Building Utopia: The Role of Money in Communes

One incident from Margaret Grundstein’s time living in a hippie commune illustrates the deep-seated role money plays in life—even in a movement aiming for utopia.

| November 2015

  • The hippie movement was a time of convulsive social change and raised timeless questions about human nature.
    Photo courtesy Government of Buenos Aires City via Wikimedia Commons
  • In 1970, Margaret Grundstein left Yale and followed her husband to a commune in the backwoods of Oregon. “Naked in the Woods” is her story of building their version of utopia alongside friends and strangers.
    Cover courtesy Oregon State University Press

Hippie communes of the 60s and 70s represent a significant chapter of American cultural and political history, with very few “survivor” memoirs. In Naked in the Woods (Oregon State University Press, 2015) Margaret Grundstein chronicles her shift form reluctant hippie to committed utopian. The following excerpt from Chapter 11, “Money Honey,” discusses the role that money played in life on the farm.

To find more books that pique our interest, visit the Utne Reader Bookshelf.

Money was easy, at first. A bit of cash, some unemployment checks, and a few lingering tax refunds maintained the flow, bounty from the past that made our present possible. We shared as we saw fit, openly proud of our collective life, quietly protective of our personal needs. There was no plan. We didn’t talk about it. Instead, in the low thrum at the threshold of consciousness, we, like the rest of the world, made endless calculations. Who has money, who doesn’t, who pays, who can’t, what’s mine, what isn’t—strivings, comparisons, and resentments, so ever-present they were invisible. All this was embedded in us. We brought it along, packed right in with our paisley bedspreads and ten-pound blocks of government surplus cheese. The universal laws of capital still held sway; if you had cash you had say, over your life as well as the lives of others. This was a frontier that begged to be crossed.

Our initial attempts were informal, easing the balance but not tipping it. Roggie needed help. His real destination was Indonesia, not the farm, but we were welcoming and a plane ticket to Southeast Asia cost more than he could muster. After a few months Roggie had an epiphany. If he couldn’t fly, he would sail across the Pacific, not on a freighter, not as crew, but in his own, handcrafted, Polynesian-style catamaran. No one questioned the wisdom of this approach. After all, who among us could say the emperor had no clothes? Weren’t we all living the impossible dream? Roggie’s plan merely reinforced our collective vision right at that delicate spot where idealism flirts with delusion.

As a scholar, his first step was the library, where he researched his topic. Next he cleared out space in the barn and built two pontoon frames raised on sawhorses, elegant pieces of south sea sculpture. The boat was taking shape. Roggie spent hours delicately tap-tap-tapping with a narrow-headed hammer, wrapping the curved hulls in long, elegant strips of wood. This was cedar, cut to fit. Money was involved. Someone was backing Roggie, but who? Nothing had been decided as a group. Instead, unknowingly, we had reverted to an age-old system, patronage, though very loosely applied. A trip to town, stoned musings, and the next thing you know, Hakim was delivering a load of fresh lathing for the skin of the pontoons. Guy helped by providing nautical glue and nails. Bit by unplanned bit, backing appeared, and the boat took form. Not everyone participated. Clint offered technical advice instead of cash, choosing to invest in a lathe for turning bowls instead, a tempting toy that everyone, or at least everyone who was male, got to use.

Things bumbled along in this manner, until the inevitable happened. Hakim, our ideologue in residence, always ready to push a bit further, laid down a challenge. We had driven into town that morning to pick up his unemployment check, the only source of cash for the two of us. Everyone was in the dining room when we returned home, relaxing around the remains of a meal, chatting, and lighting up the obligatory postprandial joint. Fairchild, nursing Shine, scooted over to make room. Hak and I sat down on the rough wood bench and helped ourselves to bowls of brown rice and fresh tomato salad. We bobbed along with the flow, catching up with the group. Guy mentioned the need to buy another fifty-pound sack of wheat berries. With the Tassajara Bread Book at their side, he and Janet did most of our baking, and they were running low, a fact that would affect us all.

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