A Communitarian Conundrum

Posted on June 7, 2011 by
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A Communitarian Conundrum

Labyrinth at New Harmony.


A Communitarian Conundrum

A street corner in New Harmony.


A Communitarian Conundrum

Shaker barn, Hancock Shaker Village.

Author: Tim Miller
Published in Communities Magazine Issue #151

The following is an edited version of a paper presented at the annual meeting of the Communal Studies Association, New Harmony, Indiana, October 2, 2010.

I believe that people the world over long for community. While that assertion is just about impossible to test, a number of indicators point in that direction. Social alienation seems to me widespread, with large numbers of people dissatisfied with the prevailing way the world is organized. They may have radically different visions of an ideal world, but a fair number, it is reasonable to guess, see lack of community as a cause of much of the restlessness and anomie we see all around us. The kinds of community that can bring meaning into life are many, but it is another fair guess that more than a few of those longing for community see intentional community as something that could put meaning and fulfillment into their lives.

Communal Aspirations

One bit of evidence for the desire for community can be seen in the classified advertising section, called “Reach,” in Communities magazine. In every issue there are ads seeking members for established communities, but also quite a few ads for new communities, typically ones that have not yet been actually launched, but concrete visions of community, at least, in the minds of would-be founders and members. In the Fall 2010 issue of the magazine, for example, people were invited to help start an ecovillage and retreat center in Kansas, a desert community in Arizona, a cohousing community in California, an urban cooperative in Hawai’i, and a shared household in New Jersey.

Another bit of evidence for community-mindedness is the traffic on the Foundation for Intentional Community website. As of October 2010, that site attracted about 66,500 hits per month, or about 2,200 a day, with 6.5 page views per visit, and the numbers for 2010 were up 11 percent over 2009. While not everyone visiting the site is in the market for community, surely the numbers reflect to some degree interest in intentional communities—if not living in one, at least wishing.

Video sales also indicate increased interest in community. The FIC reports that it sold over 1000 total copies of the two volumes of Geoph Kozeny’s video “Visions of Utopia” last year, and that included more sales of volume 1 than had been reached in any of the seven years it has been available.

Communities also attract attention from the broader public. There is a steady stream of media coverage of communities, as in the case of a photo feature on East Wind community in National Geographic in 2005. And there is a steady stream of visitors to communities—not just sightseers, but in many cases persons looking for a place to live in community.

The Hard Numbers

For all of the interest there seems to be in intentional communities, however, the number of persons actually living in intentional communities is tiny—a very small fraction of 1 percent of the population. Counting the number of active communitarians is a daunting task, to say the least, but the numbers are not large.

I decided I would count up the population of the hundreds of American communities in the 2007 edition of the Communities Directory (the new 2010 directory was not yet out when I did my counting, but I don’t think the results there would be very different) and in round numbers that would come to something like 10,000 adults living in communities of five or more members each in the United States. But there are so many problems with the numbers that getting within even a couple of orders of magnitude is dubious. For example, the Adidam community lists its population at 1060. But that apparently includes many locations, the majority of them outside the United States. On the other hand, the Bruderhof communities don’t provide any numbers at all, and that group of communities, with a membership thought to be in the low thousands, has enough members that its numbers alone would have quite an impact on any total figure. And the most important skewing factor of all is that huge numbers of communities choose not to be listed in the directory.

So I took another path toward trying to make an estimate. The Catholic religious communities keep pretty careful track of their numbers; in 2007 they reported 13,428 priests, 60,715 sisters, and 4,904 brothers, for a total communal population of 79,048. [Source: http://www.usccb.org/comm/catholic-church-statistics.shtml (4/22/2010)] There are two other groups of communities with five-figure populations, the Mormon fundamentalists, who are thought to have perhaps 30,000 communal members, and the Hutterites, who have around 15,000 in the United States. So that puts us at around 125,000 communitarians. Now, here is the wildest guess of all: I’m going to conjecture that there are 5,000 other intentional communities averaging 10 members apiece, which would be another 50,000. Add that to the 125,000 we already have, and, just to be cautious, let’s report the total as a range: 150,000 to 200,000.

The point of all this guesswork is to say that not a lot of people live communally. Given an American population of over 300 million, 150,000 is fewer than 1 in 2,000, less than 1/20 of 1 percent of the population; 200,000 is fewer than 1 in 1,500, less than 1/15 of 1 percent of the population. And take out the Catholic communities, which are linked to a larger tradition that provides a support system, and focus only on independent, freestanding communities, and the numbers are even more drastic. We probably have fewer than 100,000 such communitarians, which comes to fewer than 1 in 3,000 Americans, less than 1/30 of 1 percent of the population. No matter how you slice it, communal living is not a mass movement.

So why not, if so many people long for community in their lives?

Some Reasons for the Gap

One answer is that community in the broad sense doesn’t necessarily involve a residential situation that meets even a simple definition of intentional community. So the communitarian desires of many can be met through various nonresidential forms of close relationships—churches, social organizations, political organizations, fraternal organizations, and many other such institutions. But the gap remains. Why do so few people live in community?

Many who have considered the disconnect between a widespread desire for community and the difficulty of starting actual communities and getting them to function well have focused on what might be called internal issues—things such as interpersonal relations, decision-making processes, leadership, and financial strength. Many accounts of communal life, especially of short-lived communities, talk about internal bickering, conflicts between leaders and the rank and file, and inadequate work skills on the part of members, especially when a community is trying to make a living through agriculture. Take just about any issue of Communities magazine over the last several years and you will find those things—especially personal relations and group process—discussed at length.

However, issues that could be called external may be more important than the internal ones. American society, in particular, has structures and attitudes that discourage communal ventures. I would like to look at some of the ways in which our contemporary American lifestyle impedes the development of communal living.

One fundamental problem is what I will call, for lack of a better term, basic American selfishness. Our whole national ethos seems to be predicated on a me-first approach to life, something that is about as contrary to communitarianism as anything could be. Little acts of me-first rudeness are all around us, as in the case of my neighbors who needlessly park half blocking the alley and make it hard for the rest of us to get through, whose free-range cats methodically kill the songbirds we try to attract, and whose dog is left outside to bark all night.

The “Reach” pages of Communities magazine bring this all-American tendency into focus quite clearly: while in every issue several communities advertise that they are looking for new members, just as many ads ask for new members to join a community founder’s new or prospective venture. One way to interpret this: I don’t want to work within someone else’s vision; I want people to help me work out my own plan. That kind of attitude, if it’s there, really negates any possibility of community, since the diminution of the will and the ego are essential to any communal venture. American individualism is deeply ingrained in us, and I think that is one fundamental reason why most people don’t join communities, despite their manifold attractions.

Another basic problem, one that could be solved legislatively but may never be, is zoning. Zoning laws have existed in this country for less than a century, so when the Shakers and Harmonists and Amana colonists set up shop, for example, zoning was one problem they didn’t have to worry about. When they bought land, they could use it as they liked. If they mixed commercial and industrial and residential uses in some unconventional way, no problem. But since the early 20th century zoning has been implemented in much of the country.

The desire for zoning is certainly understandable; I don’t want my neighbor to sell her house to make way for a 24-hour fast-food restaurant with a drive-up window and bright lights and lots of litter. However, perhaps inadvertently, zoning laws have seriously impeded intentional communities. In many parts of my city if more than three people occupy a house, they must all be related. That means that my lesbian neighbors, a couple with children who are forbidden by law to marry and who are the best neighbors you could ever want, could be run out of their home if a moral crusader were to go after them. If such innocuous people are threatened by zoning laws, how much more are communitarians unable to pursue their dreams? I know of a large intentional community that has around 60 resident members and tries to keep an utterly low profile in order to avoid attracting attention to itself. The community is located in a county where officials have bulldozed two intentional communities they deemed illegal, so the remaining community’s fears are not exactly unfounded. How unfair is that?

Technology vs. Community

Another broad category of modern anti-communitarian forces at work in our society consists of technological devices, including many that we almost all use. Perhaps the biggest offender here is the automobile, which, despite its enormous convenience, seems to bring out the worst in many people who use it. Where I live people are fairly courteous with each other face to face; we open doors for others, we say please and thank you, we wait our turn in line rather than cutting in.

Yet large numbers act aggressively and rudely and irresponsibly all too often when they are behind the wheel of a car, running red lights and cutting people off and speeding at just about all times. Although someone who did a controlled study of motoring behavior might come up with some other answer, my own conclusion is that the automobile is an inherently isolating device, one that enables relative anonymity, and that it seems to give the anonymous driver a chance to behave in an unfriendly way without really being seen. I’ve wondered, sometimes, if we would have more courteous driving if the name of each principal driver were painted onto the car in large graphics.

If the automobile is anti-communal, so is television, and as television technology progresses, it seems to draw ever more people away from social interaction. Entertainment was once largely communal; people would mingle with others at dances, concerts, movies, and other such events held in public spaces. Television, which the average American watches for several hours a day, draws people away from such activities and reinforces the value of being alone.

Even worse than television, at least potentially, is the near-universal spread of the cell phone. People once walked down the street looking at the people around them, looking at the surrounding environment, and occasionally greeting those they encountered, but today hordes of people walk everywhere with cell phones held firmly to the sides of their heads. That primary focus on cell conversation tends to lead them to avoid eye contact and to withdraw from other interaction. We know, of course, how vital the typical cell phone conversation is. On campus the ones I overhear usually go something like this: “Oh, not much. What’re you doing? Maybe I’ll go find something to eat. Want to talk later? Give me a call.” I have instructed my students not to use their cell phones in class, but then I go to faculty gatherings and watch people there texting rather than paying attention to the work at hand, or jumping up and running out of the room to take calls at will. Many of us worry about the danger of cell phone use by drivers; research has shown that using a cell phone creates a distraction that is on average the equivalent of a blood-alcohol level of 0.12 percent, or one and a half times the legal limit for alcohol in most states. Texting, of course, is much worse than that.

But I digress. Bad driving is hardly the only product of cell-phone use; decline of human community is just as serious. Incidentally, one byproduct of cell phones is also unfortunate: we are experiencing a serious decline and soon, probably, the extinction of phone books, with which we can locate each other easily—another anticommunal effect, in other words.

Computers have brought a lot of convenience into our lives, but they too can be seriously anticommunal. Initially the computer was a great means of social contact for far-flung intentional communities, but its net effect has moved strongly over to the dark side. Probably the biggest culprit is social networking, which, although it does promote personal interaction, puts people in front of monitors or on their cell phones rather than in personal contact with others. Once again prospects for human interaction are hindered when they should be helped.

Even air conditioning takes its toll on community. When the weather is hot, most of us like to stay inside where it’s cool. That’s not a very good way to interact with one’s neighbors, and it certainly has nothing but negative environmental impacts.

Alternatives to all of these isolating technologies exist. We can do much of our moving about with public transit and walking; we can find entertainment live instead of on television; we can, at least for the moment, still find public telephones in public places if we do need to communicate while away from home or office, and therefore not really need a cell phone. Front porches and public swimming pools can help minimize the need for air conditioning. We can gather, at least occasionally, face-to-face instead of on Facebook. But that’s not the way things are headed in these last declining days of Western civilization.

The “C” Words

Now, I don’t want to end by saying that technology is the sole culprit in the decline of American communal values, or the sole impediment to the growth of intentional communities. There is one other social presence that might be even worse than isolating technology, and that is a suspicion of cooperation that is both wide and deep.

That suspicion would seem to be a product of modern history. Charles Nordhoff, writing in 1875, could call his book The Communistic Societies of the United States without undue controversy, and others in the communities movement of the 19th century used the word in a positive and uncontroversial way. The 20th century, however, was the era of evil communism, or Marxism. Until the fall of the Soviet Union and its related states 20 years ago there was no more horrifying word in the English language than “communism,” and although today its definitive horrifics have been replaced by terms such as Al Qaida and terrorism, its demonizing power remains strong. Socialism too remains a term of enormous opprobrium, as we have seen when universal health care is labeled socialist and therefore condemned.

The effect of anticommunist and antisocialist fervor on intentional communities is not just hypothetical. In the 1930s communitarians were acutely aware of the persecution they faced when their way of life became known, and tended to keep their profiles low. In the 1940s the New Deal communities of the Resettlement Administration and other agencies, which helped thousands of families up from abject poverty through cooperative rural projects, were summarily shut down by Congress precisely because of their collective nature. A few years earlier public officials in the state of Arkansas became determined to purge the nest of radicals at the communal Commonwealth College—note that name, Commonwealth—from their midst, and in 1940 state action did effectively put the college out of business.

Confronting the Challenges

All of these things add up to a powerful anticommunitarian bias in American life. Intentional communities, especially in their modern forms as ecovillages and cohousing, have a great deal to offer a world with pressing social and environmental problems. But the forces running in the other direction are formidable, and if the communities movement is to rise to its full potential, those forces must be identified and dealt with. That is a project of enormous dimensions.

One Reply to “A Communitarian Conundrum”


Hi Tim,

The Cohousing Association of the United States has done some detailed census work. Our estimate for the total count for people living in Cohousing in 2008 was 6,400. Coho/US has done a more comprehensive study and will soon publish new data that should be stronger.

I also wonder about this question on a personal level for you. I believe that you do not live in an intentional community yourself. Is this form of community something that you want, but have not gotten? Perhaps your “”community needs”” are met through other means, e.g., the academic work place, associations, the FIC?

Warm regards,
Craig Ragland
Retired Coho/US Executive Director

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