Chapter two narratives

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Utopias are forward looking and motivated by reformist, even revolutionary projects. The distinction between utopias and golden ages is nevertheless not hard and fast as the Garden of Eden and Hesiod’s golden age have occasionally been mobilized for reformist ends.74 These two kinds of narratives are connected in another sense: it is difficult to imagine utopias in the absence of the inspiration provided by golden ages.75 Utopias do not arise spontaneously in cultures with no tradition of golden ages.

Ernst Bloch considers utopias a means of expressing the belief that something is wrong or missing in present-day life.76 Other discourses also serve this function. In my view, what most effectively distinguishes utopias from golden ages is their starting assumption that people can make the future better than the present. Utopias are offered as model societies in which individual happiness and collective harmony are achieved by means of institutions and practices that rest on and reinforce what their authors depict as universal human traits and aspirations. They invariably incorporate the principle of equality and de-emphasize material goods and their use as status symbols.77 In some utopias, property and women are held communally.78 Utopian authors often assert or imply that their imaginary worlds are realizable in practice; this is a common feature of nineteenth century socialist utopias. Others are offered as ideal type worlds that can provide inspiration and direction for improving, although never perfecting, the societies in which authors and readers reside. George Logan astutely observes that utopias, like their golden age predecessors, assume that a world without evil is impossible so long as competition over property and sexual partners exists.79

The first utopias are Greek. Homer’s account of Phaeacia in the Odyssey has utopian characteristics. It is isolated, rich, peaceful, offers boundless hospitality to visitors and plies the sea in ships that do not need rudders because they are steered by men’s thoughts.80 Plato’s Republic offers the first detailed depiction of a utopia. His Socrates acknowledges early on that the Republic is nowhere on earth but in heaven.81 Like most utopias, it is explicitly based on a set of underlying assumptions about human nature, needs and motives and the corresponding belief that they can be harmonized with the right institutions, practices and indoctrination.

Plato’s Kallipolis is more sophisticated than many subsequent utopias in three important ways. He addresses the problem of origins: how one gets to a near-perfect society from the deeply flawed one in which creator and readers reside. Plato acknowledges the difficulty of this transformation by introducing the noble lie. To hide their society’s human design and encourage loyalty to the city by all its citizens, the founders agree to tell subsequent generations that they are all brothers “born of the earth.”82 This lie also serves as the basis for collective as opposed to individual identities. Plato recognizes that Kallipolis cannot be isolated permanently from contact with the outside world and that some of these contacts will be hostile, especially if the republic is successful, increases in population and needs to conquer additional territory.83 Most importantly, he understands that societies are never static and will evolve regardless of rules and precautions introduced by their creators and enforced by their guardians. The last two characteristics would hasten the dissolution of Kallipolis. Innate curiosity and contact with foreigners would introduce new ideas and provide incentives for change and corruption.

Plato’s Kallipolis is unusual in another respect. It is less a model for society than for the individual. Plato describes a city but offers it as a collective representation of a well-ordered human psyche, with its philosophers embodying the drive of reason. The constitution Plato lays down for Kallipolis is similar in all important respects to what he believes is best for the individual. That constitution is derived from first principles by philosophers whose wisdom comes from their holistic understanding of the good. They know how to order the life of the polis to the benefit of all citizens regardless of their particular skills and intellectual potential. They rely on guardians to impose correct opinion on the polis and enforce its rules, including its provision of denying citizens, as far as possible, contact with outsiders.84 Plato and Aristotle -- and Rawls, if we want a contemporary example -- offer their fictional worlds as ideal ones toward which we must aspire, individually and collectively, but which we are unlikely ever to achieve. Their worlds serve as templates that we can use to measure how our lives and societies live up to our principles. As Plato might put it, even imperfect knowledge of a form can motivate citizens and cities to work towards its actualization. Partial progress can generate enough virtue to sustain reasonable order in both.

In antiquity, all utopias are agricultural. They have small populations, hierarchical political structures and do little more than meet the minimum material needs of their inhabitants.85 In other ways they are quite radical. Kallipolis extends equality to women and does away with the traditional family. Iambulus’ Heliopolis is an island populated by almost hairless, ambidextrous giants who live in kinship groups and are furnished with all of their needs by a bounteous nature. In each kin-group, the oldest man serves as a king and is obeyed absolutely by his juniors.86 From our perspective, such societies are neither ideal nor just. Lewis Mumford observes that these imaginary worlds incorporate unpalatable features of their authors’ societies. “It was easier for these Greek utopians to conceive of abolishing marriage or private property than of ridding utopia of slavery, class domination and war.”87 Even Plato’s guardians live off of the involuntary labor of others, Moses Finley, a life-long socialist, hastens to point out.88 Utopias nevertheless provide political theory with access to abstract realms that offer vantage points on one’s own world. Not everyone was attracted to this strategy. The Stoics, who looked forward to the brotherhood of all men, at least in an abstract kind of way, turned their backs on society and utopias too for the most part.89

Modern utopias begin with Thomas More, who coined the word “utopia.” Born in London in 1478, he became a page in the household of Henry VII’s Lord Chancellor, John Morton. He was a lawyer, author, humanist scholar, and in the latter connection, a friend of Erasmus. He served as Lord Chancellor from 1529 to 1532, and in this position was responsible for burning numerous Protestants at the stake. He was beheaded in 1535 after refusing to sign the Act of Supremacy recognizing Henry VIII as Supreme Head of the Church in England. Utopia was conceived in Flanders in the summer of 1515, where More was serving as part of a trade mission. In Antwerp, Erasmus introduced him to Peter Giles, and the discussions in Utopia can reasonably be assumed to be a fictional elaboration of those between More and Giles.

In 1516, More published Utopia in Latin. An English edition appeared posthumously in 1551, and translations followed in other European languages before the end of the century. Utopia is a recently discovered island in the New World. The imaginary explorer who describes it is Raphael Hythloday; his surname is an invented compound that in Greek means “nonsense peddler.” Utopia is a compound word where the “u” stands for the Greek “ou,” signifying no or not, and the “topia” to “topos,” or place. Utopia means “no place” or “nowhere.” If we substitute the Greek prefix “eu” meaning “good” or “well,” for the “u,” it translates as “good” or “ideal” place.90 So More’s society should be understood as ideal but imaginary.

More models his commonwealth on Plato and Aristotle, both of whom regarded autarky as essential. He isolates his commonwealth and gives it sufficient, size, population and resources to make it entirely independent and powerful enough to protect its independence and even to establish a regional hegemony. Plato and Aristotle insist that the happiest life is one of virtue. This requires leisure for contemplation and, for Aristotle, civic participation as well. In the ancient world, such a life was only possible for a small elite, supported by the labor of many others. More breaks with his Greek mentors in banning private property and any kind of special privileges; in Utopia everyone works and shares a similar level of prosperity. Striking too, given its author's intensely partisan involvement in the religious controversies of his day, is the religious freedom of Utopia. All denominations, even the small Jewish community, are allowed free exercise of their faith, but atheists are not tolerated. In practice, religious freedom turns out to be meaningless because everyone is under enormous social pressure to participate in community rituals and is deprived of the interiority that make beliefs meaningful. Like Plato’s Republic, Utopia emphasizes the value of order and discipline, which is achieved and maintained at the expense of individual freedom. Utopia appears to resolve some of the key problems that plagued More’s Europe; nobody is hungry, homeless, ill-clothed or socially isolated, unless they are a criminal. More considers private property the source of all social ills. However, Utopia's communism is not intended as a coherent, workable program but as a vehicle for exposing the greed and selfishness of English society.

The commonwealth is egalitarian but authoritarian. The government periodically redistributes the population within families, cities and between Utopia and its colonies. There are no locks on doors, but little privacy and little to no down time. People are expected to spend their odd free hour listening to epistolary lectures or doing volunteer labor. There are no bars, coffee houses or private places for singles to meet. There is no sexual freedom beyond the choice of mates and stiff punishments are imposed for adultery. Sex is considered a lowly bodily activity akin to defecation and the scratching of itches. To travel, citizens need permission from the authorities. Everyone wears the same simple clothing and shame is brought to bear against people who sport finery or jewelry. This is part of the general strategy of reducing differences among individuals to deprive them of individuality. Sameness is stressed in clothing, food, architecture and the layout of deliberately interchangeable cities. There are, however, hierarchical distinctions between generations and genders. Utopus aside, we never learn the name of a single citizen. To their credit, Utopians detest war, get on well with neighbors, but are not above colonial conquests to accommodate their growing population. They employ foreign mercenaries to do their fighting, indicating a double standard with regard to citizens and outsiders and undoubtedly leading to social conflicts that never surface in the book. More’s ethics represent something of a fusion of Stoic and Epicurean beliefs. He relies on the epicurean rule of choosing the greater over the lesser pleasure, for individuals and the state.

Toward the end of the book, More acknowledges that many of Utopia's customs are absurd and others he would “wish rather than expect to see.”91 He does not believe that good institutions or leaders with good advisors can solve pressing social problems because they are manifestations of the underlying tensions and inequalities of society. Hythloday offers the example of capital punishment for theft, arguing that people will continue to steal as long as they are hungry, and they will be hungry as long as aristocrats and their retainers exploit their labor to provide income for foppish luxuries.92

Quentin Skinner was among the first to recognize that More’s Utopia is at odds with humanist orthodoxy and “embodies by far the most radical critique of humanism written by a humanist.93 Utopia, and the dialogue that precedes it, are vehicles for addressing contemporary ethical and political controversies. One of these concerns is the relationship between morality and expediency, which the Stoics believed could be reconciled. Machiavelli takes them to task in the Prince, written in 1513 but not published until 1532, in which he demonstrates that honestà is often at odds with utilitas. Only if the two could be made fully compatible, would it be possible to construct a commonwealth that would always act morally. Utopia might be regarded as a thought experiment and its loose ends taken as evidence -- admittedly, planted by the author --that morality and expediency can only be reconciled in part.

Stephen Greenblatt offers a more germane reading given my focus on identity.94 Following Burckhardt and Michelet, he argues that discourses in early modern Europe reveal a growing self-awareness of identity, something that can be shaped, manipulated and performed. More's History of Richard III indicates that role playing of this kind was widespread and that even ordinary people were not taken in by it, even if they had to pretend that they were. More used his notable political skills to achieve and hold onto the highest office in the land until the religious ground shifted underneath him.95 He would have agreed with Machiavelli that the social world was upheld by conventions in which nobody really believed. Humanist-inspired reforms were doomed to fail because political life was irrational, if not insane.

Utopia reveals More's deep unhappiness with his public and family lives and the roles that they compelled him to perform. He built a house in then rural Chelsea as a retreat where he could partially escape from his roles and develop his thoughts. Utopia explores the possibility of a more radical alternative. It takes social conditioning to a new level, leaving no possibility of inner retreat or the private spaces that make it possible. Privacy is prevented by the denial of free time, near-constant surveillance and social conditioning that encourages people to feel shame for seeking solitude or individuation in any form.96 More understands interiority and autonomy as distinguishing features of modernity. He is most sensitive to their negative consequences and designs a world that nips modernity in the bud. Inner life, with its potential for alienation and social disruption, is all but excluded. Utopia is a fantasy of self-annihilation that represents a figurative attempt to overcome the tension between its author's active inner life and his confining public roles. It is a self-serving fantasy in a second sense as More confided to Erasmus in a 1516 letter that he imagined that the Utopians elected him king in perpetuity. The egos of Utopians are destroyed to inflate that of their creator.97

The seventeenth century witnessed a very different kind of utopia with the publication of Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis. Written in 1626, it builds on Plato’s tale of the imaginary island of Atlantis.98 Bacon’s Atlantis, called Bensalem, is set in the “Southern Ocean” and possibly inspired by tales of Portuguese explorers about the New World. It represents a radical philosophical break with earlier utopias as its inhabitants use science and engineering to conquer nature and provide a longer, healthier and happier life. Following Bacon’s regimen of experimentation and inference, Bensalem’s citizens have developed techniques to isolate and protect themselves from outsiders and to control the weather and surrounding waters. As with the ancients, reason plays a central role, but of a very different kind. Its purpose is no longer to discover what constitutes the happy life, but to master nature and improve the human condition. More’s New Atlantis and Novum Organum are rebellions against Aristotelianism and its attempt to explain everything by means of deduction from first assumptions.

From our vantage point, New Atlantis, like Utopia, embodies a paradoxical ethical code. The sailors blown off course are allowed to come ashore and visit Bensalem only after they swear that they have not killed anyone within the last thirty days, even in self-defense. When freed from the quarantine, they encounter a generally benign and non-expansionist society that has learned to live with its neighbors and to incorporate occasional outsiders. The authorities are nevertheless prepared to kill anyone who does not assimilate effectively, and would execute sailors who violate their rules. Intended or not, New Atlantis encourages readers to conclude that science can be used “rationally” for benign and malign human ends. Bacon’s Great Instauration published in 1620, was intended as an introduction to the Novum Organum, his unfinished treatise on the scientific method. It was to be a comprehensive study of how science could produce knowledge about the physical and social world. Jerry Weinberger rejects Bacon’s claim that it was beyond his strength to finish this work. He maintains that Bacon left clues about his method for intelligent reader.99 This subterfuge was motivated by Bacon’s recognition, common to authors of later dystopias, that political science was the most dangerous science and had to be “secret and retired.”100

In Bacon’s New Atlantis, technology is treated as an unalloyed blessing. By the early nineteenth century, utopias offer sharply contrasting views on science and economic development. Some condemn them as the twin curses of modernity. Their authors create utopias by going back to what they imagine was a simpler, more satisfying, better regulated, pre-modern life-style. Louis Sébastien Mercier’s L’an deux mille Quatre Cent Quarante, published in 1771, outlaws foreign trade on the grounds that it stimulates desire for luxuries, the thirst for gold, sustains the slave trade and saps the health of the French people and their society. Snuff, coffee and tea, described as “natural poisons," are likewise banned. The transfer of scientific knowledge from country to country is nevertheless welcomed as an end in itself and not seen as a spur to economic development . In contrast, Henri Saint-Simon, in his “Sketch of a New Political System,” published in 1819, understands that technology and economic development go hand-in-hand. His House of Commons establishes a “Chamber of Invention,” whose 300 members are composed of scientists, engineers, poets and other writers, painters, sculptors, artists and musicians. Members with scientific and technical skill are expected to introduce and oversee new public works and other projects to increase France’s wealth and make the life of its citizens healthier and more enjoyable.101

Later in the century, the industrial revolution was the catalyst for a series of utopias that reveal even sharper disagreements about the benefits of technology and economic development. Almost all of their authors recognize the impracticality of small, isolated communities and most are deeply influenced by socialism.102 A little known but interesting example is Ignatius Donnelly’s Caesar’s Column. Published in 1890, it attributes all social and economic evils to borrowing with interest. Donnelly insists that usury benefits only the lender and a small number of borrowers, reducing all others to debt and bankruptcy. His future America outlaws borrowing and introduces other laws to prevent the concentration of wealth. There are still rich men, and the desire for honor is mobilized to encourage them to dispose of excess wealth in a socially productive way. Under the guidance of the government, they donate their money, to schools, hospitals, libraries, parks and amusement centers for the benefit the people. A statue of each donor is placed in a great national gallery to honor them in perpetuity. Donnelly’s understanding of economics is flawed, to say the least, but his insight that honor can induce charitable giving in a capitalist society is right on the money.

The backlash against industrialism found expression in art, architecture and other forms of literature. William Morris’ News from Nowhere, published in 1890, self-consciously explores these connections. Morris was a publisher, specializing in handcrafted editions, drawn to Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and later influenced by socialism. He used his wealth to support the newspaper of the Social Democratic Federation. He was fascinated by the pre-modern era, in which he convinced himself life was more purposeful and less corrupt. Two of his historical romances are about fifth century German tribes and full of praise for the fellowship and community of tribal democracy.103

News from Nowhere transforms London into a quasi-rural, pre-modern economy run along socialist lines where everyone has access to food, education, culture and the material possessions essential for a fulfilling life. There is no money or credit, but a collective joy in producing goods of high artistic quality and providing them to people who need and appreciate them. Young people receive a fundamental education, but little emphasis is put on “book learning.” Instead, people are taught agriculture and crafts. As people are happy, and there is only limited foreign exchange and intercourse, and there is no war and thus nor need for armies or fleets. Following the lead of the Pre-Raphaelites, Morris regards the Middle Ages as a kind of golden age. He idealizes it as a time when craftsmanship, the simple pleasures of life and tight-knit social relations flourished. His future Londoners dress in variants of medieval garb and live in houses with thatched roofs. Morris' utopia is modern in the sense that there is no class system, no differences among people in their standard of living, and remarkably for a Victorian, equal opportunity and treatment of women. He is ahead of his time in recognizing the horrendous effects of industrialization on the environment. His hero, who awakens in London in the distant future, is amazed to discover a clean Thames, teeming with wildlife, in which he can safely swim. There is a more general commitment by the society to minimize pollution and maintain green swards throughout the metropolis.

Some British and American authors wrote utopias that envisage positive benefits to technology and economic development, suitably regulated by radically reformed institutions. Looking Backward, 2000-1887 is arguably the most famous example of this genre. It became an instant best-seller and inspiration for numerous societies dedicated to political and economic reform. Its principal character, Julian West, is a young American who awakens after a century of hypnosis-induced sleep. His native Boston has been transformed into a quasi-suburban socialist utopia. Doctor Leete, his guide, explains how the quality of life has been significantly improved by drastically reducing the length of the working week. Nobody works before the age of twenty-one and everyone retires at forty-five with a reasonable pension and other impressive benefits. America’s industry is commonly owned and its products are distributed more or less equally to its citizens. Technology has not only facilitated production but has enhanced social and cultural life. People are able to listen to live concert performances in their homes through tubes that carry the sounds of music across town. Much free time is devoted to socializing in a manner that has not changed since the Victorian era. The “vacuum left in the minds of men and women by the absence of care for one's livelihood has been taken up by love.”104

Like Morris, Bellamy is sensitive to environmental issues. His Boston is unrecognizable to the recently awakened American because it is green, clean, well-laid out and populous but uncrowded. Bellamy perpetuates female subjugation. His women are brought up to be virginal, pious, domestic and deferential. They work in their own industrial army where they perform tasks “suitable” to their gender. They must be married and mothers to attain positions of authority, presumably because this makes them more acceptable to men. Looking Backward nevertheless appealed to women, even suffragists, and there were many female members of Bellamy clubs.105 Bellamy’s world is a dystopia for African-Americans, who are segregated and forced to perform menial labor.

Looking Backward looks forward in other ways. It invents readily available lines of personal credit, gigantic retail stores like Wal-Mart and the ability of distribution centers to deliver goods promptly to people’s homes. Following the program advocated by consumer cooperatives of Bellamy’s day, the cost of goods is reduced by cutting out “the middleman.” Bellamy was a committed socialist and wanted his book to show how the future he described was prefigured in contemporary developments.106 His socialist society has been brought about without acute class conflict, let alone revolution, making it utopian in the negative sense understood by Marx and Engels. Bellamy tells us nothing about how socialism was achieved or how it functions at the macro level. It is implicitly a command economy, with decisions about production, employment and distribution of goods made by bureaucracies. This economy functions smoothly in the novel, which seems unrealistic given our knowledge of the Soviet Union. The “industrial army” makes it evident that production is the core of the economy, which is anachronistic from the vantage point of a post-industrial world. Most troubling of all, Bellamy’s America is authoritarian. Labor is organized and disciplined like an army, propaganda is delivered directly into the home by the telephone and no organized opposition appears to be sanctioned.107

The most influential nineteenth century utopia was the set of scholarly discourses in which Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels elaborated their version of socialism: historical materialism. They sought to distance themselves from so-called utopians whose works, in their view, were mental exercises in which “Reason became the measure of everything” and inspired societies in which social leveling occurs “in its crudest form.”`108 In contrast to many utopian authors, Marx and Engels claim scientific justification for historical materialism, insisting that it was based on universal laws of historical development. Like so many utopians, they fail grapple with the question of how you get there from here. They insist on the need for revolution, but their extensive corpus of writings contains few thoughts about how socialism would be constructed and organized, how the state would wither away and, most importantly, how human consciousness would be transformed to make a communist world possible.109

Karl Mannheim suggests that ideologies and utopias fulfill different functions, although both have ideal origins. They are “incongruous with” prevailing life situations.110 Marx’s vision of socialism is much closer to anti-industrial utopias than either Marx or Engels were willing to recognize. It is well-ordered, and prosperous, without factories or war, yet humans have the kind of leisure and choices that allow them to develop their potential. Engel's language is positively utopian. “With the seizing of the means of production by society," he writes, "production of commodities is done away with, and simultaneously, the mastery of the product over the producer. Anarchy in social production is replaced by systematic, definite organization. The struggle for individual existence disappears. Then for the first time, man, in a certain sense, is finally marked off from the rest of the animal kingdom, and emerges from mere animal conditions of existence into really human ones.”111

Utopias spawned numerous critiques. Some emphasize the literary limitations of the genre. From More’s Utopia to Huxley’s Island, utopias tend to be didactic works with long instructional speeches or dialogues and turgid descriptions of institutions. Pedagogy is given primacy over plot. Utopias are invariably static; their social, economic and political institutions, practices and values are frozen on the grounds of perfection.112 There is no conflict or dissension, only near-universal satisfaction, and uncertainty of all kinds is replaced by personal and collective security. This thoroughly unrealistic tranquility is based on the belief, common to utopias, that human needs and aspirations are fully compatible and can be satisfied or harmoniously channeled by appropriate institutions. Utopias also rest on the all-important corollary that human beings have the insight and political skill to design, bring into being, manage and fine tune the array of institutions and practices that produce social harmony and human fulfillment.

Ortega y Gasset and Karl Popper accuse utopian thinking of laying the intellectual foundations for totalitarianism.113 Utopias can hardly be held responsible for the social-economic conditions that enabled psychopathic leaders like Lenin, Mussolini and Hitler to gain and consolidate power. They have nevertheless been consistently authoritarian. They put extraordinary trust in intellectuals – whether guardians, scientists or philosophers -- and severely restrict personal freedom as it is considered a threat to order and stability. Even post-World War II utopias, whose authors should have known better, reveal this kind of naïveté. In B. F. Skinner’s, Walden Two, published in 1948, the chief utopian planner Frazier rather smugly explains: “When a science of behavior has once been achieved, there's no alternative to a planned society. . . . We can't leave the control of behavior to the unskilled.”114 Judith Skhlar aptly observes that in utopias “Truth is single and only error is multiple.”115

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