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Localism, Intentionality, and Utopia (Socialist or otherwise)

April 7, 2022

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

There is an accusation which has been flung over the decades (if not centuries) at practically every sort of intentional community-building effort, thus oddly discovering something which apparently entirely disparate elements of the right and left have in common. Sometimes that accusation takes the form of condemnations of a supposedly unrealistic idealism, sometimes in terms of contempt for what is labeled a nostalgic myopia. But either way, the heart of all these attacks is the same: attempting to build communities of cooperation, equality, and justice, in contrast to the socio-economic self-interestedness which has been the rule for 300 years or more, is “utopian,” and thus nonsensical and wrong. The ease of that accusation, and the fact that it has been and still is unthinkingly lobbed at intentional communities of every sort, makes it worthy of push-back, I think.

The caveat which those who fling the accusation will insist upon, of course, is that it is not all community-building activities which they think deserves their condemnation and contempt; only “comprehensive” community-building. And for most critics, that’s probably correct–it would require an insanely individualist outlook to describe every effort to strengthen neighborhood ties (organizing a block party!), to secure social justice (expanding handicap accessibility!), or to serve the public through the provision of common goods (health insurance, public schools, environmental protection, the Veterans Administration, and more!) as instances of “utopianism.” (That some people do in fact affirm such a nihilistic libertarianism is worth noting but not much more. There are also people who make life-size nude sculptures of Richard Nixon out of butter, and more power to them.) The great majority of those who look askance upon community-building would insist that they do not mean to reject every communitarian project; rather, what they reject is community-building visions and efforts that aspire to comprehensiveness–or, on my reading, the ones that aspire to topography.

My point in invoking topography is to bring up that element which everyone with the slightest interest in or affection for localism must take seriously: the topos, the place or location or referent upon on which one stands or acts. Such language is, of course, what gave birth to the accusation in the first place: Thomas More’s 16th-century Utopia, the rationally organized “no-place” of agrarian communism, communal eating, universal health care, and chamber pots made of gold (so as to subliminally communicate a contempt for wealth). More’s neologism, it should be noted, was perhaps not his intended one; Utopia concludes with an addendum in which More remarks upon the pun in his book’s title, suggesting that the city is should be understood less as a dreamy “no-place” and more as a “good-place” that inspires: “not Utopia, but rather rightly my name is ‘Eutopia,’ a place of felicity.” Whatever his intent, though, the history of the term is grasped easily enough: throughout history, there have been 1) those captivated by comprehensive visions of how to cooperate rather than compete, to encourage virtue and inclusion, to establish peace and justice, and to witness to the truth as they understand it, with the material articulations central to those visions involving the establishment of a distinct community, and 2) those who find any and all such visions dangerous and simply flawed. (And, of course, one can find plenty of capitalists in group 2) who will insist the “placeness” inherent to most populist challengesdistributist arguments, and mutualist alternatives means they’re all in the same camp as the socialists and radicals in group 1), but let’s stick with the clear communalist examples for now.)

The danger which can–and, tragically, often does–accompany any effort to establish a complete community in accordance with specific intentions, whether religious or ideological or both, is well established, both historically and theoretically. The genocidal historical record of many comprehensive society-shaping visions is incontestable (though whether the kill-count of all such revolutionary movements is greater or fewer than the kill-count of non-comprehensive, profit-motivated world historical slaughters like the African slave trade or the European colonization of the Americas is something I leave to the terminally morbid to calculate). Theoretically as well, the problems with this conceptualization of humanity’s fundamentally social and political nature are large, though not insurmountable. Humankind’s embodiment as distinct individuals means an organic, evolving pluralism will always be present in all our social and political orders, and the rationalist temptation which is entailed by many communitarian visions directly contradicts that, with frequently destructive results.

But the emphasis there must be placed on “frequently,” as opposed to “always.” Human beings, despite (or perhaps as part of) our pluralism, regularly tend towards the dialogical and aspirational and spiritual, which means that what we truly are always reasoning about and reaching for–thanks to God or nature or both–is how to make our lives fit with that we consider to just and right and good: to achieve eudaimonia in our places, our topoi, and then make those places available to others. So while dangers and flaws of comprehensiveness must always be attended to, the topographical aspect of our spiritual and ideological longings is too central to the human character to dismiss it entirely. Indeed, if Wendell Berry is any guide, much of contemporary thinking reflects an overlearning (or an encouragement towards overlearning by those who benefit from our individualistic status quo) of the lessons of comprehensiveness. To automatically reject communitarian efforts and imaginings which involve the making of actual cooperative places as obviously pointless from the start is to succumb to a false sense of “inevitability…an economic and technological determinism, as heartless as it is ignorant” (Berry, The Art of Loading Brush, p. 51; more here).

So perhaps we can allow that the accusation of “utopianism” is not necessarily, or at least should not be accepted as necessarily, fatal to the communitarian imagination. But does that allowance have anything to do with localist projects, which, while obviously centrally concerned with places, rarely approach those topoi with any comprehensive vision in mind? While it is true that the watch-word for most genuinely localist politics today is “incremental,” eschewing comprehensive reforms for the humble and the partial, there is, I think, a utopian element usually present nonetheless, hidden in the idea of “intentionality.”

Every localist concern involves looking at a neighborhood, an association, or a community, and tending to it. That tending, however, unless wholly and unthinkingly reactionary (and if it were, then no communitarian tending would take place over the long haul at all, because to think outside of one’s own immediate interest and one’s own temporal moment is invariably aspirational), cannot help but involve an ideal, a vision–something that is intended. That intentionality, like comprehensiveness, can be dangerous is a simple sociological fact, but it is also that which grants community the transformative promise–whether personal or collective or both–which it has always held, separating us, as Aristotle observed, from otherwise equally “gregarious animals” like bees.

The difficult-to-dispute point that we form communities for the sake of collective ideals and not just individual interests–something every Bible-reader, at the very least, should have realized as soon as they came to the second chapter of Acts–has, perhaps, been made harder to swallow for many by the legacy of 19th and 20th-century socialisms, particularly the statist, scientific socialisms of the Marxist variety. But even there, a fuller appreciation of the history such surprising diversity. The Oxford political theorist David Leopold has made a career out of exploring and undermining (or at least seriously complicating) the rationalist, universalist, non-utopian reading of Marx’s legacy, arguing that even within the first century of the modern European socialist movement, when the materialist assumption of universal revolution were strongest, you nonetheless can find robust expressions of and arguments about the age-old understanding of socialism as a cooperative, communitarian ideal, as something that must necessarily be rooted in the organically constructed architecture of a locality and place. The intermingling of these became even more pronounced as the revolutionary determinism of Marx’s early interpreters was replaced with a recognition of the inevitability, even sometimes the value, of party politics in democratic countries. Ultimately, Leopold suggests, the differences between place-obsessed reformers like Robert Owen, the founder of New Harmony who constantly experimented with forming small, cooperative, egalitarian communities (what Leopold calls the “communal” or “horizontal” strategy), and detail-oriented policy wonks like Sidney Webb and Beatrice Potter, early members of the Fabian Society who worked within the Labor party to introduce specific egalitarian and collective policies to the whole of the United Kingdom (what Leopold calls the “political” or “vertical” strategy), are not nearly as great as their similarities.

You don’t need to work out the historical implications of such political theories to recognize the truth of that judgment, though–you could, instead, simply look at the real world example of dozens of intentional communities and communes and collective projects throughout history, and the mixed perspectives they embodied. You could look at the Bruderhof, an Amish-inspired movement of deeply traditional Christians, organized into communities of cooperation and equality around the world, whose communal devotion have led them to a political position of uncompromising pacifism. Or you could look at Koinonia Farm, an intentional community of believers in Georgia who humbly practice sustainable agriculture, but were also central to shaping, in the face of enormous racial hostility, the non-violent resistance which politically defined much of the civil rights movement in America.

Or, much less celebratedly but with no less admiration, you could look to the Solidarity Collective, a cooperative association of activists, artists, and democratic socialists, deeply committed to the vision of living sustainably and defending justice in Laramie, Wyoming. Close to four years ago, the collective was founded by several passionate workers and dreamers, one of whom is an old and dear friend; its charter (read it here!) is frankly revolutionary in its vision of a fully democratic and inclusive socialism, while its actual operations reflect the difficult, patient, humbling work of living in accordance with “utopian” ideals of cooperation and consensus. It was at the invitation of my old friend that I began to seriously reflect on the particularity–including the topographic particularity, or simply the “locality”–incumbent to the physically and emotionally demanding labor and negotiations involved in building a home, a refuge, and a community that seeks to exemplify its ideals, and has only the material and psychological resources which its own members can bring to it. As no doubt everyone who has ever been part of an attempt to comprehend and bring to life a community (or a church, a labor union, a co-op, or any other such idealistic effort), sometimes it seems that community “always fails.” With typical honesty, the members of the collective turned their own impasses into a podcast episode, talking about how impossible it sometimes seems to bring everyone laborious work into “union” with one another…and why they keep trying anyway. (Hint: it’s because, in part, they genuinely believe in the place–the house, the farm, the community, and the human resources through which they are enabling to flourish–which they’re building.)

Listening to that podcast, as members of the collective honestly and searchingly challenge one another regarding the roots of their manifold struggles, I was struck at how intentionally and comprehensively pushing against the norms of capitalist modernity in the 21st-century requires practices that have not changed much since the 19th century, or earlier. In Chris Jennings wonderful history, Paradise Now: The Story of American Utopianism (though his focus is really just the story of the early utopian movements which emerged in the context of Protestant revivals in Europe and America and the Great Awakenings they were part of), he lays out one of the secrets of the success of the Oneida Community, whose radical communism–which included the sharing of not just all property and work, but of sexual partners as well–endured in the face intense opposition and deep internal divisions for more than a generation:

“[T]he biggest reason the Perfectionists were able to maintain communal harmony despite such fraught circumstances was institutional: a form of weekly group therapy that they called ‘mutual criticism’….[B]y the time the community relocated to Oneida, regular sessions of mutual criticism had become a central pillar of [what the followers of John Humphrey Noyce, the found of the community, called] Bible Communism….As the Perfectionists got better at mutual criticism, most of them came to regard it as a vital catharsis and an essential means of maintaining the colony’s delicate social harmony. It functioned like a cross between confession, performance review, and psychoanalysis, but crowdsourced. The fact that everyone had a turn in the hot seat took some of the sting our of the ordeal….One man was cautioned that he had ‘masculinity carried to excess. There is not enough woman in him’….Perhaps most important, the regular sessions of mutual criticism allowed the colonists to air the countless minor aggravations that will erode a cooperative colony from within if left to fester” (pp. 346-348).

It is probable that Jennings would not entirely agree with my likening of the practices of the comprehensive community-builders of the 19th century with those of today. In his view, while the revival of intentional efforts to create alternative forms of life over the past half-century is admirable–“[l]ike the nineteenth-century utopians, the long-haired communards of the sixties and seventies rejected the prevailing values of their day as morally corrupt and expressed that rejection through the total reconfiguration of their own daily lives”–their intentionality is of a lesser category entirely: “[a]lthough the communalists of the sixties and seventies tried (and often succeeded) to build strongholds of cooperation, pleasure, and consciousness amid the mercantile bustle of American life, they…expressed a secessionist impulse–a leave-taking from the World…[and thus their] revolution was more personal and, ultimately, far less utopian” (pp. 379-380). But I find this unfair, because it wrongly assumes that any envisioning of a place that isn’t millenniarian–that is, that doesn’t proclaim it to be a model for a world which teeters on the edge of total destruction and/or transformation–has no radicalism, no true utopianism, to it at all.

In a world where the pluralism of the human condition has been, for centuries, from the age of imperialism to that of industrialization and beyond, both subject to and expected to express itself through an ever-evolving, ever-varying, but nonetheless also ever-expanding, technologically-enabled socio-economic universalization, privatization, and individuation, it seems to me that any attempt to build into one’s topos principles and practices that aspire to, or at least are in dialogue with, ideals of social justice and civic strength and equality, cannot help but involve at least a degree of comprehensiveness, a degree to utopian hope. To quote the striving local socialists of the Solidarity Collective, “there are many potential models of anti-capitalist activism and politics,” and the search for “cooperative, sustainable systems” will always be a matter of “good-faith deliberation.”

Such deliberation–or “mutual criticism,” for that matter–isn’t a rejection of the possibility of building a locality of such comprehensive, communitarian “felicity” that others will be inspired and transformed by it, and thus go forward to build other such “eu-topian” communities in other places. (That is, in fact, exactly the primary aim of the Solidarity Collective: as they write, “We hope that by creating a thriving, fun, and engaged non-capitalist ecosystem we can demonstrate the viability of a more cooperative and less oppressive way of life and hence attract more people to our cause.”) What it is, is a recognition that such places shouldn’t be conceived as environments that will just rationally unfold, without particular work done by particular people in particular topoi. Thus, maybe, does incrementalism and utopianism meet. If you’re looking intentionally at your locality, wanting to make it more just and more civil and more communal–with, say, cooperative food practices, responsible energy usage, democratic decision-making, and social arrangements premised upon love and respect rather than financial and racial advantage–well, that doesn’t automatically make you into a communard, fully engaged in the struggle to build a comprehensively new world. But it does mean, I think, that you probably share more with those inspired folk than you may think.


Teaser photo credit: New Harmony, Indiana, a Utopian attempt, depicted as proposed by Robert Owen. By Drawn and engraved by F. Bate. Published by "The Association of all Classes of all Nations", at their institution, 69, Great Queen Street. Lincoln's Inn Fields, London, 1838.Published by "The Association of all Classes of all Nations", at their institution, 69, Great Queen Street. Lincoln's Inn Fields, London, 1838. – Alamy, Public Domain,

Russell Arben Fox

Professor of Political Science and Director of the History and Political Science Program at Friends University

Tags: building resilient communities, intentional communities, localism, utopias