April 27, 2020

For some — prisoners, researchers on the south pole — the experience of living in lockdown is familiar. For most of us, however, it is new. Even those accustomed to working in solitude (writers for online publications, say) typically have the option of nipping to a coffee shop, which would probably bring them into physical proximity with other human beings. But the coffee shops are all closed, and physical proximity is forbidden. These are unprecedented times.

To some extent, anyway: history provides numerous examples of people living in isolation. From lighthouse keepers maintaining a watchful eye over stormy seas to anchorites in the desert, not only did these people cope, but many saw the experience as contributing to their spiritual betterment.

Meanwhile there has been a utopian strain in the writing about the Covid-19 crisis, with some commentators expressing the hope that we shall emerge on the other side transformed, convinced of the value of communitarianism/socialism/universal basic income/insert pet solution to world’s ills here. Could this period of lockdown lead us to the promised land? Or will we all just end up hating each other?

Here in the United States, the vast landscape practically invites you to disappear, self-isolate and start afresh — and many have done just that. Famously, Henry David Thoreau’s Walden is an account of the two years and two months the author spent living in a hut in the woods, getting back to nature, seeking self-betterment, etc. He got a book out of it that high school kids are still made to read today — a pretty good result, all in all.

Well, perhaps not. Thoreau isn’t actually a good example of life under lockdown. He complained of having more visitors than when he lived in town; the record was “twenty–five or thirty souls, with their bodies, at once under my roof.” In Covid-19 conditions, he’d be a super spreader. A more recent American hermit, Ted Kaczynski, was more committed to avoiding people, and also got a book out of it. But he did wind up sending letter bombs to scientists and was sent to prison for a very long time for murder. So maybe not a good example, then.

No man is an island, as they say. Perhaps isolation brings better results if you do it with a select group of like-minded people? Certainly, many have tried to find perfection this way, forming self-contained communities dedicated to this or that vision of utopia throughout the nation’s history.

Take, for instance, the Rajneeshpuram community in Wasco County, Oregon, subject of Netflix’s fascinating documentary Wild, Wild Country. Rajneeshpuram was founded in 1981 by an Indian guru who went by the name of Rajneesh, after his foundation got into a spot of bother with the Indian authorities over millions of dollars in unpaid tax. Moving to the US, he hoped to be able to lead his followers to enlightenment unhampered by such petty, worldly concerns.

Alas, it didn’t turn out so well. One minute it was all peace vibes, maroon clothing and hippies rutting in public “like baboons”; the next it was all stockpiling guns, poisoning 751 people in the neighboring town, attempting to murder a US Attorney, prison sentences and deportation for the guru.

OK, so maybe that’s also not a good example. The good news is, there are lots of other American utopian communities to learn from. In fact, more than 100 were established in the century prior to the Civil War alone. Surely one or two of them worked out, right?

Well, some certainly managed to exist for a while. One group was founded in the early nineteenth century by a certain George Rapp, who was convinced that the return of Christ was imminent and that it was necessary to prepare for the moment. To that end, he established three communities: Harmony, Pennsylvania in 1804; followed by Harmony, Indiana in 1815; and then Economy, Pennsylvania in 1824.

Celibacy was part of the deal, until a cove styling himself as the “Count de Leon” arrived from Germany in 1831 and persuaded about 200 people to seek the pleasures of the flesh and demand their share of the community’s funds. Rapp wound up embroiled in lawsuits but lived on until 1847; the remaining celibate Rappites dwindled during the second half of the century, before finally disbanding in 1906.

The Shakers were another famous utopian community, founded by Ann Lee, the illiterate daughter of a Manchester blacksmith who had emigrated to the American colonies in 1774. “Mother” Ann declared that she was the ‘divine female principle’ completing Christ’s male principle, ushering in the millennium. Like Rapp, she imposed celibacy on her followers. In the 18 Shaker villages that popped up, the sexes were housed in separate barracks; it was forbidden to touch at communal dances; and men and women were seated at separate tables during meals. To compensate, they leaped up and down and writhed in ecstasy during services.

The Shakers, nonetheless, made a good run of it for a community forbidden to procreate; the community existed for almost 200 years before dying out, and along the way opposed slavery and pioneered equality for women. To compensate, they performed ecstatic dances during their services, and the collective trembling which ensued led to their name. The Shakers made a good run of it for a community forbidden to procreate; the community existed for almost 200 years before dying out, and along the way opposed slavery and pioneered equality for women. Today their lemon pie lives on at Martha Stewart.com.

Bad news for unbelievers staring down lockdown: secular utopian communities were markedly less successful.

I dimly recall learning, back in my Scottish schooldays, about the model village of New Lanark, where the Welsh manufacturer and reformer Robert Owen conducted experiments in education, communal living and the amelioration of poverty. What my teachers didn’t tell me was that Owen then travelled to the US where he went full utopian socialist.

To get a head start, he purchased the already extant utopia of Harmony, Pennsylvania from the Rappites in 1825, renamed it “New Harmony”, and then burned80% of his fortune over the next two years as disagreements erupted over details as small as the correct form of government and the role of religion (Owen didn’t have any). A flurry of Owenite communities — 12 in all — suffered a series of similarly rapid rises and falls, starting with great hope before voting to abolish themselves.

A swift demise awaited many other utopias, whether they were established on the principle of free love (like the hopefully named community of Free Lovers at Davis House, Ohio, 1854-1858), vegetarianism (like Octagon City, Kansas, 1854-1858) Fourierism (like Brook Farm in Massachusetts, 1841-1847) or anarchy (like Fruit Hills, Ohio, 1845 – 1852).

The Icarians were more successful, perhaps because their founder — Etienne Cabet, a friend of Robert Owen — had written a novel, Voyage en Icarie, which at least illustrated what his followers should aim for (a primitive economy without private property or selfishness). The Icarians got off to a shaky start in Texas in 1848 but eventually its members founded settlements in Illinois, Iowa, Missouri and California where they enjoyed four decades’ worth of splits, schisms and factionalism before eventually admitting defeat in 1898.

Perhaps the most ambitious utopians, however, lived at the Oneida Community, established by John Humphrey Noyes in New York state in 1848. Noyes, a relative of the US president Rutherford Hayes, extolled the virtues of “complex marriage”, by which he meant that everybody in the community was married to everybody else. This led to a complicated system of regulated polyamory.

The Oneida Community also dabbled in eugenics and held vigorous mutual self-criticism sessions. In 1879, however, Noyes fled to Canada to escape charges of statutory rape; there God blessed him with the revelation that conventional marriage was complex enough. The community disbanded the following year, only to promptly reinvent itself as a silverware manufacturer. By the 1980s Oneida, Ltd. made half the cutlery in the United States.

So, will we all emerge from this period of confinement — be it with our loved ones or locked in the airless virtual communities of the like-minded on social media — improved and enlightened? Almost certainly not: there is a reason why monks take a vow of silence, and why prisoners don’t hang out in the yard all day. Even so, the American utopian experience contains a couple of lessons that might help you deal with this lockdown, should it drag on.

Firstly, you stand a better chance of overcoming squabbles, factionalism and dissent — and generally holding out for a long time — if you hold Millenarian beliefs. The Shaker’s Mother Ann, for instance, persuaded her followers that she was the feminine incarnation of the Godhead, in regular communication with the angels and all that. So if you can channel a little of that sweet End Times action and convince yourself that the Coronavirus is actually a prelude to Christ’s imminent return and that now is the time to prepare — have at it. You might even find the whole lockdown experience strangely fulfilling.

On the other hand, the whole Millenarian thing can go down the pan very quickly if the wrong type of charismatic leader turns up. Take Rajneesh, for instance. So if anyone in your house (or on your Twitter feed / a Facebook group chat) is talking excitedly about the new world that will emerge post-Covid while growing a very long beard — watch out.

Finally, utopia does not await us on the other end of this, but you might still come up with some good ideas or develop some helpful new skills. The Owenites, for instance, opened a free library in New Harmony; the Shakers invented the clothespin. You can still buy Oneida cutlery; I use it to eat every day.

Maybe, that’s the solution. Forget utopia — if you want to get something valuable out of this lockdown experience, do something good for others or learn a craft. In particular, knowing how to make things with your hands might come in handy in the, er, “changed economic conditions” that await us once this is over.