Marina Benjamin, "Utopia Inc", Aeon:
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.
Alas, most of them 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. [...]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.
And then there's noblisse oblige:
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.
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.
What's it all about?
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.’
Carry on, the next generation:
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.