by Wendy McElroy
In a letter to a friend in England, the American libertarian Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: "We are a little wild here with numberless projects of social reform. Not a reading man but has a draft of a new community in his waistcoat pocket."
19th century America was the heyday of 'utopian communities', a concept that is returning in popularity. The utopian communities embodied and expressed a gamut of ideals, including economic, sexual and religious ones. Some of the societies were libertarian in that they emphasized individualism both as a theory and as a method of organization.
The majority of utopian communities failed.
If present day plans for pockets of freedom are to succeed, it is important to understand the dynamics of why so many communities perished. And what might be necessary for an individualist one to succeed.
The 19th century saw three types of communities with fundamentally different ideals and functions. The first and most successful type was sectarian: that is, a community that aimed at saving the souls of its members. The Mormon, Shaker, Mennonite or Quaker communities are examples, as are monasteries. The second type of community was political: that is, it aimed at expressing certain social principles for the benefit of its members and, sometimes, in the hope of influencing the outside. The libertarian community of Modern Time was an example. The third type of community -- and the least interesting for my purposes -- was economic: that is, it aimed at establishing an economic co-operative through which members traded with each other. This sort of structure tended to break down when economic factors turned against it.
The sectarian communities were, by far, the most successful. In a sense, this is bad news for libertarians because a fundamental theme and strength of sectarian societies was the subordination of the individual to the collective.
Why did individualist communities fail?
There were two general causes: internal and external pressures. Internal pressure refers to the problems societies faced as a result of their own organization. External pressures refer to problems societies experienced from the U.S. government or from other more natural disasters.
External threats to a community are more serious today than they were in the 19th centry. When the Mormons fled Ohio and migrated to Utah to escape the hostility of neighbors and the American government, they were able to do precisely that: escape. They put geographical distance between themselves and the government. As the government increased its reach, the Mormon lifestyle conformed to social pressures. For example, after the state confiscated over $1,000,000 in property and sent much of the Mormon hierarchy to jail, monogramy became official policy of the church.
20th/21st century government is everywhere. Until it is possible to construct a society in space, it may be impossible to achieve what most utopian planners have considered to be a prerequisite of a successful community: isolation. Isolation is so often considered necessary because those who wish to set up a radically different society are always in the minority. The more radically different your view, the more important isolation becomes. The world laughs at eccentrics, but it executes heretics.
The risk of external intervention falls or rises with the answer the community gives to one question: do you seek to convert the world, or are you there to benefit members? To the extent that the community is evangelistic -- eg. in libertarian terms, it seeks to challenge the state -- then to that extent the community threatens the outside world and the risk of intervention increases.
Equally, if a community prospers, the temptation increases for the state to plunder it.
But most utopian communities failed because of internal conflicts, not external ones. The most obvious reason for failure was the impracticality of planners. Although sectarian communities tended to consist of farmers and people who worked with their hands, reform communities often consisted of theorists who had difficulty translating their vision into reality.
For example, the Hutterites commonly sent a group of families to farm an area before establshing a community. But the idealistic Fourierists, who established Sylvania, sent out a landscape artist. He chose a site with soil so poor it did not even return the seed that was put into it. And then there was the nudist colony established by Cyrus Spragg in Michigan: it broke up with the advent of winter. Cyrus then predicted a second great flood and moved to Mississippi where he built an ark. Lo and behold, there was a record rainfall in Mississippi: almost everything but the ark was washed away.
Besides impractical idealism, perhaps the most difficult internal problem of any comunity is how to maintain the purity and, thus, the cohesion of its members. There must be a strong sense of community -- a commitment which prompts the members to walk away from the advantages of the outside world and to stay through the hard times. This problem has two aspects: 1) how to preserve the commitment of the original community; and, 2) how to screen newcomers to keep out disruptive members.
Regarding the first aspect of the problem, sectarian communities have an advantage over political ones -- especially libertarian ones. Religion offers the considerable inducement of eternal life and heaven...which are hard acts to follow. Moreover, religion offers positive guidelines, rather than negative ones. That is, religion tells people what to do: attend church, abstain from certain forms of sex, etc. Religions usually provide a specific blueprint on life down to the specific food you should eat...eg. kosher, or fish on Friday. A shared lifestyle, a shared tradition is a strong psychological tie.
Religious communities used collectivist methods to bind their communities together. There were regular -- sometimes daily -- meetings at which people socialized and sometimes confessed their sins. There was an explicit and written code of conformity. There was common property and common dining rooms.
By contrast, libertarianism offers negative guidelines. It tells people what they must not do: initiate force, commit fraud, etc. But it does not say much else. It doesn't proscribe a life style, a sexual preference or even table manners. It leaves all peaceful activities up to the individuals involved. This promotes a wide variety of lifestyles.
Also political communities often formed around a strong leader as much as around a set of ideals. This built an instability into the community. If that one person left or died, the community tended to disintegrate. 19th century communities rarely survived the loss on an original leader.
For those interested in political communities, the book equitable Commerce by the 19th century Josiah Warren is must reading. Warren was a pioneer in setting up libertarian societies. In Equitable Commerce, Warren indicated several things he considered necessary to such a society. One was a meeting place. Another was private currency -- money with value independent of the outside world which members could use among themselves. Perhaps the most interesting prescription for binding a community was that each member be responsible for themselves and that every institution of society be privately owned.
He insisted that social harmony required radical individualism. In commenting on the Owenite community of New Harmony, Warren wrote: "It seemed that the difference of opinion, tastes and purposes increased just in proportion to the demand for conformity." This approach differed radically from how communities were usually approached. Usually, there was an imperative for commonly owned institutions and common property, especially with regard to eating and sleeping facilities. By contrast, Warren thought eating facilities should be modeled after restaurants and sleeping facilities should be modeled after boarding houses.
In describing the libertarian community of Utopia, created in 1848, Warren wrote: "Throughout the whole of our operations...everything has been conducted so nearly upon the individual basis that not one meeting for legislation has taken place. No organization, no indefinite delegated power, no 'Constitutions,' no 'laws' or 'by-laws,' 'rules' or 'regulations' but such as each individual makes for himself and for his own business. No officers, no priests nor prophets have been resorted to..."
In this fashion, Warren attempted to preserve the individualist purity of the original members of the community.
The second aspect of the purity problem was: how do you keep disruptive people out? Almost without exception, the community that succeeded had some method of screening new members. Usually the screening ascertained the purity of the applicant in relation to the community's ideals. Sometimes, however, it merely made sure the applicant was self-sufficent and not a drain on the community's resources. Several communities without such economic screening collapsed under the weight of its unproductive members. Horace Greeley, who watched one such community topple, these members as people who "finding themselves utterly out of place...in the world as it is, rashly concluded that they were exactly fitted for the world as it should be."
Reform communities too often threw open their doors. As a result, there were people who made a living by going from community to community, sowing discord in their wake. Religious communities were not so vulnerable, as they put potential members to severe tests.
How can a community handle members who act in fundamental opposition to its purpose? Warren seemed to have the answer: private property. Some have suggested that libertarian communities could solve the 'crackpot' problem by having all land owned by the originators. They could sell land to new members only on the understanding that the purchasers would observe community's rules.
It is true that systems tend to break down and the community might inevitably come to include landowners who had not agreed to the laws of the community. But it is also true that established norms and standards are persistent.
This is especially true if the society establishes private institutions and procedures that promote freedom. The most important institution may well be a free market court system to arbitrate and adjudicate disputes. Depending on the size and needs of the community, other institutions might evolve, eg. police and fire departments, and schools.
There are many strategies for freedom and -- with the exception of politics -- we need them all. I have a fondness for the strategy of communities because it may be the only way we see 'freedom in our time.'
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