Rebirth of American Communes

The United States has a storied history of communal living attempts, from George Ripley’s Brook Farm utopia in the 1840s to Vermont’s back-to-the-land experiments in the 1960s, many of which failed. Today, however, “intentional living” is being reborn. Last year, the health care provider Cigna concluded that loneliness had reached “epidemic levels,” and with the dream of homeownership increasingly out of reach, many young people have sought out new ways to live and work. Co-working spaces like WeWork are booming. Co-housing settlements—which were founded in Scandinavia in the 1970s—are also springing up. (The United States now has around 170 such communities.) All told, the number of ecovillages, co-housing settlements, residential land trusts, communes, and housing cooperatives listed in the Foundation for Intentional Community’s global directory nearly doubled between 2010 and 2016, from 679 to about 1,200.

The Wall Street Journal once called the Farm “the General Motors of American Communes.” Its founder, Stephen Gaskin, was a charismatic creative writing instructor from California who had, while tripping on LSD, developed a philosophy one of his followers described as “Beat Zen and Buddhist economics.” Gaskin believed that America should return to natural living; chemical contraception and abortion, he said, were “damaging to the fabric of society.” In 1971, he and 300 hippies set out from San Francisco in search of a place to form an agrarian commune and “get it on with the dirt.” They eventually settled in central Tennessee. At first, they lived in teepees, Army tents, and the school buses they had driven out from California, avoiding birth control, makeup, coffee, meat, alcohol, violence, and haircutting. Everyone took a formal vow of poverty and forfeited their possessions.

Those who have stayed believe they can develop a vision for the future that builds off the Farm’s founding ideas: sustainability, and the desire to live in peaceful cooperation. “We realize that there is no viable way to start a full commune within a capitalist society right now,” Beyer said. “What we can do is slowly leverage our way out of it.” The Farm’s millennials are eager to try something radical again, but they have learned from the past generation that working within the systems of the outside world can be as important as working to build their own inside.

Sources: The New Republic, Chris Moody

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