Josiah Warren: A Communitarian Individualist
From Bad Press
The goal of every anarchist is the elimination of the state and all other forms of authority. From this common starting point, however, libertarians then take off in many different directions. Ideas about how people should or could interact with each other socially, economically, sexually or in any other way vary tremendously from person to person and from group to group. Perhaps the fundamental difference between the assorted varieties of libertarian is in how they view the ownership and distribution of property and goods and how they believe decisions about such matters should be made. Some are individualists, some communists, others somewhere in between. But though they may differ in what they consider the ideal balance between the individual and the group or community, even those on the individualist end of the spectrum believe that in a free society people would, by and large, live in proximity to others with whom they would trade, cooperate and intermingle to the mutual benefit of all concerned. In fact, american libertarian individualists were among the first to form anarchist communities where they could try out their ideas in the real world.
Josiah Warren is a good example of these anarchist pioneers. Born in Boston, he moved to Cincinnati in his twenties. There he came across the ideas on Robert Owen and became a founding member of the (non-anarchist) communist community at New Harmony. Warren’s experience in this short-lived project convinced him that its failure was caused by a dedication to communist social and economic arrangements which subjugated the individual to the community, imposing conformity and suppressing individual freedom of thought and action. Instead, he proposed the idea of individual sovereignty, where all were free to live as they chose as long as their actions did not interfere with the freedom of others to do likewise.
There’s a Time for Everything
But this did not mean he rejected cooperation among such free people. After leaving new Harmony he established a time store in Cincinnati to test out the economic principles that cost should be the limit of price and that free exchange can benefit all parties without any exploiting the others. His time store was quite successful, with buyers getting low prices and Warren earning his keep not through profit and interest but by payment for the labor he exerted in stocking and running his store or the labor he expended in the mechanics of lending money to others. As part of this project, he and his fellow traders, including white collar workers like physicians, utilized labor notes as a means of exchange, promising quantities of their labor in exchange for that of others. Those who participated in this arrangement had the option of asking for the promised labor, such as yard work or medical treatment, in exchange for a labor note, but these pieces of paper also took on the characteristics of money, and holders could exchange them for other goods and services (produced of course by labor) instead of the actual labor itself. Impressed with the success of the time store, other local businesses accepted and used these labor notes, and one competitor even decided to convert his shop into a time store as well.
After two years spent demonstrating that private property could be exchanged equitably, Warren moved on to other projects, all of which served to establish in some way that all relationships between people, whether economic, social, educational or sexual could be conducted fairly and justly without delegating decision-making and ownership of resources to groups, committees or communities. In the ensuing years he and others established an equitable trade school for boys in defiance of the apprenticeship model then prevalent. Participants became skilled at a trade in a short and intensive course of practical studies while being allowed both their independence and the responsibility for their own support. This project rejected the authoritarian system of master and student, resulting in inquisitive, self-directed and fast-learning young people without the deference to authority and subservience bred into students in traditional schools. Following this, a group including Warren made a failed attempt at an individualist intentional community (Equity) in the 1830s. After this flop he returned to New Harmony, no longer a commune, and opened a time store in the town. This time store, like his first, was successful in providing Warren with a modest income and those with whom he traded quality goods at a fair price, while forcing his capitalist merchant competitors to lower their prices so that they could continue to attract business
Low Living and High Thinking
Several years later Warren helped found the settlement of Utopia, where, in the words of a biographer, his “attempts in this direction were made with those whose only means was their labor force, and his purpose was to demonstrate that such people, with free access to natural resources, could, by exchanging their labor on equitable terms through the use of labor notes, build their own houses, supply their prime necessities, and attain to comfort and prosperity without dependence on capitalists or on any external authority for the means of life.” The cooperators in this village, complete with time stores and other equitable businesses, prospered for a decade or so, all trade mediated by labor notes and free exchange of goods and services. The community eventually dissolved and people moved on to different adventures, but Warren saw Utopia as another proof of the concept that equitable commerce provided the ideal way for people to live in cooperation with one another.
Leaving the midwest, Warren moved to New York where he became close to Stephen Pearl Andrews, a writer and activist who was persuaded by Warren of the importance of individual sovereignty and equitable commerce and became the most prolific advocate of these principles in print. Warren, Andrews and other cooperators soon decided to have another go at creating a community based on free people and free trade and moved to a rural location on Long Island. Here they founded the village of Modern Times where the inhabitants all agreed to respect the equal freedom of others, trade equitably using a local labor-based currency, socialize with others as they saw fit, and otherwise mind their own business. The village attracted all sorts of radicals, libertarian and otherwise. Residents included free lovers, nudists, alternative health practitioners, and people who wore unorthodox clothing. Women cut their hair and men grew theirs. Anyone willing to live and let live was accepted and tolerated, if not always welcomed, at Modern Times. People discussed and debated the appropriateness of the activities of others but never presumed to interfere with the peaceful, non-invasive conduct of anyone else.
Modern Times functioned relatively well for more than 10 years but was one of the myriad casualties of the american civil war. Warren, who took the libertarian position of opposing both governments in that war, left Modern Times in 1862 at the same time that many of the other villagers, like most people outside, became pro-government, pro-war patriots. This was Warren’s final attempt at community building and he died in Boston in 1874.
Groups of Individuals
While none of these projects changed the world, the villages and settlements of which Warren was a part showed that one can be an extreme individualist and still remain committed to ongoing voluntary interaction with others. Being anti-communist or anti-socialist does not mean one is also anti-community or anti-social. The individual sovereigns of Modern Times and Utopia proved that there need be no irreconcilable conflict between individuals and communities as long as such communities are based on a recognition and respect by all participants of the equal freedom of each of their fellows and a refusal to initiate force and coercion to resolve disputes.