Politicians and sociological theorists have long trodden the fine line between the open society and the closed society, the utopia and the dystopia, a stable system of moderate authoritarianism and totalitarianism. Karl Popper, for one, in his seminal work The Open Society and its Enemies, mentions the common assumption that totalitarianism is inevitable, but implies that he himself is not a subscriber to this view.
Instead, he outlined the definition between the open society (the society in which individuals are confronted with personal decisions) and the closed society (the tribal or collectivist society)1, and averred that while open societies, with their focus on the individual, opened themselves up to difficulties such as class struggle, closed societies could (in theory) avoid this by working for the good of the overall society rather than for individual enhancement.
This may be where some of the appeal of Communism originates; however, it is rarer for communities to splinter off in a serious bid to create an isolated sectarian group in the aim of pursuing a long-term more peaceful lifestyle than it is for them to pursue short-term political rebellion.
Even Plato’s famous creation of an ideal state in the form of the Republic does not conform to the idea of a serious long-term lifestyle change – he makes it clear throughout the Republic that his ideas are only hypothetical as part of a philosophical discussion among friends; they are not political superpowers intending to section off a part of society in this way in order to build a utopia. However, the example of the Amish people is one case where people have formed and maintained an almost entirely separate community that restricts and resists contact with the outside world, and works for communal rather than individual benefit.
Originally descendants of the Swiss Anabaptists, the Amish communities are now scattered in various densities around North America, with one major branch residing in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. The lives of the residents were aggressively disrupted in October 2006, when Charles Carl Roberts IV – a truck driver who collected milk from the Amish communities and delivered it to outside dairies, and was one of the few ‘Englishers’ (non-Amish) allowed into the community – herded the boys and women out of the school in Bart Township and shot the girls inside.
For once, the insular nature of the society had been interrupted and the people’s aim to isolate themselves completely from the baser values of the dominant outside society had momentarily failed. As one of the few ‘utopian’ communities to flourish and survive in isolation from the rest of the world, the media intrusion following this event seemed to prolong the interruption of the society’s normally isolated day-to-day life. ‘Isolation’, for the purposes of this essay, can be generally taken to mean ‘a separate way of life that differs from that of the majority, taking place away from the majority’.
However, as can be seen from the Amish tragedy of 2006, this isolation can be all too easily interrupted, and this fragile element of the utopia deserves further exploration – how important is isolation in the building of a successful utopia (be it modern or ancient)? First focusing on the superficial characteristics of isolation, it is pertinent to ponder the relevance of whether such a community is totally geographically separate from other areas (on an island, for example, as in Thomas More’s Utopia) or whether it is only partially separate (as part of a larger landmass, as is the case with the Amish).
The nature of a utopia is that it is perfect as compared to other societies, “for the best of worlds is invariably described with reference to an inferior, imperfect world”. 3 By this definition, the ‘other’ society is therefore needed as a measure against which to create the utopia, and it could be averred from this that being part of a larger landmass may be more appropriate in terms of the creation, growth and adaptation strategies of a utopia.
This may well be one of the reasons for the ‘rumspringa’ period, where Amish teenagers are temporarily released from the church between the ages of 14 and 20 in order to experience non-Amish life, so that they may have something with which to compare the merits of Amish life and avoid the totalitarianism and psychic insularity that Popper seems keen to avoid. Such totalitarianism (or, lack of interaction between communities) is attributable to the downfall of the Amish communities in Europe.
Geographic distance between [European Amish communities] made association between families extremely difficult,” says John Hostetler (widely considered to be a leading scholar in research of the Amish). “Worship services, held in their own farm homes, took place monthly or every two weeks, but always at different places. Those who lived within a short distance could attend the services, but they found it possible to come only once or twice annually. Under such conditions the scattered Amish families associated more with local non-Amish persons than with people of their own affiliation…
The Amish made no attempt to gain converts other than their own offspring. “4 Geographic proximity, then, seems to be a key ingredient for success in communication between branches of the utopia, especially in such cases as the Amish, where communication devices such as telephones are not permitted; and this proximity to others appears more beneficial than detrimental to the utopian community as a whole, even if on rare occasions this leaves them more open to invasion, as the recent shootings demonstrate.
It is interesting to note that while so far the argument appears to point to utopias being more productive when isolated from the mainstream but still part of a larger landmass (the Amish benefit from being on the mainland, using non-Amish doctors and emergency services), the word ‘paradise’ itself comes from the Old Persian word ‘pairidaeza’, meaning ‘enclosure’5, which rather suggests the opposite.
Indeed, Thomas More’s utopia was described as a fully-functioning utopia which had been successful for many years – and that was established on a sole island, with no other branches elsewhere. Although they are described as having an army for self-defence, they resist contact with other countries. Plato, though, was keener on maintaining contact with the mainland (unlike More’s utopia) and maintaining a certain standard of security (unlike, perhaps, the Amish) – bringing one closer to the delicate balance between the open and closed societies hinted at by Popper.
He talks about merchants dealing with overseas countries [371b], emphasises the importance of making “the gap between a moral person and an immoral person as wide as possible”6, and presumably to this end, also highlights various security measures (“We need an army to go out and defend all the community’s property and all the people we were talking about a moment ago against invaders” [Republic, 374a]). Having also identified the origin of war in colonisation of land (373d), he wishes to keep this to a minimum by means of the armies.
However, the somewhat totalitarian nature of his republic that’s implied by the nature of colonisation may suggest that Plato, too, does not quite achieve the balance between the open and closed society. Continuing in this similar vein, Plato and his companions debate greatly over who should be allowed to enter the city, and on what grounds they can stay or should be ejected.
While poets are banned from the city towards the start of the Republic, he concedes that “if our allegations met a certain poetic rebuttal in lyric verse… we] would be justified in letting poetry return” [607d], suggests that isolationist techniques are strictly controlled but are (to an extent) flexible. Amish members who contradict the rules of the society by (say) purchasing a car when they are full members of the society (i. e. after the rumspringa period) are given some time to amend their actions and atone for them. It is only if they consistently refuse to repent that they are permanently excommunicated (or shunned), and members can also choose to leave the society voluntarily if they wish (having not done wrong).
Intriguingly, this could be perceived as isolation also being used as a threat, as well as being used as an enticement to the society. By being excommunicated, or choosing to leave the society, the individuals concerned risk a different type of isolation – they aren’t included in the rituals of the dominant society, and they are no longer included in the utopia, and thereby expose themselves to deep loneliness.
Margaret Atwood (in the dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale) also uses the concept of isolation as a threat – if the handmaids fail to comply with the new regime, they are sent to the Colonies – islands where they have freedom away from the regime, but where chemical pollution hasn’t been eradicated, meaning that the freedom has the sting in the tail of a slow and painful death.
Consequently, the Amish and Plato (in creating their own utopian communities) must maintain security and avoid totalitarianism by ensuring that they “engage in a significant polemic with the dominant culture… and to do so must speak essentially the same language in order to make the dialogue comprehensible. “7 Part of maintaining this limited interaction involves, for the Amish, making use of their own limited resources and working with nearby towns when economic necessity dictates.
Although they are religiously self-sufficient, with their own socialisation patterns and educational functions, they still rely on basic economic exchanges with non-Amish people. In matters of the farm, they do not seek or desire total separation, although their attempt at self-sufficiency is largely based on agrarianism. 8 Even though the Amish way of life is largely viewed as being old-fashioned and parochial, the chairman (who is non-Amish) of the Heritage Centre of Lancaster County insists that this is not the case: “It is easy to get it wrong about the Amish.
They are not about putting up walls to block out the modern world. What they are about is adapting their community to modernity in order to preserve its essential being as a simple agrarian society. ” 9 In addition to this, the Amish also allow their teenagers to break free from the insularity of Amish life during a six-year rumspringa period, being temporarily released from the church and allowed to do such things as watch television, wear branded clothes and drive cars.
It is perhaps arguable that by discharging the adolescents from the ‘isolation’ of the Amish community, they are further isolated by being launched into an unfamiliar community for six years, which could explain why over 80% of teens return to the Amish community at the end of the rumspringa stage. This begs the question of the importance of a successful brainwashing programme in conjunction with isolation as the building blocks of an effective utopia.
Plato considers this, but the efficacy of his method is doubtful: he suggests that he does not produce an ‘outlandish lie’ but rather a ‘tall story’ to convince the citizens of the utopia of how they came to be (414c), which involves them being born out of the ground, with all the life they ‘remember’ from before being all a dream. While this appears ludicrous, one could argue that Plato does not need a plausible way to convince the current generation seeing as the Republic as a whole is a mere hypothesis.
It is equally shown in The Handmaid’s Tale that convincing the current generation is an issue that has to be taken seriously in this context, for it shows how it can fail – by eliminating language, the Commanders hope to eliminate independent thought itself (which fails to work), and the high numbers of people still being sent to the Colonies indicates that people are resisting the brainwashing programme in high numbers, and are thus still choosing isolation as a threat over isolation as a way of life.
The crucial element here is that the current generation in a new utopia in all likelihood do not possess the necessary psychic insularity for the overall cohesion and success of the utopia. This does not, however, appear to be a problem for the Amish community, perhaps owing to its longevity as an isolated community as well as the fact that even when the utopia was new enough for the current generation to pose a problem, the ideas therein were close enough to current Christian ideology to not be seen as something radical to be rebelled against.
Plus, unlike in the other two discourses, the Amish do not attempt to convert others, whereas the programmes described in the Republic and The Handmaid’s Tale are attempting to cover a very wide area that includes large numbers of people, making psychic insularity harder to achieve. While the all-encompassing nature of some of these discourses clearly poses challenges in some areas, one hurdle that they can leap over quite easily where the Amish community cannot is in the area of regulation and bureaucracy.
Following several legal battles regarding sending minors to high school (the Amish do not believe that children should be educated beyond the age of fourteen), the Amish were eventually allowed to maintain their isolationist approach and send children only to Amish schools within Amish communities. In one case, in 1972, Jonas Yoder and Wallace Miller of the Old Order Amish and Adin Yutzy of the Conservative Amish Mennonite Church were each fined $5 for refusing to send their children, aged 14 and 15, to high school.
In Wisconsin v. Yoder, the Wisconsin Supreme Court overturned the conviction and the U. S. Supreme Court affirmed, finding that the benefits of universal education do not justify violation of the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. 10 Despite the fact that in this case the law was changed, this shaky relationship with the outside world due to the extent of isolationism occasionally threatens the future of the utopia, and suggests that the only way to avoid the regulations and bureaucratic measures of the dominant society is to change the isolationist approach to the totalitarian approach, and thus become the dominant society.
However, on the whole, an isolationist methodology (with few problems of intrusion by government and media, but a generally healthy relationship with the dominant society) seems to serve its purpose as an element of a successful utopia better than a totalitarian attitude (with no such problems of intrusion, but with the background of having overthrown the previous dominant society and with the high risk of the utopia becoming a dystopia).
Contrary to the expectations of social theorists, who had assumed that it was only a matter of time before the Amish became absorbed into the dominant society, the Amish people have not only survived, but their population has more than doubled in the past twenty-five years.
Their success has been attributed to social and geographic isolation, agrarianism, distinctive dress and language (they can speak English to non-Amish, but in the community they use a variant of German called Pennsylvania Dutch [corruption of ‘Pennsylvania Deutsch]), and religious commitment11, which suggests that while a certain degree of isolation is helpful (the Amish communities are, after all, still part of a larger landmass), total isolation is not essential for a utopia to be effective and historic, even if this does occasionally lead to problems such as invasion by external bodies.
It is difficult to see how Plato’s community and Atwood’s community would fare in today’s world: partly due to their respective hypothetical and fictional natures, but also partly due to the Athenian context in which Plato’s republic was created (e. g. the impulse to colonise surrounding areas).
Both of these communities also involve persuading the current generation to buy into a very different way of life, whereas the Amish community was and is based on religious and moral precepts that were very familiar at the time of the community’s conception (meaning that to an extent, Amish tenets are far less far-fetched than those delineated in other discourses).
By still holding technology at a distance, exercising restraint and moderation, and by accepting limitations and living within them, the Amish have maintained the integrity of their family and community life12 – even if they do not always manage to evade undesirable side-effects of life such as violence and waste, as shown by the recent incident of the Amish shootings.
In conclusion, it is not possible to create a utopia purely on the basis of isolation, mainly due to the problem of the current generation. While total isolation is a helpful element, a successful brainwashing programme or definite ideological framework must be the foundation on which a utopian community builds itself, with isolation being conducive to this rather than being the sole basis of its creation.