Monday, September 4, 2017

American Utopians

Michael J. Lewis has an excellent long review at First Things of several recent books on America's Utopian experiments; I highly recommend the whole thing for anyone interested in those strange sects. Here he is on Chris Jennings' Paradise Now:
Jennings profiles these four well-known communal societies [the Shakers, Oneida, Brook Farm, and New Harmony] as well as Icaria, the little-known French utopia that settled in Nauvoo, Illinois, after the Mormons moved out. They were startling in their diversity, veering between secular socialism and radical Christianity, democracy and autocracy, free love and celibacy. But they also had a great deal in common. Private property was abolished and all possessions were held communally; new recruits would sell what they owned and hand over the proceeds when they entered. (Members of Oneida who resigned would be given back their contribution, without interest.) Life and labor were communal, as in a monastery, and the building types that emerged were distinctly monastic: communal dormitories and refectory-like dining halls. They also tended to adopt distinctive forms of dress and hairstyles to distinguish themselves from the outside world. Finally, all of these communities insisted on the equality of the sexes, although they enacted it in different ways—the Shakers by the segregation of the sexes in work and administration, the Oneidans by freely mixing them or inverting traditional sex roles.

Jennings is an engaging writer, and his account of the curious practices of these societies makes for entertaining reading. At Icaria, for example, a 6 a.m. bugle call started the day, and “right out of bed, the men all took a single shot of whiskey before heading for the fields and workshops.” At Oneida, the women abjured makeup, cut their hair short, and wore a specially designed “uniform of a vital society.” And there is no end of amusing prohibitions in the obsessively comprehensive Millennial Laws of the Shakers: no pets, no rugs, no indiscriminate mixing of plants in the garden, and no more than one rocking chair in a room (simultaneous rocking being suggestive of carnality). In all of this is a certain plaintive earnestness that is the inevitable by-product of the attempt to sweep away all of existing society, habits, and customs, and to invent an entirely new social order overnight.
The 21st century has seen a resurgence of interest in these Utopian experiments for reasons that Lewis explains very well. Both Thomas Moore's original Utopia (1516) and the surge or experiments in early 19th century America happened at times when profound economic changes were shaking up communities and depriving thousands of their livelihoods:
All this is spelled out in the first of Utopia’s two books, which most readers skip to get to More’s diverting description of his island republic. But this prelude is essential to understanding the purpose of the book. More understood that the supply of labor, the price of grain, the distribution of land, and the rule of law made up a seamless fabric. One could not tamper with one without affecting all. Piecemeal reforms could treat symptoms, but not heal the system itself. That system, of course, was modern capitalism, which was beginning to sweep away the feudal structure of European society and to convert land from something vested with social, customary, and legal attributes into a mere capital good. And this More lamented: “While Money is the Standard of all other Things, I cannot think that a Nation can be governed either justly or happily.” Utopia was his thought experiment in imagining a society that was governed justly and happily, precisely because it did not rely on money.

It is the fey coincidence of history that the economic developments that had disturbed More would culminate at the precise moment that a field opened for the kind of daring social experiment he proposed. Just as the Industrial Revolution was convulsing the Western world, the United States offered a kind of tabula rasa for the building of new towns and new societies, largely independent of the prying eyes of church and state.
And this, to Lewis, explains why the interest in Utopian experiments is to strong in our time: because millions of people are profoundly dissatisfied with our economic arrangements and looking around for radical alternatives. I share the interest in new ideas about how we might reorganize our world, but I very much doubt the answers are to be found in the constitutions of obscure religious sects, or among the abandoned buildings of failed utopias.


David said...

To think that all that ingenuity and bizarreness really just comes down to economics is pretty dreary. And doesn't explain the separatist and utopian communities that spring up in non-capitalist societies.

It seems to me that part of this is about escaping the rigors of human social existence--interpersonal competition, the need to manage a cross-cutting web of social obligations, the requirement to conform oneself to the unspecified, unwritten, ever-shifting expectations of others (or to master and change them by interpersonal competition), the possibility of failure and demotion--that obtain in any social setting, and not just the problems of a given economic system as such. The tragedy of such groups is that mortal life, and the internal contradictions of the human psyche, do not permit the kind of security they are seeking.

In terms that First Things might appreciate, one could say that Lewis is writing from an Aquinean perspective, and I'm writing from an Augustinian one.

John said...

Certainly in our own time it does not just come down to economics; the people interested in these utopias are not the ones being thrown out of work by manufacturing decline. In our time this has more to do with moral dissatisfaction than money. Many educated Americans are unhappy that they have to choose between throwing themselves into the capitalist meritocracy and clawing their way to a good slot, or trying some other path and ending up feeling irrelevant and left out. People are looking for a system that feels both more fair for everyone and less corrupting for themselves.

David said...

Actually, it seems to me that the MAGA movement is, in some sense, a utopian one. So, to the extent that those thrown of work by manufacturing decline, or those who feel threatened by it, populate MAGA, MAGA is partly an economics-inspired utopian movement.

I guess my original point was that utopianism, escapism, self-exile, etc., all represent in part responses to a perennial and fundamentally unsolvable human condition, as much as they are responses to any particular system or circumstances (economic or otherwise). You can't design the society or reform the economy or whatever to such a pitch of perfection that no movement will dream of escaping it (or tearing it down, etc.).

Also I just rebel against pat explanations like, "Oneida was about people threatened by the new capitalism." Not that you were trying to make such an explanation, but Lewis seems to be.

Shadow said...

There is rigor, repetition, drudgery, and group think in the cult too, probably more so, and there is less free will. There doesn't have to be a hierarchy in control. Social pressure fills the void quite nicely -- de facto enforcement of unwritten rules, what's proper behavior and what's not. And it can be quite unforgiving. I've never understood cults except as a social mechanism to escape personal responsibility, to escape making difficult decisions, and to escape worrying about what the future holds. How boring. Yes, you can leave at your leisure, but while there you are essentially trading your free will for a deterministic way of life. Try a retreat instead.