Experimental Sociology in an Intentional Anarchist Community

October 10th, 2013   Submitted by Victor Clemens

ModernTimesOne of the most gratifying parts of scientific skepticism, to my mind, includes the ability to explore history with a mind more open to unorthodox explanations of human behavior and social interaction, and to examine different theories about the origins of peace and order in society. Take the two competing theories of legal centralism, the idea that a central authority has to maintain peace in a society, and spontaneous order, the idea that order arises without any central authority or designer.

As Bryan Caplan and Edward Stringham explain in Privatizing the Adjudication of Disputes, most take legal centralism as a given. Others try to use F. A. Hayek’s ideas about spontaneous order in law to explain particular historical examples of how law arose without state design, for example Carrie Kerekes and Claudia Williamson in their work on Iceland, and Bruce L. Benson’s work on the Law Merchant. Skepticism compels one to examine both theories, and allows one to test the merits of each without any compulsion to end up with either the “text-book” answer or the “radical” answer. Only truth matters.

I aim to do a series of articles for the Daily Anarchist examining different case studies of voluntary or stateless order. I collect such studies, perhaps as others collect coins or trading cards. (So send me some if you know of any!)

For my first case study I’ve selected an easy example, that of the individualist anarchist community known as Modern Times, founded by Josiah Warren and Stephen Pearl Andrews in 1850 on Long Island, New York. The community lasted about 14 years, and upon its founding claimed an area of 750 acres, with 90 acres set aside for the main settlement. I call it easy because historians seem to agree that it qualified as a peaceful, anarchist community. On the other hand, it only had a population between 100 and 150 people, so future studies shall have to serve for larger scale examples. (Dyson gives the figure of 100 people, Strickland the figure of 150. I have yet to reconcile the two figures, but this gives us a good estimated range.)

In a way, through founding Modern Times Warren and Andrews themselves engaged in a scientific endeavor, an experiment testing Josiah Warren’s ideas of how human beings could best interact. As William Bailie writes in his biography of Josiah Warren:

“Investigation and experiment are not only permissible but indispensable in all other fields of human knowledge and activity. Why are they not equally laudable and essential in social science? We require data, actual first-hand knowledge. And this seems to demand not only enthusiasm, but a measure of unworldliness and faith born of ideals which some look upon as mere illusions. Yet such illusions are stimulating to pioneers in experimental sociology.”

What ideals, then, did Warren hold? Put simply, those of Individualist Anarchism.

Warren came to the viewpoint of individualism in large part through his experiences in another intentional community he lived in called New Harmony, an egalitarian community founded by Robert Owen. His time in New Harmony led him to reject egalitarianism, as he thought an emphasis on “equality” lead to a push for conformity and “unity”, attempts made futile because of the individuality of the people involved, thus leading to social conflict. Similarly, he rejected communism because he thought that communal ownership of property also led to conflict, writing, “Even two children owning a jackknife together are liable to continual dissatisfaction and disturbance till somebody owns it individually.”

Yet, he did agree with Owen and other socialists in many respects, and ultimately rejected capitalism as well as communism. As Richard T. Ely points out, Warren held that “rent, interest and profit” constituted robbery of labor, and that “cost should equal price”, anticipating Proudhon’s philosophy of mutualism. Warren put his ideas into practice in the Time Stores he created and ran, where “the purchaser paid for the amount of the seller’s time he consumed in making his purchases,” with a small percentage added to pay for the time spent by the storekeeper in handling the purchase. John Spurlock provides a first hand account from A. J. MacDonald who visited Warren’s Time Store in New Harmony, revealing the delightful eccentricity of Warren’s stores, “When an individual sale began Warren set the clock. When the sale concluded, Warren checked the clock to see how much time had elapsed, adding that charge to the cost of the item.”

Thus, with my first case study I may perhaps draw criticism from both communist and capitalist anarchists. And yet, I have so far collected almost two dozen examples of voluntary orders, (either Stateless societies, like Iceland, or voluntary associations providing order instead of the local government, as in medieval commercial law,) and out of all of them I do not think I have come across an example that came closer to my own intuitive notion of “utopia” than that of Modern Times. They had no police, judges, courts, or jails, and yet, reports from those who lived in Modern Times indicate that they had no violent crime or property theft. Thus, historian Verne Dyson writes:

“For about five years prior to the Civil War and including the time of Conway’s visit, the colony under Warren’s leadership probably was the most ideal and utopian of any other community in the United States, if not the whole world. Dishonesty, disorder and crime were non-existent; there were no policemen, no prisoners, no judges, no jail.

The honesty of the period is illustrated by the oft-repeated story of the lost watch. A Jewish peddler dropped his gold watch and chain on the street as he was passing through the village. A local resident found the watch and hung it on a nail on the bulletin board outside of Thespian Hall. There it remained for 10 days, until the peddler returned to the village, saw his watch and claimed it.”

Besides the lack of crime or violence, the community also succeeded in accomplishing other anarchist social aims. For one thing, they planted apple and cherry trees along the roads so that travelers could have food, and since they sold land “at cost” the community offered a source of affordable housing.

For another, the informal way the community treated marriage allowed for more equality between genders, satisfying the individualist feminist bent of those like Stephen Pearl Andrews, who said of marriage laws at the time: “Our whole existing marital system is a house of bondage and the slaughterhouse of the female sex.” Modern Times thus gained a notoriety as a Free Love community. Verne Dyson writes:

“The arrangements of marriage were, of course, left entirely to the men and women themselves. They could be married formally or otherwise, live in the same or separate houses, and have their relation known or unknown to the rest of the village. The relation could be dissolved at pleasure without any formulas. Certain customs had grown out of the absence of marriage laws. Secrecy was very general, and it was not considered polite to inquire who might be the father of a new-born child, or who the husband or wife of any individual might be. Those who stood in the relation of husband or wife wore upon the finger a red thread; and so long as that badge was visible the person was understood to be married. If it disappeared the marriage was at an end.”

The individualist nature of the community led, as one might expect, to various eccentric behavior from newcomers. Warren wrote of one who practiced polygamy, another who not only engaged in public nudity, but “imposed his views upon his hapless children”, another who starved herself to death attempting to live on “Beans without salt”.

Newspapers took these few examples as representative of the community at large, and so tarnished the reputation of all who lived there. Yet the pioneers remained true to their anarchist ways, dealing with such residents through social ostracism, not coercion or violence. “We simply let them alone. We buy nothing of them, sell them nothing, exchange no words with them… we show them unmistakably that they are not wanted here, and they usually go away of their own accord.” (Spurlock)

Nor did their undesirable reputation in the outside world keep the pioneers from enjoying their slice of paradise. Visitors to the village wrote of the cordial reception they received, of the simple earnestness of the manner in which the villagers spoke of their ideas, coupled with their elaborate dress and mirthful song. “Under the touch of the moonlight they and their picturesque costumes and hymns seemed almost phantasmal, and one had to rub one’s eyes to know if one were not in some realm of illusion.” (Bailie)

Yet, many historians seem to conclude that Modern Times ended in failure. They point to economic troubles and to the notorious reputation the community gained as factors that led them to eventually change their community’s name to Brentwood and abandon many of their anarchistic practices. But not all historians draw this conclusion. John Spurlock points out:

“The residents of Modern Times practiced their heterodoxy through economic disaster, Civil War, and the Grant administration, maintaining a community which provided for their deepest needs. Judged by their realization of what they sought, they succeeded splendidly.”

I end, then, with this conclusion, that Warren succeeded in showing the world the possibility of another way of life, based on “the sovereignty of the individual” and voluntary association, and that the members of the Modern Times experiment succeeded, if only for a brief time, in drawing their ideals out of the shimmering realm of dream into reality, and living, happily, in liberty and peace.

1) Caplan and Stringham
2) Kerekes and Williamson
3) Benson
4) Dyson
5) Strickland
6) Bailie
7) Butler
8) Ely
9) Spurlock

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12 Responses to “Experimental Sociology in an Intentional Anarchist Community”

  1. Seth KingNo Gravatar says:

    While I appreciate the effort of Modern Times, I’m curious how much interference they suffered from the state. Was there such a thing as property taxes? And if so, did they pay them? I’m sure the state was much less burdensome than it is today, so it wouldn’t surprise me if they lived unmolested. How to imagine anything like that happening today. The community aspect yes, only so long as property, income, sales taxes, etc. are paid, and no one grows any cannabis or owns fully automatic firearms, etc.

    Still, it’s something to strive for, which we are doing in New Hampshire. Where do you live now?

    • Victor ClemensNo Gravatar says:

      I haven’t yet figured out for sure whether or not they had to pay any taxes. I didn’t see any mention of it one way or the other in any of the sources I’ve read thus far. If I had to guess though, I’d say probably not. Apart from a few heavily spun newspaper stories the outside world seemed largely oblivious to the goings on in the community.

      One of the people living in Modern Times did mention in an interview, “We have no compacts with each other, save the compact of individual happiness; and we hold that every man and every woman has a perfect and inalienable right to do and perform, all and singular, just exactly as he or she may choose, now and hereafter. But, gentlemen, this liberty to act must only be exercised at the entire cost of the individuals so acting. They have no right to tax the community for the consequences of their deeds.”

      I don’t recall seeing any other mention of taxation. I would think that if the government had levied property taxes against them, they would have mentioned it in interviews like that, and, further, such interviews make it sound like they would have resisted outside efforts at taxation. The fact that they used their own currency, (labor notes,) might have helped as well. (For us, bitcoin hopefully will help.)

      They did have a problem with lack of capital, (a problem we seem to have in our movement as well,) some of the residents had to find work outside of their community in order to bring back money or resources. So they depended economically somewhat on the city nearby. But, while I don’t know for sure, I think if they’d had to pay taxes I would have seen it mentioned somewhere.

      As for where I live, cyberspace! 😛 (Translation: paranoia, mainly over potential employers, compels me to remain somewhat incognito. Also I just enjoy the mystique of anonymity.) More seriously though, I don’t have the funds to move to New Hampshire, (or anywhere really,) at the moment, though I will certainly consider it in the future if and when I do. Until then, I simply wish to get on my financial feet, and maybe funnel some money into the agora when able. I can’t join you in person yet, but I can still try to do some activism. 🙂

  2. Franz MachNo Gravatar says:

    I would draw your attention to the book, “Evesdropping, an Intimate History” by John Locke (no, not the 17th century person — a modern one). Mr. Locke refers to anthropological evidence that there is a community size above which mutual trust falls apart because the members can no longer observe each other in their daily business often enough to maintain trust. This maximum community size to which Locke referred was on the order of 75 adults. There may be other academic papers available on the subject but I would not know where to look.

    • Seth KingNo Gravatar says:

      Interesting. We need to figure out a way to scale that up, somehow.

    • Victor ClemensNo Gravatar says:

      Thanks for the suggestion! 🙂 I’ll take the liberty of remaining at least a little more optimistic than Locke, since Modern Times had over 100 people and trust certainly didn’t seem to break down for them, but I’ll certainly look into Locke’s book. On a similar note, I just finished watching one of the videos available from the anarcho-capitalist reference list over on the forum, in which Peter Leeson explains some of the theoretical aspects of maintaining order through informal means such as gossip or reputation building. Based on that and other work I’ve seen, it seems like a community could have other means for maintaining mutual trust besides direct observation in day to day interaction. (Gossip and black/white-listing come to mind for example.) I’d hope, and expect, that we could push those other methods further than we could push simple direct observation. What do you think?

  3. audrey barberNo Gravatar says:

    Well I guess that we can just get rid of all the Prison Guards since peace and order just come to the surface.

    • Victor ClemensNo Gravatar says:

      While I can not tell precisely how you intend me to take your comment, (it comes across as idle mockery from one unfamiliar with anarchist ideas, no offense intended,) I hope that our society has not yet degenerated to the point at which a prison qualifies as a valid analogy for society at large. If I have set my hopes too high in this regard, I think we have some problems to solve. Wouldn’t you agree?

    • Victor ClemensNo Gravatar says:

      I retract the above comment, I went back and searched for any comments you’d made before on the site and I think I misinterpreted your comment as an attack when you didn’t mean it as such. Sorry about that. :/ (If it works as an excuse I’ve had my head in a vise debating people on other sites, and the frustration might have soaked through.)

    • Victor ClemensNo Gravatar says:

      Thanks! I’d heard of the example of Ireland during that period before, (I asked about it in a topic over on the forum actually,) but in going through these different historical cases I want to trace the work done by other anarchist historians back to the primary sources and confirm the accuracy of their portrayal. Which will take time of course. But until I can do that, I won’t feel justified in writing up a post about it. I don’t want to just take their word for it, and I don’t want others to take my word for it, on the contrary, I want to give others all of the resources they would need to do an independent investigation and decide for themselves. That seems to me simultaneously a more scientific and more anarchic way of doing it.

      By which I don’t mean to say not to send me a historical case unless you can verify it as accurate. More just to say send me the best sources you can, especially primary or academic sources if possible.

  4. Victor ClemensNo Gravatar says:

    Heads up for anyone who reads this at a later date, I used the medieval “Law Merchant” story from Benson as an example of “stateless order”, and I wanted to say that upon further research I’ve found quite strong evidence against this story. Whereas Benson, (and many others) claimed merchants had their own independent courts and universal customary law code, it looks like:

    A) the “merchant courts” in question, at least in St. Ives, (the locale for which some of the best documentation apparently exists), did not rely on merchants’ boycott sanctions for the enforcement of court decisions. They relied upon enforcement by the “abbey of Ramsey”, who held authority over the fair court by permission of the king, and the abbot had the power to pardon people and control the court in various other ways, besides also gaining a bit of income from court proceedings. See The ‘Law Merchant’ and the Fair Court of St. Ives, 1270-1324 by Stephen Edward Sachs for an extensive discussion of the primary sources demonstrating these claims, as well as a discussion of the research done by Benson and others, and of the failings of that research.

    b) while custom apparently played some role in court decisions, it did not have anything like the universal character Benson and others attach to it. Custom varied from place to place, and this seems a likely cause of the later requests by merchants for hard regulations enforced by the governments of different areas. In other words, whereas Benson and others asserted that merchants had their own universal customary law because it worked better for them than government statute, it looks like the merchants asked for government officials to create statutes because they wanted a hard, fast rule, custom didn’t suffice. See The Myth of the Customary Law Merchant by Emily Kadens for evidence of this, again discussing primary documents and showing how the “mercatorists” failed to back up their claims. (I especially enjoyed footnote 45, beginning on page 16 and continuing to page 18, where Kadens traces the references given by Benson and other authors down to their respective dead-ends, showing that the authors merely relied on unproven assertions by earlier authors.)

    Also see Legal Medievalism in Lex Mercatoria
    Scholarship by Ralf Michaels

    Still more research to do, but right now it looks to me like Benson and other “advocates of private order” got it wrong on this one. Completely wrong. So I retract my use of that example.

    Indeed, this makes me more skeptical of other research by the same individuals, what else did they get wrong?