needed: pragmatists for utopian experiments

It’s possible to organize a group of people so that goods and time are shared and decisions are consensual. Such groups avoid relying on two other prevalent forms of organization: authority (some tell others what to do) and exchange (individuals regard their goods and time as private property and trade them transactionally). We even see sharing and consensus arise in familiar locations like corporate offices, where workers will voluntarily share a stapler without keeping score, so long as morale is reasonably high.

With apologies for the oversimplification, I would assign the consensus-based commons to two categories: traditional ones–often agricultural villages of long standing–and experimental ones: intentional alternatives to the dominant society.

An example of traditional commons (one of many) is a longhouse in the Iroquois nations, “where most goods were stockpiled and then allocated by women’s councils, and no one ever traded arrowheads for slabs of meat” (Graeber, 2011, p. 47). Such institutions are not chosen by their participants; people grow up in them. They presumably encompass a range of personality-types and opinions, but they tend to socialize their children to be useful participants. That means that they may inculcate strongly communitarian values, even to the point where I might object to a lack of concern for autonomy and diversity.

In contrast, experimental commons are set up by founders (individuals or groups) who recruit volunteer participants. Here I have in mind New Harmony, IN from 1814-1827 and many other Victorian utopian socialist communities, workers’ co-ops, Black Mountain College (1933-1957) and other experimental schools, Gandhian ashrams, hippie communes, kibbutzes, #occupy encampments, and many more.

Traditional commons have set extraordinary records for durability (Ostrom 1990). Some of the experimental commons also survive for quite long periods. A house in my neighborhood has been a successful commune since the early 1970s; the original residents are now aging in place. However, the overall record of utopian experiments seems disappointing. Even the ones that survive fail to spread widely–perhaps because of organized opposition, but perhaps also because they do not appeal to most people.

I think part of the problem is that self-conscious utopian experiments attract principle-driven idealists. Such people can be effective collaborative workers, but I doubt that idealism correlates with effectiveness. You have to be very lucky to find a full complement of participants who are both committed to building utopia and good at getting the work done. Even those rare types tend to be overly concerned about abstract principles, and thus too reluctant to compromise and too sensitive to hypocrisy or imperfect processes. The record shows many cases of controversy and disintegration, or a drift toward intolerant extremism and capture by the radical fringe, or–ironically–dominance by a charismatic leader who thrives in an atmosphere without sharp and clear limits on power.

Years ago, I used to speculate about an alternative form of college or university in which all the faculty shared the essential work of administration and student affairs. There would be no distinctions among instructors, administrators, and staff, but roles would be rotated or shared, and decisions would be made by committees.

I still think that this could work and it might cut costs and improve results. But I believe you would need a crew of easy-going pragmatists to get it done. They would have to be the kind of people who address pressing problems without generating unnecessary new ones; who notice serious injustices toward others but don’t stand on ceremony when it comes to themselves; who think ahead about what needs to be done and are quick to volunteer to do it; who balance their own needs with the common good in a sustainable way; and who may even demonstrate some impatience with fine questions of principle.

The problem is, it’s hard to attract people like that to a risky experiment, and it’s hard to keep ideologues out. If someone figures out a solution to this selection problem, we will be more likely to see successful experiments that influence the mainstream.

David Graeber, Debt: The First Five Thousand Years (Melville House, Kindle Edition, 2011); Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990). See also: making college much cheaper; the death of an ancient commons?; what a libertarian commune says about political socialization and freedom. (I am mildly amused to find that I made a similar argument in 2015 but forgot it completely.)

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.