and self-policing, which, it turns out, corporations are very happy to encourage. Ironically, intentional communities also make a lot of money from self-discovery courses. A seven day residential workshop at Esalen, will set you back between $1850 and $7000. Five days of “Vital MovesHeartbeat” workshop at Findhorn, and the “being in community” workshop were both more modestly priced in the range of £490–£780.
And of course, the true self is ever illusive and ever flawed, so there’s so much self-perfecting to do that no one ever actually gets back to the question of the fixing the world.
The many divergent and different countries of the world are not going to adopt the standards of intentional communities so this whole idea of being self-perfecting model humans is myopic and even narcissistic. It is also a way of thinking only in terms of intentions and not of consequences. You may declare outstanding universalist intentions for world peace, but what are the actual consequences of twenty people in the western world deciding to go on a fast in protest against GM crops? Zero. What are the consequences for the Global economy of 1000 people in the west dropping out of the consumption cycle and growing their own vegetables? Zero. You can do this as a way to make yourself feel better about your consumption choices, but if you use “changing the world” as a justification, then you are deluding yourself.
“If everyone did it the world would be a better place.”
This is also patronizing because it sets up the self as an example for all. And this narcissism is self-reinforcing as the failure of the rest of the world to adopt all your choices and opinions, become just more evidence of how ethically superior you are.
Those who use organic food as a metaphor for self-perfection fail to grasp that not everyone in the world can afford to eat or grow organic vegetables and to drop out of capitalism: it is technically impossible to feed the entire population of the planet with organic produce.
Ergo — perfecting yourself is a minority pursuit which would actually have damaging repercussions if adopted by society at large.
No Lawyers Please — The Utopian Door Police
The idea that intentional communities will only permit the entry of certain kinds of people has a long history and may have its roots in monotheistic religions which have a Heaven for those without sin, or further back within the Greek idea of Elysium, home of the Demi-Gods and heroes (regular mortals excluded). If you want to create a better society from scratch then you have to keep the bad people out, so in Plato’s Republic (94BC), Lawyers are banned by punishment of death, and “tragic poets” (artists and writers who excite the irrational emotions) are banished beyond the city walls, while Plato insists that the “deformed offspring of both the superior and inferior” be put away in some “mysterious unknown places.”
In the Utopia of The Diggers (1649), a group of early communist agrarian Utopians, Gerard Winstanley’s Law of Freedom shares Plato’s hatred and states that “anyone who administers the law for money or reward, and anyone who buys or sells anything, will be executed.”
Then there is the banishing of all money lenders in Utopias from Thomas More (147–1535) — in his Utopia gold is used only for piss pots, to remind the populace of its worthlessness. In Thomas More’s book, there are no soldiers; when the Utopians need to fight wars they hire mercenaries from nearby warlike nations and as such More’s Utopians are just as keen to find wicked men to exploit as good men to employ. They are most happy when the mercenaries they hire die in combat, as they want to eventually “wipe the fifth off the face of the earth completely.”
In real attempts at feminist lesbian separatism, in communal living experiments such as Kate Millet’s Art colony (1961–) and the Furies Collective (1971– ) all men were banned. While the fictional Utopia of the devout Catholic first president of Sinn Fein, Edward Joseph Martin (1859–1923) is an island with no women, in which Greek is spoken and all men are artists and aesthetes and the “ignorant feminized masses” are banished.
In the Utopia of social revolutionary Tommaso Campanella (1568–1639), it is a capital offense for women to wear cosmetics or high heels, or a particular kind of gown that Campanella found to be sexually provocative — in a move very much like that expounded by Islam where all difference between women are eradicated by the use of the Burka, so as to avoid hostile competition between males. While in the Solarian City, sodomites are punished with death, social engineering also takes place: and “fat girls are matched with thin men and thin girls with fat ones, so as to avoid extremes in their offspring.” This kind of eugenic manipulation foreshadows the Nazi Utopia, and the eradication of Jews and homosexuals with the goal of purifying the Aryan race.
H.G Wells (1866-1946) in his New Republic advocated phasing out the “vicious helpless and pauper masses” (also described as “People of the Abyss”) plus criminals, the insane, drunks, addicts and the physically unfit through sterilization or poisoning — “the men of the New Republic will not be squeamish, in facing or inflicting death, because they will have a fuller sense of the possibilities of life than we possess.”
It is a shocking fact but almost half of all imagined Utopias involve some degree of eugenics and/or social engineering plus the abortion or destruction of undesirables. In the dystopias (inverted utopias) of Orwell and Huxley, only those who have had their brains altered to come in line with the dominant order are allowed to remain alive, whether this is through a pacifying pleasure drug (Huxley’s Soma) or through torture and brainwashing in 1984. The Thought Police and doublethink of Orwell is just the negative face of what in the history of Utopianism is seen as a positive force. The logic goes that the only way to really make a Utopia work is to change the minds; to as the hippies said “Free your mind and your ass will follow.” Huxley also wrote a hugely influential Utopian text — The Island (1962), which mixed Buddhism, behaviorism and mind-altering drugs on a fictional Utopian island called Pala, in which behavioral conditioning made it impossible for “rabble rousers” and “heroic leaders” to arise. The overriding idea is that if Utopia is attempted without the very best and most ethical of the species (without behavioral engineering, mind alteration and eugenics), then new members will carry in contamination from the old world and destroy the Utopia.
Rather than attempt to modify the behavior of the population of the world, modern intentional communities chose instead to screen out bad people, and to work on changing the minds of those who are “open to transformation.” Entry is usually by referral from an existing member, or through interview by elders. While Esalen is accessible “by reservation only,” Intentional Community X has a perimeter fence and people who acts as ad hoc security guards to stop strangers entering. Intentional communities — these havens of universal openness and egalitarianism — are actually extremely exclusive.
If You Can’t Change the World Then Enforce a Regime Change in Your Diet (& Please Pass the Ketchup)
In trying to exorcise the demons of the outside world, to detox from western culture, individuals in intentional communities become focused on the body. The body can be managed, punished and changed whereas the outside world cannot. This is literalized by those who engage in activities like “Fasting for Peace.”
Taking joy in food is also looked down upon, as food is fuel for the body and the body is the vehicle of the soul. Such body punishment in the name of spiritual purity is positively medieval and has its roots in the Christian idea of Anorexia Mirabilis (miraculous lack of appetite) and Inedia Prodigiosa (Prodigious fasting) and to this day modern intentional communities harbor and nurture people who hold the belief that the body should be sustained not with food but with “universal energy.”
In intentional communities food is generally seen as mere fuel, and pleasure in food is seen as un-spiritual. Food is usually prepared collectively with people with little or no experience of cooking taking turns on rota. The resulting food is bland, tasteless, overcooked, recycled and reheated, and attempts to improve the quality and taste are frowned upon and seen as being “materialistic” and “hedonistic.” The food is basically a form of penance — the bare minimum of nutrition with the least taste — after all, if one taste is too strong some people may object and feeding 100 people means that 100 people might differ on what they like — so food has to be re-boiled to rudimentary blandness.
In Findhorn, ironically, vast amounts of vegan mayonnaise and ketchup are used to fill in for the lack of flavor. This creates feelings of guilt. People talk more than in any other community about how much they miss their decadent old treats — chocolate biscuits, meat, potato chips, sauces etc — and they pride themselves on how well they are resisting the urge for such temptations. They talk about how much they have come to like “simple food” in the hope that they can convince themselves and others that they are being “pure” and “good.” Food-pleasure-denial becomes a metaphor for self-purification. Like medieval doctors discussing the consistency of excrement, looking for signs of spiritual improvement, such conversations are not uncommon in intentional communities.
Since hierarchies supposedly “do not exist” and status symbols are denied, they re-surface in sublimated ways. Diet becomes a signifier of moral superiority. Thus macrobiotic vegans are at the top of the pecking order, with vegetarians in the middle and carnivores are very often not even permitted entry to the community.
The Purity Race to the Bottom
As intentional communities are some of the only harbors left for people who are essentially craving the same experiences that led people in past eras to severe asceticism, to vows of silence, to the abandonment of all property, the punishment of the mortal body or to becoming anchorites, people who are drawn to such experiences are revered and protected within intentional communities. One of the problems of this is that the proximity to those who are involved in self-punishment-unto-death leads the other members of the community to revere these people too highly and to feel guilty that they too are not making enough sacrifices — that they are too tied to bodily pleasures and modern inventions.
Thus, in Community X, there have been those who have rejected modern medicine, and who have become severely ill as a result. Also, diets geared towards austerity and partaking of the minimum for daily sustenance are not good for growing children, and having an entire community living on very low energy, a state of exhaustion is not good for morale or for communication, either with each other or with outsiders. When self-imposed suffering and refusal of al pleasures becomes the goal of a community, it accidentally triggers conflict within its ranks. Those who are suffering from lack of sustenance, are want to accuse others of hiding forbidden foods, partaking of forbidden pleasures. Forms of envy and craving are twisted into an ever more austere puritanism, and witch hunts of those who are not behaving and consuming austerely enough begin.
This race to the bottom towards the way of life of the most austere, can begin simply, with say a vegetarian community bending towards the dietary needs of vegans for all communal meals, out of respect for the higher austerity-factor of the vegan diet. Then, those who are involved with the more ecological practice of macrobiotic eating, can complain that the vegan diet is dependent upon expensive imports, (which create carbon emissions in shipping, etc) so then the community attempts to be both Vegan and Macrobiotic — eating only that which can be grown within the community. This is the danger when austerity is elevated above natural bodily needs and a community can quickly amplify austerity into a competition, in which those who eat least and eat the most austere food are seen as having more spiritual currency.
In 1999, a long-standing member of the Findhorn Foundation who followed the “Breathenarianst” belief — took this process of body-denial to its zenith, believing that a body could live on light and air alone. She was found dead in the mountains of the remote Scottish Highlands.
Projects get abandoned in intentional communities. Because no one can admit they have failed, because ‘there is no such thing as failure’ and it is not a culture that is into “blame,” “risk” or entrepreneurial competition, people avoid taking any risks or addressing the consequences of failure.
As individual inner motivation and goal orientation are frowned upon, projects lose energy very quickly and are often even sabotaged by others. So in intentional communities it is not uncommon to come across broken machinery, overgrown un-weeded herb gardens that only a year ago were part of an “aromatherapy’ project.” An overgrown mosaic path that was left incomplete and that leads nowhere. Rooms packed full of junk with a hand-drawn sign on the window that reads: Pottery workshop. These places become cluttered with half-completed art projects and abandoned attempts at making extra money through crafts or home produce.
In Community X for example, I witnessed an abandoned attempt at digging a well, an abandoned reservoir, a broken polytunnel, an abandoned tractor and an abandoned plan to rebuild stone houses, to enable the inhabitants to move out of caravan living into more stable housing.
Inhabitants don’t blame themselves, “things just happen,” or “projects lose steam” as if some malignant deity broke the tractor or punctured the polytunnel. Everything lingers in a non-judgemental state of entropy and sinks into decay, while nature, time and the outside world gallop onwards.
As H.G. Wells noted in an essay he wrote after meeting Stalin — “All Utopias are static.” (His interview with Stalin can also be found here.) He meant this critically, in the sense that all Utopias are burdened by the need to stick to one single plan without divergence and that this leads to stagnation. The economic and existential stagnation that is seen everywhere in communist countries, and that leads to their demise, is apparent on a micro scale in intentional communities.
Failure comes from failure to admit failure. Instead people hide from admitting failures, they don’t report them, they don’t learn and try again, they simply avoid places and activities as if they are cursed, and they endeavour to not blame themselves and to “keep on believing.” And in that great doing of nothing, the processes of entropy accelerate.
There is one other great de-motivator: Although they may not like to admit it to themselves or to others, people in intentional communities also smoke a lot of weed. It feeds the “chill out, don’t be so goal orientated and judgemental” ethos and helps people to forget about failures. “Fristaden Christiania,” the autonomous anarchist intentional community in Copenhagen established in 1971 (with 850 residents), became an example of how a separatist community can become almost entirely focused on escape-enabling-drugs and stuck in hash-stasis.
Lying and “mistake denial” are endemic within intentional communities and this feeds failure. Fear of failure of the community’s well intentioned projects leads to falsification of results and to propaganda (“We had a great year for turnips,” “the therapeutic singing session cured Samantha’s Asthma,” “The organic cabbages are the best ever”) — this is not dissimilar to the falsified quota announcements of more extreme Utopians who had control of entire nations — Mao and Stalin.
Intentional communities bury their mistakes in the attempt to remain “positive” rather than learn from them. An ironic outcome as these places were set up as “experimental communities.” The result of these experiments, however, are never collated, and if they are they are denied. If things go wrong it can’t be because of the original plan, but because “people haven’t tried hard enough.” So residents work harder at a failing project, which may be structurally flawed from the start. Anyone who insists “there’s no point in even doing this, we tried it for the last four years and it failed every time” is just accused of being negative. So it is that mistakes are repeated indefinitely and put down to “people not believing enough.” Sure enough these projects — like the experiment in insulating houses with bails of hay, that then turn to mold because no-one factored in the damp climate of the North of Scotland — become abandoned and the God of “things just happen” is blamed. The sheer number of eco-projects that fail reveals that there is a causal connection between overblown Utopian intentionality, mistake denial and failure.
When people tell themselves lies about the actual results of their plans, then bad planning and disappointing outcomes continue and continue to get worse. Potatoes have run out, three months too early but rather than admit defeat or place an order for a delivery from Asda, people go hungry then tell themselves it’s actually a good thing, it will be good for their spiritual learning and personal improvement. They also will make no attempt to rectify the miscalculation that led to the lack of food, so the next year the same mistake is repeated again and no back up plans made.
In intentional communities, there are outbreaks of hunger, diarrhoea and food poisoning, and rather than blame the root causes, the negatives are transformed miraculously into positives. Rather say “the food you served was rotten” or “someone must have not cleaned the organic fertiliser off the carrots before cooking them as we all now have bacterial infections from ingesting animal excrement,” people will say, “I needed a detox and anyway.”
No Power Here — No Democracy Either
The existence of power structures within intentional communities is nearly always denied. “There is no power hierarchy here,” “everyone is equal” are the mantras. Mention of power is seen as an oppressive remnant of the outside world, capitalistic brainwashing, etc.
On the one hand, there is an absolute refusal of structure, and this can lead to “the tyranny of structurelessness,” in which voting takes place not by majority rule but an outcome reached only when everyone is in agreement. This “consensus voting,” could be re-named as coercive voting, as many find the process of “no outcome till everyone is unanimously behind the proposal” to be more like gang bullying. Under this system, nothing gets decided until “everyone agrees” and “everyone is happy.” This process is thoroughly anti-democratic. People who vote against a motion are slowly coerced and bullied until they fall into line. Problem-solving through consensus-only voting is also extremely slow. Those who continue to disagree with the majority are eventually forced out so that consensus is reached. This also makes it impossible to remove leaders, who, since they have been there since the start, have never been elected. Dissenters cannot even begin to mount an opposition.
All criticism of leaders is banned, all suggestions for improvement in daily operations are seen as “attacks” on the leadership. Obsession with “contamination” from the outside world, leads to ritual obsessive cleansings.
The experience of even the most anarchist of communities is that, over time, hierarchies do form. Such power structures cannot be got rid of by wishing them away or banishing the words “power” or “leader.” When communities that deny the need for leaders actually realize that they need leaders their existence becomes a source of shame and cognitive dissonance. When this happens censorship of language occurs and no-one can question those who actually hold power.
This has been a problem in Community X in which unelected leaders or “elders” rule. These elders live in large heated stone houses on the property and there is a hierarchy that descends down through communal wooden houses to communal caravans. As these leaders are not elected they cannot be unelected. The class hierarchy that has developed in a place that insists that everyone is equal can only be explained by investing the elders with higher spiritual stature.
As if by symbolic resonance, the issue where this question of power becomes most apparent is that of electrical power. In Community X — there are between 80-100 residents at the bottom of the (denied)) hierarchy who run up immense heating bills through attempting to heat caravans through the long hard winters. They have been on “waiting lists” for proper housing for years and are forced to live in un-insulated caravans and heat themselves with electric fires in temperatures that go below minus thirteen (celsius) . In a place which touts itself as an eco-community, such old un-insulated temporary caravans (that have become full-time homes) burn up much more carbon than a regular house and fail the insulation and safety standards guidelines set by the EU. Caravan dwellers have then to turn to cheaper gas heating which places them in serious danger from carbon monoxide emissions.
Understanding the dangers posed by Carbon Monoxide in static caravans and holiday lodges
Communalists like this, who can’t pay their heating bills have their electricity cut off – literalizing the claim that “there is no power here.”
Anti-Individualism and Mediocrity
Many people come to intentional communities to escape from either their own “old self” or from what they see as a dangerous culture of “Western” individualism. The snuffing out of individuality leads however to the persecution of individualists within the community and to a ritualized “Group Think” mentality which is more closed than even that of a small village. The anti-individualism also magnifies the status of leaders. This was clear in Findhorn, with the leadership of Eileen Caddy, who was treated like a demi-god with quasi-supernatural powers.
Snuffing out individualism and permitting only positive-group-speak results in only conversations and actions which cause no offense to anyone and which only everyone will understand. Dumbed down, petty, small talk about the daily activities is commonplace, as is covert bitching and banal repetitions of positive expressions, mantras, quotations learned by rote, etc. This has been reported as a problem among communitarians since the 1860s.
In any community where equality is enforced, people with talents and unique qualities tend to be shamed into acting with less ambition and into suppressing their talents. This “leveling” was something Nietzsche warned us about. If you are good at singing, or writing or gardening, you will make others who do not share your talents feel inferior, so in the interests of equality and peaceful co-habitation you must be less good at what you do and pretend not to be passionate about it. The result is a race to the bottom in mediocrity in which the people who are good at nothing enjoy watching all the talented people sink down to their level.
People with artistic talents are particularly targeted. As a result of the envy and resentment that creative people create, these people are told they must run workshops and share their art skills. They must accept and preach that “everyone is an artist” and rather than focusing on their own art they must do group projects with collectivist themes and imagery. In this way the real threat caused by the artistically talented is defused and suppressed and mediocrity reigns.
Witness the communally painted rainbow murals and hand-print group paintings that are found within intentional communities. As displays of individuality are frowned upon, the iconography of paintings, sculptures and music tend to avoid experiment and innovation and so cluster around repetitive clichés — the dove, the rainbow, the sunset, the wheel or mandala, happy children playing in the sun. It is no coincidence that these same symbols have been used by communist dictatorships and religious cults, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Kitsch is more than merely mediocre or lazy art, it is the deliberate stamping out of all individual self-expression.
Humor is Banned. Loneliness Spreads.
The intentional communities here hold to a belief in “positive talk”, removing all negatives from oneself and ones communication with others. You are taught to train yourself to “Have only positive thoughts.” As Aristotle demonstrated comedy depends upon negatives just as narrative and indeed learning depends upon conflict and weighing of two sides found in Socratic method. Jokes usually are based on confessions of inadequacy and personal failings, on prejudices and unfortunate moments in life, embarrassments and so on.
However, all such negativity is outlawed and as a result humor vanishes from the intentional community. Many multi-faith organizations actually frown upon humor and laughter. They say, “when you are spiritually developed you will no longer have the need to laugh.” Without the ability to make jokes about personal failings, there is no release from the project of self-perfection, and so a vicious circle develops: increasing concern over ones perfection and how others see you, in turn destroys the possibility of laughing at oneself, which in turn makes the self-more paranoid about failing. Eventually humor becomes feared. It is stigmatized as a personal failing. It is seen as being cruel. “We should just be nice to each other and ourselves and not laugh at anybody.” This condition shares similarities with the positive reinforcement and politically correct movements, both of which have attempted to outlaw humor and enforce linguistic conformity. Again this is the subjugation of daily reality to the demands of an abstract ideal not actually grounded in real human behavior but in an impossible abstract ideal.
Funny people become frowned on in intentional communities and those who believe in communally policed-language gain power. Many naturally humorless people find refuge in communes and enforce their condition on others as a universal credo. Once they get rid of the funny people and the people who ask questions they can rule with humorless, joyless intensity.
One result of this is that intentional communities are lonely places. Focus on a rigidly defined language and self-purification lead to isolation of each individual from every other. Group hugs replace one-to-one intimacy and “partner exclusivity,” which are seen as needy vestiges of the old order. Derived from eastern religions, Hinduism, Taoism and Buddhism, strong partner bonds are seen as weakness and dependence. Tree hugging however, spread eagling yourself on the ground and kissing the earth, getting naked and being re-birthed through a naked human tunnel are common displacement activities and go some way to making up for actual one-to-one relationships. During many such exercises people often regress to states of early childhood need, crying for mothers that didn’t give them enough physical affection. Outbursts of tears that are then greeted by a pile-on of communal hugs and become a perverse behavior. Everyone wants to have a hug because they are denied intimacy so they prey on the person who is upset. This writer has on more than one occasion seen a crying person feel smothered by the communal hug and yell, “Get off me, Please! I just need to be alone.” What they are really craving is a one-to-one emotional, physical bond, not the artificial and heavily enforced “love everyone equally” ethos, that in effect deprives everyone of intimacy.
Reinventing the Wheel
Back breaking labor, which could be replaced with technology, becomes valorized — and technology demonized, causing unnecessary energy waste and a cult of s/he-who-works-hardest, even though much of the work is pointless. This is regression to feudal living, a fetishization of rustic poverty, back breaking toil and community labor. In California in the 1970s and 80s Gurdjieff and Vedanta inspired sects encouraged crushing rocks as a method of “destroying the western ego.”
In certain unscrupulous cases cult leaders used such armies of unquestioning hard laborers as free manual labour. Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (otherwise known as Osho) and his now collapsed intentional community Rajneeshpuram in Oregon, exploited his followers in such a way and got them to build his properties for free, he also made them abandon their worldly possessions by donating them to his organization while he himself road around in a fleet of Rolls Royces. Without the displays of wealth, to a lesser degree this has also been the case in Findhorn and Auroville in which much labor was given “for free” or paid in an internal currency that could not be exchanged for “real money.”
Agricultural efficiency is therefore not a priority in intentional communities and sometimes comes in conflict with the need for self-purification. As one Findhornian noted “There are two ways to cut a carrot — one is as part of your slow spiritual quest, the other is the urgent need to feed 200 people.” The first takes ten minutes per carrot, the second requires 500 to be cut in half an hour. In the 1990s there was a conflict in Findhorn over an automatic potato peeling machine, which drastically reduced labor and increased efficiency — as several hundred potatoes were required to be prepared every day. There was opposition however, as it was felt that the machine violated the sanctity of the process of food preparation by making things “too easy.” To this day, people use the machine sparingly and guiltily, and often recount this story of the conflict they had in accepting the need for it to exist at all.
Jim Jones Syndrome
It is a well documented fact of psychology that cutting yourself off from the world leads to persecution complex. The focus on one leader who will protect all followers against impending threat from the outside world leads followers to extreme acts to demonstrate allegiance and faith and to protect the leader. The peaceful commune of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (Osho) was broken up in 1985 after they were caught planning to assassinate a district attorney.
Even in peaceful places like the intentional communities I visited, there is a palpable fear of contaminated outsiders entering and destroying the colony. A siege mentality ensues and grows, especially whenever anything goes wrong within the community. External forces are blamed. The plants are not growing because they used water from “the system” rather than rain water; the water well they dug didn’t work because they are sure some local farmer has been interfering with the water table.
The community becomes so used to scapegoating the outside world for all its own failings that it becomes a walled community either literally or metaphorically. The fear of invasion or subversion from the outside world grows the more the paranoia is invested in. The community is convinced that it is always just about to be attacked. This becomes part of the community cohesion. The community increasingly comes to resemble a separate island and one constantly on the look out for infiltrators or traitors. It is perhaps no coincidence that early formulations of Utopia were without exception images of islands in uncharted places.
Any movement to outside and the world beyond, even if it be a trip to the supermarket as supplies of soy milk have run out is viewed with suspicion. It is not uncommon among peaceful intentional communities for there to be violent expulsions of people suspected of betraying community standards. These expulsions do not occur with judge and jury but with those in the invisible and denied hierarchy acting like overlords. Transgressors become punished in ways that are not in line with external societal law. One might even say that separatist groups can only survive with the threat of constant expulsions and that this goes back to the origins of communalism. Over time all such communities develop tightly policed group-think and become cults.
It is worth bearing in mind, that Jonestown, the colony in Guyana created by The Rev Jim Jones managed to foster an obsessive groupthink of impending persecution. As a communist slash religious cult it saw itself as under imminent threat of destruction from the FBI and American capitalism. The 909 members who committed suicide, through the now infamous ingestion of cyanide in Kool Aid, did so because of a fear of an invasion from the outside world that did not actually exist. Jim Jones final speech, as his followers are dying around him, is evidence of how cult leaders actually depend upon creating a fear of external invasion to hold onto their power. Evidence also of the fatal dangers of believing that your intentional community is ethically pure precisely because it is under threat of imminent destruction.
Modifying Humans to Make Them Match Utopia
Long before Skinner and behavioral science there have been numerous attempts made to wipe the slate clean and re-program human behavior, enforcing new behavior models for Utopian dwellers. A simple example is the Hutterites, Shakers, Quakers and Amish, who have all laid down, to varying degrees, laws for behavior enforced by uniformity of dress and scheduling, and through limiting access to new technologies and “the modern world.” Although mostly religious in origin, within the 18th and 19th centuries over 190 intentional communities sprang up within the United States, all aiming to reshape human behavior; these experiments in living later influenced behavioral scientists.
Etienne Cabet (1788–1856) a lawyer from Dijon, who later played an important part in the French Revolution, established a Utopian community in Illinois, with sixty-nine settlers, based on his best-selling fictional account of a planned Utopian colony — Travels in Icaria (1839). “Internal bickering” broke up the real colony but other Icarian communes replaced it, the last of them surviving until 1898.
The Icarians had a regimented workday that began at six a.m and involved communal meals, in which everyone received the same portions; nothing was owned privately, not even homes, and this leveling was believed to eliminate both poverty and hierarchy with one blow. Everyone wore the same clothes so that “there is no room for envy or coquettishness,” A rigorous form of behavioral modification based on clothing dominated with the intention of eliminating vanity, exhibitionism and competition “Childhood and youth, adolescence and maturity, the condition of celibacy or marriage, or widowhood or remarriage, the various professions and functions are all indicated by the clothes.” “The shape of each garment has been fixed in such a manner that it can be manufactured in the most easy, rapid way possible.” Within this Utopian experiment censorship was fully exercised, with all “Harmful books” being burned while “The republic should permit only certain persons to publish a work, just as it permits only pharmacists to prepare drugs.”
Within Thomas More’s Utopia, individual houses are not allowed to accumulate wealth and the houses themselves are exchanged by lot every ten years to ensure that the idea of ownership is not allowed to develop. “Wandering idly” without permission is punished and travel is restricted through internal passports (a law he took from the Spartan law-giver Lycurgus — to discourage wanderers who spread rumors and disease) while the life of the poor and ignorant peasant is to be eradicated, with peasants being displaced to the cities and land being given over instead to sheep farming. Health care is free and provided by the state and gambling is forbidden. Clothing is regulated as Utopians do not “excel others by superfluous display of possessions.” or “pay honors to the rich”; the generic clothing comprises a leather working costume with a woolen cloak. Criminals wear fetters made of the most debased metal of all — gold. Such constant behavioral manipulation, More believed, tackled the root of the vices and creates better people. More felt such control was necessary to stomp out man’s natural tendencies towards laziness and conflict and it was motivated by “pity for the undeserved misery of the exploited poor.” The ultimate proposed solution was “a common life and subsistence…without any exchange of money.”
Furthermore in his Utopia there would be:
“Nowhere any pretext to evade work, no winehouse, no alehouse, no brothel anywhere, no opportunity for corruption, no lurking hole, no secret meeting place.”
The result being a state of communal enforced “decency.” The joys of such enforced equal-ness and surveillance might seem oppressive to us today, but nonetheless More’s Utopia and the Icarian experiment went on to influence the young Karl Marx, and we can see traces of it within the history of the left.
In imagined Utopias behavioral modification of a weak and easily tempted populace (who might regress to their old ways) has been a recurring obsession. In Johann Eberlien von Gunzburgs Utopia known as Wolfaria (1521), the persistent problems of idleness, drunkenness and licentiousness are to be cured by the drowning of drunks and punishing adultery by public execution (a tradition practiced by the Scots until 1697).
In Campanella’s (1568—1639) planned City of the Sun, equality between men and women is enforced, again, by the wearing of unisex military clothes. Games that are played sitting down (chess, cards, dice) are banned, as a sedentary life leads to early death. While all seven walls of the city are adorned with murals illustrating the sciences of astronomy, geology, anthropology, zoology, botany and anatomy (with pickled specimens on display where appropriate) so that all the streets are classrooms and children learn as a by-product of play. All punishments are public and there is no jail. Those who commit sodomy are forced to wear a shoe on their heads and a sign that says they have perverted the natural order — putting the feet where the head should be and if they repeat the crime they are stoned to death by the locals, who all must take part in communal punishments.
All of which begs the questions as to how natural our current behaviors are. They are certainly not set in stone and so can be modified. But whether there is a human blank slate, or certain behaviors common to all cultures exist or have been historically seen as beneficial is a subject of much controversy. The respect for private property for example is deemed to be the one law on which civilization has been built; some even claim that it is a “natural law” but yet it is consistently derided as the root of all evil by Utopians from Plato onwards. So again and again Utopians have had to deprogram their followers from regressing to the reactionary worship of private property, wealth and even privacy, this at times has meant killing the root of the old order that is still dormant within oneself. It is no good to fight rich capitalists, you also have to destroy the need for greed within yourself. It is no use fighting sexist men; you also have to fight the “sexist within.”
The Unnamed God of the Post-It Notes
Post-it notes and signs are like a virus in intentional communities. People leave message for each other as if they were posted by a higher authority. “Please don’t steal the cheese.” “Please don’t water this plant.” Names are not used because they posit blame. This causes a state of guilt that is visible before all others; everyone knows who the post-it was meant for. Rather than just coming out and confronting someone face to face, this God-of –the-post-it-notes has the final say. All though it is usually one person who writes the notes, it carries the weight of the entire commune — you (unnamed person) have transgressed against the unwritten laws of the unnamed persons, signed, the unnamed person. Passive aggressive and authoritarian, the entire situation is amplified by the lack of private property. The cheese is not your cheese (of which you can eat as much as you like) it is the communal cheese which must be rationed.
“Please respect the needs of others, the volume of your music interferes with other people’s work, privacy and spiritual healing.”
If people had their own rooms, their own, cheese and their own music, this would not be a problem. However, in this environment where everything is shared there is constant repressed conflict and seething resentment over incredibly small details — meals, washing up, laundry, work, toilet cleanliness, schedules for these things, rotas — who sleeps too long, who doesn’t work enough, who uses too much bath water. Rather than saving people from the banal domesticity of the modern consumerist lifestyle everyone’s lives in the intentional community turn into a constant negotiation over trivia. Everyone becomes a servant of, and a paranoid observer of the non-negotiable commands of the Unnamed God of the Post-It notes. And what is the God of the Post-It notes, but a frustrated universal planner, a Utopian convinced that if only everyone else would follow their plan down to the last Post-It note (and Post-It note instructions would be on every object) then the community would finally be at peace. On a humorously micro scale, the authoritarianism and attempts at behavioral population control found in communist societies in their penultimate stage (the stage at which they implode by attempting to control every human interaction) is also visible within the “good intentions” of the unnamed God of the Post-It notes.
The Final Test of the Blank Slate: Children
There is one other final and hard-to-face factor that is an unintended consequences of Utopian alternative parenting experiments. There is a reason that the average life of a Utopian project is the time to takes to settle and begin to raise children.
Children are the authoritative test of the theory that humans are born a blank slate and that all behavior is conditioned “by society” — of Rousseau’s potent idea that man is “born free but is everywhere in chains.” Children of Utopians should behave very differently than “old world” children, because they have been brought as blank slates into an egalitarian environment, and have been raised with positivist behavioral conditioning.
But the children of Utopians fail every test: they are selfish, they grab and steal, they fight, and love competitive sports, they bully and they lie — just like all other children. Lying, it turns out, is a necessary developmental stage in learning. These naturally dishonest, violent creatures disprove the theory of human mind as a blank slate upon which images of perfection can be drawn.
As the behaviorist J. B. Skinner (creator of Walden Two) realized, you can’t pass what you’ve learned on through your DNA so any achievements in equality achieved have to be repeated from scratch. Utopian behavioral engineering is an ongoing struggle against something that Utopians deny even exists — human nature. Not only are Utopian parents horrified by the little dictators that they have spawned, they find that they themselves have horrible anti-Utopian cravings to put their children above all the others. The maternal bond and the need for privacy also seem to be pan-cultural. Children brought up communally suffer neglect, as other adults find ways of refusing to care for children that are not their own. The lack of childcare and of constancy in who is “mother and father” leads to kids not being taken care of at all, falling between the cracks, leading to abuse and damaged children. People care a lot more for their own kids than they do for other kids as an obligation. One frequently hears Utopians complaining that someone else’s children are ruining everything.
As for mothers — we discovered after the 1970s that “free love” communes turn into coercive systems in which women are forced to sleep with men they don’t want to. They also lead to male dominated harems. John Humphrey Noyes, the father of “perfectionism” and “complex marriage” fathered 58 children in his commune in the 1850s. Another Utopian collective in Holland was so radical that it’s male leader removed the age of consent and slept with his own daughters and those of other parents. While, the Friedrich’s Hoff Commune, led by Viennese performance art guru, Otto Muehl, collapsed with Muehl being given a “seven year prison sentence for widespread sexual abuse of minors.” Variations on this sickening story have been repeated with convicted sex offender and cult leader William Kamm and Warren Jeffs with his “50 brides.” When a charismatic leader takes control and demands that others de-condition themselves, exploitation is tolerated and then becomes the norm. All of this is done, with the coercive Utopian alibi that all capitalist and patriarchal behaviors and boundaries must be swept away. Auroville, which attempts to be government-free, and money-free, has been plagued with growing reports of the crimes of Sexual harassment, sexual assault, rape and murder.
No matter how much Utopian communities try to get rid of the idea of sexual ownership — the female desire to chose a mate may be a constant for our species. It does however ensure the continuation of competitive behaviors, which leads us once again to hierarchies. To get rid of this, female choice would have to be stopped, a process that we associate with cultures that are oppressive.
The Shakers who were celibate and only adopted children became extinct after their adopted children refused to adopt the rules of Shakerism. The Harmony Society died out because it refused to reproduce. And the experiment in Fourierirsm known as Brook Farm ended after with many child related problems, one of which being when the children refused to be placed at the bottom of the Fourierist redistribution hierarchy and were forced to clean the toilets.
So many intentional communities create trouble for themselves by trying to replace the nuclear and extended family structure with other forms of mating and child rearing, only to find that mothers and children simply want to leave.
Intentions Are Not Enough
One of the great mistakes we make in interpersonal behavior, is to judge people by their intentions and not by the real outcome of those intentions. To let them off with saying “we meant well.” The same is true for wider society and the many and repeated failures of applying Utopian ideas to reality are nearly always excused by the same means — people say “but we meant well” or “it’s still a good idea, it just hasn’t worked in practice yet.”
It could be that the greatest failing of intentional communities is contained within this very formulation. A community that is based upon declaring intentions is apt to be fearful of outcomes that would disprove those good intentions and invalidate them. So, the burying of facts about failure (moral, practical, political) would appear to be one of the secret tasks of those who live by intentions alone, who, rather than trying to address problems as they arise would rather bury the results, hide the outcomes and continue as if good intentions were all that was required. It is precisely this denial of outcomes that leads intentional communities to repeat the same mistakes over and over again. Good intentions are clearly not enough but we shall undoubtedly continue to witness the communities of those who live by the constant re-affirmation of good intentions alone, continuing to fail and to bury the evidence of their failure in order to “keep on believing.” A result of this is that intentional communities will not learn from their mistakes, and will keep on springing up, not as a force that will gather momentum or lead to progress as we move through history, but as a ceaseless eruption of the same good intentions beset by the same systemic problems and doomed by internal contradictions to fail, all over again.
Watch Ewan Morrirson’s Ted Talk on Utopian Communities:
Sorry to see this author taken seriously. It is so full of inaccurate assumptions and judgements with nothing to substantiate any of it. I lived in an eco community on the border of Holland and Germany for 5 years and while it had some serious problems, mainly due to the owner being a narcissist, it still was a great experience. And since then went on to found my own mostly latino, artist, eco community in Vilcabamba, Ecuador in 2012 (chambalabamba.org). And while we are constantly meeting challenges, we are not filled with the contradictions of which the author elaborates. I know that most communities have serous problems with lack of finances and/or conflicts. And that it is indeed tricky for people to live together in harmony and peace, but it happens to a large degree. We have no rules, only agreements, we are self organizing, all with equal voices and… Read more »
You know, if you change a few nouns and a couple of verbs, this author would be describing any major city or university campus.
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As someone raised in a Christian Fundamentalist, I deeply appreciate the insight this article lends to the topic of Utopias and closed communities. However, I implore the author to not engage in the intellectual dishonesty of decrying the so-called “PC” “movement”. Claims of suppressing individuality and free expression have been deliberately created wholesale and weaponized to silence the voices of marginalized individuals who seek to address the effect mass media has on public discourse and how that in turn affects their treatment at the hands of the state. The original “politically correct” debate came at a time when government workers were asked to neutralize their holiday greetings so as to be more inclusive of everyone–given that government workers are representations of the state, it is reasonable to ask them to not engage in behavior that favors one religion over another. That one request has been mischaracterized by American pundits and… Read more »
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This article will not be complete until the author also explains the anomalous success of the hundreds of Hutterite communes (which they call colonies, like an ant or bee colony). What are they doing differently?
This well-written article is a gem, a keeper. Everyone benefits by reading Morrison’s Why Utopian Communities Fail because most people, at some point while experiencing the culture in which they live, ponders if there could be a better way.
This article is painstakingly written in such a way as to explain why the many reasons utopian communities, initially created in the best of good intentions, become concentrated hell hole environments—worse environments than what was initially deplored, escaped.
Well done, E.M. And thank you Areo for publishing.
Excellent and timely article. I wonder why utopian ideas persist despite a long and often bloody history of failure? I suspect it has a psychological reason but I don’t know what the underlying mechanisms are. I would suggest that a Hobbesian view of human nature makes an effective inoculation.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts, literary research and (limited) experience in the matters above.
first, to be honest I’m not a fan of your writing style and tell myself that you are jumping to conclusions based on limited data and generalizing findings where I believe nuance would be more suited and closer to reality.
I’m curious about your liberal use of the words “utopia(n)” and “intentional” as related to community.
Are these the same in your mind? i.e. are intentional communities necessarily utopian?
I’m also confused about the number of intentional communities you mention “(478 intentional communities since the 1820s have now shrunk to 112 worldwide in the last 30 years” where did you find this and what criteria are you using here?
While these “intentional communities” seem similar to monastic communities in their ascetic practices and duties of worship, it is interesting that the fundamental distinction is precisely the inversion of the “Model Human” concept. That is, monastic society exists (and persists) because sin is in man (I desperately need italics.) Maybe the monastic tradition is sustainable while the Utopian non-tradition — here not pejorative, but on account of their short histories — is not, because the monastic directly interacts with the human tragedy of sinfulness; the Utopian, which accepts the tragedy only in a “constructive” sense, that is, as a historical epiphenomenon, is thus doomed to act it out. This thought is certainly preconditioned by my alignment with the dogma of man’s sinful nature. It is another topic, but it is perplexing to me how the world and everything in it can be understood coherently without the axiom of an imperfect… Read more »
Another perspective here:
What a wonderful essay. I can not not tweet it.
I thought for a long time. Not only the form of utopia’s existence is destructive, but the very idea.
The history of time shows that the “great idea” usually transforms into a cult and the cult begins to demand sacrifices. In the future, the society of utopia is a society of intolerance to dissent, the society of utopia comes either to eugenics or to natural negative selection. I think the society the utopia, this is the decline of civilization. For an unknown reason, civilization is going to this decline.
Thank you very much for such a wonderful work. Fine work.
A fascinating essay. You briefly mention the Hutterites, who have been quite successful here in Western Canada. What give them the ability to thrive when so many other intentional communities fail?
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Good article, thanks.
Jim Jones fed his followers Flavor Aid laced with cyanide, not Kool-Aid.
CORRECTION NEEDED: Findhorn is nowhere near the border between Scotland and England. Findhorn is in the north of the country, in the Highlands, between Inverness and Aberdeen.
Dear Mr. Morrisson:
When you mentioned children, it reminded me of this charming book:
This girl’s parents were followers of an Indian Guru, Meher Baba, She was transported from the U.S. to India at age 7, and forced to live in the Meher Baba Ashram, and she wrote a book about her experiences