May 20, 2021

What’s the secret of a successful utopia? I dare say the many young people seeking to abandon their atomised, urban existence for one of Britain’s many communes would like to know. The burned-out millennials in China now deserting “996” working hours — 9am-9pm, 6 days a week — for rustic community living presumably would as well.

I made several attempts at communal living in my bohemian twenties, but never hit on a formula that worked. Somehow, infighting always seemed to creep back into our little corner of heaven on earth.

So I have little personal advice to offer the latest group to join the 21st-century rush for the connected life: radical black separatists. Black Hammer, a group that describes itself as “dedicated toward building a sustainable future for all colonised people worldwide”, recently announced that they’ve crowdfunded enough money to purchase 200 acres of Colorado mountain land. There, they propose to found “Hammer City”, a communist “ethnostate” that promises “no rent”, “no cops” and “no white people”.

I can tell Black Hammer this, though. Their project is not, as they hope, a wholesale rejection of everything mainstream America stands for. Rather, they’re embracing one of the American Dream’s most archetypal forms: the pursuit of utopia.

In the early seventeenth century, thousands of Puritans sailed from England to the New World to found their ideal society free of oppression. For the Puritans, the stifling authority of the Catholic Church was an impediment to their close relationship to God — and even English Protestants were milquetoasts who had submitted to the corrupting yoke of earthly authority by installing the monarch as head of their church. Rejecting all these sources of external control, the Puritans fled for the New World and a blank slate for their vision.

After displacing at least some of this New World’s indigenous inhabitants, they flourished in Massachusetts. And in doing so they set a vital template for what America is: somewhere you go to create heaven on earth. With enough faith, the Puritan model suggested, a visionary few can throw off the stifling weight of convention and authority, carving out a new, untainted utopia on unclaimed soil.

This template didn’t disappear with the settlement of the continent. By the 19th century, even the New World’s weight of authority and convention prompted renewed efforts to secede from the mainstream and create still more perfect micro-utopias inside the larger American one.

According to John Harrison, there were some 130 attempts at founding utopian communes in pre-Civil War America. Around 16 of these were inspired by the proto-socialist visions of Welsh philanthropist Robert Owen, who envisaged common property, collective work and communal childcare. The French proto-communist thinker Charles Fourier, also wildly popular at the time, similarly outlined a vision of utopian communities where everyone’s natural inclinations corresponded perfectly to all the types of work that needed doing; it prompted some 300 American efforts to found Fourierist “intentional communities” in the 1840s.

But all the Owenite endeavours collapsed, including the one founded in 1825 by Owen himself. And most of the Fourierist intentional communities survived for a maximum of three years.

What went wrong? Many of their difficulties can be attributed to the fact that people who imagine ideal societies rarely have the practical skills needed to realise them. When French Fourierist Victor Considérant founded his La Réunion community in Texas in 1855, artists, lawyers, musicians and journalists flocked to the community — but they were joined by fewer than ten farmers. The project collapsed after 18 months amid homesickness, bickering and a distinct lack of home-grown produce.

In Black Hammer, something of the same skills gap may already be in evidence. Though we’re yet to discover how successful Hammer City will prove, critics have pointed to the short high-altitude Colorado growing season, the evident poverty of the soil and their failure to consider water rights as factors which may impede the successful creation of a self-sufficient utopia.

But some of the challenges to would-be utopians may also relate to the worldview of utopians more broadly. In 2019, “regenerative agriculture” advocate Chris Newman argued that “progressive” agriculture should challenge the racist, individualist “yeoman farmer” model and take a more collectivist approach. He then put this into practice, transforming his Sylvanaqua farm into a collective of 75-100 people “with a particular focus on providing opportunities of ownership for people traditionally denied such roles in agriculture: people of colour, LGBT folks, and women”. Speaking to progressive publication Mother Jones last year, Newman argued that “marginalised” people were “better equipped to think of more innovative models for how sustainable agriculture can work than most of the white people who are incumbent in agriculture”.

But reports suggest it’s not going well. First-hand accounts describe unsanitary conditions and animal cruelty, while the farm’s chaotic expansion plans and disorganised management culminated in the abrupt resignation of Newman. The whole team of “marginalised people” has been summarily fired, and there’s a crowdfunder under way to help them with resettlement costs.

Was this inevitable? The question of “sustainability” is often applied to ecological systems, but we use it far less frequently in social contexts. Yet if there’s such a thing as social sustainability, how can it be achieved? If stories percolating from Sylvanaqua are to be believed, the answer may not be as simple as hiring people with personal experience of oppression.

A clue to what does work may be found in one of the more durable antebellum American utopias: the Oneida Community, founded in 1848 by John Humphrey Noyes. Oneida was, in some ways, similar to the Fourierist and Owenite experiments: a radically communal settlement in which property was held in common and children were raised collectively. More radical still, members practised a form of sexual communitarianism Noyes termed “complex marriage”, which meant anyone could have sex with anyone else who consented.

But unlike the Fourierist experiments, Oneida lasted until 1879. How? The principal difference seems to be that unlike secular communitarians, Noyes was a Christian, and Oneida was united by strong (if eccentric) religious faith.

Yet even so, Oneida eventually foundered on the problem of generational continuity. Despite his commitment to dismantling family bonds, Noyes attempted to hand leadership on to his own son. Theodore Noyes, though, didn’t have his father’s charisma or convictions; the community imploded, with members scattering and its assets distributed among members in 1880 as joint-stock holdings. Oneida survives to this day, but only as a silverware company.

Not all such communities fail. The Amish arrived in Pennsylvania in the 1730s to create their own heaven on earth. In 1900, there were around 5,000 Amish; and yet despite holding themselves radically apart from mainstream America, famously by rejecting most modern technology, the sect has around 350,000 members in North America today. And that figure is only set grow: the Old Order Amish double their numbers every 20 years.

Of course, if a utopia is successful enough, we stop thinking of it as such. Of the visionary communities founded in America during the 19th century, the most successful now wields considerable institutional power in its home state of Utah and boasts over 16 million members worldwide: the Mormons.

The common factor in keeping a utopia going, then, appears to be a religious creed. One Maine tradesman, who goes by the Twitter pseudonym ‘BoiltOwl’, views hippy dreams of returning to the land as always destined to fail. As he sees it, “sustainability, boutique agri-business, gentrifying the general store, does not have the heft needed to last”. In contrast, he describes the slow “colonisation” of his neighbourhood by the Amish, and how their effectiveness is powered by their religious commitments and rejection of individualism:

The Amish are ideologically committed. They are not atomised, individual actors responding to civilisational malaise like the hippies. They are connected families, connected through marriage, buying connected land and lots of it.

In his view, the Amish formula is the one that will win: “They are exclusive, focused on generational continuation and self-aware — a powerful bulwark against the most corrosive elements of the modern world.”

So perhaps the main reason all my efforts at communal living failed was that they were secular. For if the history of American attempts at founding the Promised Land are anything to go by, having a robust religious creed is less an impediment to successful utopia than a vital precondition.

On this yardstick, what’s the prognosis for Black Hammer? The group professes a virulent form of the belief system commonly known as “wokeness” — a worldview commonly described these days as a religion. And if wokeness actually is a religion, it ought to be better able to facilitate community living than liberal secular individualism.

My colleague Peter Franklin argued yesterday that, contra many recent laments, “wokeness” is far from being a “religion” set to supplant Christianity. Perhaps the acid test of whether or not he’s right is whether Black Hammer thrives. For the long list of failed secular utopias, and slightly shorter list of thriving religious ones, suggests the cultural sustainability of a shared faith is as crucial to a community’s survival as soil quality, water rights or farming skill.

Does a belief system help communities live together? Does it inspire its adherents to create things that will outlast them? Is it a faith that encourages children to be born and raised as happy adults who stay in the community? This is certainly the case for the Amish, but only time will tell whether Black Hammer’s beliefs meet these criteria — or those of “wokeness” in general.

While today’s progressives are all for “dismantling” social norms, no community can sustain itself beyond one generation unless it’s also capable of maintaining them over the long haul. If “woke” ideas fail this test, Black Hammer is unlikely to survive. And the many more mainstream institutions that have embraced such doctrines may also find themselves crumbling, for want of the kind of faith that inspires its believers to build.