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Intentional Communities Fail

Failure comes from failure to admit failure. -- Ewan Morrison

A few years back while driving around the bucolic Eastern Townships region of Quebec, I chanced upon a small abandoned commune hidden among the trees in a backwoods enclave. It consisted of a ramshackle cabin with a splintered door and smashed windows, a burned-out barbecue pit, a wooden plaque with the legend “Settlers Nook” nailed to a tree, litter strewn everywhere, and an old Chevy pickup sitting on a rutted dirt driveway. Entering the cabin, I found a few broken sticks of furniture, several gutted mattresses on the floor, rusted kerosene lamps, and a scatter of mildewed papers and notes, a number of which appeared to be love letters attesting to an Arcadian lifestyle and a spirit of friendship prevailing among maybe a dozen “settlers.” Or so it initially appeared.

Other scraps of notes and memos referred to the planting of crops (carrots, tomatoes, lettuces), the assignment of various chores, meditation schedules, and shopping expeditions to local farms and villages. An unglued post-it note seemed to delegate cooking duties, as if from an unnamed authority. One memo, heavily blotted, was rather ominous, the only legible phrases reading “Harry is a bast… ” and “Don’t trust Myrna, she … ”. On leaving, I passed the decrepit pickup and was startled to find a cluster of bullet holes in the windshield. Another failed “intentional community.”

According to Wikipedia, “An intentional community is a planned residential community designed from the start to have a high degree of social cohesion and teamwork.” Unfortunately, the gap between intention and result, design and sequel, is palpable. According to Rich Thornton writing for Vice, such adventures in theoretical primitiveness come in two forms: communes, where possessions are held in common; and intentional communities proper, where “people come together to live out a specific cause.” The commune, however, may be regarded as a subset of the intentional community.

The urge to return to a simpler and more pristine way of life seems to be an intestine part of the Western psyche. Such arrangements for living in small, self-supporting collectives seem to spring up everywhere, at all times and in innumerable forms, some haphazard, some structured, from the biblical Essenes to trendy Esalen. Religious societies, monastic orders and oblate affiliates are prime examples of such motivated communities. Proto-soviets like Gerrard Winstanley and William Everard’s Diggers are intermittently popular. Industrial colonies based on communitarian principles like 19th century Welsh manufacturer Robert Owen’s New Lanark in Scotland and New Harmony in Indiana have arisen from time to time. Their purpose, according to Owen’s 1816 volume A New View of Society, was to create a “New Moral World.” Pastoral specters like Brook Farm, where Nathaniel Hawthorne briefly resided in the 1840s, were inspired by the same principle of purity, camaraderie and sanctified labor; the project failed after six years and was subsequently eviscerated in Hawthorne’s satiric novel The Blithedale Romance. Medieval throwbacks like Social Credit promoter John Hargrave’s Kibbo Kift based on nostalgia for a visionary past mixed with a progressivist bent would eventually submit to the ecology of failure.

Indeed, America was founded as an intentional community with initial commune-like features. In his History of Plymouth Plantation, the governor of the colony, William Bradford, reported that, “all such persons as are of this colony, are to have their meat, drink, apparel, and all provisions out of the common stock.” The result of this early form of socialism was endemic theft, idleness and famine -- until Bradbury replaced the socialist mirage with private property and a free market, after which the plantation began to prosper. “And to each person,” Bradford wrote in the History, “was given one acre of land, to them and theirs … [which] had very good success, for it made all hands industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been.” His later call for “a solemn day of humiliation” after a punishing drought led, metaphorically speaking, to “soft, sweet and moderate showers of rain,” that is, a flourishing community with a magnificent future. For Bradford, right belief and right policy were essential to success.

The same pattern of adversity and recovery befell the Jamestown colony in Virginia in the years 1607-1610. As is well known, the Jamestown adventure was one of the sources of Shakespeare’s The Tempest and, as Benjamin Woolley points out in Savage Kingdom, the breakdown of order that afflicted this “morsel of colonial ambition” ultimately evolved into a facsimile of Shakespeare’s “brave new world.” The key to this transformation was the abolition of the pipedream of utopian socialism and its replacement by a system of private ownership and a free-enterprise economy.

Modern versions of such communities seem, for the most part, not to have learned from the past -- or, any rate, have learned to violate their own constitutions. They advertise themselves as promoting equality, collaborative skills, environmental sustainability, spiritual seeking, the beauty of diversity and other such abstract and nebulous values. Scottish writer Ewan Morrison in an important essay on intentional communities describes his visits to a number of such pseudo-spiritual guilds like the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland, Auroville in India and Esalen in California. These sodalities are especially big on sharing, whether the goods of their labor or the ideals and maxims by which they presumably abide.

Yet most if not all must rely on revenues from the sale of crafts and produce, government grants, member contributions and external donations, and particularly on fees accruing from “spiritual tourism” involving courses on self-discovery, techniques of self-perfection, development of evolutionary consciousness, and so on. The Auroville mandate is representative, advocating ways to rid the world of greed, competition and inequality, vices to which it is demonstrably prone. The contradiction between mission and practice generally goes unremarked.

History tells us quite emphatically that forced “equality,” whether in social or economic terms, never works as it is ideally meant to and is always injurious to liberty. It does not produce happiness but poverty, despair, resentment, intellectual mediocrity and moribund initiative. As Morrison cautions, power hierarchies are inevitable and the equality mantra is little but a sordid joke, an expression of cultic group-think. This is the outcome of most intentional communities -- “utopian experiments in living communally” -- and obviously of socialist dispensations as well.

The reins of power always gather in the hands of unelected elders, communal authorities, ostensible benefactors, and out-and-out charlatans like Canada’s Brother XII -- partially referenced in Jack Hodgins’ classic novel The Invention of the World -- whose Aquarian Foundation prefigured Jim Jones’ authoritarian Peoples Temple and Reverend Sun Myung Moon’s lucrative Unification Church scam and ended in group recrimination and legal chaos. In all such colonies, equality is a chimera. A pyramidal structure of control and privilege develops or is already in place -- a feature, not a bug. Are we really so naïve as to imagine it could be otherwise?

The bohemian pilgrims who inhabit these collectives may seem like a relic of the past but they are still with us, not only in Auroville-type communities, but in another, more politicized form -- as the cohort loosely called millennials -- those born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s. Can they be regarded as forming some sort of intentional community? Ohio Governor John Kasich seems to think so as he positions himself for the 2020 millennial vote. “Kasich loves the millennials,” writes Henry Gomez at BuzzFeed, “a term he uses liberally, seemingly to describe anyone under the age of 40.” “The millennials, I don’t believe, are cynical,” Kasich opines. They should be, for they are now in thrall to aging political opportunists like Kasich or superannuated hacks like the wealthy Bernie Sanders, a typical Marxist oligarch who doesn’t share anything with anyone.

Millennials should not be regarded as a sect of misguided teenagers or a party of dropouts but an army of millions, mainly delayed adults, who have drunk the socialist Kool-Aid, which may likely result in cultural and intellectual suicide. They constitute a form of intentional community, but with a difference. The massing effect is more diffuse and the numbers far larger. They do not gather in one place or shelter under a single communal umbrella. They communicate with one another not only via word of mouth, collective assemblies, or university seminars but through social media, which affords a significant degree of coherence as an antidote to their geographical dispersal. Their communication networks are immense but the bandwidth of comprehension remains just as narrow as that of their predecessors.

This is why the millennials are not only a danger to themselves, but also a social, cultural and political menace of the first magnitude. Abysmally educated but superbly indoctrinated, they have allowed themselves to be readily manipulated by left-wing activists and their socialist elders. They need a crash course in History -- certainly, Bradford’s History should be on every university curriculum -- and as Jordan Peterson insists in lecture and book, they need to cease making a fetish of “rights” and to interiorize the values of independence, courage and -- a key term for Peterson -- responsibility. Absent the latter, and they, like their unhappy precursors, are toast. They represent an intentional community whose purposes, hovering on a spectrum between myopia and narcissism, are disastrous.

Thornton regards these associations as “serious endeavours by committed activists who want to experiment with sustainable ways to live together and look after the planet.” But in order to do so, they have to “open bank accounts.” This means, obviously, jobs within a capitalist economy, commercial activities and investments in stocks and bonds yielding dividends. But as with the early pilgrims, the millennials will take indiscriminately from the common stockpile -- free education, free abortions, free contraceptives, free transportation, free health care, free food (stamps), in short, “free stuff” paid for by tax-paying working people, businesses, entrepreneurs and the fabled one-percent. The fact is that every such experiment in utopian socialism, from Settlers Nook to Soviet communism, has failed miserably and led to suffering and destitution, as the historical record proves beyond the slightest doubt. “The economic and existential stagnation,” Morrison comments, “that is seen everywhere in communist countries, and that leads to their demise, is apparent on a micro scale in intentional communities.”

The scene of devastation I observed years ago in the Townships now strikes me as a fractal image of the current state of the culture. How long the back-to-the-land idyll lasted was impossible to tell, but the breakdown into ruin and desolation was unmistakable. The lessons derived from the experiments of these proto-millennials should be glaringly evident. Exercises in self-subsistence, utopian speculation, programmatic anarchy, agrarian collectivism, wealth redistribution and communal politics have an established past and no future. Every intentional community, small or large, commune or state, which is not run on capitalist lines inevitably collapses.

As for the millennials themselves, laden with personal and/or university debt, often unskilled or unprepared for productive work, and with no savings for the future, the prospects are grim. Should they remain in a condition of historical obliviousness and political delusion, trained for economic serfdom and cheated by professional dissemblers, their decline into aimlessness and deprivation is assured. And they may conceivably drag the nation down with them.

Settlers Nook, anyone?