Ameritopia Revisited

Ameritopia is a recent book by the conservative political writer and radio commentator Mark Levin. Though the book made the New York Times bestseller list, it has largely been ignored by mainstream media. This is a shame, not because Levin provides us with anything radically new on the subject of utopia, but because his view is poised to become the prism through which a large number of Americans define the very idea of utopia, and therefore what this idea means to America’s past, present and future. A more balanced reading of America’s utopian history might permit Americans, whatever their political stripe, to take something positive from our utopian heritage.

Levin structures his book by taking four authors as exemplary of the utopian mind-set: Plato, Thomas More, Hobbes and Karl Marx and contrasting them to what he believes to be thinkers in the anti-utopian camp: Montesquieu, John Locke, James Madison and Alexis de Tocqueville. Plato, More, Hobbes and Marx respectively represent rule by an intellectual elite (guardians), the suppression of human ambition and inequality, total control by the state, and the abolition of property. Their counterpoise respectively represent the separation of powers as a means to prevent tyranny, natural right and God given rights as the basis of a necessarily limited government power, the idea of American government as a limited form of government, the dangers of pursuing economic equality as opposed to the necessary equality of political and legal rights.

Levin uses selected writings of Montesquieu, Locke, Madison and De Tocqueville to define what he understands to be the American philosophical and political tradition a tradition that views utopianism such that:

Looked at another way, the utopian models of Plato’s republic, More’s Utopia, Hobbes Leviathan, and Marx’s Communist Manifesto could not be more repugnant to America’s philosophical and political foundation. Each of these utopias, in their own way, are models for totalitarian regimes that rule over men as subjects. 122

Right around the same time I was slogging my way through Ameritopia the Canadian novelist, Margaret Atwood, had a piece in the New York Times with the fanciful title: Hello, Martians. Let Moby-Dick Explain.  In the article Atwood is having an imaginary discussion with a group of Martians who are asking her to explain the United States.  Even though she is Canadian she gives it a shot with the following:

“America has always been different from Europe,” I said, “having begun as a utopian religious community. Some have seen it as a dream world where you can be what you choose, others as a mirage that lures, exploits and disappoints. Some see it as a land of spiritual potential, others as a place of crass and vulgar materialism. Some see it as a mecca for creative entrepreneurs, others as a corporate oligarchy where the big eat the small and inventions helpful to the world are stifled. Some see it as the home of freedom of expression, others as a land of timorous conformity and mob-opinion rule.”

Thing is, while Levin sees America as the heroic anti-utopia that through its political traditions and institutions has resisted utopian fantasies that have reigned elsewhere, Atwood sees America as the land of utopia defined by that dream more than any other society. Both can’t be right, or can they?

Soon after I finished Ameritopia and read Atwood’s article I began to compile a list of American utopias or strands of utopian thought in America. The list soon became so long and tedious that I was afraid I’d lull my poor readers to sleep if I actually wrote the whole thing out. There had to be a better way to get all this information across, so I decided to make a slideshow.

Immediately below is what I take to be a general history of utopia in America.  Anyone interested in specifics can consult the slideshow. It should be noted from the outset that I probably missed more than I included and may have made some errors on multiple points. Any suggestions for corrections would be of help.

The idea of America has been intertwined with the idea of utopia from the day Europeans discovered the New World. The discovery of the Americas became tied to anticipation and anxiety about the end of the world and the beginning of the reign of Christ on earth, it inspired a new golden age of utopian literature beginning with Thomas Moore, it became one of the main vectors through which the myth of the noble savage became popular in Europe. Many of the initial European settlements in the Americas either were themselves utopian experiments or gave rise to such experiments. America was seen as the place where utopian aspirations such as the end of poverty could in fact be realized, and the American republic was built from utopian themes such as equality.

Throughout the early 19th century the United States was the primary location for utopian communities seeking to overcome the problems associated with industrial civilization. By the end of that century large numbers of Americans had placed their utopian hopes with technology and government control over the economy, a position that was not fundamentally shaken until the late 1960s when utopian aspirations in the United States flowered and took on a more communitarian, spiritual, liberation, and environment centric form.

The end of the Cold War saw a further upsurge in utopian thought this time seen as an end to history and a further acceleration of wealth. Both aspirations were done in by political events such as 9-11, and the crash of stock market bubbles in 2000 and 2008.
Even in such technologically advanced times apocalyptic utopianism remained a major strain of American thought, a new breed of secular utopians and technophiles had also emerged that held their own idea of an approaching technological apocalypse. Lastly,
the era since the economic collapse has seen the rise of political movements which exhibit a combination of ideas from America’s utopian past. The story of utopia in America is not over…

Click on image above to watch the slideshow.

Given all this it is fair to ask how Levin could have gotten things so horribly wrong.

Sometimes we are wrong about something precisely because we are right about something closely related to it. And Levin is write about this: that the founders well aware that they were engaged in a kind of bold continental sized experiment wanted to make sure that experiments of such a scale would be incredibly difficult to initiate in the future. They were especially leery of national experiments that might originate from the two major strands of utopian thinking in the past- economic and religious.

Here is the primary architect of the American system of government, James Madison, in Federalist Number 10:

The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular States, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States. A religious sect may degenerate into a political faction in a part of the Confederacy; but the variety of sects dispersed over the entire face of it must secure the national councils against any danger from that source. A rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the Union than a particular member of it; in the same proportion as such a malady is more likely to taint a particular county or district, than an entire State.

No matter how critical we are of the gridlock of today which prohibits necessary systematic change it was probably one of the factors that helped prevent the radicalization of American society during the tumultuous first half of the 20th century- a period that saw much of the rest of the world succumb to fascist and communist dictatorships. For all its flaws, the system probably still keeps us safe from the extremes on either side of the political spectrum, and we should therefore be aware of what we are doing when we try to change it.

Be that as it may, Levin gets this right and as a consequence misses the actual legacy of utopian thought in America. When large scale social and political experiments go wrong they can hurt a lot of people, the Soviet Union was one such experiment as is the European Union whose ultimate fate is today in doubt. The United States itself almost failed in its Civil War, which was the point made by Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address: “Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure”.

Small scale utopias or even imagined utopias are much less dangerous. When they fail, as almost all do, they burn a lot less people. At the same time they serve as laboratories in which new ways of being in the world can be tested. The aspirations inspired by purely imagined utopias often spur real reform in society in which the real tries to meet the standard of the dreamed.

In many ways the utopian tradition helped give rise to the society we have today. Certainly not utopia, but much more humane and just than the America these utopias were responding to in the 18th and 19th centuries. That is Ameritopia.

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21 comments on “Ameritopia Revisited

  1. jjhiii24 says:

    This is an enormously interesting subject and timely in a way that begs the question, of whether or not such utopian ideas have any merit or potential to exist given the current state of the world. I admire your courage in addressing such an idea and in such depth, and hope that many others will consider your thoughtful and intelligent treatment of this topic.

    It is not a coincidence that many of the people in the world yearn to come to America. Far from being any sort of utopia, America more importantly embodies the HOPE that such utopian ideals might someday be possible. I doubt seriously if anyone either within the United States or outside of it imagines today that this country has “streets paved with gold,” or that our society represents any sort of model for a utopian existence. One need only peruse the daily litany of “dysfunction” in the news broadcast by our own technologically advanced society to realize that we are far from being even close to the original vision of our “founding fathers.”

    But there are clearly good reasons for HOPE. What often FAILS to reach the mainstream media are the stories of courage and genuine goodness in many of the aspirations and persistent efforts of many of our citizens. What is often overlooked, are the many successes of communities with utopian aspirations, groups of citizens working toward achieving equality for all people, and movements which seek to bestow equal rights for all, that give every citizen a fair chance at the pursuit of happiness.

    What I have always found most interesting about the idea of “utopia,” is that the word represents so many different things to different people. What translates into a utopian society for ME, may be miles away from what it means to someone in India or China. And the most controversial aspect of the utopian ideal has always seemed to me to be that no generally accepted definition could reasonably be devised, since we are so diverse in our conceptualization of what constitutes the ideal. And when we read the book by Ray Kurzweil, it is even more alarming to suppose that his definition of what constitutes a “singularity,” might somehow be IMPOSED on those of us who either do not accept such a concept as being tenable, or for whom such a utopian idea represents a kind of tyranny that simply goes against the very grain of our humanity.

    Blog posts like this represent the most important aspect of discourse on the possibilities inherent in the utopian ideal, and move us forward toward the best chance we have as a society to reach for the ideal, whether or not we achieve it in our lifetime, or simply set the stage for the future.

    Thanks for providing the opportunity to share my thoughts on this topic……John H.

    • Rick Searle says:

      Thank you John for your always insightful and in-depth comments. This blog represents my exploration of this topic, and as with all such explorations I can not be certain where it will lead, and am sure to encounter surprises. What I hope to do is be the vector for a conversation around these questions, and your comments reassure me that such a conversation is possible.

  2. I can’t begin to understand why the Marxist ideal is so offensive to the American Right. By all means, argue that it won’t work in practice, but the argument I hear from the right always seems to be a distortion of what Marx actually hoped to achieve. Why is the goal of everybody sharing everything peacefully so repugnant?

    In the case of the right wing education/ indoctrination I received, it was as though they didn’t want me to know what Marx really said, because I might like it.

    • Rick Searle says:

      I totally agree with you Jonny. I had a really distorted view of Marx until I actually read him. I would put it down to the Cold War, but we’ve been over that for quite some time. Another thing I find really distorting on the part of the right is how they conflate communism, socialism and the welfare state. Levin commits this sin with a vengence in Ameritopia. And the three are very distinct.

      What I found interesting in writing this piece was just how popular socialism- Bellamy- was in the US. Before the Cold War, and the very real horrors of Stalinism put an end to these trends in American politics.

      Hopefully once the Cold War generation has passed from the scene we will be able to have a more nuanced conversation on the problems that plagued Marx, and still plague us.

      • Have you read any Rosa Luxemburg? I think she was much closer to Marxism than Lenin or Trotsky. I sympathize with certain non-Marxian variants (both pre-modern and modern) of socialism, though I am still not a socialist.

      • Rick Searle says:

        I have read some Luxemburg- she’s a great example having retained her Marxism, but rightly predicted what a nightmare Leninism would become.

        I’d be really interested to know your thoughts on anarchism. It seems to me there is a great deal of overlap between anarchism and libertarianism- but at the same time they seem to be separated by an unbridgeable gulf. Why do you think this is so?

      • It depends on what you mean by anarchism. Right now, as my understanding of various things evolves, I am teetering on the brink of anarcho-capitalism. But that is not what most people mean when they say “anarchism”. They usually mean the philosophies of Bakunin, Kropotkin, or Proudhon.

        Of the three, Mutualism (Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, and today, Kevin Carson) is my favorite. Communist Anarchism and Collectivist Anarchism to me seem even more utopian than Marxism, albeit more voluntary.

        I think the reason there is an unbridgeable gulf between anarchism and libertarianism is because the actual spectrum therein is much broader than is usually acknowledged. I think it is possible to span the gaps between Syndicalism and Communist Anarchism, between Communist Anarchism and Collectivist Anarchism, between Collectivist Anarchism and Mutualist Anarchism, between Mutualist Anarchism and Individualist Anarchism, between Individualist Anarchism and Agorism/Voluntaryism, between Agorism/Voluntaryism and Capitalist Anarchism, between Capitalist Anarchism, between Capitalist Anarchism and Paleolibertarianism, between Paleolibertarianism and Capitalist Minarchism, between Capitalist Minarchism and Objectivism, etc., but to make a friendly coalition within this spectrum that includes more than four to six of the aforementioned anarchist/libertarian schools is not likely. And it would need something to trigger it.

      • Rick Searle says:

        Wow, those were quite extensive responses. On the Fed. Years back I read Secrets of the Temple- a book by William Greider. He looked at the issue from a largely Marxist perspective, but came to almost identical conclusions to the ones you raise. I think here is one of those overlaps I was thinking about, not necessarily from a pure philosophical stand-point which are probably differences that can not be resolved, but in the matter of diagnosing specific things that are wrong with the current state of affairs. The two most energized segments of the electorate (if one sets the Tea Party aside for a moment) appear to me to be Ron Paul Supporters- libertarians such as yourself- and the Occupy Wall Street crowd. These are areas of overlap between the two movements which I see, please correct me if I am oversimplifying your position, and add anything you think might help clarify my thinking.

        1) Both are opposed to the “warfare state” as you so aptly called it.
        2) Both are opposed to crony-capitalism- especially crony-capitalism oriented towards the financial sector.
        3) Both are for ending the war on drugs as it is currently waged.
        4) Both are against the rule of experts and believe that governance comes from the bottom up.

        If those areas alone were changed the result would be nothing less than revolutionary- dare I say utopian.

      • I agree. There is much disagreement on many things. But even on the few things were there is overlap, considerable progress towards the betterment of society (but not quite Utopia) could be achieved. If the four things you mentioned were eliminated, almost everyone would be better off, be they libertarians or socialists, some strange combination thereof, or none of the above. The only people worse off would be those who profit from these four crimes.

      • Rick Searle says:

        This then, in the short run, should be the goal.

      • Rick Searle says:

        I consider you to be among the most articulate and open-minded proponents of classical liberalism and Austrian economics I have come across. For the benefit of myself and my readers understanding I would like to encourage a civil exchange of ideas between bloggers, and would greatly appreciate if you would respond with your thoughts to the comments of Giulio Caperchi on my post “Defining Home” regarding classical liberalism and Austrian economics.

      • I t would be my pleasure. I will do it as soon as I can. Remind me if I forget. And thank you for your kind words!

  3. Too bad Levin is a hypocrite. Last I checked he was very utopian and only pays lip service to the exponents of classical liberalism (Locke, et al).

    And I thought Thomas More (one “o”. My last name is Moore, by the way) wrote Utopia as satire, similar to Machiavelli’s The Prince. Did it really have much to do with influencing later utopians?

    • Rick Searle says:

      Sorry, I missed this earlier comment of yours before I made my last comment. One thing that drove me nuts about Levin is that he totally misses what I guess you could call a libertarian critique of the national security state. His ideas of government overreach have all to do with things such as social security and regulation, but no mention is made of standing armies, or military alliances, or secret services, or the usurpation of power by the executive branch etc. etc This seems like a way more important danger to the republic created by the founders than the welfare state.

      Do you agree?

      One the one hand I agree with you that More (sorry about the typo it was late) was writing a mere satire, but it was a satire with an overtly political point. It’s influence, I agree with you, Levin exaggerates.

      • I agree. War is the health of the state. The welfare state at least has the advantage of preventing some from slipping through the cracks. The warfare state does the opposite. It diverts resources that could be otherwise used to fund charity, hiring, or welfare. Not only does it put those resources to “use” elsewhere, it obliterates them forever.

        The warfare state can also lead to or be used in “justifying” the welfare state, in direct ways and indirect ways. Here is one example that I have been fascinated by recently:

        a) Panic of 1907, caused by a malicious rumor (from JP Morgan) and worsened by government policies, leads to first major push for a central bank since the Civil War.

        b) Tariffs are repealed in 1912. Rather than reduce spending to correspond in the loss of revenue, a new funding mechanism is required.

        c) Federal Reserve created in 1913 by private bankers (who met secretly to draft the legislation in 1910) largely beholden or connected to large financial institutions in England.

        [Central Banks originated as a way to enrich the few at the expense of the many. They do this in three primary ways. The first and most obvious is through the fractional reserve. Whether there is a fiat standard or a commodity standard, this method of credit creation brings forth “money” out of thin air. It creates the illusion that there is ten times as much money as there actually is. Therefore a bank, so long as people remain confident in its ability to give them back their deposits, can fund and invest and loan money that they literally don’t have. The second is through currency debasement, which leads to purchasing power for those who get the money first and inflation to those who get it later through the series of economic transactions. And the third way, and far from obvious, is through war. War enriches the state, as well as the various types of profiteers (bankers, defense contractors, lobbyists, congressmen, certain industries, and certain districts). This enrichment takes the form of money for some, and power for others.]

        d) World War One, both in Britain and America, is funded through taxation and the central banks in both countries. America’s allies borrowed more than $150 Billion in today’s money from her. That is adjusted for CPI inflation, which is misleading because it ignores both energy prices and food prices. The American is propagandized into buying Liberty Bonds.

        e) Money supply is doubled between 1914 and 1919, to fund war and ordinary business and personal ventures, in the form of loans. This easy money, because it distorts market signals, leads to a misallocation of resources.

        f) Loans are retracted by the Federal Reserve, and because they were misallocated many were unable to pay them pack, leading to the Recession of 1920-1921. Two “do-nothing” laissez-faire presidents, one of whom is often derided (by statists) as the worst president in united states history, and the other of whom is derided as having lacked leadership qualities (i.e., he wasn’t boisterous, presumptuous, nosy, crude, violent, and narcissistic) preside over a recovery that takes less than a year. Resources that were formerly in the wrong lines of production are realigned to where the market required them.

        g) Britain attempts to go back to its Pre-World War Gold Standard (it had gotten off it to help fund the War) in 1924. In order to do this it must exchange with the US at a higher price than gold was otherwise going for. This would normally lead to a competitive decline in prices. This did not occur because unions would not allow for lower wages, which lead to widespread unemployment and credit freeze. In addition to this and because deflation did not match the exchange rate, Britain was forced to bleed gold from its’ reserves. Instead of repealing the various laws enabling these problems, the Federal Reserve made a deal with the Bank of England to inflate the US money supply to correspond with that of Britain so the exchange rate was lower and more gold could be added to Britain’s reserves. Large scale increases in the supply of money lead to inflation and misallocation of resources. More loans that can’t be paid, more bank failures.

        h) There is no reason why the ensuing recession (which was admittedly of a grander scale) could not have been as short as the one prior, except for the following toxic mix: In 1931 the Hoover Moratorium temporarily forgives every World War One era debt to the US. By 1934, every European nation except Finland defaults on this debt. Wage and Price Controls, among other economically illiterate policies, are enacted under Hoover and Roosevelt, adding mass unemployment to the credit crunch.

        i) The rest is history. FDR blames Hoover and then does the exact same things. The New Deal, which was essentially one giant welfare/entitlement program is pushed through, World War Two (arguably a result of German Central Banking during World War One, and the Treaty of Versailles) is used to put 10 million idle young men back “to work”, and the cycle continues.

  4. This is a fantastic article, with a brilliant reading of the American founders

  5. […] I am only here to express another point of view for the benefit of this blog’s readers and to, insomeone else’s words, engage in a civil exchange of ideas between […]

  6. […] I am only here to express another point of view for the benefit of this blog’s readers and to, in someone else’s words, engage in a civil exchange of ideas between […]

  7. […] utopia has gone is reflected in the conservative writer, Mark Levin’s recent best selling book, Ameritopia, where Levin uses Popper’s mis-association of utopia with mass murder, to indict accomplishments […]

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