Odyssey, part 5: The Commune Attraction

"The commune movement is part of a reawakening of belief in the possibilities for utopia that existed in the nineteenth century and exist again today, a belief that by creating the right social institution, human satisfaction and growth can be achieved."
-Rosabeth Moss Kanter

"It is easier to have faith that God will support each House of Hospitality and Farming Commune and supply our needs in the way of food and money to pay bills, than it is to keep a strong, hearty, living faith in each individual around us - to see Christ in him."
-Dorothy Day

In my old files that date back to high school there is a letter dated 28 March 1976 -- twelve days after my seventeenth birthday. It’s a letter from Twin Oaks Community in Louisa, Virginia to me. It says:
"We've received your letter requesting a visit for August 18 to Sept. 18. We probably won't be making reservations for that period until early or mid summer, so we'll let you know then whether we can invite you. It costs $1.50 per day to visit here. Your age would not be a barrier to membership if you could get written permission to join from your parents or legal guardians."
Twin Oaks Community was (and is) a commune. When I was a teenager, I believed in the idea of communes. I had written to ask for a visit because Twin Oaks required a visit before joining. The dates of the visit I had proposed, starting August 18, remind me that back then my plan was go to summer school that summer to finish high school and, a day or two after graduating, head up to Virginia. I would subsequently join Twin Oaks and spend my life in this commune.

How did this happen? How did a healthy American lad arrive at such a plan? Where would I have picked up such craziness?

We could go back to Thomas More’s 1516 work, Utopia, or further back to Plato’s Republic, but this particular story best begins in 1948 when B. F. Skinner published Walden Two. Skinner was a behaviorist psychologist, and Walden Two was his novel about a Utopian community with about a thousand happy, productive, and creative members who share the work of sustaining themselves and hold property in common, so no one is richer or poorer than anyone else.

Skinner’s behaviorism was controversial. For Skinner, only behavior mattered, and the only thing that determined behavior was contingencies of positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement. Skinnerian behaviorism seemed to “threaten a concept at the very root of western civilization: the individual endowed with inalienable rights and personal responsibility.” And the Walden Two community he envisioned seemed indeed a utopia to some, but to others the control of behavior seemed to be a totalitarian dystopia.

Behaviorism was attacked for denying human freedom and dignity. In response, Skinner wrote Beyond Freedom and Dignity, which came out in 1971 and brought the debate about Skinner’s ideas to its peak. To Skinner’s fans, what appealed to them was the grounding in reason and science combined with the promise that this grounding would lead us to a society of true equality. Concepts like “freedom” and “dignity” had for too long been used to explain and justify a gap between the haves and the have-nots that was unnecessary and unjust. Income and wealth and the bases of self-respect should be fairly and more equally distributed, argued John Rawls in A Theory of Justice, also published in 1971.

In 1971, the national discourse included a number of prominent voices calling for greater income equality. Today, we do not hear that case being made: though the need for it is much greater now than it was in 1971. In the spring of 1972, I turned 13 and had little inkling of the debates of Harvard professors like Skinner and Rawls, but I was a UU kid, and I was taught to value equality. That spring, my religious education class at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta was being led by a young man, about college age, as I remember. He wasn’t old like my parents, who had zero credibility for me when I was 13. He was young enough for me to trust him, and old enough to know things.

It was from that Sunday school teacher that I first heard of B. F. Skinner and Beyond Freedom and Dignity. We are all equal, and we are all good. If we just arrange the "contingencies of reinforcement" right – a small, merely technical problem – we’ll all do the work necessary for all of us to have what we need, instead of the haves taking it all and leaving the have-nots without. That’s what my R.E. teacher said, and he was cool, he was smart, and I so looked up to him.

When class let out, I went to the church book table and there was a copy of Beyond Freedom and Dignity. I got my parents to buy it for me. I read it. Thus was a young behaviorist born.

Here was a way to fix this world that my parents and their generation had so messed up. We could all live in harmony, and end strife and inequality if we just built our society on Skinner’s principles. B. F. Skinner said:
“societal survival could be ensured only by making conscious use of the techniques of controlling behavior to induce people to behave for the good of the group.” 
And I said, “Yes, B.F., Yes!”

Then I read the older book, Walden Two, and there it was: a picture of exactly how it was to be done.

My Dad, an English professor, said, things always change. Even if you have a perfect society today, it won’t stay that way, he said. But I didn’t see why it wouldn’t. Dad had a colleague in the English department who had an interest in Utopian experiments and had subscribed to the newsletter of Twin Oaks community. Learning of my interest in Walden Two, she passed on to me those old newsletters: pictureless pages of manual typewriter mimeograph text. That’s how I learned about a community called Twin Oaks that had been founded in 1967 specifically in order be as much as possible like Skinner’s Walden Two. In fact, in the late 60s and early 70s about three dozen communities inspired by Walden Two sprang up. Most were short-lived.

By my 17th birthday, Twin Oaks, nearly nine years old, was still going. In fact, it’s still going today, now in its 46th year. In the summer of '76, I did go to summer school and finish high school early, just as I had planned. But I never paid that visit to Louisa, Virginia. About a month after writing that letter to Twin Oaks, I began dating a young woman who I eventually married, and that had a lot to do with the change of plan.

To this day, I still haven’t been there, though the place continues to intrigue. At 17, I believed commune life was the way to go. I was so disgusted with the greed I saw all around me, and I saw the injustice and the violence that resulted from that greed, and I was angry at greed wherever I perceived it. I look back on that callow youth now, with some compassion for that guy. The one thing that makes me shake my head in wonder at that past self – what was that teenager thinking? – is the idea that he wanted to spend his life as, basically, a farmer. Twin Oaks depends on their own farming for most of what they eat. I have a lot of respect for farmers, but that is so not my calling.

I was an awkward teenager with ambitions not just for myself but that all humanity would live equally, everyone would have enough, injustice and violence would be ended. And the way to do that was to just do it: start now with a shared-income democratic community that would grow and spin-off -- and the spin-offs would grow and spin-off -- until the whole world had left greed behind and everyone was taken care of.

I’m still that guy in a lot of ways. Still not too smooth on the social skills – still working on that. I don’t have as much anger as my 17-year-old self had. I do still have his ambition for all of humanity – or, rather, I would now say, all sentient beings.

That guy -- my teen-aged self -- lived in a time when Utopian debate was alive. He spent hours in long discussions with people about the possibility of utopia. I live instead in a society where that debate has been settled – and the side that 17-year-old was on lost. I mourn the passing of a time when public discourse could take seriously the project, at any level, of a truly egalitarian society.

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Next: "Odyssey, part 6: Anti-Barbie"
Previous: "Odyssey, part 4: Paragon of Loquacious Discourse"
"Odyssey, part 3: Mr. Bear's Lover of Leaving"
"Odyssey, part 2: Falling Apples"
"Odyssey, part 1: 1959"

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