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Anarchism and Utopianism

by Rhiannon Firth on July 17, 2018

Utopia is a complex and contested concept that has been explored elsewhere here on the PPE blog by David Bell. My own work has also covered the concept of utopia in detail, notably in my book Utopian Politics. Here, though, I shall sidestep definitional debates to focus on the intimate, yet tense and sometimes fraught three-way relationship between anarchism, utopianism and intentional communities, which is the subject of my book chapter in the recently published The Palgrave Handbook of Anarchism.

The widespread cultural conflation of utopias with either totalitarianism or hopeless idealism renders anarchist utopias invisible. There is a conversational put-down familiar to many anarchists: ‘it sounds great in theory, but it wouldn’t work in practice’. Anarchism has often been associated with the impossible and the perilously idealistic, yet seeds of anarchist utopias can be found all around us in everyday life. Anarchist utopias have included literary works, social theory and lived experiments based on values of non-hierarchy, mutual aid, equal distribution, non-exploitative production and relationships, individual autonomy and freedom of expression. Whilst utopias and utopianism are not necessarily anarchist, utopianism has played an important role in the history of anarchism, which can be illustrated in part by considering the intentional communities movement.

Many people outside of the metaphorical (and sometimes literal) field have not encountered the term ‘intentional communities’. The term includes, but is wider than, what are colloquially known as ‘hippy communes’. The utopian bibliographer and political theorist Lyman Tower Sargent defines intentional communities as:

A group of five or more adults and their children, if any, who come from more than one nuclear family and who have chosen to live together to enhance their shared values or for some other mutually agreed-upon  purpose.

This is the widely accepted definition, although I find the number five arbitrary and have encountered communities with fewer members (e.g. four adults). Intentional communities have frequently been studied as utopian experiments and in the context of the utopian studies canon. Few communards define their practices as utopian, perhaps due to an association of the colloquial understanding of utopia as both ‘perfect’ and ‘impossible’. Intentional communities are neither perfect nor impossible. Nonetheless, as I argue in my book chapter, framing their activities as utopian can help us to understand something about them, whilst intentional communities also have much to tell us about anarchism. However, this is controversial because not all intentional communities are anarchist, though many are explicitly inspired by anarchist principles, such as Brambles in Sheffield, UK. Most embrace equality and non-hierarchy, yet some have been strictly ordered and hierarchical, whilst others prioritise religious or spiritual aims. The diversity of communities within the United Kingdom can be approached through directories such as the United Kingdom’s Diggers and Dreamers, or the International Fellowship for Intentional Community.

Many theorists have studied real-life practices through the framework of anarchism, even where those practices were not anarchist by intent, for example, Peter Kropotkin’s descriptions of mutual aid in primitive and medieval societies and Colin Ward’s descriptions of anarchy in everyday life. Taking an ethnographic approach to studying existing examples of anarchy in action should not simply serve the purpose of ‘proving’ anarchist theory to be possible or correct. Intentional communities are invaluable for anarchists, because studying already-existing ‘utopias’ can provide inspiration for further anarchist practices whilst helping to explore problems and tensions that arise in practice.

Utopianism as a practical methodology for social change operates through critique and transgression by example, which has a consciousness-raising function. Both anarchism and intentional communities arise from a context where certain assumptions are taken-for-granted: that a key purpose of the state is to protect (unequal) property relations; effective decisions can only be made when political authority is delegated to a representative; and the essential territorial scale of a political entity is the nation state. In my book chapter to The Palgrave Handbook of Anarchism I explore alternative modes of property relations, decision-making, and scale and federation to argue that intentional communities posit viable alternatives: gift-economies, face-to-face relationships and consensus decisions in small, loosely federated groups. In so doing, they de-naturalise taken-for-granted assumptions about human nature, economy and belonging.

My chapter also explores controversies and tensions that arise from within anarchist theory about communal life, and from within the communal movement. The first of these is the debate between ‘lifestyle’ and social anarchists; a somewhat false dichotomy framed by Murray Bookchin. The second is a controversy concerning how one might judge the ‘success’ of an intentional community: Does this require commitment and longevity, or is there value in temporariness and intensity? The third tension centres around an oft-used cliché of ‘the tyranny of structurelessness’, frequently raised in social movement discussions, including within intentional communities, often without awareness of its origin in debates in 1970s feminism. The debate contrasts problems inherent in a lack of formal organisation with those of formally instituted hierarchy – a problematic which communities attempt to negotiate through practice. In my book chapter I argue that intentional communities often fall in the middle or transgress these parameters; experimenting with solutions yet encountering new issues that have not yet been considered in theoretical debates.

Anarchism fits well as an approach for understanding intentional communities, but utopianism and the intentional communities movement are broader than anarchism. The relationship is best thought of as one of affinity rather than identity. Throughout history, anarchists, utopians and communards have been subject to the same invalidating criticisms: that their values are idealistic and their real, embodied practices are ‘impossible’. At the same time anarchists and utopian communards have shared a positive vision: of grassroots, bottom-up social change, which starts in the here-and-now by transforming relationships and consciousness and takes the form of continually evolving experiments rather than totalitarian blue-prints. Nonetheless, one must be careful not to colonise practices and perspectives by representing them with labels that are not their own. Many community members have carefully considered personal perspectives inspired by, reacting to, and in dialogue with encounters with anarchism and anarchists. Important lessons to be drawn from the intentional communities movement concern possibilities for connection and affinity between our wider movements and intentional communities, and the possibility of taking inspiration for practices we can bring to our own unintentional communities, classrooms, neighbourhoods and relationships.

Rhiannon Firth
Rhiannon Firth is Senior Research Officer in Sociology at the University of Essex. Her research interests include utopian political theory, anarchist social movements, prefigurative spatial practices, radical epistemologies, and critical pedagogy. She is the author of Utopian Politics: Citizenship and Practice, which involved ethnographic research with several intentional communities, housing cooperatives, and autonomous social centres around the UK. She is currently conducting research on anarchist approaches to organising around natural disasters; radical and ethical futures in manufacturing; and she is writing the afterword for a new edition of Marie Louise Berneri's Journey Through Utopia, to be published by PM Press in 2019.
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  • July 18, 2018 at 4:53 pm

    Great article Rhiannon — traversing many themes and arguments I make in Small is Necessary: Shared Living on a Shared Planet (2018 Pluto Press, London). Looking forward to reading your chapter.

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