Thinking About Utopia

The Utopians and Utopian Communities

We are all trapped in time and place to certain kinds of life. We spend most of our big-picture energy thinking about the kind of life that’s best for us, given the world we live in. And so we should. But every now and then, a group of people decide to wipe the slate clean and fashion something new from the ground up. Sometimes they do this only with their minds and pens, but the bravest cast aside their writing tools and set out to build a new kind of community.

I’ll admit to a schizophrenic relationship to utopias.

They fascinate me and I believe in the underlying quest. People should pay far more attention than they do to how to live. But how to live is always a social question; never a purely individual one. For most of us, that means that the question of how to live is really a question about how live in our current society.

That is and will always be kind of discouraging. Our society is deeply broken. It’s hard to fashion a good life in a community that seems not to care about good lives at all. There’s tremendous appeal in the idea of learning how to live in a community purpose-built for that exploration. I also happen to believe in the practical possibilities — not of utopia but of improvement. We’d all be better off if there were more communities of exploration; more people actually trying to build a better society and fewer people just blathering about how much they hate the one they’re in.

In other words, I’m inherently positive about utopian efforts. It doesn’t bother me that most such efforts fail. Of course they do. Going outside your existing society is hard. Trying to find new ways to live is really hard. If it was easy, we’d all be living in a better world. Failure isn’t just an option, it’s a likelihood.

No, what really bothers me about utopian efforts isn’t that they fail, it’s that most of them, even at the beginning, seem so ill-conceived, hare-brained, misguided and flatly unattractive that the description “utopian” must be given a sneer almost before the first barn is raised. Why are people with the best intentions so stupid?

That mix made me an excited and skeptical reader of Anna Neima’s The Utopians — a description of six communities started in the aftermath of WW1 that strove to explore fundamentally different ways to live. Neima describes an Indian community organized around learning, a model farm community in England, a combination literary/agrarian effort in Japan, a blend of Eastern Mysticism and Western thought in the forests of France, an attempt to build an original Christian community in Germany, and a kind of new-agey California community focused on self-actualization. Mostly, they seemed like legitimate efforts to create a better community. Their founders were often exceptional in talent, charismatic, committed, and idealistic. Some had a talent for community building. Others…not so much. But they almost all had something interesting to say about how to live.

If, like me, you think that kind of off-the-beaten-path exploration is enviable not foolish, you’ll probably find The Utopians a worthwhile read. And maybe you’ll find one or more of the communities described there a plausible account of a better community for you. I have to admit, I didn’t. A couple of the experiments had aspects I found appealing, but all of them shared a perspective on the good life that seems to me unappealing. People say that it’s the journey that’s important, not the goal. But if you don’t believe in the goal, you’re probably not going to enjoy the journey!

Here’s a quick look, starting with the community I found the most compelling. Founded by a Nobel-laureate poet (Rabindranath Tagore) in Bengal, Santiniketan-Sriniketan was a consciously internationalist community and school. At sixty, with an international reputation, Tagore wanted to go beyond words and build something that would change the world. Words are certainly one way to change the world, but they can sometimes seem too little. The idea was to setup a “world-centre” blending Western and Eastern traditions, pulling people from everywhere, that would be a meeting-place for like-minded people around the world and a school for children to be taught outside both the colonial and nationalist paradigms that dominated India.

Tagore pretty much created the thing whole-cloth on a barren plot of land. Buildings were erected when needed (and in whatever style funds allowed). He started with a university and recruited faculty from around the world. He also had a school for younger children, co-educational, with no prescribed curriculum. A truly progressive school with little classroom time and lots of activities. Graduates of his school included Amartya Sen and Indira Ghandi (one hit, one miss). The education sounds pretty great.

The project reads to me as more of an academic community than a utopia, but I have no problem with that. Not only are universities one of the few true communities we maintain, every real school (by which I mean very few actual schools) is a kind of utopian community. Honestly, I’d rather live an academic than an agrarian life and most of the other experiments were built around farming. What’s more, by providing a unique and high-value service, Tagore found a way to integrate his community into broader society and help sustain it.

So, what went wrong? Well, in many respects Santiniketan-Sriniketan was a success. But Tagore found that his focus was increasingly dominated by fundraising and organization. These aren’t the kind of things that a Poet-Laureate ought to be spending time on and probably doesn’t enjoy. He wasn’t a great administrator and as he lost interest in things, they slowly went downhill. There was also the inevitable institutional drag of success. Students wanted a cleaner path to careers and credentials. Santiniketan-Sriniketan slowly transformed from a unique and progressive (I mean this in the old sense not the new) education into just another set of schools.

It is the story of countless educational reforms and idealistic schools. Success turns out to be no bulwark against failure. Education is always more about the educators than the pedagogy. But if it’s true, as my favorite quote from School of Rock has it, “One great show can change the world!”, how much truer is it that one great school — even if it doesn’t last — can do the same.

It may be that an educational community seems less ambitious than a society built around other forms of work, but I’m not clear why that should be. Teaching remains one of the best ways to build and sustain a small society and it’s why anyone thinking about creating an exploratory community ought to look closely at Tagore’s example.

Next up (I’m ordering these by how much I’d want to live in them, not their order in the Utopians), is Atarashiki Mura in Japan. Founded by Mushanokoji Saneatsu (another accomplished and famous author) and placed in a remote mountainous region of Japan. Atarashiki was a determinedly agrarian community that involved a LOT of hard farming work for everyone. But Saneatsu was a writer and an aesthete, and a core part of his vision was to blend the two types of life. You worked. And you creatived. The result seems a bit of a mess. The farming wasn’t well done or self-sufficient. Most of the people who visited were intellectuals who lasted only a short time in the harsh conditions. Not a lot of interesting art got done — not even by people like Saneatsu who’d already proved their abilities. Yet Saneatsu was able to keep the community going with the novel idea of having “Kickstarter” like subscribers. Intellectuals all over Japan (and the world), contributed subscriptions to be “visiting members” of the community. Not only don’t I think that’s a bad thing — I think it’s brilliant. Lots of people with a strong interest in an experimental community won’t be willing to take the plunge — especially in a fairly extreme version like Atarashiki Mura — but are generously happy to support the effort. Count me in on the subscriber list!

After this it gets tough. The truth is, I wouldn’t even consider living in any of the other communities described in The Utopians. I debated my third choice but ultimately gave the Bronze to the Bruderhof. From a longevity perspective, this new Christian community is the most successful described in the Utopians. It’s still going today, and a quick Web check shows active communities on the East Coast and the Pacific Northwest. Founded in Germany, the Bruderhof’s founder was less accomplished than Tagore or Saneatsu (he was a solid community minister and small-time publisher), but he was clear-sighted, passionate, capable and committed to his view of a Christian community based around agriculture and shared property. A pretty good choice to lead a community.

In the early days of the Bruderhof, it fell victim to a schism, and more than half the families left. You know what? They split all the property proportionately and seem to have done it without the equivalent of new Christian warfare breaking out. That’s impressive. There aren’t many examples of passionate community leaders sticking by their principles that way even when it hurts! So, what’s not to like about the Bruderhof? Agrarian life. Shared property. Strong gender roles. Anti-technology.

A truly shocking number of utopian communities focus on the agrarian life. I admit that the choice isn’t irrational. Farming is the only real path to autarky. If your goal is to minimize interaction with the rest of society then you have to embrace small-scale farming. And while farming takes both work, skill and knowledge (a bunch of the utopian communities turned out to be pretty bad at it), it is something almost anyone can learn and do effectively. It’s also the way most people in the past lived and it cultivates and rewards a number of virtues valuable to a small community. Hands-on farming tends to produce practical people with the inevitable humility that comes from tussling with the whims of weather and crop. It’s also an activity that lends itself well to communalization and shared interests.

And if shared-cropping is your idyll, the Bruderhof feels like a pretty good community. The people sure seemed nice, the community sound, kind and practical. They survived the Nazis (fleeing at the appropriate time), which says something. You could do a lot worse. Neima attributes much of the Bruderhof’s longevity post-Founder to existing within a strong Christian tradition, and I think that’s probably right.

Unfortunately, it isn’t easy to find strong traditions in our society to build around, and for me, Christianity isn’t a choice. That’s not for lack of faith (although, yeah). I just don’t find Christian morality humanly convincing or particularly appealing. Christianity isn’t bad the way Marxism or Sociobiology are bad. It isn’t inimical to society. It’s a deep, profound and interesting theory of human nature and morality. It’s just, I think, ill-suited to our world and what we value.

I had a harder time assessing my fourth community — Trabuco College.

Like the first two utopian communities, it had distinguished founders: Aldous Huxley and Gerald Heard. Huxley, of course. But Heard (who was really the main guy) had an impressive though unusual resume. A prolific author, a successful broadcaster and science popularizer, and what would now probably be described as a career as a social justice warrior. Heard was a bit of an intellectual butterfly yet the underlying drive behind his interests seemed always to be to find a deeper set of social and personal answers.

Unlike The Bruderhof, Heard’s vision wasn’t egalitarian. He wanted to craft a community that would shape and enhance a new elite. His idea was to bring together a group of strivers to create small cells of transcendent thinkers who would then revolutionize broader society. His effort to start this process was Trabuco College. It was a project of individual transcendence and evolutionary consciousness with a small group of volunteers working together toward enlightenment. Heard built life at Trabuco along highly-structured, Californian-Benedictine lines. Copious amounts of meditation. Vegetarian meals. Lots of manual labor in the gardens. Farming again! I’m not particularly attracted to the Benedictine structure, but it’s a proven formula for leading a certain kind of good life.

Likewise, the promise of mystical experience has been a feature of utopian communities since Plato’s Republic. It offers a “big” reward in return for what must always be a risky venture. Yet unlike our paradigm of learning experience — craft — which offers breakthroughs interspersed by increasingly extended plateaus, mystical experience offers an incredibly long plateau followed by…maybe…a breakthrough. That’s why the presence of a successful exemplar — the guru — is so important to mystical training. You need evidence that the breakthrough is out there to stick with the training. At Trabuco, Heard was undeniably the guru but also still there on the plateau, seeking his own breakthrough. This idea of a shared mystic journey has something noble about it, but also something foolish. It’s hard to lead on a featureless plain.

Trabuco also suffers from its timing. It was created smack dab in the middle of WW2. There is a time and a place for everything, and searching for transcendental enlightenment in California while others fight in Europe feels like the wrong time and place.

I put Darlington Hall in a close fifth on my list. Darlington was founded by a couple (one of whom previously led farming activities on Tagore’s Santiniketan-Sriniketan and the other a rich American heiress) with very different interests. He was into model farming (and darned good at it). She was interested in arts and culture. This seemed to create a deep schizophrenia in the whole community. Farmers and intellectuals mingled freely but didn’t gel or comingle in interesting ways. The farming parts of the community helped improve rural agrarian life and built out some legitimate businesses. The artistic parts were less successful and increasingly the two communities careened toward divorce (mirroring the lives of their founders). If you’re going to commit to the dangerous business of exploring life in a fundamentally different kind of community, you need to believe that there’s a coherent vision and shared understanding behind it. That didn’t seem to exist at Darlington. The farming effort was sound but hardly thrilling, and nothing about the artistic pursuits struck me as interesting or useful. Darlington Hall didn’t make artists, it hosted them. If you can replace a utopian community with a season ticket to the Met, something is wrong. If artistic creation is central to the community vision, I want to see a community that produces good artists and good art.

The last utopian community in Neima’s book is the Harmonious Institute for the Development of Man (and yes, this one lost me pretty much right there). Unlike the other five, I saw nothing of interest here and I’m surprised Neima included it. The Harmonious Institute had all the hallmarks of a cult and none of the characteristics of a good community. A charismatic ne’re-do-well founder? Check. A supposed (but completely incoherent) blending of Eastern and Western philosophy. Check. A founder given to sleeping with the pretty disciples? Check. A system of “training” where the founder humiliates and browbeats his followers? Check.

Check please.

To me, calling these experimental communities utopian is misleading and probably condescending. We’re all trying to figure out how to live, some people are just trying a little harder or working a little outside the box. Yet I can’t help feeling somewhat dissatisfied with them all (and most other such communities past and present). They give up too much and give us too little.

I think that failure starts right at the foundation of most utopian projects. Except for Tagore’s Santiniketan-Sriniketan, these (and most) utopian efforts began with the wrong question. They are all started by asking: how should we live?

Given that I have elsewhere written that “how should I live?” is the first and most important question for every decision-maker, this may seem an odd complaint. But the right question for an individual isn’t the right starting place for a community.

There is no one right answer to how should I live that involves more than one person. There is only an answer for our self. We have to ask that question in that way. But a good community must support many different answers to the question, and any community that provides a single answer will be dull at best and crushing at worst. That, I think, is why none of these communities seemed very exciting. Santiniketan-Sriniketan was the community that would fit me best. But it’s still a community geared toward a very specific kind of person and life.

The right question for the builder of a community is: what kind of people do we want?

Anyone who has ever worked (or gone to school or had a family or…lived) knows that the people you work with are considerably more important than the work you do. Anyone who has lived in an academic community, worked in a passionate startup, or spent time in a theatre-company also knows that interesting people create interesting work. The whole point of a community is to provide the right space and feedback to build the kind of life we want and to help us choose well in making life decisions. That’s about people not work.

Even with the tightest of cultural straightjackets, we are still utterly dependent on the people around us to live a good life. And the tighter the cultural straitjacket, the less convinced I am that the people around us will be the right people for the kind of life most of us want to lead.

Because “what kind of people do we want?” is the right question for a new community, it’s no surprise that a community founded around a school is the most satisfactory of the answers given in The Utopians. Schools, after all, are designed to shape people not lives. But even Tagore’s community (and any academic-only community) is limiting. It sustains just one kind of life, even if it creates people able to live many different ones. A more ambitious utopian experiment would embrace more kinds of lives and people.

Is such a utopian vision possible? And what would such a community look like if, instead of selecting for a way of life, it was designed to create and sustain certain kinds of people (for surely we don’t want just one kind of person either) while giving each person a much wider range of answers to the question of how to live?

Fascinating questions.

Utopians may not fire you with enthusiasm for any of the communities it describes, but it should get you thinking about what kind of community would create that excitement, and what kind of people you value.

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