X Close

Can utopian experiments help a society in crisis? When the going gets tough, mankind builds communes

Credit: Robert Altman/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty


November 2, 2021   5 mins

San Francisco was built on swamp and landfill. Mid-nineteenth-century settlers scuttled the hulls of the ships that had brought them to California and covered them with debris and sand, creating more land to build on. It was a ramshackle approach to construction, one that aligned with the every-man-for-himself atmosphere of this Gold Rush settlement.

And then, in 1906, an earthquake destroyed the fragile city. Buildings toppled. Broken gas pipes and fallen powerlines started fires. The authorities tried in vain to create firebreaks, resorting to dynamiting whole blocks of houses, but there was no stopping the fires that burned for another four days. More than 80% of the city’s buildings were destroyed. At least 3,000 people were killed, and the majority of survivors were displaced from their homes.

It is what followed the disaster, though, that is truly fascinating. San Francisco transformed. It went from a city renowned for cut-throat competition, race riots and brothels to the site of an extraordinary upsurge of public-spiritedness. Residents who survived built impromptu health clinics and makeshift shelters.

A beautician, Anna Amelia Holshouser, recalled how she and others stitched blankets and sheets together to make a tent for children, and then set up a soup kitchen, feeding as many strangers as they could out of a few unbroken plates and tin cans. All across the wrecked landscape, groups of survivors banded together to create places of safety and mutual aid. Rebecca Solnit describes the small-scale initiatives on each rubble-strewn street of San Francisco as “little utopias” — that is, idealistic micro-societies where people lived as much for others as for themselves, spontaneously rejecting the dominant narrative of individualism.

What occurred in San Francisco was a rare thing, but it had happened before and it would happen again. Over and over throughout history, idealistic, cooperative communities have sprouted up in the wake of disasters.

There are few examples as clear as the communities that followed the First World War, less than a decade after the earthquake in San Francisco. On a single day in the war — 22 August 1914 — the French army lost 27,000 men: half as many soldiers dead as the United States would later lose in the entire Vietnam War. In addition to ten million lives lost over the course of the conflict there was the wider damage: the uncounted millions scarred in body and mind; the disorienting sense of an entire social order destroyed.

People reeled under the compound effect of war and an influenza pandemic — robbed of their young, their hopes destroyed, uncertain of what the future held. But amid the destruction arose an impulse that was optimistic, energetic and humanitarian.

As in the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, small groups of men and women began to rebuild, starting experimental settlements, renouncing old ways of living and trying to create new ones. Many people around the world believed the old social order was to blame for the Great War: the preoccupation with capitalist gain and nationalistic competition. Their response was to lead lives built around philosophies of non-materialistic mutual aid. In Germany, coteries of students and intellectuals took to the country to live collectively and farm cooperatively. In Japan, so many idealistic settlements were started that the conservative press reported anxiously on a “new village craze”. These post-war groups, though drastically different in style and structure, all had shades of the resilient, compassionate and communally-minded action that defined the days after the earthquake in San Francisco.

What can we learn from these reactions to disaster? Perhaps simply that adversity itself can prompt what is good in mankind — the urge to redraft the lines along which our societies are built for the better; a turn to co-operative social striving that would otherwise never have manifested.

And yet few utopias last long. In San Francisco, it was just a matter of days before thousands of soldiers were “restoring order” in the city — which included shooting those who were trying to collect food for the needy. New modes of living rarely spark large-scale social transformations, and all too often the status quo resumes.

But short-lived though most utopian communities are, they are connected in a beneficial way to the existing social order. They are in what German sociologist Karl Mannheim called “dialectical tension” with it: offering a reconfigured version of the outside world, expanding people’s sense of social possibilities, while at the same time being shaped by the mainstream’s needs. Even the communities that disintegrate quickly leave traces behind them, some of which are absorbed into the dominant social structures. And their examples gesture towards the fundamental idealism and resiliency in the human spirit, and the easily forgotten truth that it is always possible to recast the way we live.

We’re passing through another disaster now. And though the defining nature of this pandemic has been that people have been forced to live apart, it has nonetheless sparked impressive examples of idealistic activity, of cooperation and social action. Drivers in Wuhan created a volunteer car fleet to transport medical workers to hospitals when public transport shut down; young people in India mobilised to provide aid packages for those without savings; experts created the open-source library “Coronavirus Tech Handbook”, pooling knowledge on technologies and organisational methods for fighting the pandemic.

Climate change is a slower-moving crisis. Like the First World War, it has sparked in many a sense of the failure of the underlying systems of society and governance, which seem to be unable or unwilling to cope and change. Collectives experimenting with low-impact modes of communal living — ecotopias, as some of them call themselves — are proliferating.

At Old Hall Community in Suffolk, a group of 50 share a manor house, farming, cooking communally and keeping their carbon footprint as near as possible to net zero. In the mountains of Asturias in northern Spain, sixty Spanish, French, Danish and German women and men live in the remote commune of Matavenero, where they grow their own food, build their own houses and consume as little as they can. There are larger initiatives, including the community of Toyosato in Japan, where several hundred participants aim to demonstrate a fulfilling life built on sustainable farming, cooperation and minimal possessions. This settlement is one of more than 70 low-impact communities that form the Yamagishi movement, which stretches to Australia, Brazil, Switzerland and the United States.

These contemporary utopias are not a replacement for long-sighted national and international legislation, or for the much-needed regulation of corporate actors. In many ways they may be less effective than change-oriented activists such as Extinction Rebellion. But ecotopians put their money where their mouths are. They live in the way they think we all ought to live.

There seems to be a time limit on utopian communities. When the disasters that inspired them are forgotten, they generally collapse, or are absorbed back into the old order with its attendant oppressions and injustices. Sometimes, they mitigate that old order, demonstrating practices that can help make society a little better, a little more just. But climate change falls outside of this pattern. We are not likely to live to see the end of this global disaster. And if we insist on holding fast to the old order, to the dominant ideologies of hyper-individualism and materialism, the crisis will only deepen.

Utopian living, at its best, creates an opening in the fabric of society, allowing us to see how fragile the habits and structures which seem immutable in day-to-day life really are. “While the crisis lasted, people loved each other,” wrote the young reformer Dorothy Day of the San Francisco earthquake, having watched her mother give away her clothes to survivors. We haven’t quite reached the moment of imaginative, communal rebuilding that people are capable of when faced with disaster. We must hope that this moment will arrive soon.


Anna Neima is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow and the author of The Utopians: Six Attempts to Build the Perfect Society.

Anna_Neima

Join the discussion


Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

20 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

Bit of utopian wistfulness and cod-psychology in the writing of the article, and if you want crazy communes look to Russia where they do the craziest, and at least one of them, the Doukhobors, have kept it going since the 1600s, and are still kicking around in Canada, likely still ready to mass march nude and burn down government buildings, as that is their traditional protest when messed with….

But….the commune memories still are so strong in me, from back around 1980, when I lived in a truly wonderful one……ï»ż
I had left London after dropping out of school and became a drifter, a ‘Road Freak’, living out of a pack and hitch hiking dirt poor for many years when I stumbled onto a tiny commune in Oregon, and stayed through most of the winter, and it was the happiest time of my life. There were no jobs of any kind so I spent all day walking a dozen miles a day collecting scrap and deposit bottles, enough to eat from the communal meal, and stay drunk and stoned morning and night – excepting the about 8 hours I spent scouring the area for something to make a dollar….

It was so warm and close, a rambling building with wood fire for heat in the one main room, and really, really, great fellows – so wonderful a time, but after about 3 months I had collected every last deposit bottle and can and scrap for the miles radius I could cover, so was truly broke – so hitched off to Florida to pick citrus with a commune there that was so tight and fastidious about everything they kicked me out the second day, so off I went again….

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

You remind me of the Dennis Hopper character in Apocalypse Now.

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Maybe he is his long lost twin brother

Warren T
Warren T
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Sanford! Is that you?

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Was he a good man? Was he a kind man?

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Hi, Hopp

I write here for my own entertainment, to me this is just fun, as writing is as easy as talking to me, and I have always been able to talk to anyone, and deep down, what is it one really likes to talk about? Ones self……

Ah, yes. Sanford… he ended up getting rabies and they had to take him behind the barn and blow him away….. life can be so sad……

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Hopp – I do not tell lies, not everyone has led such a dull and vacuous life as yours – some of us have been out in the world a great deal. It is hard to imagine you as a magnet for anyone judging by your post – but then it takes all kinds, even your kind, I guess….

Andrew Lale
Andrew Lale
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

‘and deep down, what is it one really likes to talk about? Ones self

’ Yup, that’s all you. I love to talk to others about the world we share, and virtually never about myself. The world is vitally interesting and I’m not.

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

I think he was ‘offed’ by Unherd but has reincarnated and is being a little less ‘ranty’ – welcome back Sanford !!

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
2 years ago

“In San Francisco, it was just a matter of days before thousands of soldiers were “restoring order” in the city — which included shooting those who were trying to collect food for the needy.”

I know nothing about the 1906 earthquake but a little about human nature. I suspect the sudden removal of order provoked as much anti social human behaviour- looting and such like, as mini utopias. I doubt that the appearance of the army was treated by most as an unwelcome intervention by elites reestablishing control.

Jon Hawksley
Jon Hawksley
2 years ago
Reply to  Martin Bollis

A family friend was a teacher in San Francisco during the earthquake in 1906. She did not mention looting or the army or communes and as a child I did not ask her the questions I would ask now. A pity in retrospect.

Last edited 2 years ago by Jon Hawksley
ralph bell
ralph bell
2 years ago

I have always dreamed of living in a commune but never seemed to come across one and life carried on.
I think modern life for most people would be much improved with more communal living, with less loneliness and more compromise, tolerance and understanding. It would also be better for the environment and there would be less pressure on personal financial security.
I guess it would take something pretty major to convince most people to try it though, especially now we are generally so atomised.

JT H
JT H
2 years ago

The author has misunderstood “utopian living” if she believes two days of a community banding together after disaster represents such. If so, then she is welcome to visit Houston or Baton Rouge after hurricanes or any midwest town after tornadoes for all of her utopian needs. This as distinct from communes set up for specific ideological purpose, most of which, as the author notes, are quite short lived when the reality of human nature sets in. My own belief is that the scalability of “back-to-mother-earth” communes is limited by Dunbar’s number. Once a population exceeds that number, checks and controls must be placed into service to maintain trust and diminish the free-rider problem.
The author, despite admitting to these communes being small and short-lived, ends with a hope for massive (read: entire globe) communal response to climate change. Quite a leap to address a problem that is vastly already rife with hyperbolic exaggeration.

Last edited 2 years ago by JT H
AC Harper
AC Harper
2 years ago

Intentional communities never last long and therefore are ‘not the answer’ for general society. But they do encourage the idea of Utopian living… which probably does more social harm in the long term.

Jack Martin Leith
Jack Martin Leith
2 years ago
Reply to  AC Harper

The community at Findhorn in Scotland was born in 1962 and was formalised as the Findhorn Foundation in 1972. It is currently home to more than 400 people. See Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Findhorn_Foundation

James Joyce
James Joyce
2 years ago

To answer the question posed in the title—NO!

Warren T
Warren T
2 years ago

Hmmm. The allure of reading the remaining pages of a book while sitting naked on the ground, penniless. The stench of human body odor, mixed with a perpetual wood fire, wafting throughout the encampment. Eating scraps of food to survive. And I’m sure every one of the drunkards and stoned intellectuals are the happy and fun sort to be around. Sounds like a wonderful choice.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago
Reply to  Warren T

I lived it for years, over a decade – it is not so bad, pretty rough though, but seen in memory, it does take on a rosy light –

The people you ended up around were mostly damaged ones, but very human – more than urban people really. Often not educated, often from really hard lives, what I call fringe people, and they all have stories to tell, which not so many urban ones do. I like people, and enjoyed hanging with so many characters. And the body odor is not a problem, that is more a urban problem, people living rough tend to be more like wild things and not have BO. The nakedness is not a common thing.ï»ż

It is a hard life, it is one few people could take for long, so one moves on and gets back to normal life after a wile. You would not like it.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
2 years ago

You’ve nailed it.

Andrew Lale
Andrew Lale
2 years ago

The attempt to insert ideological structures into actual history is painful and awkward, and destructive of the real recording of that history.