Awesome Men Throughout History: Josiah Warren
When people think of anarchism, they generally picture young bandanna-faced white kids vandalizing Starbucks, or the structureless mess that was the Occupy movement. Those generalizations aren’t fair, but they’re not undeserved, either. Such are the risks of counterculture.
The first American anarchist, and this week’s Awesome Man Throughout History, was Josiah Warren, who cannot be boiled down to an easy stereotype. He was an inventor, an author, a talented musician, an awesome name-haver, and a staunch advocated of individualism. Since TSB encourages men to establish themselves on their own terms, Warren is a natural fit for our readership.
Warren was more or less an average citizen until 1825, when he met Robert Owen, a social reformer with plans to start his own utopian communist colony in, of all places, Cincinnati. Warren was interested in Owen’s ideas, but got restless when Owen’s group, like so many communists before and since, couldn’t agree on anything. So Warren decided to take action, and led 900 of Owen’s followers out to Indiana to start a town called New Harmony, which would thrive under Owen’s ideas of unity, brotherhood, and human (rather than mechanized) labor.
New Harmony, as you might have guessed, didn’t work out, but Warren used its failure as a launching pad for his own ideas about society. Based on the constant, self-defeating bickering he saw in failed communist groups, Warren believed that the only sustainable society was a completely individualized one, in which each person was a self-contained unit who didn’t interact with any other person or thing that would violate his autonomy.
Warren attempted to create some communities of his own based on those principles, but sadly none of them worked out. It turns out that people who are willing to drop out of regular society because someone asks them to are usually broke, and it takes capital to scare up any kind of employment beyond simple agriculture.
However, Warren’s Time Store experiment was successful. Well, sort of. Hardly a voracious capitalist, Warren opened a store in which goods were sold basically at cost (with a 4-7% mark-up), and customers were given labor notes with their purchases that bound them to give Warren as much of their time as they spent shopping in his store. A typical labor note would say something like “due to Josiah Warren, on demand, ten minutes in needlework — Mary Brown.”
Warren closed the store after a couple of years, but not because he was hemorrhaging money—he just wanted to spend more time fixing society. Whether he did or not is almost beside the point; Warren’s views on individualism still echo throughout American political discourse today, and he made more real, tangible effort to shape the world to his will than any of the farmer’s market revolutionaries he’s lumped in with.
Check out this episode of Jeff Riggenbach’s podcast, which goes into more detail about Josiah Warren and his influence on modern libertarianism.
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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.