Is it possible to imagine an economy beyond capitalism? Imagine: yes. Establish and put into practice: highly unlikely. As individualism replaced collectivism and solidarity, the idea of communal living, long described as the backbone of utopian societies, has mostly disappeared. Plato recommended communal living, as did several religious separatists, anarchists, and hippies. But living with no private property and with all goods in common has proved to be a spectacular failure, a social experiment doomed to be fraught with stories of brainwashing, tree hugging, and mandatory sexual sharing. In other words, there’s a fine line between a utopian society and a cult: a commune in Woodstock, New York is one bad trip from becoming the Peoples Temple in Jonestown, Guyana.
Utopian societies are supposed to eliminate greed and create equality. But these idealistic communities fail because humans are greedy, and unequal – the 1% and the working class are a prime example of modern feudalism. While much has been made about the spontaneous rise of collaborative production, new ways of working, parallel currencies, and cooperatives –all of which are part of what’s termed the “sharing economy” -capitalism is alive and well. And where there’s capitalism there’s greed and inequality. Utopian societies are designed to herald in a new age of human civilization, but all of these social experiments, from Shaker settlements to the Oneida Perfectionists, collapsed because of human nature. Here are 10 failed utopian societies.
11. “Utopia” on FOX
Part civics lesson, part prime-time soap opera, Fox’s reality show “Utopia” placed 15 strangers in the wilderness and gave them a year to build a society. It’s an interesting premise for a TV show, and far more creatively ambitious than letting the cameras roll as the Kardashians discuss their love lives. Fox was scheduled to air new episodes of “Utopia” twice a week, but low ratings forced the social experiment to be cancelled after just two months. In fact, “Utopia” was the lowest rated fall series on Fox’s schedule, averaging a dismal 0.5 rating amongst adults 18-49. “Utopia” is a classic example of a brave new world turned paradise lost.
It was supposed to be a utopian community in the Arizona desert but it ended up… well, deserted. Architect Paolo Soleri, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright, planned a community based on arcology –a unique fusion of architecture and ecology that seeks to create self-contained structures ideally suited for their environment. Soleri’s community was designed to sustain 5,000 citizens. The eco-city’s structures look like a mix of science fiction and Antonioni film sets. While Arconsanti still exists today, it never fulfilled its dream of housing 5,000 people (the community is in the middle of nowhere, and work is scarce) and is more of an architectural curiosity than anything else, the last testament to grandiose utopian cities and megalomaniacal architects.
9. Shaker Communities
The Shakers were formed in England in the 18th century. The sect’s first settlement in colonial America was established in Mount Lebanon, New York in 1784. By the 19th century over 20 Shaker communities dotted the American landscape, and at its peak the group attracted 20,000 converts. Shakers are known for their simple way of life; they practiced celibacy, pacifism, and the communal ownership of goods. Men and women had equal roles in the religious sect. Membership dwindled in the 20th century, and by 1920 there were only 12 Shaker communities left in the U.S. Today, most Shaker settlements have been converted to museums. The Shakers are best known for their simple, austere furniture designs.
8. The Home Colony
In 1895, George Allen, Oliver Verity, and B.F. O’Dell established the Home Colony on Von Geldern Cove, in Washington state. The founders had previously participated in a socialist experiment near Tacoma –an industrial cooperative called Glennis –and considered themselves social anarchists. Home thrived from 1896 to 1921, attracting a wide range of socialists, radicals, free thinkers, and other oddballs who didn’t fit into mainstream society. At its peak in 1910, the Home colony had over 200 people, not to mention its own community newspapers: New Era, Discontent, and Agitator. Problems for Home began when it changed its land-holding scheme, and the community came under intense scrutiny after President McKinley was assassinated by anarchist Leon Czolgosz.
7. Brook Farm
Inspired by the ideas of Transcendentalism, Unitarian minister George Ripley established Brook Farm in West Roxbury, Massachusetts in 1841. The concept was simple: members worked the 200-acre farm together, labored in Brook Farm’s manufacturing shops, performed domestic chores, and in return received a year’s worth of room and board and free tuition at the community school; all in all, members were asked to complete 300 days of work. The communal approach to work was designed to give the settlers more time to pursue their literary and scientific pursuits. Nathanial Hawthorne (The Scarlet Letter) was the community’s most prominent member. In the beginning Brook Farm prospered, but internal fighting and money troubles (by 1844, meat, coffee, tea and butter were no longer offered to members) forced people to leave. Brook Farm closed in 1847.
6. The Oneida Perfectionists
John Humphrey Noyes: flagrantly perverted polygamist or social pioneer in America’s Second Great Awakening? John Noyes settled the Oneida community in 1848. The colony was based on “complex marriage” and the individual relationship to God. The Oneida colonists considered themselves all to be married to one another. Noyes based the idea on Christ’s teaching that there’s no marriage in heaven. Noyes believed that on earth all men were married to all women, and that all women should have a variety of sexual partners. The Oneida Perfectionists rejected monogamy and embraced a “free love” approach to community. In 1879, Noyes fled the Oneida community when he was alerted he was going to be arrested for statutory rape.
5. The Octagon City
The Octagon City, also known as Vegetarian City, was founded by the Vegetarian Kansas Emigration Company in 1856. The original intent was to create a utopian settlement near Humboldt, Kansas comprised entirely of vegetarians. However, investors had little interest in a vegetarian community; they wanted to create a non-vegetarian moral community in which members promised to raise and educate their children in an ethical way. The city’s design was influenced by Orson Squire Fowler. He believed that octagons were the most practical shape for houses because they let in the most light (and what is light, really, if not moral clarity?) Nevertheless, the community was a failure: only 100 people came to live in Octagon City. By 1857, only four families remained.
There were hundreds of utopian communities in 19th century America, and most vanished without a trace. Case in point: Fruitlands. Founded in 1843 by Bronson Alcott (father of writer Louisa May Alcott) and Charles Lane, Fruitlands lasted six months. Fruitlands was an agrarian commune in Harvard, Massachusetts that was structured around the British reformists model. It strove for self-sufficiency and complete freedom. Members drank only water and were forbidden from eating meat or using animal products. They had a strict diet of grains and fruits. Alcott’s wide-eyed idealism, however, led to the commune’s demise. The decision not to use animal labor on the farm and to attempt to do all of the work by hand was the nail in the transcendental coffin. Fruitlands could not provide enough food for its members.
In the late 1920s, automobile tycoon Henry Ford had hundreds of cars that needed new tires. At the time, however, Dutch and English rubber barons had control of the market. So Henry Ford established Fordlandia, a sprawling, “miniature America” and rubber plantation in the middle of the Amazon. Fordlandia had a modern hospital, golf course, power plant, hotel, and rows of cookie-cutter clapboard houses with patio furniture. However, Henry Ford’s attempt to transfer the American dream to the jungle proved to be an epic failure. Local workers didn’t want to work 9 to 5 days because it was too hot; the poor conditions eventually led to worker strikes. More importantly, farming rubber trees was more difficult than imagined, and the ground was eventually found unsuitable.
Germania was Adolf Hitler’s dream capital, a gleaming testament to modernity and the centerpiece of the civilized world. Actually, if completed, Germania would have been a monument to misanthropy and horror. Nazi architect Albert Speer was in charge of revitalizing Berlin into the capital of the German “World Empire.” The New York Times described the project as “perhaps the most ambitious planning scheme of the modern era.” Blending futurism and the ideas of Le Corbusier, Albert Speer’s design for Germania featured a Grand Hall with a dome 16 times larger than that of St Peter’s in Rome, a 117-meter tall Arch of Triumph, a grand boulevard, civic and commercial buildings, ornamental obelisks, and skyscraper homes. Germania remained largely unrealized and was crushed for good with the defeat of Nazi Germany.
1. Jonestown and The People’s Temple
Jonestown proved to be anything but a utopia. Led by the charismatic leader Jim Jones, the People’s Temple originated in Indianapolis, Indiana in the 1950s. By the 1970s, the People’s Temple had branches in Los Angeles and San Francisco and a community of over 1,000 members. In 1978, Jim Jones bought 3,000 acres of land deep in the Guyanan jungle. Jones convinced his constituents that Jonestown would be a “socialist paradise” and “sanctuary,” and hundreds of members made the mass migration to the Guyana settlement. Things quickly turned ugly. There were reports of abuse and unethical behavior. Jones became increasingly paranoid and controlling. And members wanted to leave. On November 18, 1978, more than 900 people died from drinking cyanide laced grape Flavor Aid. In a pre-recorded tape, Jim Jones called the event a “revolutionary suicide.” Most sources, however, admit it was a mass killing.
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