Handout 1: The Temporary Autonomous Zone
The history of Brook Farm (see Workshop 7) demonstrates the difficulty of creating a successful and lasting utopian community. However strong the desire to do so, the likelihood is small that a community can sustain itself when it is organized around values different from those of the dominant culture. Financial and other outside pressures are often too much to bear. Most efforts to create enduring utopian communities have failed within a few years.
However, the experience that utopian communities seek to create—a vision of justice and equality realized in a particular time and place—happens more often than many suspect. These experiences occur whenever two or more people gather and treat each other with equity and compassion. The Sufi writer Hakim Bey has named this phenomenon the "temporary autonomous zone."
Temporary autonomous zones are places where—for however brief a time—a community flourishes by experiencing and embracing values counter to those of the dominant culture. Rather than just conceptualizing a community where members live according to their values, participants in a temporary autonomous zone actually embody those values in their interactions with each other. The experiences that people have in temporary autonomous zones can be transformative. Such experiences suggest that another world, one with different values and social norms, is possible. Some people believe so because they have lived in it, even if only briefly.
In his work "The Temporary Autonomous Zone," Bey argues that temporary autonomous zones come in many forms and have occurred at many times throughout human history. He posits that communities as widely varied as revolutionary communes, 18th-century pirate enclaves, contemporary all night dance parties and the common dinner party can all be described as temporary autonomous zones.
Many people experience temporary autonomous zones at Unitarian Universalist camps and conferences. The conferences offer a week-long or weekend space where participants create a transient community that reflects Unitarian Universalist values. Many report that such experiences are transformative. For some, especially youth, the time spent in the transient and temporary communities of camps and conferences is as central to their understanding of Unitarian Universalism as their participation in a congregation. This suggests that, for at least some Unitarian Universalists, temporary autonomous zones play an important part in supporting their ongoing faith development.