Going out to Llano
Llano del Rio
Try to find utopia
In the stucco grids and the tumbleweeds
You got to love that pear blossom
It’ll kill you just like possum
Have you been to the rock foundations?
Where it’s mostly known just for the speed
—“Llano del Rio,” by Frank Black and the Catholics
Eighty-eight miles down the road to Sin City lies the rubble of a project the goal of which was to abolish sin itself. And every weekend, thousands of casino-bound travelers pass it by with the same attention they might give to an overheated vehicle on the side of the long and desolate highway. A sand-covered enigma with a history known only to the select few who choose to seek it out, the Llano del Rio colony is a testament to the “old, weird America,” as it has been dubbed—the America of messiahs and schmoozers, of apocalyptic pamphlets and fiery stump orations colored at once by both a starry-eyed realism and a pragmatic utopianism. If time is taken to plumb its depths, it is also a fascinating point of study for all those interested in the concept of political exit, and a sobering reminder of the need for any such exit to be grounded in a philosophical anthropology that views man as a fallen creature, bounded by the restrictions of his nature and limited in his pursuits on earth.
In 1913, Job Harriman was a tired and broken man. He was, in that year, the most popular socialist politician in California, to be sure, but a tired and broken man nonetheless. After a long and tumultuous political career that garnered him attention from around the world, Harriman possessed all the fame he would ever need; it was the victory—the inevitable victory prophesied by Marx—that was sorely lacking.
He made his first run for office in California’s 1898 gubernatorial race, as the Socialist Labor Party’s candidate for governor. Then in 1900, he entered the national stage by joining Eugene V. Deb’s presidential bid with the Social Democratic Party as his nominee for Vice President. Finally, in 1911, he ran for mayor of Los Angeles, in one of the most contentious and talked-about mayoral races in America up to that point, losing to incumbent candidate George Alexander by a smaller than usual margin.
And he would have won it, too, if the system hadn’t been rigged by the capitalists. You see, at the turn of the 20th century, the streets of Los Angeles were a bloody battleground in a war between the forces of capital and the forces of labor, with each side constantly trying to outdo the other in a series of covert and overt contests involving bribery, espionage, political machinations, and the occasional stick of dynamite. Or at least that’s how Harriman saw things. As far as he was concerned, the business establishment had been out to destroy him from the very beginning. That is why he had been tricked into joining the defense team of the McNamara brothers, two of the union workers suspected to be involved in the 1910 bombing of the Los Angeles Times building, and men who seemed clearly innocent, until they mysteriously confessed one day in a whimpering statement that reeked of blackmail. Before this confession of guilt, Harriman was poised to win the election easily, with news outlets across the nation raving about the impending socialist future of Los Angeles. But after the startling admission, fear of radicalism swept over the city and his reputation was so badly damaged that his Progressive challenger was able to narrowly come away with the victory.
This loss was the final straw that pushed Harriman over the line. Electoral politics were a sham, a hoax intended to deceive the masses into accepting the pre-approved choices laid out for them by their industrial masters. In order to truly affect radical change and dismantle the empire of capitalism in America, he had to take matters into his own hands. He had to do the only logical thing left to do—he had to become a capitalist.
No one is entirely sure of when Harriman first got the idea of forming what would come to be called “the most important non-religious utopian colony in Western American history,” but the uniqueness of his plan cannot be stressed enough. Sure, Europe might have its New Lanark or New England its Brook Farm, but these projects were, however revolutionary for their time, still tainted with many of the reactionary assumptions of the Old World. And that is why they had failed. The Western frontier, on the other hand, was the land of new beginnings and self-determination, the land of making things work and “changing history instead of merely interpreting it.”
To many of the utopian socialists of yore, the idea of starting up a community as a joint-stock company with the explicit goal of outcompeting capitalistic communities by offering the promise of a life free from competition would have seemed like a contradiction in terms. But in 1913, that is exactly what Job Harriman did, in a move that would have made any Silicon Valley-ite proud. In October of that year, after scanning various regions of California for a suitable location, he and several associates purchased 9,000 acres of land along Big Rock Creek in Southern California’s Antelope Valley, bringing Llano del Rio (“the plain by the river”) into reality. (more…)