21 05 2014

A remarkable number of people have read my “Edward Snowden and The Farm” post, although there has not been a lot of discussion about it on WordPress.  In a way that’s fine with me, because I have been writing and talking about the topic for decades, and grown weary of repeating myself.  Indeed, the only reason I wrote “Edward Snowden and The Farm” was because IT insisted that I write it down.  The piece was more of a download than an act of conscious creation.

The post did evoke the typical Farm responses in a thread on Facebook.  They came from a guy I’ve known for forty-three years, and I wanted to give him my best response, which turned out to be way longer than would reasonably fit in a Facebook thread.  So, here are his remarks, and my response.

He said: the farm changeover was brought about by a vast majority of people whose material needs were not being met period.

Note  “period,” as in, “end of discussion.”  In my experience, his response was pretty representative of the attitude of current Farm residents. He later wrote this:

we’ll have to agree to disagree martin,family’s got to independently make its own decisions about the basics.can’t run around looking for basic footwear got 2 where the system manipulators that point we’re at square 1.people are people no matter what system you’re in,no point tying your hands behind your back.seems like most everyone is happier now.but enough arguing,you feel like your social experiment failed,well it did but the community recovered and became what it needed to become and is thriving.that’s the long answer.

Again, typical. What follows is my long answer to him.

Dear …,

Thank you once again for helping me understand better what and how to write about this critically important subject. I think you misunderstand me, though. I’m not disputing that conditions on “the old Farm” became difficult—I’m asking why they became difficult, and why the response was to abandon, as you put it, the “social experiment.”

I’m glad you used that word, because I think The Farm was, indeed, an experiment. And yes, it “failed”; but, when a science experiment fails, a true scientist doesn’t just walk away and say, “well, that didn’t work, might as well give up.” S/he studies it carefully to understand why.  That, it seems to me, has never been the common attitude about the “failure” of the old Farm, and I think that’s very poor science.

So, the question I am asking is,”why did the old Farm ‘fail’?” I see three possibilities.

  1. We would have been successful if we had not been messed with by the government.

  2. The government didn’t mess with us, and we didn’t have it together enough to remain collective.

  3. The government took advantage of our weaknesses to tear us apart, and did so covertly enough to leave most of us thinking it was totally our own fault, which is exactly what they wanted to do–discourage us from trying anything like that again.

What our experiment was about was creating an attractive, low-impact lifestyle (“voluntary peasants,” as Stephen said at the time) that would free millions of people from the treadmill of materialism and overconsumption, turn their attention to the spiritual path (“a family monastery” was another common phrase in the early days), promote world peace, and make long-term human survival on the planet possible.

There were three interconnected legs to our effort: voluntary simplicity, an internally money-free collective economy, and a common spiritual practice.

Our voluntary simplicity was made more effective by our collective economy, through which we provided services for each other that otherwise would have cost thousands of dollars. (Primary health care and midwifery, plus a large chunk of our diet are the first three items that come to mind for me.) Most of the world’s population lives far more simply than the average American, much closer to the standard we had on “the old Farm.” Our spiritual practice was supposed to provide the real satisfaction that most Americans seek, and fail to find, in the acquisition of material goods and the distractions of “entertainment.

charles-eisenstein-shCharles Eisenstein has written extensively about the importance of transitioning from a money economy into a “gift economy” as the only way out of our increasingly crazy financial situation. The Farm’s money-free economy was a remarkable anticipation of his vision. Again, our spiritual practice, by giving us common values and ground rules, was intended to be the big tent under which this true “free market” could function.stephen2

Our collective/individual spiritual practice manifested materially in our voluntary simplicity and gift economy, but these were supposed to spring from each individual’s mystic perception of the nature of reality, our essential unity, and the sanctity of all life. Our spiritual practice, however, atrophied quickly, and collective visions turned into rules, which, as everybody knows, are made to be broken. I don’t agree with his conclusion and question some of his assumptions, but former Farm member Craig Bialick’s scholarly essay “Heart at Work” addresses this issue eloquently and in far more detail than I have time to go into here.  Short version:  meditating once a week is about as effective as brushing your teeth once a week.

So yes, I agree that “the old Farm” was weak and wobbly and in need of serious course correction, but I have to note that all our allies in the struggle for social justice in the seventies were, in one way or another, undermined by covert government action, and that the course correction that the community ended up taking removed it from the social activist stage on which we had been prominent players, to the government’s undoubted relief.  To paraphrase the Richard and Linda Thompson song at the end of the original “Edward Snowden and the Farm” post, “Did we jump or were we pushed?”

Since the “Old Farm’s” demise, the rise of global warming, resource depletion, massive pollution, and what Bill McKibben terms “the end of nature” have only proved the importance of the experiment we undertook. In my view, the “new Farm” is not an adequate response to those concerns. It is scarcely any more sustainable than our efforts to live with a low carbon footprint here in Nashville.

If, as you and many Farmies claim, the only conclusion to be drawn from the old Farm’s collapse is “living simply and collectively doesn’t work,” if a group of willing volunteers (us) couldn’t make it work, then most Americans will prove to be psychologically unable to live collectively or even radically simplify their lives and material desires, and that, I think, makes our future look very, very bleak.

But, if we can somehow reinstate spiritually based collective voluntary simplicity, and tweak it just a bit—and if the government will leave us alone while we do it (two big ifs, in my opinion!), if we could create a workable, attractive, sensible, simple, enjoyable, interdependent way of life, then humanity and the whole beautiful, complex, rare web of life on this singular planet just might have a chance.  And yes, it looks like a long shot from here–who is this “we” I’m invoking?– but who, in 1962, could have foreseen 1969?

Now that I’ve made my position a little clearer, do you still want to “agree to disagree”?

music:  Richard and Linda Thompson, “A Heart Needs A Home

(slightly edited 8-19-14)



3 responses

5 07 2014

Interesting article.While I can’t say I’m super knowldegeble about what happened at The Farm I am an admirer of countercultural and utopian projects.Year ago I saw a brief documentary slot on the Farm at I believe, (of all places) 60 Minutes.Young people who grew up there consistently measured higher in testing than anywhere else in Tennessee (not that “school testing” should be a major yardstick) and kids interviewed said that while they want to travel and see the other places, they had no desire to live any place else.This stayed with me for a long time. I think the problems may stem from the attempt to build a miniature utopian society in the midst of capitalist Babylon.Even with wonderful intentions people ultimately are ground down by the beast.Even Huxley’s fictional Island was destroyed by oil companies at the end of his novel. I think this is what Engels was getting at in his 19th century critique of “utopian socialism”.There is growing urgency..if we don’t transition to a sustainable post petroleum economy within the next two decades it looks like the humanity will be, well, “toast” by the end of this century. In order for this to happen I think the Empire will have to be confronted head on though a working class uprising.

5 07 2014

Thanks, Kate, for your thoughtful comments. The sad coda to Farm kids having “no desire to live any place else” is that the place they, and I, and many people, had no desire to leave was, as they said in Vietnam, “destroyed in order to ‘save’ it.” I have spent the last twenty-five years, since I left the Farm, feeling like an exile from a country that no longer even exists, just as I spent the six years i lived on The Farm after “the changeover” feeling like the narrator of Leonard Cohen’s song “The Partisan.” Even though my physical life was not in danger, my way of life had been put to death, and there was no way to resurrect it.

Perhaps I should clarify the nature of our “utopian” vision: we didn’t want to build “a miniature utopian society in the midst of capitalist Babylon,” we were working to create a model that would be so universally appealing and widely adoptable that people would just walk away from the craziness of capitalism and create a better world from the wreckage of the old one. To that end, we launched “satellite communities” in numerous U.S. states and foreign countries. Our interest in spreading our version of “the new paradigm” is one reason why I think we may have been singled out for government attention, while less politically oriented groups, such as the Brudherhof, which we saw as one of our antecedents, have continued to flourish.

As for “a working class uprising,” I think the 1% has done its best to scuttle that possibility by moving “the working class” out of the U.S. and into China and to 3rd world countries, where revolt would be both easier to squash and less threatening, since it would be on the periphery of power, rather than anywhere near its center. My own opinion is that collapse is a more likely scenario, as the web of our civilization becomes ever more complex and precarious. (The combination of complexity and precariousness is unique to “unnatural” systems, since natural systems gain stability through complexity.)

26 08 2015

[…] SNOWDEN AND THE FARM, PART TWO    is largely a response to the question, “why does it matter at this late date?” […]

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