[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Wichita, KS. There is an accusation which has been flung over the decades (if not centuries) at practically every sort of intentional community-building effort, thus oddly revealing something that apparently entirely disparate elements of the right and left have in common. Sometimes that accusation takes the form of condemnations of a supposedly unrealistic idealism, sometimes in terms of contempt for what is labeled a nostalgic myopia. But either way, the heart of all these attacks is the same: attempting to build communities of cooperation, equality, and justice, in contrast to the socio-economic self-interestedness which has been the rule for 300 years or more, is “utopian,” and thus nonsensical and wrong. The reflexive nature of that accusation, and the fact that it has been and still is unthinkingly lobbed at intentional communities of every sort, makes it worthy of pushback, I think.

The caveat which those who fling the accusation will insist upon, of course, is that it is not all community-building activities which they think deserves their condemnation and contempt; only “comprehensive” community-building. And for most critics, that’s probably correct–it would require an insanely individualist outlook to describe every effort to strengthen neighborhood ties (organizing a block party!), to secure social justice (expanding handicap accessibility!), or to serve the public through the provision of common goods (health insurance, public schools, environmental protection, the Veterans Administration, and more!) as instances of “utopianism.” (That some people do in fact affirm such a nihilistic libertarianism is worth noting but not much more. There are also people who make life-size nude sculptures of Richard Nixon out of butter, and more power to them.) The great majority of those who look askance upon community-building would insist that they do not mean to reject every communitarian project; rather, what they reject is community-building visions and efforts that aspire to comprehensiveness–or, on my reading, the ones that aspire to topography.

My point in invoking topography is to bring up that element which everyone with the slightest interest in or affection for localism must take seriously: the topos, the place or location or referent upon on which one stands or acts. Such language is, of course, what gave birth to the accusation in the first place: Thomas More’s 16th-century Utopia, the rationally organized “no-place” of agrarian communism, communal eating, universal health care, and chamber pots made of gold (so as to subliminally communicate a contempt for wealth). More’s neologism, it should be noted, was perhaps not his intended one; Utopia concludes with an addendum in which More remarks upon the pun in his book’s title, suggesting that the city should be understood less as a dreamy “no-place” and more as a “good-place” that inspires: “not Utopia, but rather rightly my name is ‘Eutopia,’ a place of felicity.” Whatever his intent, though, the history of the term is grasped easily enough: throughout history, there have been 1) those captivated by comprehensive visions of how to cooperate rather than compete, to encourage virtue and inclusion, to establish peace and justice, and to witness to the truth as they understand it, with the material articulations central to those visions involving the establishment of a distinct community, and 2) those who find any and all such visions dangerous and simply flawed. (And, of course, one can find plenty of capitalists in group 2 who will insist that the “placeness” inherent to most populist challenges, distributist arguments, and mutualist alternatives means they’re all in the same camp as the socialists and radicals in group 1, but let’s stick with the clear communalist examples for now.)

The danger which can–and, tragically, often does–accompany any effort to establish a complete community in accordance with specific intentions, whether religious or ideological or both, is well established, both historically and theoretically. The genocidal historical record of many comprehensive society-shaping visions is incontestable (though whether the kill-count of all such revolutionary movements is greater or fewer than the kill-count of non-comprehensive, profit-motivated world historical slaughters like the African slave trade or the European colonization of the Americas is something I leave to the terminally morbid to calculate). Theoretically as well, the problems with this conceptualization of humanity’s fundamentally social and political nature are large, though not insurmountable. Humankind’s embodiment as distinct individuals means an organic, evolving pluralism will always be present in all our social and political orders, and the rationalist temptation which is entailed by many communitarian visions directly contradicts that, with frequently destructive results. 

But the emphasis there must be placed on “frequently,” as opposed to “always.” Human beings, despite (or perhaps as part of) our pluralism, regularly tend towards the dialogical and aspirational and spiritual, which means that what we truly are always reasoning about and reaching for–thanks to God or nature or both–is how to make our lives fit with that we consider to just and right and good: to achieve eudaimonia in our places, our topoi, and then make those places available to others. So while dangers and flaws of comprehensiveness must always be attended to, the topographical aspect of our spiritual and ideological longings is too central to the human character to dismiss it entirely. Indeed, if Wendell Berry is any guide, much of contemporary thinking reflects an overlearning (or an encouragement towards overlearning by those who benefit from our individualistic status quo) of the dangers of comprehensiveness. To automatically reject communitarian efforts and imaginings which involve the making of actual cooperative places as obviously pointless from the start is to succumb to a false sense of “inevitability…an economic and technological determinism, as heartless as it is ignorant” (Berry, The Art of Loading Brush, p. 51; more here).

So perhaps we can allow that the accusation of “utopianism” is not necessarily, or at least should not be accepted as necessarily, fatal to the communitarian imagination. But does that allowance have anything to do with localist projects, which, while obviously centrally concerned with places, rarely approach those topoi with any comprehensive vision in mind? While it is true that the watch-word for most genuinely localist politics today is “incremental,” eschewing comprehensive reforms for the humble and the partial, there is, I think, a utopian element usually present nonetheless, hidden in the idea of “intentionality.”

Every localist concern involves looking at a neighborhood, an association, or a community, and tending to it. That tending, however, unless wholly and unthinkingly reactionary (and if it were, then no communitarian tending would take place over the long haul at all, because to think outside of one’s own immediate interest and one’s own temporal moment is invariably aspirational), cannot help but involve an ideal, a vision–something that is intended. That intentionality, like comprehensiveness, can be dangerous is a simple sociological fact, but it is also that which grants community the transformative promise–whether personal or collective or both–which it has always held, separating us, as Aristotle observed, from otherwise equally “gregarious animals” like bees.

The difficult-to-dispute point that we form communities for the sake of collective ideals and not just individual interests–something every Bible-reader, at the very least, should have realized as soon as they came to the second chapter of Acts–has, perhaps, been made harder to swallow for many by the legacy of 19th and 20th-century socialisms, particularly the statist, scientific socialisms of the Marxist variety. But even there, a fuller appreciation of the history shows surprising diversity. The Oxford political theorist David Leopold has made a career out of exploring and undermining (or at least seriously complicating) the rationalist, universalist, non-utopian reading of Marx’s legacy, arguing that even within the first century of the modern European socialist movement, when the materialist assumptions of universal revolution were strongest, you nonetheless can find robust expressions of and arguments about the age-old understanding of socialism as a cooperative, communitarian ideal, as something that must necessarily be rooted in the organically constructed architecture of a locality and place. The intermingling of these became even more pronounced as the revolutionary determinism of Marx’s early interpreters was replaced by a recognition of the inevitability, even sometimes the value, of party politics in democratic countries. Ultimately, Leopold suggests, the differences between place-obsessed reformers like Robert Owen, the founder of New Harmony who constantly experimented with forming small, cooperative, egalitarian communities (what Leopold calls the “communal” or “horizontal” strategy), and detail-oriented policy wonks like Sidney Webb and Beatrice Potter, early members of the Fabian Society who worked within the Labor party to introduce specific egalitarian and collective policies to the whole of the United Kingdom (what Leopold calls the “political” or “vertical” strategy), are not nearly as great as their similarities.

You don’t need to work out the historical implications of such political theories to recognize the truth of that judgment, though–you could, instead, simply look at the real world example of dozens of intentional communities and communes and collective projects throughout history, and the mixed perspectives they embodied. You could look at the Bruderhof, an Amish-inspired movement of deeply traditional Christians, organized into communities of cooperation and equality around the world, whose communal devotion have led them to a political position of uncompromising pacifism. Or you could look at Koinonia Farm, an intentional community of believers in Georgia who humbly practice sustainable agriculture, but were also central to shaping, in the face of enormous racial hostility, the non-violent resistance which politically defined much of the civil rights movement in America.

Or, much less celebratedly but with no less admiration, you could look to the Solidarity Collective, a cooperative association of activists, artists, and democratic socialists, deeply committed to the vision of living sustainably and defending justice in Laramie, Wyoming. Close to four years ago, the collective was founded by several passionate workers and dreamers, one of whom is an old and dear friend; its charter (read it here!) is frankly revolutionary in its vision of a fully democratic and inclusive socialism, while its actual operations reflect the difficult, patient, humbling work of living in accordance with “utopian” ideals of cooperation and consensus. It was at the invitation of my old friend that I began to seriously reflect on the particularity–including the topographic particularity, or simply the “locality”–incumbent to the physically and emotionally demanding labor and negotiations involved in building a home, a refuge, and a community that seeks to exemplify its ideals and that has only the material and psychological resources which its own members can bring to it. As no doubt everyone who has ever been part of an attempt to comprehend and bring to life a community (or a church, a labor union, a co-op, or any other such idealistic effort), sometimes it seems that community “always fails.” With typical honesty, the members of the collective turned their own impasses into a podcast episode, talking about how impossible it sometimes seems to bring everyone’s laborious work into “union” with one another…and why they keep trying anyway. (Hint: it’s because, in part, they genuinely believe in the place–the house, the farm, the community, and the human resources through which they are enabling it to flourish–which they’re building.)

Listening to that podcast, as members of the collective honestly and searchingly challenge one another regarding the roots of their manifold struggles, I was struck at how intentionally and comprehensively pushing against the norms of capitalist modernity in the 21st-century requires practices that have not changed much since the 19th century, or earlier. In Chris Jennings wonderful history, Paradise Now: The Story of American Utopianism (though his focus is really just the story of the early utopian movements which emerged in the context of Protestant revivals in Europe and America and the Great Awakenings they were part of), he lays out one of the secrets of the success of the Oneida Community, whose radical communism–which included the sharing of not just all property and work, but of sexual partners as well–endured in the face of intense opposition and deep internal divisions for more than a generation:

“[T]he biggest reason the Perfectionists were able to maintain communal harmony despite such fraught circumstances was institutional: a form of weekly group therapy that they called ‘mutual criticism’….[B]y the time the community relocated to Oneida, regular sessions of mutual criticism had become a central pillar of [what the followers of John Humphrey Noyce, the found of the community, called] Bible Communism….As the Perfectionists got better at mutual criticism, most of them came to regard it as a vital catharsis and an essential means of maintaining the colony’s delicate social harmony. It functioned like a cross between confession, performance review, and psychoanalysis, but crowdsourced. The fact that everyone had a turn in the hot seat took some of the sting our of the ordeal….One man was cautioned that he had ‘masculinity carried to excess. There is not enough woman in him’….Perhaps most important, the regular sessions of mutual criticism allowed the colonists to air the countless minor aggravations that will erode a cooperative colony from within if left to fester” (pp. 346-348).

It is probable that Jennings would not entirely agree with my likening of the practices of the comprehensive community-builders of the 19th century with those of today. In his view, while the revival of intentional efforts to create alternative forms of life over the past half-century is admirable–“[l]ike the nineteenth-century utopians, the long-haired communards of the sixties and seventies rejected the prevailing values of their day as morally corrupt and expressed that rejection through the total reconfiguration of their own daily lives”–their intentionality is of a lesser category entirely: “[a]lthough the communalists of the sixties and seventies tried (and often succeeded) to build strongholds of cooperation, pleasure, and consciousness amid the mercantile bustle of American life, they…expressed a secessionist impulse–a leave-taking from the World…[and thus their] revolution was more personal and, ultimately, far less utopian” (pp. 379-380). But I find this unfair, because it wrongly assumes that any envisioning of a place that isn’t millenniarian–that is, that doesn’t proclaim it to be a model for a world which teeters on the edge of total destruction and/or transformation–has no radicalism, no true utopianism, to it at all.

In a world where the pluralism of the human condition has been, from the age of imperialism to that of industrialization and beyond, both subject to and expected to express itself through an ever-evolving, ever-varying, but nonetheless also ever-expanding, technologically-enabled socio-economic universalization, privatization, and individuation, it seems to me that any attempt to build into one’s topos principles and practices that aspire to, or at least are in dialogue with, ideals of social justice and civic strength and equality, cannot help but involve at least a degree of comprehensiveness, a degree to utopian hope. To quote the striving local socialists of the Solidarity Collective, “there are many potential models of anti-capitalist activism and politics,” and the search for “cooperative, sustainable systems” will always be a matter of “good-faith deliberation.”

Such deliberation–or “mutual criticism,” for that matter–isn’t a rejection of the possibility of building a locality of such comprehensive, communitarian “felicity” that others will be inspired and transformed by it, and thus go forward to build other such “eu-topian” communities in other places. (That is, in fact, exactly the primary aim of the Solidarity Collective: as they write, “We hope that by creating a thriving, fun, and engaged non-capitalist ecosystem we can demonstrate the viability of a more cooperative and less oppressive way of life and hence attract more people to our cause.”) What it is, is a recognition that such places shouldn’t be conceived as environments that will just rationally unfold, without particular work done by particular people in particular topoi. Thus, maybe, does incrementalism and utopianism meet. If you’re looking intentionally at your locality, wanting to make it more just and more civil and more communal–with, say, cooperative food practices, responsible energy usage, democratic decision-making, and social arrangements premised upon love and respect rather than financial and racial advantage–well, that doesn’t automatically make you into a communard, fully engaged in the struggle to build a comprehensively new world. But it does mean, I think, that you probably share more with those inspired folk than you may think.

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  1. It is bizarre to me that the Oneida Community is held in such high regard today, in the age of MeToo (or is that not a thing anymore?), among certain circles, given that their leader, “a brilliant Vermonter named John Humphrey Noyes” (from the book blurb) decreed that “most of the virgin females of the community were reserved for Noyes” (wikipedia) and had to flee the country due to imminent arrest for statutory rape, after which the community almost immediately collapsed. Is the hatred for marriage and more traditional family life so strong that this guy is the best radicals can do? Why not exemplify the Amana community? Are they too “traditional”, despite being extreme and “comprehensive” in their communal and anti-capitalistic organization?
    (I feel like I don’t understand the context of this whole piece, maybe it’s responding to a conversation among leftist factions so I’m missing all sorts of context, my apologies if so…)

    • I’m actually doubtful that many leftists, even radical utopian leftists, think that much at all about Oneida, Brian; the connection was entirely of my own making, in that I see what I consider to be revealing parallels between the Oneida community and the one which friends of mine have built in Wyoming, when it comes to the difficultly of holding to a comprehensive communal idea when we human beings are invariably separate from one another in our interests and perspectives. So don’t read too much into the fact that Oneida–or New Harmony, or More’s Utopia (which had its own sexual weirdness), or any other particular example–comes into play as I explored the ways it seems to me that “utopianism” is far broader, and far more defensible, than many assume. As for Amana, you’re right, I could have mentioned them–but then, it’s Christian traditionalism you’re looking for, I would think that my mentions of Bruderhof or Koinonia Farm would have covered that base as well.

      • I wasn’t trying to attack you for mentioning Oneida. You’re not the one who wrote the book featuring him. I just find it odd that a guy who was essentially a 19th century David Koresh without the government-provided fiery ending gets whitewashed among a certain set who likes to pick and choose issues about him. That’s ok, there are undoubtedly historical figures they wish to cancel that I think are fine, on balance. We’re all (well most of us) just trying to muddle through.
        I wish your friends good luck in their attempts to build a community that brings them joy and purpose.

  2. Perhaps the common dislike of utopian (or Eutopian) societies shared by Left and Right is that a concrete, visible, and working presence detracts from their own starry-eyed radicalisms. From Charles Nordhoff to George Woodcock (before and after also) we have had surveys of anarchist-communitarian or communistic-libertarian societies experimenting throughout the history of the US. Sometimes they work. Sometimes they don’t.
    Perhaps the most successful by any measure is that of the Latter-day Saints, but they had to flee the US and build their paradise in the middle of a desert. Did pretty good at it.

    • Good point, David. There is certainly a kind of dogma apparent in the attitudes of many radicals on the left (“equality of result”) and right (“money is the measure of all things”). Any alternative that gains traction is a threat.

  3. This is an interesting idea, Russell, using “comprehensiveness” as your way in to matters utopian. Seems like the overall implication here is that “utopian” is a matter of degree, not hard line where some ideas are and others are not “pipe dream-y.” For my part, I’ve long thought that a key marker of the difference between the utopians worth considering, and those who are not, is whether or not such thinkers deny the existence of Original Sin. Seems like I first ran across that idea in Beecher’s book on Fourier, back in grad school, and it has stuck with me.

    What do you think of that idea? To my mind, one of its good points (among many), it that it enables us to see why original sin-denying utopian experiments always end up creating their own parallel edifices of sin identification, usually minus the principle of forgiveness.

    • Sorry to be replying late, Aaron; I’m on vacation with my family right now. Your idea has, I think, some real merit; even if one doesn’t articulate Original Sin in line with that of the classic Augustinian tradition, there can be a consciousness that “comprehensiveness” doesn’t have to include a commitment to “perfectionism.” Obviously the popular understanding of utopianism assumes the latter, but I would argue that we can understand the comprehensive impulse otherwise–we can, and should, be open to, and be willing to learn from, those whose vision of a community leads them to build comprehensive alternatives to it, without necessarily believing that the community being built is the One and Only True Zion, a place where all are without sin (or irreconcilable differences). That’s part of the point I wanted to make in the end of the essay, when I challenged Jennings’s assumption of the superiority of utopians with a millennarian mindset, but perhaps your idea of expressing it in terms of sin is more direct, and thus more clarifying.

  4. Sometimes they work. Sometimes they don’t.
    Perhaps the most successful by any measure is that of the Latter-day Saints, but they had to flee the US and build their paradise in the middle of a desert. Did pretty good at it.

  5. I think that any and every attempt at being good, though failing at perfection, does enrich us. Fictionally referring to the failed Brook Farm community, Hawthorne wrote, “Whatever else I may repent of, therefore let it be reckoned neither among my sins nor follies that I once had faith and force enough to form generous hopes of the world’s destiny.”

  6. Thanks, Russell for presenting another angle from which to view intentional communities.

    I recall writing a paper on 19th century utopias back when I was studying for a Masters in Teaching. I was struck by the case of (at least) one community that collapsed because the “comprehensiveness” involved the older generation insisting on choosing mates for the younger. This kind of control (which has manifested in different ways in different cultures over the course of human history) runs counter to human impulse and denies romance. I can’t recall the name of the utopia(s), but this issue was the bundle of straw that broke the camel’s back of their continuity.

    There is also an underlying question about the reproduction, so to speak, of an entire utopian community, which you briefly addressed both directly (“millenarian”) and indirectly (acceptance of new members). To you and me, a group of consenting adults modifying their own lifestyle looks like a clear example of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. To others, it might seem like a contagion that could spread.

    Another difficulty in terms of external relations is the tendency toward isolation. The community loses economy of scale for production and also tends to become parochial (i.e., what is called an “echo chamber” in modern political parlance).

    As for internal relations, the “mutual criticism” of Oneida probably brought a sense of detachment about being criticized, assuming it was done with respect. That seems like a salutary aspect of personal development furthered by the community, sorely lacking today (e.g., obsessing about microaggressions).

    Reflecting on your essay makes me consider that there’s a deep issue that might explain fracturing of such communities. You mentioned “pluralism” three times, implying it is a kind of starting point in our journey to form a more perfect union. So I would ask any member of an intentional community who is concerned about their continuity: What is the basis for balancing the individual needs of members with the group’s needs?

    As I noted in Part 3 of my Primer on Digital Thinking published here at FPR: Jeremy Bentham founded the philosophy of utilitarianism early in the 19th century, based on the axiom that “it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong.” Eventually, this moral compass devolved into materialism, specifically financial fairness “proven” by the quantifiable element of money.

    It seems to me that this balance of individual and group in a *comprehensive* community might better be achieved if based on core principles that speak to a qualitative approach to fairness, such as sensitivity and respect, perhaps achieveable by updating the “mutual criticism” method.

  7. The centralism of state socialism is in opposition to concepts of democracy, community self-determination, and care-based economics. Community-building and intentionalizing, or organizing, of our neighborhoods and regions is essentially the work for creating well-being for all. It means centering economics on both eudaemonic well-being and community well-being as determined by the individuals and community members. You can not create those relationships in a top-down way, let alone a totalitarian way. You create communities of care by creating relationships based on consent, not command.

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