Living in Utopia
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Living in Utopia

New Zealand's Intentional Communities

Lucy Sargisson, Lyman Tower Sargent

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eBook - ePub

Living in Utopia

New Zealand's Intentional Communities

Lucy Sargisson, Lyman Tower Sargent

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About This Book

Utopia is, literally, the good place that is no place. Utopias reveal people's dreams and desires and they may gesture towards different and better ways of being. But they are rarely considered as physical, observable phenomena. In this book Sargisson and Sargent, both established writers on utopian theory, turn their attention to real-life utopian communities. The book is based on their fieldwork and extensive archival research in New Zealand, a country with a special place in the history of utopianism. A land of opportunity for settlers with dreams of a better life, New Zealand has, per capita, more intentional communities - groups of people who have chosen to live and sometimes work together for a common purpose - than any country in the world. Sargisson and Sargent draw on the experiences of more than fifty such communities, to offer the first academic survey of this form of living utopian experiment. In telling the story of the New Zealand experience, Living in Utopia provides both transferable lessons in community, cooperation and social change and a unique insight into the utopianism at the heart of politics, society, and everyday life.

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Chapter 1


When most people are unhappy with something in their society, they either simply accept it, through apathy or because they believe, rightly or wrongly, that they have no ability or power to effect change, or they try, individually or collectively, to bring about change in the direction they desire. Others physically withdraw. Some do so because they want to lead their chosen life immediately rather than wait for change to take place; others do so because they believe that their way is the right way for a chosen few. They may withdraw by changing societies; if the country is large enough, they migrate internally to a part where they believe life will be better; or they may attempt to create that better life within the confines of the larger society but in various ways separate from it. This book is about this last form of withdrawal.
Such withdrawal has a long and diverse history. Around the time of Christ, the Essenes were a withdrawn Jewish sect in Palestine, and similar Christian communities developed early in the history of Christianity and evolved into the formal orders of monks and nuns that have now existed for centuries. Parallel developments occurred in other religions, most notably Buddhism and Hinduism. Such communities developed both through persecution and from the belief that it was the only way to practice the good religious life as understood by a particular set of believers. And different understandings of the good life led and continues to lead to the establishment of new religious communities.
Just as it is impossible to date the first religious community with any real precision, it is unclear when the first secular withdrawn community was established. As religion became less central in the lives of many people, communities came into existence designed to practice a good life that was less focused on religion and at some point religion became a matter left up to individual members. Sometimes this process took place in long-lived communities that were established as religious communities but continued as secular ones or ones that are religious in a way that leaves the characteristics of the religion undefined. But most often religious and secular communities have developed on different bases and had little to do with each other.

What to Call these Communities

Over the centuries of their existence these communities have been given many different labels. They have been called (and this long list is almost certainly incomplete) intentional communities, intentional societies, communal societies, cooperative communities, practical utopias, communes, withdrawn communities, enacted communities, experimental communities, communal experiments, alternative societies, alternative lifestyles, communitarian experiments, socialist colonies, collective settlements, mutualistic communities, communistic societies, utopian societies, concrete utopias and utopian experiments.
The differences in these labels reflect both political and scholarly judgments and, more recently, the desire of those living in such communities for a neutral term that does not suggest a particular political perspective, as, for example, communistic societies does, or that sets too high a standard, as, for example, utopian societies might appear to do. Both scholars and members have moved toward intentional community, members because it is seen as neutral and scholars because it is neutral and inclusive. Still, it is common to see other terms used, with commune the most common alternative label. Commune has the advantage of being widely recognised but the disadvantage of calling up a particular era in the history of such communities, the sixties and seventies. Another term, peculiar to both New Zealand and a particular moment in time, ohu, will be discussed at length in Chapter 4.

Past Scholarship

While there were earlier descriptions of individual communities, scholarship on such communities appears to have begun in 1841 when Mary Hennell wrote a study that was published initially as an appendix to Charles Bray’s, The Philosophy of Necessity; or, The Law of Consequences; As Applicable to Mental Moral and Social Sciences (2: 495–663). While later editions of Bray’s book were published without the appendix, Hennell’s essay was published separately in 1844 as An Outline of the Various Social Systems and Communities which have been Founded on the Principle of Co-operation.
After Hennell’s initial work, communities were most often presented in one of two ways, either through antiquarian or genealogical studies of individual communities (often by descendants) or through what might be called travelogues in which the author visited (or learned about) a number of communities and reported on them, often with no pretence of objectivity but sometimes with some sympathy. Both approaches provide sources for contemporary scholarship, albeit sources that must be used with care.
Works of the first sort were sometimes flawed by a desire to present the community in the best light and deliberately obscured practices that did not fit the authors’ understanding of what was right. This led in some cases to the destruction of documents that showed the community in other than the desired manner, but such studies also ensured that material survived that might have been destroyed through ignorance and that memories were recorded that would otherwise been lost.
The travelogues also provide information that we might not have otherwise. The descriptions themselves are important, and the authors both reproduced documents and collected them, which in some cases ensured their survival. Also, others with documents recognised their value and kept them, simply because these accounts had been published.
The most important collector of documents did not himself publish a study, but the A.J. Macdonald collection, now at Yale University, provided the basis for John Humphrey Noyes’s History of American Socialisms (1870) and much later scholarship. The most important of the travellers were John Finch, whose ‘Notes of Travel in the United States’ was published in 22 instalments in The New Moral World in 1844 and was read by Friedrich Engels (see Feuer); William Alfred Hinds, whose American Communities was first published in 1878 with expanded editions in 1902 and 1908; and Charles Nordhoff, whose The Communistic Societies of the United States (1875) is probably the best of these works.
Although communities continued in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (see Fogarty 1990), interest in them waned, and there was little good scholarship except on the best-known communities like New Harmony, Oneida and the Shakers. The one exception was History of Cooperation in the United States (1888), which included six chapters by various authors on cooperation in different regions of the United States with some material on intentional communities.
This study reflected a change in both terminology and substance that lasted for some decades. Although the word cooperation (often hyphenated) had been used in the past it became the most general term in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It was regularly used to apply to communities, but it most often referred to producer or consumer cooperatives, cooperative housing and movements like cooperative housekeeping. Such organisations did not have the goal of creating entirely new communities, but they did intend to significantly improve the lives of their members. And in some instances groups created cooperative communities, and studies like the collective work History of Cooperation in the United States and Charles Gide’s Communist and Co-operative Colonies (1930) reflect this.
The first steps toward the development of modern scholarship was the publication of various studies by Henrik Infield in the late 1940s and early 1950s and the publication in 1950 of Arthur Bestor’s Backwoods Utopias, which is one of the classics of the field. Since the 1950s was a time when anything that could be construed as close to communist attracted negative attention, communal scholarship developed slowly, only taking off with the explosion of communes in the 1960s.
However, these scholars often excluded the largest group of such communities, Roman Catholic and Anglican convents and monasteries, and only recently have scholars begun to pay attention to these communities as part of the same phenomenon as the other communities they did study. Why was this? First, there was ignorance of the history of Roman Catholic and Anglican monasticism. Most of the communities that were studied tended to be rebelling against the established order, and Roman Catholic and Anglican communities were seen as part of that established order and, therefore, it was assumed that they were different in kind. But any student of these Roman Catholic and Anglican communities knows that they were often embattled, rebelling against previous community types and practices, and were frequently rejected by those in power within the church hierarchy.
In addition, Roman Catholic and Anglican communities tended to see themselves as different in kind from the other religious and secular communities and were reluctant to allow themselves to be studied as living communities by outsiders. Thus, what studies there were tended to be historical or written by insiders for insiders. But this changed.
Part of the impetus for the change came from the changed language used to describe communities. While studies by Braunfels, Hillery and Morrow, and Horn and Born used words and phrases like ‘commune’, ‘utopian community’, utopian experiment’, and ‘communitarian experiment’, these did not seem to apply to convents and monasteries. At the same time, other descriptors like ‘withdrawn community’ should have signalled their inclusion. When ‘intentional community’ became accepted, it was clear that scholarship had excluded the largest group of such communities.
Another phenomenon added to the impetus for change. In the so-called 1960s, many people were attracted to Eastern religions, particularly Buddhism and Hinduism. As a result, Buddhist monks began to come to Australia, Europe, New Zealand and North America to teach, and they ultimately established monasteries. Hindu teachers and gurus also established ashrams in these areas, and these ashrams were quickly recognised as having great similarities to religious communes as, somewhat less quickly, did the Buddhist monasteries. Having admitting one form of monastic order to the fold, it was impossible to exclude Western forms with the same name.
A third phenomenon was the revolution that took place within the Roman Catholic Church with Vatican II. Nuns in particular saw their lives transformed. And both the men and women who joined Catholic orders were more likely to have extensive experience of the world, including intentional communities, than the previous generations had. And they became aware of the similarities themselves and in many cases began to think of themselves as living in intentional communities and became scholars on their own communities using the same tools and language as scholars of other intentional communities. As a result, today there are scholarly studies like Lawrence J. McCrank’s 1997 article surveying American religious orders and the 1997 study of their own community by the Sisters of the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

What is an Intentional Community?

There is no universally agreed upon definition of the term intentional community, and definitions in the literature vary, but there is common ground amongst the definitions (an account of past definitions can be found in Sargent 1994, 30–32). For instance, Marguerite Bouvard builds upon the work of The Federation of Intentional Communities, which identified size and organisation as key factors, and identifies social change as a key function:
A loose definition of intentional community was adopted by the F[ederation of] I[ntentional] C[ommunities] in 1953. It sets as criteria for community a minimum size of three families or five adults, an organisation sufficient to assure a recognisable geographic proximity of members to insure continuous fellowship. Among the basic concepts of community articulated by the FIC are: sharing in a whole way of life; the importance of the spirit animating community; and the necessity of active participation in community for the maturity of the person and of the social order. At that time intentional community was conceived as the seed of a new social order inspired by the principles of mutual concern, pooling of resources, democratic and nonviolent methods and a concern for balance between the worth of the person and the social whole. (Bouvard, 100)
This is a common view and definitions often refer to size and shared goals (LeWarne, 4; Zablocki, 7), as well as work and group life (Abrams et al., 45). For some, an economic tie is necessary before a group can be called an intentional community (Fogarty 1980, ix), and others focus on the deliberate creation of alternatives (Wagner ‘Sex Roles’, 4). The simplest definition comes from Andy Wood:
Very generally, communal living can be described as situations in which people knowingly and willingly share aspects of living accommodation and material goods. (Wood, 6)
For Rosabeth Kanter, a utopian community can be identified by certain organisational features and shared goals but for her, the key component of such a community is commitment (Kanter, 2–3).
Building on past scholarship, one of us proposed the following definition:
I shall define an intentional community as a group of five or more adults and their children, if any, who come from more than one nuclear family and who have chosen to live together to enhance their shared values or for some other mutually agreed upon purpose. (Sargent 1994, 14–15)
This has been our benchmark, although experience has shown that size is not a reliable criterion and this study includes small groups in order to take into account embryonic communities and communities in a temporary lull or terminal decline. It is important to take into account both intentional and community (Shenker 1981). Intentional communities are communities, and this includes both collective activity and shared physical space (Metcalf 1995). And they are intentional, sharing a collective endeavour. And so, the working definition used in this project is simple and inclusive, encompassing a wide range of experiments in community including communes, eco-villages, religious houses and residential cooperatives. Intentional communities are groups of people who have chosen to live (and sometimes work) together for some common purpose (Sargisson 2000). Their raison d’être goes beyond tradition, personal relationships or family ties.
All the definitions run up against the fact that some groups of people say they constitute an intentional community when they do not meet the criteria spelled out in any definition. Others groups say they are not intentional communities when they clearly do meet the criteria. And that has proven no less true in New Zealand than elsewhere.

New Zealand

The act of immigrating to a new country is certainly an act of withdrawing from society to establish a new and, hopefully, better life, but not all colonisation schemes are community based or have a vision of creating a better society than that in the old country. The colonisation of New Zealand did have such visionary schemes; therefore, the history of intentional communities in New Zealand is virtually identical with the history of New Zealand. Still, the colonisation schemes as designs to create better communities with specific goals were short-lived, as were some other attempts to create communities in early New Zealand.
Thus, the earliest history of intentional communities in New Zealand is erratic and moves in fits and starts. There were various schemes and plans to establish communities but most never got beyond the planning stage, and, as we shall argue, the tension between the desire for individual betterment and community participation undermined those that got started. There were Roman Catholic communities established; there were state schemes to help immigrants and reduce unemployment; there were groups who immigrated to New Zealand with the goal of establishing intentional communities but few did; and other groups that discussed founding such communities without doing so; and there was a late nineteenth century community founded in Christchurch, the Federative Home or Wainoni, that was a radical experiment in communal living.
But other than the Roman Catholic and Anglican communities, the continuous history on intentional communities begins in the early 1930s with the founding of Beeville near Morrinsville, which lasted into the 1970s and in 1965 spawned Wilderland, which still exists today, and influenced the development of many later communities. The second community, Riverside, was founded in the early 1940s and continues to the present, making it one of the oldest intentional communities in the world. Since these origins, intentional communities in New Zealand have been established from the top of the North Island to the bottom of the South Island, and these communities parallel the entire spectrum of such communities as they have developed in other countries, from Hippie with open sexuality to lesbian separatist, to monogamous, from secular, to fundamentalist Christian, to Buddhist, to Hindu.
There have been few studies of any of these communities, individually or collectively. Riverside published its own history in 1991 (Rain), and Arnold R. Parr published a study of one aspect of Riverside in 1994. A study of Centrepoint was written by one of its members (Oakes 1986), from a perspective that he has largely recanted (see Oakes 1988 and 1997). There have been a number of theses, mostly from the School of Architecture at the University...

Table of contents

Citation styles for Living in Utopia
APA 6 Citation
Sargisson, L., & Sargent, L. T. (2017). Living in Utopia (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2017)
Chicago Citation
Sargisson, Lucy, and Lyman Tower Sargent. (2017) 2017. Living in Utopia. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis.
Harvard Citation
Sargisson, L. and Sargent, L. T. (2017) Living in Utopia. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Sargisson, Lucy, and Lyman Tower Sargent. Living in Utopia. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2017. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.