Thursday, July 29, 2010

Slouching Our Way to Antitopia -- Musings on New Buffalo Commune and the Counterculture

     This is my latest Grassroots Press column, which will be out any day now.  I really want to retire from writing this stuff, but my word-processing program thinks otherwise.  So I'm stuck with a double-bind, "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation.  In some perverse way I feel better when I speak out, even though I hate it when I speak out.  And there is no reason to believe this this dilemma will ever resolve itself.
     For this column I combined two blog posts from last year -- Sept. 21 and Oct. 1 -- and added some new material.  I do like the relentless cadence of the last paragraph.

For quite some time I've been asking myself the question, "Why did the bright promise of the 60s turn out so terribly wrong?" Why was the back-to-the-land movement such a failure? As one of the few back-to-the-landers who stayed on the land, I’ve read several books on the subject to satisfy my curiosity. A couple of my favorites are Arthur Kopecky's New Buffalo: Journal of a Taos Commune, and its sequel, Leaving New Buffalo Commune, in which he ends up getting kicked out of the commune by an insurgent faction. It’s a sad tale, or it makes me sad at any rate. So much idealism, so much bright promise, so easily swept aside by the culture of exploitation that has been destroying the biosphere since long before we were born. We thought we had a better way. Some of us actually thought we could change things, or at least create a “counterculture” separate from the mainstream. Some of us invested our lives into this project. We really, really tried. It’s hard to imagine, from today’s complacent perspective, how hard some people worked to create a genuine alternative to the madness. But it was like trying to stop a bulldozer with a b-b. We were unable to conjure up a new culture when as children we had been programmed to do the exact opposite.

The sustainability "movement" has remained at entry level for the past 40+ years, while the condition of the planet has deteriorated at an ever-increasing rate. The whole "living in harmony with the Earth," back-to-the-land movement of the 60s and 70s never really caught on, not in a meaningful way. There are several reasons for this:

* Too much hard work. Post-World War 2 white people traditionally shunned physical labor, except in a symbolic sense, such as mowing the lawn or working out at the gym. In this regard, back-to-the-land seemed like a step backward to many people.

* Not enough money. Most people prefer having a "real job" with a regular paycheck with benefits. Such jobs used to be so plentiful that grubbing in the dirt seemed ridiculous in comparison.

* Too much isolation. The countryside might be beautiful, but you're surrounded by teabaggin' rednecks, and there's not enough entertainment and “culture.”

* Lack of social support. Working for an organization, you're part of the hive. The hive gives your life meaning and purpose, sort of. You have your place, you know your role, and you get paid for it. Isolated on the land, people tended to feel cast adrift as soon as the drugs wore off.

There are no doubt other factors at work, but those four cover a lot of ground. I'd say that most people who went back to the land lasted anywhere between 2 months and 2 years, with 6 months being typical. Life on the land simply proved too difficult for most of the people who tried it. There were too many hassles, and not enough rewards.

Additionally, the peace-and-love crowd drew predators and parasites, who found the peace-and-lovies easy pickings. There were some remarkably low-tone “hippies” prowling around back then. Parasites were more interested in “something for nothing” and were fairly harmless, but predators could really do some damage. That’s what ultimately happened to New Buffalo.

New Buffalo commune, located near Taos, New Mexico, started in 1967, when a rich kid bought some land free and clear, bought thousands of adobe bricks to build a compound they called the “Pueblo,” and bought basic farming equipment such as a tractor. Then he -- as they used to say -- split. By the time Kopecky showed up in 1971, the commune had undergone a complete turnover in membership, the taxes weren't being paid, the tractor had been sold. The commune was -- as they used to say -- totally untogether. Kopecky and a few of his friends stuck around, and over a period of several years gradually bootstrapped the commune to a state of serious productivity. The flame of idealism burned bright and hard for them, despite the setbacks and occasional drug-induced mayhem. As time went on they built irrigation ditches so they could irrigate their gardens, pastures, and fields of wheat and alfalfa. They bought goats and cows and started selling milk in Taos. They bought a tractor, other farm equipment, and a refrigerated truck to deliver their milk. They paid off their back taxes. They built greenhouses and solar collectors to help heat their pueblo during the harsh, high-altitude winters of northern New Mexico.

They were young, strong, and worked amazingly hard, but they never had enough money. What money they brought in was used to buy food, equipment and other necessities, and repairing their vehicles which were always breaking down. Gradually, they managed to accumulate dairy equipment and a small herd of dairy cattle. They developed a loyal clientele for their milk in Taos. In addition, they started producing serious quantities of vegetables, wheat, and hay. They wanted to start a new culture, living on the land, living in harmony with the Earth and each other. Kopecky obviously provided a lot of the focus and idealism that made all this possible.

One fact that stands out about New Buffalo is how hard they worked. They were working fools (at least, the ones who worked). They never had a consistent membership, except for Kopecky (from 1971-79) and a handful of others. His books are in journal form, written day-to-day, not overviews written after the fact. Kopecky, like all of us, didn't really know what was happening at the time. (I used to say, "You never know what's happening till afterwards." Which is to say, you need time to consolidate the data, analyze the information, and draw some conclusions. In the moment, we're all just winging it.)

New Buffalo always attracted parasites – people who came to hang out, get high, and eat free food. But it was the predators who destroyed it. There were only a handful of them, but that was all it took. The predators had lived at New Buffalo in the past, and deeply resented Kopecky, whom they considered to be on a power trip. He was everything they weren’t. The downfall of New Buffalo is like something out of Ayn Rand – pathetic losers bringing down the brightest of lights. The predators used their unearned power to cast out Kopecky and, in the process, destroy the commune.

The trouble with unearned power is, a newcomer or any unqualified person can move into a situation and be considered on equal footing with somebody who actually knows what’s happening. The oldtimer has earned his power through on-the-job experience, whereas the newcomer has much less to offer at the beginning. Yet, in hippiedom they were considered equal. The hippies had a free-and-easy attitude about power. They were trying to create a non-hierarchical paradigm in which power is shared, not imposed from the top of the hierarchy. Unfortunately this proved to be a perfect setup for predators, who could move right in and seize as much power as they were capable of, very quickly. With hierarchical power, it would be more difficult for a newcomer to do this.

As it turned out, Kopecky didn’t have any power beyond the force of his personality, coupled with his vision and his vast amount of experience. It wasn’t “his” commune, after all. Ultimately, the predators made life so miserable for him (such as, taking pot shots at him while he worked in the fields) that he and his girlfriend finally left, bitter and discouraged. This was in 1979, after 8 years of gradual progress. New Buffalo was on the verge of getting a grant to build a solar-powered, Grade A dairy barn, so that they could finally sell certified milk. The decline of New Buffalo was inevitable after Kopecky left: the cattle, dairy equipment, tractor, and anything not tied down were sold, the taxes were no longer paid, and ultimately what was left of New Buffalo reverted back to the rich guy who made it possible in the first place.


In addition to being a focused and methodical hard worker, Kopecky was almost delusional in his idealism. He reminds me of my own experience. After I moved to this piece of land along the Rio Grande in 1973, after three years of homesteading in the Ozarks, I always assumed that “something” was going to happen. (It never did.) By the early 80s it was obvious even to me that the whole back-to-the-land thing was devolving, not evolving. But it wasn’t until the early 90s that I finally realized that Ecotopia was never going to happen. Quite the contrary, actually. How about calling our brave new world Antitopia? That’s the world we’re living in now, and we’ve seen nothing yet. Things are already becoming very interesting, very quickly, and soon even the unaware will be forced to take notice.

Americans have always believed in “freedom,” which translates, mostly, into freedom to travel, and freedom to shop. The hippies refined and distilled this concept into what could be called “Perfect Freedom,” or “freedom without obligations.” The thing about hippies and communards: they were free spirits. Free spirits come and go like the wind. They will never be tied down, which is to say, they can never be depended on. Thus: Joe is a critical member of the milking team. Those cows have got to be milked twice a day. The commune really needs him. But Joe decides, on a whim, to leave the commune, or take a long vacation. Bye-bye, Joe! Too bad, milking team! Stuff like that happened all the time at New Buffalo. People came and went like the wind. It was impossible to get any continuity.

Kopecky kept asking, "Where are all the quality people who will surely be drawn to our quality scene?" He always hoped to create a superior vibe that would encourage people to stay, but he never got more than a handful or two that could really be counted on. New Buffalo never had any trouble attracting parasites and losers. But hardworking, consistent people you could depend on? Pretty rare, and they seldom stayed for long. Looking back, the dynamics are obvious: the more intelligent ones quickly said "This sucks!" and went back to school so they could make something of themselves.

Contrasted against the easygoing hippie ethic was the mainstream paradigm of selfishness, which still rules: Get a good education, get a good job, and make lots of money, all for the benefit of #1. This is far and away the path of least resistance, so it’s not surprising that this is the paradigm that dominated. Even though this paradigm is now breaking down, the damage has been done. Americans embraced the illusion of “no limits” rather than the reality of a finite planet. The sustainable path was not taken when it needed to be. Critical decades were lost, never to be recovered. Now, we are like flies trapped in amber, hoping that somehow our positive words and thoughts will save us. Virtually our every act contributes to the destruction of our planet in some way. And as the Arctic melts, and the Gulf of Mexico dies, we already know how Antitopia is going to turn out.