Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Mark S. Ferrara's "American Community"

Mark S. Ferrara is associate professor of English at the State University of New York and author of several books, including Palace of Ashes (2015), Sacred Bliss (2016), and New Seeds of Profit (2019). He lives with his wife in an intentional community dedicated to sustainable living and experiential learning in upstate New York.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, American Community: Radical Experiments in Intentional Living, and reported the following:
From page 99:
The Ruskin colony survived [Julius] Wayland’s departure in 1895. Stockholders turned over the editorship of the newspaper to a former associate of Wayland’s, and circulation held steady for a time. The tumultuous succession of subsequent editors that followed brought to the surface long-simmering tensions among Ruskinites that were reflected in the quality and appearance of the Coming Nation. Subscriptions fell precipitously. In the absence of surviving business records, it is difficult to determine the financial soundness of the colony, but the quality of life at Ruskin certainly fell short of depictions in Bellamy’s Looking Backward. Essentially an undercapitalized town with one major industry (the newspaper), Ruskin colonists mistakenly bought more land than they needed, and some of it fell fallow. They squandered limited capital on mortgaged land that failed to produce income. Houses were also shoddy or left unfinished.

As their fiscal situation worsened, tempers grew short. Ruskinites argued over the status of women, political and economic stewardship, and the latitude for ideological dissent. Attrition took its toll, and the quality of life in the community diminished further. Squabbles between chartered and unchartered members erupted, and litigation began among the colonists that ended finally in dissolution of the community. A court-approved sale on June 22, 1899, liquidated Ruskin Commonwealth Association property, but assets valued at $94,000 brought only about $17,000 at auction. Mortgage settlements reduced that figure to just under $10,600—and court costs, creditor obligations, and attorney fees claimed another $5,200. In the end, 138 stockholding colonists divided approximately $5,400 (meaning they received about $39 of their $500 investment). Most resumed their former lives in the Midwest and West, but a few Ruskinites lingered in the area, and they formulated plans to join a floundering cooperative known as the Duke Colony near Waycross, Georgia.

Founded by the American Settlers Association of Dayton on the site of a former lumber mill and turpentine mill, the property included seventy buildings on 768 acres, only a small portion of which was under cultivation. With both groups facing few viable alternatives for survival, the Ruskinites assumed Duke debts, and Duke colonists dissolved their association to become members of a Ruskin Commonwealth dedicated to principles almost indistinguishable from those of Wayland’s Tennessee colony. Within a few months of the court-approved auction of Ruskin property in Tennessee, 240 Ruskinites and their belongings, packed into four passenger coaches and nine freight cars, and headed for Georgia. Based on their own scout reports, they anticipated finding an ideal settlement, but the new location lacked most of the attractions that made life in Tennessee enjoyable. It was flat as a floor, there was no running water, and wild pigs and alligators periodically wandered through the dusty streets. Lizzy McCoy summed up the general consensus regarding the Georgia settlement describing it as “a HELL of a place.” Making matters worse, sales of the Coming Nation, the only real hope for financially supporting the new cooperative, further slumped.
Page 99 of American Community captures the decline of one out of forty lesser-known intentional communities surveyed therein that shared resources to ensure the wellbeing of all their members. This excerpt nonetheless provides an example of the importance of leadership in the intentional community movement and highlights the readability of this work. Wayland, who had made a modest fortune in the printing industry, founded a short-lived cooperative association in Tennessee named after the enormously influential English art critic and social theorist John Ruskin. Wayland established a bi-weekly periodical called the Coming Age, an eclectic publication that gained 60,000 subscribers during the summer of 1894, and he endeavored to convince readers that socialism was a venerable American tradition, one that stood in stark contrast to the competitive and individualistic values of capitalism.

What the Page 99 Test omits is the broad historical sweep of this work, and the way that many of these social experimentations anticipated paradigm shifts in social consciousness (including emancipation, gender equality under the law, the establishment of social welfare programs for the indigent, and the protection of the environment). Intentional communities provided models for alternate forms of social organization that do not foster injustice and exploitation as a consequence of an economic system based on capital accumulation. Most of the communities in this book rejected capitalism as a vehicle for the transformation of consciousness because it produces inequality, subverts democracy, remains prone to crisis, and is fundamentally at odds with the planet’s ecology. Acute dissatisfaction with the status quo and a refusal to accept the world as they found it unites American communitarians across the centuries. The people who founded intentional communities—like those who joined them—believed that their manner of communal association offered tangible advantages over the existing order, and they tended to demand from life “more fellowship, more pleasure, more learning, more time, more dignity, and more equality.”
Learn more about American Community at the Rutgers University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue