On the limits of "let's go somewhere and set up our own intentional community"

Came across this tale of a libertarian experiment gone horribly wrong.

Might of course have to do with the people being, well, special:

The Town That Went Feral | The New Republic


LOL – this is not because the founders were Libertarians, although it makes for a great story. The problem with Utopias generally (and I have read a great number of fictional accounts, as well as actual histories of Utopias) is that they are founded by Utopians.

Utopians are people who BY DEFINITION are outsiders in whatever society they happen to reside, and FERVENT BELIEVERS in whatever is the founding principle of the community they yearn to be a member of. They mostly fail because of differing interpretations of the initial vision. Frequently the original vision in practice turns into a dystopia. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s dystopian novel “The Scarlet Letter” was a re-imagining of the Puritan colony in Massachusetts, and we all know how the Puritans created religious tyranny in the United States to this day.


This recent article features some of the ‘hippies’ that moved in the 60s/70s to Northern California to start or live in communities. https://www.gq.com/story/californias-vanishing-hippie-utopias

Certainly there is a feeling that they didn’t do a good job in cultivating a rich and varied community infrastructure beyond the original generation, and in being too inflexible about how to invite others/pass on properties etc.

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Huh interesting. Would you say that the ideals of workers movements as embedded in contemporary social democracies (Im thinking about the Scandinavians here) are utopian? Were the founders utopians?

@johncoate might have a bit to say about that :slight_smile:

I have that article in a tab but have not yet read it. I’ll report back.

These sentences reminded me of the “utopia experiment” which I loosely followed via their mailing list. Had to search a bit to find it, my mailing list archive of them ranges from 23.10.2006 to 07.12.2007.

Totally forgot about it afterwards, but the founder, Dylan Evans apparently wrote a book about it: https://www.dylan.org.uk/about2 .
Anybody read it?

I have read an extended description of what seems to be the same experiment… but not sure.

Anyway, the Guardian review of the book mentions an important point: “[Evans] recognises but never inquires into the intriguing fact that almost all the enduring communities are religious in foundation.”

Once we start thinking of monastic orders as Utopias, this becomes obvious. By the way, Thomas More, who wrote the original Utopia in 1516, once considered becoming a monk, and spent years taking part in the spiritual exercises of a Carthusian monastery.

My take on why this is true is that 1. People who are focused on religion already are open to the idea of a non-secular community; 2. religious groups not infrequently are the seedbeds of charismatic individuals, and they are among people who are already pre-disposed to follow charismatic individuals; 3. There is a ready-made hierarchical structure.

As Mao famously pointed out, it is much harder to get people to agree to remaining a committed member of a Utopian/revolutionary group than it is to get them to take part in the original revolution. I suspect the Taliban are finding this out. There has to be a form of “continuous revolution”. This is what Xi Jinping is trying to institutionalize in China, through infusing the educational system with reiterated messages of the central importance of the Party, infiltrating Party cells in all businesses, clamping down on independent organizations, etc. We’ll see how that works out…

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That article in GQ, which I just now got around to reading, is quite good and accurate. I live in Mendocino County, my son lives in Humboldt, and I even know one of the people mentioned in the article.

The writer dropped lots of clues in the story indicating how things evolved in the north coast back-to-the-land scene, which in a longer piece could have spelled it out more clearly.

He describes how many of the settlers, spiritual, usually psychedelicized, fugitives from the city mainly, figured out how to grow the best weed in the world, and many of them made a lot of money. Many others did well enough to start businesses, and others formed businesses for the growers to buy stuff from. The weed trade became a rising tide that lifted the boats of seemingly all but the most incompetent. Much money was laundered and still is via local business…

The article also mentioned how a lot of those big plots with broken down shacks are still owned by people who don’t want the logging companies to get their hands on it and they have enough money that they don’t need to sell it. True.

I once went to a party at a former Mendocino commune where the owner was sort of the ‘last man standing’ and he rented out the other little houses. They were all in decent shape and the people were happy to live there. Lots of restaurants on the coast so lots of people who need housing who don’t make a lot of money.

The communes I lived on in the 1970-83 era were not in northern California even though we as a group originated in San Francisco. So I don’t have first hand knowledge of how the north coast commune scene progressed. But over the years I have become acquainted with a number of those folks who came up in the late 60s and early 70s and things they told me match well with the writer’s observations.

And I just know they had incredible raging parties up in those places back when nobody outside was paying any attention. I went up to Mendocino in the late 60s when the logging was long finished and the town was resurrected by hippie fugitives from the city. It was pretty much all hippies. There was even a shanty town of driftwood on the beach with maybe 30-40 residents.

The businesses and restaurants and inns they built slowly became big favorites for tourists, soon enough rich people built getaway houses and now the hippie vibe is just a part of the mix. Again, those people are largely still around, just not living in shacks anymore. It was also mentioned how some of the original folks resent the county forcing buildings codes on them after the fact when for years it all went, if not unnoticed, certainly tolerated. Building codes can become weapons of cultural wars. That was famously the case in Sonoma County to the south where they brought in the bulldozers. Mendocino and Humboldt reached more peaceful compromises and allowed some things to be ‘grandfathered’ in. That said, you can see that the standards back then were often pretty low. I myself today live in a house that still has some creative hippie handiwork, which means that every time I want to fix or improve something I have to undo whatever crazy improvisation the 70s hippie guy did. But the wood is beautiful.


Here’s another one to mull over.

Worked/lived in Cristiania ages ago. I don’t recall paying any rent but the guy across the street would wash his face in his own urine every day.

Looking back one of its most valuable features is that served as a kind of safe space for people at the edges of society. Infrastructures like the communal bath houses and cheap food ensured you could get basic needs met. People coming out of the criminal justice system while they eased back into society could find a place to be and possibly also paid work. Lots of Greenlanders (never asked why). Highly qualified foreigners who moved to Copenhagen could take on skilled work while they waited for their residency papers to come through e.g at one of the restaurants.

The threats came not only from cops or establishment that wanted to normalise the situation. The community had to work hard to keep out the motorcycle gangs that peddle the hard drugs, an uneasy relationship at times.

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Thanks for sharing this. Two things.

First, it seems to me like most people interested in utopia want to take some feature they deem positive and run it out to the nth degree. This fails to account for the shadow side of that feature which comes back to bite them later. For example, if freedom is the call, then the shadow is the others are free to abandon you or act selfishly. Maybe I am just skeptical and bitter in my “old” age, but I avoid anyone pitching extremes without acknowledging what unintended struggle it will create.

Second, as someone joining an intentional community, I have appreciated how straightforward they have been about how much personal work it entails. There is open acknowledgement that community is the friction other people give you to work on yourself. And so they suggested making a choice about the grit of sandpaper to be polished with.


It seems certain human characteristics seem to get salted across any disparate group of people. Grasshopper/ant dichotomies for one…

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I made Christiania my main destination during one visit to Copenhagen. It was not as exciting as I had expected. A nice green walk around the riverbank (canal?) and some wooden creative hippie type houses and structures as one would expect. A little run down, in need of minor repairs. I remember seeing some signs advising curious visitors to respect the privacy of the residents.

Then I came by some more solid and safe looking houses that were well kept and looked like someone with a bit more money was living there, with weird experimental sculptures on their lawn and interesting architecture. At the south west area with the most buildings, there was a square set up with all kinds of food and beer booths, and I remember at least one that had curtains over it. A dozen or more people and couples lined up to buy what I think was a mystery substance they would smoke or eat, and the transaction itself had to happen behind the curtain.

The whole food and beer square was kind of cold and touristy, no festival vibe at all even though it looked like one. Nearby there was also some kind of a cultural meeting place with the Greenland flag and a list of upcoming events.

At the gate I exited Christiania, there was a sign saying “You are now entering the European Union” which I found hilarious and kind of cool :wink:

I came away a little disappointed: there was nothing exciting going on. At the same time it was also a little encouraging: an independent enclave of diversity can coexist and thrive without needing to conform, and without having to have exciting things happening, right at the heart of a major European city.