Reading about the bizarre practices of religious groups like the Shakers, the Rappites, and the Oneida, or the largely secular, socialist communities such as Robert Owen's New Harmony or Josiah Warren's Modern Times, you get the sense that the United States was in its late 20s and needed to figure out what the fuck it was going to do with its life, and so it moved out to Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana to start experimenting with communal living.
These kinds of communities "fail" for several reasons. An influential leader dies and internecine conflict dissolves the group. The logical end of celibacy asserts itself. Loafers and layabouts overrun the joint. But Reece is more interested in what we can learn from their attempts to realize earthly heavens.
Utopias, past and present: why Thomas More remains astonishingly radical
The freshest idea in the book is the notion that making small changes in local economies can render global financial markets and certain sectors of the government irrelevant, and without too much fuss or libertarian grandstanding, either. Reece cites the recent development of BerkShares, an alternative local currency in Massachusetts, and cooperative companies such as Ohio's Evergreen Collective, which prioritize people and the environment over profits, as examples of present-day applications of early utopian ideas.
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I'd add Seattle artist Natasha Marin's reparations project, Reparations. Why wait for the Feds—or even the city council—to propose a system designed to partially repair race relations in this country? Or to distribute organic produce to food deserts?
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Build a website. See what happens. I hear the argument that the relatively small number of people who participate in these radical work-arounds might be less inclined to vote for economic reforms that affect larger populations.
The Importance of Utopian Thinking
That, perhaps, is why the genre remains so appealing: it has always been slightly smoke-and-mirrors, a bit of a guessing game about how serious the proposition actually was. But utopianism is an academic parlour game precisely because it can be divisive, entertaining and challenging. What would utopian dreaming, in , look like? Would our concerns be the same as those of More , or very different?
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Presumably the impossible dream of many is now the redemption of a scarred and suffocating planet; or maybe global peace or the eradication of religion. That interface between politics and utopianism is where the game gets interesting. Utopianism is like the manifesto we would write if no one were watching, if all the rules could be rewritten by just one, benevolent dicatator.
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One constant has been the vexed question of the family. From Plato onwards, writers have fantasised about a universal brotherhood in which blood allegiances are replaced by infinite goodwill.
Everyone strokes and investigates whatever comes to hand and surrenders himself or herself to the unfettered impulses of simple nature. Each participant flits from one person to another, bestowing kisses everywhere with as much eagerness as rapidity. Both were working in that fertile ground shared by utopians and politicians, where radical dreams might just germinate in the soil of the real world. Many writers, of course, have gone on to be — in major and minor ways — utopian pioneers. William Morris was forever dreaming up, and putting into practice, better ways of living, as well as writing News From Nowhere, another utopian fantasy.
But when the game moves from something on paper to a reality put on land with non-fiction human beings, there are often disasters. The Brixton cult where the Maoist cult leader Aravindan Balakrishnan raped and abused followers is just the most recent and glaringly horrible example of what happens when a dictator gets going. News stories have forever reiterated the pitfalls of utopianism. It was there, in Michigan, he stumbled upon New Buffalo, the community that became his home for almost a decade.
In , speculative lending in the Western U. The dollar deflated. Mills in Lowell, Massachusetts, attracted women who worked to hour days. There was this sense of dehumanization. The social ennui created conditions not unlike those in the s.
The Dark Side of Techno-Utopianism
During the s, as many as 84 different utopian communities popped up across the country. It was one of the most volatile decades in American history, according to Sterling. A correspondent revolution in things will attend the influx of the spirit. Ripley and Alcott would go on to create two different societies, one influential, the other infamous, and both terribly ephemeral.
SparkNotes: Utopia: Geography and History of Utopia
In , Ripley left his post as an influential minister. The project was forever on shaky financial footing, however. Courting the fad for the utopian socialist thought of French philosopher Charles Fourier in what was partly an attempt to get funding and attention, the community began the construction of a massive Phalanstery in At the time, people lived at Brook Farm, and the situation had begun to look bleak.
Some complained about the newly strict conversion to Fourierist doctrine. A November outbreak of smallpox briefly quarantined the community and shuttered the school. In , the uninsured Phalanstery burned to the ground in a fire. One year later, six years after its founding, Brook Farm closed. In , Amos Bronson Alcott decided to found Fruitlands , a community based on strict vegetarianism and ascetic living—no hot water, no artificial light, no animal labor.
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