Utopia Now!

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Given all the chaos and pessimism lately and in light of the fact that with the inauguration of Trump we will be walking into very dangerous times, it’s perhaps a good moment for a little bit of hope, though the progressive rallies over the last few days certainly make me feel hopeful.

As his inauguration speech made clear, Trump’s victory signals the end of the liberal order that has defined the world since the end of the Second World War. An order based on the twin pillars of American hegemony and capitalist economics, a transformation that presents both grave dangers and opportunities to think the world anew.

David Graber managed to articulate what this opportunity means in a recent issue of The Baffler though here he was talking about similar political upheavals in the United Kingdom post-Brexit. According to Graber, what marks the teen years of the 21st century is that we’re starting to finally imagine genuinely radical alternatives to the world we currently live in. He writes:

It’s not just the predictable arrival of the economic luminaries to hold court with the new shadow chancellor—everyone from Joseph Stiglitz and Ann Pettifor, to Yanis Varoufakis and Thomas Piketty. Genuinely radical ideas are being debated and proposed. Should the left be pursuing accelerationism, pushing the contradictions of capitalism forward with rapid growth and development, or should it aim toward a total shift of values and radical de-growth? Or should we be moving toward what Novara, the media initiative that emerged from the 2010 student movement, began cheerfully referring to as FALC—or Fully Automated Luxury Communism—encouraging technologies like 3-D printing to aim for a world of Star Trek–style replicators where everything is free? Should the central bank enact “quantitative easing for the people,” or a universal citizen’s income policy, or should we go the way of Modern Money Theory and universal jobs guarantees?

The question remains of how to give any such new progressive order(s) the light and air they need to survive given the fact that reactionary forces are now in control of all the  suffocating powers of the deep state.

One idea making the rounds, and one potential source of hope, is the federal system of US politics itself, which has previously been the purview of the right.  Instead, of conservative defenders of state’s rights progressives might be able to pursue their agenda and protect their populations at the state and local level. Indeed, a movement advocating secession by greens and the left has been slowly growing for at least a decade.

None of which is a bad idea in so far as such initiatives also have a national, and even global, component which succeeds in establishing alliances across civil society to oppose and thwart any component of the Trump administration’s policies that threaten to unravel political, social, and economic protections. Combined with such alliances small areas could be used as staging grounds for progressive experiments  (such as universal basic income) and examples of truly just and sustainable forms of society.

The danger here is that sovereignty continues to be located in the federal government and the Trump administration may use this power to aggressively pursue, under the concealment of nationalism, the same kinds of neo-liberal deconstruction of state protections the US has pushed on less developed countries since the end of the cold war and strangle such experiments in the crib.

More on that another time. What’s important for my purposes now is how the very loss of national control by the progressive movement, for what may prove a very extended period, offers up an opportunity for experimentation on the level of cities and regions that hasn’t existed since the New Deal.

One place I think we might look for model of how we could approach this period  should be early 19th century utopianism. Like most of us, though for much different reasons, these utopians wanted nothing to do with the violence required by revolution. The reason in their case being that they had just come through the bloodletting of the French Revolution and had no stomach for a repeat of the Terror, which ultimately ended up in the victory of the right (Napoleon) anyway.

Our own squeamishness to violence might have to do with the profound change in norms that has occurred since the 19th century, but it’s just as likely a consequence of the fact that to engage in violence, by which I don’t mean punching neo-Nazis in the face but going toe-to-toe with the power apparatus of the security state, is to oppose the state where it is at its strongest, and therefore merely ends up bolstering what Nietzsche so brilliantly called “that coldest of all cold monsters” along with elites dependent on the power of the state who use revolutionary violence, or even the mere hint of it, as a justification for further oppression.

Violence may have lost it’s effectiveness as a means of propelling political change because, having lost all of its authority, the state rests on little but the threat of even greater levels of violence, a form of power which has now been largely mechanized. The key towards the future is thus not revolution but lies in establishing new sources of real authority assuming, that is, one has given up on saving the Republic itself.

Also like the 19th century utopians we find ourselves at the very beginning of a technological and social transformation which potentially could make real the dream of utopians from time immemorial, that is, the dream of a world free of scarcity, poverty and the necessity that most of adult life be consumed by work.

The fact that automation and resource constraints present both utopian and dystopian possibilities which are matters of political choice and therefore our capacity to ultimately decide the type of society in which we want to live is the subject of another popular book Four Futures: Life After Capitalism by Jacobin editor Peter Frase.

Even when acknowledging the degree of hype around today’s artificial intelligence and its threat to employment along with its often overly optimistic or pessimistic timeline (depending on one’s perspective) it’s clear that the need for human labor to achieve current levels of production and services is either declining or on is the verge of a sharp decline.

While looking to the future is surely among the best thing we can do in our circumstance it is always helpful to explore the space of possibilities open to us by reflecting on the past,   for we have been in quite a similar situation before. As early as 1802, as seen in  James Reynolds’ utopian novel Equality, it was recognized that the application of machine power when combined with new ways to organize labor were going to usher in an unprecedented period of abundance with the question being how the proceeds of such a leap in productivity were to be distributed.

Reynolds was only among the first in what would be a golden age of utopianism much of which tried to establish a balance between the traditional needs and aspirations found in society and the new age of the machine. Because of its status as a frontier and the birthplace of the democratic age in the early 19th century the US became the staging ground for a number of these utopian experiments many of which had originated in Europe. No book is perhaps better at giving us a tour of this utopian landscape than the recent Paradise Now: the story of American Utopianism by Chris Jennings.

In part the upsurge in utopian experiments in the early 19th century was driven by renewed millenarian expectations as seen in groups such as the Mormons and especially the Shakers whose austere aesthetic makes them appear almost modern. Yet experiments in religious utopianism had been tried before. What made the 19th century truly different was that it was the first time utopias based on solely secular ideas were attempted and thus anticipated the way in which the 20th century would be defined in terms of rival secular ideologies rather than religious tensions and conflict.

The most widely known of these early 19th century utopians was of course the British industrialist and reformer, Robert Owen. The son of a saddler, Owen moved to Manchester when he was seventeen- in 1788. It was the equivalent of moving to Silicon Valley in 1970, for Manchester was among the first places on earth to feel the effects of the industrial revolution:

The new textile machines churned out unprecedented profits and material abundance but they did so by eroding traditional economies, squeezing out the artisan class, and forcing everyone into the factories. (89)

Owen respond very differently to the social effects of industrial technologies than his contemporaries the Luddites who chose to smash the machines as a tool of immiseration. Instead, Owen saw in technology the beginnings of a new type of abundance if only human beings could get the political and social questions right.

By 1799, by then a budding industrialist, Owen bought a massive textile mill in New Lanark Scotland. It became his vehicle for social experiments and transformation, a first step in creating what Owen called The New Moral World.  At New Lanark Owen halted the employment of orphans, sold coal and fuel to the workers at cost rather than for profit. He established a worker’s savings bank along with a free medical clinic. He planted community gardens and provided an insurance fund. He also paid wages even during crises when the factory was idle.

The price for all this, for the workers, was a loss of privacy and self-direction. Owen policed worker behavior- and was especially keen on preventing drunkenness and adultery by his employees- with a degree of paternalism only utopians are capable of. Yet in spite of these social obligations Owen’s operation was extremely profitable. This divergence from other factory owners who treated their workers as disposable talking animals employing children, paying subsistence wages and failing to provide any insurance, or other form of social support was just the beginning.

In 1816 Owen established The Institute for the Formation of Character in New Lanark which educated children of the community as young as two, and offered enrichment courses to adults during the evenings. In the school Owen banned religious instruction, rote learning, and corporal punishment, and aimed to foster what the Rousseau inspired Owen believed were the natural virtues of the individual- virtues which he believed had been crushed by the form of civilization his experiments aimed at finding an alternative to. (91- 92)

In 1825 Owen began an even more ambitious project to test his ideas, this time in New Harmony Indiana. His settlement attracted intellectuals and reformers who hoped to realize his dream of a society founded on equality and shared prosperity. Owen a communist reformer who publicly denounced organized religion visited sitting and ex-presidents and spoke before a Congress that was at least politely open-minded in the face of his radical views. Jennings reflects that:

The fact that Owen’s ideas were given a civil hearing suggest that in 1825, American capitalism had not yet secured itself as a sacrosanct national ideology. (110)

In this respect, in  terms of openness to alternative socio-economic models to our own, we’ve only gone backwards since the founding. Though in terms of racial inclusion (New Harmony excluded non-whites), we are light years ahead of the 19th century.

Yet, despite Owen’s renown New Harmony proved extremely short lived, the experiment having ended by 1827 largely due to its failure to attract and retain the kinds of skilled laborers that might have made the community viable.

Fourierism is yet another early 19th century utopian movement Jennings helps uncover. It was a movement based on the ideas of Charles Fourier, the French thinker who was both a genius and very much a loon who famously imagined a “lemonade sea”. Despite, perhaps because of, his weirdness Fourier managed to get much about the future strangely right, such as his idea that individuals should pursue employment in those tasks they believed emotionally resonated with their character, that human sexuality was nothing to be ashamed of, that destructive instincts, rather than be suppressed, should be harnessed for the good of society, and that human happiness and the full expression of human capabilities is the very purpose of society. All these ideas which were radical in the 19th century have become common to the point of being cliches.

Eventually, Fouriest ideas for individual utopian communities which he call phalanxes would spread into prominent groups of American utopians including the artistic and intellectual commune of Brook Farm, which became a sort of temporary home and mecca for Transcendentalists like Nathaniel Hawthorne who even wrote a satire on its utopia’s pleasures and folly.

In addition to these Jennings informs us about the Icarian movement founder by another French philosopher Étienne Cabet. It’s a movement which more than any of the other mention above Jennings thinks did indeed have many of the pro-totalitarian flaws liberals normally associate with the word Utopia. Icarian communities based on Cabet’s novel Voyage et aventures de lord William Carisdall en Icarie were not only among the first stirrings of communism, Cabet even gave the movement its name. Lewis Mumford would find more similarities between Icarians and Soviet communists than anything he found in Marx. (259)

Still, it is how Jennings understands the decline of the utopian movement in America during the latter half of the 19th century that I think has the most relevance for us today. Utopianism declined not so much because the hope for a more just social order declined (indeed, the American Civil War even in light of its carnage became a war for a more just order), but because the locus of reform shifted from the local level to that of the national state. Rising middle class prosperity (created through both rapid growth and the labor movement) likewise diminished the desire for utopian experiments because American society had succeeded in achieving many of its dreams. One should include here the fact that the kinds of sexual equality imagined by many of the utopians was also achieved through the movement for suffrage combined with social change.

For Jennings no utopian moment in America has come close to that of the early 19th century, and he sees the communalism of the 1960’s as an attempt at escape from technological society rather than create a different, better, and more human future.

The alternative to not seeing the human world as something constructed by our choices is to either succumb to fatalism or to misconceive our moral project as the construction of a never existent past. Without any possible knowledge of Trump and his voters Jennings foresaw our year of “Make America Great Again”:

Instead of articulating extravagant dreams about the future, let alone experimenting with those dreams, we have made our past into a sort of utopia: a high white wall onto which we project our collective longings and anxieties. (382)

We’ve been drawing the wrong lessons from the wrong past all along.

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