France commune

When Commons Don’t Fail – JSTOR Daily

Think of an intentional community and you might imagine dazed hippies trying to survive on a meager harvest of kale, or gullible followers in the grip of a charismatic leader. Bill Metcalf, an Australian researcher who has been personally involved with a number of intentional communities while researching and writing about them for decades, try to set the record straight. He writes that community life has a long history and in some cases has created strong institutions that serve members well.

What makes an intentional community? According to Metcalf, it must have at least five members, drawn from more than one family, and the members must consciously adopt a way of life outside the mainstream in an attempt to solve social problems.

Community life in the service of building a better world has a long history in the West. Metcalf writes that the first intentional community in recorded history was Homakoeion, created by Pythagoras in 525 BCE. The members tried to create an ideal society, though we don’t know much about what that meant to them other than they renounced private property and meat and became interested in numerology. The first Christians lived in community. A few centuries later, Christian monasteries became a major form of intentional community. Between the 12th and 18th centuries, many communes were created by religious and political minorities, including Waldensian ascetics in France, socialist Diggers in England, and Shakers in North America.

Then, in the 19th century, a time of widespread utopian thought and writing, hundreds of intentional communities formed across Europe, the Americas, Australia and New Zealand. Today, most of these groups are gone, but new ecovillages and communities of all kinds continue to spring up all over the world.

Contrary to common misconceptions based on horrific cases like the Jonestown Massacre, writes Metcalf, members of intentional communities are rarely led by manipulative “gurus.” After thirty years of research, he writes that he has found only a few people who fit this description.

“In a few intentional communities, leaders exploit members, but this is probably less common than in the general workplace,” Metcalf writes. He notes that rape and child abuse do occur sometimes, but much less frequently than in other contexts.

“Free love,” a common feature of commons at one time, is rare in intentional communities today. And, while the incomes of people living in communities are generally lower than the average for the countries where they are located, other researchers have found that members have more access to material goods since many resources can be shared.

It’s true, writes Metcalf, that most intentional communities don’t last long and people move in and out of them often. But long-standing communities with relatively stable memberships also exist. For example, Israel’s first kibbutz, Degania, established in 1909, and Bon Homme, a Hutterite community in South Dakota established in 1874, are still active today.


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From: Bill Metcalf

RCC Perspectives, No. 8, Realizing Utopia: Ecovillage Endeavors and Academic Approaches (2012), p. 21-30 (10 pages)

Rachel Carson Center