essays

Dec 1, 1981

Utopia and Liberty: Some Contemporary Issues Within Their Intellectual Traditions

Bibliographical Essay

“Much of the modern state, and any claim to benevolent world order, we can better do without.”

Some Utopian Dialectics: The Necessity of Understanding Utopia from Multiple Perspectives

“Somewhere there’s gotta be a better world”

(Refrain from a classic American Blues)

“Utopia” and “liberty” may well be seen as perplexed terms open to no single and simple definitions; they really are loose binders for bundles of diverse notions and desires. Their problematic inclusiveness perhaps makes them useful for social and political moral thinking. Still, some unbundling of these ambiguous terms may be in order and, in a dialectical way, some tentative rebundling. In a ranging survey of much contemporary utopianism, I want to emphasize the counter-argument roles of the “ideal societies.” Countering some common libertarian prejudices, I also want to argue that the utopias should not be taken literally; they require some multiple perspectives; and they must partly be understood in terms of their historical continuities. Since the utopianisms often display many of the crucial ideological issues of our time, they merit not only libertarian awareness but require some libertarian discriminations. After all, much of human liberty, in its variousness as well as its aspirations, is utopian.

Let us assume here the considerable value of the fullest possibilities of individual freedom, even though such notions also require considerable qualifications, as not a few utopian efforts will remind us. Whether utopia is taken as a narrative fiction of an ideal society, as a plan for a radically different from current reality institution or community, or as a futuristic social and political vision, it may well appear to the skeptical individualist as considerably bothersome. If the utopian is viewed (somewhat incorrectly, as I will point out) as a totalism of rationalistic planning, the individualist may well find it threatening. But many utopias are the ordered responses of such threatened individualists seeking to posit individual-protecting counter-possibilities.

Ambiguities in Contemporary Rejections of Utopia

On the basis of surveying some hundreds of views of classical liberals, left-liberals with a strong commitment to freedom, and avowed libertarians, I conclude that their most common responses to the utopian range from great suspicion to high condemnation. For examples: the traditional left-libertarian M. L. Berneri in Journey Through Utopia (1950) concluded that most of the ideal no-places in history deserved, because of overt or implicit authoritarianism, to be nowhere. Yet she held to a degree of anarchist individual freedom that is generally considered quite utopian. She therefore felt impelled to distinguish a libertarian side to the utopian. Rightlibertarian Murray N. Rothbard, in For a New Liberty (1973), took an even more wholesale negative view of the utopian as a dangerous collectivist tendency: “The true utopian is one who advocates a system that is contrary to the natural law of human beings,” as well as a foolish demand for something “that could not work,” Yet a scholarly survey of recent American utopianism reasonably insists that Rothbard (on the basis of that very book) is a typical “perfectibility” case of modern utopianism. Hardly less negative, though with a considerably different politics, is the liberal-humanist William Barrett who in The Illusion of Technique (1979) dismissed most modern utopianism as “technological fantasy” and “an empty and insipid ideal.” Yet most contemporary technologues would undoubtedly consider Barrett’s views anti-technological utopianism with a fantastic insistence on Heideggerean “being” which demands a radical transformation of sensibility in the modern world (though one Barrett hardly faces up to). The ambiguities of utopian-anti-utopianism in these thinkers is central to much of characteristic contemporary utopianism.

The Necessity and Benefits of Utopian Thinking

These ostensible rejections of the utopian go with important charges—authoritarianism, rationalistic collectivism, scientific religiosity—which deserve further consideration. But first I might suggest several contexts. In spite of the common connotations of “utopian” as impractical or exaggerated—or, as Karl Mannheim more shrewdly suggested, “utopia” both identifies the ideology one rejects and stands for something larger than mere contemporaneous ideology —many informed views hold utopianism to simply be essential, for some millennia, to any ranging social and political thought. Thus, for example, the conclusion to the Manuels’ recent massive intellectual history, Utopian Thought in the Modern World (1979): “Western civilization may not be able to long survive without utopian fantasies any more than individuals can exist without dreaming.” The very health of the polity requires some such envisioning, reordering, and revisioning, as part of its dynamic dualism. Otherwise put, our very senses of social-political freedom depend on entertaining the possibilities and alternatives projected by the utopian, even when not directly employed. Perhaps also I know more clearly what I am against when I see someone else’s utopia.

The positing of “ideal societies” seems especially strong in Western traditions, though there may be partial parallels in the especially strong Eastern traditions—as in Taoism—of positing ideal escapes from societies. Much modern Western utopianism obviously displays an activist concern for a more just and beautiful community, beyond mere contemplation. More crucially, perhaps, many utopias came from the heretical and other dissidents who often, and no doubt necessarily, projected alternative social orderings. Rather paradoxically, even the classic fixed and static utopias may be seen as radical and dynamic in their functions of providing patterns for judgment, for criticizing the traditional and often absolutistic societies from which they arose. And not surprisingly, any radical enlargement of freedom has also often been viewed, on the face of it, as utopian, whether in praise or condemnation. A large liberty of the person, so obviously limited by social bonds and established order as well as by ever-present mortality, may seem to many in any period to be ultimate utopian dreaming. Yet the utopian projection of unexpected possibilities may also be, as “conservative anarchist” Paul Goodman argued inUtopian Essays and Practical Proposals (1962), psychologically liberating, and therefore downright “practical” in bringing into consciousness alternative senses of an issue. The true opposite of the utopian dream, I suggest, is less something “pragmatic” or “realistic” than cynicism or apocalypse, the ultimate human nightmare.

The Liberal, Heuristic Service of Authoritarian Utopias

Yet, of course, much utopianism can also result in bad dreams. While a history of liberty may often be brigaded with utopian imaginings or plans—after all, most history is within the short statist period of human society and its coercive conditions, thus often literally requiring an “ideal” or “elsewhere” conception of liberty—much utopianism is, as it had long been, authoritarian. Even for Plato’s fortunate few guardians in The Republic there was less liberty—be it in class confines and duties, or censored poetry and music, or the totally static order—than at least some number of Socratic Athenians might well have enjoyed. But, if my sense of the historical record is approximately correct, the dominant effect of the Platonic authoritarian utopia has been heuristic service for more liberal views, at least from Sir Thomas More to Sir Karl Popper. It is as if many have said, how can we properly counter Plato? Here, surely, is a large utopian service.

More’s partly counter-Platonic Utopia (1516), the first of that explicit name (a punning play on good-place and no-place), provided a thoughtful, and sometimes wryly mocking criticism of More’s actual society, representation of a more tolerant and charitable ordering—the degree of its Christianity still in dispute. But more ancient forms of the “guardians” are also still with us, at least as much as More’s mild patriarchal ones, currently in the camouflage of science fiction heroes and in other envisionings of futurological technocrats for what may be the worst of all possible worlds.

Critics and Skeptics of Utopia: the Anti-Utopians

However, positing either better or worse societies hardly provides an adequate description, or use, of the utopian impetus. And we should promptly note that what bothers many skeptics of the utopian is less the better or worse particulars of a social ordering than the very premise of such social shaping or reshaping. For instance, in rather prematurely predicting the demise of the utopian a generation ago, political scientist Judith N. Shklar, in After Utopia (1957), catalogued dozens of important anti-utopian views. Her conclusion was that they marked the end of the Enlightenment faith in “rational political optimism” as the shaper of society. While that has some applicable truth, especially to usual left-liberal ideology, there remains much other utopianism, which was downplayed in Shklar’s account.

Hayek’s Critique of Constructivist Rationalism

One of the anti-utopians only briefly noted by Shklar was F. A. Hayek who in The Road to Serfdom(1944) excoriated “utopia” as the collectivist delusion of “democratic socialism” leading to a totalitarian society; indeed, he argued, perhaps excessively, that anti-democratic socialist ideologies such as fascism and Nazism also derived from it. Hayek has variously continued the argument, through a recent (1978) attack on “constructivism,” the utopianism which he links to the rationalist tradition from Descartes and Rousseau. Such presumptuous rationalism, argues Hayek, displays the hubris, the arrogance, of a social-political thought that would claim to consciously construct institutions instead of allowing them evolutionary development. In contrast, liberal critical reason would more modestly create a framework of rules under which the growth of institutions beyond direct rational comprehension (the market, common law legal traditions, etc.) would be possible. Apparently for Hayek, the liberal application of reason to society falls between constructivism and the conservative distrust of reason which emphasizes organic accretion of changes (as in Burke), if any at all, in institutions. Obviously, this liberal view of the social function of reason remains historically shifting and therefore rather uncertain.

Hayek’s Own Utopianism

Several kinds of skeptic properly suspect those who would plan or otherwise dictate all too much of life under the guise of reason. This, most libertarians would agree, provides a profoundly appropriate criticism of a presumptuous, and quite possibly ruthless, utopian rationalism. Yet what might be called a hyper-rationalism characterizes much indeed of social-political thinking, not just the utopian. For obvious example: the development of Talmudic and Christian canon law, and tortuous casuistries, and then their secularization in legalism and administrative regulation, certainly displays moral rationalism functioning in insistently encompassing and controlling ways which a devotee of liberty might well find threatening. Yet, such are the paradoxes of reason operating in history, the very defense of the individual against these restrictive rationalisms became ornate counter-rationalisms, such as those we connect with the Enlightenment. One tradition of the countering liberal rationalism was constitution-making, be it Locke’s for Carolina, Rousseau’s for Corsica, the established U. S. and French revolutionary constitutions, the pathetic plethora of nineteenth-century liberal European charters, and the fakery of rationalization of the 1935 Soviet constitution and those of a good many “emerging” nations in the present. The proposing and applying of constitutions may rightly be seen as a schematic utopianism, and one properly suspect for its abstraction of tangible realities and its rationalistic formalism and controls. Yet the vehement critic of rationalistic constructivism, Hayek, recently proposed a constitutional construction (a new form of legislature) for a defense of classical liberal values, and himself characterized it as a “Utopia.”

In defense of his utopianism, Hayek related it to an earlier moderate utopian argument, David Hume’s “Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth” (1742), and his claim that “it must be advantageous to know what is most perfect in the kind” as a model for ameliorative “innovations.” While in such matters Hayek (perhaps even more than Hume) depends on a temperamental conservativism, such utopianism seems essentially a moderated constructivism. Even in the earlier period when Hayek was polemicizing against collectivist utopianism, he was also arguing for a liberal utopianism as a counter to it. When we further consider that the Hayek view rests on large constructions of universal “free markets” (and the institutions that necessarily go with them), which in fact have only fragmentarily existed, classical liberalism may be viewed as itself deeply engaged in a grandiose utopianism.

Surely we can recognize important differences of emphasis in a rule-structured utopianism and direct statist planning—differences of utopias. Based on other conditions, both may restrict various human freedoms. So our preferences may require fuller utopian definition, rather than a rejection of the utopian in general. Put another way, the combination of the utopian and the anti-utopian in such views as the Hayekian remains ambiguous.

The Critique of Utopia as Revolutionary and Violent

Certainly there are views which are less ambiguously anti-utopian, from the commonplace anti-speculative cast of mind—fearful of acknowledging change—to the traditional conservative committed to a fixed order of ostensibly divine sanction. Another anti-utopian tradition, and influential one of partly liberal principles, focuses on the means of change. Karl Popper, a generation ago, and Melvin Lasky, more recently, have polemically insisted on a pervasive brigading of utopianism and revolutionary violence. While their arguments undoubtedly apply to some millennial and terrorist movements as well as Jacobin and Marxian revolutionism (though, as will be noted below, Marxism claims to be anti-utopian), revolutionary violence has small relevance to a large part of utopianism, past and present. The anti-revolutionary ideologues also employ a most peculiar calculus of coercion, suffering and violence: some established orders have produced more tyranny, misery, and death than revolutionary regimes; and usually only the greatest ordered states can produce massive control, deprivation and death. But were not some of them utopian? Some tyrants may be partially analyzed in terms of some utopian rhetoric—Cromwell, Robespierre, Mao, et al. —though most dictators better qualify as anti-utopian. While seeking no narrow definition of the utopian, I suggest rather generally excluding the mad tyrants (redundant phrase), and the apologists of great states and empires, as well as those primarily committed to revolutionism, as views inherently contradicting coherent claims to relatively ideal societies, on the face of things.

The Critique of Utopia as Economically Collectivist

Less emphatically, we might also set aside much of another often presumed charge against the utopian impetus—that it generally tends to the collectivist, the coercive statist centralized economy. It is true that property in Plato’s Republic and More’s Utopia, both small city-states, was communally held, and that a considerable number of nineteenth-century utopian fictions and plans may be characterized as state-socialistic, more or less. But on close examination it was often less. For instance, Charles Fourier’s early nineteenth-century utopian Phalanstery had world-wide influence—his direct effects run from Hawthorne’s Brook Farm in Massachusetts to Dostoyevsky’s St. Petersburg in Russia, and more indirectly, into modern surrealism and communalism—and Fourier drew some admiration of socialists, from Engels through Marcuse. But Fourier’s schemes were essentially decentralist, entrepreneurial, anti-statist, and generally antithetical to much of Marxist and similar views in his great insistence on human variousness. Distinctions need to be made not only between communal and collectivist economics but, perhaps more crucially, between the degrees of individual variousness and other freedoms.

Anomalies in the Economics of Utopia

Or, to glance at a later example: in a bundle of utopian notions which provided both a popular European novel, Freeland (1890), and several utopian colonies, Hertzka’s economics had communally owned land, but this was part of a systematic emphasis on pluralistic arrangements for competitive enterprise. The economic ideologies of much utopianism are more than a little mixed. Indeed, some seem outrageously contradictory or historically muddled. Statist socialism, for example, has been considerably influenced by Saint-Simon who, indeed, may be credited (as by Hayek) with inventing part of it. But to pursue Henri de Saint-Simon in his life and works is to recognize a speculative capitalist of early nineteenth-century France who, not surprisingly, produced an elaborately hierarchical managerial-capitalist utopianism. His multiple historical legacy included an elitist religious cult of some direct influence for a few years, considerable effect on “progressive” speculative financiers in the Second Empire, and probably significant contributions to the continuing technocratic-elitist statism which plays an important part in the French economy, whether called (state) capitalist or (state) socialist. Like its capitalist originator, this legacy is certainly anti-libertarian.

Or note the rather anomalous roles of Saint-Simon’s contemporary, Robert Owen, the rich early nineteenth-century English mill entrepreneur and reformer, who lost much of his capital (though not his philanthropic obsessions) in establishing the paternalistic utopia of New Harmony, Indiana, which soon collapsed. Depaternalized versions of his utopianism may have had considerable influence on later British socialism, as his managerial methods in his New Lanark mills may have had on later labor unions. Yet Owen also strongly influenced in the 1840s a quite exceptional American free-market individualist anarchist, Josiah Warren, who resided for a time at New Harmony. Warren not only tried modified Owenism in several individualist community experiments (Utopia, Ohio and Modern Times, Long Island) but developed a curious laborbarter system (an exchange of self-created money based on worktime units) which was commercially successful as well as a more equitable way of merchandizing in his several stores. With millowner-manager Owen and inventor-businessman Warren, among many others, the entrepreneurial and utopian impetus seem to have been significantly the same. More contemporaneous utopianism, as I shall have occasion to note several times below, is frequently emphatic in its entrepreneurial motives and forms, as with insisting on state-autonomous small businesses as central to freedom.

Still, no single, or even several, economies can be said to generally characterize historical utopianism. But, it may be countered, since much (though certainly not all) utopianism takes the form of projecting ideal communities, surely it is communal rather than individualist economics? In that loose a usage, all economics is communal, though not necessarily collectivist.

Stirner and the Issue of Community vs. Collectivism

Even in the most extreme of nineteenth-century individualist philosophies, some sense of community remains a positive value. Thus Max Stirner, often viewed as carrying individualism to a nihilistic solipsism in The Ego and Its Own (1844), none the less suggested what he called the “Union of Egoists.” For Stirner gave a central place to human desires, gratifications, and thus relatedness; the social issue, he insisted, is “not how one is to produce the true self…but how one is to…live himself out.” Granted, it may not be altogether clear in Stirner how much the Union of Egoists should take the form of a voluntary intentional community as against what he called an “instinctual” association of the like-minded with the courage to violate legal restrictions and reject moral “ghosts.” For example, “freedom of trade” to Stirner was less likely the result of establishing any certain market system (which to him was always partly anti-individual) than of violating whatever system was established by “smuggling.” Personal freedom was less to be achieved by establishing protective rules, which always became controlling rules and tend to defeat the authentic individual, than by practicing moral “refractoriness” and even, prudently, legal “disobedience.” But, as with the bandit gang, that may make voluntary community all the more important.

Ayn Rand’s Ambiguous Utopia of ‘Individualism’

Such extremists as Stirner—and a number of other utopians—are valuable, I believe, in sharpening our critical perspective. For example, more recent utopias with unions of egoists seem more defeating of gratification than Stirner’s. So, I suggest, with Ayn Rand’s capitalist-individualist “nowhere” in Atlas Shrugged (1957). This “Utopia of Greed,” also called (with perhaps more negative irony than intended) “Galt’s Gulch,” is a Colorado valley protected by magical rays where a secret conspiratorial cult of embittered entrepreneurial “egoists” has established a community dedicated to selfishness under the charismatic semi-autocracy of a soap opera hero, John Galt. As Rand explained elsewhere, part of her fictional credo was to present an image of “the kind of social system that makes it possible for ideal men to function…laissez-faire capitalism.” But, from a Stirnerian individualist perspective, this is mostly an elaborate substitution of a “social system,” and its moral “ghosts” and narrowly fixed conceptions of role, in place of protean individual living out of full life. Rand’s utopianism displays an individualism patently narrow in its puritanical and rationalistic constructivism, stronger on abstract polemics than on the rich qualities of individuality.

While Atlas Shrugged may be doubtful as an expression of individualism (and the melodrama crassly weak in social delineation), it may raise several other points of utopian interest. Note that it had considerable popularity at the very time when much of the intellectual establishment (see Shklar, above) quite decried utopianism, denying that it could really exist in a twentieth-century world made dourly pessimistic by over-population, endless irrational war, uncontrollable technology, and the rest of the age of anxiety. Cultural history is not nearly so unilateral as often pretended. Nor are utopian motives nearly so bland and optimistic as often assumed. The Randian ethos curiously provides a reverse adumbration of what Nietzsche analyzed as ressentiment. An analysis of the redundant rhetoric justifying her utopia (as with Galt’s four or five hour radio address) would show it dominated by contempt and hatred. Utopian motives, we are well reminded, may be in considerable part unidealistic, mean-spirited.

The Critique of Utopia as Static and Monolithic

In a not unique twentieth-century way, Rand’s utopia is only a stage, part of a process, dissolved as the leading characters move toward renewed establishmentarian power (that, not individuality, dominates their motives). Note here another dubious charge often made against the utopian: the mode is said to be static, fixed, monolithic, rigid. Yet the probably most influential twentieth-century utopian theorist and novelist, H. G. Wells, insisted about the incomplete pattern of his A Modern Utopia (1905) that our appropriate utopias must be construed as “stages” in a “kinetic” process, changing and time-limited and evolving. That, of course, was more generally true of Wells’ utopianism, which took some variety of forms and values. So did Aldous Huxley’s (see below). Herbert Read in The Green Child (1935) presented as simultaneous in time in the same work two contrasting utopias (one progressive materialist, one mystical neoPlatonic). The influential American Communitas (1947) by Paul Goodman provided three but not necessarily exclusive “Community Paradigms” (they might be characterized as super-centralized capitalist, decentralized communal, and a dual ordering of Blanquist work-welfarism and aggrandizing consumerism). Wisely, none of them were held to be the best for all nor the only possibilities.

Many other examples of various and pluralistic and evolving utopianisms in modern times could be cited (some will be noted later). That many utopians show an insufficient theory of change may well be true, but that is also sadly true of almost all modern social-political thinkers. The inadequately informed too often take the Platonic paradigm as defining not only the literary genre but the general utopian cast of mind. Debatably, there is evidence for doubting that the fixed Platonic was ever all that defining, as one recalls the endlessly open Rabelais, the ironist More, the dualistic Voltaire, the conflictful Fourier, and many other utopians. Of course there are, as there always have been, dogmatic fundamentalists, literalists, in utopianism, as in most ideologies. The logic of Popper’s “open society” or of Hayek’s “evolving institutions” or of truly various libertarian social-political views cannot reasonably reject the utopian as simply static, rigid, monistic, exclusionary. Unless, that is, they are committed to the very fallacy they denounce.

Positive and Negative Dialectics of Utopian City Planning

Let me briefly adumbrate another aspect of utopia-as-planning by taking a mode more extreme than constitution-making: utopian city planning. When it comes to individual living, the envisioning of a city may show us some of the consequences of an ideology, not just the abstract rules, in a tangible way.

Utopian Cities and Human Liberty

From ancient ideal cities, for man but more often for man-god rulers, through the part-ideal planning of Athens, Rome, Venice, and many other actual places—structuring a better city has been a rich utopian concern. Given the twentieth century’s megalopolitan ugliness, destructiveness, and other social pathologies, it is hardly surprising that diverse exceptional talents devoted themselves to embracing urban utopianism. English Ebenezer Howard’s influential plans for the moral Garden City, Swiss-French Le Corbusier’s giganticist visualizations of the super-industrial Radiant City, and American Frank Lloyd Wright’s piquant plans for re-countrifying the urban in Broadacre City, carry on a long tradition of imaginative social criticism and conceptualization. Aside from their existence as fascinating and suggestive objects for contemplation—no mean thing in itself—what do these utopian cities suggest about human liberty?

Fortunately or not, none of these cities have been fully built. Are they, then, just more utopian fantasizing, further variations on the Tower of Babel? Something rather more, for the plans of Howard, Corbusier, and Wright have also had demonstrable influence on actual places. And these ambitious cityscapes may also encourage a certain discipline in our thinking about ideologies as well as cities. For once understood, these great plans expose not only the conceptual limitations of lesser “planners” but also point to the hidden agendas, the covert utopias, which lie behind any plans. By “planners” I don’t only mean the professional technicians who practice that dubious trade but the rulers and administrators, the businessmen and “developers,” who, consciously or not, carry out what is usually a debased utopianism. In significant part, all cities are planned, however confused or hypocritical their ideals may be. Cities are not objects of nature but constructions which will be variously chosen, willed.

Put another way, some of our suburban towns can be related (though often not decently enough) to the cooperative community ideal enshrined in Howard’s Garden City—and to its rather blandly narrow lower-middle class sense of culture and human behavior. Our grandiloquent urban highrise centers can be related (though usually without the rigorous coherence) to the hyper-functional industrial ideals of Corbusier’s Radiant City—and to its hierarchical centralism and other anti-democracy and anti-individualism. And our contradictory American responses to the urban and communal can be related (though generally without the imaginative verve) to Wright’s Jeffersonian individualist anti-city Broadacre—and to its rather forced familial economics and social atomization. These utopian city plans, then, make tangible not only certain styles of living and sensibility but major social-political dispositions.

My terse noting of the great modernist city plans does not intend to suggest that their specifications allow us to choose for once and all between and among the genteel co-operative, the authoritarian centralist, and the atomized individualist possibilities. The issues, of course, become more perplexed than that, including that all three of these utopian planners saw themselves (at least in major periods) as advancing entrepreneurial economics and individual autonomy under the peculiar conditions of the twentieth century. We may thus be driven to an awareness—simplistically ignored by all too many libertarians—of which kind of free market, and which kind of individualism, and which kind of liberties, are to be encouraged and chosen.

Libertarian Perplexities in Choosing among Utopian Alternatives

Thus when we turn to a current planner of a utopian city, and one actually building an example, Paolo Soleri’s Arcosanti, in the Arizona desert, we may be brought up short. Though using some of the individualist rhetoric and ideas of Wright, Soleri makes clear in his theory of Arcology (1969), as well as in his rather unlivable beehive city, that the role of the non-elitist individual is rather slight. Like a fictional Ayn Rand architect (though more tastefully so) Soleri seems quite prepared to impose his shapes and his mystagogueries on others. When heroic liberty is only for the few one reasonably doubts the liberty. Granted, the conditions of an overpopulated technocracy encourage this. Thus, to my eye, the noted futuristic super-planner of a world-wide city, “Ecumenopolis,” C. A. Doxiadis, shows inBuilding Entopia (1975) a considerable dehumanization in the styles as well as proportions of his plans. The cake of over-mechanization becomes a controlling diet, however frosted with scientistic optimism.

Understandably, then, the libertarian temptation may be to reject all utopian city plans, even as thought experiments, as has been done from a more or less conservative social-political perspective by Jane Jacobs and from a left-liberal perspective by Richard Sennett. But the opposite of a utopian plan may be less “no plan” than a bad plan, further corrupted by being unadmitted and unexamined, whether as the megalomanias of rulers or, as currently in America, of combined developers and administrators, baronially corporate as well as royally statist. The conditions for the growth of a city under the invisible hand of a free market or the indefinable spirit of organic community—both, I would argue, insufficient conceptions—only fragmentarily exist in the modern megalopolis.

The Dangers of Unacknowledged Utopianism: Bentham, Comte, and Marx as Pseudo-anti-utopians

Thus one modest claim for the utopian might be as a way of projecting issues, making alternatives tangible, and being more concretely aware of consequences. But, as my dialectical insistence would have it, that positive side of the utopian impetus should not be used to deny the negative sides. Candidly, as a reader of hundreds of utopian fictions and schemes, I suspect a high proportion of compulsive-obsessive views and that even some of the more heroically suggestive (Bruno, Rousseau, Fourier, etc.) display paranoid megalomanias. Still, a disinterested skepticism also suggests that rather more dangerously authoritarian institutions grew out of more unadmitted utopianism. Thus, supposedly hardheaded Benthamite utilitarianism projected some of the most nastily controlling institutional patterns, such as the Panopticon ot total corrective surveillance. Auguste Comte’s (1798–1857) anti-idealistic scientism reinstituted elitist guardians in the narrow guise of social scientists. And Marx and Marxism mostly substituted a vague and manipulative revolutionism for a more specific, and possibly more accountable, utopianism.

When Marx and Engels vehemently disavowed the “utopian” (after some early flirtation with it) for “scientific socialism” —their version of the fantastic Hegelian rationality of history—they righteously chose obfuscating means, in such guises as “dialectical materialism” and “proletarian revolution,” over more clear and specific humane purposes. Mortals without revelations of absolutistic historical “science” might utopianly prefer an ideologue’s revealing how some of the proposed social reality is supposed to look and feel. Psychologically, however, the appeal of Marxism for social transformation may carry strong utopian elements, regardless of what the doctrine claims. And such may be found, for example, in the Marxist mythology of A. L. Morton, The English Utopia (1952), who crudely and erroneously holds that well-done utopias are compatible with vulgar Marxism. In a more sophisticated version, as in the neo-Marxist reifications of Ernst Bloch, A Philosophy of the Future(1963), utopia becomes “anticipatory design” implicit in certain meta-social meta-aesthetic forms as “the eschaton…of progress” in the dialectical unfolding of history. Sentimental or sophisticated, such views stand in sharp variance with much of Marx (including the splitting, as Bloch admits, of the cultural “superstructure” from the material “base”) and are contrary to the bankrupt historical realities of Marxian-colored ideologies.

Unacknowledged Utopian Claims: Knowledge-as-Control

Granted, the supposedly anti-utopian methodologies of Bentham, Comte, and Marx, may partly be viewed as weird episodes in nineteenth-century scientism, though they also remain with us as ideological dispositions. Such imposing programmatic claims of “new knowledge” repeat in our time the dangerous pretensions of knowledge-as-control which can be seen as continuous with some Enlightenment philosophes, the Baconians, the Renaissance Pansophists, and earlier forms of the Faustian and Promethean magus. These intellectual fantasies of power have not been confined to the utopian—indeed, the magicians of power often claim to be anything but utopian—yet some utopianism certainly carries such claims. But avowed utopias, at least, also carry the warning of being acknowledged counter-reality dreams. Unadmitted fantasies (including the utilitarian, Comtean, Marxian) may be more dangerous impositions.

How To Look at Utopias with a Double-View: A Critical, Dialectical Approach with Some Examples

Properly warned by the muddle of those who have attempted to distinguish between the “utopian” and the “realistic” (or, for example, Hayek’s untenable distinction between “critical rationality” and “constructivist rationality”), I cannot suggest any simple safeguards. Some utopianism is self-serving apologetics, dangerously resentful fantasy, symptomatic pathology. But some is compassionate moral idealism, reasonable projection, imaginative prophecy. Inconveniently, they often come all mixed together. The utopian must remain problematic. All that I can propose as a methodology is that we attempt to double-view any utopia—be it fiction, project or vision—as both broad ideology and personal peculiarity, as both moral doctrine and symptom of a time and place.

A Double-View of More, Bellamy, and Skinner

Three brief examples. More’s Utopia (1516) five centuries ago included acute though heavily moralistic social criticism, given an ironic perspective, and a still pertinently utopian situational ethics (euthanasia, divorce, family limitation, etc.), a paternalistic familial and political ordering in spite of communal property, rather limited notions of pleasure and freedom, and even a six-hour work day in spite of its premise of a static-scarcity economy. That can be viewed as showing both the strengths and limitations of high Christian humanism. Arguably, it can also be seen as contradicting much in the man who became a political power and a martyred saint.

The most popular and influential of all American utopian novels is Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888). Although held to envision a kindly and reasonable equality, Bellamy’s utopia included harshly enforced work and other conformity, which it rewarded with a culture that was Boston-genteel, gadgety, and trivial, in a technological society controlled by a supposedly meritocratic bureaucracy. In essentials, it is the continuing vision of a blandly optimistic engineering socialism. We might also view the Bellamy utopianism as symptomatic of the rising American “technocracy” (the combination of sophisticated technology and elaborate bureaucracy) which continues to supercede, and fuse, both socialist and capitalist ideologies. Technocracy tends to its own socio-economic system, and such worshipful attitudes as Bellamy’s may have furthered it.

Probably the most influential contemporary American scientistic utopia is B. F. Skinner’s Walden Two(1948). Its behaviorist guardians use lab-rat “positive re-enforcement” and other reductive and programmed “positive” conditioning in a Grand Inquisitor denial of ordinary individual freedom (except as a sometimes exploitable illusion). We may grant that its motives and aims, as Skinner has had to repeatedly insist in defending himself, are highly benevolent. Some of the worst dominations and other mass-crimes in history have been so. In the history of utopias, I see Skinner’s ideal as a secularized adaption of religious dogmatism and indoctrination. It may also tell us something not only about the dominant American academic psychology (of which the author remains a noted representative) but perhaps more generally about the nasty pretensions of a good bit of social scientism.

A Skeptically Dialectical View vs. Anti-utopianism

While these three well-known examples—More, Bellamy, Skinner—are narrative fiction utopias, we might also apply a similar critical awareness to large conceptual structures for a better society as well as to moral templates for an institution, a commune, or a community. At this late stage in utopianism, simple-mindedness in approach would not be just intellectually intolerable but perhaps socially dangerous. However, to take a skeptically dialectical view of utopianism should not be confused with common anti-utopianism. Our skeptical, critical view of utopianism does not embrace anti-utopianism, at least when that can be defined as the denial of envisioning a better institution, community, or society, or as the refusal of any enlargement of freedom beyond the mere margins of invisible orderings and what all too badly exists.

Mythic Contexts for Viewing Utopias

But the issues of utopianism should be put in several other contexts. Historical perspective suggests that it is conceptually quite inadequate to confuse utopianism with merely rationalistic planning, and the writings with the several literary genres which from at least Hellenistic times use lost-and-found societies for edifying fable, satiric argument, or titillating fantasy. Otherwise put, those who wish to attack utopianism (including the half-dozen cited earlier) need to overhaul their arguments and expand their focus if they wish to be pertinent to what utopianism really represents. Ideal societies, for instance, must be understood as not just rationalistic constructions but as partly mythic—as, indeed, with much of impassioned human thought. An essential part of the appeal of utopianism goes beyond political and social logic to realms of dream, fantasy, and prophecy—in sum, to transformations of human sensibility. The issues can in no adequate way be confronted, qualified, or countered by mere economic and ethical paradigms—or the other professional bigotries of economists and philosophers.

Mythic Thinking, Utopianism, and Social Ideals

In several thousand years of utopias, some obviously (and others indirectly) display the secularization of other-worldly paradises. But that may also be understood the other way around, with paradises as the etherealization of secular utopias. For, as the great utopian social-psychologist William Blake noted, many “abstract the mental deities” in order to create an enslaving “system”; “Thus men forgot that all deities reside in the human breast.” Precedence may not always be clear, whether it be with the happy Isle of Para in a Greek Cynic tale or with the revolutionary Third Kingdom (under the aegis of the Holy Ghost) in the long millennarian prophetic tradition linked to Joachim of Fiore. Separation of transcendental and earthly felicities is not at all as clear as the apologists of orthodoxies of control have tried to claim.

The Myth of the Golden Age

A major recurrent theme of utopianism adapts the Greek legends of the Golden Age declining into the Iron Age, as in Hesiod’s Works and Days (8th Century B.C.), which was twisted in Plato’s Republic (4th Century B.C.) into classes of men and duties for ordering the just state—metaphors confirming the absolute and static nature of his ordering. Until the geographic-demographic discoveries and closures of the present, which has made many fantasies as well as alternatives seem more improbable, there was always some place where the Blessed or Happy Isles just might be found, or re-found. And even now there are those, ranging from noted physicists to hallucinating addicts, who fancy close encounters with messengers from superior islands displaced into outer galaxies.

Primitivism and the Arcadian Mythos

Historically, the Golden Age imagery often linked with the sophisticated “primitivism” of what is frequently called the “arcadian mythos,” the idealized pastoral world which takes its early characteristics from Theocritus, Vergil, and other poets of rural ritualism in the Mediterranean world. This continued, as I understand it, as a covert paganism as well as a cultivated literary tradition through the high Christian period, partly culminating in the Renaissance refulgence of pastoralism as well as other utopianism. This concerns rather more than poetic genres. The pastoral exalts a civilized nature combined with amorous social relations, de-classed, in an odd fusion of the “natural” and the ritualistic for a small-scale vision of a harmonious social order. The conventional charges against pastoral social ideologies are that they turn nostalgically backward and remain highly simplified. But that is hardly persuasive in itself since most social ideologies are considerable simplifications and the determination of what is backward-looking is often hard to tell; psychological regression seems fundamental to human images of happiness, and the most future-oriented social images (as often in revolutionary rhetoric) turn out to be revived models from the very distant past. Perhaps necessarily, the Golden Age remains with us as a layer of cultural evolution, if not of human consciousness.

English Variations on Arcadia: Morris and Lawrence

Such arcadian emphasis appears to have been a significant source of the English idealization of the good life and place as anti-urban, countrified. This loving rusticity even dominates some of the later utopias of the industrial society. For a major example, we can see some of the pastoral imagery and ethos in William Morris’ charming anti-industrial utopia of medievalized socialism and craft arts, News from Nowhere (1890). Morris was intentionally countering Bellamy’s Looking Backward—crafts vs. industrialism, dispersed communities vs. urban bureaucratization, aesthetic values vs. engineering values, etc. Morris, it might be said, and his arcadian vision, represent an important minority utopian tradition increasingly marginal to mainstream socialism with its technocratic-power orderings. This arcadianism variously reappears, as in the Sherwood Forest pastoral eroticism and utopian hopes of D. H. Lawrence in Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928). This counter to conventional middle-class love stories, and its exacerbated modernist-individual social criticism, polemicizes against ugly industrialism and crippling social class and debased sexuality, and also jettisons most of socialism. Whatever its limitations as a large social ideal, arcadianism has often presented an acute social critique in terms of richer aesthetics and fuller sensibility.

American Variations on Arcadia: Thoreau and ‘Soft Primitivism’

A variant arcadian tradition of the good place and life, less nostalgically countrified and cultivated than the English, and usually taken to be quintessentially American, gets identified either with the frontier or with Henry David Thoreau’s (1817–1862) influential Walden (1855). Original Thoreauvianism, of course, was less the creation of an ideal community than a considerable withdrawal from most of society for an exaltation of solitary individualism, transcendental experience in a semi-cultivated nature, a simplified barter-and-craft economy, and a refined anarchistic ethic. Fusing often with the Waldenism are somewhat genteel versions of pioneer styles of life, the widespread tradition forming, and partly repeating, what Lovejoy analyzed in classical thought as “soft primitivism.”

American Arcadianism and Utopian Homesteading

The American arcadianism usually carries a self-conscious reversal of the industrial-urban mode and, in and out of literature, contributes to a recurrent and significant back-to-the-land utopian movement. It often oddly fuses a politics of disillusionment about mainstream society with a frontiersman’s or homesteader’s insistence on individual social autonomy and puritan self-reliance. As one can find in Helen and Scott Nearing’s Living the Good Life (1954) and Continuing the Good Life(1979), their half-century of homesteading had exemplary heroic proportions. There is no other way to describe the ex-Marxist professor of economics, at ninety-five, and his musician-author wife teaching what has become thousands of young people how to build stone farmhouses and organically grow almost everything for a vegetarian diet and how to develop a spirit of utter independence—an heroic American puritan individualism.

There is a long tradition of self-conscious theorizing behind this utopian homesteading, perhaps most notably (in the 1920s and 1930s) that of Ralph Borsodi, and his followers. It takes variant contemporary form with poet Wendell Berry’s combination of individualistic family farming and hardnosed environmentalism, which The Unsettling of America (1977) also makes into a programmatic politics. Where Nearing recreated Vermont and Maine farms (and even a partial rural community), and Berry restored a Kentucky farmstead, California’s somewhat different arcadianism may be represented by Gary Snyder as poet spokesman, in such works as Earth Household (1969) and The Real Work (1980), for a larger rural communalism. Snyder propounds a combination of western localism with limited technology guided by a “Bioregional Ethic” and ecological-organic “Right Livelihood” with Orientalized mysticism, American Indian ritualism, and radical independence for what he announces as the early stages of a hundred-year evolving back-to-the-land utopian movement to transform America. No doubt it will take a hundred years, and a hundred million and more reduction in population, for the earth household to become the dominant American pattern of living again. But that is hardly a sufficient argument against it.

The Anti-technocratic Meaning of Utopian Ruralism

Though not necessarily anti-technological—more often than not this utopian ruralism employs a Whole Earth Catalog sophistication about practical tools—such arcadianism is certainly anti-statist, anti-corporatist, anti-technocratic. While it would be false simplification to reduce what is perhaps the most popular continuing American utopianism to a single overt ideology, it may plausibly be linked with the Buddhistically decentralist and limited technology economics of British E. F. Schumacher—Small Is Beautiful (1969), A Guide for the Perplexed (1975), and Good Work (1979)—which represents a significant theorizing for some of it. Contrary to common denunciations of the utopian, this has a modesty, partly based in compassionate religious morality, which is hardly “constructivist,” collectivist, scientistic, or violently revolutionary. Indeed, much of it must be characterized by its commensense practicality even though its somewhat sacral economics conjoins with the tradition of utopian saintliness of such as Tolstoy and Ghandi as well as Thoreau. We somewhat skeptical may, of course, detect a rather “saving remnant” messianic psychology to this utopianist radical conservativism around an antiquely holistic rural and domestic life.

Critical Awareness of the Roots of American Utopian Communalism:
Communes as Entrepreneurial Social Experiments

Historian Arthur Bestor suggested that earlier forms of American utopian communalism were a social correlative of the Yankee inventor-entrepreneur, producing “patent-office models” of social experiment. That would be a fairly central part of the historic American ethos, which has been marked by an intriguing plethora of such contraptions. The homesteaders and arcadian prophets previously cited may be the more enduring part of the often naive and messy communalism of the late-1960s-early-1970s which curiously turned political radicalism into privateering small-group utopianism, frequently with a mystical or hallucinatory or other cultist overlay. Some of it, as with the earlier in origin but continuing Catholic Worker communalism for society’s victims—see the autobiography of the saintly founder, Dorothy Day, A Long Loneliness (1951)—reaches back several generations, and indirectly into millennia of holy refuges. But this admirable side of communalism should not mislead us into a positive view of all communalism. Some of it—the murderous “Manson Family” is only the most notorious example—can be characterized as nothing less than evil. Between Day and Manson, there is a considerable variety. I am appalled at both general condemnations and affirmations (see Nozick, below) of utopian communalism; critical discrimination, especially from a libertarian perspective, is essential here, too. Characteristic, I think, of a considerable part of the recent wave of communalism, a good bit of which still continues, was not social autonomy and institutional experiment and economic self-sufficiency and positive individualism, but the protective marginality of the weak, the sick, the outcast, and others of the immense number of “losers” in our often ruthless and anomic orderings. Representative of some of this may be the over-praised writings of the mawkish juvenile prophet of such utopian pathos, Raymond Mungo, such as his Total Loss Farm (1970). As the more thoughtful Judson Jerome pointed out in his Families of Eden (1974), though himself an advocate of such protective “Edenism,” many of the communes were simply temporary sanctuaries for weakness.

Utopian Communes and Cultural Radicalism:
Communalism as a Refuge for Individualist Freedom

The utopian communes which endure, as argued by Roberts in The New Communes (1971), either have a cohesive religious emphasis (though not necessarily as rigid as those of the Hutterite, Amish, Bruderhof, etc.) or a considerable entrepreneurial discipline (though not necessarily as conventional-legal as that of Oneida, Amana, etc.). Even more than in the past, much of contemporary “intentional community” is intentionally a phase, transitional, and with little larger claim to perfectionist and other ideal and lasting conditions—temporary withdrawal or moratoria, argues Melville in Communes in the Counter Culture (1972). Indeed, one of the more learned accounts, a comparison of some nineteenth-century and late twentieth-century intentional communities, Kanter’s Commitment and Community(1972), emphasizes the temporary “retreat” ideology dominant in much contemporary communalism. Perhaps more importantly, I think, following historian Laurence Vesey, The Communal Experience: Anarchist and Mystical Counter-Cultures in America (1973), the continuities of the communal are less to be found in political and economic programs than in the expression of a long continuing underground of cultural radicalism. Many of the communes, I suggest, might best be understood as something like Hegel understood a work of art in relation to the geist—as a “concrete universal” of a larger culture of discontent and dissidence.

From my perspective here (which ignores many of the other issues, and cases, of communalism) there is a pertinent insight in one of the conclusions of a recent (1976) British study: “secular communes…are above all attempts to create pockets of freedom…sufficiently insulated from society for the ideal of possessive individualism to be realized…” Communalism, then, paradoxically asserts and protects individualism. But any broad account needs to emphasize other values as well. Contemporary intentional communities provide not only cultural dissidence, individualist experiments, and therapeutic refuges, but education in the literal sense. Thus A. S. Neill’s Summerhill, as a schooling community, and Black Mountain College, as an art-academic community, can easily be demonstrated to have had pervasive effects exponentially beyond their small scales and muddled realities. As Paul Avrich makes clear in his history of some earlier examples, The Modern School Movement (1980), these school-community-movements were the products of and producers of exceptional individuals. Inescapable ironies include that these utopians, defying bourgeois society in their communal experiments, carried out some of its deepest imperatives of autonomy, enterprise, variety, self-assertion, and change—the very spirit of individualism.

The Significance of Marginal “Little Utopias”

Indeed, I find some communalism rather ugly in its emphasis on individual redemption, though also recognizing that if it does not suggest a larger social redemption it at least suggests significant changes in American society. And after all, our conservative and liberal ideologies and institutions patently do not provide adequate sources and expressions of much of our style and sensibility, of our oppositions and freedoms and possibilities. Without both utopian courage and confusion, we would have a duller culture and a deader society and perhaps a more hopeless future. Little utopias may at least be a test of the more general utopian possibility of American society; without an effulgence of them, it stands self-condemned on its own principles of liberty. However, it does not follow that little utopias, essentially marginal to a different large system, add up to an adequate utopia.

Small Business Urban Counter-utopianism:
The Revolt against Bureaucracy

Part of the marginality is that when utopias were conceived as rural (the predominant past form of American communalism) they can have only very limited relevance to a society now dominantly urbanized. A perhaps important new development of American self-reliant homesteader utopianism is its contemporary application to the city. A few of its points might be represented by a recent little utopian exercise, Community Technology (1979) by Karl Hess, a charmingly notorious ideologue who seems to have been a liberal, a conservative, a right-libertarian, and now a decentralist utopian. On what I take to be the undeniable principle that “local liberty” is crucial to all other liberties, he sketches a rather practical “argument for community participation with all of the diversity and resultant flexibility that implies” in the development of production and distribution. This aims at the local creation of food, energy, and services on a participatory neighborhood level, including participatory capitalism. “Small business is suddenly a counter-cultural phenomena.” In contrast to “liberal consumerism” (perhaps represented by Naderism), we have a restatement of the utopian principle that goes back through the rural homesteaders, Morris, and the arcadian tradition: “the work people do is far more significant than the things they buy.” This leads to small business, communal technology, apprenticeships over schooling, localist politics, and neighborhood rescaled values as well as organizations. While all this surely reflects the current dispersal of sophisticated technology and skills, the deeper imperative is a desperate counter-utopianism to inhumane scale in a corporate-statist bureaucratic society and culture.

The Urbanization of Arcadian Utopianism: Callenbach and Others

Some of the programmatic extensions, including parturbanization, of arcadian utopianism might reasonably be represented by Ernest Callenbach’s popular Ecotopia (1975). This radical environmentalist romance has northern California (and the Pacific Northwest) secede from the rest of a degenerating America in the 1980s in order to create a society which attempts to “decentralize and personalize wherever possible.” The revolutionism involved in this appears relatively low-keyed, consistent with the uncoercive cast of most ecological and decentralist utopianism. But perhaps the point should not be over-generalized. An exactly contemporaneous work, Edward Abbey’s The Monkey-Wrench Gang (1975) expresses a lively Luddite environmentalist-individualist radicalism; it makes macho guerrilla application of what the title suggests to as much as possible of the technological infrastructure of the Western states, though still with considerable scrupulousness about destroying property (machines, roads, dams) rather than people. Such works may also remind us that coercion is no simple issue: Is it better to be controlled by machines or to break machines? Is it better to be a satisfyingly aggressive individual or pervasively hostile in subordination to a hierarchy? Is it more coercive to be indoctrinatingly conformist or angrily disruptive?

To return to Ecotopia. It argues for an urban “steady-state” total-recycling economy. However, it is fundamentally different from the classic utopias’ hierarchical static economies since it depends on continuing ecological innovation and competitive small enterprise in a somewhat conflictful participatory democracy. Callenbach also mixes in pagan tree worship (part of the very ancient pastoral mythos), debureaucratized science, American Indian cultism (as also with Snyder and other West Coast coteries), current pluralistic sexual communalism rather than traditional families, and exalted artisan crafts (shades of Morris), and, for dispersing aggression, rather fancifully non-lethal war games. A powerful commitment to personal liberties is central. But those viewing it from alien perspectives may be shocked by the degree to which aesthetics determines economics, politics, and morality. That which is beautiful is what finally works the best.

There are more complicated variations on this. For example, Robert Nichols has presented in four volumes Daily Lives in Nghsi-Altai (1977-79) which combines in rather synthetic poetic forms shamanistic primitivism, hyper-sophisticated technology, and alternating economic cycles of competitive market order and decentralist co-operative order, under the intellectual guidance in this mythical asia of reincarnated Western visionaries (Blake, Whitman, Morris, etc.). Primitivism/technologism, capitalism/cooperativism, communalism/individualism, thus become part of a self-correcting social dynamics. We are far, indeed, from the static economies and absolutistic moralities thought of as characterising classical utopias.

Radical Arcadian Utopias for Personal Freedom:
Humanizing, Debureaucratizing, and Depowering Society

Arcadian utopias usually focus on states of feeling, relationships, and the aesthetic, thus relating to the Golden Age images of primordial human harmonies. In the sophisticated versions, industry, commerce, and science are not eliminated but debureaucratized and drastically subject to aesthetic and other humane considerations. While recent American arcadianism attempts to meet city realities, it remains a devolutionary urbanism (à la Wright, really), pastoral in its ideals. Given the undeniable long history of the social rigidity and “the imbecility of rural life” (in Marx’s contemptuous phrase), the pastoral radicalism stands mostly alien to traditional socialism and social-democracy. However, there is a minority socialist tradition—decentralist, anti-coercive, personalistic, utopian—as represented, say, by Martin Buber’s Paths in Utopia (1951), which would be less antithetical. Decentralist utopianism carries such a revulsion to centralized authority and domination as to make it hostile to the larger part of both traditional leftism and rightism in politics.

Some recent political philosophy, such as James Ogilvy’s Many Dimensional Man (1977) attempts some conceptual structures for such views (though not admitting the utopianism, and not very adequately), as, more richly, does such institutional social theory as Kirkpatrick Sale’s Human Scale(1980). But as usual in social politics, demarcation of views is hardly very pure and some of the arcadian-utopian values appear in supposedly reformist consumer-environmentalist views, as may be seen in the syncretistic compendium of Hazel Henderson, Creating Alternative Futures (1978). Common to all of these is a degree of depowering (probably including a lowering of population, of affluence, of technological expansion, of nation-state roles, etc.), which must make such views, however increasingly widespread, antithetical to mainstream right-left politics. Not surprisingly, more than any other contemporary ideology this utopianism emphasizes the concrete values of personal freedom.

Utopian Personal and Sensual Freedom

Much of that freedom is “personal” indeed, with a strong emphasis on the sexual and other sensuality. This stands in sharp contrast to the often ascetic, if not puritanical, cast of much classic utopianism, and almost all revolutionism. But, again, the issue does not properly break down to a classic-ascetic and modern-sensual dichotomizing. An intellectually minor but nonetheless significant and persisting tradition of an ideal society has been that which emphasized what repressed moral philosophers used to call “license.”

The Saturnalian

Some of it appears in popular ancient practices temporarily reversing the established order and its prohibitions: as in the Saturnalia (Rome), the ribald mockeries and freedoms of the Feast of Fools and periods of “misrule” (high Medieval Europe), and the elements of these still retained (especially at folkish levels) in more modern carnivals and fairs, and in similar permissive periods which anthropologists describe in a variety of cultures. Perhaps certain contemporary American customs could be historically viewed as Suburban Saturnalias, if not weekend utopianism.

The saturnalian enters literature and myth in lavish food-wine-sex-leisure fantasies which appear in various tales and poems of a legendary Land of Cockaigne (England), Venusberg and Lubberland (on the Continent), and The Big Rock Candy Mountain (as in the American hobo ballad of that name, bowdlerized of its booze and homosexuality into a children’s folk song). These gluttonous places of immediate gratification exalt the pleasures of the bottle and the body. Recall the sprawling bodies and hanging pies in Brueghel’s famous painting of Schlaraffenland. Concern with such immediate ecstasies often gets denigratingly tied to students and poets, as with the late Medieval Goliards who clearly made the wine bottle their summum bonum, or to other “irresponsible” marginal groups in the populace. Where some classic utopias encouraged indulgence in the philosopher’s vices of symmetrical forms and contemplations, or the politician’s obsessions with hierarchical orderings, later utopias absorb more vulgar dreams and even make rituals around marijuana (Ecotopia) or hallucinogenics (Aldous Huxley’sIsland). Exclusionary lines around allowable pleasures here would smack not only of the anti-libertarian but of utopianist snobbery. Tangible pleasures, rather than the more dangerously abstract presumption of general happiness, after all, is much of what the direct sensing of a better time and place must be about. The legitimation of the denied, be it political or social or personal, may always be a major impetus to the utopian.

Sexual Utopianism and Family Relations

Thus also with the peculiar liberties of what some contemporary wit has labeled “pornotopia”—the fusion of the pornographic and the utopian. But sexual utopianism may take other forms. A large number of utopian stories and schemes work hard at reconceiving family relations, be it in Plato’s male-statist autocracy of communally sharing the women and children, or More’s ameliorist liberalization of the patriarchal family, or Judson Jerome’s contemporary arguments for (in Families of Eden), and apparently practice of, a more liberated “extended family” with extended sexuality. Until recently, arcadian utopianism, whether in literary pastoral or back-to-the-land movements, tended to the romantic, that is, monogamous, relationships, while utopias of a more liberal or socialistic cast have been historically identified with the equality of women, and therefore less intense and looser familial patterns. That later is true of the important Enlightenment sexual utopia, Diderot’s Supplement to Bougainville’s Voyage (1772). This dialogue around a utopianized Tahiti presents radical Enlightenment erotic views, including urbane but emphatic justifications of open and various sexuality, with incest and free exchange of partners and children, in a harsh critique of pseudo-civilized European mores.

A more elaborate libertarian sexual ethos came out of the weird genius of the endlessly utopian Fourier. His ideal Phalanstery had 1620 psychological types, and therefore defended drastic sexual variety, including lesbianism, multiple relationships, what were conventionally considered “perversions” (as long as consensual and unhypocritical), very contemporary sounding sexual therapies, and rather post-contemporary elaborate means for providing sensual gratification for the old and the peculiar. Even more significantly, Fourier fused his sexual theories with ideas for more gratifying ways of work, of complex community, and of elaborate rituals and games, in a concern that goes beyond the usual utopian focus on virtue and justice and harmony to a joyous society.

The Roots of Recent Hedonic Utopianism

That may point to present hedonic utopias. The sources of the eroticized utopianism of the past several generations are no doubt various: skepticism and other liberal reasoning about religious-moral asceticism; the decline of patriarchalism, slavery, caste, other forms of sexual inequality and therefore exploitation; the brilliant post-romantic libidinal psychologies—Stendahl, Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, Lawrence, et al., unto Freud and the post-Freudians; hygienic-medical changes which provided increased freedom from the great sexual maladies, including venereal diseases and excessive pregnancies; the history of utopian sexual experiments; and, even though hard to quite tie down, covert mysticalerotic traditions of some enduring power. Whatever the complex inducements, our erotic prophets have attempted a large reach, beyond mere pornotopias and amorous freedoms, to visions of a passionally liberated and transformed post-civilization.

Erotic Utopianism: Wilhelm Reich, Norman O. Brown, and Herbert Marcuse

Some of these have been scientistic and left-psychoanalytic, as with Wilhelm Reich’s The Sexual Revolution (1934). His radical demand for a new sexual ethos, including one for adolescents, combined with a deviant Marxist revolutionism and, finally, with a messianic cosmology in his theory of “orgone energy” which could cure cancer and change character. Reichianism may not have had substantial influence until translated into libertarian educational practice, as with A. S. Neill’s extremely influential Summerhill and into socially radical therapy, as with Fritz Perls and Paul Goodman’s Gestalt Therapy (1950), and similar psychologies. But the original Reichian sexual revolution was utopian in the grandiose sense of claiming a transformation of the whole society.

A more ornately cultivated, inward-turning, and finally mystical erotic utopianism may be represented by Norman O. Brown, Life Against Death (1959) and Love’s Body (1965). Mentally, at least, his is a “eutopia” located in a land where a “polymorphous perverse” sexuality leads to a transcendence of ordinary dualisms. Partly by historical propinquity, Brown’s erotic other-worldliness often gets linked to its rather different predecessor, Eros and Civilization (1955), where Herbert Marcuse’s neoMarxist arguments attempted to revise Freud’s requirements of instinctual repression for civilized order, including economic productivity. In “Phantasy and Utopia,” for example, Marcuse argued that the fundamental enlargement of the “aesthetic-erotic dimension” would remain in limited subservience to the “realm of necessity” of economics, which itself would be reduced by automated affluence.

But in later writings Marcuse moved further from both Marxism and from a utopianism based, as the classical usually was, on a considerable degree of scarcity. In “The End of Utopia” (1970), by which is meant the realization of the utopian ideal of the fullest aesthetic-erotic possibilities in society, it is suggested that the Hegelian-Marxist distinction between the realms of “freedom” and “necessity” can finally be superceded. Economic productivity can be transformed into non-repressive passional play, work into pleasure for all, and thus there can be a near total release of the lifeenhancing fullness of human being. In thus going beyond the ancient curses of work and other repression society would achieve the highest utopian ideal, though it is one hardly presented, or its consequences reckoned with, in such neoHegelian abstract poetry.

The Search for a Free Libidinal Economy

Curiously, this reification carries on the Golden Age vision of a primordial human fullness of life. Erotic utopianism shifts from the mythic past to the arcadian present to the mystically transcendent future; archetypal private amorousness becomes onanistic dream hypostatized into a passionally liberated civilization. It has spawned some more literal utopianism along its historical way: sexual communalism, from the Ranters in seventeenth-century England through John Humphrey Noyes’ Oneida community in nineteenth-century America—the latter a patriarchal authoritarian “regulated promiscuity,” yet perhaps anti-repressive in its larger effects. Apparently, Medieval European Christianity produced literal love sects just as the contemporary erotic philosophizing helped produce communal sexual experiments, such as novelistically represented in Robert Rimmer’s The Harrad Experiment (1966), and many others. The search for a more open, good, true, and beautiful libidinal economy is at least as central to the utopian impetus as other kinds of economics—and as important to libertarian values.

Technological Utopianism: Escapes from the Human

Technocratic vs. Arcadian Utopianism

If in this direction utopianism is the erotic poetry of politics, in another it is the fantasies of technology. While I tend to see the arcadian and the technocratic as antithetical, there are odd overlaps and mixes sometimes. Yet certainly an adequate response to technological issues must be central to any serious modern Western utopianism. Key economic issues are involved. Classical utopias tended to limited and fixed technologies, and therefore what moderns consider a society of scarcity. When there are hardly enough goods to go around, the problems of distributive justice may loom larger than when there is, or fairly readily could be, a surplus of goods. Much of modern arcadian utopianism retains considerable continuity with the past, but even in its “stable-state” economies and anti-industrial and anti-technocratic views often assumes a sophistication of technology which allows for some relative degree of surplus. Perhaps it should be argued that some degree of surplus, though certainly not what constitutes wasteful and luxurious modern affluence, is necessary for wide individual liberty. Does practical freedom presuppose a not too drastic economic price for some mobility, for some mistakes, for some alternatives?

Technocratic Elitism and Scientistic Religion

But the existence of some technological sophistication and the consequent surplus is not the usual area of dispute between the antithetical utopianisms. The central, the defining and dominant (elitist) role of what used to be called the “new knowledge” often is. Since the exaltation of the House of Solomon, an ambitious science institute, in Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis (ca. 1614), the roles of both elitist technicians and scientistic faith can be seen as utopian issues. For example, scientistic religion (for it can hardly be considered anything less) becomes one of the watershed lines in nineteenth-century utopianism, with Saint-Simon and Comte and Bellamy as pietists, Fourier and Thoreau and Morris as heretics. H. G. Wells, one of the most influential twentieth-century utopian propounders as well as fictionists specifically acknowledges Bacon’s emphasis on science-as-power as the earlier line of his dynamic A Modern Utopia. This garrulous essay-fiction around a “World State” with a non-egalitarian competitive and bureaucratic hypermechanized welfarist order (public work projects, rehabilitation of the deviant, endless education—97% go to college) has elitist rule by a scientific-minded “voluntary nobility” which is a “caste.” Similar orderings are common to technocratic utopias.

H.G. Wells’ Technocratic Religion of Man:
From Demi-god to Fallen Angel

Wells did a variety of utopian proposals and fictions. The most libertarian appearing was Men Like Gods (1923), which supposedly had no central state, though the domination of science and other uniform indoctrination—“education is our government” and “runs everything”—perhaps makes that hypocritical. Furthermore, Wells has here violated the basic utopian premises with his society more than a hundred generations in the future, after elaborate “eugenic” development (we now call it “genetic engineering”); thus, in contrast to the earlier men-pretty-much-as-they-are in A Modern Utopia, we have “a cleansed and perfected humanity,” a world of “demi-gods.” I would argue that this is not utopian in a serious sense but scientistic fantasy, not just because Wells was an earlier adapter of the Theory of Relativity into space-time shifts and psychic transmission but because this by definition cannot be a human society. While no simple formula will adequately define homo sapiens for cultural and social purposes, I think, there are limits of existing human possibilities which allow the significant grounds of agreement for our disagreements on politics, psychology, economics, art, language, love, and much else. Fundamentally change the premises by substantially changing the beings and the arguments become meaningless. As with other-worldly religions, this scientistic other-world depends on acts of faith and magic, not acts of human intelligence and will and sensibility.

Even should the demi-god future come to be, it would not be of interest to us—an improbable possibility, Aristotle pointed out, is not suitable to human poetry—because the very modes of thought and feeling would be essentially different. Part of Wells’ premise is what used to be thought of as a “faith in progress,” though perhaps better characterized as “perfectionism.” For instance, “thanks to a certain obscure and indomitable righteousness in the blood of the human type,” he must advance into utopia. Thus no issue remains except faith. But in his last discussion of the subject, Mind at the End of Its Tether (1946), Wells announced that “Homo sapiens…is in his present form played out,” and our “universe is not merely bankrupt…it is going out of existence…The attempt to trace a pattern of any sort is absolutely futile.” With the loss of faith, the despair over the lack of a guaranteed “pattern,” Wells had no social view left. That but confirms the scientistic religiosity of his earlier one.

Fuller’s Mechanical Utopianism and Other Technological Escapes from the Human

Many still belong to one or another church of Wells-like religion, and make utopian protestations of faith. One of the best-known American examples, R. Buckminster Fuller, proclaims that the choice is either his engineering paradise or our current slide into the damnation of inefficiency in Utopia or Oblivion (1969). In his Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth (1963) he insisted that the issue was the re-creation of the “total world society” (perhaps from Wells’ insistent popularization of that totalism, rare in other utopian traditions except for the millennial) by a “world-round industrial retooling revolution.” What in fact Fuller does is grossly deploy design analogies to correct everything. Whatever the merits of his geodesic and dymaxion devices, and similar engineering designs, the faith that they will redeem all societies can only be megalomania. When he announces that properly programmed computers will take care of our political problems and that there are no real difficulties of over-population or technocratic elitism or resource limitation, we are in the fantasy land of the simpleminded. Fuller’s thinking, a sympathetic anthropologist points out, doesn’t even try to “learn how many behave,” but simply would impose a technology and “expect man to adapt…” The vacuous optimism of such mechanical utopianism depends on a lack of human dimensions.

Other learned cultists may not appear quite so simple. Respected Princeton scientist Gerard K. O’Neill, in The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space (1977), thinks that his utopia on gigantic artificial islands in the asteroid belt would be better than “classical utopian concepts.” And he concludes, with the usual technological religiosity, that the colonies would have better governments and better social systems. With charming incoherence, he is pessimistic about the same beings on earth. Thus, desperate with over-population and other problems, we need here the antithetical utopia of an “industry-free, pastoral Earth,” apparently as a backwoods colony for the space beings whose technological purity will make them superior.

The philosopher Hannah Arendt noted a generation ago that the language and imagery of popular technologues often reveals a peculiar longing to escape earthly life. Underlying the optimism seems to be a repulsion to the variousness that those without technological fixation find central to human existence. Don’t these technologues negate the very fabric which allows and gives meaning to our freedom? But perhaps escaping freedom is the real desire.

Other Sons of Wells: Escapes from Human Mortality

Others further the escape from the human by fancies of genetic transformation, total psychic reconditioning, even literal immortality. I am not sure when that last became a utopian theme; one scholar links it with the rise of new biological theories in the nineteenth century. Perhaps it can be traced back to alchemical and Faustian promises of “new knowledge” as well as a displacement from religious traditions. Certainly in the past generation it has taken on literalist and even programmatic claims not much evident in earlier times, as with Alan Harrington, The Immortalist (1977). His optimistic medical projections conclude with “Notes on a Utopia Beyond Time” which blandly announces that living forever would answer social, moral, and psychological problems. F. M. Esfandiary’s crude jottings entitled Up-Wingers (1973) hold that “Everything is now possible,” including cosmic consciousness, superutopias, and literal immortality. Such symptoms of ideological manic-depression can hardly be argued with, though the literate might recall the anecdote from Petronius’ first-century Satyricon which T. S. Eliot used as an epigraph to The Waste Land(1922). Its import is the despairing condition of the Sibyl at Cumae to whom Apollo had granted eternal life but not eternal youth (some things are beyond plausible gods, and plausible doctors). The forever aging Sibyl cries for death. These immortalist fantasts might take heed, for, if any characteristic at all is not regenerated, deathlessness may become exponentially horrendous. Even a few centuries of arthritis, or a “drinking problem,” or just bad memories, might be hard to take.

Hip-technotopians and Perfectibilism

Such writings of what we might call the hip-technotopians may give even utopia a bad name, unless we view them as comic routines. A recent routine of Timothy Leary, libertarian guru of the swiss-cheese-brain-generation, includes the scientistic super-utopian pronouncement that new technologism “will eliminate the prescientific problems of poverty, territorial conflict, disease, aging, death, pollution, over-population,” and yet apparently create no new problems. The “New Scientists” will save us from everything, except perhaps the ugly literalness of their devotees who forget that even in fairy tales wishes are limited. More deadpan comical at times is Leary’s devotee, the avowed extreme-right libertarian science fictionist and burlesque prophet, Robert Anton Wilson. In The Illuminati Papers (1981) he scores some odd political points, such as demonstrating that science fiction is a world-wide paranoid conspiracy and demanding that O’Neill’s space colonies be “free libertarian communes.” Wilson also embraces endless technological fantasies, new drug-induced forms of “consciousness,” and instant “immortality” (“some people alive today will never die”). However, he may self-destruct in what he defines as his own great “Utopian” effort: “a worldwide War Against Stupidity” (perhaps an unconscious parody of Wells’ “campaign against the dull”), since the unilateral blandness doesn’t make very intelligent burlesque of technocratic utopianism.

Let us hope these self-parodying Sons-of-Wells reach a nicer final tether than their master, who perhaps paid the price of never quite losing his critical sense. It must be peaceful to have a one-way logic which only produces the good, and quite eliminates any problem of human freedom. But living forever with cosmic consciousness in a perfect world must be a trifle dull. “Perfectibilism,” rightly notes philosopher John Passmore, “is dehumanizing” in its denial of a reasonably full range of human limitations and possibilities. Yet to jump from that to total rejection of the utopian may be to commit a parallel dehumanization, to refuse to recognize, Passmore concludes, “that man is capable of becoming something much superior to what he now is.” Necessarily, he may also become much inferior.

Futurology, Predictions, and Dystopia

The quaint extremes of hip-technotopianism remind us that utopia is only interesting when it maintains a tension with present realities. No wonder that many a modern utopian has felt impelled to turn (as I will below) to the ambiguous, the negative, the satiric, the black utopia—the dystopia—as essential to a fuller awareness. One may also be driven to the dystopia by the more pontifically earnest form of technocratic utopianism pretending to be the science of “futurology.” While there has been some overlap of futuristic predictions with pious technological utopias in the century since Bellamy, especially in the Wellsian line, images and arguments for ideal and alternative societies and institutions no more predict the future than Golden Age mythologies “explain” the past. Herman Kahn, perhaps the most famous contemporary American futurologist, is no more a utopian than was Nostradamus—and apparently no more accurate in seeing towards The Year 2000 (1967), having so far been wrong on inflation and energy problems, as well as earlier slight miscalculations on when the nuclear bombs would be going off. But perhaps futurology, one of the less pretty forms of astrology, can no more be argued with than other addictions.

The Black Futurists

Predictions beyond the trivial and truistic require that the unknown and non-understood be presented in yet recognizable and acceptable terms—analogies, metaphors, dramaturgical forms, and the rest of aesthetic coherence—which means that they cannot be literally true. Aesthetically, one may prefer the black futurists, as one prefers the Inferno to the Paradiso. For instance, systemsanalyst Vacca’s The Coming Dark Age (1973) projects exponential consequences of coinciding malfunctions of “systems” (energy, health, communications, etc.), which by even the best probability definitions could not be specific and timed, but only the fantasy formulation of some of the anxieties especially engendered by our elaborate organizational dependence—no doubt a proper focus of fears. To answer those might include a utopian proposal of different institutions, but that would in no way be a prediction. The negative prophecies, of course, may also be informed by a punitive motivation; just as the arcadian fictions and programs almost invariably include the magic of affirmative ritual prayer, so the black prophecies carry the protective magic of the curse, and its exhilaration of release.

Elitist Dark Futures: Heilbroner and Bell

Such strange logics, and psycho-logics, appear at work in much futuristic writing. Thus, to take a well-known example, left political economist Robert Heilbroner in An Inquiry into the Human Prospect (1974) appears so committed to what he considers an antiutopian realism that he concludes by projecting an authoritarian dystopia—a theocratic-militaristic collectivism—in drastic antithesis to his announced democratic values. I suggest that this is not just a fancy crying of “Wolf!” but a self-cursing release of the ideological despair, the inverted utopianism, which marks so much of responsive contemporary socialism.

In another well-known example of the more tendentious mainstream social science, Daniel Bell’s The Coming of Post-Industrial Society(1974), the predictive and utopian are subsumed into a supposedly structural analysis. But patently, Bell’s sophisticated defense of “rational functionalism” serves as apologia for his utopian concept of elitist guardian rule by intellectual technocrats. He positively projects the dominance of technological bureaucracies in what libertarians must view as one of the more nasty, and probable, dystopias around, since it seems to be the implicit program of a good many. When Bell went on to further justify this technocracy in his more polemical The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (1976, 1978), the issue becomes, as in so much ideological dispute these days, one of culture rather more than of economics and politics. Rightly pointing to major disparities in the prevalent educated attitudes about business, government, and ways of living, he went on to condemn critical modernist culture and allied sensibility as undermining the “functional rationalism” which must rule. The utopianism is unadmitted but clear in the self-aggrandizing effort to give supremacy to the conservative, but endlessly manipulative, consciousness needed for the rising technocracy and its true order.

New Age Counterings to Technocracy and Rational Functionalism

Satin’s New Age Utopianism

Now there is currently a utopianism explicitly dedicated to countering just such values, a self-consciously counter ideology. Variously called “the later counterculture,” “the new consciousness,” “the new civilization,” “the New Age,” etc., it is highly and confusingly syncretistic, as can be seen in examining a primer dedicated to it, Mark Satin’s New Age Politics: Healing Self and Society (1979). This manual for the “the new culture” claims that it “provides full alternatives” to present society, and also makes “extrapolations” into the far future. Though some of its concern is with intentional communities (communes), which are the most vivid proof “that there are other ways of doing things,” it is more generally a literal noplace utopianism, more cultural than political, a loose movement of [39]allied sensibilities. While emphatic about specific projects, neighborhoods, communities, its basic order is really the sympathetic-consciousness “network” of similar styles. Much of it, not very knowingly, is a programmatic form of arcadian utopianism.

I find much of Satin’s “New Age” approach a poignant muddle, as in the combination of hardnosed “intermediate technology” (Kohr, Schumacher, Illich, Hess, et al.) and mushheaded occultism (astrology, ESP, Orientalism, Castaneda, and dozens of the shoddiest forms of psychotherapy). It also links very specific protest politics (such as the anti-military or anti-nuclear power) with the vaguest “planetary consciousness.” It claims the latest technologies (solar, pharmaceutical, etc.) and the oldest holistic medicine and organic fertilizing. It displays considerable intellectual openness, and considerable bad cultural taste, yet the responsiveness is as insistent as the muddleness.

Historically, part of this marginal or alternative culture (as I prefer to call it) carries on the “Youth Culture” of the 1960s grown into middle-aged earnestness (Satin was a “hippy” Vietnam War resister), with some of the people as well as ideology continuous. It also carries on the Beat-bohemian-transcendentalist minority and experimental and utopian culture in America, and its even older “underground” European traditions. What unity it has may be largely stylistic and temperamental, but some concerns are common: “ecology” (radical environmentalism, often carried to arcadian sanctification); decentralizing in most spheres (not only anti-statist and anti-corporate but anti-monolithic educational, cultural, etc.); and the attempted rejection of traditional antagonistic ideological positionings—capitalism/socialism, science/religion, personal/public—for a hopeful syncretistic embrace. In economics, for example, it tends to be very anti-leftist in the collectivist senses. “New Age Capitalism” is defended and defined as an alternative to both the “state capitalist” and “corporate capitalist” modes, though with an obvious left-derived communalist context and co-operative ethic.

Other New Age Utopians: Thompson and Roszak

Among scores of writers who might be identified with this utopianist “movement,” I have already touched on a few in the arcadian context. But several more with intellectual and prophetic ambitions might also be briefly noted. Ex-academic historian William Irwin Thompson, in At the Edge of History(1971), renounced mere history for participation in a “new consciousness’ and “cultural transformation.” In Passages About Earth (1974) he propounded not just a new community or new society but a “new civilization.” Some of this comes out as a continuation of traditional American utopianism of a Jeffersonian cast, more or less anti-statist and decentralist, but fused with a strange mixture of the mystical and positive-technological. He claims to explore new realms of being towards the creation of a new religion for a Wellsian one-world society. So much of this megalomania operates at a mythological level that realities remain obscure, though Thompson apparently projects a high-technology infrastructure and a monastic-communal social ordering. But most of his concern does not move at such a paltry level. In The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light (1981), he explores, with a considerable show of scholarship, some episodes of undervalued matriarchal mythology in order to return our consciousness to the centrality of the Eternal Feminine. Such values of new consciousness have been obscured by the false culture of a male-power civilization. “Perhaps if we are blessed by the old gods in the next civilization that will follow after this one has played itself out, we will come to appreciate the ancient and forgotten wisdom.” As so often with utopian sensibility, the latest discovery puts us back in the old Golden Age, or anyway in an androgynous myth thought to go with it. But, apparently, the new-old “sacrament of Eros” will require a new man-woman for the new “world-epoch.” That regenerative totalism also puts us, as my earlier arguments noted, beyond the level of the human required for most pertinent social-political thought, especially in terms of the liberties of mere unredeemed humans, such as you and me.

Roszak’s Personalist Countering of Bell’s Technocratic Utopianism

One of the best-known contemporary utopians of a sweeping cast is the nearly as syncretistic Theodore Roszak. In The Making of a Counter-Culture (1969) he rather skittishly tried to combine dissident “youth culture,” Paul Goodman’s anarchism, the erotic utopianism of Marcuse and Norman O. Brown, bits of Oriental religiosity, and anti-militarism and anti-industrialism, into a rather romantic-utopian transformation of stolid American social character.

When the youth culture and some of his heroes declined, he enlarged the argument into a broader but not very insightful neoromantic attack on modernist culture—ironically, the same focus but far different purposes and allegiances than the antithetical utopian Bell—in Where the Wasteland Ends (1973). Religion rather more fully takes over from culture in his Unfinished Animal, “The Aquarian Frontier and the Evolution of Consciousness” (1975). This surveys current cultish religions and psychotherapies as forms of “The Hidden Wisdom” being revealed to us through “occult evolution.” (As with much modern utopianism—contra-Nozick, again, below—evolutionary metaphors are central.) Roszak can conceit together any old social radicalism and new mysticism, the latest in ecology and the laxest in metaphysics, admirable feminism and contemptible psychobabble, and all to utopian ends. But I am unable to find much logic as to why the new true believers will reject the technocratic and join in “participatory community as the essential reality of social life.” My social perceptions, and dialectical sense, suggest both that Roszak may be describing instead a new NeoHellenistic “failure of nerve” (Gilbert Murray) of a declining technocracy, and that his mystagogues are some of its more fanciful parasites. But his arguments always do struggle for what used to be called “social consciousness” (his pre-Ivy League origins were moderately deprived), and he longs to propose “visionary communities” to lead the utopian way to the radicalization of society.

Roszak’s continuation of the quasi-dissident mapping in Person/Planet: The Creative Disintegration of Industrial Society (1978) makes a renewed affirmation of the freedom and development of the person as primary over any socio-economic institutions. A decentralist, of course, Roszak does a bit of what most of them fail to do, such as strongly acknowledging that small organizations, face-to-face groupings, dispersed structures, can also be tyrannical. Quite rightly he sees that a decentralist social ethic and anti-statist political ethic, while desirable and justifiable, are not sufficient. Yet his discriminations always seem skittish, falling back into “personalist” pieties and anxiously eclectic yokings of social radicalisms and religiosities. He makes earnest but not seriously examined suggestions, such as a renewed “monastic paradigm” for future utopias. But it is not incidental that inPerson/Planet Roszak criticizes (though quite thinly, and without his opponent’s rigor) Daniel Bell’s vision of post-industrial society noted above. For in considerable part Roszak may be understood as counterutopianizing in his personalistic communalism to the “functional-rationalist” apologetics for a totalist technocracy, our almost achieved utopia. And it seems clear to me, in spite of much criticism and disagreement, that the personalist utopianism rather than the technocratic utopianism is more on the side of individual liberty.

Dialectical Counterings to Utopian and Technological Optimism

When confronted with presumptuous claims of that sort of contemporary utopianism which pronounces for a “new consciousness,” or a “new civilization,” or a “new planetary culture,” or just a “new age,” the more modestly reasonable might understandably long for a corrective. An essential part of the intellectual history, and the fuller sensibility, of utopianism repeatedly displays just such a countering. The philosophical cuckooland of Aristophanes’ The Clouds attempts a therapeutic comedy against Platonic pretensions. The third book of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, with inanities of the scientists of an imaginary Laputa, savagely mocks the utopian pretensions of early eighteenth-century rationalism and proponents of the “new knowledge.” Voltaire more playfully combined positive utopianism (El Dorado, with its deistic tolerance, great scientific center, and genially spread wealth) and negative utopianism (it is silly to pursue the utopian Leibniz’s Best of All Possible Worlds and far wiser to cultivate your own garden) in Candide (1759). By then he, and the better philosophes, had reached a smart disenchantment with philosopher-kings, though not with rationalistic passions for a better society.

Anti-Utopian Counterings: Dostoyevsky and Forster

But perhaps a crucial mid-nineteenth-century example of such a corrective would be more pertinent to us. The first half of Dostoyevsky’s novella Notes from Underground (1864) is a philosophical monologue which specifically attacks a shoddy utopian-socialist novel (N. G. Chernyshevsky’s What Is To Be Done?). But, with a brilliance that reaches perversity, it also more generally attacks the large utopian conceptions which would put man into a collectivist “ant hill,” or make of him a mere “piano key” for the chorus of utilitarian mad dreams of human harmony, or subordinate all human aspirations to such engineering models as “the Crystal Palace.” The power, and continuing value, of Dostoyevsky’s anti-utopian polemic includes not only its incisive undercutting of claims to historical and collective rationality but its acute psychological cutting-up of “self-interest” and related reductive psychologies which would deny a larger sense of human complexity and individual freedom.

While Dostoyevsky may be read as one of the key figures of modernist culture, the anti-utopian literary imagination which this ex-Fourierist displayed did not become widespread until well into the twentieth century and its bitter disenchantments. Not the least of the utilities of H. G. Wells’ A Modern Utopiawas its eventually inspiring the more humanely sensitive E. M. Forster in his novella The Machine Stops (1912) to an apocalyptic portrayal of the dehumanizing possibilities in a totally mechanized system. In this projected future of Wellsian one-world state-society, with not only its advanced and encompassing technology but its bureaucratic structure, the synthetic environment created for utility and comfort has monstrously taken over the human. Most people have become insulated from “direct experience” with nature, with each other, even with their own bodies, so much so they have also become totally submissive, even devoutly religious, towards the nurturing technological structure that encapsulates them. With individuality nearly gone, not only does the system paranoically prey upon people but, with parts of it inevitably failing, there remains insufficient initiative to correct it in its “decadence,” and so the break-downs become exponential, and therefore total and final in disposing of the human.

Other Negative Utopians: Capek and Vonnegut

The break-down of the “machine” is, contrary to some thoughtless readings, less an attack on machines in themselves than on their elaborate interlocking into a controlling system—there is no other tyrant or exploiting class in the Forster novel—which usurps and conditions away the essential human values of sensuality, aesthetics, initiative, autonomy, relatedness, individuality, freedom. The machine has not become a monstrous human robot which must finally be destroyed, as in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein(1818), for the humans have become the robots.

The provocative ironic extension of the romantic Frankenstein into the twentieth century might be that of Karl Capek’s R. U. R. (1920) which dramatizes man-created robots eliminating man, yet at the end evolving towards the human by developing passions. True, arcadian utopias, from at least Butler’sErewhon (1872), have tended to banish complex technology because it might develop a mind and will of its own, as well as developing for the human destructive rhythms and senses, as Morris held in News from Nowhere. But when it comes to drawing out futuristic consequences of complex technology there are some varieties of negative utopian responses. Kurt Vonnegut, in Player Piano (1952) emphasized the less fanciful vision of most human beings simply becoming pathetically irrelevant, useless, in the technocratic society (simply an extension of our permanent unemployment). Where once man was victim of the fates and the gods, of nature and his own limitations, he now, with more bitter irony, becomes a continuing victim of the utopian order of utility and comfort and power he created. There isn’t even a place for heroic defiance—thumbing one’s nose at an invisible missile?

Zamiatin’s We: Utopian Vision & Anti-utopian Fiction

This reverses the scientistic religiosity, Bacon to Wells. With yet more lavish historical irony, Wells’ early utopian efforts also helped engender one of the most brilliant black-utopian novels, E. Zamiatin’sWe (ca. 1920). A Russian marine engineer turned vanguardist writer, who had worked in England and written on Wells, Zamiatin had the political good taste to be persecuted by both the Czarists and the Bolsheviks, and the artistic good taste to present a utopian vision of society by way of an anti-utopian fiction. In line with his faith that “the world is kept alive only by heretics,” he combined the Wellsian totalistic benevolent future state and its hi-tech powers with a Dostoyevskian psychological acuteness about the misuse of reason to deny freedom, culminating in “fantisectomy” to destroy the highest qualities of the human mind, such as imagining a better society. For Zamiatin, false rationalism destroys the core humanizing impetuses of sensuality and imagination, especially as it advances the “twofold danger which threatens humanity: the hypertrophic power of machines and the hypertrophic power of the State.” Zamiatin seems to have long ago understood what our technological optimists still can’t grasp: vast technological organizations and cultures are inherently coercive of the individual.

Other Utopian Anti-utopians: Huxley, Orwell, and Lawrence

Some of Zamiatin’s methods, though hardly the brilliance of his radical individualism and stylistic brio, reappear in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four(1949). Where Huxley (also reactively taking off from Wells, from the eugenics of Men Like Gods)emphasizes the “positive” conditioning that Zamiatin used, Orwell emphasized the terroristic conditioning, which Zamiatin also used. It requires a nice discrimination which makes for the worse kind of control. Zamiatin might also be viewed as contributing the paradigmatic insight that the political-economic control is less crucial than the aesthetic-erotic dimension, the destruction of sensibility. An even more devastatingly negative utopianism is that of D. H. Lawrence, a writer who for years proposed utopian colonies to his friends, who developed in “The Man Who Loved Islands” (1926) a three-step unfolding (utopia to hermitage to final isolated death) the anti-life imperatives lurking in idealism which overrides the irrational immediacies and fullness of the human.

A crucial point sometimes overlooked is that Huxley and Orwell (whose works hardly require summary here) were, like Zamiatin and Lawrence, utopian anti-utopians. While most famous for his satiric utopias (which include the slighter and cruder Ape and Essence, the satire on “immortalism” in After Many A Summer Dies the Swan, etc.), Huxley’s last novel, Island (1962), was a socially and mystically positive utopia. Except it was a terminal case: a militaristic megalomaniac, out for oil exploitation, nationalistic development, and other “progress,” takes over. In this positive utopia, Huxley simply inverted some of the earlier negative motifs—the use of drugs, positive conditioning, synthetic religion, etc.—into affirmative values. Hedonic order still remains controlling, though in Island it is centered on heightened individual experience and cooperative social arrangements instead of on pacification of feelings for subservience to an authoritarian hierarchy. For more than a generation Huxley remained a radical utopian ideologue, in and out of his fictions, a proponent of socio-economic decentralism, pacifism, more simple and holistic styles of living, and his Vedantic version of the “perennial philosophy.” His dystopianism does not come from the refusal of the utopian but from its critical reversal, and remains integral to a utopian view. Probably Huxley’s complex of dissident views approximates the main line of utopian dissidence in this century.

The Utopia-Dystopia Tradition and Our Age

A similar point might be made about George Orwell. The dystopian anti-authoritarian of Nineteen Eighty-Four, and Animal Farm, was based (as we see in his political essays, and his account of the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Catalonia) in democratic-socialist utopianism (the very one Hayek excoriated). The false utopia is thus measured by utopian standards. This, however, does not appear to me to be true of a good many minor contemporary dystopias. For example, in the cleverly nasty black utopias of Anthony Burgess: in The Wanting Seed (1962) one of our most negative futuristic issues, over-population, is neatly resolved by the permanent institutionalization of men and women systematically killing each other. Burgess’s other utopias, such as the behavioristic thugdom of A Clockwork Orange (1963), or his counter-utopia to Orwell, 1985 (1978), sadistically propound a very anti-utopian vision of sheer evil as central to human society. Hence most senses of human freedom have a paltry irrelevance.

But that is simply one extreme of the dystopia which dominates contemporary fiction to a perhaps even greater degree than the blandly positive utopia tended to dominate the latter part of the last century. A rather more intriguing relationship of the utopiananti-utopian is their combination within the same work. As I have already suggested with the tradition out of Zamiatin, the utopiadystopia may be one of the most appropriate forms of the social imagination for these times.

Science Fiction and the Utopia-Dystopia Dialectics

At their best, some forms of Science Fiction may also achieve this utopia-dystopia critical-ideal response. I note this with some reluctance since the genre ideologically arises from the utopian tradition of scientistic religiosity, from Bacon through Wells into contemporary technologues, and much of its sensibility from Gothicism and sentimental fantasy: a considerable number of such fictions are aesthetically and morally ugly. Still, some SF dystopias display intelligence and wit, at least since Pohl’s and Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants (1951). Perhaps the best known American in the manner is Ray Bradbury, Farhenheit 451 (1953), and other works; the best-known satiric-SF European of some seriousness would seem to be the Polish Stanislaw Lem, The Futurological Congress (1973), and other fictions. There are more, including the intriguing Doris Lessing, whose qualities should be sharply distinguished from the more common SF shoot-em-up space wars and other regressive fantasies. With commercially exploitative genres one has to make at least as emphatic discriminations as with the ideological and other aggrandizements of scholarly works.

Le Guin’s Ambiguous Utopia: Permanent Libertarian Rebellion

One of the better, and knowledgeable, utopian fictions using science fiction conventions is the American Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (1974). In its two contrasting but historically related worlds, with comparable ideological conflicts within each, there are double utopian-dystopian dramatizations; no wonder The Dispossessed is subtitled “An Ambiguous Utopia.” This pro-and-con, dialectical approach gives a persuasively complex view, though with clear libertarian direction and criticism of contemporary America. Her anarchist society has gone conformistly repressive, her statecapitalist society decadently vicious. Le Guin’s modestly Promethean scientist-hero explores both societies, and finally defies both in giving his technological advances to the universe. He learns, through significant confusions, that utopia always threatens to turn into dystopia, and that dystopia demands utopian over-coming. Libertarian rebellion must be permanent since “freedom is never very safe.” To keep it alive requires not only the initiative of the dissident individual but the enterprise of the small group; the calcifying utopia still has an open-ended order which provides for “syndicates” of dissidence and thus for the dialectics of change and renewal which liberation requires.

While Le Guin’s main positive pattern of values (leaving aside some sentimentalism) comes out of the anarchist tradition (Enlightenment anti-statism, Kropotkin’s mutual aid ethic, Emma Goldman’s feminism, Paul Goodman’s decentralist communalism, Taoist stylistics, etc.), that may be less crucial than the utopian-dystopian dialectics. For utopian constructions not to fribble into lesser fantasy (which some other Le Guin fictions do, and which is congenital to Science Fiction in its technomysticism), they must, as The Dispossessed does, maintain that contrariety which confirms our modern sense of an “outside” world never fully reducible to the rationalistic, and other doctrinaire, objectifications. In an authentic modern utopia, the critical sense remains an essential part of the imperative dreams of a better human community.

Nozick’s Right-Libertarian Utopia: Pseudo-pluralism

From a right-libertarian view, Le Guin’s utopia might better have had a structure which allowed a more diverse and open economics (partly denied by her antique premise of scarcity), though she did give a suggestive framework which allowed individuals and groups to opt out. That may be one of the places where right and left libertarianisms find an essential common ground. To critically turn to a right libertarianism which argues for this might also restate several of the comtemporary utopian issues.

Nozick’s Unhistorical Notion of the Utopian and the Meta-utopian

Robert Nozick’s “A Framework for Utopia,” the partly detachable conclusion (he tells us) to his minimal-statist philosophy in Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974), ostensibly defends utopianism. But he starts his case, which is more concerned with intellectual ingenuity than historical and other human realities, with the considerably erroneous, and certainly Panglossian, assumption that we can only think about utopia as “the best world imaginable” and the “best of all possible worlds.” Later this is invidiously restated as “the perfect society” based on notions “static and rigid.” Whatever the merits of that as part of a polemic for, say, the sixteenth century, it is silly in the late-twentieth century, either as a statement of fact or a premise of a pertinent issue, as my many examples have illustrated. Any assumption that all utopians suffer from a mad constructivist dogmatism may be itself a mad constructivist dogmatism.

Granted, there would seem to be something slightly unfair about confronting a contemporary professional philosopher with history and actual sensibility in their rather considerable variety. But let us grant that Nozick’s misleading characterization of the utopian serves a purpose; by such narrow and denigrating definition he can put the utopian in a confined place and yet maintain the guise of openness and tolerance. Thus, he can metaphysically rise above parochial views by proposing a “meta-utopia: the environment in which utopian experiments may be tried out….quot; Note here that without further justification, and contrary to historical usage (including that of philosophy on the subject), utopianism has been reduced to a small part of it; hereafter, he really refers only to intentional communities, at best, a meta-communalism. And even within that restrictive topos it means nothing substantive, only procedural rules. By such charming sleight of hand, the issues have been trivialized. And by such only ostensible openness, pseudopluralism, we may well arrive at (to not coin a phrase) a “repressive tolerance.”

Nozick’s Meta-utopianism: the Denial of Specific Variety

Nozick’s justification for his “meta-utopianism” appears grossly truistic: “if there is a diverse range of communities, then (putting it roughly) more persons will be able to come closer to how they wish to live, than if there is only one kind of community.” Within his frame, conceivable opponents of such a view—monotopian fanatics? solipsistic individualists?—hardly seem to suggest an interesting issue. The limitation to Nozick’s “diverse range of communities” also seems to avoid issue by vagueness. At times he is so skittish (e.g., his three dozen examples of diverse character types) that four billion “utopias” would seem insufficient. The assumption of endless semidiversity, if not trivial, would seem to function as a denial of real alternatives by refusing any even approximate and temporary definition of the community, the society, the species—even under specific historical conditions—and therefore, hardly allows any actual choices or specific freedoms. To tell me that I can do what I want, without provision for any specific want (for that would unfairly select against other wants), hardly allows me to realize any want. In that sense, negative freedoms are empty, and therefore, may result in displacement of freedoms by impositions structured in elsewhere.

Besides, parsimony is required for an interesting social theory. Nozick’s most impassioned passages (and we literary critics know that that, not the logic, often tells us what is really at issue) insist that he is trying to protect “human complexity.” But that is a refusal of discrimination pretending to be a discrimination. And I doubt that complexity (which I rather have a perverse taste for myself) can be the principle or rule for a group, an institution, a community, or a society. If there is some specific variety or ambiguity (as with a complex person), we might just get complexity as a result. Complexity may not be a principle but a combined effect. And would a libertarian really wish to encourage and maximize a “complexity” of authoritarian, exploitative, pathological, little utopias? It is one thing to tolerate nastiness, or at least refrain from the excesses of coercing it, but it is quite another to advance it by structuring the anti-libertarian in, even encouraging it. But Nozick’s supposed institutional neutrality—his undiscriminating freeway café “smorgasboard of utopian communities”—does not recognize what one of his critics has called “hidden-hand indoctrinating totalitarianism.”

True Libertarian Meta-utopianism and Advancing Specific Variety

What if we were to take Nozick’s libertarian “meta-utopianism” rather more seriously than its gaming author does? What might be several of its representative issues in something like a real world? One set of conditions might be not to meet “complexity” as such, that is presumptious, but to make conscious allowances for uncoercively meeting the needs of certain recognizable varieties (and including new varieties when they become recognizable): say, different sexual proclivities, varying degrees of communal bonding, alternative ways of work and production and distribution, etc. Historically as well as logically, this might be the hermits, the sodomites, and the gamblers, among others—and I would certainly want to include the delightfully irresponsible type Fourier said was motivated by the “Butterfly instinct.” They may need a mediating order which provides them some protection from the already dominant ordering, since there always is one and it tends to be coercive. In other words, we may need to advance specific support for some alternatives, specific depowering for others. Even “meta-utopia” has to be discriminating, purposive, substantive, under a particular set of historical conditions. In sum: there is not really any such monster as a “neutral framework,” for utopias or anything else.

Economic Specifics for a Meta-utopia

To further counter such reification, consider an economic issue. For centuries, utopians of various ideologies have reasonably held that certain minimum economic as well as social conditions must exist for even attempting variant institutions and communities (Le Guin tried to meet it with her “syndicates”). Such are traditionally land and credit (skills and protections and other services might be equally relevant), which we usually call “capital.” Without providing capital access, any claim to allowing alternatives is a cheap piety, just as not meeting the basic conditions for specific varieties is a fake complexity.

Approximately speaking, people with capital are successful capitalists (or, in our semi-market established order, their progeny, servants, etc.), which of course suggests that they will either have other commitments than to ideal communities or that only capitalist utopias can get supported. But that would hardly meet any minimal historical or theoretical standards of individual and social differences and variety, including Nozick’s. Hence, to abbreviate the argument, capitalism cannot itself be the framework for both capitalist and non-capitalist alternatives. This, of course, is merely a variant of the obvious argument (as Hayek and others repeatedly note) that the basis of a free market economy cannot itself be the market but a prior set of “traditions,” rules, institutions, ideologies.

Non-capitalists can pool their resources to found alternatives, if they have any. But that excludes some people and some important alternatives. While North America, for historical reasons which may be considerably fortuitous, has at times provided somewhat favorable circumstances for utopian communities, those conditions have markedly decreased in an over-populated technocracy (and there probably was proportionally less communalism in the 1960s than in the 1840s). To, in effect, require a millennial fervor or proselytizing exploitation, as with the “Moonies” and the like or the mass-suicidal Jonestown, Guyana, suggests something wrong with the conditions. A welfare state can allow and subsidize some degree of communal economics, as with the rather restrictive as well as particularistic history of the Israeli kibbutzim (one of Nozick’s few examples). Or utopian capital can be expropriated, which either takes a coercive state or its paralleling terrorist organization. But confining social alternatives to occassional paternalistic capitalists (such as Robert Owen), welfare bureaucracies, fanatical cultists, and big and little terrorists, may not constitute a sufficient range of diversities and freedoms.

Pursued with any seriousness, Nozick’s meta-utopian framework would have to allow for capital access to rather more varied possibilities, though certainly not all, and certainly not with arrogant claims to meeting all human “complexity.” But included would have to be some utopian options which lacked preferential value, if not viability, in any marketplace. The hidden framework of “meta-utopia” includes either a denial of all non-capitalist alternatives (contrary to Nozick’s avowals) or a covert pluralistic economy, which Nozick fails to acknowledge. If he did, he would no doubt find old vexed utopian issues as to how there can be “mixed” economies without one part bleeding, or bleeding into, the others. But that his theory demands. To propose nearly bloodless liberties is of little use.

Concluding Meta-utopian Specifics:
Overcoming Enslaving Utopianism

To admit the problem does not mean that one necessarily makes a Manichean reversion to a dominant statist answer, or to hold, as utopian Fourier said, “the most ridiculous prejudice, the conviction that the good can be established by government action.” However, the conditions that encourage utopian diversity may not correspond with the formalist state of the rest of Nozick’s arguent (I leave to others to decide if my criticisms of his utopianism apply more broadly). Certainly depowering of semi-private as well as statist coercive powers would be central. That might include undercutting any unitary and total market system, any unified one-world order (Wells, and followers), and not a little of the “affluence” of contemporary America. Still, my theme is libertarian utopianism, which might require an economy in which a large part of productive activity would be controlled neither by the state nor the market but by the more varied autonomous activity of individuals and non-coercive associations. Much of the modern state, and any claim to benevolent world order, we can better do without.

But that is my utopianism, or rather, but one of my many. Countering Nozick’s utopianism—and his arguments may be less wrong than something rather worse: narrow, thin and not very honest—we might nonetheless grant him the good service of raising the quest for a more fundamental meta-utopianism than his consumer-communalism with its insufficient concern for furthering freedoms. Concern with the utopian, as Nozick at least partly recognized, may be essential to a libertarian view.

If I were to further propose my own utopia, it might start with something old (I have suggested they all really do), such as the motto that greatly learned and humorous Renaissance individualist Rabelais put on the arch of the Abbey Thèléme, his inverted monastic utopia: “Do What Thou Will.” But instead of concluding the problem that only begins it, for remember that was but the entrance to the simulacrum of a better and livelier and freer world. And should I self-educatingly continue my utopian speculations, I would hope not to confuse that transitory process entirely with the deeper utopian impetus. And not forget that while the utopian impetus may be a good one, many types of utopias, as I have argued, are bad. Perhaps I should mark some more arches within with proper utopian-anti-utopian warnings, such as: “Freedoms made into objects become human enslavements” (Berdayev); “What is important is the idea of utopia that overcomes utopia in its untruth and sustains it in its truth” (Tillich); and “Anything that triumphs, perishes” (Lawrence).