Notes on Arthur Bestor’s ‘Backwoods Utopias’

A few months ago I finished reading Arthur Bestor‘s ‘Backwoods Utopias‘, a book on the Utopian social-communitarian movements of the pre-Civil War US. Some belated notes on the book’s themes follow.

The average high school US history textbook gives a thumbnail sketch of these movements, but for those who didn’t get that or don’t remember it, the gist is that, from very shortly after Europeans reached North America until right around the Civil War, groups of people regularly launched themselves into the North American wilderness, trying to found new communities organized around communitarian and egalitarian principles. They met with some success, but eventually the movements petered out, with none of them truly surviving into the modern age.

Owen by BinaryApe, used under CC-BY

The tie from this book to my own interests should be clear, but if not, I should make them explicit: free and open source software often thinks of itself as being sui generis, but in fact it is part of a history (in this country) of retreat from established economic structures with the intent of creating parallel systems that would eventually compete with or replace those established structures with something simultaneously individually empowering and socially just. (See also.) I’m both personally and professionally curious about gleaning lessons from such past experiments- so I picked up the book. If any of this blog’s readers have suggestions either of more histories of this movement, or of histories of other similar movements (watch this space for a post on the local food movement soon), please do let me know in email or comments.

Unfortunately, Bestor’s intended follow-up book (covering the 1840s to the end of the movement) was never completed, which limits the lessons that can be drawn about the decline of the movement.  Nevertheless, some observations and themes from the book:

  • The movement had a broad spectrum of motivations and philosophies- some were heavily religious, while others were overtly anti-religious; some had (or were intended to have) quite complex governance systems, while others were nearly anarchist, and indeed Marx condemned them in strong terms because (to over-simplify) they were not dedicated to fighting the good fight in the cities. Interestingly, while the community focus of these groups was typically very strong, in modern terms we might also call them libertarian (or what Erik Olin Wright calls ‘interstitial’ revolutionaries): they all believed that they had the right and the ability to make a better world by striking off on their own, rather than working within or against established structures.
  • Religion was initially a major motivating force; this faded over time, but Bestor does not make it clear why later groups tended to be non-religious. Interestingly, American critics of later movements like Owenism apparently tended to focus on this non-religious aspect, rather than the practical/anti-capitalist issues modern critics might focus on.
  • As with every movement, looking at who left is often as important as understanding who stayed. In particular, Bestor mentions that when pragmatists became frustrated and left New Harmony (perhaps the highest profile of the various communities), those left behind were a combination of those too lazy to leave and those too fanatic to leave. This was a huge problem for the morale of the remaining pragmatists, who resented the free-riders and were driven nuts by the fanatics, and so they repeated the cycle.
  • Relatedly, Bestor argues that the repeated talk of ‘everyone will live in our miraculous new society any day now’ meant that many newcomers were not prepared for the long haul; that may have disillusioned some people and contributed to a sense of lack of momentum. To paraphrase Bestor, ‘a new society cannot be built on excuses.’
  • When the movement started, it was actually pretty easy to get a community going- lots of land was effectively empty, and the median community size in the US was in the low hundreds, making it quite easy to form a community that had all the ‘comforts’ (such as they were) of traditionally organized communities. As time progressed, two things began to work against this: first, more and more ‘normal’ landowners migrated to the midwest, causing land to become more scarce, and second, even the smallest villages became larger as the country’s overall population grew. This meant that finding enough space for a ‘basic’ community became a much more capital intensive process over time. Not coincidentally, later communities tended to have wealthy patrons- with all the plusses and minuses that brings.
  • As economic complexity increased (more machinery, more specialists) it became harder to create a self-sustaining village, especially if your human capital stocks were limited to ‘believers.’ For example, when the movement started in the late 1600s/early 1700s, having a self-sustaining community required very little specialization, while by the mid-1800s, it was understood that you needed machinists and manufacturers who would trade with other areas. Bestor says that New Harmony was bitten by this, as the land they bought for the town had the hardware for extensive wool manufacture, but lacked the people familiar with the machines, killing an expected source of financial sustainability.
  • Over time, some of the social goals of early communitarians became more broadly accepted or supplied by other organizations. For example, public education was a significant goal of New Harmony, but over the course of the 1800s, that became more common in non-utopian communities. New Harmony also had a concept of mandatory social insurance; unions started providing similar services in the late 1800s. This again made recruitment harder.
  • As for most world-changers, the gap between theory and practice was often large. Robert Owen, the wealthy patron of New Harmony, created an elaborate philosophical scheme intended to encompass everything from the individual to the nation-state, but he was bad at creating practical schemes, which led to constant reorganizations at New Harmony. This may reflect the extreme difficulty of organizing a full society; capitalism has the advantage of being simple and direct in general scheme relative to a centrally planned society like Owen’s.

I’ll refrain from drawing any direct conclusions for free and open source software here, in part because many of them will be obvious to many of my readers, and also because my reading of the book (especially several months after the fact) is inevitably heavily biased by my own thinking about social movements like this one, so I’m not sure whether any ‘lessons’ would reflect actual history or just my interpretation (compounded with Bestor’s.) With or without direct applicability, though, the book was an interesting read for a history nut, and left me with a lot of food for thought.