Utopian Communities Essay

The Hancock Shaker Village, in Massachusetts, is one example of America's many Utopian communities.
Photograph by Polly M. Rettig, Landmark Review Project, 1974

The Amana Colonies were one of many utopian colonies established on American soil during the 18th and 19th centuries. There were hundreds of communal utopian experiments in the early United States, and the Shakers alone founded around 20 settlements. While great differences existed between the various utopian communities or colonies, each society shared a common bond in a vision of communal living in a utopian society. The definition of a utopian colony, according to Robert V. Hine, author of California's Utopian Colonies, "consists of a group of people who are attempting to establish a new social pattern based upon a vision of the ideal society and who have withdrawn themselves from the community at large to embody that vision in experimental form." These colonies can, by definition, be composed of either religious or secular members, the former stressing (in the western tradition) a community life inspired by religion while the latter may express the idealism of a utilitarian creed expedient to establishing human happiness, with a belief in the cooperative way of life. The more familiar non-monastic religious communal movements typical in Western society have generally originated from a deliberate attempt among various Christian sects to revive the structure of the primitive Christian community of first-century Jerusalem, which "held all things in common" (Acts 2.44; 4.32). This essay explores the origins and development of the Utopian idea and its arrival in the United States before giving examples of nineteenth century utopian colonies and some organizations on their ultimate demise. The Shaker, Rappite and Amana experiments, as well as the Oneida community and Brook Farm, find their origins in the European Protestant Reformation and the later Enlightenment.

The Greek philosopher Plato (427?-347 BC) wrote the dialogue The Republic, which involved the search for justice in construction of an ideal state.
Plato (resembling Leonardo da Vinci) is a detail from Raffaello Sanzio's painting, "The School of Athens" painted in 1510-11. Vatican Collection.

Origins of the Utopian Idea: The western idea of utopia originates in the ancient world, where legends of an earthly paradise lost to history (e.g. Eden in the Old Testament, the mythical Golden Age of Greek mythology), combined with the human desire to create, or recreate, an ideal society, helped form the utopian idea. The Greek philosopher Plato (427?-347 BC) postulated a human utopian society in his Republic, where he imagined the ideal Greek city-state, with communal living among the ruling class, perhaps based on the model of the ancient Greek city-state of Sparta. Certainly the English statesman Sir Thomas More (1478-1535) had Plato's Republic in mind when he wrote the book Utopia (Greek ou, not + topos, a place) in 1516. Describing a perfect political and social system on an imaginary island, the term "Utopia" has since entered the English language meaning any place, State, or situation of ideal perfection. Both the desire for an Edenic Utopia and an attempt to start over in "unspoiled" America merged in the minds of several religious and secular European groups and societies.

The 19th-century utopian sects can trace their roots back to the Protestant Reformation. Following the early Christian communities, communal living developed largely within a monastic context, which was created by Saint Benedict of Nursia (480?-543?AD), who founded the Benedictine order. During the Middle Ages a communal life was led by several lay religious groups such as the Beghards and Brothers and Sisters of the Free Spirit. In allowing the sexes to live in the same community these societies differed from the earlier Catholic and Orthodox monasteries. The Protestant Reformation, which originated with the teachings of Martin Luther (1483-1546) and John Calvin (1509-1564), changed western European societal attitudes about the nature of religion and work. One of Luther's beliefs broke with the medieval conception of labor, which involved a hierarchy of professions, by stressing that all work was of equal spiritual dignity. Calvin's doctrines stressed predestination, which stated that a person could not know for certain if they were among God's Elect or the damned. Outwardly a person's life and deeds, including hard work and success in worldly endeavors, was a sign of possible inclusion as one of the Elect. These theological ideals about work were stressed in the various American religious utopian societies. The Shakers, for example, believed in productive labor as a religious calling, and the Amana Inspirationists saw labor as productive and good, part of God's plan of contributing to the community.

In the wars and general disorder following the establishment of Protestant sects in northern Europe, many peasants joined Anabaptist and millenarian groups, some of which, like the Hutterian Brethren, practiced communal ownership of property. To avoid persecution several of these groups immigrated to America, where the idea of communal living developed and expanded. The first significant group was the Ephrata Community (now a National Historic Landmark), established in 1732 in Pennsylvania. Much of this community was destroyed when Ephrata's members cared for the injured soldiers following the battle of Brandywine in 1777. Typhus set in, killing both soldiers and residents. By the end of the century the cloister's vitality was gone. It was not until the first half of the 19th century that a great expansion of communitarian experiments took place on American soil. Inexpensive and expansive land, unhampered by government regulations in a time when progress and optimism shaped people's beliefs, created a fertile milieu for the establishment of utopian societies. Europe, in the early 19th century, was emerging from a long history of religious and dynastic wars, and America, in contrast, became a location where people could start over, the "New Eden" that beckoned colonists across the Atlantic Ocean.

Sir Thomas More, lord chancellor of England under Henry VIII and author of "Utopia"
Painting by Hans Holbein theYounger (1497?-1543): Sir Thomas More, Copyright Frick Collection, New York

The Great Awakening, a series of religious revivals that affected every part of English America in the first half of the eighteenth century, prepared the American soil for numerous religious sects. In addition to the religious revivals, new ideas on government and man's role in society began with the Enlightenment, an 18th-century European philosophical movement characterized by rationalism and a strong skepticism and empiricism in social and political thought. These ideas found reception among the drafters of the American Constitution. Freedom of religion, guaranteed in the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, attracted European groups who were persecuted in their own countries. Arriving in America, some of these colonists hoped to form Utopian societies, self-containing religious or secular communities, agrarian and largely communal in nature, far removed from the perceived vices found in the overcrowded cities. While numerous religious and secular utopian experiments dotted the American landscape, the Shakers, Rappites, the Perfectionists of the Oneida Community, the experiment at Brook Farm and the Amana Colony of the Inspirationists were among the most famous. Some exploration of their beliefs and history presents an example of how these utopian colonies functioned.

The 1827 Shaker Meetinghouse in Enfield Shakers Historic District, Enfield, Connecticut.
Photograph by B. Clouette, courtesy of Connecticut Historical Commission, National Register collection

The Shakers: Formally known as the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Coming, the Shakers developed their own religious expression which included communal living, productive labor, celibacy, pacifism, the equality of the sexes, and a ritual noted for its dancing and shaking. A significant portion of Shakerism was founded by (Mother) Ann Lee, in England (for more information see The Shakers) in 1758. Ann Lee and some followers arrived in America in 1774. Ann Lee died in 1784, but Shaker colonies, spread to newer communities. Containing 6,000 members before the Civil War, these communities maintained economic autonomy while making items for outside commercial distribution. Intellectually, the Shakers were dissenters from the dominant values of American society and were associated with many of the reform movements of the 19th century, including feminism, pacifism and abolitionism: an Enfield Shaker's diary, for example, records the visits of fugitive slaves, including Sojourner Truth. Their work was eventually redirected from agricultural production to handcrafts, including the making of chairs and furniture (for more information see Shaker Style). The Enfield Shakers Historic District, in Enfield, Connecticut, and the Hancock Shaker Village, in Berkshire County, Massachusetts, stand as two noteworthy examples of Shaker communities. The community at Enfield, which began in the 1780s, peaked from 1830 to 1860. In 1860 there were 146 Shakers in Enfield, living in same-sex housing, working in its garden-seed industry. The Enfield Shakers Historic District, containing 15 buildings, has been recognized by the National Register of Historic Places for its significance in reflecting the social values and communal lifestyle of the Shakers. The Hancock Shaker Village was considered the center of Shaker authority in America from 1787 until 1947, and is today designated as a National Historic Landmark. Four other Shaker Village have also been designated as National Historic Landmarks: Shakertown at Pleasant Hill Historic District (Harrodsburg, Kentucky), Canterbury Shaker Village (Canterbury, New Hampshire), Mount Lebanon Shaker Society (New Lebanon, New York) and Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village (New Glochester, Maine), the latter is the sole surviving Shaker community.

Brook Farm: Some of the secular utopian communities in the United States found inspiration from ideas and philosophies originating in Europe. Transcendentalism began as a term developed by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) embodying those aspects of man's nature transcending, or independent of, experience. Taking root in America, Transcendentalism created a cultural renaissance in New England during 1830-45 and received its chief American expression in Ralph Waldo Emerson's individualistic doctrine of self-reliance. Some Transcendentalists decided to put their theories about "plain living" into practice. This experiment in communal living was established at West Roxbury, Massachusetts, on some 200 acres of land from 1841 to 1847. The Brook Farm Institute of Agriculture and Education became better known than many other communal experiments

The Margaret Fuller Cottage at Brook Farm, in Suffolk County, Massachusetts.
Photograph by Polly M. Rettig, Landmark Review Project

due to the distinguished literary and intellectual figures associated with it. The Brook Farm Institute was organized and directed by George Ripley, a former Unitarian minister and later literary critic for the New York Tribune. Others connected with the project were Charles A. Dana and Nathaniel Hawthorne (both shareholders), Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, William Henry Channing, John S. Dwight, and Sophia Dana Ripley, a woman of wide culture and academic experience. Brook Farm attracted not only intellectuals, but also carpenters, farmers, shoemakers and printers. The community provided to all members, their children and family dependents, housing, fuel, wages, clothing and food. There was an infant school, a primary school and college preparatory course covering six years. The 1846 fire disaster which burned the newly financed Phalanstery building, combined with further financial troubles, including Hawthorne's suit against Ripley and Dana to recover his investment in the project, brought about the end of the Brook Farm community the following year. The Brook Farm site is now recognized as a National Historic Landmark although only a small cottage on the property is definitely known to have been occupied by the Brook Farm community. Nathaniel Hawthorne used his experiences at Brook Farm as the basis of his novel The Blithedale Romance. The Brook Farm experiment began with about 15 members and never contained more than 120 persons at one time.

View of Frederick Rapp House in Harmony Historic District in Butler County, Pennsylvania.
Photograph by Stanley E. Whiting, Harmonist & Historical Memorial Association, Harmony, Pennsylvania, National Register collection

The Rappites: The Harmony Society, also called the Rappites, were similar to the Shakers in certain beliefs. Named after their founder, Johann Georg Rapp, the Rappites immigrated from Württemburg, Germany, to the United States in 1803, seeking religious freedom. Establishing a colony in Butler County, Pennsylvania, called Harmony, the Rappites held that the Bible was humanity's sole authority. They also advanced celibacy and lead a communal life without individual possessions, and believed that the harmony of male and female elements in humanity would be reestablished by their efforts. Under the guidance of Frederick Rapp, George Rapp's adopted son, the economy of Harmony grew from one of subsistence agriculture to gradual diversified manufacturing. By 1814 the Society boasted 700 members, a town of about 130 brick, frame, and log houses, and numerous factories and processing plants. Their manufactured products, particularly textiles and woolens, gained a widespread reputation for excellence, as did their wines and whisky. The Harmony Society soon outgrew its markets, and after selling all their holdings to a Mennonite group for $100,000 they moved to a new location on the Wabash River in Indiana. Here again they built a prosperous community, New Harmony (now a National Historic Landmark), only to sell it to Robert Owen, a social reformer from New Lanark, Scotland, and his financial partner, William Maclure, in 1825. The Harmonists next returned to Pennsylvania and built their final home at Economy (now called Old Economy and recognized as a National Historic Landmark), in Ambridge on the Ohio River. The Harmonists reached their peak of prosperity in 1866, but the practice of celibacy and several schisms thinned the Society's ranks, and the community was finally dissolved in 1905. The surviving buildings of the first settlement in Harmony, with their sturdy, simple brick dwellings, the Great House with its arched wine cellar, and the imposing cemetery and original town plan are today a National Historic Landmark named the Harmony Historic District.

Oneida Community Mansion House, Madison County, New York
Photograph courtesy of Oneida Ltd.

The Oneida Community: The founder and leader of the communal Oneida Community, John Humphreys Noyes, was born in Brattleboro, Vermont, in 1811. Noyes joined the Andover Theological Seminary in November, 1831. Transferring to Yale Theological College at New Haven, he became involved with the nascent abolitionist movement. In 1833 he founded the New Haven Anti-Slavery society and the New Haven Free Church, where he preached his radical belief which laid great emphasis on the ideal of perfection being attainable in this life. His followers became known as Perfectionists. However, Noyes's belief in "complex marriage" alienated many of the townspeople in Putney, New York, where he was living, and he left in 1847. Perfectionists practicing "complex marriage" considered themselves married to the group, not a single partner. Noyes moved his community to the town of Oneida, in Madison County, New York. At Oneida, the group practiced "Bible Communism." The skills of the artisan members were channeled into broom manufacturing, shoe manufacturing, flour processing, lumber milling and trap manufacturing. The Perfectionists in Oneida held communal property, meals and arrangements for the rearing and education of children. They built the Oneida Community Mansion House, a rambling U-shaped, brick, Victorian building which began housing the community in the early 1850s. The Oneida Community Mansion House is now listed as a National Historic Landmark. In 1874 there were 270 members of the Oneida Community. Misunderstanding of the community, allied with traditional points of view, inspired a 1879 meeting of ministers in Syracuse, New York, to condemn the settlement. Eventual unrest hit Noyes' followers, and Noyes fled to Canada on June 29 1879. "Complex marriage" ended two days later. The experiment in their communal utopia ended in January of 1881 when the Oneida community was reconstituted as a joint stock corporation.

The Demise of the 19th-Century Utopian Colonies: Numerous religious and social communal groups developed in the nineteenth century. By the end of the century even Theosophical colonies, based off Madame Blavatasky's merging of eastern and western mysticism, had cropped up in such places as Point Loma and Temple Home, near San Diego, California. Other groups included the Zoarites in Ohio, the Moravians of North Carolina, and the followers of German-born Wilhelm Keil, a Methodist minister heavily influenced by the pietist movement, who founded colonies in Bethel, Missouri, and Aurora, Oregon. Yet of all these utopian groups only the Amana Inspirationists developed and built a network of seven villages set in an agricultural region (see essays on Amana History). They managed to survive by modifying their system into two distinct organizations, one secular and one spiritual. The Inspirationists of Amana founded their communities with an agricultural basis as did other communal groups in the United States. Both men and women labored, although in Amana women's work did not include trades and the ministry as it did in the Shaker communities.

Amana's past and future meet at the Amana General Store in South Amana, now Fern Hill Gifts and Quilts
Photograph by Blanche H. Schroer, National Park Service

While the 20th century witnessed further experiments in communal living, the great wave which founded the 19th-century religious and secular utopian communities had begun to subside. Some of the 19th-century groups were established and depended on the strength of their leaders, those which survived into the 20th century had to alter their way of life significantly, as traditional rural life evolved due to the industrial, economic and scientific progress in the larger society. General causes relating to the demise of these utopian colonies have to be explained individually, as each utopian community faced different circumstances. Overall, the conflict that many of these agrarian or small craft communities faced in an increasingly industrialized world may have contributed to their demise, as did external hostility manifested in the larger, surrounding society, often seen in inflammatory newspaper articles attacking the utopian experiments. Generally, most analysts of utopian experiments, from Charles Nordhoff to Arthur Bestor, Jr., have found that religious utopian colonies possessed a longer life then their secular counterparts.

At 16, Martin Winiecki dropped out of school and left his home in the German city of Dresden to live full-time at Tamera, a 300-acre intentional community in the rolling hills of southwestern Portugal. His mother and father – a doctor and a professor of mathematics – were reluctant to let him go. ‘It was quite a shock for them,’ Winiecki remembers. Born in 1990, just a few months after the collapse of the Berlin wall, Winiecki came of age in a society in limbo. The atmosphere of the former GDR still clung to people. ‘It was a culture that was so formal. So obligation-oriented. That had no heart. No love,’ Winiecki explained. At the same time, in Winiecki’s eyes, the capitalist alternative was creating a ‘system of deep economic injustice – of winners and losers’. Neither story encompassed a humanity he wanted part of. Tamera offered an alternative.

Founded by the psychoanalyst and sociologist Dieter Duhm in Germany in 1978 and re-founded in Portugal in 1995, Tamera aspired to dissolve the trauma of human relationships. Duhm, heavily influenced by Marxism and psychoanalysis, came to see material emancipation and interpersonal transformation as part of the same project. Duhm had been deeply disillusioned by communes where he’d spent time in the 1960s and ’70s, and which seemed to reproduce many of the same tyrannies that people were trying to escape: egoism, power struggles, envy, mistrust and fear, while practices of sexual freedom often engendered jealousy and pain. In Duhm’s eyes, communes had failed to create a viable model for a new society. In Tamera, he hoped to begin a social experiment that allowed for deep interpersonal healing.

Communitarian experiments such as Tamera are nothing new, although its longevity – almost 40 years – is unusual. Generally,  intentional communities fail at a rate slightly higher than that of most start-ups. Only a handful of communities founded in the US during the 19th century’s ‘golden age of communities’ lasted beyond a century; most folded in a matter of months. This golden age birthed more than 100 experimental communities, with more than 100,000 members in total who, according to the historian Mark Holloway in Heavens on Earth (1951), sought to differentiate themselves from society by creating ‘ideal commonwealths’. The largest surge in communitarian ‘start-ups’ occurred during the 1840s and 1890s, coinciding with periods of economic depression. But it would be a mistake to see intentional communities merely as a knee-jerk response to hard times.

In historic terms, a broader discontent with industrial society has led to people flocking to communes, utopias and spiritual settlements, from eco-villages and ‘back to the land’ style settlements designed to create sustainable lifestyles and a stronger relationship to nature, to communities founded with spiritual or idealist visions for transforming human character and creating new blueprints of society. Of course, the ‘cult’ label is never far behind. Many intentional communities have had to fight their own public-relations battles in the wake of negative or sensational publicity.

But regardless of our suspicions, our appetite for communitarian living might even be evolutionarily hard-wired. Some sociologists have gone as far as to suggest that we are mal-adapted in modern society, and that ‘tribal’ forms of life are more viable. Theories of neo-tribalism suggest that instead of mass society, human nature is best suited to small, caring groups. The anthropologist Robin Dunbar at the University of Oxford claims that humans can comfortably maintain no more than 150 stable relationships, which suggests that communitarian living might not be so much of an ‘outlier’ or ‘experiment’. From an evolutionary perspective, modern society itself might be the anomaly. As the cultural critic Daniel Quinn writes in The Story of B (1996), for 3 million years the tribal life worked for us: ‘It worked for people the way nests worked for birds, the way webs work for spiders, the way burrows work for moles … That doesn’t make it lovable, it makes it viable.’

Why then do utopian communities so often fail? Interestingly, attrition rates for intentional communities are not all that different from many other types of human endeavour. The failure rate for start-ups is around 90 per cent, and the longevity of most companies is dismal: of the Fortune 500 companies listed in 1955, more than 88 per cent are gone; meanwhile, S&P companies have an average lifespan of just 15 years. Can we really expect more longevity from experimental communities? And if not, what can we learn from an audit of these experiments? What have been the key factors undermining communitarian living?

Perhaps the irony is that many of the administrative and managerial forces that individuals are running away from within mainstream society are exactly the organisational tools that would make intentional communities more resilient: that regardless of how much intentional communities with utopian aims seek to step to one side of worldly affairs, they succeed or fail for the very same pragmatic reasons that other human enterprises – notably businesses and start-ups – succeed or fail.

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Malarial infested swamps, false prophecy, sexual politics, tyrannical founders, charismatic con-men, lack of access to safe drinking water, poor soil quality, unskilled labour, restless dreamer syndrome, land not suitable for farming: all sensationalise the rocky history of intentional communities. But the more relevant drivers that cause many communities to unravel sound more like the challenges afflicting any organisation today: capital constraints, burn-out, conflict over private property and resource management, poor systems of conflict mediation, factionalism, founder problems, reputation management, skills shortage, and failure to attract new talent or entice subsequent generations.

When the Welsh social reformer Robert Owen established New Harmony in 1825, on 20,000 acres in Indiana, he attracted an enthusiastic following, gaining more than 800 members in just a little over six weeks. The hope of New Harmony was to create a new kind of civilisation engendering copy-cat communities around the world. Owen’s vision of a ‘new moral world’ or ‘universal permanent happiness’ was committed to improving individual character through environment, education and the abolition of private property, but New Harmony lacked the hard skills to sustain itself. Of its population of 800, only 140 were adept at working in local industry, and just 36 were skilled farmers. The community was far too open and indiscriminate in its invitation, allowing anyone to join, and attracting a lot of free-riders without the necessary skills or appetite for hard work. The absence of its founder did not help; Owen lived in New Harmony only for a few months out of its short, two-year existence. Though gifted as a visionary peddler of utopia, he failed as an executor skilled at building practical operational support to realise his dreams.

Many communities encounter this problem. Dreamers, drifters and seekers in need of belonging, the needy and wounded, and the egomaniacal and power-thirsty are a dangerous constellation of actors for sustaining a community. But often they are the most responsive to an invitation. Additionally, for many dreamers the practicalities of farming and self-sufficiency clash with their utopian hopes for radically new ways of living, as people become pulled into the myopia of just getting by. As Catherine Blinder wrote in 2004, reflecting on her 14 years on a Vermont commune:

By going ‘back to the land’ we would not be bound by the strictures of society. We existed largely beyond the edges, beyond the rules … We were creating an alternative life, and many of us genuinely believed we could make a difference, that we could stop the war and work for social justice while practising guerrilla farming and modelling a collective existence.

Blinder’s days, however, were anything but experimental. ‘Nobody works that hard as an experiment,’ she writes about her time cutting and baling hay, making butter, driving a tractor, cutting firewood, baking bread, and taking care of children, animals and the wellbeing of her peers.

‘With too few people, you implode. But with more than 25 people, it is hard to create intimacy’ 

Macaco Tamerice, who left Japan as a famous jazz singer to live and work in Damanhur, a spiritual and artistic eco-community near Turin in Italy, told me that the key to Damanhur’s success has been its very emphasis on practical devotion and work (‘we’re not just a place for spiritual dreamers’). While the community aspires to keep alive what she calls the ‘divine spark in each of us’, the structure of Damanhur has also benefited from pragmatic organisational strategy.

Damanhur is a federation of communities made up of more than 600 full-time citizens, primarily organised into small ‘nucleos’, or makeshift families. The nucleos started as groups of 12 people; now they number 15-20. ‘Scale is critical,’ Tamerice cautions. ‘If you have too few people, you implode because you don’t have enough inputs. But if you have more than 25 people, then it is hard to create intimacy and keep connections close.’ The entire community is governed by a constitution that enables a so-called ‘college of justice’, which upholds the values of that constitution. Other elected roles include king/queen guides who help to coordinate Damanhur projects while seeking to maintain the spiritual ideals of the community. Before becoming a full citizen of Damanhur, aspiring citizens go through a trial period to see if they truly feel aligned with the culture and intentions of the community.

But even with the best organisational acumen, intentional communities are often heavily criticised for the backward progress they tend to symbolise. Bronson Alcott (the father of Louisa May Alcott, the author of Little Women) was characterised by the essayist Thomas Carlyle as a ‘man bent on saving the world by a return to acorns’. In 1843, Alcott founded Fruitlands, an experimental community in Harvard, Massachusetts. An agrarian commune influenced by transcendentalist thought, and built on renouncing the ‘civilised’ world, Fruitlands abolished private property and cherished, yet struggled, with self-sufficiency, refusing to hire external labour or depend on external trade. Attracting a little over a dozen people, Fruitlands failed after seven months. Acorns, it seems, couldn’t cut it.

The ‘acorn problem’ persists today. Jimmy Stice, a young entrepreneur from Atlanta, is working to build a sustainable town from scratch in a river valley in Panama. When he showed his father, a traditional real-estate investor, a mock-up of the town’s infrastructure, his father remarked: ‘Congratulations on going back in time.’ Stice had managed to re-create civilisation as it was more than 500 years ago.

Nara Pais, a Brazilian IT consultant turned eco-villager, lived for a time at the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland, one of the more successful intentional communities, which has been running since 1972 and is now a model of ecological building, with solar and wind energy. Pais explained that it took Findhorn more than two decades to overcome basic infrastructural challenges. In recent years, its income totalled £2,393,542 (though expenditure was £2,350,411) with more than 60 per cent of the revenue coming from workshops and conferences. That said, many people in Findhorn’s ecovillage still rely on the government for their living, and margins are tight: everyone has food and housing, but, says Pais: ‘There is no money for extras.’

The bottom line is that many intentional communities exist because of wealthy patrons and benefactors, and courting philanthropy and start-up capital is part of the job of charismatic founders. Nazaré Uniluz, an intentional community in the Brazilian state of São Paulo, initially survived on external funding. It had a charismatic founder who attracted donations from wealthy Brazilian elites sold on his vision of deep self-reflection, incorporating elements of monastic living. But when the community started to evolve beyond the control and vision of its founder, he left. Today, Uniluz survives by inviting people in and charging them for weekend workshops or week-long immersions. The permanent residents often find it hard to go deeper into communal living and introspection amid this constant flux of people coming in for short-term healing or to try their hand at hippie life, even while acknowledging that spiritual tourism is a significant revenue for communities such as Uniluz.

Freetown Christiania in Denmark was created in the 1970s as people took over abandoned military barracks in Copenhagen as a birthplace for a ‘new society’. It’s become a thriving site for an underground economy – including a profitable trade in cannabis. The community also created its own currency which doubles as a kitsch souvenir sold to tourists for money. Christiania is the fourth largest tourist attraction in Denmark’s capital city, and receives more than half a million visitors a year.

Piracanga, another spiritual community in Brazil, has also stayed financially healthy by catering to a market for spiritual voyeurs and wealthy elites who flock there to learn aura readings, breathing and meditation, conscious eating, dream interpretation, yoga, even clowning.

The Shakers relied on active recruitment, and celibacy wasn’t an attractive proposition

All in all, the top revenue streams for intentional communities tend to be tourism, education (workshops and trainings), crafts and artisanal goods, and agriculture. As the historian Yaacov Oved observed in Two Hundred Years of American Communes (1987): ‘[In New Harmony] the only prosperous venture was the local hotel, where the many tourists and the curious who came to see with their own eyes Robert Owen’s famous social experiment were put up.’ In fact, Owen covered New Harmony’s overall losses with a private fund. When he did make the balance sheet publicly available, community members were shocked at their illusion of self-sufficiency.

The Shakers, one of the more successful communities in US history, numbered more than 6,000 at their mid-19th-century height. Their success owed to a religious philosophy of hard work, honesty and frugality, which made them good farmers and artisans – that famous furniture! But ultimately, even with their artisanal viability, their practice of celibacy – procreation was forbidden to members of the community – undermined their sustainability. Without human reproduction, the Shakers relied on active recruitment, and celibacy wasn’t an attractive proposition to many. Today, the last Shaker village in Maine has a population of two. In contrast, the Amish – whose families produce, on average, five children – number more than 300,000.

Unusually, the Amish practice of ‘shunning’ has proved quite effective for retaining the young in the Amish lifestyle. Shunning excludes those who have transgressed community rules from commercial dealings and common social interactions (eating meals, exchanging gifts) with Amish members. It’s a way of creating a tight boundary around the community that maintains the culture, while threatening social suicide to members tempted to default from the Church. 

History shows that a lot of fundamentally religious 18th- and 19th-century social experiments in the US were built on practices of self-denial, repression and perfectionism that became exhausting for people to sustain, no matter the zeal of community members. William Penn’s success with Philadelphia – the province, and future commonwealth – notably came once the city grew beyond the ‘sober’ utopia of its founder’s imagination.

The question confounding nearly all those seeking alternatives to mass society, says the dystopian novelist Margaret Atwood, is: ‘What sort of happiness is on offer, and what is the price we might pay to achieve it?’ The puritan impulse towards the suppression of passion, like Penn’s insistence on sobriety, was a high price to pay for belonging. But the loose sexual practices of secular communes in the 1960s and ’70s created immense jealousies and conflicts that just as readily caused many communities to implode. Most people, of course, flock to intentional communities to fulfil emotional needs, but the capacity of a community’s relational skills are quickly tested by the personalities of its members: as Winiecki explained to me about Tamera: ‘If you go deep in a group, you can find all the light and shadows of humanity.’

Speaking about her time at Findhorn, the social entrepreneur Kate Sutherland told me: ‘It’s not utopia. It’s microcosm. Everything that’s in the outer world is there – marginalisation, addiction, poverty, sexual issues, power. Communities are just fractals of society.’ The difference for Sutherland was that in Findhorn there was good will and a clear commitment to waking up: ‘People are willing to look at their stuff.’

‘We continuously weed this beautiful garden by calling out harmful behaviour, and prioritising feelings over rightness’

Meanwhile, at Damanhur, conflicts are cleverly allowed to escalate into a playful battle that serves to exorcise community tensions and animosities. ‘The battle lets people have a defined space to bring out the natural competitive energy in each one of us in a way that is playful and constructive, and ultimately leads to a sense of unity,’ says Quaglia Cocco, who has been part of the Damanhur community for eight years. A battle at Damanhur isn’t too dissimilar from childhood play-fighting. Teams equip themselves with white shirts and squirt guns filled with paint, and judges are used to determine whether a person is still in the game or has been defeated. Battles allow members to vent their warrior natures and access more of their shadow personalities, too often repressed by the soft statues of civility to which we default.

Damanhur’s mock battles prevent the kind of burn-out you find when the most empathetic people in a community get tasked with dealing with the emotional needs of others, putting a lot a strain on the shoulders of a few. In New Zealand, one freelancer collective in Wellington has found another way of distributing the emotional load: a system of emotional stewardship. Every member of Enspiral has a steward – another person who checks in with them regularly, listens to their emotional grievances, and holds them to their commitments. As Rich Bartlett, a senior member of Enspiral, explained: ‘One of the main jobs of stewards of the culture is to be continuously weeding this beautiful garden. In practical terms, that means being really proactive about hosting conversations, calling out harmful behaviour, treating each other with compassion, prioritising relationships and feelings over process and rightness.’

Good communication, in turn, builds flexibility. As Tamerice, from Damanhur, puts it: ‘You should change things when they work – not when they don’t work. Then you have fuel. Otherwise, things get so broken down that you don’t have the energy.’ Compared with communities of the 18th and 19th centuries, this ability to pivot and change direction, to not get locked in to one path or way of doing things, creates greater resilience over time. It’s another lesson more communities might learn from start-up culture. When I asked a Hummingbird elder about the key to the success of their community in New Mexico, he said: ‘It’s about not getting undermined by one meme.’ Communities, like start-ups, need oxygen (not dictatorship). They need to trial innovations and re-invent themselves organically, responding to the changing needs of members.

The real challenge for successful communities comes, as it does inside companies, when core values must pass to the next generation. The ‘superficial things – the specific rituals and practices’, in the words of Tamerice – are less critical. And yet, generational conflicts seem to be par for the course, especially when an inspired leader or a generation of elders is unwilling to relinquish control. Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of the Christian Science movement, was militant about quality control: as the late psychologist Eugene Taylor pointed out in Shadow Culture (1999), instead of a loose-knit confederation of churches over which she could exert little control, Eddy’s ministry was constituted around an overweening mother church. Individual sermons were forbidden, and no free interpretation was permitted. This inability to cede control is a common founder problem within intentional communities, leading to factionalism and splinter groups.

Within the entrepreneurial sector, start-up founders tend to be replaced once the characteristic passion that was an asset in catalysing a venture is no longer seen as the best attribute to sustain and grow an organisation. This is reflected in statistics. More than 50 per cent of founders are replaced as CEOs by the time a start-up raises its third round of financing: after first-round financing, 25 per cent of founders have already been replaced.

However, having a visionary founder as a figurehead is almost always an essential ingredient of success – someone who carves out a coherent vision, empowers organisational ability among others, and acts as a publicist and propagandist of a company (or community) to the outside world. Over time, a founder’s role can be disassembled and distributed, but in the beginning it’s critical, keeping a community focused on what’s important, while overcoming a lot of the pettiness that can creep into everyday life. At Damanhur, community members are dealing with the fallout of losing their leader, Falco Tarassaco, who died in 2013. As Tamerice tells me: ‘It’s a great loss. But it can also become an opportunity. Now everyone needs to become a visionary – its exciting, demanding and challenging.’

We can learn as much from failed communities as from their successful counterparts. Not least because, while many communities ‘fail’, their lineage lives on: temporal and short-lived experiments in community have acted as powerful provocations for mainstream society. For example, the ideas of universal and compulsory education, and town meetings, were pioneered by the Puritans. City planning and architecture, likewise, owes much to utopian dreamers. Early utopian communities also sought to incubate certain virtues that would later become part of a mainstream ethos. Concerns with inequality, for example, or the abolition of slavery, religious freedom, and a focus on universal education were all notions pioneered in failed utopias.

advances in the science of management make it easier to collaborate, manage projects and make collective decisions

In this way, intentional communities and utopias can serve as short-lived petri dishes for emergent culture. The Findhorn Foundation has been home to several hundred people, but the number of those touched by the community runs to millions. Similarly Enspiral, despite being remotely nestled in Wellington, is now influencing communities around the world by exporting best practices and software tools such as Loomio, for decentralised decision-making, and Cobudget for managing finances within communities and groups.

Today’s experiments in intentional communities benefit from the ease with which best practice and know-how can travel digitally. Experience, wisdom and insight can be shared with a click. Moreover, advances in the science of management have come a long way since the early days of utopian communes, making it easier to collaborate, manage projects and make collective decisions.

But the art of culture-building remains a thornier challenge – one that our ancestral utopias knew all too well. One aspect of that struggle is that business models for many intentional communities remain elusive, or unformed. Self-sufficiency, for example, often means not taking advantage of economies of scale that can support growing populations. At the same time, many communities are chagrined to find themselves servicing voyeurs and tourists for needed cash, which brings ‘mission drift’ to their organisations and a departure from their founding vision. That said, contemporary communities can benefit from the rise of freelancers and digital working, which reduces the agrarian burden and the pressure of self-sufficiency, allowing for more diverse revenue as communities contract with the outside world. Amish e-retailers are one sign of this growing trend.

If today’s communities offer escape from the cult of individualism only to end up being ‘walled gardens’ for a privileged class of bohemians, entrepreneurs or spiritual seekers, then perhaps, for all their material success, they might yet be said to have failed. Whether today’s collaborative experiments will create tentacles into more diverse populations or tackle agendas of social justice and economic inequality remains to be seen. Perhaps a more useful construct than intentional community is the idea of ‘shadow culture’, defined by Taylor as a ‘vast unorganised array of discrete individuals who live and think different from the mainstream, but who participate in its daily activities’. Shadow cultures have the potential to hold distinct values, but also utilise the infrastructure and opportunities of mass society. In many ways, then, utopias are only ever tightly glued pockets of shadow culture that mistakenly parade themselves as isolated entities.

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Alexa Clay

is a writer and researcher in pursuit of misfit subcultures. She is the co-author of The Misfit Economy (2015). Her writing has appeared in WiredThe Guardian and Vice, among others. 



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