It is hard to find a word held so low in the public esteem as “communalism”. For most people it carries a toxic whiff of both “communism” and “commune”, implying dropouts, flakes, fanatics and cultish leaders. If you’re in any doubt about how frightening the word is to the average citizen, try telling your next-door neighbour you’re going to live communally: they will veer away from you (believe me, I’ve done it), imagining drugs, sexual deviancy and squalor.
Evangelists for communalism – a way of life in which people agree to share, or have in common far more than is normal in the “real world” – have an uphill struggle to rehabilitate the concept. It is rare to get beyond snide comments about freeloaders or free-lovers. I have written two books about communalism and both times it was fantastically difficult to persuade friends, let alone my agent and publishers, that communalism has something fascinating to say about and to our society.
The scorn for communalism is particularly perplexing because we live in an age in which “community” is incessantly proffered as the cure for many of society’s ills. Every time a post office, pub or village hall shuts; each time there’s a horrific crime, we are told – or hear ourselves saying – that what we are lacking is community. In an age of mass migration and national identity crises, we’re susceptible to the idea that if we could just find some old-fashioned social glue, everything would be OK.
So we have this bizarre, double-edged attitude, in which vague, vapid “community” is imagined to be wonderful and healing but concrete “communalism” is considered at best doolally, at worst dangerous. For us communalists, it seems absurd: it’s a bit like seeing a patient yelling for the medicine but petulantly refusing it when they realise it’s administered through a large needle.
That there is a need for some sort of medicine for our affliction is surely beyond doubt. The symptoms of hyperindividualism are so well known as to be almost truisms: 31 per cent of households in the most recent UK census, for example, contained just a single person. We are, as a society, profoundly atomised, separated into units so tiny that almost nothing – not religion, nationalism, political passion, or provenance – holds us together.
The result is an epidemic of addiction, depression and loneliness. Age UK reckons that two-fifths of older people say that the television is their main companion. We suffer from a lack of both belonging and purpose, and understandably reach for all sorts of remedies: not only more drugs, in the form of antidepressants, but self-help books and life coaches and counsellors (all good things, don’t get me wrong, but symptomatic of our discontent). Most of all, we reach for community-lite, in the form of social media and online networks, hoping that staring at a screen by ourselves will finally give us something in common. If those solutions are, thus far, often dissatisfying, surely it is worth another look – an honest, intelligent look – at communalism and at what it has to offer.
The history of communalism is intimately connected with Christianity, which is probably another reason, in our secular age, that it is now so scorned. One of the earliest mentions occurs in the New Testament, in Acts, when Jesus’s disciples decide to place “everything in common”. Koinonia is the Greek term that describes the practice, usually translated into English as “fellowship”, “sharing” or “participation”. The Rule of St Benedict, the revered guide to teach monks how to live together, was written 15 centuries ago but remains relevant today.
Often, though, Christian communities were outside monasteries: the Brethren of the Common Life (a Catholic pietist community founded in 14th-century Holland), the Hussites (who set up an egalitarian peasant commune in Bohemia in the 15th century) and the Waldensians (the followers of Peter Waldo’s 12th-century preaching of apostolic poverty who gathered in the Italian-French Alps) were all revolutionary and were amply persecuted in their day. Those movements were followed by the Anabaptists – the Amish, Hutterites, Mennonites and Bruderhof – who lived with a simplicity that is, depending on your taste, either breathtaking or scary. Nicholas Ferrar’s Little Gidding, the celebrated but small place of prayer in 17th-century Huntingdonshire, was the inspiration for poems by both Ted Hughes (a distant descendant) and T S Eliot. The Doukhobors, too, were Christian pacifists from Russia (though thousands emigrated to live in Canada).
It is impossible to make generalisations about so many diverse communities, but most of them believed in pacifism, poverty, egalitarianism and common, rather than private, ownership. They also demonstrated a disdain for, and detachment from, the world of prestige and profit. That is why there was always an overlap between those gospel-inspired gatherings and those that to modern eyes seem ideologically far removed: the proto-anarchism of, say, Gerrard Winstanley’s Diggers and the Tolstoyan Whiteway Colony community.
The Diggers, also called the True Levellers, were those rule-bending agrarians of the 17th century who disdained private property and cultivated common lands in Surrey, Northamptonshire and Buckinghamshire, giving rise to the so-called San Franciscan Diggers three centuries later, in the 1960s. Whiteway was similarly revolutionary. Established in the Gloucestershire Cotswolds in 1898, it is Britain’s most durable commune and still going strong, albeit in a very different form. The story goes that the Quakers, Christian Socialists, pacifists and anarchists who set it up were so dismissive of private ownership that they burned the title deeds to the land on the end of a pitchfork.
Many other types of communalism exist: the kibbutzim in Israel, ashrams in India, and so on. But the communalism that people most often think of when they hear the term is hippie communes, those places full of eccentric escapists who found society not too lax, as the various “brethren” movements did, but too staid. The accusation against the archetypal hippie and New Age communities is always that they have been more inspired by individual quests for pleasure, both carnal and narcotic, than by social action; that they have been more moved by solipsism than compassion. When you probe the spiritual and sexual experimentation of modern European communities such as Damanhur in northern Italy, Christiania in Denmark, and ZEGG in Germany you see that there’s something in the accusation; yet such places have largely continued the tradition of pacifism and reconciliation, and added a twist of environmental radicalism.
But something else happened in 20th-century communalism that went almost unnoticed by the mainstream media. Various priests and psychiatrists became convinced that a whole range of physical and mental conditions – from post-traumatic stress disorder to homelessness and addiction – could be accommodated, cherished and ameliorated within a group setting. “Tubby” Clayton, an Anglican army chaplain, set up the first Toc H house in Poperinge, Belgium, to create an egalitarian space for shell-shocked soldiers in the First World War; the Abbé Pierre in Paris started the Emmaus communities for rough sleepers (there are now 350 of these refuges, running under the great slogan that Emmaus gives “people a bed and a reason to get out of it”); Jean Vanier established the first L’Arche community in Trosly-Breuil, northern France, for people with learning difficulties, and today there are 147 of them. Don Zeno created a community for hundreds of orphaned children in Tuscany on land donated by an heiress of the Pirelli tyre empire.
All those residential communities were set up by practising Christians but there are many that weren’t. The Jewish psychiatrist Loren Mosher created the Soteria houses to treat psychiatric distress by accompanying rather than medicating patients. Karl König, another Jew, set up Camphill, based on anthroposophy (a philosophy of spiritual intuition founded by Rudolf Steiner), for people with learning disabilities; there are now over 100 Camphill communities. The list goes on and on: Lothlorien (founded in Dumfries and Galloway by Christians, taken over by Buddhists), the Philadelphia Association (established by R D Laing), Pilsdon (which has offered a dry and drug-free sanctuary in Dorset for almost 60 years).
The fascinating point about these communities is that they were formed not out of choice but out of need. They weren’t places people went to look for escapism, or for a better quality of life, or for social role-playing and personal reinvention: people went there to survive. That difference inverts all the stereotypes about communalism. It is usually assumed that communities are closed or conceited places, bringing together only the like-minded, yet these refuges are wide open to the outside world and – if you visit them – they demonstrate far more diversity than our ghettoised “real world”. Because depression, for instance, and addiction are indiscriminate, if you sit round the table at any of these sanctuaries you will be amazed by the variety of class, age, race, ideology and so on. They are places not of segregation but of integration.
So what? Why are these tiny, fringe groups of any relevance to mainstream society today? The answer is simple: such communities and sanctuaries have valuable lessons to impart to the wider society and, for the first time in a generation, society is listening and taking notes. The word “common” – for so long an insult – is now being rehabilitated. There has been much talk about “urban commoning”, about reclaiming patches of cities to be shared, not gated. “Designing the Urban Commons” was the name of a recent exhibition at the London School of Economics. At Agrocité in Colombes, Paris, about 400 citizens share 5,000 square metres of land. In Barcelona Ada Colau was elected mayor in May under the banner “Barcelona in Common”. Freecycle (a website that allows people to give away unwanted possessions with no exchange of money) and London’s cycle hire scheme are some of the more mainstream versions of this renewed interest in sharing, rather than owning.
Within the well-being movement, too, there’s a consensus that human contentment is served not by privatisation, by fencing off our own property and possessions, but by sharing. We will find belonging, that holy grail of modern life, only if we hold a bit less maniacally on to belongings. It sounds a bit highfalutin but often it is simple: rather like the huge garden that was created in Davis, California, when neighbours began tearing down the fences that separated their backyards from one another in 1986. Within a few years, 17 homes were sharing their gardens, replacing small lawns with one huge space full of chickens, ponds, saunas and swings. The fence-removal movement has since started in the UK, too, with many suburban streets suddenly enjoying acres of garden and even shared housing space, as in the Neighbours of Northampton (the subject of a new book, Under One Roof).
Sharing ushers in well-being because commonality brings connection, which is fundamental in the context of recovery. All the academic, statistical and anecdotal evidence shows that people are far more likely to turn their lives around, and to heal emotionally and physically, if they find themselves in a loving environment that provides meaningful relationships. Mark Gilman, who is the managing director of the consultancy Discovering Health and former head of addiction recovery at Public Health England, says: “The redemptive script is never a prescription tablet, it’s always a person. The engine room for creating a new self is other people.” You can give all the treatment you want to those in recovery, but if at the end of the day they are deprived of caring companionship, sitting alone in a bedsit or a dodgy hostel, they are isolated and in trouble.
The time-established egalitarianism of communalism is also slowly being accepted by those working with some of society’s excluded and most downtrodden. ABCD – “asset-based community development” – has recently gained traction in academic and think-tank circles. Developed in Illinois in the 1990s, ABCD focuses attention not on a community’s needs and deficits, but on its skills and capabilities. The first guiding principle of ABCD is that each person in a community has something to offer. The assets per se are the people on the ground, not at high table or in government.
ABCD has its critics but it is symptomatic of a new trend towards a less patrician form of welfare. Take psychiatric care in the UK. For years, it has been the accepted practice to hospitalise patients undergoing acute psychotic episodes and heavily medicate them with neuroleptics. Increasingly, however, mental health professionals are looking at alternative forms of support pioneered in parts of northern Europe. Open Dialogue is a model from Finland in which maintaining social ties and openness to each other within a home environment is considered just as important as any pharmaceutical or medical treatment. The Family Care Foundation in Gothenburg, Sweden, places more importance on relationships and life knowledge than on medical expertise. “Care farms” originated in the Netherlands but are now mushrooming across the UK (the latest estimate is that there are roughly 230 of them here). They are agrarian sanctuaries that offer hospitality to a wide range of people with social, physical and psychiatric needs.
After decades of hierarchical and extremely costly medical care, these community solutions are almost anti-professional, echoing George Bernard Shaw’s line that “all professions are conspiracies against the laity”. Anyone who has worked in a recovery community knows that very often the finest drugs counsellors aren’t the psychiatrists and therapists, but those in recovery themselves. Gilman tell me that his unofficial motto is: “Demedicalise the problem, deprofessionalise the solution.” The reason for that is simply that egalitarianism works: Lapland, where Open Dialogue was founded, now has the best-documented results in the western world for treatment of psychosis, with 75 per cent of people returning to work or study within two years.
These aren’t flaky, erratic communities, full of the usual suspects; they are places endorsed by probation agencies, police forces and so on. Willowdene Farm in Shropshire, for instance, works very closely with West Mercia Probation Trust. A social enterprise in the north-west, Jobs, Friends & Houses, was founded by a serving police officer with the support of Lancashire Constabulary.
The other lesson for the broader society that emerges from communalism is clarity about borders. One would have thought that highly developed nation states would have nailed how to police entry and exit, but the larger state conglomerations become, the more porous their borders. So many of the political debates in recent months – from what to do with desperate migrants in the Mediterranean through the possible repeal of the Human Rights Act and on to EU treaty renegotiation – occur because citizens feel that their governments have lost control of the most basic, important element of community: the comings and goings. Effective and fair gatekeeping is the foundation stone of any society. The Nobel Prize-winning American political economist Elinor Ostrom made that point in her “design principles” for any functioning group. Her very first principle describes “clearly defined boundaries”: “effective exclusion of external, unentitled parties”. By far the most unpleasant job I have to do on our alcohol- and drug-free refuge is to ask people to leave if they are – through using, boozing or violence – threatening the wellbeing of our community. Without that ultimate sanction of expulsion, however, the sanctuary wouldn’t exist. It would be completely without meaning.
We set up our community, Windsor Hill Wood, six years ago in a ten-acre woodland in Somerset. The sole purpose was to offer sanctuary to those in a period of crisis in their lives: those struggling with addiction, depression, bereavement, homelessness, eating disorders, PTSD, and so on. In that time we’ve had well over a hundred people living in our family home, and the benefits –
both to ourselves and to our guests – have far outweighed the drawbacks. It’s just a natural, healthy, wholesome way to live.
The debates will doubtless continue but what’s certain is that the need for more communalism will only increase in years to come. Levels of addiction and mental illness are at unprecedented levels: Drinkaware quotes the NHS estimate that 9 per cent of men and 4 per cent of women exhibit signs of alcoholism. The Mental Health Foundation believes that a quarter of the population will suffer some kind of mental health problem in the course of any one year. With an ageing population, there are far more elderly people than can be accommodated in ordinary homes. Providers of elderly care are increasingly turning to care (or retirement) villages where many age groups and needs blend to create a multifaceted hamlet. House prices, too, are so absurdly astronomical as to make home ownership a pipe dream for a large chunk of the population: with the average UK house price above £204,000 and the average monthly rent in London now £1,500 per month, many people are being forced to share houses.
The problem for us communitarians, however, is that our strength is also our weakness. Avowedly local, determinedly rooted in a specific terrain, proud of offering bespoke rather than generic solutions, invariably full of mavericks, eccentrics and refuseniks – it all makes replication and social franchising very hard. Emmaus, L’Arche and Camphill have been very successful at regeneration, but they are the exception. Because there’s no one model that fits all when you’re working with the “crooked timber” of humanity, many exceptional projects remain one-offs, far from the radar of national consciousness, and it is sometimes very hard to join the dissident dots.
But an even greater challenge is ideological resistance from the political right, for which notions that would have seemed outrageous a century ago are accepted as time-honoured truths: that individuals should aspire to be autonomous, independent and self-sufficient; that obsessive privacy and privatisation are signs of civilisation, not incivility; that the value of everything should be determined by the market, not by our morals. Above all, freedom and choice are seen as tokens of ideological maturity, proof that we are all liberated consumers in a capitalist wonderland, able to wander gleefully from stall to stall and having our every desire met through the speedy swipe of a small card.
There is a new, holistic philosophy that has emerged from within communalism and is tackling all this nonsense. “Dependency culture” is continuously demonised by the Tories, and yet those of us who work in the radical traditions of communalism know that dependency is a gift that brings us together. As Lynne Friedli, a researcher into the relationship between mental health and social justice, told me recently, “If we can’t embrace dependency and vulnerability, our society will always cast people out.” In an era in which integration and the accommodation of outsiders is so necessary, we have to learn to swing the pendulum away from rampant independence and back towards interdependence.
A pendulum is perhaps the wrong metaphor, because the journey away from social ties and bonds and dependencies during the 20th century was more like rolling a boulder down a hill. It was easy to persuade people within restrictive, traditionalist societies that autonomy and freedom were wonderful things. As Ayn Rand, the self-appointed spokesperson for neoliberals, wrote in her 1961 essay “The Soul of an Individualist”: “Civilisation is the progress toward a society of privacy . . . Civilisation is the process of setting man free from men.”
To persuade people otherwise is like pushing the boulder back up the slope. And the difficulty isn’t just that we have developed a very low tolerance towards other people. It is also that, to get back to the sunny uplands of true community, we will have to cash in the two most cherished tokens of modernity: freedom and choice. Of course, it suits capitalism to give us endless choice, to enable us to buy anything we want and to buy again when we change our mind. Postmoderns that we are, we want to keep all our options open and so, despite almost infinite choice, we can’t really make up our minds. As Zygmunt Bauman wrote in Postmodernity and Its Discontents: “Modern individuals are sentenced to a lifetime of choosing. And the art of choosing is mostly about avoiding one danger: that of missing an opportunity.” In his book The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz masterfully demonstrates how, unexpectedly, the amplification of choice has only increased our melancholia. If we all make our own choices (and invariably renege on them, too), it is not surprising we feel isolated and that society appears to have almost no glue left.
Yet in all functioning communities, collective choices are made and have to be adhered to. One of the most fascinating communal experiments that emerged from the hippie movement in the US was The Farm, in Tennessee. Inspired by the late Stephen Gaskin, it began in 1971, as you might expect, as a mirror-image of that age’s free-for-all attitude, but slowly began to incorporate “agreements”, which, over the years, made it a very stable and yet very creative space. Communal choices were made to respect the sanctity of marriage and monogamy, to avoid the use of hard drugs, and so on.
But the greatest obstacle to sharing the lessons of communalism is our warped notion of freedom. The essayist Wendell Berry arrived at the heart of the problem in his 2002 book, The Art of the Commonplace:
. . . there are two kinds of freedom: the freedom of the community and the freedom of the individual. The freedom of the community is the more fundamental and the more complex. A community confers on its members the freedoms implicit in familiarity, mutual respect, mutual affection, and mutual help; it gives freedom its proper aims . . . The freedom of the individual, by contrast, has been construed customarily as a license to pursue any legal self-interest . . .”
It is here that, most clearly, a contemporary observer will glimpse the scary needle that administers the medicine we need: to create any sort of community, we need to pool individual freedoms to gain community freedoms. The latter emerge only through submission and obedience, not through exuberance and incessant self-expression. It is, obviously, a hard sell.
But, like many radical ideas, communalism somehow appeals to both left and right, at the same time as upsetting orthodoxies at both ends of the spectrum. It is a movement that sometimes seems traditionalist, even conservative, at other times radical and revolutionary. It very clearly squares the circle of so many of our social issues, at a far lower cost than current, failed solutions. It is the ideal answer to three of those most pressing crises of our age – refugees, housing and environmental damage – but we lack the courage, or strength, to give it a go.
Tobias Jones is a co-founder of Windsor Hill Wood. His book about his community, “A Place of Refuge”, is published by Quercus
This article appears in the 21 Oct 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The 18th-century Prime Minister