Camphill and the Future
Spirituality and Disability in an Evolving Communal Movement
- ISBN: 9780520344082
- Published By: University of California Press
- Published: October 2020
Anthroposophy, the movement founded in 1907 by Austrian esotericist Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925) after his separation from the Theosophical Society, has been very much in the news in Europe in the last few years. Anthroposophy has been accused of being responsible for low vaccination rates against COVID-19 in certain regions, although national Anthroposophical Medical Associations in Germany and elsewhere have answered that they had welcomed the vaccine, while insisting that choices about vaccination should be individual and voluntary. Biodynamic agriculture, which is also based on Anthroposophical principles, has been included in Italy among the ecological projects subsidized by the state after the COVID-19 economic crisis, leading some scientists to object that the state was promoting “occultism” rather than science.
Dan McKanan discussed biodynamic agriculture in a book he published in 2017 (Eco-Alchemy: Anthroposophy and the History and Future of Environmentalism, University of California Press), within the context of Anthroposophy’s approach to environmentalism. In his most recent book, Camphill and the Future: Spirituality and Disability in an Evolving Communal Movement, he examines another movement rooted in anthroposophy to which he devoted some twenty years of research, Camphill.
The story McKanan tells starts with the name, “Camphill,” which comes from an estate in a suburb of Aberdeen, Scotland, where a group of refugees from Austria settled in 1938 after Nazi Germany had annexed their country. Most of them were both Jews and members of the Anthroposophical Society, as was the case for their unofficial leader, pediatrician Karl König (1902–1966). The Austrian Jewish doctor had worked with people with special needs in Switzerland, and served as pediatrician in an anthroposophy-inspired school in Poland. Together with his wife Mathilde “Tilla” Maasberg (1902–1983), König founded in Scotland the first Camphill Community for disabled adults and children. Eventually, Camphill grew to become the largest international independent provider of social care for people with special needs. Today, as McKanan reports, there are more than 120 Camphill intentional communities and “villages”—two different types of settlements—on four continents. Nearly half of their residents are adults and children with special needs.
Studying Camphill, McKanan notes, requires an interdisciplinary approach at the crossroad of three different disciplines: disability studies, communal studies, and religious studies. König and his co-workers were familiar with, and inspired by, the history of both religious and secular intentional communities, including the Rosicrucians, the Moravians, and the socialist communes founded by Robert Owen (1771–1858). They were also aware of the ongoing debate on how to provide for people with special needs without perpetuating the discrimination prevailing at that time both in most institutions and in the larger society. Yet, McKanan insists that it is impossible to understand Camphill without anthroposophy. While non-anthroposophists were always part of the movement, in each community there was a spiritual inner circle consisting of anthroposophists only. It was generally acknowledged that this circle was the heart and soul of the community, and spiritual celebrations rooted in anthroposophy were offered to everybody.
Today, the relationship between Camphill and anthroposophy is more complicated, and exploring its subtleties is among the most valuable contributions of McKanan’s book. The author traces the history of Camphill through different generations: the founders, those who came after them, the baby boomers, the Gen Xers, and the millennials. He explains that the boomers’ leadership was long-lasting, and the transition to the millennials slow and difficult.
While the transition was being completed, changes happened in society that greatly affected Camphill. State regulations on the care of people with special needs became stricter. In some countries, Camphill communities survive thanks to public subsidies, but they come at the price of significant paperwork and of complying with regulations that were not devised with experiments such as Camphill in mind. Ultimately, these regulations had a role in increasing the number of paid employees with the qualifications required by the governments—most of them non-anthroposophists—and decreasing the percentage of volunteers participating in Camphill’s original communal life-sharing and income-sharing experience. The communities were thus transformed and, according to the criticism by some old-timers, put at risk of losing their distinctive character. In several communities today, anthroposophists are not the majority. Camphill, McKanan argues, is re-inventing itself; its relationship with anthroposophy is also changing and may become both different and more tenuous in the future. On the other hand, McKanan emphasizes that Steiner himself regarded anthroposophy as an evolving movement and predicted that its organizational forms would adapt to changes in society.
The world has become more alert to the tragic possibility of sexual abuse in religious and social communities, and some incidents have also been discovered in the Camphill network. In one Norwegian community, cases emerged of child sexual abuse that was committed by people with special needs. Camphill is proud of the fact that people with different kinds of special needs do not feel that they are “under surveillance.” Cases of abuse, however, alerted Camphill that, like in other communities, measures should also be implemented to protect children.
Debates on people with special needs and how modern society can be in itself “disabling” continue inside and outside Camphill. König’s philosophy was a precursor to the idea, now widely accepted and promoted, that those who need special care are not “patients” but are co-responsible for the communities and facilities where they live. Affirming the noble principle that in Camphill people of all abilities are equal, however, is not easy. The evolutionary dynamic of Camphill may also require that it go beyond the communal form, towards “villages,” where some Camphillers live communally and some don’t, but this process also needs reforms and adjustments.
McKanan offers a candid look at the transformations and problems of Camphill after eighty years of existence. However, he also emphasizes that in these eighty years Camphill did much that is laudable and that has positively impacted the lives of those with special needs who live in the communities. Camphill has also shaped how society looks at disability in general. Camphill was never insular, and always maintained an ongoing dialogue with outside society aimed at reform and renewal.
McKanan’s Camphill and the Future is an important contribution to the fields of both disability studies and the study of anthroposophy, communal movements, and Western esotericism. It is especially profitable to read the book along with his previous Eco-Alchemy. Together, these valuable books tell us that the social movements anthroposophists launched in the 20th century are going through transformation processes that are not without problems, but their positive contributions and genuine commitment to ecology, social welfare, and a non-disabling society should also be acknowledged.Date Of Review:April 29, 2022