Academic journal article Communal Societies

Lived Utopianism: Everyday Life and Intentional Communities

Academic journal article Communal Societies

Lived Utopianism: Everyday Life and Intentional Communities

Article excerpt

Introduction: Lived Utopianism and Everyday Life

Utopias seek to imagine a good life, and members of intentional communities attempt to live a good life. This article examines what happens, conceptually and experientially, when people try to realize shared ideas of a good life by joining or living in intentional communities. We evoke a phenomenon that we call "lived utopianism," which draws together the concerns of two cognate but different fields of research: communal studies and utopian studies. The former often involves close and detailed individual empirical case studies, examining different aspects of the challenges and rewards of communal life, including the challenges of realizing a shared ideal. The latter includes literary, theoretical, and empirical research but often examines utopian ideals in the abstract or through fictional examples. Our own research on intentional communities crosses the boundaries between communal and utopian studies, as does this article. We ask, "What happens when people try to live a good life together?" and "Is it possible to live a utopia?" These questions raise difficult issues about the relationship between utopian thinking and practice, which are addressed toward the end of the article.

Utopianism stems from discontent with one's society. This discontent typically manifests as a critical narrative about the values, norms, and/or conceptual cornerstones of the society. Utopian critique is thus context specific. Definitively, in Thomas More's Utopia, the key protagonist criticizes sixteenth-century social institutions and practices such as enclosure, the inequality of wealth and labor, and the pernicious effects of private property in land. From this critical perspective, the utopian thinker seeks out better alternatives. Taking the key values and practices identified in their critique as their starting place, utopians begin to imagine a better society in which these things are revalued and practiced differently. Thus Thomas More's Hytholoday describes a country that has no concept of private property or money and, as a consequence, no property crime and no material inequality. Lived utopianism is the attempt to take this sort of utopian thinking a step further. Lived utopianism is people trying to realize their ideas and dreams of a better way of life, in the here and now.

We examine this phenomenon at work (and play) in the following cases, selected as examples of different kinds of communities that exhibit typical experiences. They include small and large communities, old and new, rural and urban, secular and religious. For example, River Haven Community in Wisconsin (USA) self-describes as an establishing rural ecovillage, (1) while the Ecovillage at Ithaca (USA), also rural, is well established and actively outward facing. (2) Three long-established and widely influential cases are the Findhorn Foundation (Scotland), (3) Twin Oaks (USA), (4) and the worldwide Carthusian monasteries. (5) A less well-known case is the religious community of Glorivale (New Zealand). (6) Our discussion of these examples is supplemented by interviews with individual members of other communities.

In addition to reporting on the real experiences and challenges of lived utopianism, this article has two agenda-setting aims. Firstly, we call for more research into this concept inside intentional communities. We are just opening the debate on this topic. Secondly, we hope that scholars and activists will identify lived utopianism occurring in other spaces, practices, and activities, beyond intentional communities. The concept of lived utopianism has purchase beyond the area of communal studies and is pertinent to anyone who seeks to live a better life. It is especially significant in the current geopolitical context of mass dissatisfaction with conventional politics and politicians. Established routes and institutions for change are widely perceived to be failing, and alternative ways of embedding change are increasingly crucial. …

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