Why Intentional Communities Fail

While it may seem as though communal or collective ownership of the means of production is the ideal scenario, it appears that it only works under a certain set of conditions and circumstances.

What brought this realization was reading numerous accounts of how attempts to found voluntary subcultures, from intentional communities, to hippie “back-to-land” moments, failed. The particulars of these failures are all unique, but the basic outlines tend to follow the same general pattern.

The problem is that such communities are fundamentally artificial constructs. They are nothing like the original primordial societies that they attempted to replicate, which, as we saw before, were based around two essential factors: kinship structures and religious worship. The problem is these voluntary subcultures lack the essential ingredients that held these traditional societies together organically.

It’s why we don’t really have very many examples to point to of alternatives to the mainstream society succeeding in the long-term. I’m sure if we looked hard enough, we might find some, but they are so exceptional as to be almost not worth mentioning. Most attempts to secede from the broader society fail. Some fail quickly, and some fail slowly, but they all fail in the end.

Another observation is that nearly all of the long-term successful attempts have been based around some sort of religious affiliation; be it religious movement or cult. This ensures the requisite social cohesion.

Now, this is a bitter pill to swallow. I’m as critical of organized religion as the next person (unless the next person happens to be Sam Harris). I don’t want to have to admit that religion—with all its superstition, irrationality, hierarchic, hypocrisy, sanctimony, magical thinking, moralizing and repression—is a necessary prerequisite for living without the State. It seems like just trading one sort of oppression for another.

But, I must grudgingly admit that it does seem to be the magic ingredient that has kept voluntary subcultures alive and functional long term. The primary example is, of course, the Amish. While the Amish do not claim descent from a single common ancestor, they are united by the religion that they follow, and their basic social structure is based around their beliefs. The basic unit is the conjugal, monogamous household. They speak a common language (a German dialect), and certainly share much of their DNA due to inbreeding. Another example might be Hasidic communities. One example from the past is the Amana Colonies of Iowa. They were an alternative commune founded by German Pietists:

Amana Colonies (Wikipedia).

Concerning the Amish, here’s Patrick Deneen from that same interview as before illustrating how they represent an alternative model of society to the Liberalism he’s criticizing:

[27: 40] From the macro view, the debate really tends to be over which system of depersonalized relationship [State or Market] are we going to prefer and put into the primary position. The major desiderata of the Liberal order is to transform every form of what might have been a form of personal obligation entailing certain duties and responsibilities that you would owe to a specific person, and to transform those into depersonalized relationships. Because when you have a personal obligation to someone, you don’t feel free. You feel like you’re obligated to do something for someone. When it’s depersonalized, I’m not obligated to that particular person.

I’ll give you a really quick example of what I mean by this. I often use the Amish as an example of an opposite system. In certain Amish communities, it’s not permitted to take on insurance. To procure insurance as seen as a sort of aggression against the community. And the reason is that you withdraw yourself from the shared responsibility. When some catastrophe or some bad event happens to a person in your community, you are personally obligated as a member if that community to help those people. So if someone’s house burns down, you are personally obligated to help rebuild that house. Or, if a parent dies, the community is obligated to raise that family and to help financially with that family.

What we do in modern Liberal society is to create an insurance market that we can all contribute to, and if something happens we can make a claim on, but that claim is not on any *particular* individual, it’s rather a depersonalized mechanism that liberates us from any particular obligation to any other person.

You could say, this is the ground condition of our liberty–it’s to minimize those personal obligations. And so notice how these debates take place in our society. When we were debating the health care policy in recent years, the debate is about whether it should be provided through more private means or more public means. Should it be more of a state-based system or a market-based system? But notice that’s a debate about means, and not really ends.


[32:30] “[Liberalism] ultimately acts as a kind of solvent against almost every form of relationship that we can think of. You can talk about it in terms of community, you can talk about it in terms of family, you can talk about it in terms of religion, you can talk about it in terms of association, even today you can talk about it increasingly in terms of nation.”

“One of the interesting debates we’re having today that really comes out of this is, is there any coherent idea of what a nation is? Is there any reason why there should be borders or boundaries where they’re drawn? Or is that just ultimately arbitrary? And if a nation is really just an instantiation of the liberal philosophy, then in the end there’s probably no reason to think that borders and boundaries actually have any coherent reason to exist, because it’s really an idea that can’t be bounded. And so one of the debates that’s roiling us today is: is there something more to a nation other than simply the Liberal idea that seems to define it?”

1811 – Why Liberalism Failed w/ Patrick J Deneen (YouTube)

“It is not permitted to take on insurance…” Now we see the power of, for example, things like guilds, which provided those essential services to their initiates. And the guild system might be extrapolated to other sodalities, from the village community in India, to the tribes of the Native Americans to the oikoi households of the ancient Near East and Greece. All these were the basic functional units of society before the advent of the Liberal state and the globalized Market system.

In the failing Western Roman Empire, for example, monastic brotherhoods flourished across Western Europe. These fraternal orders acted as both colonizers and proselytizers for Christianity thriving among hostile tribal peoples while gradually converting them to the new religion—one based not upon ancestors or consanguinity, but belief. These “intentional communities” were often the hotbeds of productive activity in the post-Roman world. They kept reading and literacy alive during the Dark Ages and feudal times. Many medieval innovations in craftsmanship, fabrication, alternative energy (watermills), and even banking (e.g. Knights Templar) were originally developed in monastic brotherhoods before being extrapolated to the wider society. Clocks were invented by monks to keep track of their prayer schedule. Monasteries are still known for the quality of their beer to this day. But key to their survival was always religion.

This is why intentional communities and back-to-the-land movements almost always fail. They are attempting to recreate an older, primordial, more organic societal order without the requisite social glue that held them together. Counterculture movements are usually full of people obsessed with individualism—“just be yourself, man!” was at the heart of the hippie ethos. And before the original Jesus Freaks, hippies were often reacting aggressively against the organized religions they were brought up in, which were perceived as “oppressive” and “intolerant” (as indeed they were). Instead, the counterculture sought “liberation,” often through hedonism–sex and drugs and the like. But the overwhelming evidence is that such selfish attitudes made implementing functional, viable alternative communities effectively impossible. One can read about the failure of any number of these hippie communes or alternative communities in order to come to this sad conclusion.

The irony is, these countercultural attitudes were only made possible by living in the modern Liberal state that they were rejecting! A profound irony indeed…

Instead, the alternative communities that ultimately succeeded long-tern were suffused with religion and antagonistic to strident individualism. I don’t like that fact, but that’s what history shows. That is, they were all functionally illiberal.

All this got me thinking about a book Dmitry Orlov published several years ago called Communities that Abide. Orlov went off to the ethnographic and sociological literature to find out just was the “secret sauce” of the communities that–like the Big Lebowski’s Dude–abided. What struck me is that the one thing they had in common was that they were subcultures existing within modern nation states and at the same time co-existing with them. What held these subcultures together in the absence of either the State or the Market, and despite the often open hostility of the nation-states under which they lived towards them?

Well, as with the example of the Amish given by Patrick Deneen above, what they had in common was that they were all conceived in imitation of the family; they spoke a common dialect and shared similar values and behavioral ethics, and were often (although not always) intensely religious. Here are the major communities Orlov analyzed in his book (I’ve listed their group names along with the nominal nation-state reside in):

The Hutterites (Amish) — United States and Canada
The Roma (Gypsies) — Eastern and Western Europe
The Russian Mafia — Russia and the former Soviet Union
The Pashtuns — Afghansitan and Pakistan.
The Israeli Kibbutzim — Israel
The Mormons — Primarily the western United States
The Dukhobors — Western Canada

What do all these communities have in common? Their basic social structures are essentially identical that of all people on earth pre-state! They essentially share the characteristics as the kinds of societies described by people Maine and Morgan such as the Indian Village or the Iroquois. This effectively describes their legal systems; their social structure; their economic system. They are all illiberal according to Patrick Deneen’s description above. They are suffused with social obligations. As anthropologists have determined, this was the composition of basically the entire human race before the coming of the modern Liberal nation-state. Henry Maine writes in Lectures on the Early History of Institutions [1874]:

Cæsar’s failure to note the natural divisions of the Celtic tribesmen, the families and septs or subtribes, is to me particularly instructive. The theory of human equality is of Roman origin; the comminution of human society, and the unchecked competition among its members, which have gone so far in the Western Europe of our days, had their most efficient causes in the mechanism of the Roman State. Hence Cæsar’s omissions seem to be those most natural in a Roman general who was also a great administrator and trained lawyer; and they are undoubtedly those to which an English ruler of India is most liable at this moment. It is often said that it takes two or three years before a Governor-General learns that the vast Indian population is an aggregate of natural groups and not the mixed multitude he left at home; and some rulers of India have been accused of never having mastered the lesson at all.

Of course, when we talk about collapse, we are really taking about nation-states, which are basically legal constructs and shared fictions. People themselves don’t just disappear. I don’t know of any tribal communities that have “collapsed.” And when states do collapse, what’s left are these more primordial forms of human social affiliation and solidarity to fall back on. So while empires are fragile and ephemeral things that come and go; expand and contract, the underlying fabric of society remains (or I should say, remained) more-or-less intact before industrialism (i.e. they abided). In fact, this might be a good way of understanding ancient history. Ancient empires were merely a “layer” of power above a substrate or “traditional” society, which was organized around the family, household, lineage, and clan, and headed by patriarchs, similar to many of Orlov’s subcultures like the Roma (Gypsy)  people. According to Orlov, despite their surface differences, the underlying societies more-or-less shared the same characteristics:

  • Autonomous, refusing to coalesce into larger groups. (an anthropologist would say segmentary–ch)
  • Separatist, shunning the outsiders (and those of their own number who misbehave), and interacting with the outside world as a group rather than as individuals.
  • Anarchic in their patterns of self-governance—neither patriarchal nor matriarchal—with certain individuals granted positions of responsibility, but not positions of authority.
  • Having an oral rather than a written code of conduct. (Maine writes of the early Celts: “[Caesar] says that the Druids presided over schools of learning, to which the Celtic youth flocked eagerly for instruction, remaining in them sometimes (so he was informed) for twenty years at a time. He states that the pupils in these schools learned an enormous quantity of verses, which were never committed to writing; and he gives his opinion that the object was not merely to prevent sacred knowledge from being popularised, but to strengthen the memory. Besides describing to us the religious doctrine of the Druids, he informs us that they were extremely fond of disputing about the nature of the material world, the movements of the stars, and the dimensions of the earth and of the universe. At their head there was by his account a chief Druid, whose place at his death was filled by election, and the succession occasionally gave rise to violent contests of arms”.-ch)
  • Communist in their patterns of production and consumption, with little use for money or markets.
  • Based on a strong central ideology (or faith) which they refuse to analyze, question or debate.
  • Having lots of children, bringing them up as their replacements, and retiring as young as possible.
  • Refusing to “work jobs,” and doing little work beyond what they consider necessary.
  • Consciously rejecting much of the culture and quite a lot of the technology of surrounding society. (less relevant to ancient cultures-ch)
  • Speaking their own languages or dialects, which they jealously preserve and safeguard against outside influences.
  • Adhering to a certain protocol for interacting with outsiders, perhaps hiding in plain sight, perhaps through a certain “in your face” disguise that hides who they are behind a more conventional image.
  • Pacifist rather than warlike, refusing to carry weapons or take part in military actions of any sort, and fleeing from danger rather than confronting it.
  • Nomadic rather than settled, with minimal attachment to any one piece of land beyond its immediate usefulness to them, and willing to relocate as a group in times of danger, hardship or persecution.
  • Quite happy and generally content with their lot in life, being resigned to accepting whatever life gives, and relatively unafraid of death, neither fighting it nor seeking it.

Communities that Abide – Part 2 (Club Orlov)

Again, this is describing pretty much every society on earth prior to 1500! I think when we look at history, we tend to read about the exploits of conquerors, emperors, kings, generals, and rulers. We read the annals of empire building—famous battles, capital cities, court intrigue, trading patterns and the like. That’s what was written down, after all. But underneath it all, this was the fabric of daily life, from the advent of sedentism and agriculture until the time of the Industrial Revolution.

Meanwhile, in the rest of the world, older social transitions prevailed outside of the cosmopolitan port cities connected by their expanding webs of trade. Even in modern economies like the United States and China—the two biggest economies on earth—we see this rural/urban divide between traditional family structures in the countryside and the anonymous business activities in urban centers mediated by laws and contracts. Really, Liberalism at it’s heart has been a great experiment in undoing these connections to family, language and place. In it’s place, State and Market marched together hand-in-hand as conquerors rather than adversaries.

So the nation-state is little else than the ruling class and its scaffold of institutions and interlocking power webs which comes and goes (i.e. collapses), but the older, underlying social fabric remains more-or-less intact, or at least has done in the past. A big problem, as I see it, is that in Western Liberalized democracies (especially the United States), there is no underlying society. We are all atomized strangers now, and self-serving media and corporate interests have every incentive to fan the flames of division and discord to the greatest extent possible (as do the Russians), unlike an earlier generation of politicians who were obsessed with the idea of encouraging unity. If and when (more likely when) the central government in WIERD States like the U.S. falls apart, there is no underlying “village community,” “kinship structure,” “folk tradition,” or common religion (or whatever else that unites us) to fall back upon. And sorry, Libertarians, but in those circumstances, feudalism run by warlords is the most likely outcome based on historical precedent, not the flourishing of “free markets” or voluntary transactions of small independent producers mediated by lumps of intrinsically valuable gold nuggets.

Henry Sumner Maine wrote about the prototypical village communities he encountered throughout India in Ancient Law:

[T]here is a strong à priori improbability of our obtaining any clue to the early history of property, if we confine our notice to the proprietary rights of individuals. It is more than likely that joint-ownership, and not separate ownership, is the really archaic institution, and that the forms of property which will afford us instruction will be those which are associated with the rights of families and of groups of kindred. The Roman jurisprudence will not here assist in enlightening us, for it is exactly the Roman jurisprudence which…has bequeathed to the moderns the impression that individual ownership is the normal state of proprietary right, and that ownership in common by groups of men is only the exception to a general rule…

It happens that, among the [Hindus], we do find a form of ownership…respecting the original condition of property. The Village Community of India is at once an organised patriarchal society and an assemblage of co-proprietors. The personal relations to each other of the men who compose it are indistinguishably confounded with their proprietary rights, and…attempts of English functionaries to separate the two may be…some of the most formidable miscarriages of Anglo-Indian administration.

The Village Community is known to be of immense antiquity…Conquests and revolutions seem to have swept over it without disturbing or displacing it, and the most beneficent systems of government in India have always been those which have recognised it as the basis of administration.

[I]n India …As soon as a son is born, he acquires a vested interest in his father’s substance, and on attaining years of discretion he is…permitted…to call for a partition of the family estate. As a fact, however, a division rarely takes place even at the death of the father, and the property constantly remains undivided for several generations, though every member of every generation has a legal right to an undivided share in it. The domain thus held in common is…managed by the eldest agnate, by the eldest representative of the eldest line of the stock.

Such an assemblage of joint proprietors, a body of kindred holding a domain in common, is the simplest form of an Indian Village Community, but the Community is more than a brotherhood of relatives and more than an association of partners. It is an organised society, and besides providing for the management of the common fund, it seldom fails to provide…for internal government, for police, for the administration of justice, and for the apportionment of taxes and public duties.

…Although, in the North of India…the Community was founded by a single assemblage of blood-relations… men of alien extraction have always, from time to time, been engrafted on it, and a mere purchaser of a share may generally, under certain conditions, be admitted to the brotherhood. In the South of the Peninsula there are often Communities which appear to have sprung not from one but from two or more families; and there are some whose composition is known to be entirely artificial; indeed, the occasional aggregation of men of different castes in the same society is fatal to the hypothesis of a common descent. Yet in all these brotherhoods either the tradition is preserved, or the assumption made, of an original common parentage. Mountstuart Elphinstone…observes of them:

“The popular notion is that the Village landholders are all descended from one or more individuals who settled the village; and that the only exceptions are formed by persons who have derived their rights by purchase or otherwise from members of the original stock. The supposition is confirmed by the fact that, to this day, there are only single families of landholders in small villages and not many in large ones; but each has branched out into so many members that it is not uncommon for the whole agricultural labour to be done by the landholders, without the aid either of tenants or of labourers. The rights of the landholders are theirs collectively and, though they almost always have a more or less perfect partition of them, they never have an entire separation. A landholder, for instance, can sell or mortgage his rights; but he must first have the consent of the Village, and the purchaser steps exactly into his place and takes up all his obligations. If a family becomes extinct, its share returns to the common stock.”

The tokens of an extreme antiquity are discoverable in almost every single feature of the Indian Village Communities. We have so many independent reasons for suspecting that the infancy of law is distinguished by the prevalence of co-ownership by the intermixture of personal with proprietary rights, and by the confusion of public with private duties, that we should be justified in deducing many important conclusions from our observation of these proprietary brotherhoods, even if no similarly compounded societies could be detected in any other part of the world. It happens, however…that [there are] a similar set of phenomena in those parts of Europe which have been most slightly affected by the feudal transformation of property, and which in many important particulars have as close an affinity with the Eastern as with the Western world…

http://www.gutenberg.org/files/22910/22910-h/22910-h.htm (153)

Echoing H.S. Maine’s description of the Indian village community above, Dmitry Orlov writes:

There are two organizing principles that self-sufficient communities can rely on in order to succeed: communist organization of production and communist organization of consumption. Both of these produce much better results for the same amount of effort, and neither is generally available to the larger society, which has to rely on the far more wasteful market-based or central planning-based mechanisms, both of which incur vast amounts of unproductive overhead—bankers, traders and regulators in the case of market-based approaches, and government bureaucrats and administrators in the case of centrally planned approaches. History has shown that market-based approaches are marginally more efficient than centrally planned ones, but neither one comes anywhere near the effectiveness of communist approaches practiced on the small scale of a commune.

It stands to reason that communist production methods would outperform capitalist ones. On the one hand, you have a group of people driven to work together out of a sense of solidarity and mutual obligation, cooperating of their own free will, free to switch tasks to keep life from becoming monotonous, free to do what they believe would work best, using work as a way to earn respect and improve their social standing, knowing full well that their fellows will take care of them and their families should they ever become unable to work.

On the other hand, you have commoditized human beings pigeon-holed by a standardized skill set and a job description, playing the odds in an arbitrary and precarious job market, blindly following orders for fear of ending up unemployed, relying on work to keep them and their immediate family from homelessness and starvation, and discarded once “burned out” on the set of tasks for which they are considered “qualified.” The result of all this is that 70% of the workers in the US say that they hate their job, putting a gigantic drag on the capitalist economy…

Those who chafe at the use of the word “communist” should feel reassured that no military or political “communist menace” is ever likely to reassert itself: state communism is as dead as a burned piece of wood. The one remaining, ongoing attempt at unreformed state communism is North Korea, and it is the exception that proves the rule. On the other hand, regardless of your opinions, you too are a communist.

First, you are human, and over 99% of their existence as a species humans have lived in small tribes organized on communist principles, with no individual land ownership, no wage labor, no government, and no private property beyond a few personal effects. If it weren’t for communism, you wouldn’t be here.

Second, if you have a family, it is likely to be run on communist principles: it is unlikely that you invoice your children for the candy they eat, or negotiate with your spouse over who gets to feed them. The communist organizing principle “From each according to abilities, to each according to needs” is what seems to prevail in most families, and the case where it doesn’t we tend to regard as degenerate. From this it seems safe to assume that if you are human and draw oxygen, then you must be, in some sense, a communist.

Communities That Abide – Part 3 (Club Orlov)

Echoing Orlov, Nassim Taleb writes: “Today’s Roma people (aka Gypsies) have tons of strict rules of behavior toward Gypsies, and others toward the unclean non-Gypsies called payos. And, as the anthropologist David Graeber has observed, even the investment bank Goldman Sachs, known for its aggressive cupidity, acts like a communist community from within, thanks to the partnership system of governance. Much of the difference, he explains, comes down to a question of scale:

Things don’t “scale” and generalize, which is why I have trouble with intellectuals talking about abstract notions. A country is not a large city, a city is not a large family, and, sorry, the world is not a large village. There are scale transformations…

So we exercise our ethical rules, but there is a limit from scaling beyond which the rules cease to apply. It is unfortunate, but the general kills the particular. The question we will reexamine later, after deeper discussion of complexity theory, is whether it is possible to be both ethical and universalist. In theory, yes, but, sadly, not in practice. For whenever the “we” becomes too large a club, things degrade, and each one starts fighting for his own interest. The abstract is way too abstract for us.

This is the main reason I advocate political systems that start with the municipality, and work their way up (ironically, as in Switzerland, those “Swiss, rather than the reverse, which has failed with larger states. Being somewhat tribal is not a bad thing–and we have to work in a fractal way in the organized harmonious relations between tribes, rather than merge all tribes in one large soup. In that sense, an Americans federalism is the ideal system.

This scale transformation from the particular to the general is behind my skepticism about unfettered globalization and large centralized multiechnic states. The physicist and complexity researcher Yaneer Bar-Yam showed quite convincingly that “better fences make better neighbors”–something both “policymakers” and local governments fail to get about the Near East. Scaling matters, I will keep repeating until I get hoarse…

Nassim Micholas Taleb; Skin in the Game, pp. 58-59

Next time, we’ll take a closer look at some important insights into this idea provided by Taleb’s in his new book.

4 thoughts on “Why Intentional Communities Fail

  1. The Shakers are another example of an intentional community, which meet almost all the qualifications, except that they took in orphans rather than having lots of children.. The Shakers were functioning communities for nearly 100 years. African-Americans were considered to be full-fledged members of the community. This was especially brave for the communities in Kentucky during the Civil War.The governing bodies were made up of two men and two women, both internally and externally. They invented a large number of ingenious labor-saving devices, and set a standard of beauty in furniture design that has not been equalled.

  2. Interesting post, thanks. Good to discover this blog, it’s a great source of ideas.

    Just posting this cos I have a longer comment that won’t post, it keeps timing out. It’s not that long! But trying this is all I can think of…

  3. In Deneen’s book, The Failure of Liberalism, he agrees that we cannot go back to pre-liberal ways of existence. Then in his conclusion, he mentions local groups surviving by means of locally grown agriculture, local trading, “radical” homesteading, etc. How is that not pre-liberal? Most people who hate modernity cannot wait for it to fall apart, so their neo-Amish ideas can come into fruition. There is much in modernity that is ugly, homogeneous and coercive. However, I will take that any day rather than going back to small village surveillance, enforced religious superstitious nonsense, second class status for women and minorities and no freedom to become the person you were meant to be.

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