In Search of Utopia

Posted: February 8, 2016 in Uncategorized
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I have been reading Chris Jennings’ wonderful new book, Paradise Now: The Story of American Utopianism (Random House, 2016). 19th century America was filled with all manner of utopian movements, some that lasted a long time and others that were short-lived. The founders of each of the movements often had similar practical hopes but held them for different reasons. They often knew of the existence of other movements and in fact studied the pros and cons of others in an attempt to best found or improve their own.

Many had religious millennial expectations that the close of the age was near and pulled apart to create a faithful, ordered harmonious community in waiting. Others were purely secular, not only founding their ideal community for this-worldly reasons but naming religion as the problem. Most of them, in the effort to create a way of life that was a beautiful one, pulled apart from dominant culture and pursued a communal method of sharing property and responsibility and restructured typical familial relationships.

To consider the commonality and dissimilarity of movements, simply compare and contrast two utopian experiments. The Shakers and the followers of Fourier both believed that conventional understandings of marriage and family were a part of the problem and needed to change. But their prescriptions as to the reform were very different.

The Shakers, following Mother Ann, embraced celibacy. Men and women were strictly regulated in repressing any erotic inclinations. They were divided into separate dormitories. Children were raised by all adults in their own separate area.

The Fourier project dissolved traditional marriage and monogamy and believed that a more libertine approach to sexual desire was healthiest for all. This included a variety of sexual experiments and combinations.

Both of these utopian experiments thrived for a while. And they both came to an end for a variety of reasons.

The points of departure in this history are endless, but I would like to focus on one.

The industrialist and visionary Robert Owen created a utopian society in Indiana – New Harmony – an endeavor he could fulfill in the British Isles. His social progressiveness for workers was legendary. But his project to reform all of British society failed when it encountered a lack of support and great resistance. He bought an already existing settlement in America, one that had been developed by a German religious sect called the Rappities (following George Rapp). Theirs was a millennial movement that was very successful in this world as well. They eventually relocated back to Pennsylvania – not because they failed – but because their prophet thought it was time to move.

Robert Owen’s vision was for an Enlightenment, reason-oriented, community of learning, science, the arts and progressive education. He attracted free thinkers from everywhere. But his community failed after three years. It was simply not organized sufficiently to support all of its enlightened citizens. There are many causes that contributed to this failure, but I want to lift up one great contradiction.

Owen felt that three major social traditions contributed to distension and social misery: Private property, traditional marriage and religion. As far as religion goes he claimed that it was the bane of every civilized society. Eliminate religion and replace it with reason and your problems are over. The truth of the matter is that his secular community was filled with dissension and polarization. There were no clear lines of authority or a central highest value – other than humanity’s progress – that could unite them.

His predecessor’s community – the Rappites – was highly successful in almost every way. In fact, Owen lauded it for its accomplishments. It would be perfect, he said, if it weren’t for all the religious funny business. Whether one could subscribe to the Rappite beliefs – and few could – the combination of a shared religious perspective and mission, strong leadership that was accepted (like the Shakers), and German cultural identity and industriousness, made it work.

All of this is to say that whatever evil twisted religion brings to the world, and it has, it is certainly not the sole cause of disunity. One can’t blame it for everything. Owen didn’t know it, but his secular failure was evidence for the contrary; it is human nature that is always the problem.

A closing thought. There is a common perception that Utopianism is always propelled by fanciful imaginations and naive idealism. It might be propelled by those things in part – especially in some of the religious forms. But in almost every case of 18th-19th century Utopian movements they arose against a backdrop of social misery. The rise of depersonalized industrialization and the suffering masses often set the stage for wanting something different, another way to construe life. To understand the Shakers, for instance, you need to begin not with their ordered and prosperous communities, but with their origins in sooty, sickening, hopeless Manchester, England. There in the midst of the factories of despair and illness and injury and poverty arose the conviction that God would provide another way. I end with Jennings’ words that put it much better:

“It is common to attribute Utopianism to a surfeit of optimism, but the desire to totally overhaul civilization implies a fairly cynical view of the world as it is. Imagining a perfect future is, almost by definition, a way to organize grievances with the here and now.”(153)

Understanding this provides the right perspective to understand what came to be called the “Social Gospel” religious movement of the early 20th century. Surely God has better plans for this world than what what we see before us. And whether you believe this is tied to the consummation of history as we know it or mandates a pulling apart to create an ideal human society, there arises the conviction that the liberating and redeeming God is not satisfied with the massive suffering that characterizes so much that we have come to accept as normal.

 

 

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