Leave rationalization behind and begin to practice integrity … ” (from a 12-step manual)

Utopias fail for a number of reasons.

The biggest reasons are:

  • Failure of economic alignment
  • Generational conflicts
  • Collapses of integrity
  • Loss of community
  • Insufficient resources.

Collapses in integrity can be driven by economic or generational issues, but are often just greed.  The early LDS anti-banking society failed (as forensic audits have now confirmed) because of embezzlement.  Without that, it would have succeeded.  Orderville collapsed, among other things, because the desire for store bought pants led to cheating (there were other issues, but that was the final straw).  Beyond those familiar examples, a number of other utopian movements have collapsed because of catastrophic failures of integrity.

Historic examples of failed utopian projects are often histories of infidelity, betrayal and lies, coupled with resentments and recursions.  Leadership and self-deception, and all the related concepts are important to preserving integrity (and a sense of community).

Generational conflicts often doom artistic utopian communities.  It is fascinating to watch the continual failure of artistic utopian communities caused by the generational conflicts where the community meets the needs of the parents, but not of the children.  The parents pastoral paradise is a limited and boring hell for the children.  It happens in other venues as well. The blending of Akido and gardening that made a utopian retirement community for some martial artists held no attraction for younger adults or children.

Reprising Orderville, boys in good homespun did not seem as attractive as those with creased pants.  The parents ethos was anathema to the children.  Just as bad are societies built around adult’s images of childhood perfection that satisfy neither.

Economic alignment is where economic self-interest aligns with society.  As it fails, basic forces tear communities apart.  Where it succeeds you have Hutterite communities spreading across Canada.  (The successes and failures of the Hutterites provide a good number of examples and guidelines for what works, what doesn’t and for whom it works).

Much of Joseph Smith’s United Order template of each person managing property for themselves and turning over to the common storehouse the excess beyond what they could conserve and manage is an example of economic alignment.  Orderville, on the contrary, had all the property held in common and all the income turned over, which led to divergences.  The economic essays I’ve posted before all feed into understanding how this fits together or fails to fit together.

Insufficient resources — that pretty much sums up many failed experiences.  If everyone starves to death, the community fails.

Finally, Loss of Community (or disenfranchisement)  is a hall mark of failures for many utopias.  It can come when followers and leaders do not feel equally invested or equally respected.  Orderville (again) had this, not only from the generational conflicts and the loss of economic alignment, but from the culture clash of a strong willed leader and members who felt divested.  The small employee-owned Bessemer furnaces do not survive if they grow beyond 200 or so employees in any site.  Community fails somewhere between 100 and 200 adults.  It is a surprisingly small number. cf http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunbar%27s_number

Other projects seem to survive larger numbers, depending on things such as piece work compensation and other direct economic linkages (as well as linkages that turn a community into a collection of smaller interlocking communities) between work and reward.  Social welfare services in such communities tend to be completely separated from work related compensation and endeavors.  It is surprising how some approaches can overcome some large degree of disenfranchisement. (e.g. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hutterite)

The roots of failure for Utopias are important in seeking Zion.

Zion is a utopian endeavor, for a holy people, seeking a higher law.

So, what do you think Zion will be like?  How would you approach it? If you were to write a book (or a blog comment), what would it say?

Do you think people can approach Zion in their own lives or as a group?

I’m curious what you think?

Approaching Zion (The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, Vol 9)