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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.