Top 5 Experimental Towns and Communes

5. The Federation of Damanhur

Named after an ancient Egyptian city, the Federation of Damanhur is a utopian commune located outside of Turin, Italy. It was started in the ‘70s by Oberto Airaudi and a small group of followers, and today it counts as many as 800 citizens among its ranks. There are even offshoot centers for the group located as far away as the U.S. and Japan. The community refers to itself as a “collective dream” where “spiritual, artistic, and social research” takes place. The group prizes environmental sustainability, artistic expression, and optimism above all else, and meditation and self-knowledge are considered fundamental to personal growth.  But while this philosophy might not seem extraordinary, the way it is expressed certainly is. This was most apparent in 1992, when the group revealed a series of striking underground temples—supposedly a monument to peace and the power of human collaboration—that they had been constructing since the late ‘70s.
Community Philosophy:
Damanhur, though not sovereign from Italy, operates as though it were its own independent nation. There is a constitution, a currency called “credito,” and an independent infrastructure, and at this point there are even grown children who were born in the community and have lived there all their life. Perhaps most interesting is the community’s style of marriage, which works on a contract system. Prior to their wedding, couples decide on a period of time that the marriage will last. Once that period has elapsed, the two can either go their separate ways or agree to renew the marriage for a new span of time.
4. The Farm

Communal living experienced a renaissance with the rise of the hippie movement, when thousands of young people dropped out of society and attempted to form independent, utopian communities. The biggest and most notable of them all is certainly a town in Summerton, Tennessee known only as “The Farm.” The town was the brainchild of Stephen Gaskin, a creative writing teacher from San Francisco who led a caravan of cars and busses across the country to Tennessee, where they bought a 1,000-acre tract of land on a former cattle ranch. The Farm soon became legendary in underground culture, and as new members journeyed to Tennessee from around the country, the community soon grew into a miniature metropolis of tents and log cabins. By 1980, there were over 1,000 people living at the Farm.
Community Philosophy:
In the early days, residents of The Farm took a “vow of poverty” and swore off tobacco, alcohol, and all animal products. All possessions were communal, and residents regularly engaged in group marriages. These restrictions have since loosened, but the community still maintains a steadfast devotion to vegetarianism and environmentally friendly living, and today it works as an ecovillage where all power is generated through solar panels and biofuels. It also has an acclaimed school of midwifery, a book publishing company, and a grade school. Residents have even spearheaded a number of different charitable endeavors around the world. The community went through some tough time in the 80s, and many of the original members abandoned it, but it’s still around today, and as many as 175 people live and work there year round.
3. Israeli Kibbutzim

The term “kibbutz” doesn’t refer to one specific community, but rather to a form of experimental living that became popular in Israel in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The term itself can be translated as “gathering,” and it’s used to describe the numerous cooperative communes that were founded by Jewish immigrants in Palestine prior to the creation of Israel. Many came to the Middle East from Russia to be pioneer farmers, and they chose to live collectively because it allowed for greater safety and a more efficient way of growing crops. Most kibbutzim had about 200 members, and by 1950 there were as many as 60,000 people living in the communes all across Israel. The communities were originally started purely as Jewish farming ventures, but by the ‘30s many had taken on a socialist philosophy, and some of the kibbutzim with more utopian goals began to allow people of all religions to join.
Community Philosophy:
A key philosophy of these kibbutzim was a devotion to equality. All major decisions were made communally in group meetings. Women were seen as equals to men, and were even required to serve as armed guards at times. There were no personal possessions—not even clothing—and even children were considered to belong to the community at large. Most grew up living with one another in their own communal house, and they spent little time with their parents outside of community activities. After the formation of Israel and the rise of capitalism, many of these values began to be replaced by more modern, individualistic tendencies. Today, most kibbutzim have become private enterprises, and farming has largely been abandoned. Despite this decline, there are still as many as 125,000 people—about 3% of the total population—currently living in kibbutz-style communes all over Israel.
2. Oneida Colony

New York’s Oneida Colony community was started in 1848 by John Humphrey Noyes, a practitioner of a sect of Christianity he called Perfectionism, which stated that Christ had already returned and it was the people who had to build paradise on Earth. The community started as a small group of about 80 people, but this number had doubled within a few years, and by 1880 there were as many as 350 people of all ages living at Oneida. The group had a small plot of land, but its primary base of operations was a 92,000 square foot mansion house, where all the members lived and worked communally.
Community Philosophy:
Oneida worked under a pseudo-socialist style wherein each member would work to the degree that they were able. Women were afforded more freedom than was common at the time, and all possessions were communal. Noyes instituted a strange program of character improvement where each member of the group was regularly brought before a committee and told their personal flaws, which they were expected to fix. As a rule, monogamy was forbidden within Oneida. Instead, the community engaged in a “complex marriage” system where each member was effectively “married” to everyone else. Strong attachments to a single person were discouraged, and members of the commune would regularly trade out sexual partners throughout the course of the week. This included young people, who were supposedly “initiated” into the program by an elder member of the opposite sex. These practices proved to be Oneida’s undoing, as Noyes was forced to flee the country in 1879 in order to escape charges of statutory rape. Without his more-than-questionable guidance, the community soon broke apart.
1. Brook Farm

Massachusetts’s Brook Farm community only lasted for five years, and was a conclusive failure in nearly every way. But it remains one of the most notable experimental communities of the 1800s, if only because of the many famous people who were associated with it.  The town was started by George and Sophia Ripley in 1841. The couple subscribed to the transcendental philosophy espoused by poets and thinkers like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, and they based their community on these ideals. The basic idea was that by pooling their labor efforts, a society could eliminate the drudgery of work and have time engage in intellectual pursuits and leisure activities. The Ripleys raised money through a joint stock company that counted Nathaniel Hawthorne among its investors, and after buying several acres of farmland outside of Boston, put their experiment into action.
Community Philosophy:
In the beginning, Brook Farm worked around a policy of personal freedom and equality. Members were allowed to choose what kind of work they wanted to do, and special time was set aside for leisure and intellectual study. Women enjoyed much greater equality than was common at that time. Not only were they paid the same as the men, but they were considered autonomous from their husbands and were allowed to be shareholders in the community at large. The commune tried to self-sustain by farming, opening a school, and selling goods like clothing, but they were never able to fully get out of debt. These financial troubles, along with Ripley’s inability to get luminaries like Emerson or Thoreau (who visited many times) to become permanent members, eventually led to the adoption of a more rigid, socialistic philosophy. Against the wishes of many of the members, the community had soon adopted more rules and social guidelines. When a massive communal house caught fire and burned halfway through construction, Brook Farm fell into even more debt, and in 1846 it dissolved for good.


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