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Chapter 14 A COMMUNE PDF Print E-mail
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Books - The Dream Sellers
Written by Richard Blum   
Sunday, 25 November 2012 00:00

The commune movement sometimes discussed as one form of utopian or intentional community, began to attract drug-using youth in the mid-1960s in the Bay Area, although for decades earlier Californians had been experimenting with a variety of communal or weekend retreats. Such developments are very much part of America—dating from the religious fellowship of the founding fathers through the various "brotherhood" experiments of the nineteenth century (New Harmony, Indiana, for example, or Free Love, or New Zion, Ohio). Popular descriptions of modern communes have been increasing (see Look, July 15, 1969; Life, July 18, 1969). Kovach (1971) distinguishes between the urban and the rural developments. In the urban areas, he finds mainly college-based, revolutionary, work-centered, and philosophical-religious collectives; in rural communes, he finds people with deeper commitments to spiritual utopian values, ordinary young people imbued with the self-support farmer's work ethic. He estimates that the average commune contains from five to fifteen members. Hartnett, in an April 1971 Associated Press series on "The Alternative Society," describes the cooperative and religious spirit common to many communes, as well as the divisive forces that lead to their failure.

Zablocki (1970) estimates that there are about one thousand rural communes of rural hippies; he and his students visited nearly one hundred of these communes. He describes a broad range of drug-use practices and observes that where there is no drug use a renunciation may figure in the ideal of the collective. Zablocki distinguishes communes not only on the basis of the degree of use or renunciation of drugs but on size. The smaller ones (with six to eight members), he suggests, have arisen out of a communion experience shared by these people, who are usually in their late twenties or thirties, often married, and whose communal life is stable and discreet. The larger communes (model size twenty-five) have more fluid structures, younger members, and a high turnover. The typical rural commune, according to Zablocki, is centered around the communal garden; garden cultivation, hunting and gathering, food stamp supplements, gifts from visitors, and occasional labor in nearby towns provide subsistence living standards.

Zablocki emphasizes that "an understanding of the phenomenological quality of the drug experience is crucial for the understanding of communal life style." One special feature of this phenomenological quality (namely, attending to inner experience and awareness) has been discussed by Krippner and Fersh (1971), who visited eighteen communes. They distinguish among secular unstructured, secular structured (administered), and structured religious communes, giving examples of each; and they specify the importance of paranormal (parapsychological) beliefs or experiences—telepathy, clairvoyance, and the like—in many communes. They suggest alternative explanations for these, ranging from post-psychedelic deconditioning and reorientations to regressive magical thinking to reduced ego boundaries subsequent to hallucinogen use. Whatever the sources, the emphasis on community, inner experience, and magico-religious conceptions is a critical feature of some rural communes, including the two upon which our limited observations are based.

Let us now describe one rural commune (a composite of the ones observed), which we call Consciousnesss III (see Reich, 1970). Consciousness III is in the coastal mountains near Santa Cruz, California. It has both stable and floating members, all of whom live in its one rambling old house. Our participant observer spent one summer in Consciousness III; although she became acquainted with all of the members, she was able to persuade only sixteen of the thirty there to sit down for our formal interview about the economic life of the membership. Those who refused to cooperate did so mainly because our preoccupation was with drugs, money, and the like, whereas the commune members actively deny the importance of many of our substantive concerns and, fundamentally, of social science research itself.

"Your approach is tangential" said one thoughtful resident, during discussion of budgets and survival. "We spend less than 1 per cent of our time concerning ourselves as a group with economic considerations." "You miss the point of spiritual growth and Gestalt harmony, which is the essence of our commune if not always the practice." The economic base is land gardening, but "that is linear, for . . . every commune has a center . . . an omnipresent now . . . metaphysically growing toward unification of Atman [singular karma], with Brahman [to create] one Ground of Being." To the members, then, our initial interests—mostly drugs and their budget--were simply irrelevant to what was in their minds. Drugs, for instance, are not particularly important in this commune; they are neither prohibited nor embraced. Marijuana is used, but life is centered on other things.

What did we learn by our tangential approach? Well, as to details, the people of Consciousness III are all between 16 and 25 years old except for the young offspring of these "elders." Most are single. There is one married couple, and two who have been divorced. All in the commune are white. Nearly all of the adults have had some college education. One member, of high school age, still attends school in a nearby mountain town. As far as budget is concerned, members contribute unequally to the house rental and to maintenance of the garden. Some do and some do not work outside the commune. Most provide no more than $25 a month toward the house; two give up to $50, -depending on their wealth each month. Other expenses are minimal, since (at least during the summer of observation) food is grown in the garden. The average resident spends no more than $40 a month on all his needs. Most of the residents spend money only for cigarettes and/or movie admissions in the nearby mountain town. Four spend money on alcohol, two spend less than $3 on marijuana, one spends less than $1 on an illicit stimulant. All told, fifteen spend nothing on drugs, one spends 5 per cent of his total expenditures on drugs, and one spends his money on drugs only. Both residents and observer agree that these are average weekly expenditures for the whole commune.

Inquiry and observation regarding income and income sources reveal that eight members hold unskilled jobs, such as cannery work, where they earn a median of $50 a month. Some monies are earned from the sale of craft items and candles made in the garage. A few members receive small additional amounts from gifts, two are on welfare. No one, to our knowledge, sells drugs. In fact, the only "illicit" income known to us is $10 that one member received from begging.

In their past lives, however, most of our interviewees (fourteen of eighteen) were drug users and eight were dealers as well. All have quit—for various reasons. Two of them quit because of fear of arrest and one because of lack of profit; but most of them gave up drugs because of fundamental changes in their goals, interests, and self-conceptions—changes which brought them eventually to Consciousness III. Although one has been arrested on drug charges and three have a history of nondrug arrests, all residents are now engaged in lawful work (except for mild and infrequent incidents). In spite of their lawfulness, however, the commune members do not approve of current drug laws; indeed, most think that these laws should be abolished entirely. This view is part of their larger appreciation of freedom, expressed in their commune life.

Reviewing their financial status, we find no resident dissatisfied with his present status. Their wants are minimal; indeed, most claim that they need no more than $25 a month to supplement their self-sufficient and self-reliant communal farm. We can see that their actual income exceeds what they think they need but is, nevertheless, spent. Even though their aspiration level and income are low, the majority deny that they have ever been in financial difficulty. Asked what they would do if they were—or had done when they were—most (twelve out of eighteen) would go to work; none would opt for crime or inactivity; only two would become dependent on others.

We asked them what they will be doing five years from now. Only one expects to be engaged in more conventional activities; the others are uncertain or plan to remain with this or another commune or to be otherwise engaged in essentially spiritual pursuits. As for their economic-political philosophies, all want change, but only one is specifically political (Marxist); the rest call generally for equalization or enhanced opportunities; a few recommend expanded communal living as a,. solution.

Comment and Summary

An undergraduate assistant, under guidance, observed California commune members in the Santa Cruz mountains over one summer. We call their commune Consciousness III to reflect their intentions. Only half of the thirty people there (mostly young, single, with college experience) would respond to inquiry items expressing our interests: drugs, budgets, past history, and the like. Both observation and interview reveal that illicit-drug use is both unusual and unimportant; that commune members are spiritually concerned; and, even though ascetic and eccentric (even bizarre) by straight standards, they are self-reliant agriculturalists spurning conventional achievement or delinquency. They rarely use psychoactives (although half do smoke cigarettes, and marijuana is used casually), are content with their status, and do not plan to return to the traditional urban world. Their histories show them to be a well-educated nondelinquent group who, nevertheless, have had past intensive illicit-drug involvement—including, for half, experience as dealers for profit.

Their shift to this unusual and law-abiding life, while in a few cases attributable partly to the risk of arrest as dealers, seems to us much more associated with the failure of the drug-centered urban life to provide the satisfactions they sought and apparently found in Consciousness III. We also posit that these well-educated, religious, self-reliant and essentially nondelinquent youth could only be uncomfortable in environments such as the Haight-Ashbury or Telegraph Avenue, with their strongly psychopathological, drug-oriented, and delinquent life styles.

The people in Consciousness III may still be in transition, just as our Haight-Ashbury resident sample believe themselves to be, but the discrepancies so marked in the latter do not emerge in this commune. Many of the Haight residents are deeply involved in drugs and crimes and are personally and socially inadequate, if our reports and those of other investigators can be accepted. Without substantial work experience or educational assets, impulsive and undisciplined, and with a clear aversion to work itself, the Haight-Ashbury group nevertheless believe that their present dissatisfactions (with their income and living standards) will somehow disappear as soon as they themselves -get straightened out and are working in the conventional world. These plans, however, do not match the interests or capabilities of the Haight residents. The Consciousness III group, on the other hand, probably could resume conventional urban living if they wanted to do so; but they do not. They seem to us well adjusted and realistic—particularly because there is little discrepancy between what they are doing now and what they conceive of themselves doing in the future. We consider this evidence for adjustment or realism, however eccentric a straightworlder may consider their essentially ascetic collective or their "paranormal" rambling conversation to be. Even if their summer is but a transitory moment in the quest for a meaningful life and revealing world view, it is nevertheless a profound moment. It is also a constructive one measured by straight-world standards.


Our valuable member Richard Blum has been with us since Tuesday, 21 February 2012.

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