Who will build the commune? And why?
That’s overkill—that’s cutting butter with a chainsaw,” Diana Leafe Christian says. She’s sitting on a foldout chair under a giant, octagonal yurt. She wears a large Marigold-print dress and glasses that dwarf her face. She is often looking either above or below these glasses, and together with her southern twang and impressive know-how, she comes across as theatrical and insistent, like a zany aunt. She’s here, at the annual conference for intentional communities in the Pacific Northwest, to help teach us the dos and don’ts of starting a community. “I’m like the Johnny Appleseed of intentional communities,” she says, looking wisely down at the crowd. “I’m tryin’ to sow the seeds of everything I’ve learned. I’m trying to get this thing goin’.”
Christian already has an impressive record. For the past twenty-seven years she has travelled between intentional communities as far away as Israel and the United Kingdom, gathering data for the two books that would become Creating a Life Together (2003) and Finding Community (2007). She has seen communities as unique as Damanhur, an ecovillage in the foothills of the alps with secret temples and elaborate conceptual planning, and as predictable as Twin Oaks, an old community (it’s been active since 1967) with public gardens and twee houses gathered in the forests of Virginia. Since publishing these volumes, Christian has earned callouts from notable figures in the subculture, including Ernest Callenbach (author of the 1975 novel Ecotopia), Bill Mollison (cofounder of permaculture), Paul Wheaton (founder of Permies), and a long list of enthusiastic supporters online. In a subculture that is famous for turning inward, obscuring itself from the mainstream, Christian has helped build a network between otherwise disconnected international communes. In the process, she has opened up their communities to the gaze of the mainstream public. This is intentional. She is helping bring about the third wave of post-internet communes.
Christian herself lives in an intentional community called Earthaven Ecovillage in the southern Appalachian Valley. There she shares a house with her mother in one of twelve neighborhoods, a longstanding community of some seventy-five adult members that has refined their approach over time. In the nineteen years they have lived together, the community has built architecturally impressive homes with solar panels on their roofs. They have installed compostable toilets in their restrooms and complex aqua-swamps on their acreage. Their water is collected from a communal well and rain that flows from their roofs into large barrels. Some community members leave during the week to make extra money in nearby cities; others, finding little reason to leave, spend all year tending to their gardens, homes, and the frequent workshops they hold for their guests.
Under the breezy, open-walled pavilion, Christian tells us what she’s learned about the intentional communities of the 21st century. These aren’t the experimental laboratories of the 1960s and 70s, she says, but sustainable, replicable models with their own utopian slant. These intentional communities have a vision all their own.
In the age of Trump, communes, too, have changed.
I let this settle in. I look around at the crowd—fifty people in foldout chairs—and question whether they have something previous generations didn’t. Is this the movement that will save us?
I first read Christian’s book Creating A Life Together in 2016, at the tail end of a long depression. For the previous year I had been living in a basement suite in a distant borough of Vancouver, alone. I poured my time into my day job at an exquisitely cool and intimidating café. When I wasn’t working, I volunteered at a storage facility where homeless men could leave their belongings in containers the size of coffins, and on my bus ride home, I closed out the world with my headphones. I felt most comfortable at McDonald’s, where I would spend late nights scrolling through various feeds before I was awoken in the early morning by the pattering feet and screams of children upstairs. I spent a lot of my time hoping I wouldn’t cross paths with anyone I knew, not because I didn’t want to see them, but because conversation had become increasingly, mystifyingly difficult. I called my parents that winter to tell them I was considering giving up.
The first utopian thinker who stirred something in me was Conner Habib. Habib is a porn star and university professor who believes in, among other things, angels, the occult, anarchism, and a world where no one works unless they feel inclined to. His views are extreme, but he approaches his ideas with a curiosity and kindness that has earned him friendships in more mainstream figures like comedian Pete Holmes and journalist Abby Martin. He argues that utopian thinking is increasingly relevant in a political climate that stifles the imagination and predicts eschatological doom. He encourages listeners to read the eighteenth-century utopians who believed that humans would soon be seven-foot-tall amphibians with benevolent whales as pets not because he thought they were right about anything, but because they could help us think outside of our ordinary constraints. They might help us think bigger and wilder in a world that is foreclosing on the future.
I like this way of looking at the world. Before encountering Habib, my most optimistic political vision of the world was exactly the same as the one I saw around me, but with a few extra loonies of minimum wage. I imagined it might be good if there were fewer landfills, fewer cops, but I didn’t dare imagine a world where things changed as much as they had in the last forty years. To correct this, I started reading the utopian literature of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, first with a degree of ambivalence, and then with cautious interest. Utopian fiction is hardly as engaging as its dystopian counterpart, but the real-world events these fictions inspired—mass-migrations to American deserts, communist factories with pioneering human-rights laws, feminist matriarchs who ruled their congregation and spoke with God—were spellbinding. I started working through five-hundred-page books about the history of utopian thought at that same McDonald’s. I ordered butterscotch McFlurries while I gradually affixed myself to a tradition of thinkers that might help me. If despair is in part an inability to imagine an alternative future, I was receiving an education in conjuring up reckless, therapeutic replacements. I could feel my hardened narratives about the future soften, slip away. I started to get better.
It didn’t feel incidental that, around this time, the world was becoming more dystopic. Close to home, there were forest fires turning Vancouver’s skies into a strange hue of grey-brown. Further away, the acceleration of police brutality in the United States, the forever wars in distant countries. Previously I would have purchased a few bottles of wine and luxuriated over how dreadful everything was. I still did this, but I came out on the other end with plans. I would read more utopian literature. I would figure out where I could volunteer in Vancouver. I would try to act as if I believed another world was possible.
Around this time—before I met Diana Leafe Christian, and before I started hearing more about the utopian experiments of the day—I watched the call for utopian thinking go viral. It was 2017, one year after the United States election of Donald Trump, and thinkers and artists were urgently pressing for a counterweight to the popularity of dystopia. Naomi Klein argued for utopian thinking in her book No Is Not Enough; Cory Doctorow novelized it in Walkaway; and Jessa Crispin wrote, in her powerful essay for The Baffler, “the best way to fight dystopia is to imagine utopia.” Like the utopian booms of the mid-nineteenth century and the 1960s, it looked as though Trump’s election might have stirred up a new era of—if not utopian communes—a re-engagement with imagining a better world. Instead of watching the Statue of Liberty freeze over, be decapitated, or otherwise undergo symbolic degradation at the theatre, maybe we would see an era of socialist communities mostly getting along. Hollywood would replace Philip K. Dick with Kim Stanley Robinson, maybe.
Besides Trump, though, there has always been a draw to doing things differently. One of the signal promises of intentional communities is the opportunity to start over. Rather than manage the glacial process of electing an official to draft a bill that will be sniped down for eight years before a neutered version gets through, in an intentional community, in theory, change is immediate. Everyone can agree that the garden will be planted along the outer rim of the kitchen; it doesn’t have to pass through the thousand bureaucratic hands before it can be approved. Why wait forty deadening years for the Kavanaughs and Cruzes of the world to disappear when real reform can start here, now, on the ground?
A second promise: how relieving would it be to, instead of watching the news about a Middle Eastern war fought with North American guns, only to flip the channel to an advertisement about peach yoghurt, or Charmin’s 3-ply, to instead be a part of a community that was meaningfully trying to extricate itself from these effects.
Why can’t we live like this? I know, I know. But really—why can’t we?
So, I went to find out.
On September 7, 2017, nine months into the Trump era, I arrived at the conference for intentional communities. I followed the faded signs to park my car in the grass and sign in, then I settled into the long line to the dining hall where our large group—about one hundred of us—were milling about.
From where I stood at the back of the line, I confirmed what I had been told about communes. I saw contemplative white men with dreadlocks, women with Thai fishermen pants, and more than a few carved buddha statues dangling from homemade necklaces. As the line shuffled closer to the doorway, two men with full brown beards and tall rain boots discussed technology in a way that made it clear they had never heard of Twitter. I stood back on my heels and prepared myself for a weekend of talks about ego-dissolution and casual racism.
As I stepped through the door and into the mess hall, though, I ran into a field of counterexamples. At one end of the room there were men and women with dangling silver earrings and bleach-blonde hair. Beside them a tired-looking mother chatted with a tough-looking woman, next to whom sat a young daughter, a popular book in tow. I gathered up a plate of appetizers and a tossed salad and tried to place the crowd. They reminded me of the range I might find at a potluck for graduating university students, their rich parents and alienated cousins along for the ride. I stared, wondering who these people were.
My first conversation was with a woman named Mia. I asked her where she was from and she looked at me with large, worried eyes. I tried again, guessing that she’d misheard me, but she responded with the quickness of the very stoned or very shy. She was from Estonia, she said. She was living in Seattle now, in a massive co-housing unit with more than forty roommates. She liked it, she said, but it was often quite lonely. I waited for her to go on, but she didn’t, and soon our conversation returned to an awkward lull.
Perhaps the man next to us sensed our discomfort, because he turned to us and smiled. He wore a long ponytail that reached past his shoulder-blades and a fancy Swiss watch. He looked smart and technical, like a modernist architect from Sweden with pacifist leanings. Warmly, he told us about his project. He was planning an intentional community with two of his friends. The trick was getting it right the first time, he said, and that’s why he was here—to learn. He’d already spent two years buying and authenticating the land, figuring out his friends’ values, and developing a core group of members. Now he wanted to know about building practices and tax law. He wanted to recruit more people and hear from older community members—specifically, their thoughts on how to start. Somehow we started to talk about artificial intelligence, and I wasn’t looking for a way out, necessarily, but I was happy when an older woman joined the conversation.
Soon she set her gaze on me. “And what are you here for?” she asked.
I paused. I wasn’t sure if I should out myself as an observer, but after explaining my longstanding interest in utopian projects, I did. “I’m here to write,” I said, hesitantly. “I also wanted to see how intentional communities are responding to, uh . . .”
“Trump?” she asked.
I wondered if I’d walked us into conversational territory that was off-limits, but her look of retribution was one I would come to see frequently during my three days at the conference. Already, I could hear his name spoken from across the room, full of defiance. In the coming days I would come to see that his name wasn’t taboo, but rather full of meaning. It was spoken quietly by some, ballistically by others. He was understood to be enemy number one, and many refused to say his name at all. Everyone was united in their willingness to talk about politics, though. After your name and birthplace, it was your thoughts about economics they were interested in. Should technology be stopped or spread? What about renewable resources? And have you heard about the architectural power of coconut husks? But underneath every conversation was the subtext: what are we going to do about Trump? And underneath that: will we do it in time?
It was the first day, though, and the organizers wanted us to a feel a sense of togetherness, so soon all one hundred of us were sitting around a campfire. I sat on a stump with scattered pines all around me, the air dark and cold. In front of our circle there was a twenty-foot elder teepee and a hide-stretched drum. Louise, the elder, was telling us about the history of the site—how the First Nations people who used to live here were pushed out, how their ghosts might be among us even now, and how she would like us to sing a hymn. I started to worry that I might not belong in this group. I felt we were approaching the line between appreciation and appropriation. I also don’t like to sing, and already there was an intense earnestness and awkward familiarity in the group that reminded me of bible camp. This was reinforced when we were asked to play a friendship game. In the game, we walked around the fire circle with our eyes cast down until we were called to look up at someone. If someone looked up at the same time, we were to form a quick twosome and fill in the blanks: “If you knew me, you would know that I am ___” ; “If you knew me, you would know that I want to be ____.” The first woman I encountered had owlish eyes of a very intense brown. She told me she had come from a very long way away. She was spiritual, she said. She wanted to be more spiritual. She clasped my hands very tightly and said I have a beautiful vibe.
The next person I met was named Max. Max is a retired immunologist from Seattle, I’d soon learn, who volunteers as an amateur conservationist around the world. He loves talk show host Jon Stewart and pianist Sviatoslav Richter. He likes to joke about how his birth country, China, is ruining the world. That night he told me that if I knew him I would know that he’s cynical. I told him that if he knew me he would know that I’m cynical, too, but that I’m trying to learn to be hopeful. We were immediate friends.
The rest of the night turned on these games. We retreated to a massive tent and were asked to play a game of radical honesty. We split into groups of three, and soon I was standing across from Anna and Jeremy. Anna had big glasses and radiated a hip, cerebral discomfort. She tended to shift from one foot to the other. She bended into herself from her shoulders. Jeremy looked calm and cool. He had a booming laugh and told us his favorite book is The Alchemist. We then grilled her, as we were supposed to, and soon found out that she was reading Emma Goldman, that she was twenty-seven, and that she worries she doesn’t know what she is doing with her life. She is very honest about her uncertainty. Her family is very Christian. Some very bad things happened to her. She would rather not talk about it. She is razor smart and very serious. Jeremy, by comparison, was either smooth or wanted to be perceived that way. He is from Seattle and works with computers. He prefers to talk about his art life, though. He teaches yoga. He believes in transcendence. His second favorite book is The Bhagavad Gita. There is something about Jeremy that is deeply off-putting but impossible to locate. His image is overly curated. It’s only when he laughs that everything lets up.
As the night darkened to a pitch black the groups started to mingle. Soon a man named John wandered over to us. John was sixty-seven. He had very white crinkly hair that was starting to disappear on the sides. I watched him walk over to us, his smile chaotic, and started to formulate something I would later come to realize—there are clear rifts, ideologically, aesthetically, between those of us at the conference who were over forty, and those who were younger—and John, who soon started to tell us he has no ego, represented this divide at its most extreme. He told us about his last few months at Osho’s commune. He gave up his house, his car, and his middle-class existence to live there. He used to be a dentist. All of a sudden he and his wife were living in a commune and John was having sex with whomever he wanted. It was ego-shattering, divine. He told us about the advanced meditation tricks he learned, and before I could exit the conversation, he showed us them right there. He began screaming and jumping around—hoo hoo hoo—drawing unnoticed looks from those around the room, then started hyperventilating. Soon he was jumping around again and spinning and his eyes were growing large mid-jump and telling us he’s knocked over lamps and candles doing this advanced meditation. I asked him what happened to his wife. He told me he’s not sure what she’s up to now.
I was starting to feel dispirited by our conversation with John when I was drawn into a conversation with someone who typifies the divide at its youngest. Alex, thirty, went to the California Institute of Technology but says he was the least intelligent one there. Students there love video games, he tells me. It accounts for 60 percent of the drop-out rate. But Alex doesn’t seem to be the type to play video games. He is charismatic, irreverent, and contagiously mischievous. He tells me he thinks Putin is the coolest but most horrific president. He tells me he runs two intentional communities in LA and wants to start one on the outskirts of Washington state. Ultimately, though, he wanted to hear what I thought, and so we talked about Vancouver and Jeremy and about how strange it can be to come to a community conference like this, until we were the only two left.
The sky was now covered in stars. The first day was done. We headed to bed.
You might be surprised to hear that Diana Leafe Christian never mentions communism in her work. If you search through her publications online, you will find long passages on community management, voting arrangements, and tax laws, but you will find no mention of Marx or his theories. I was surprised by this. Some progressives believe that the only road toward something as controversial as socialism is to avoid invoking its name—to nationalize healthcare and protect your local park without dredging up unhelpful associations—but if this is what Christian is doing, she’s left us few hints. She neither mentions communism, nor anarchism, nor socialism. No Fourier. No Yoko Ono. None of the grand social experiments of the past make it into her work. I first noticed this in Christian, but then I came to see it in the entire group. Late one night, a bald man named Yugro mentioned the word “commune” in the corner of our open-walled pavilion, and I watched as first one, two, then three groups glanced uncomfortably towards us. This made me wonder if Christian purposefully left out any mention of the utopian past. And then, I was sure she did. She must have.
The history of communes is a long, twisted one. Though most of our cultural memory is occupied by the notoriously dark events at communes like Jonestown—and now, with the recent Netflix documentary Wild Wild Country, leaders like Osho—the experiments of previous generations were arguably messier, and certainly more grandiose. In his book Paradise Now, Chris Jennings describes a nineteenth century where experimentally minded folks were more likely to draft a plan for a commune than for a literary magazine. This made sense. With a class alienated by the effects of industrialization, optimistic about the promises of the Enlightenment, and with the French Revolution on their heels, the conditions were prime for utopian thinking. Idealist thinkers began to project their fantasies onto the supposedly empty, sweeping states of America, convinced that paradise was possible within the decade. They didn’t acknowledge, of course, that their project was embedded in a tradition of settler colonialism, and that their utopia might spell the end of another’s.
This climate of enthusiasm attracted a host of charismatic leaders. One such thinker, John Humphrey Noyes, convinced his parents to refer to him as “father” and started a free love community with hundreds of members in Oneida, New York. Étienne Cabet, a French radical, worked his way up from a modest upbringing to become a rich statesman. After founding a newspaper that trumpeted the cause of universal suffrage, women’s rights, liberty, and equality, Cabet wrote a utopian novel that garnered him international fame. Further into his career, high on idealism, he sent a shipment of loyal fans across the Atlantic to build his novel’s society in the real world. Of the sixty-nine people who sailed out, twenty-six made it to their American destination, where they would spend the next decade toiling with bad soil conditions, economic debt, and disease. The rest died of starvation, malaria, or suicide. One died of being struck by lightning. The only doctor aboard the ship went mad.
You might expect that the remaining followers would have grown disillusioned with Cabet’s chaotic experiments, but you would be surprised again. In their diaries, some of them report feeling as though they were a part of something historic. Even the most banal daily events became wrapped up in a narrative of high purpose. They were inventing an Eden. They were remaking history. They were reinventing the wheel. To reinforce this fact, they started the millennial clock over again—they set the year to zero.
This might sound ridiculous, but imagine how much easier it would be to fold your clothing every morning if you thought you were building a heaven. You wouldn’t begrudge your roommate’s stir-fry spill if you thought your great grandkids would share the same ideological turf, spreading real utopia, decorating cities in the sky. You treat people differently if you believe you will see them every day for the rest of your lives. It becomes harder to smoke. Easier to forgive. Almost anything becomes possible if you believe you are changing the world.
Even beyond these grander promises, though, many of the utopians found better lives in their communes. They enjoyed liberties that would have been inaccessible if they lived more normative lives. As Chris Jennings notes, they were founded by farmers, blacksmiths, “free lovers, nonlovers, vegetarians, communists, abolitionists, anarchists, Swedenborgians, atheists, spiritualists, Adventists, and teetotalers.” They kept up an enthusiastic schedule of “contra dances, lectures, card games, séances, philosophical debates, cotillions, history lectures, picnics, stargazing expeditions, concerts, plays, tableaux vivants, boating trips, berry-picking outings, ice-skating parties, quilting bees, fishing trips, baseball games, oyster suppers, and croquet tournaments.” All of this took place at a time when “rural Americans often went months without seeing a nonrelation.” When the utopian experiments did fail, they wondered how they would manage to face the “chilling cordiality of the world.” Nothing seemed worse.
Sometimes I wonder what utopian project I would like to be a part of—something so gratifying that I would be heartbroken if it failed. My desires are typically millennial: I like the internet, queer comics, CSA boxes, books, animals, space-projects; I want a place where I can ride my lime-and-blue bicycle and spend a night planning tattoos; where I can make avocado toast and wear nail polish while I watch a team of physicists plan a trip to Mars. Like most millennials, though, I want to enjoy these pleasures without the ecological cost. I want to help invent a world where the global horrors of the day are exchanged for the more manageable day-to-day social problems of friendships—how to find intimacy, how to get along without resentment, how to make an extremely good potluck with pho and strawberries and mint popsicles. Sometimes, I wonder if it’s out there.
On the second day at the conference, we woke up at a chilly 7 a.m. to the peals of the communal bell. After a quick breakfast of oatmeal, crackers, and loose fruit (all sourced nearby, gluten free and vegan options available) we assembled under what looked to be a massive tarpaulin yurt. Everyone looked refreshed—they seemed loose and slack-jawed in the way practiced meditators do after a yoga session, and I soon found out many of them did wake up early to practice with the rising sun, their bodies stretching and popping in the fresh air. As we dragged chairs around for the next event, I looked around, intrigued. I had started to gain a sense of who these people were—now I wanted to know what they were hoping to gain, here. What were their ideal politics? Did they want to invent a new world, or did they just want to spend a weekend feeling as though they were a part of something?
Our first exercise collected us into groups of six. We were guided by an African American woman with bleach-blonde hair and a large septum piercing. She possessed the upbeat confidence of someone who was used to group exercises, and required no microphone while she explained that there were bowls in the center of our circles with beads in three colors—white beads for white skin, black beads for black skin, and brown beads for—she paused, cringing and laughing—every other skin tone. The group groaned good-naturedly. She then asked us to add one bead to our string for each question she posed. We quietened down. What color skin do your parents have? What about your siblings? Your teacher? Your favorite artist? The person who served you coffee last week? The person you look up to most? She paused. The silence in the group started to become charged as our strings became a quarter-full, then half-full. Next to me, Rich, a black man with a powerful laugh, held a string dotted equally with white and black beads. On my other side, a white man (the conference was overwhelmingly white) stared straight ahead at the bowl as he picked up white bead after white bead. This would be the first conflict I saw bubbling up at the conference. When the conversation opened up to the larger group, a white man with a strange grin fidgeted in the back. “I felt a bit defensive,” he said, his voice rising into a question mark, “about what the purpose of the exercise was?” The familiar retorts and counter retorts—about accessibility, about conviction, about legacy, about the burden of our history—were fired back and forth with ever-diminishing intensity, until the group had absorbed the exercise and, it seemed, learned from it.
When the exercise was over, I saw Max sitting alone. His shoulders were slumped—an effect, maybe, of the camping chair—so I pulled up another cavernous chair of my own and asked him what he thought of the past few hours. He said it was good, it was useful, but ultimately it wasn’t what he was concerned with. He was worried about animal life. He thought progressive circles were too human focused, and while he couldn’t come down against it, he wondered how many of them realized 60 percent of the animal population had gone extinct since the 1970s. I leaned in, interested. I asked him if he had any solutions to the ecological crisis. He offered that he was a scientist by training, an immunologist, but that science, while valid, hadn’t delivered many of the gifts it had promised. His own field was swarming with insurance companies, for example, and there was no hope that the pressing work could be accomplished in that environment. That’s why he was here. He thought a network of intentional communities living off the land might be the solution. He only worried that he was too much of an introvert to get along with the closeness of an intentional community.
I smiled, nodding. Max is the type of person I trust easily: cynical, shy, good-natured, bookish. I wanted to ask him what he thought of the event more generally—whether he thought it indicated a movement with real spark, or whether it was just well-intentioned—but then the next event was starting.
The rest of the day was occupied by seminars. I chose to go to a seminar called The Right to the City, where a Seattle-based activist taught us about laws favoring married couples. The leader asked us to write down all our precious memories of our homes while she taught us that it took twenty-one years to win the fight that allowed eight unrelated people to live in the same residence. We then drew our favorite homes. We wrote songs about them. We wrote poems. At the end, we shared our little inventions—stick figure laneway homes, limericks about abuse, riffs on class antagonism—while the instructor shared more facts about who was allowed where in the city and why.
I wondered what I learned while I helped prepare lunch. There were just four of us: a young girl with corn-blonde hair and bright blue eyes, an older woman with sagging skin and an airiness about her, the elder of the intentional community—a dignified woman with shining gray hair and a sharp competence—and me. When I arrived, I was given a twenty-pound bucket full of imperfect tomatoes and a big butcher knife. It was clear, by the time I began chopping, that there was some tension in the air. The two older women were disagreeing about something. The elder wanted the other to use her own judgment instead of asking question after question (“Should I put the meat in first? How long should I set the timer for? This is what my grandma always did, but what do you think?), but the other woman didn’t seem to be aware of her growing frustration. She continued to ask innocent questions, raising her eyebrows, banging around in the kitchen, until finally the elder snapped and left the room. The questioning woman still wasn’t privy to the room’s drama, I didn’t think. Kindly, she turned to me and asked my name.
It struck me that there was something notable about the interaction. I wondered if this was the best society we could hope for—one where the worst problems were trivial and social rather than abstract, gruesome, and insurmountable. It was a question I would ask myself again and again at the conference: is this it? Is this the seed? Is this what utopia looks like?
Instead of attending more seminars after lunch, I decided to walk off on my own. I walked along the peat-wood trails between tall pine trees and open clearings. I took pictures of some of the strange objects I found in the forest: a collapsed cabin, an aged, rusted tractor. I walked further and found the commune’s gardens, which were beautiful: patterned, in bloom, full. The sun beamed down on me in bright squares, and for a few minutes it was possible to imagine staying there, teaching the older members about millennials, learning how to plant rows of hibiscus.
Eventually the trail poked out of the forest and back to where I was staying—a large triangular cabin, tree-brown and decked in clean windows. I walked up the rough-hewn stairs to my small mattress tucked into a corner, away from the larger bed I hadn’t been early enough to claim. Before I napped, I sprawled myself out and considered it more seriously: Would I ever want to stay here? It seemed right, righteous even—like an educational documentary—but nothing like the excitement of former communes—like blockbusters.
No, I wouldn’t. At least, not if there were other options. It seemed to be the bare minimum—a friendly community of healthy food, unalienating entertainment, a few solar panels—without any of the reality-busting possibilities that made utopian experiments, and life, worthwhile.
I nodded my head back into the braided pillow, wondering if I knew anyone who would uproot their lives to move here, or somewhere like it.
No, I decided. Not unless the world was collapsing.
Every generation has its own version of the commune. If the nineteenth century’s utopian concerns were class and Victorian repression, the twentieth century’s McCarthyist paranoia and freedom of expression, the communes of the twenty-first century are comparatively mild affairs, arrangements that don’t always account for my larger desires. They do not have the cheery Christian optimism of those who stood at the edge of the millennium and believed that anything was possible, nor the 1960s preoccupation with enlightenment. Rather, modern participants have an air of embarrassment around the excesses of their history.
There are good reasons to maintain this distance from the utopian past. While it’s seductive to believe our imaginations stand outside of the conditions of the present, and that, with enough effort, we might think up something entirely different, unfortunately we always seem to carry the taint of what has come before. So while the believers of earlier generations may have thought they were building a future undeniably better than the present they lived in—in some communities, gender equality and freedom were the norm, and, in Shaker communities, slavery was outlawed half a century before it was nationally—this probably didn’t matter much to those whose lands they were colonizing. These social innovators probably looked like just about everyone else: like colonizers.
The modern movement of intentional communities seem to have taken some of this to heart. For instance, if you search through the directory (at ic.org), you will find queer communities, anti-racist communities, communities sensitive to the postcolonial language of race, class, and occupation. More than that, though, there’s a new maturity to what is considered possible. Few, if any, have the boldness of the communities of the past. Nobody really believes you can stand outside of history and make something effervescently new.
In practice, this means that contemporary intentional communities are more grown up than they once were. While previous communes might have believed their spiritual convictions placed them above local regulations (and are now facing extreme legal backlash), much of Christian’s book is a secondary resource on mind-numbing but indispensable tax advice. She recommends, for example, that all communities register as 501(c)(3)s—not as Community Land Trusts, Title-holding Corporations, or Private Land Trusts—to ensure your land is not seized by local authorities. She dedicates an entire chapter to zoning, another on homeowner associations, others on non-exempt, non-profit corporations, 501(c)(3)s, and exactly zero pages to vision boards, your spiritual path, or the evils of the modern world. In contrast, much of the media representation for the new network of North American communes is even less inspiring. In 2017, when I began searching out the movement in earnest, I listened to one treacly podcast after another. I read their most circulated magazine, Communities: Life in Cooperative Culture, which regularly uses words like “wisdom,” and sports covers with cheaply rendered pictures of communities awkwardly crowded around on horseback, looking at the photographer, or mixing a batch of muffin batter. Unlike previous utopians, who commissioned spectacular drawings of palatial representations of their ideal structures, intentional communities now have the charisma of a divorcé on their third marriage—they have few illusions. They promise work. And this, more than anything else, might be what keeps the third boom of post-internet communes from changing our landscape in any politically meaningful way.
This is more of a problem than it might seem at first glance. To do well, communes need popularity. Any group of people can disappear into the Pacific Northwest for a few years and start a community, but if they want to achieve the grander goals of the utopian project in an internationally meaningful way—change the political landscape, create a blueprint for a better world—they need to be broadly appealing. This underlies the double-edged strength and weakness of the commune project. Their greatest asset is that they do not need to reform the political system from within—they don’t need to, for example, pass legislation through thirty thousand hands before it gets sworn into law. They can instead agree to radical terms from the very beginning. The problem, however, is not to wrestle community members into a more progressive vision of the world, but to convince those outside of the community to get on board. To do so, intentional communities first have to show the larger world that they exist, then defend their legitimacy, and then, finally, make their experiment appear more seductive than any alternative. It’s a political problem, but, more than that, it’s an advertising problem. If no one knows about what you’re offering, and if what you’re offering pales in comparison to what other subcultures offer, your movement will never catch spark. This is a necessary component of any successful political movement, but of intentional communities in particular. Otherwise, no matter how much they shield themselves from the world, they, too, will be drowned by rising sea levels.
There’s a problem, then. Contemporary intentional communities seem boring. Why would I want to join one?
It wasn’t until the last day that anyone opened a bottle of alcohol. It was Alex, the Caltech grad. He had been a coconspirator of sorts, someone who would find my gaze when the conversation grew self-serious or pseudoscientific, and someone I would find when I needed a laugh. That night he slid a bottle of wine out from under his jacket sleeve like someone getting away with a secret, and then poured himself a glass that nearly spilled over its edges. “Care to join me?” he asked. I did. The kitchen was almost empty now, nearly everyone had finished dinner, but I still looked around to see who was watching, and what they might think. It felt as though we were bringing drugs into a church.
Over one glass, then a second, a third, Alex aired out the kind of banter I’d missed at the conference. He told me he thought the event wasn’t gay enough. He ridiculed my choice of wine glass and found one more to his tastes. Briefly, we talked about his larger plans to start an intentional community in Washington—one with internet, he assured me, and with wine, he promised—then we returned to what he considered more pressing subjects: whether anarchism was “cool,” what “cool” meant, how boring Tolstoy is, and how Nicolai Gogol, Russia’s greatest writer—famous for a story about a nose that disappears from an aristocrat’s face and takes on a life of its own—was later found to be insane.
By the time we poured our fourth glass it was thoroughly dark and the rest of the community had seemed to catch Alex’s mood. Outside in the meadow, someone was making pizza on a pop-up wood-oven stove. When we heard this, we took careful steps down the hill, where we found the grounds lit with tiny moon-like balls. We picked at a table of arugula and fresh vegan cheese, and soon Alex was calling on me to recite my poetry, please, or, if nothing else, at least some Oscar Wilde. While he did the latter for me, Max told me about his favorite pianist, the aforementioned Richter, and we exchanged emails. Meanwhile another visitor told me about his life on a small island on the West Coast, how his Stanford-educated parents had kept him sheltered from the world. We started to have the conversations one has with a stranger at 2 a.m. Everyone eased up.
It was during this time—when I felt the first real sparks of possibility at the event—that I realized none of the permanent residents were still up for the night. Instead, I was with the people who would probably never join an intentional community as they currently stand, but who might fantasize about joining one. In that moment, I wanted to gather these people and make one of our own: something with charisma, something long-standing, somewhere that didn’t sacrifice excess for a kind of ahistorical stability. I was starting to imagine the commune a millennial might give up their lives in the city for: somewhere with an anarchist library, a trained therapist, and an avocado tree. It felt possible.
A few weeks later, when I was safely back in the city, I woke up in a 7 a.m. fugue to get to work. I turned on my laptop to check my email and empire shouted through the screen. I lifted a spoonful of Cheerios to my chapped lips while Trump droned on about nothing, and I felt the long grind spread out in front of me. Of course, boredom might be a preferable alternative to this.
But what I’m left thinking, some months on, is that the essence of utopianism, its spark—the willingness to imagine beyond the obviously improbable to the definitely impossible—is what’s worth preserving. Maybe the mansions of the future will be public libraries and permaculture gardens. Maybe storefronts will be replaced by parks, sacred spaces, delicious donuts. Maybe the sky will open up and drop SOS-packs that teach us how to survive the future, ecotopian architecture will turn sewage into drinkable water, and we’ll revive Carl Sagan. If everything went according to our best daydreams, what would the world look like in five hundred years? How much time have we even spent thinking about this? It’s this that’s worth preserving from the utopian tradition. A fine sprinkling of unrestrained imagination might be exactly what we need.