It is a sad fact that something deeply embedded in the human psyche is inexorably drawn to utopian visions. What begins with confidence and optimism invariably falls to a harsh reality. The hopeful seduction of fixing the world has ever ended in heartbreak.
In the United States the nineteenth century was a time that swelled with utopian dreams as the scientific and industrial revolutions stoked natural American optimism with a new found certainty in our ability to master our world. Communes, schemes, pseudo-sciences, and academic theories all blossomed.
While most of the social utopian endeavors of the age ended haplessly and without harm, the rest of the world suffered countless deaths directly attributable to utopianism gone awry. Beginning with the French Revolution of the prior generation, and continuing on through the spread of Marxist ideologies and national socialism, utopianism proved itself a primarily destructive force.
America remained different. The question of why America did not fully give in to the temptations of utopianism remains a fascinating topic. It is also a question that begs another, more dire supposition, namely, what would happen if America lost the traits that enabled her to resist the siren song of societal perfectability. First, let us clarify the terms.
At the core of utopian thinking is a belief that we have advanced enough in knowledge, or right-thinking, or moral evolution, or whatever, to now correct the problems that have always plagued society. Inherent to utopianism is a sense that human nature is not an immutable factor, but a cultural construct thus, since its flaws were taught, the utopian deduces that the same flaws can be either un-taught, or controlled.
Put another way, the utopian chooses not to deal with the world as it is, but remake it as he believes it ought to be. It is a fine impulse to be sure, but one man’s vision of what ought to be will inevitably conflict with another man’s vision. When the utopian has the force of government and attempts to push the other man into conformity with the utopian vision, fascism ensues. Utopian control can manifest as soft tyranny or violent totalitarianism, the issue is one only of degree.
A classic, and perhaps, uncontroversial, example can be found in Charles Fourier. Fourierism held that society could be vastly improved if only cooperation and compassion were cultivated and rewarded. To do this he proposed life in Phalanxes, or carefully planned communities. These communities sought to promote equality and liberate man from tradition. Phalanxes were attempted in many places and took many forms but the preponderance advanced such notions as communal ownership, promiscuity, an abolition of wages, and highly structured daily life.
Though nineteenth century America nurtured plenty of Fourierists, with upstate New York as a sort of epicenter of the trend, growth of the effort was stunted. While inherently confident believers in progress, Americans have long possessed a certain hard-bottled practicality. Nathaniel Hawthorne, who would deliciously skewer Fourierism in the Blithdale Romance, set this realism against utopianism as far back as the Puritan settlement. In the Scarlet Letter Hawthorne noted, “The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison”
Early ships to the America may have sought a shining city on the hill, but those ships were preceded by practical men of commerce. The wilderness was tamed by pig-headed independence, and notions of liberty feed by free will uncoupled from inherited class and social standing. As William Gilmore Simms wrote for one of his characters, “Here, manhood, if it so wills, can live in every vein and muscle, in every beat of heart and brain. And here I can maintain my manhood—the noblest of all mortal conditions; though I may not be able to escape pain and privation”
This fierce individualism has protected America from the schemers. The rugged sort has mostly resisted leaders who entice them to make the very bargain Ben Franklin – like so many other founding fathers – warned against, sacrificing a little liberty for a little security.
Yet, the temptation persists. Men, many bright and good men, are themselves seduced into thinking this time it could be all different. Progressives from the two Roosevelts, and Wilson, through Obama, push the tradeoff. Always, it is a little more liberty, just a touch more freedom, and in return they will build a better community, designed by the best minds, and carried out by competent bureaucrats. Somehow, against all historical evidence, this time it will be different.
Over the decades the utopians have made gains, albeit slowly. Only the stubborn individualist – as the Constitution has proved no match – has stood in their way. What will happen when the stubborn individualists are gone?
Ignoring the single most important lesson of literature, the utopians believe that human nature can be molded. Yet it is the persistence of human nature, glories and shortcomings, that makes Homer and Shakespeare relevant and moving still today. The framers of the Constitution recognized the utopian impulse and attempted to guard against it. This is why Madison averred that:
“If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”
History informs us that the best laid plans for utopia do naught but curtail liberty, diminish individuals, gut the rule of law, and lay financial waste to the societies too foolish to see foggy promises of “change” for what they really are.
Has America still enough men and women who can avoid the inducement of false hope? Perhaps. But the tipping point is near.