Be Your Own Utopia

How being an oddball could become your life’s work

When you find your value system to be irreconcilably at odds with that of the society where you live, it’s tempting to gather a couple of like-minded people and start your own utopian community where you’ll collectively invent rules that make sense to you. “Stick it to capitalism, we can do better if we start over” seems to be a common starting point.

For most of us, this “ideal” society is just something we consider in passing after a string of futile attempts at making a dent in The System. Some go farther than dreaming up vague plans and actually go on to form or join an intentional community shaped around their deeply held values. But does it work? Do these communities model a better way of life? Do their ideas eventually seep through into the mainstream?

In an Aeon article, Alexa Clay takes a dispassionate look at the pitfalls most utopias end up stumbling on. Unsurprisingly, personal conflicts and financial difficulties top the list. A lack of practical skills to take care of everyday needs is also a common problem that leaves many communities tottering on the brink of collapse. Retreating from mainstream society isn’t as easy as buying a plot of land and declaring a new way of life, if the pantheon of failed attempts is any indication.

Idealists shouldn’t throw the towel just yet though. It turns out that some forms of social progress that are now seen as desirable goals in many societies – universal education, religious freedom, city planning, to name just three – originated from radical experiments in such communes. Most of these groups didn’t survive but their ideas live on today.

Intentional communities fail a lot precisely because their members are social innovators who put their lives on the line to try something new and untested. We collectively reap the benefits of their boldness.

According to Clay, there may be an alternative to such a radical retreat. Our misaligned values and attitudes contain in and of themselves the potential transform society:

“Perhaps a more useful construct than intentional community is the idea of ‘shadow culture’, defined by Taylor as a ‘vast unorganised array of discrete individuals who live and think different from the mainstream, but who participate in its daily activities’. Shadow cultures have the potential to hold distinct values, but also utilise the infrastructure and opportunities of mass society. In many ways, then, utopias are only ever tightly glued pockets of shadow culture that mistakenly parade themselves as isolated entities.”

In Shadow Cultures, psychology professor Eugene Taylor proposes a reading of the New Age spiritual revival in the US as the heritage of loosely connected ideologies traversing the centuries to eventually crystallize into a large modern movement. His observation of shifting ideas about psychology and spirituality led him to believe that scattered individuals, from Emerson to Thoreau to the counterculture of the 1960s, had gradually chipped away at the status quo. The margins have become the mainstream.

It would take a visionary to predict whether your particular brand of iconoclasm will eventually take root. But think about it this way: shadow cultures are all around us, quietly working their way to the light. Your activism could be living life on your own terms as much as the circumstances allow. For some, this may mean resisting corruption when all the signposts lead there. For others, fighting to save local parks from commercial encroachment while holding down a job at a bank. These may just be the invisible bricks building a future beyond what we can imagine now.

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