When I told a colleague at a dinner party about my summer travel plans, he replied, “Utopian communities? Are there any still around?”
Actually, there are, though these days they prefer to call themselves “egalitarian” or “intended” communities. The Fellowship for Intentional Community lists more than 300 such examples of communal living in the United States and thousands worldwide. Only seven of those American sites qualify for recognition by the Federation of Egalitarian Communities (FEC). To achieve that rarefied status, a commune must hold land, labor, and income in common, advocate nonviolence and ecological sustainability, and practice some form of direct decision making. Of the FEC’s seven member communities, three reside in Louisa County, Virginia. The reason for their choosing Louisa County is simple: lax zoning laws and modest real-estate prices. If 100 counterculture types want to plop down on some cheap farmland and not get harassed by the locals, Louisa has historically been the place.
That’s where I’ve decided to visit. I cut over the Blue Ridge Mountains and make the quick descent to Charlottesville, passing by the white dome of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. It’s another half hour to Louisa County, where at dusk I travel back roads through farmland and woodlots until I pull up to the oldest egalitarian community in the country, Twin Oaks. Farther off, an orchard surrounds a pasture for the Twin Oaks milking herd and a large chicken pen. A henhouse is built on the back of a long two-wheel trailer, and a low array of solar panels runs across the middle of the farm.
Adder, a pale young man with long blond hair, meets me in the garden. He is the designated host for my visit to Twin Oaks. He apologizes for having childcare responsibilities tonight, but promises to show me around in the morning. For now, Adder, shoeless in a woman’s thin skirt, points me to a small guesthouse, where I find my name on a card taped to the door of one of four rooms. Each room, like each of the buildings at Twin Oaks, is named after a former utopian community. My door reads “Walden Two.”
The sparsely furnished room, like the food I will eat at Twin Oaks, is free—I have been asked only to do a little work during my stay as recompense for the hospitality. There’s a set of bunk beds, a small table, and a chest of drawers in the room. I settle into the lower bunk and pull from my suitcase a copy of B. F. Skinner’s utopian novel, Walden Two. In 1967, eight friends, mostly graduate students, read this book by the founder of behavioral psychology and decided to bring that fiction to life. Altogether, their assets added up to $2,000; they had a benefactor who was willing to lease them 123 acres of forest and farmland in Louisa and a parent willing to float them a loan for the mortgage. The small group moved into the lot’s only structure, a small farmhouse, and began planting a garden.
“Some of us were happy,” one of them, Kat Kinkade, remembered 26 years later in her history of Twin Oaks, Is It Utopia Yet? “Central to my own happiness was my conviction that there was no task on earth more important, or certainly more interesting, than the building of an egalitarian community.” While Kinkade left Twin Oaks at times to visit or help create other intentional communities, she always returned to the region, and after succumbing to bone cancer in 2008, she was buried in the small cemetery at Twin Oaks, beneath a circle of quartz stones.
Twin Oaks hardly ever dips below or swells above 100 members: Right now there are 93 adults and seven children. Each permanent member is voted in after a six-month trial period. With community feedback, a team of three men and three women makes the final decision for acceptance.
The one thing Twin Oaks has retained from Walden Two is what the novel calls a planner-manager form of governing. The three planners serve a limited term and are responsible for the community’s long-range decision making. The managers are those in charge of specific areas of work, from the farm to the kitchen to the various manufacturing operations at Twin Oaks. They oversee all daily decisions, and are responsible for decisions that affect the whole community.
To an outsider, it might seem that the planners wield considerable power in a community that espouses complete egalitarianism. The reality, says Adder, a planner himself right now, is that most members take on the role rather hesitantly. (In fact, there are currently only two planners because no one has come forward to be the third.) Something like Plato’s reluctant philosopher-kings, the planners don’t really want power—there is, after all, really nothing to be gained from it at Twin Oaks—and are serving only at the request of the community. Once a planner is nominated, members offer input about the candidate for 10 days, and then a “veto box” is set out. If less than 20 percent of the community votes no (which I sense is almost always the case), a new planner is elected.
The main job of the planner is to respond to an “Opinions and Ideas” board, and act on the wishes of the majority. “You don’t want to trample over the minority,” Adder says over tea—the community has determined that coffee is too expensive—in the main dining room. “At the same time, if the minority can stop the majority from doing what they want, there’s a similar power imbalance. More than anything, my job is to figure out what other people want.” The planner-manager system has been working for 46 years in part because almost everyone is a manager of some aspect of the community, so individuals are constantly rotating in and out of various work teams. If there arise any grievances with the managers or planners, then a “Council of Intermediaries” steps in to allay the community’s concerns.
Adder and I walk down toward the main courtyard, past a crew working and joking in the vegetable garden, and up to the second floor of the residence called Harmony. Everyone at Twin Oaks can own as much as each individual can fit in his or her private room. Everything else is communal. And there is no money at Twin Oaks. After performing a week’s worth of labor, all life’s essentials (food, housing, health care) are free. “I never have to worry about paying rent or having enough to eat,” Adder tells me. However, each member is paid a fluctuating monthly stipend, based on community profits—right now it is at a record-high $90—for the things one can’t find at Twin Oaks (coffee, for example). I ask Adder what most people spend their stipend on, and he says, “Treats and vices.” Besides the coffee, it’s mostly things such as beer, juice, cigarettes, a movie ticket. “Last month,” Adder says, “I bought a yo-yo.”
Everyone at Twin Oaks works 42 hours a week, doing pretty much whatever they choose. Each Sunday, the communitarians fill out a labor sheet declaring where and when they want to work; then labor assigners do their best to pair desired labor with seasonally crucial labor: cutting wood in the winter, harvesting vegetables in the summer. Two and a half hours of vacation are credited to each member each week, which adds up to two and a half weeks annually. Residents can pile up overtime and bank it toward more vacation days. (Twin Oaks tries to maintain wage egalitarianism within its boundaries, but members are allowed to accept gifts from friends and family, and to have family members pay for their vacations outside Twin Oaks.)
The community is small enough to ensure accountability: No one can cheat on his or her hours for long and have it go unnoticed. Yet Twin Oaks doesn’t tend to attract people who would want to game the system. “The work gets done not because people need labor hours,” Adder explains. “There are people who have vacation balances of thousands of hours that they are never going to spend. And they do the work because this is their home and this is the work that needs to get done.”
Before I set off on my utopian travels, my wife repeatedly voiced a half-serious concern that I would not return, that I would find a group of like-minded people and disappear into my own world-mending reveries. But there was really never any chance of that. Thoreau said, quoting Diogenes, I think, that a man who owns a lion is in fact owned by the lion. I suspect I could be shed of my symbolic lions (my truck payment, my mortgage), but I realize in my short time at Twin Oaks that I could never live these collectivist dreams. I’m too much of an introvert, too ill-suited for the relentless socialness of these admirable communities.
What’s more, I suspect I am too much one of the restless Americans whom Alexis de Tocqueville observed. I don’t know that I would be content to settle down on this farm for years and years. I would miss the speed of driving backroads in the summer with the windows rolled down and the radio blasting. I would miss knowing that if I wanted to get up and go, my keys would be by the door. Such impulses, I know, are inconsistent with my higher values that say, “Leave a smaller carbon footprint, be part of something larger than yourself.” But I can’t help it.
I tell my host as much, and she sweetly lets me off the hook. “This way of life isn’t for everyone,” she says. “It’s actually for the very, very few.” Reluctantly, I agree. In the morning, I have to be out of my Walden Two room so another guest can move in. In truth, I’ll be ready to go.
This article has been adapted from Erik Reece’s forthcoming book, Utopia Drive: A Road Trip Through America’s Most Radical Idea.