The Irony of Alienation in a Utopian Society

Pop Jackson in Jonestown, c. 1976-77. Text on slide mount: Me - cleaning vegetables
Courtesy of the California Historical Society PC 010.0755. Image from the new slide collection. Pop Jackson in Jonestown, c. 1976-77. Text on slide mount: Me – cleaning vegetables

(Phyllis Marley is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Texarkana College, currently pursuing a doctoral degree in sociology from Texas Woman’s University. A second article by Ms. Marley appears at Remembering Bobby Stroud. She can be reached at

World history is littered with examples of individuals insistent that they could develop a society free from the usual ills, even paradise-like, if people would only give them a chance. Some of these ideas are associated with the political writings of Karl Marx from the mid-nineteenth century. Marx believed that the nature of man was to be creative and that this was likely to be expressed in his work. With a decidedly anti-capitalist stance, Marx believed that people who work in the employ of others lose their individuality. With no control over the work product or means and processes of production, people feel a sense of powerlessness, meaninglessness and resentment – the essence of alienation, according to later researchers. Marx believed that eventually the people would become so alienated that they would rise up and overthrow the capitalist organization and replace it with a socialist society. And he believed that it would happen in his lifetime.

Almost thirty years later, Emile Durkheim made another point when he argued that even if capitalism were overthrown, the new socialist organization would be governed by structural factors, such as social density, that are inherent in all societies. These realities would drive the society toward the same problems that it originally sought to eliminate. A new power structure would emerge, and the cycle of alienation would begin again.

The purpose of this paper is to identify the factors that cause group member alienation as they appear to have existed in Jonestown, a society whose foundation was supposed to be the exact opposite. From the early days of his ascent to power in Northern California, Jim Jones, leader of Peoples Temple, preached socialist values as much or more than he preached Christianity. He often referred to Marx, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” This paper will look at Jonestown from the viewpoint of a single survivor, with corroboration through the (later) published account of another survivor. The conclusion is that Jones got caught in the trap foreseen by Durkheim in the late 1800s.

Foundations of Alienation

(Author’s note: Below is a summary of the alienation literature without parenthetical citation. Refer to Works Cited for specific information.)

Any discussion of alienation must begin with Marx. His argument is that workers can become alienated from the product they produce, the labor they provide, themselves and their fellow man. If Marx believed that people express their creativity and individuality through their work, he must have been originally referring to people whose work is self-regulated and used or disposed of at the discretion of the worker. But in a capitalist society, men work for other men – leading Marx to say, “Work is external to the worker; it is not part of his nature; consequently he does not fulfill himself in his work, he denies himself… In work [the worker] does not belong to himself but to another person.”

Many sociological theories divide alienation into two realms: structural and social psychological. Structural alienation refers to the actual objective distance between the individual and the work product. Marx, and others since, argued that if an individual lacks ownership of the work product and the reward for the product goes to another in a capitalist society, the individual is alienated from his work. To have no real power over the fruits of one’s labor denies the interconnectedness of man and his species being. In this context, species being refers to human potential. For Marx, structural alienation was about the loss of power and control over something that the individual created. Further, Marx believed that as people became more productive, their individual value decreased.

It is important to make a distinction between this structural alienation and the emotional, subjective experience caused by structural alienation. If we explicitly define both the structural causes and social psychological effects, it might look like this:

Social Psychological Feelings of Alienation

Powerlessness – A feeling of domination by superiors or by objects. This seems to be the emotional component of the loss of structural control.

Meaninglessness – This relates to the feeling that the individual has no real purpose of his own.

Isolation – The inability to feel connected to or belonging to or in the workplace; a lack of a sense of belonging – not just ownership.

Self-estrangement – Marx might tie this to the loss of contact with the species being because it relates to being unable, or not allowed to express one’s unique qualities, abilities or creativity within the workplace.

Specific Acts which Cause Feelings of Alienation:

Acts of Isolation: This can be a situation in which the worker is specifically cut off from others, such as office location, break schedule, or overt acts such as warnings not to discuss certain issues with co-workers.

Acts which Nullify Meaning: If a worker toils over a project only to have his efforts dismissed, his work might seem to lack meaning. This might include lack of recognition or lack of some other reward. Being denied access to the finished product – if for no other purpose than a sense of completion – is an example of a situation which might nullify meaning.

Acts which Block Power: When a worker is not allowed to be a part of the decision making process, or is denied access to information, power is blocked. Excessive rules and a lack of flexibility in the rules block power.

Acts which Nullify Norms: When a salesman is told to bend the truth to make a sale, norms are being nullified. Send the same salesman to a seminar on business ethics and see the confusion. When people are given a goal along with ambiguous rules to follow, or no established means to achieve that goal, they tend to rely on established norms. If the rules change without predictability, norms are nullified.

Case Study: Peoples Temple at Jonestown

(Author’s note: Because this section includes various accounts of factual events, I have included parentheticals.)

The final sections of this paper deal with the elements of alienation and their presence in an organization that was supposed to have been founded on the principles of socialism – the last place alienation would be expected to exist, unless you believe Durkheim. By some accounts (Marley 1995, Layton 1998), Jim Jones used his position as leader of a church to further his real goal of building a socialist community. His sermons tended to be as much or more about Marx than Jesus. He commented privately that the church was the best way to reach people to bring them into his dream of a utopian society free from capitalist influences and racist beliefs (Layton 1998).

Jonestown was originally set up as a commune. People gave up most, if not all, of their personal possessions when they first arrived in the jungle. They worked in the fields in the hot sun for 12 – 14 hours a day in order to grow the food needed to support the people. One of the people who believed in this way of life was Robert Stroud. He was a survivor of the mass suicide/murders at Jonestown (Marley 1995). The narrative account here is based on several hours of recorded interviews with Bob. Information from another survivor’s account is included both to corroborate and expand the account of the primary source.

Growing up in Peoples Temple (Marley 1995)

Bob, referred to by his Temple friends as “Bobby,” grew up in Northern California. His mother and stepfather joined a church in the area, a non-denominational church filled with friendly people who all seemed to be very involved in the church. Bob remembers getting into a fistfight with a boy who was a year or two older than he was, right after they moved into the neighborhood. But somehow the boys wound up becoming close friends. That boy that Bob fought with was Stephan Jones, the only biological child of Jim Jones, leader of Peoples Temple – the church that Bob’s family had recently joined. So Bob grew up in Peoples Temple and the Jones’ living room. (Incidentally, Bob insisted that Stephan was not really a bully and that he apologized for his behavior when they met, apparently feeling very bad about it. His act of contrition surprised Bob and helped to cement the friendship.)

Bob remembers that the church was bustling with activity every day after school and on weekends as well. He spent the night with the Jones family nearly every weekend and felt that Jim Jones was as much his father as he was Stephan’s. The older Jones often built tents in the living room with the boys and talked to them for hours about politics and morality. Before Bob was old enough for his voice to change, he could recite Marxist philosophy, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” Bob said that his Sunday school teacher spent several hours every Sunday and on other evenings during the week teaching a small group of adolescent boys. They talked about God, politics, Marx – even sex. She was a mentor and advisor in all areas. Before long, Peoples Temple was involved in every facet of Bob’s family’s life. His stepfather was a mechanic who was expected to work on church members’ cars without charging them. His mother spent many hours cooking for church functions, writing letters in the Temple’s numerous letter writing campaigns, and doing whatever else was asked of her by church “counselors.”

Eventually, Bob’s parents became disillusioned with the church’s intrusion into their lives, and they began to withdraw. Church leaders picked up on this, and so did Bob. Bob was very loyal to the church and to his friends, the Joneses. He was angry with his parents and fought bitterly with them about their involvement with the church. Church leaders came over at all hours of the night to talk to the family about their problems. But what they were really doing was using Bob to bring his parents back into line. One night, Bob said, they came at about 1 a.m. and woke up his entire family. They sat in his kitchen and spent hours scolding Bob and shaming him for treating his parents badly. They said they knew that their son was the one causing family problems.

Bob felt betrayed because the church was the issue dividing him from his parents. It was his blind loyalty to the church that drove him to disrespect his parents. He had heard them complaining about giving so much of their income and spending so much of their time on church matters, and he had yelled at them and berated them for their sin and selfishness. He had told church counselors about his parents’ failures. Now they had betrayed him. Needless to say, the parents were thrilled with the counselors’ position on the issue, and they once again embraced the church as a force in their lives that they needed. What they did not know was that, after browbeating Bob for half the night, Jim Jones winked at Bob when he was out of sight of his parents. The whole evening had been a carefully-staged act designed to get the parents feeling good about the church again – binding them together in the face of a common enemy, an errant child.

Eventually the family fell away from the church again and moved away in order to put some distance between themselves and a church that continued to have a hold on their son. Bob grew up and went into the Navy. But when he wanted out of the Navy, it was Jones that he called, not his parents. Jones had some political connections and wrote some letters, with the result that Bob was back in Peoples Temple – without his parents. He gladly went with them to South America so that they could get away from “those who would have them destroyed.”

Inside the Temple: Aspects of Alienation

Survivor accounts paint a picture of disgruntled followers who feared for their safety if they made their disappointment known (Marley 1995, Layton 1998). Alienation was most certainly a daily feature in the lives of many members of Peoples Temple. Below is an overview of those privately guarded complaints.

Loss of Control over the Work Product and the Means and Processes of Production

Both Stroud (Marley 1995) and Deborah Layton (1998) reported eating mostly rice and gravy. They rarely saw the fruits and vegetables that they farmed. Members gave up all possessions upon entering the jungle “utopia.” Day after day, workers sweated in the fields with little food or water, doing exactly as they were told out of fear of punishment. Individual effort was discouraged in many cases.

For example, Layton told the story of a woman who toiled to develop a recipe for good tasting, nutritious cookies using only the foods available at the compound. When she proudly offered one to Jones, he rebuked her for wasting the valuable resources of the people on a frivolous pursuit. Eating even one little piece of sugarcane from the fields was considered to be “stealing from the people,” grounds for being sent to the “learning crew.” The learning crew was a work detail that was required to do everything in double-time. They ran to their assignments and were expected to produce even more than the others. What is easy to see here is the beginning of the separation of the individual from his work. The specific acts and feelings not named by Marx are addressed next.

Meaninglessness (Acts which Nullify Meaning)

Stroud (Marley 1995) and Layton (1998) both reported that followers knew their own duties but often knew little about what others were doing or what was going on with Temple leadership. Stroud remembers working as a member of security and carrying a gun, although he was never really sure what they were guarding against because he saw no signs of the people Jones insisted were hiding in the jungle ready to strike at any moment. All he remembered about Layton was that she was part of the inner circle and had something to do with money. Layton makes reference to “Bobby” in her book in precisely the place in Temple hierarchy that Bob had described to me years earlier. There are numerous accounts of the fieldwork and the people’s bewilderment at what they were doing there. They were disillusioned with the whole system, unable to see Jones’ grand vision for the sweat in their eyes and the bugs on their skin. Researchers suggest that people feel a sense of meaninglessness by being unsure of what they ought to believe. Certainly both Layton and Stroud reported such feelings because they knew that they were supposed to be happy to be making the sacrifices they were making, but they didn’t feel grateful, and they certainly didn’t see the point. This resulted in strong feelings of guilt as well as confusion.

Powerlessness (Acts which Block Power)

The powerlessness begins with the stripping of the individual’s identity – a precursor to self-estrangement. Once identity is taken, cooperation is easier to maintain. Some of the same acts that cause meaninglessness, isolation, and self-estrangement are at work here. For example, the lack of information being given to followers contributes to a sense of powerlessness. But workers had no decision-making authority, so information was pointless anyway. Every aspect of the followers’ daily lives was dictated to them. In addition, they had no means of escape, so there was no incentive for those in authority to behave any differently. Any complaining only resulted in punishment.

Isolation (Acts of Isolation)

Jonestown had an atmosphere of isolation from the outset (Marley 1995, Layton 1998). People did not form close relationships beyond a certain point, because private thoughts confided in a weak moment could end up being relayed to Temple leaders. Such confessions of unhappiness or criticism were met with public humiliation or even more harsh punishment. Bob remembers going into one particular barracks that was supposed to be part of the infirmary. While inside, he saw a couple of members asleep in beds. The faces he saw were the faces of members that Jones had announced had chosen to leave the Temple – one of them months before. Layton corroborated this with her account of the special barracks where many outspoken, or complaining members were kept sedated, using the medications taken from other members as they arrived at the compound for the first time. Both Layton and Stroud reported feeling a sense of disconnectedness from the real goals of the organization. They felt like prisoners unrelated to the mission of the leaders. In this atmosphere of fear, emotional isolation was both a defense and a consequence.

Self-estrangement (Acts which Nullify Meaning)

Both Layton (1998) and Stroud (Marley 1995) recounted the many sleepless nights as Jones preached – or railed at them from loudspeakers all night long. Many of these all-night sessions included what Jones called “white night” drills. These were rehearsals for the mass suicide that was to eventually be real. Followers were awakened in the night by the sound of Jones voice calling them to come. They did as they were told and lined up to drink a fruit punch without question. While there is obvious overlap with meaninglessness, in an existential sense, self-estrangement includes a complete loss of the ability to find self-reward in one’s work and a loss of individuality. These people became drones with no other purpose than to do as they were told. There was no creative expression – that would have been viewed as selfish (Layton 1998). Another interesting example of the lack of value of the individual will be described below, because it best exemplifies normlessness, in addition to demonstrating self-estrangement.

Normlessness / Uncertainty (Acts which Nullify Norms)

Inarguably the entire Jonestown experience was about normlessness and uncertainty. The following examples demonstrate this. One day while in Jonestown, Bob had a serious accident in the jungle (Marley 1995). While riding through the jungle on the running board of a truck, Bob fell and broke his leg in several places. Apparently the truck hit a pothole and Bob was bounced off. Because the mission is more important than the man, Bob was left on the roadside so that the others could continue whatever mission they were to attend to. Bob was later picked up and eventually transported to a hospital for treatment. Certainly this demonstrates how rules for social conduct had broken down at Jonestown. In pursuit of organizational goals, rules were adopted that seem ludicrous to the average person. On any given day, what those followers did by leaving Bob in the jungle might be seen as correct or as a dreadful sin. They routinely had goals that – if achieved – were implicitly tied to ambiguous rules.

Other examples include the way members learned to turn each other in for expressing any anti-Temple sentiments (Marley 1995). The general culture from which these people came tends to frown on “snitching,” and people are expected to have close relationships with confidants. Because of the atmosphere of Jonestown, people learned to keep their mouths shut, tell no one their innermost thoughts, and turn in anyone too stupid to do the same because it might be a test! Jones had the members convinced that sometimes people would tell them things that they didn’t really feel in order to test their loyalty to the Temple. Failing to turn in the so-called traitor meant failing the test and putting oneself in jeopardy.

Bob said that Jones became increasingly paranoid in the jungle and that it was common for members to be sent on missions with only one person knowing what they were going to do until it was absolutely necessary (Marley 1995). The “White Nights” occurred more and more often with followers never knowing whether or not the punch would be poisoned for real that time. Members never knew when a private thought confided was genuine or a test from Jones.

When the mass suicides did actually occur, Bob was in Guyana’s capital city Georgetown with Stephan and his brother, Jim, Jr., who were on the Jonestown basketball team playing in a tournament. The morning before Rep. Leo Ryan arrived in Jonestown, Jim Jones’ wife Marceline came to Bob and told him that he had another appointment with the doctor who had fixed his leg. Bob was surprised – he knew of no appointment. Marceline told him that there was a truck leaving for the city in an hour, and insisted that he be on it.

Bob stayed at Lamaha Gardens, the Peoples Temple headquarters in Georgetown. Sharon Amos, a loyal follower, maintained the house and lived there with her two young children and teenage daughter (Marley 1995, Layton 1998). Bob was asleep in the house on the evening of November 18, when he heard screams and a door slamming. It sounded like the children. By the time Bob hobbled through the house and found the source of the noise, it was too late. In the bathroom were the bloodied bodies of all four. (Layton’s version reported that the mother cut the throats of her younger children, and with the help of the older daughter, she then cut her own throat. Last, the teenager cut her own throat.)

Bob made his way to the radio room to speak to Jones out at the jungle compound, but no one responded, which was alarming because there was always someone manning the radio at both ends (Marley 1995, Layton 1998). Bob said his next coherent memory was that of U.S. government agents raiding the house and taking him and others into custody. It was from those agents that Bob learned of the fate all of the other Temple followers.

Status and Prestige

The only element of alienation that is even remotely questionable is that of the differences in levels of alienation among the highest levels of prestige and status. From the two accounts, it is clear that many people experienced alienation. Bob and Deborah certainly did. It is interesting to note that Deborah Layton’s job was at the heart of the operation of the Temple up until her escape months prior to the suicide. Deborah was responsible for making bank deposits and transfers, many of which had to be done in person, in foreign countries, wearing disguises to make her look older than she was. Sometimes she carried huge amounts of cash on her body onto airplanes (Layton 1998). She achieved the highest level of status and prestige within the organization. And yet, she eventually saw through the organization and made her escape. Jones told followers that she ran away with a lot of the Temple’s money (Marley 1995). Layton insists that she barely made it out of the country for lack of money (Layton 1998).

But while Layton ran, others, such as Carolyn Layton and Annie Moore, were even higher in the organization than Deborah Layton. They were confidants and intimates of Jones who, by the accounts of Layton and Stroud, never showed any signs of disillusionment or alienation. They stayed and died with Jones (Reiterman 1998).

Centralization and Formalization

The last elements or variables associated with alienation involve the degree of centralization of authority and the degree of formal rules and structure. These are structural factors that occur at the organizational level – the factors that contribute to Marx’s loss of control of work product and means and processes of production. The accounts of Layton and Stroud are filled with details that allude to centralized authority. Both reported that only the inner circle had very much information (Marley 1995, Layton 1998). Orders were given behind closed doors to middle level “counselors” who then passed on the orders to the followers. Questioning decisions was not an option. Disallowing such input from those involved is central to organizational alienation.

Formalization in the Jonestown operation is demonstrated by the lack of deviation allowed from Jones’ rules. The mere existence of “learning crews” and secret barracks of sedated followers makes it very clear that the structure was firmly in place to deal with any straying from the goals of the leaders.


The interviews of Robert Stroud go into much greater detail than this project will allow. But even from such a brief overview, it is evident that – at least in the case of Jonestown – Durkheim was right. Jim Jones set up his model “utopia,” and then through mental illness, grandiosity and/or paranoia, he destroyed it before it ever really came into being. Perhaps part of his reasoning in its destruction was the private revelation that, as Durkheim had predicted, Jones had created that which he sought to flee. What we know is that he could not resist the temptations of control and superiority. So while he espoused openness, he behaved with greed and secrecy. While he lectured on giving according to ability and need, he took while others suffered. While he enticed new followers with a sense of belonging, he rewarded them with a profound sense of isolation and meaninglessness.

“Part of the blame lies with the student, because too much obedience, devotion and blind acceptance spoils the teacher. Part also lies with the spiritual master because he lacks the integrity to be immune to that kind of vulnerability.” Dalai Lama (Goldhammer 1996).

“So let us be alert – alert in a two-fold sense: Since Auschwitz we know what man is capable of. And since Hiroshima we know what is at stake.” Viktor Frankl (1984).

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