Fear Not Utopia



Our presidential candidates have been called many things. but visionary is rarely used to describe them. Trump offers us what at best can be called a nostalgic vision, a promise to return America to some ill-defined golden age before society became a hellish nightmare. The promise to make America great again conveniently avoids the many ways in which the country, despite its remarkable achievements, has been not-so-great for many. Clinton offers us a vision of a better society through the protection and slight expansion of New Deal and Great Society legislation. Not fully able to grasp “the vision thing,” she serves up a litany of incremental improvements (increases in the minimum wage, disincentives for corporation relocations outside our borders, pathways to citizenship for illegal immigrants) that are designed to remind us that social and economic progress are not dead. She proposes modifications to but not great overhaul to the neoliberal vision that has benefitted many but has also disadvantaged many too, many of whom find The Donald a vehicle for their disappointment and anger.

Although some of Trumps proposals (building the wall, lowering tags on the super-wealthy) are labelled as irresponsible pipe dreams, no one would attach the word utopian to what he proposes, in large part because many doubt that the man has an earnest or unselfish bone in his body. Utopian, more frequently used today as a stigma or a term of approbation, has been attached to the ideas of Bernie Sanders. Commentators dismissed his candidacy because his allegedly utopian  ideas (like the disempowering of Wall Street, much more stringent environmental regulation) fly in the face of the possible (Wall Street can’t be regulated, our economy is dependent upon lax environmental control desires of competitive businesses). The new economic paradigm that undergirds Sanders’s proposals is far too European to be grafted onto American culture. Somehow a socialist is a threat, despite the fact that we are a quasi-socialist nation.

Using a wider lens, we find the word utopia has been discredited by 20th century history, by events large and small. The grand projects to socially engineer the species for a brave new world — Nazism; Russian, Chinese and Cambodian Communism – have produced millions of dead. Experimental, alternative communities lead by cultish figures – David Koresh of the Branch Dividians, Jim Jones of Jonestown – have disintegrated and taken a human toll. We are right to be suspicious of the grand idea.

Where are the utopian projects today? Certainly not in the world of the social media entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley who have promised a radically improved way of conducting human relationships. Not in the high-security gated suburban communities where people choose to live with others much like themselves and banish any threats to their serenity. Nor in the new-urbanist, faux “old town” of Seaside, Florida, the location for the satirical The Truman Show. Possibly in the tribe of Grateful Dead devotees who follow Phish around the country.

Yet, the idea of utopian visioning (and the realities that can flow from the dream) should not be readily dismissed. Furthermore, the widespread utopian projects of Antebellum America (America from 1800 to the Civil War) are worth reading about, especially at a time when America is looking for new models of social and economic organization, ones that will preserve the planet, ameliorate public strife, and achieve better levels of personal happiness.

At least that’s the goal of Erik Reese, an environmental journalism and English professor at the University of Kentucky, in his work Utopia Drive: A Road Trip Through America’s Most Radical Idea.

If you want a recent (2016) work of historical scholarship, one in which the writer is not as present as his subject, I can highly recommend Paradise Now: The Story of American Utopianism Chris Jennings. Both writers cover the most prominent of utopian projects (Shaker Communities, New Harmony, Brook Farm, Oneida) and even some less well-known communities. Both have read the histories of these places and infuse their accounts with their knowledge of the main intellectual currents of the time. What makes Reese’s work the more enjoyable, but by no means less informative, are the accounts of his visits to and immersion in these historical places that figure so prominently in the history of American utopia. We’re invited along on Reece’s three week journey

Also,  his deviations from the main road are as delightful as they are unexpected. One is not surprised that one of the destinations of his road trip is Concord, Massachusetts and Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond. But on his way to Boston, he makes a detour to Utopia Parkway in the New York borough of Queens, to visit the house in which the artist-fabricator Joseph Cornell created his visionary box art, and to a converted warehouse in the same vicinity where an artists’ commune, drawn to cheat rent and big spaces to work in, are cross-pollinating ideas in the manner of the many artists, poets, and sculptors who gathered in Montparnasse at the turn of the previous century. He also examines the workings of a long-standing modern day commune, Twin Oaks, in Louisa County, Virginia. The spirit of Woodstock, with some modifications, endures.

One utopian community in particular gets considerable attention from both Jennings and Reece. Oneida (New York) has a special attraction and potency because for a number of reasons: it was one of the longest-standing experiments (more than three decades starting in 1847); because its founder, John Humphrey Noyes was the most sensible, prudent, and adaptable of all of the founders; and because it offers us some of the best models for re-imaging our world.

Reece offers us a matrix for understanding the varieties of utopian projects, historical and contemporary. There is the solitude-solidarity continuum and the escape-restructuring continuum. Thoreau is very much in the solitude/escape area because his withdrawal to Walden underscored his belief that social transformation was primarily if not exclusively the result of personal rehabilitation. The religious Shakers of Mother Ann Lee can be placed in the solidarity/escape area because their ambitions were the salvation of the community’s souls. Their eyes were set on the next world, not this one.

Although trained as a minister, Noyes led a decidedly secular project. Indeed, he says the principal impediments to personal happiness, communal well-being, and social progress as the mutually reinforcing factors of marriage, property ownership/capitalism, and religion, the propagator of harmful superstitions. While the religious Shakers banned sexuality as a way of elevating women to equal status as men, Noyes sought to de-emphasize marriage and to liberate both sex and child-rearing from monogamous coupling, a social practice detrimental to the formation of community spirit. A socialist approach to economy – the elimination of personal property — also strengthened community bonds.

Because Noyes was much more scrupulous about admissions to his community than was Robert Owens, the founder of the New Harmony community in Indiana, there were few cases of opportunists and parasites. Like many of the other utopian communities which place an emphasis on being self-sustaining ecosystems, the Oneida community participated in the wider regional and national economy, selling not only agricultural products but also steel animal traps. The traps were invented by one of the members and the Oneida workers manufactured thousands of these devices useful in the Western expansion of the US. A sophisticated workplace organization enabled the community to mobilize to take advantage of season demand and special circumstances. The spirit of the project lives on in the 20th and 21st centuries; the worker-owned business manufactures very popular flatware that graces American dinner tables.

But Oneida could not endure. The charismatic founder, John Noyes, left the operation to his less-imaginative son. The Civil War, in which more than a million Americas died, made it hard to think about a perfect place in a blood-soaked land. Furthermore, the image of the community in the court of public opinion suffered when the Victorian morals police succeeded in branding as decadent Noyes’s “open marriage” philosophy and his plan to initiate the young into the pleasurable rather than the procreative purposes of sexuality..

Equally fascinating is Jennings’ account of the history of Brook Farm where the writer Nathaniel Hawthorne spent some times and which he used as the setting for his fictional The Blithedale Romance. So too Reece’s presentation on Modern Times, an “equitable commerce” community on Long Island that started four years after the collapse of Brook Farm. The names of the respective founders, George Ripley and Josiah Warren, should be much better known to Americans.

There is no question that Reece finds Noyes’s life remarkable and his answers to the persistent utopian question “how should we live?” instructive. Reece brings to his expedition the zeal of a 60s activist, especially when it comes to environmental affairs, a topic which is his journalist’s specialization. He finds in the philosophies and practices of the 19th century utopians alternative approaches to our frantic consumer culture that depends on the accelerated use of the planet’s depleting resources. He admires the ways in which these utopians challenged the dominant assumptions of the times.

If asked to recommend a book for our new President – most likely Ms. Clinton who much more than Trump would have a disposition to reading history – I would recommend Utopia Drive.

About Dr. Michael Cunningham

Dr. Michael Cunningham is Professor Emeritus in English.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *