American communes, from Blithedale to CHAZ

The Capital Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ) is a six-block residential area in Seattle taken over by radical protesters and anarchists. It’s being referred to as “a kind of commune.”

CHAZ isn’t a traditional American commune. Traditionally, our communes consist of small groups of people with an affinity for one another (at first, anyway) who establish a sustainable community (in theory, anyway), typically in a rural area. CHAZ consists of whomever, and appears to have no plan for economic sustainability.

In the early 1970s, several communes sprouted up in the Upper Valley of the Connecticut River, not far from Dartmouth College. I knew some of the people who participated.

They were intelligent, earnest, and hard working. They were political radicals, but not of the hardcore Leninist variety. The hardcore Leninists went into communities to organize. The commune types broke away from existing communities and established their own.

I’m not an expert on what went on in these communes or why they failed. My sense, though, is that the communes of the 1970s often failed primarily due to psychological and sexual tension, and maybe boredom, not for economic reasons.

However, my view might be colored by the only book I’ve ever read about communal life — Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Blithedale Romance. Hawthorne was part of the original American commune movement in the 1840s. In fact, he was a member of Brook Farm, the famous utopian socialist community founded by a Unitarian minister, George Ripley, and inspired by the transcendentalist movement.

The Blithedale Romance is based on Hawthorne’s experiences at Brook Farm.

Brook Farm may have failed for economic reasons. However, Hawthorne focuses on psychology, including the clash between his two main male characters, Coverdale and Hollingsworth. There is plenty of sexual tension, as well.

The literary meaning of “blithe” is happy or cheerful. Hawthorne may have called his fictional commune Blithedale for the purpose of irony.

The common meaning of “blithe” is casually heedless. I don’t know whether this meaning was current in Hawthorne’s time and, if so, whether he had it in mind when he came up with the name of his commune.

But there is something blithe (in this sense) about commune movements. Their adherents blithely assume they can disregard societal conventions and build an alternative society from the ground up. It’s a Rousseauian notion, as Jonah Goldberg explains in this piece about CHAZ. And they blithely disregard the long-term psychological barriers to sustaining a commune.

In the case of the faux commune of CHAZ, psychology, in the form of power struggles, may already be gnawing away. The Daily Caller has reporters on the ground. They say that unrest is brewing:

The seemingly no-rules, no leader vibe has resulted in squabbles and fights within the new community. These fights range from quiet disagreements about people who wish to seize power to outright physical altercations on the streets of CHAZ.

One man guarding an entry point into CHAZ said many people don’t agree with Raz Simone, who has been dubbed the “warlord” of the area by some. Simone has pushed back on this “warlord” narrative, tweeting that he is “not a Terrorist Warlord” and that “The world has NEVER been ready for a strong black man.”

The entry point volunteer explained how disagreements with Simone’s tactics and ideas is part of larger internal struggle brewing as the occupants attempt to figure out how to effectively live a life with no clear laws and no clear leader.

The effects of this struggle played out throughout Friday evening and early into Saturday morning, as squabbles broke out during a dodgeball game and another disagreement ensued over whose turn it was to have microphone access.

As the night wore on, the arguments got more pitched. A lengthy, tense confrontation broke out as occupants clashed over whether to take down the wooden “CHAZ” sign that is currently mounted on a pole in front of the East Precinct. . . .

The residents of Brook Farm (or Blithedale) could have played dodge ball without squabbling. But Raz Simone is no George Ripley and Simone’s accomplices aren’t earnest transcendentalists, or even serious people.