Twilight of the Idylls

Utopia Drive: A Road Trip Through America's Most Radical Idea Erik Reece. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $28
Oneida: From Free Love Utopia to the Well-Set Table Ellen Wayland-Smith. Picador. $27
Paradise Now: The Story of American Utopianism Chris Jennings. Random House. $28

THE MOST DURABLE IMAGE of the utopian promise of the United States comes from one of the country's most sobering books. It is toward the close of The Great Gatsby, when Nick Carraway imagines a Dutch sailor seeing the "fresh, green breast" of Long Island—an explorer faced perhaps "for the last time with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder." This sublime retrospect draws its power from its coming at the book's end, after Fitzgerald has exposed the tawdriness and tragedy of even the most poetical American hopes. There is something strange—allegorical maybe—in the fact that this book, famously a flop on first publication, is taught year after year, introducing students at the cusp of adulthood to a notion of the country as having come out wrong in the end, their teachers reacquainting themselves annually with a sense of lyrical, frustrated national purpose.

Utopia and failure are, of course, intertwined. In our post-utopian age, no expedition into the wilds is expected to last. We are familiar with the fate of the grand experiments meant to bring salvation to society, from the Shakers to Walden to the Paris Commune to Zuccotti Park. James C. Scott's extraordinary The Art of Not Being Governed (2009) reminded us of fugitives from state formation in Southeast Asia, who for two thousand years have fled to the hills in the area we now call "Zomia," practicing rough forms of equality and fluidly transforming their ethnicities outside of the watchfulness of the state. Now this experiment, too, Scott tells us, is coming to a close, with the end of agrarian societies and the intrusion of the state into areas where it was once barred.

The failure of utopia results in something worse than collapse: It can prompt the feeling that the utopian impulse was misguided and even murderous to begin with, and so why bother? An irritating ostinato during the Cold War, this notion of pointlessness reached a deafening climax after the crumbling of the Warsaw Pact and the fall of the Soviet Union. American anti-utopianism in that sense seems virtually constitutive of the country's ideological order since at least World War II.

Not that anti-utopianism is merely a right-wing tendency; it can also regularly be found in the unctuously liberal New Yorker. In an essay on three books on American utopianism (also under review here), the writer Akash Kapur held that the best alternative to utopianism was bourgeois "meliorism," glacial improvement rather than revolutionary re-founding. After gracing us with the usual litany of botched efforts, tossing in Pol Pot and the new caliphate proclaimed on the Euphrates for good measure, Kapur concluded, "The utopian has a better story to tell; the meliorist leaves us with a better world." Give up on utopia, the logic goes, which puts you in the gulag; give in to the comfortable tedium of timid, unprincipled hope.

In the 1990s, dark mutterings like Kapur's were legion. Then, however, they were suffused with triumph, and counted more as epitaphs than warnings: The (neo)liberal utopia of the West had won; the socialist utopia had lost. It became impossible to advocate for "utopianism" without being seen to advocate for "gulagism." For this reason, in what was a time of general defeat for the Left, Fredric Jameson called for an "anti-anti-utopianism." Today, however, the New Yorker's "remember the Killing Fields" stance seems retro. When Occupy and Bernie Sanders, Podemos and Black Lives Matter, are the shibboleths of the Left, its appeal to meliorism over utopia appears reactionary rather than triumphant.

In the light of current social movements, there is some value in resurrecting the rich and otherwise obscure history of American utopianism—in reminding the world that the United States, exterminator of utopias abroad, has also been a fertile progenitor of them at home. From 1800 to 1899, as Chris Jennings's Paradise Now tells us, more than one hundred utopian communities were founded in the United States. In a sense, little remains of this extraordinary congeries: some mostly unvisited buildings and towns, many neglected books and pamphlets, a thousand discarded ideas, and, less predictably, a storied style of furniture (Shaker) and a popular line of flatware (Oneida). But many of their ideas were prescient. The problems the utopians sought to treat remain problems: the economic and sexual division of labor, the unequal distribution of wealth. Notions that contemporary Western societies tend to take for granted, such as sexual monogamy, utopians treated as congealed artifacts of an unjust society.

Utopian communities seek not just to solve problems, however, but to model new ways of living, thinking, and feeling. Jennings captures this admixture of sentiment and practical work when he writes that "no moment in history or place on the globe has been more crowded with utopian longing and utopian experimentation than the United States in the middle of the nineteenth century." But this is just the apex: In his treatment, the history goes further back, to the Shakers of the eighteenth century, and extends forward to the collapse of the Oneida community in upstate New York in the 1880s. (Jennings even notes that the first communistic colony founded in the New World was Plockhoy's Commonwealth—also known as the Valley of the Swans—which Dutch Mennonites established on the Delaware River in 1663.)

One can, of course, bring the story even closer to the present. In Utopia Drive (a lamentable, David Brooksian title), Erik Reece—a more forthrightly "leftist" writer than Jennings—tours the remains of some of these nineteenth-century towns, and also visits still-thriving "intentional communities" such as Twin Oaks in Virginia, looking to excavate a political program that might successfully address our current situation. The question running through these books is whether there is value in recalling utopianism for the contemporary moment, whether utopianism itself can be rediscovered. Is it worthwhile to persist in retrying to remake the world? Or, still postmodernists, do we concede that the arc of the moral universe is long, and it bends toward meliorism?

Joel Sternfeld, Twin Oaks, Louisa, Virginia, 2000, C-print, 26 1/2 × 33 1/4". From the series “Sweet Earth: Experimental Utopias in America,” 1982–2005. © Joel Sternfeld, courtesy the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York

JENNINGS BEGINS his history of five utopian movements—the Shakers, the Owenites, the Fourierists, the Icarians, and Oneida—from a position of sympathy. "Uncoupled from utopian ends," he writes, "even the most incisive social critique falls short." His admiration falls chiefly on the practical imagination of most utopians. (Perhaps not coincidentally, Jennings is a graduate of Deep Springs College, the highly selective, but free, two-year institution in California that combines instruction in farming with higher learning.) Dismissing the notion that American utopians were mostly "cranks and faddists," he lauds their ambition:

The majority of the communitarians were intelligent, hardworking people. They came from every denomination and every social class. Significantly, unlike the utopian communalists of other eras, they were not primarily young people. They were blacksmiths and farmers, journalists and lawyers, tailors and scientists, teachers and clergymen. A few of them were among the most articulate and prescient reformers of their day. After their respective sojourns in utopia, many went on to illustrious careers elsewhere. They may have been dreamers, but they did their dreaming out loud, with their dollars, their arms, and their time. They tried to manifest their impractical visions with great practical skill.

Unlike Kapur, Jennings outlines a philosophy of history in which "meliorism" is inextricable from utopianism, with the "numberless private exertions" in utopia—even the failed ones—adding up ultimately "to social progress."

Jennings reconstructs vividly the "exercises" to which the utopians subjected themselves, a mix of extravagant fantasy and practical experiment that fueled their idealism. The many communities inspired by the theories of French socialist Charles Fourier perhaps mark the high point of utopian imagination in the US. Radicalized by the French Revolution, Fourier extended his principles to the management of labor and the progress of women. His writings found a meandering way into the hands of sympathetic and influential Americans, among them Horace Greeley, editor of the New-York Tribune, who gave him and Fourierism a lengthy hearing afforded to no utopian idea before or since.

Fourier's ideas were at once perspicacious and significantly—even for a utopian—far-out; he out-sci-fis even the most imaginative SF writers. In his frequently abstruse and deeply strange book The Theory of the Four Movements, an attempt to imagine a new society based on a reconstruction of where the current one went wrong, he advances a number of sensible ideas. "Extension of the rights of women is the basic principle of all social progress," he writes—a socialist commonplace that bears reaffirming. Other ideas here have far less practical value, such as Fourier's celebration of the varieties of human ardor. Like a Renaissance theorist of the humors, Fourier suggested there were twelve distinct "passions," corresponding to wants, needs, and preferences, and that there were 810 possible combinations of these passions, or "passional types." This meant that social organization had to accommodate this exacting taxonomy in harmony: People should be allowed to do what, according to their passional type, they were meant to do. So, for Fourier, the frequency of infidelity was evidence of a social construction going against a passional type; the institution of marriage was what was wrong. A truly bizarre visionary, Fourier also argued that sexual attraction extended to the cosmos, and that planetary orbit was a kind of cosmic copulation.

The physical instantiations of Fourierism did not always follow the master's taxonomizing injunctions, though they did accord with his idea that collective life was superior to individualism. Labor would not be divided; everyone would do every kind of work. At Brook Farm—founded initially as a different kind of utopian community, but eventually taken over by Fourierists—members divided themselves into groups devoted to specific problems. There was a Garden Group, a Haying Group, a Nursery Group, a Dairy Group, and an Orchard Group, consisting of seven to ten people each; schools and workshops were similarly divided. People who were temperamentally suited to the groups filed into them. The idea was to make labor naturally attractive, and at Brook Farm, women, inspired by Fourier's feminist writings, set up an entrepreneurial textile shop "dedicated to the elevation of women forever." "We do live in an atmosphere of our own," wrote a member of the Fancy Goods Group. "It is so inspiring, so ennobling!" To keep from getting bored with rote tasks, people moved from group to group. Meanwhile, intellectuals such as Margaret Fuller and Ralph Waldo Emerson came through to give lectures, and the local newspaper, The Harbinger, was filled with writing by Greeley, Henry James Sr., Emerson, and James Russell Lowell. The connection between Fourierism and nineteenth-century American intellectual life ran deep.

What still impresses about the utopians was the way they appreciated the fact that capitalism was inefficient and wasteful, rather than productive and satisfying. It was not only the moral rejection of the system that motivated utopianism, but a sense of its economic inferiority to as yet untried alternatives. Robert Owen is a signal example: A British factory owner who moved to the United States, he came to turn against the industrial system after learning its workings intimately. At the community of New Harmony in Indiana, founded in 1825, he imagined that shared work, divided equitably among a broad working class (rather than having that working class subordinated by parasitic capitalists), would increase productivity and decrease individual workload.

Nonetheless, a zeal for practical planning did not always result in good planning. The issue was almost always money. Owen's New Harmony was a financial mess, ineptly bankrolled by Owen until he decided to withdraw funds to save himself. Brook Farm spent its entire store on building a "phalanstery," a Fourierist central hall, which fell victim to a fire. And utopias were never inured against external shocks. The American westward expansion of the 1840s—the promise of Dakota gold—lured many people away from communal life. And the accompanying fight over "free soil" helped make abolitionism a more immediate and powerful cause than utopianism. Few utopias imploded; most just ebbed away. Nonetheless, there was little relief or happiness after the end of these experiments. Having glimpsed another way of life, most utopians found reentry into the world painful, like astronauts returning to Earth after having become accustomed to floating. "None but a Brook Farmer can know how chilling is the cordiality of the world," wrote one Fourierist exile. "It does seem as tho' in this wide waste of the world, life could not possibly be so rich as it has been here."

The one nineteenth-century utopia that might be considered a prolonged success, Oneida, was also the most concerned with sexual liberation. It is explored with admirable patience by Ellen Wayland-Smith in her book Oneida, a subtle and penetrating account of a single utopian community. If Owen and Fourier preached the virtues of free love, John Humphrey Noyes, Oneida's founder, was the most accomplished at unifying it with a socialist organization of labor. Through an imaginative exegesis of Christ's Resurrection as heralding the end of monogamy, which he compared (in the 1850s) to chattel slavery, Noyes saw the freeing of men and women from enforced, till-death-do-us-part cohabitation as part and parcel of the liberation from exploitative labor. Thus Oneida was organized around the sharing of both labor—again through an ingenious reading of scripture, he called his theory "Bible Communism"—and sexual love. Noyes called this arrangement "Complex Marriage," as opposed to "sticky love" (that is, between two people). For all his acuity regarding the problems with both monogamy and capitalism, Noyes was, as Wayland-Smith makes painfully clear, essentially a cult leader and a narcissist, whose ideas resulted in great personal benefit. "The genius of Noyes's theory of . . . Complex Marriage," Wayland-Smith writes, was that it "fulfilled a spiritual urge many Americans felt at midcentury to purge themselves of market-bred selfishness," while at the same time guaranteeing "that Noyes could enjoy sexual liberty with as many spiritual wives as he chose . . . without guilt or competition."

Unlike Jennings or Reece, Wayland-Smith—the great granddaughter of an Oneida community member—seems to retain little empathy for the utopian impulse. She approaches Oneida as the expression of a cult that promoted various sexual and labor freedoms, but only according to the dictates of a single, monstrous individual. Using diaries and newspapers, she soberly explores the hypocrisies and secret monogamies that contradicted the community's high ideals, as if the attempt to escape monogamy or market capitalism will always be doomed, or could only operate under the sign of patriarchy and authoritarianism. And perhaps the history supports her. Once Noyes left Oneida, under threat of arrest thanks to a new moralism overtaking the US in the 1870s, monogamy was reintroduced, and so was private property. Oneida had always depended on external business, such as the manufacture of fur traps, to fund its operations; after Noyes's departure, the community gave itself over entirely to private enterprise, becoming a highly successful producer of kitchen knives and flatware.

LEFT MORE OR LESS UNEXPLORED is the possibility that private enterprise and sexual monogamy are not "natural" states to which the utopians took inglorious and doomed exception, but rather what the utopians always said they were: artifacts of patriarchy and market society that exhibit signs of debility, or even collapse. Even if the utopians failed at expunging them, it can still be argued that this says less about their suitability for human needs than it does about the pressure to maintain them, which is repressive and backed by powerful forces. (Such, of course, is one of the morals of Occupy, for which intensely democratic procedures of assembly and decision-making turned out to be taxing and ultimately overwhelming—without proving, in the final analysis, that those procedures were wrong.) The failures of markets and of marriages are numberless—but we mark these with less fanfare than we do those of utopias.

Reece's Utopia Drive pursues the lingering nature of utopia into the present. He points out that the notion of a free library system was pioneered at New Harmony, and he gives a platform to the offspring of one of Oneida's "complex" marriages, who points out how much the nuclear family has been challenged by other arrangements. He visits Twin Oaks, the contemporary community nestled near the Blue Ridge Mountains and based on Walden Two, a hoary kitsch classic of 1960s counterculture. Consisting of just under a hundred members, the Twin Oaks community follows the usual script in dividing labor equally and sharing property communally; everyone learns to do every kind of work. But its health has also depended on lucrative contracts, such as an agreement with Pier 1 Imports, which stipulated that the community manufacture fifteen thousand hammocks a year. Reece points out that this is "one of the common inconsistencies of almost every American utopia, past and present: that its internal politics (anarchism, communism, millennialism, or whatever it may be) is always subsidized in some way by the capitalist Leviathan that surrounds it." A sustainable utopia remains a difficult proposition.

Still, the history of utopia reveals that purity of means is less important than sheer quantity of imagining. More utopias, however messed up, is better than no utopias. In antebellum America, the febrile atmosphere of utopianism bred fantastic projects, revolutionary mutterings, cataclysmic dissents. "We are all a little wild with numberless projects of social reform," Emerson wrote to Thomas Carlyle in 1840. "Not a reading man but has a draft of a new community in his waistcoast pocket." There is no secret to the explosion of utopianism: It was the "market revolution" of the early nineteenth century, when the US began its agonizing shift from an agrarian economy to an industrial one. The transformation was bewildering, unbearable, and quite literally murderous; utopianism was a constant injunction to think of alternatives, as business elites moved to close them off.

Could something similar be said about our present stage of capitalism? We are witnessing secular stagnation at home and abroad, the collapse of the triumphal narrative of globalization, the dissolution of old employment contracts and the pervasive rise of the "gig," and a class of the permanently un- and underemployed. In this context, even projects for modest reform, such as the social-democratic proposals of Bernie Sanders, take on a "revolutionary" quality, in rhetoric and in feel. With the police and prison industry working hand in hand to control (or kill) poor black men and women, the Movement for Black Lives proposes reforms that may require a radical re-foundation of the country. One thing seems obvious: If the socialist utopia of radical democracy and self-determination is still far off, the liberal utopia of markets and families is in severe crisis. The old narrative of progress no longer persuades. Something flintier is needed. The long-dead dreamers of the nineteenth century may yet enjoy their resurrection.

Nikil Saval, an editor at n+1, is the author of Cubed: The Secret History of the Workplace (Doubleday, 2014).