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Designer Tribalism — the communal great escape

“Turning their backs on institutions they believe dispensable, simplifying arrangements they do not understand, there is hardly a painful lesson in the experience of mankind that communes have not defied or ignored — and then been forced to learn all over again.”


Everybody wants out. City dwellers want out to the suburbs, suburbia wants out to the country, and tourists can’t go far enough searching for exotic locations and wide open skies. In America a recent strand of radical libertarianism takes this escapism to a new political level. It proposes autonomous islands in the sea, beyond the jurisdictional writ of the state — or any state you’ve ever heard of — where true individual liberty will be preserved on what appear to be decommissioned ocean-going oil rigs. Anyway that’s what the “seasteads” described by Patri Friedman look like to me. Some even suggest they’re a new kind of nautical commune.


SeasteadBut I have to say that a floating housing estate as big as a rig resembles anything previously known as a commune like a battleship resembles a canoe. Most communes in the past have been agricultural plots where poor and hairy dreamers try to scratch a living from the land — even when most of them have never seen a plow, or an axe, and can barely tell one end of a cow from the other.

But communal yearnings go deep.

“When men complain of loneliness, what they mean is that nobody understands what they are saying: to be understood is to share a common past, common feelings and language, common assumptions, and the possibility of intimate communications—in short, to share common forms of life.” — Isaiah Berlin

What Berlin here calls “common forms of life” are much the same as what anthropologists call “cultures”; while the craving for shared understanding, language, feeling, and intimacy he so eloquently describes underlies our all but universal longing for forms of communal order—family, clan, or tribe — especially as a way of escaping modern life today. And if you don’t have a satisfactory family or tribe then you just invent one of your own: such is Designer Tribalism.

These longings often combine with broadly socialist visions of life and labor. In France in the 18th century the Abbé de Mably proposed a community where

“all are equal, all are rich, all are poor, all are free, and our first law is that nothing is to be privately owned. We should bring to the public storehouses the fruit of our labours: that would be the Treasury of the State and the inheritance of every citizen. Every year the fathers of families would elect the stewards, whose duty it would be to distribute the goods according to the needs of each individual, and to instruct them as to the work required of them.”

Sounds good. Communes being communal, they are invariably seen as uniquely virtuous, fair and compassionate forms of association. Yet they rarely turn out that way. Discipline and authority are always a problem. A year 2000 Web prospectus for “Dreamland” in the USA began with encouraging talk about friendship and harmony, but closed by warning potential recruits that “thieves, liars, users and violent people will be dealt with harshly. I’m not a sucker, and I’m not going to build a charity mission or a soft target for crooks”.


The guy at Dreamland was looking for like-minded spirits to join him in a cooperative community. He’d had enough of “normal American life” and wanted a “meaningful existence” instead. Romantic primitivism usually comes from a reaction against the ordinary world, and this came through strongly. He knew exactly what he hated: the work ethic, abusive bosses, obnoxious co-workers, invasion of privacy and feelings of fear and inappropriate guilt, along with “blame, accusation, yelling, insults and threats”.

He and his wife were going to escape from all that, form a commune, and “get their dream off the ground”.

At one time he’d thought of being a hermit like Thoreau. But solitary life in the woods was too austere and he couldn’t take the plunge. “Call me superficial or materialistic if you want, but I’ve come to really appreciate things like electric lighting, working toilets, and access to many of the niceties of modern industrial culture like libraries and hardware stores, powered vehicles and medical care when I need it.” Which of course presented a problem. Primitivism demands simplicity. But common sense told him that radically simple living was no longer possible. He also wanted to live without blame, accusation, and yelling. But this goal was likely to be even harder to achieve—or not without a lot more insight into himself and others than this Chief Tribal Designer appeared to have.

Yet he’d learnt a few things along the way. He knew that recent history showed clearly that communism doesn’t work, that the ideal of economic self-sufficiency is a delusion, and that creating a new society from scratch was entirely beyond him — what Isaiah Berlin called “the crooked timber of humanity” was just too crooked for the task. Having learnt these lessons he was better prepared for his project than Robert Owen two hundred years ago.

New Harmony and Robert Owen

By his early forties Owen had made a fortune as a British cotton manufacturer. He was famous for influential factory reforms. Throughout his plants working hours were reduced, conditions improved, and the employment of children under ten was banned. Then around 1813 his mind filled with much grander revolutionary plans. After writing a book setting out A New View of Society he urged his countrymen to reject the industrial revolution and go back to the land.

This attempt to throw everything into reverse was to start in Britain. There he called for the setting up of Voluntary and Independent Associations —“villages of unity and mutual cooperation”—which were to become a vast system of cooperative socialism all over the globe. Each association would be a group of from 800 to 1200 people where everyone would live in communal housing amiably together. How his people were going to spend their working days was rather less clear. Owen said vaguely they would “hold property in common” and do some farming, but he didn’t bother to spell out the details.

If romantic primitivists dream of communities that never were and never will be (something freely admitted by Rousseau) then Owen’s case fits this description pretty well. Turning violently against the world he knew, he embraced a vision of rural life—and farming was something he knew nothing about at all. Countless people imagine alternative lifestyles pictorially, nicely colored and composed like tourist brochures; it was as if Owen himself had fallen in love with a painting of trees and fields, or a pastoral poem of Arcadian reverie.

He seemed to think trudging behind a plow was morally worthy in itself — the aching arms and the sweat on the farm-worker’s brow were signs of virtue. But there was no connection between his pictured images of old-style rural life and the very real practical problems of personnel and incentives and organization he faced on the ground. This soon became clear when he got to America.

“I am come to this country”, he announced at the launch of New Harmony on the Wabash in 1826, “to introduce an entire new system of society, to change it from an ignorant, selfish system to an enlightened social system which shall gradually unite all interests into one, and remove all causes for contest between individuals”.

He spoke vaguely about cultivating the land in common. Communal land would be an essential moral step away from selfishness. But he had no idea what it meant. According to the diary of his son William Owen, he told his associates only four days before signing the purchase papers for the land

“that it had occurred to him only this morning, that, perhaps, if he purchased Harmonie (the old Rappite name of the settlement) the community might rent the houses and land from him and cultivate the land in common . . . Mr Clark wished to know what become of their present property. Mr (Robert) Owen thought if the soil was wet it might be laid down in grass, if dry in cotton or farmed for the private benefit of the individuals of the society”.

The historian A. E. Bestor comments that however incredible it may seem, Owen was about to sink his fortune in an experiment without any notion as to whether the recruits who had flocked to New Harmony were to be employees, or almsmen, or partners, or tenants. And whatever they were, who was going to till the soil?

The membership was top-heavy with wordy thinkers who knew a good idea when they heard one, but had never so much as seen a plow. Only after a committee had met, and more than once, were some farm implements put into the fields. But by then Owen had left and gone back to England for five months, leaving control of the “Preliminary Society” in the hands of his 23-year-old son William.

Those good old days down on the farm…

There are people today who think life was better in the past. They argue that there was not only a simplicity, tranquility, sociability and spirituality about life in the distant past that has been lost, but a virtue too. This rose-tinted nostalgia, please note, is generally confined to the wealthy. It is easier to wax elegiac about the life of a peasant when you do not have to use a long-drop toilet.

Imagine that it is 1800, somewhere in Western Europe or eastern North America. The family is gathering around the hearth in the simple timber-framed house. Father reads aloud from the Bible while mother prepares to dish out a stew of beef and onions. The baby boy is being comforted by one of his sisters and the eldest lad is pouring water from a pitcher into the earthenware mugs on the table.

His elder sister is feeding the horse in the stable. Outside there is no noise of traffic, there are no drug dealers and neither dioxins nor radioactive fall-out have been found in the cow’s milk. All is tranquil; a bird sings outside the window.

Oh please!

Though this is one of the better-off families in the village, father’s Scripture reading is interrupted by a bronchitic cough that presages the pneumonia that will kill him at 53 – not helped by the wood smoke of the fire. (He is lucky: life expectancy even in England was less than 40 in 1800.)

The baby will die of the smallpox that is now causing him to cry; his sister will soon be the chattel of a drunken husband. The water the son is pouring tastes of the cows that drink from the brook. Toothache tortures the mother. The neighbor’s lodger is getting the other girl pregnant in the hayshed even now and her child will be sent to an orphanage.

The stew is grey and gristly yet meat is a rare change from gruel; there is no fruit or salad at this season. It is eaten with a wooden spoon from a wooden bowl. Candles cost too much, so firelight is all there is to see by. Nobody in the family has ever seen a play, painted a picture or heard a piano. School is a few years of dull Latin taught by a bigoted martinet at the vicarage. Father visited the city once, but the travel cost him a week’s wages and the others have never travelled more than fifteen miles from home.

Each daughter owns two wool dresses, two linen shirts and one pair of shoes. Father’s jacket cost him a month’s wages but is now infested with lice. The children sleep two to a bed on straw mattresses on the floor.

From The Rational Optimist, by Matt Ridley, 2010, pages 12-13

Authority and rules

What I call Designer Tribalism has limitless faith that the right rules will produce the right results. If the setting is rural, and communal ownership is ordained, then once private ownership is abolished the remaining problems should look after themselves. That seems to have been Owen’s view. In addition to this it’s assumed that as long as people agree on their ultimate goals, communal government can be taken for granted too.

But it can’t. Old-time traditional authority needs deeply lived-in institutions and rules, and they don’t exist in tribes invented yesterday. The habits of respect are missing. Rational authority needs enough like-minded folk to agree on laws, not an anarchy of opinionated talkers. Charismatic authority demands the ever-present dominating force of an inspiring leader—and time and again this is the primitive solution to problems of authority and governance which communes end up with. Charismatic leadership can certainly hold things together for a while, and perhaps New Harmony might have lasted a bit longer if Owen had stayed. But he didn’t. He sailed away back to England, and in May 1827, less than two years after it began, the whole enterprise fell in a heap.

John Humphrey Noyes’ “Inquest on New Harmony” of 1870 is not without a certain disagreeable gloating, but he was right about some of its flaws, including Owen’s optimistically generous way of getting recruits. On one estimate nine-tenths of the membership was useless. They included “scores of whom the world is quite unworthy—the conceited, the crotchety, the selfish, the headstrong, the pugnacious, the unappreciated, the played-out, the idle, and the good-for-nothing generally”.

But could better people have saved New Harmony? With so much being handed out free, what motive did anyone have for working? Or was there a much deeper fault than the quality of the recruits — a flaw in the communal dream itself? Introducing an “enlightened social system which shall gradually unite all interests into one, and remove all causes for contest between individuals” was easy enough for Owen to say. But after private property had been abolished who would care for the communal property, and what incentives would ensure that work got done?

Aristotle made some useful observations on these matters long ago. Individual ownership, he said, had the advantage that “when the care of things is divided among many, men will not complain of one another, but will rather prosper the more as each attends to his own property”. But for some reason, he complained, although it was obvious that men who looked after their own property thrived and prospered, alienated Athenian intellectuals couldn’t resist the appeal of communal schemes.

Day after day they came running up to him in the agora and pressed advertisements for Greek Dreamlands and New Harmonys upon him — places where private ownership would be abolished and everyone would go around hugging everyone else. Men readily listen to such utopian speculations, he continued,

“and are easily induced to believe that some wonderful love of everybody for everybody will result—especially when someone denounces the evils which now exist as a consequence of the fact that property is not owned in common, for example lawsuits for breach of contract, trials for perjury, and flattery of the rich.

But none of these evils are due to the absence of communism. They are due to wickedness, since we see those who jointly own or possess things quarrelling a great deal more than those whose property is separate . . .

Justice requires that we state not only any evils from which those under communism will be free, but also those benefits of which they will be deprived; and when this is done, life under such a system is seen to be utterly impossible”.

John Humphrey Noyes and Oneida

Abolishing private property is usually Designer Tribalism’s number-one goal, and the Abbé de Mably’s vision of a world in which “all are equal, all are rich, all are poor, all are free, and our first law is that nothing is to be privately owned” is typical.

But the inspiring hope of new sexual arrangements runs it close. Plato long ago proposed that an ideal society would “hold women in common”, and the 18th-century exploration of the South Pacific produced a bright-eyed renewal of interest more recently. Bougainville’s reports of agile nymphs sportively climbing over his ship’s bulwarks in Tahiti, Melville’s golden Marquesans in Typee, and Margaret Mead’s youthful vision of lovers slipping home at dawn  “from trysts beneath the palm trees” all helped to keep the vision alive.

Back in New York State in the 1840s, however, there was a man who needed no literary stimulation to warm his desires. His drive was urgent. His imagination was strong. And his Bible furnished all the text he needed. This was John Humphrey Noyes.

After attending the Divinity Schools of Andover and Yale, Noyes began around 1846 with a small group of family members. With this nucleus there would not be the leadership problems which destroyed New Harmony. His clan held him in awe, his domination was absolute, and for over thirty years the community always knew who was in charge.

Noyes took passages from the Bible about the Primitive Church, and by scriptural interpretation devised sexual arrangements for his New York community which in some ways resemble those of Australia’s Arnhem Land Aborigines, in others seem modelled on the polyandrous arrangements of Ladakh, while others again bring to mind the customs of polygynous Dahomey.

Noyes might have been surprised if someone pointed this out to him, but it’s hard to say. He might just have retorted “So what?” Because although the Bible was important as a guide, for all truly charismatic leaders it can never be more than a guide. Far more important is a strong belief in one’s own inspiration, and in the case of John Humphrey Noyes a complete and unblinking certainty as to what was natural and right overruled God’s word when required.

As M. L. Carden writes, “he taught that one should follow only the inspired spirit of the Bible, not the letter of the law. For him there were no absolute standards of morality. What is right for one time is wrong for another: it is a higher form of ethics to be responsible to oneself than to an external set or rules. In less specifically religious terms, although not without religious justification, he insisted that life is supposed to be happy. Men, and women too, should cultivate and desire the joys of all experience—including the joys of sexual intercourse. With regard to matters ranging from religion to sex, this nineteenth-century prophet rejected the conventions of his day and often anticipated more than a century of change.”

This sounds uplifting. Carden plainly sees Noyes’ sexual agenda as heralding good things to come. But though the oddities of the Oneida Community had compensating virtues, it has to be said that for the most part these were the virtues of God-fearing New England at large — order, work, thrift, cleanliness, and the punctilious paying of bills. They had nothing to do with polygamy. Such values belonged in another ethical universe entirely from those governing the sexual regime of the community’s last days in 1879. By then a small number of old men had privileged access to a harem of nubile females (some as young as ten) one of whom was obliged to service her creaky elders up to seven times a week.


Describing John Humphrey Noyes as a tormented spirit is an understatement — but it suggests the tensions wracking the man. It all began at a revival meeting in 1831. He was 20. From that point his religious obsession steadily grew until in 1834 he arrived at “an unshakeable conviction that the Kingdom of God could and would soon literally be realized on earth”.

The Millennium was nigh — but how nigh, and how would you know? Intensive reading convinced him that faith, not works, was the chief requisite for salvation, and that a man who was close to “perfect” would probably be saved. He next claimed to have achieved this rare condition himself — only to be ridiculed by those who thought him deranged, to have his license to preach revoked, and to be driven into the spiritual solitude of “three emotionally devastating weeks in New York City in May 1834, during which he plumbed the depths of suffering and came to the brink of mental collapse”.

Wandering the streets day and night he preached to vagrants and prostitutes, visited brothels, drank ardent spirits and wildly added cayenne pepper to his food, and in the midst of these excitements recklessly concluded that the entire sexual basis of society had to be changed. The doctrine he formulated was Perfectionism, and the chief article of Perfectionism was “communism in love”. Noyes based his arguments on his study of the early Christian church, and were doubtless clever. But it is hard to see the main aspects of his teaching as anything more than the rationalization of a shy man, intensely religious, disappointed in love and unable to approach women directly, who showed a remarkable determination to rewrite the book on sex.

Next he announced a divine commission to implement the Kingdom of God on earth. First the marriage laws had to be revoked: “The law of marriage ‘worketh wrath’” he wrote. “It provokes to secret adultery, actual or of the heart. It ties together unmatched natures. It sunders matched natures. It gives to sexual appetite only a scanty and monotonous allowance, and so produces the natural vices of poverty, contraction of taste and stinginess or jealousy.”

The scanty sexual allowance of monogamy would be enlarged by what he called “complex marriage”. Pair marriage would be replaced by love of the entire community — group marriage or “multigamy” if you like. Women were expected to change their sexual partners often, and surviving records show that in one case conception could have resulted from any of four different encounters the previous month.

A man might approach a woman directly, or through a third party, and she was free to accept or refuse. Anyway that was the theory. But what woman would be bold enough to refuse a man representing the Almighty? Noyes himself supervised arrangements for intercourse, and the preferred relationships brought together the more spiritual and older residents who had reached a higher level of fellowship with the younger ones who still had a way to go.

What then resulted was an all-too-visible hierarchy. The most perfect Perfectionists comprised a privileged nobility of bearded old men, whose sexual claims ranked well above a collection of disesteemed minor figures of less perfection, less physical appeal, and less clout.

An unusual feature of Oneida was that reproduction was prohibited. Given that there was a high level of sexual activity at Oneida, what attempt was therefore made at birth control? A procedure was followed which supposedly ensured “male continence”, and which one writer has called “celibate intercourse”. Technically known as coitus reservatus, this involved full penetration without ejaculation. It seems to have worked, however, since very few births were recorded for twenty years. In a discussion of Oneida in his 1981 book Religion and Sexuality Lawrence Foster says judiciously that “Whatever one’s opinion of ‘male continence’ . . . the practice certainly did require male self-control”.


But whatever the frustrations of the community’s adult membership, children at Oneida grew up much the same as children everywhere—or at least this can be said of the boys. To be sure, they were raised together in a large communal “children’s house” meant to restrict the influence of parents. But they romped as infants, got into scrapes at a later age, and though the contact of children with their mothers was severely restricted, it is obvious from Pierrepont Noyes’ memoir My Father’s House that they were happy and well-adjusted on the whole.

Nevertheless after thirty years this unusual society did break up. “On the 23rd of June 1879,” wrote Pierrepont Noyes, “something happened so unthinkable, so perturbing, that the very framework of life seemed falling about me, as the timbers of a house are torn apart and scattered by a cyclone. My father disappeared; departed secretly from Oneida and no one seemed to know whither he had gone. I saw tears in my mother’s eyes. She would not discuss with me the cause of this startling event or its probable results, saying only, ‘I don’t know. We’ll not talk about it, Pip, until we know.’” From the author’s account his mother may or may not have known—evidently Pierrepont himself did not—that John Humphrey Noyes had fled to Canada to avoid charges of statutory rape.

The perils of polygamy

This ended an instructive sequence of events. Disputes over power and sexual privilege are common in communes. Despite the disapproval of competition for wealth at Oneida, and the community’s vaunted egalitarianism, it is obvious that the sexual regime reserved the most delectable pieces of pie for Noyes’ himself. So-called complex marriage “disguised what was, in fact, something fairly close to a polygynous system dominated by the leader and a few of the older men who had preferential access to the young more nubile girls, while the young men were encouraged to consort with older postmenopausal women”.

And there was another privilege the old men enjoyed too. This was the right to introduce nubile females in the community to complex marriage — to take their virginity from an early age — a right increasingly demanded by Noyes himself. This so-called right to be first husband was nothing more than a primitivistic revival of the medieval jus primae noctis, or right of a feudal lord to the first night with his vassal’s bride. It is said of this medieval practice that it was never truly a legitimate right confirmed by law, but occurred when it did as an abuse of power.

Blatant abuse of power was involved when Noyes tightened control while increasing his privileges. Long interested in selective breeding, he now introduced eugenic reproduction — on his terms. These overwhelmingly favored the genetic princes of the realm . . .  the most perfectly perfect of the Perfectionists themselves. Yet he was shrewd enough not to completely bar commoners from having children. In Pierrepont Noyes’ recollection, “My memory, running over the roster of Community members, notes that almost every man had one child, but that, aside from the preferred ‘stirps’ (or legitimate breeders), they had only one”. (Emphasis in original.)

The Designer Tribe at Oneida instituted one of the most sensational primitivist projects ever. But the rules Noyes drew up are fully supported by anthropology. The Australian Aborigines of Arnhem Land were not only polygynous but gerontocratic as well. There the sexual monopoly of young girls enjoyed by toothless and senile elders has been a source of high tension for years.

Among small groups like the Bushman of southern Africa or the Yanomamo of Venezuela, strong leaders might keep up to ten women for their use. Polynesian chiefs traditionally kept up to a hundred women, while — as in the old-time West African kingdom of Dahomey — thousands and even tens of thousands of women were made available to the leaders of ancient empires like Mesopotamia and Egypt, or India and China, not to mention Aztec Mexico or Inca Peru. And who knows how many children the leading Saudi chieftains have today?

Anyone reading about Oneida will soon notice how indulgently Noyes is treated in most accounts. The attitude is liberal and admiring; the tone is respectful; he is even mentioned as a “Yankee Saint”. You will search in vain for any mention of civil rights. So far as I am aware, no book has yet been written from the perspective of a thoroughly intimidated sexually abused ten-year-old girl, unable to escape from the sanctimonious “culture” of Oneida, and having no-one to turn to, with a bearded religious fanatic climbing into her bed night after night.

Accommodation in the Kibbutz

Romantic primitivism comes from western intellectuals dreaming about the tribal world—and one of their more disturbing dreams is a longing to impose communal housing on everyone else. The more alienated they are, the more they admire extended families, and the more obsessed they are with barracks accommodation. It must be hard for anyone who has not read the sociological literature, and especially the attack on the nuclear family waged by progressive thinkers for the last 100 years, to understand this preoccupation with jamming lots of people together under one roof.

Research in France showed long communal houses dating from the Dark Ages in Western Europe. But it was Eastern Europe which really fired the imagination. “Learn from the Balkans” was the slogan (and learn from Serbia especially) as reams of paper were expended on the glories of the Zadruga, a common household in which fathers and sons, brothers and uncles and nephews, all lived together in unalienated Serbian bliss. Engels had launched this with a warm endorsement. “The South-Slavic Zadruga provides the best existing example of such a family community” he announced — although he reserved his greatest enthusiasm for the Haida Indians where “some households gather as many as seven hundred members under one roof”.

This let everyone know the standard for domestic density tribalism had set, and the writer Rebecca West was one who learnt her lesson. It is typical of the romanticising of something this author herself would find personally intolerable, that she devotes an admiring paragraph to the Zadruga in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. There the claustrophobic pleasures of Serbian housing are contrasted with the dreariness and solitude of English country life. Arrangements in east European peasant households were usually more complicated than they seemed. But misty misunderstandings fed socialist imaginings for years—especially in the Israeli kibbutz.

Back-to-the-land designer tribalism was ingrained in kibbutzim from the start. Most of the immigrants to Israel were patriarchal, capitalistic, and both modern and urban. In contrast the kibbutz was meant to be egalitarian and socialist, and to embody a Jewish version of the pastoral dream. For the new men and women of the kibbutz collective living was mandatory, and the communal nature of child care was spelled out as early as 1916: “Child care is not only the responsibility of the mother, but of all the women. The essential thing is to preserve the principle of co-operation in everything; there should be no personal possessions, for private property hinders cooperative work”.

Collective care also required communal housing:

“For several decades most kibbutzim raised their children in age-segregated ‘children’s houses’. Small groups of eight to twelve children, within a year or so of each other in age, slept, ate, played and went to school in a single building, under the supervision of three adults (almost invariably women). Each kibbutz had ten or twelve large and well-appointed houses, catering for tightly knit little groups of children who changed house from year to year as they grew up, but retained their integrity as a group. . . In effect, each children’s house was a miniature boarding school, which catered to a single grade, from the infant nursery through the primary school grades.”

This was supposed to reduce parental influence. Perhaps if the kibbutzniks had read Pierrepont Noyes they might have saved themselves some trouble. In a chapter about his mother he describes a rare treat he remembers, the day she was allowed to arrange a birthday party for him. He was six.

“There were only two at the party, Dick and I, but it was a real party and we had cake. I think my mother got even more pleasure than I did out of that party. The Community system was harder on mothers than on their children. Whenever I was permitted to visit my mother in her mansard room—once a week or twice (I have forgotten which)—she always seemed trying to make up for lost opportunity, lavishing affection on me until, much as I loved her, I half grudged the time taken from play with those toys which she had—I think somewhat surreptitiously—collected for my visits.”

Kibbutz mothers had an easier time than the mother of Pierrepont Noyes: they could see their children daily. But they still kept trying to make up for the lost opportunity of too much time apart. At first they could only see their children for a short time in the evenings; then after 1964 mothers were also permitted contact during the “hour of love”—a 30-minute period each morning when they took their children out of the children’s houses to play and walk. As the kibbutzim became more prosperous the mothers more assertively tried to get separate houses of their own: they wanted their children with them overnight.

By 1955 a majority of kibbutz women supported family housing, though only 40 percent of the men agreed. Ten years later the gap between men and women had widened. In 1965, in the more liberal kibbutzim where the pressure for change was strongest, 75 percent of women supported nuclear family arrangements, while men’s support rose to 53.6 percent.

The most doctrinaire collectivists were always men. They warned that a more individualistic system would burden the women, and they were right. When children stayed home overnight it was their mothers who had to take them each morning to school in the children’s houses—their fathers were by then at work in the fields. Nuclear households also gave mothers more domestic work. But none of this weakened their determination to get houses for themselves. Their answer to every objection was the same: “We don’t mind, we’re ready to do anything to have our children with us during the night.”

Life at Cold Mountain Farm

Engels announced the coming demise of the bourgeois family in the nineteenth century. It had to go if any serious progress was to be made, and during the high tide of communalism in the 1960s and 1970s feminists said much the same thing. In 1971 Eva Figes wrote that “until marriage is either abolished completely or has become a hollow sham, I am afraid women are going to make far too little effort to improve their own positions”. The following year anthropologist Eleanor Leacock declared: “it is crucial to the organization of women for their liberation to understand that it is the monogamous family as an economic unit, at the heart of class society, that is basic to their subjugation”.

Views of this kind were common among the Designer Tribes of the time. Laurence Vesey’s account from the glory days of the counterculture, The Communal Experience, reports on a 1960s project at Cold Mountain Farm in Vermont. The woman in charge was Joyce Gardner. Like the rest of her team she looked forward to the abolition of marriage, monogamy, class society, and all other obstacles to self-realization. The location was right — Putney in Vermont had been the original home of Noyes’ Perfectionists — and the site chosen was an inaccessible farmhouse without electricity “set in a secluded valley surrounded by an attractive rim of hills”.

The hills were important. Twelve months later they must have been the only attraction left, since the Cold Mountain farmers knew even less about what they were doing than Robert Owen. They bought a tractor which soon broke down. They waited for good weather to sow their seed under the impression that planting only takes place when the sun is shining, and that farmers suntan while they work. Meanwhile the time for planting passed by. There were personnel problems because some of the residents regarded disruption as a right. People drifted in and drifted out. A few chose to work stark naked, a gesture the neighbors found picturesque but unnecessary.

Though summer was passing nobody could be bothered cutting wood for their winter fires. Gardens went unweeded, a hepatitis epidemic struck them down, autumn chilled their spirits, and as falling snow deepened in the leafless woods the last surviving colonists vamoosed.

Vesey says the main difficulties of the community “came from within”, meaning that their utopian fantasies fell too far short of reality. This is putting it mildly. In an account she wrote around 1970 Gardner tells how she dreamed of “a family of incestuous brothers and sisters” sharing everything and everyone, a family “where energies would flow among and between everyone, and all relationships would be voluntary”, a warm community of people “whose love of life and of each other would give us an almost superhuman strength for survival”.

Many synthetic designer tribes call themselves families. But what exactly is a family of incestuous brothers and sisters? Gardner plainly wanted the best of two worlds. On the one hand she wanted the intimacy and caring associated with the sort of family where there are children. On the other hand she wanted the more demanding intimacy of incestuous sex. But the two things are not compatible — and one notices that as usual in fantasized sexuality, no fathers and mothers are mentioned, and no children, and certainly no daily routine of child care. What we have instead is the immature guilt-free sexutopia of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

The naked savages roaming Cold Mountain Farm included only brothers and sisters horizontally related in time. This had effects on social structure. They were not linked to any generation before, or to any generation after, because generation had nothing to do with it. As a form of human association the community was both logically and biologically sterile — a strange family indeed. The people at Cold Mountain Farm were being, not generating, pursuing the narcissistic ideal of self-development, self-fulfilment, self-realization—and if self-realization didn’t result, what reason would a resident have for staying on?

Sexual bonds are not strong enough on their own to hold a group together. But it is unclear what other rationale than sex the Cold Mountain Farmers had. “We didn’t become NEW people—we just became physically healthy people”, Gardner concluded. “We weren’t ready yet to put the blade to our own skins and expose the raw, tender, inner flesh inside; to plant the seeds of the people we wished to become; to grow new and beautiful skins from the inside out; to rediscover our tribal consciousness, our human brotherhood…”

Atavism with Ezra at Rockridge

The xenophobia which is the other side of “human brotherhood” can be found in abundance at Rockridge. The leader of this New Mexico outfit is Ezra, and in 1971 his view is thoroughly apocalyptic: the “outside” is plainly heading for catastrophe, and salvation lies only through strict adherence to the “inside” principles of Rockridge itself. Described as a tall and broadly built man of 42, Ezra’s dark hair is short and parted, and he has the general aspect of a construction foreman or perhaps a farmer: “He is no hippie.”

His southern drawl is “rich, deep, full of masculine energy, always the instrument of his purpose, even when he shouts in rage”. There’s a lot of shouting at Rockridge because it has a government of men rather than laws — for to put it frankly Ezra is the government himself. And here we might look back for a moment at that announcement for Dreamland on the Web. The bitterest complaints of its author have to do with surveillance, power, and control. What he finds intolerable about America is the “invasion of privacy and personal life whether by drug or polygraph testing, or other means that result in a culture of suspicion and feelings of fear and inappropriate guilt… camera surveillance and access cards or time-clocks that your ‘betters’ use to monitor your every move and to subordinate or humiliate you”. All this gives rise to “blame, accusation, yelling, insults and threats against your job and livelihood”.

At Dreamland, he says, all this will be banished forever. The author has learnt his lesson from Waco and Jonestown: “I intend to retain some authority over the place, but I hope for the place to be very libertarian. I most emphatically do not intend to become the charismatic ruler, or anything like that.”

No doubt he sincerely meant this. Maybe Ezra himself began with similar good intentions 30 years ago. Perhaps even the Rev Jim Jones of Jonestown did too, though it didn’t prevent around 800 people getting killed. The trouble is that in the absence of separate roles for law-making, legal inquiry, and the impartial judgement of independent courts, men yelling insults is what communes always seem to get.

Ezra and other Designer Tribalists could learn a lot from Montesquieu: “When the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person, or in the same body of magistrates, there can be no liberty… Again, there is no liberty if the judiciary power be not separated from the legislative and executive. Were it joined with the legislative, the life and liberty of the subject would be exposed to arbitrary control, for the judge would then be legislator. Were it joined to the executive, the judge might behave with violence and oppression.”

Each day at Rockridge showed how important these wise cautions are. Absence of liberty, arbitrary punishment, hectoring and humiliation, were all routine. This was because legislative and judicial and executive power were joined in the one unmanageable personality of Ezra himself. The larger community of Oneida had witnessed similar public humiliations a century before. But despotism at Oneida was softened by discussions in which various men and women, high and low, young and old, expressed their thoughts; and although Noyes’ opinion always counted most, gross injustice was generally avoided.

At Rockridge the situation was far worse. It was not just that happiness depended on Ezra’s smile, one’s very existence depended on it. As a result his followers would do almost anything to ensure his approval and goodwill — including false confession if required.

Crime and confession

It happened that a woman lost a wheel off her convertible driving into town. And the man who had changed the wheel at the commune (let’s call him Tom) had failed to tighten the wheel nuts properly. Vesey was present at the “court proceeding” to be recounted, and so far as he could tell there was no reason to believe the “crime” involved anything more than simple negligence. But in synthetic tribalism, as in real tribalism itself, misfortune cannot be explained by anything so simple. There is no such thing as an innocent injurious act.

In primitive societies there is a world beyond the veil of appearances, and it is the task of supernatural explanation to search in this world for malignant motives. Ezra said secret motives lay behind the loose nuts on the wheel—and Tom would have to confess to having them.

After placing the wheel on the dinner table as a centre piece Judge Ezra accused Tom of trying to kill the girl in the car. He said Tom secretly hated her, hated all women in fact. Ezra then attacked Tom’s upper-class Protestant background, said that it was because the girl was Catholic that he had not tightened the wheel, that it wasn’t an accident, it was sabotage, that deep down Tom was driven by homicidal impulses and that if the truth be told it was a combination of religious and class motives, plus his dislike of women, which had led him to attempt murder.

“What followed next”, writes Vesey, “was from an outsider’s standpoint truly remarkable. Tom tearfully accepted the idea of his deliberate intent, without the slightest sign of resistance”.

But this wasn’t enough. Ezra said Tom was holding something back, and demanded dramatic evidence of how Tom “really felt”—now was the time for Tom to bring out all his lurking inner resentments, to finally rid himself of his need to kill. At this point the accused seized a glass water jug from the table and smashed it against a wall. Later, all passion spent, a process of rehabilitation took place, and the “criminal” was reunited with the community. Ezra invited Tom to come and read them his favorite William Blake poems. Group solidarity, the summum bonum of cultural primitivism, was again restored.

Rousseau and the General Will

Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s book The Social Contract (1762) was among the most dangerous books Western civilization ever produced. Man, Rousseau argued, is a ‘noble savage’ who is reluctant to submit to authority. The only legitimate authority to which he can submit is the sovereignty of ‘the People’ and the ‘General Will’.

According to Rousseau, that General Will must be supreme. Magistrates and legislators must bow down before it. There can be no ‘sectional associations’. There can be no Christianity, which after all implies a separation of powers (the spiritual from the temporal).

Freedom is a good thing, no doubt. But for Rousseau virtue is more important. The General Will should be virtue in action. [From Niall Ferguson’s 2011 book Civilization: the West and the Rest, page 151]

Why did something more typical of the world of witches and sorcerers occur spontaneously in an Arizona commune in 1971? On one interpretation this represents a theatrical showdown between the claims of the group and the individual. Coerced public confession demonstrates that the right of the collective to assign guilt completely outweighs the right of the accused to defend himself. At the same time it dramatically denies the value of objective truth.

In the political theory Rousseau developed in The Social Contract the rights of the group and of the state flow from the General Will, which is infallible, and where the General Will conflicts with an individual will the latter must yield. In totalitarian politics this principle is important — it involves the authority of the state — and the striking parallels from Soviet Russian history and the Moscow Show Trials of 1938 are plain to see. As they were fully intended to demonstrate at the time, nothing shows the majestic authority of a regime more than the willingness, on the part of those it accuses, publicly to confess to things they did not do and to crimes they did not commit.

In a book from around the same time as Vesey’s, Rosabeth Kanter’s Community and Commitment, the author argues revealingly that when humiliation is imposed on an individual it serves the purpose of group therapy. “In communities . . . the use of mortification is a sign that the group cares about the individual, about his thoughts and feelings, about the content of his inner world. The group cares enough to pay great attention to the person’s behavior, and to promise him warmth, intimacy, and love . . . if he indicates that he can accept these gifts without abuse. Mortification thus facilitates a moral commitment on the part of the person to accept the control of the group, binding his inner feelings and evaluations to the group’s norms and beliefs”.

This statement deserves to be framed and hung on the wall. Seldom can the process of collective intimidation, humiliation, and thought control, with all its indifference to legal process and its potential for unhinged sadism, have received such an upbeat academic defense — and from Harvard too. But Kanter does indeed throw light on the tribal process which elevates solidarity above truth. If the group says black is white, then the willingness to agree that black is white vividly testifies to an individual’s acceptance of “group norms”.

Vesey also describes after-dinner exorcism procedures at Rockridge. As several women cried “out! Out! While breathing with the rising involuntary rhythm that one associates with sexual climax, I began to think I was eavesdropping on pure and simple hysteria of a kind which might even suggest Salem in 1692.”

But this was not pure and simple hysteria. What Vesey witnessed, in 1971, in New Mexico USA, was the deliberate reinvention of belief in supernatural evil by a marginal psychopath working the romantic primitivist vein, using the whole thaumaturgical box of tricks including irrational guilt, devils, and the ritual casting out of spirits.

The article above is a redaction of Chapter Two of The Culture Cult: Designer Tribalism and Other Essays, Westview Press 2001.

Books referred to include Backwoods Utopias by A. E. Bestor, Oneida by Maren L. Carden, Religion and Sexuality by Lawrence Foster, My Father’s House by Pierrepont Noyes, Women in the Kibbutz by Lionel Tiger and Joseph Shepher, The Communal Experience by Laurence Vesey, and Commitment and Community by Rosabeth M. Kanter.

Posted in New, Open Societies & the Culture Cult, People, Tribalism.

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