In a review of the BBC’s Inside the Bruderhof, David Jamieson argues that attempts to escape capitalism are inevitable but fraught with danger.
Going to BBC iPlayer to catch up with The Trial of Alex Salmond documentary, I found myself drawn instead to its neighbouring film – a rerun of the BBC’s critically acclaimed Inside the Bruderhof.
First aired in 2019 at a time of intense political conflict, its offer of an idyllic Sussex Christian commune has been presented afresh to a jaded, late-lockdown audience as a refuge. Like the inhabitants of the classless, propertyless, technophobe village many are seeking an escape from the turmoil and brutality of the social order; BBC audiences, and myself, included.
Just 56 miles from London – but detached from the capital’s economic rhythms, social customs and gadgets – one sentiment the Bruderhof appeal to is nostalgia.
Referring to the (apparently mandatory) clothing of women members, our guide through the community, Bernard Hibbs, says: “The dresses they wear probably look quite old fashioned, that’s because they wear a very similar style of clothes as they always wore. And so if they look like peasant dresses from the 1920s, that’s because we used to be peasants in the 1920s.”
As Mark Lilla has written “To live a modern life anywhere in the world today, subject to perpetual social and technological change, is to experience the psychological equivalent of permanent revolution.”
“Every major social transformation leaves behind a fresh Eden that can serve as the object of somebody’s nostalgia.” And while hopes in the processes of social transformation lead to constant frustration and disappointment, the imagined past cannot fail.
The Bruderhof’s past was painful. Born in 1920 to the ruins of the first world war, it harnessed the burgeoning youth movement for a return to simplicity and nature. The dream was violently interrupted by the rise of the Nazis, who suppressed this pacifist, economically egalitarian sect. Members fled occupied Europe for England, where they still dwell, and thrive, today.
Its 23 communities around the world form a micro-economy. In Sussex they make children’s toys and furniture to satisfy the pang for ‘authenticity’ currently (ceaselessly) ravaging the metropolitan middle classes.
They earn no wages from this multi-million pound enterprise, they own nothing and accumulate nothing. All their needs are provided for by the community, which shifts them around the world at will. This is a globalisation era commune.
“The community is not a democracy,” says Hibbs “and we wouldn’t want it to be that because that would waste just a massive amount of time.”
Why do they submit to this lifestyle?
“The purpose of the Bruderhof is to follow Jesus’ teaching as closely as possible. And it’s based on Jesus’ teaching on the Sermon on the Mount.” And that means no property, no rich and poor.
“The thing I resist the most, for my children coming in, is individualism,” Hibbs adds. With careers go individual ambition. Throughout the film, community members discuss the conscious abandonment of the ‘dreams’ of capitalist society; success, wealth, notoriety.
They are not a hermitage by any means. Material life is simple but adequate. Outreach to the surrounding and suffering world is routine. Young people are (as with some other modern Anabaptists, such as the Amish) actively encouraged to experience the world for a period of time, and some leave permanently.
The documentary takes us on that 56 mile journey to the looming citadel with Hannah, a third generation member of the community on her gap year to London. The film veers dangerously close here to ‘little Amish girl meets big city lights’. But Hannah rejects the cosmopolis as hollow and meaningless. She returns to the Bruderhof.
Some have fled. In March this year, the BBC produced allegations from former members of co-coercive behaviour and exorcisms. Hibbs thinly alludes to the community’s mistakes of decades past.
Gender equality was, apparently, not pronounced in Jesus’ famous sermon and is not a feature of the community. The presenter has to tell us herself that same sex relationships are forbidden – this isn’t volunteered, at least in the footage we see. Still, this is not the Westboro Baptist Church. Social conservatism is not the mission.
It is hard not to float into the idyll, lulled by some beautiful direction and camera work. Scenes of community are frequently charming and wholesome. Hibbs’ calls to an Arcadian life of personal discipline and devotion are seductive.
How could they not be, in the carnage and disorder of the world system? We should perhaps expect that the borders of radical politics will increasingly meet the mystic, the counter-cultural, religious and esoteric.
By no means all attempts to escape capitalism are so pacific.
The most appalling garners strangely little commentary today. When Islamic State burst onto the world in 2014, it was initially and correctly understood as emerging from the horrors of war in Iraq and Syria, consequent in very large part upon western military actions.
What was perhaps even harder to digest was the flood of young people from around the world, particularly young men, into the newly proclaimed ‘caliphate’. Upon investigation, many were found to share experiences: addiction, loneliness and low self-esteem, poverty, ignorance of any faith tradition or creed (who can forget the copies of The Koran for Dummies and Islam for Dummies found among their possessions).
As they tried to race from modernity in a stolen humvee, fuelled by a diet of Haribo and illicit drugs, they generated a tidal wave of meaningless violence. This was a postmodern exit: faithless religion, endtimes without the return of God. We haven’t asked ‘why’ since. We fear the answers.
I don’t want to arbitrarily conjoin very different phenomena here. One could argue this determination to ‘exit’ is a secondary characteristic in these movements, the primary ones the world they are trying to run towards, and their material involvement with actually existing social relationships. Certainly, their moral consequences diverge about as radically as possible.
They share only continued entanglement with, and reproduction of, the world they are trying to escape. The postmodern hell of Islamic State was a condensation of the rejected, hated world (more like the Bruderhof’s Nazi persecutors who were, at least according to some philosophers, concerned with a form of escape themselves). The point is rather that attempts to exit capitalism and its order will return time and again. When such jail-breaks are not aesthetic and ameliorative in focus, they will be bombastic, brutal and suicidal.
By contrast, the Bruderhof lives an adjacent life to capitalist society proper. Their manufactures, to be vented on the same market as every precision bomb, stiletto shoe or violent videogame, allow them relative seclusion. In turn the wider economy and state furnishes them with electricity, tools and materials, and regulation, without which their community would scarcely be possible. Separation, with all its consequences, is ultimately impossible. And as in the 1930s, the Bruderhof will sink or swim with its wider civilisation.
Inside the Bruderhof has been made available again on BBC iPlayer, for a limited time.
Director: Emma Pentecost