BLOG: Anarchist utopias and intentional communities as experimental urbanism

By Rhiannon Firth

Utopia is a complex and contested concept, which I have covered in more detail in my book Utopian Politics. The word utopia is a neologism coined by Sir Thomas More in his 1561 novel of this name. It is a pun on three Greek words: eu (good) ou (no) and topos (place), so utopia is the good place that is no place. Utopia has a certain resonance with anarchism because it seeks a lifeworld outside and beyond the usual terrain of politics, which celebrates the role of the imagination. Lucy Sargisson argues that the function is to hold a mirror to the status quo, show how things could be different – transgressing fixed concepts and practices.

Utopianism articulates desire for radically different socio-political arrangements, with implications for spaces and geographies. In colloquial discourse, ‘utopianism’ is often associated with perfectionist blueprints, totalitarianism, and dictatorial regimes. This renders anarchist utopias invisible/unrecognizable. Anarchist utopias have included literary works, social theory and lived experiments Anarchist utopias seek the opposite of totalitarianism: they are anti-authoritarian and based on visions of non-hierarchy, mutual aid, equal distribution, non-exploitative production and relationships, individual autonomy and freedom of expression, and a dis-alienated relationship to nature. 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 a lot to tell us about experimental urbanism, which can be illustrated in part by considering the intentional communities movement. 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. They can be both urban or rural.

Few intentional communities publicly define themselves as anarchist, but many members inspired by anarchism. In my research, I focus on intentional communities that espouse some anarchist values, such as non-hierarchy, mutual aid, and attempting to live the desired utopia in the here-and-now rather than deferring to the future. Not all intentional communities fit this remit, and 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.

Utopianism as a practical methodology for social change operates through critique and experimentation. Communities set an example of alternative lifestyles, which transgress the status quo and can have 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. The separation of various fields of production and consumption means division of urban from rural areas. The very idea of ‘experimental urbanism’ assumes this separation, but also signals to the possibility of experimenting with something else. Many also espouse a deep ecological vision: dis-alienated relationships with nature, self-management and sustainability. Anarchist communities place an emphasis of the importance of small scale communities, which should expand through proliferation and federation rather than ‘replication’ (which implies sameness) or ‘scaling-up’ (which implies large-scale political entities requiring hierarchy and representation).

Intentional communities experiment alternative modes of property relations, decision-making, and scale and federation by experimenting with viable alternatives: gift-economies and income or cost-sharing, 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, and the spaces and geographies of life. Much political and geographic theory privileges the urban as radical site for transformation. Intentional communities can be rural as well as urban. Both sites create different possibilities.Urban communities offer more opportunity for engagement with wider struggles and political activity, and greater visibility in order to ‘lead by example.’ They often have more diverse membership. Rural communities often have greater relative invisibility, which in some respects means more autonomy from mainstream social conventions and institutions, reduced pace, direct community, stronger social bonds, and greater capacity for ecological living and self-management.

While there are clear differences between urban and rural intentional communities, they often fulfil the transgressive function of utopianism by subverting the alienated division of urban from rural space through creative practices such as urban farming, permaculture, primary goods and sustainable energy production, and self-management. Urban intentional communities resist the impersonality of urban space by recomposing communities as local space. Rural communities resist the isolation of rural space through social and political networks and federation.

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 blueprints. 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

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