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West of Eden

Iain Boal et al.

Communes and Utopia in Northern California

Explores the deep historical roots and the enduring, though often disavowed, legacies of the extraordinary pulse of radical energies that generated forms of collective life beyond the nuclear family and the world of private consumption.

In the shadow of the Vietnam war, a significant part of an entire generation refused their assigned roles in the American century. Some took their revolutionary politics to the streets, others decided simply to turn away, seeking to build another world together, outside the state and the market. West of Eden charts the remarkable flowering of communalism in the 60s and 70s, fueled by a radical rejection of the Cold War corporate deal, utopian visions of a peaceful green planet, the new technologies of sound and light, and the ancient arts of ecstatic release. The book focuses on the San Francisco Bay Area and its hinterlands, which have long been creative spaces for social experiment. Haight-Ashbury’s gift economy—its free clinic, concerts, and street theatre—and Berkeley’s liberated zones—Sproul Plaza, Telegraph Avenue, and People’s Park—were embedded in a wider network of producer and consumer co-ops, food conspiracies, and collective schemes.

Using memoir and flashbacks, oral history and archival sources, West of Eden explores the deep historical roots and the enduring, though often disavowed, legacies of the extraordinary pulse of radical energies that generated forms of collective life beyond the nuclear family and the world of private consumption, including the contradictions evident in such figures as the guru/predator or the hippie/entrepreneur. There are vivid portraits of life on the rural communes of Mendocino and Sonoma, and essays on the Black Panther communal households in Oakland, the latter-day Diggers of San Francisco, the Native American occupation of Alcatraz, the pioneers of live/work space for artists, and the Bucky dome as the iconic architectural form of the sixties.

Due to the prevailing amnesia—partly imposed by official narratives, partly self-imposed in the aftermath of defeat—West of Eden is not only a necessary act of reclamation, helping to record the unwritten stories of the motley generation of communards and antinomians now passing, but is also intended as an offering to the coming generation who will find here, in the rubble of the twentieth century, a past they can use—indeed one they will need—in the passage from the privations of commodity capitalism to an ample life in common.

“As a gray army of undertakers gather in Sacramento to bury California’s great dreams of equality and justice, this wonderful book, with its faith in the continuity of our state’s radical-communitarian ethic, replants the seedbeds of defiant imagination and hopeful resistance.” —Mike Davis, author of City of Quartz and Magical Urbanism

“Utopias—we can’t live without them, nor within them, for long. In West of Eden we see California, an earthly utopia, and the Sixties, a utopian moment, in full flower. Brave souls creating a heavenly host of communal spaces on the edge of America, hoping to break free of a world of capital, sexism, oligarchy, race. An amazing place and time that, for all its failures, changed the world—and which finally gets its due in this marvelous collection.” —Richard Walker, UC Berkeley, author of The Country in The City

“There are a lot of versions of the sixties, and this is one that isn’t stale or familiar, a book by a lot of good writers and original thinkers about how some much older ideas about the commons and the community were tinkered with, enlarged upon, turned into experiments that sometimes succeeded, sometimes failed, but left legacies that mattered. It’s also a book about California’s tendency to go experimental, idealistic, and eclectic, a fit successor to the classic California’s Utopian Colonies that looked at some of the great nineteenth-century experiments.” —Rebecca Solnit, author of Storming the Gates of Paradise

“The counterculture—from the North Beach Parnassus to the underground press—and ‘the Movement’—from Marxists to anarchists—all of it depended on a magnificent base, and here it is described, magnificently: the Oakland breakfast program, the Alcatraz occupation, the Mime troupe, and pot farms, the communes, the collectives, the co-ops of California during the 1960s. On the lam? A bad trip? Burnt out? Cracking up? AWOL? Dropping out? Requiring metamorphosis? These could provide rural and urban alternatives to Cold War, patriarchy, speed-up, or death in the jungle. With roots in previous decades of struggle by trade unions, ethnic enclaves, religious breakaways, and nineteenth century dreams, and with branches in the lore of our own contemporary foodways, child-rearing practices, decision-making and meeting protocols, sexual politics, and DIY culture, the California communards cleared the path. Both veterans and young folk, grey hairs and newbies will find beautiful memoire, authentic experience, and brilliant analysis in these pages West of Eden.” —Peter Linebaugh, author of The Magna Carta Manifesto

Iain Boal is an Irish social historian of science and technics, affiliated with the University of California, Berkeley and Birkbeck College, London. He is associated with the Retort group, and is one of the co-authors of Retort’s Afflicted Power: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War (Verso). He co-edited with James Brook Resisting the Virtual Life: The Culture and Politics of Information (City Lights), and is author of The Green Machine (Notting Hill Editions), a brief planetary history of the
Janferie Stone was a sojourner in two communes on the Mendocino Coast in the early 1970s. She has taught Native American Studies and anthropology at many levels of the California education system. Her essays have been published in Sustainable Feminisms: Advances in Gender Research, and From Rigor to Vigor: Transformations in the Field.
Michael Watts is professor of Geography and Chair of Development Studies, at the University of California, Berkeley where he has taught for over thirty years. A Guggenheim Fellow in 2003, he served as the Director of the Institute of International Studies from 1994–2004. His research focuses on food and energy security, rural development, and land reform in Africa, South Asia, and Vietnam.

Michael Watts is professor of Geography and Chair of Development Studies, at the University of California, Berkeley where he has taught for over thirty years. A Guggenheim Fellow in 2003, he served as the Director of the Institute of International Studies from 1994–2004. His research focuses on food and energy security, rural development, and land reform in Africa, South Asia, and Vietnam.

Cal Winslow is a social historian, educated at Antioch College and Warwick University. He is co-author with Edward Thompson, Peter Linebaugh and others of Albion’s Fatal Tree. He is author of Labor’s Civil War in California (PM Press) and co-editor of Rebel Rank and File. He is the Director of the Mendocino Institute and associated with the Retort group. He lives with his family near Caspar on the Mendocino coast.

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