Here’s a fascinating New Yorker book review essay by Akash Kapur, on the topic of the American weakness for utopianism. In it, he says that after falling badly out of favor in the 20th century, utopianism is making a comeback, at least on the Left. Excerpt:
Now the tide may have shifted. As the literary Marxist Fredric Jameson observes, “In the last years, utopia has again changed its meaning and has become the rallying cry for left and progressive forces.” A slew of books have arrived to celebrate the utopian spirit, notably two on the history of utopia in the United States. Erik Reece’s “Utopia Drive” is a travelogue through the ghosts of America’s nineteenth-century intentional communities. In Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio, Virginia, New York, and Massachusetts, Reece visits the remains of a handful of utopian settlements and towns, mining their histories to reflect on the present. Chris Jennings’s “Paradise Now: The Story of American Utopianism,” a historical account of five utopian projects, is more firmly rooted in the past. Both books seek to capture the spirit of what Jennings calls “a long, sunny season of American utopianism”—a period of about a century, roughly bookended by the optimism of American independence and the butchery of the Civil War.
Neither author is blind to the shortcomings of his subject. Jennings is attuned to the latent “terror and repression” in the utopian project. Reece has a sharp eye for the contradictions of communities that condemn the capitalist economy but are sustained by vibrant commercial enterprises. The founders of these communities—a colorful cast of prophets, dreamers, and narcissists—preach against private property and possessions as they jealously guard their own. “One thing we can say about the seductive visionaries who led the utopian movement in America,” Reece notes dryly, “is that they did not lead the most self-examined lives.”
Despite the caveats, the over-all tone of both books is enthusiastic, even laudatory. Set against the general opprobrium that has tarred utopia in the twentieth century, these are works of intellectual and political rehabilitation. Jennings laments “a deficit of imagination” in our era, and argues that, “uncoupled from utopian ends, even the most incisive social critique falls short.” Reece likewise ends his travels convinced “that things will only get worse if we don’t engage in some serious utopian thinking.” For Reece, in particular, the process of rehabilitation is an explicitly political project—an attempt to exhume the lessons of the past in order to frame an alternative to the economic, environmental, and political despair of recent times. Sitting in a hammock in the intentional community of Twin Oaks, in Virginia, he reads More’s “Utopia” and thinks of Bernie Sanders. Driving toward what remains of the community of Modern Times, on Long Island, he decries “Big Oil, Big Coal, Big Agra, Big Pharma” and the “corporate vandals” who “pollute the commons.” Although their books are formally about nineteenth-century intentional communities, both Reece and Jennings tap into an altogether more contemporary strand of post-crisis (i.e., post-2008) economic and political discourse.
A rejuvenated Marxism underlies much of this thinking.
The dream never dies:
Over all, though, the biggest problem—at least, in any attempt to harness these nineteenth-century projects to twenty-first-century reforms—is one less of evil than of ineffectuality. A spectre hangs over these places—the spectre of failure. In 1879, under external and internal pressures to conform, Oneida voted to adopt traditional marriage practices. The next year, it abandoned the principle of collective ownership, converting itself into a joint-stock company that went on to become a major silverware manufacturer. Shares in the company were allocated according to members’ initial contributions (as well as time spent in the community), in a stroke undoing the equality that had originally characterized communal life. Noyes was in exile at this point, having fled threatened legal action over the community’s sexual practices. A mere three decades in, the dream was effectively over.
Virtually all these utopian communities met the same fate. Reece ends his book with a cry to action: “We can head out today toward the utopia of reconstruction. We can build the road as we travel.” Readers of these books might be forgiven for thinking that this road is something of a dead end. None of the five places that Jennings writes about remain in existence.
Read the whole thing. You’ll learn something.
As I’ve been working on the Benedict Option project, one of the biggest obstacles I’ve had to face is the impression others have of its supposed utopianism. I can’t say it often enough, apparently: I do not believe there is any way to build a utopian community, and those who believe it’s possible set themselves up either for tyranny or heartbreak, often both. There can be no utopia because mankind is not perfectible.
However, I believe many people are quick to call things like the Benedict Option “utopian” as a way to avoid having to think critically of the problems with the way we live today, with regard to community and social life. In cases like this, a proper skepticism of the allegedly utopian project becomes (unwittingly, I’m guessing) a self-justifying excuse not to have to take the “utopian” critique seriously.
It’s hard to walk a responsible, realistic line between utopianism and cynicism. But it’s necessary. I am disappointed to read that utopianism is making a comeback on the Left, though to be honest, I don’t think it ever disappeared. The Left’s utopian idea that all will be well with us when we finally tear down all barriers to sexual and gender freedom has been wreaking havoc in America since the 1960s, and it shows no sign of abating. Similarly, many on the Right regard the free market in ways that strike me as utopian. One reason we have Donald Trump this year is that far too many conservative leaders are dazzled by free-market utopianism, and failed to appreciate the down side of globalism.
It’s easy for us to look at communes and other intentional communities and see them as failures. But the everyday utopianism that shapes our lives in the so-called real world is more destructive, don’t you think? Regarding the Benedict Option, my intention with that project is to convince conservative Christians that we cannot keep living the way most of us do, and that there are things we can and must do wherever we are, and whatever our circumstances, to build up the practices and institutions that will allow us to be more faithful under rapidly changing conditions. And not only more faithful, but more resilient in our faith. There are no safe places to hide from the challenges of post-Christian America. Perfection this side of heaven is a pipe dream. But we can make places in which it is easier to be faithful, despite our brokenness.