Learning from Utopia

5 Sep

I usually like to imagine myself a cynic, but we all delude ourselves in our own little ways, and as a person who’s never had any shortage of aspiration, a utopian impulse surges up every now and then. As I’ve explained before, I have deep reservations about utopian thinking, and am not a candidate to run off and join a commune anytime soon. But there’s always something we can learn from past efforts to build a perfect world, and as I think about articulating a more complete positive vision, the time was ripe to explore a few older utopian dreams.

And so the past couple weeks found me reading a book named Utopia Drive, in which author Erik Reece takes a road trip through some scattered American movements that aspired to utopia. He visits the Thomas Merton’s old abbey, explores Robert Owen’s Equity Stores, and sits beside Walden Pond, among other locales. Most of these date to the nineteenth century, fascinating but quaint tales of cultish communities on the frontier that achieved varying degrees of success before their sexual morals or the power of an industrial economy laid them low. Reece refuses to consider them failures, though: the Shakers, the Indiana town of New Harmony, and the perfectionists of Oneida, New York, all lasted for decades and more or less approximated their founders’ visions for a spell. Their common theme among the relative successes was a religious fervor that went beyond some vague sense of a brotherhood of man, which says some things about attempts to order societies only on intellectual principles, but we’ll save that for another time. Now, religious or not, none of these communities remain.

These noble relics lead one to wonder if this old eighteenth century ideal of a utopia distorts the use the concept may have in the present day. Even Oneida, which was relatively well-integrated into its surrounding community, could close itself off from the outside world in a way that isn’t really possible today. Separation is now nearly impossible. Most of Reece’s present-day examples rely on a key export or somehow take advantage of the broader forces of capitalism, as did the one present-day intentional community I’ve visited in my travels. One resident of the contemporary Twin Oaks community in Virginia, whose hammock-and-tofu manufacturing enterprise it allows it to operate more or less as it aspires to, laments that her friends there, in the end, aren’t any happier than those on the outside, and few stay for long. Outside of a few true believers, Twin Oaks comes across as more of a temporary resting house to where one goes to restore oneself, not a community bound for time eternal. In a similar vein, Rod Dreher’s attempts to explain his religiously conservative Benedict Option communities have (to his intense frustration) usually been construed as attempts to found isolated communes in the woods. While not explicitly utopian—for the orthodox Christian, that can’t come in this life—the debate here is much the same, and hinges on the question of just how far one ought to go in retreating from the world to build one that can coexist with one’s ideals.

For my purposes, though, that isn’t necessarily a problem. Reece’s book succeeds because it’s not just an elegy for a lost past or idolatry of a few scattered communities in the present. Instead, he looks to draw from the utopian impulse that many people feel; to take that quest for an answer on how life should be lived and apply whatever lessons might come out of those who have asked these questions in the past. The end goal of utopia, one senses, should not be happiness, but a community that inspires the somewhat more virtuous lives of which happiness is a byproduct.

Politically, Reece would appear to be an ally of the Bernie Sanders left, as his concluding chapter labels income inequality and dependence on extractive industries the two greatest threats to contemporary American existence. However, his takeaways from his road trip, while not necessarily opposed to such politics, point in a different direction. They carry an implicit understanding that turning the U.S. into Denmark (an ethnically uniform micro-state that makes Donald Trump look kind to immigrants) is not a realistic path. If the structural economic crisis is as great as Reece would have us believe, initiatives like raising the minimum wage will only amount to letting the people locked in steerage sit on the deck chairs of a sinking ship.

Instead, Reece’s answers are intensely local, and rarely involve government action. He points to Oneida’s silverware company and the Mondragón Cooperative in Basque Spain as models of cooperative ownership that successfully shared profits with workers for long periods of time. He gives a nod to land trusts, which can make homeownership reasonable for lower-income people. He talks about local loan programs, which can get entrepreneurs the capital they need to get off the ground, and managing public lands in trusts as well. (We’re already doing those two with some success here in northern Minnesota.) He explore things like local exchange trading systems, which provide structures in which (usually low-income) people trade the services that they’re capable of providing to one another (child care, home health care, picking up the groceries, etc.) in an exchange of labor instead of cash.

These are ideas worth tinkering with, and few require immediate political power to enact. For that matter, a number of them are less threatening to entrenched capitalist interests than direct redistribution. While this may disappoint the Jacobins in the crowd, it also raises the odds for success. The proposals amount to positive visions for a better society that do not always require their proponents to make bogeymen of opposing individuals or ideologies. Their implementation wouldn’t be seamless or without obstacles, but in all of this, one sees hints of an uplifting local approach that doesn’t lock itself in to old categories that drive people off before it’s even been tried.

The thrust of Reece’s proposals is also welcome for those of us who, despite entertaining occasional millenarian impulses, are mostly content living within the society that exists—or, at the very least, fear that blowing it up may blow back up in our faces in unexpected ways. One of the more fascinating images in the book comes when Reece quotes philosopher Paul Shepard on how the human genome “is encoded with a Paleolithic need for small communities and a closeness to the natural world.” While this certainly romanticizes caveman life, it does tap in to a certain communal bond made real. It underscores the need to build thick networks: close ties within an extended family, lasting loyalty to neighborhoods and place, homes with revolving front doors that people in and out and keep it alive with energy and creativity; a republic of front porches, in the words of one former professor of mine. It means a place to raise children who always know they have a town behind them. It may not be utopian, but it’s a place I’d want to live, and I have every intention of working to make it reality.

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