There is one other final and hard-to-face factor that leads to the eventual demise of my father’s utopia and that is the unintended consequences of the alternative parenting experiment.
It is no coincidence that the average life of a utopian project is the time it takes to settle and begin to raise children.
Children are the authoritative test of the theory that humans are born a blank slate and that all behaviour is conditioned ‘by society’ – of Rousseau’s potent idea that man is ‘born free but is everywhere in chains’. Children of Utopia should behave very differently than ‘old world’ children, because they have been brought as blank slates into an egalitarian environment.
But the children of Utopians fail every test: they are selfish, they grab and steal, they fight, and love competitive sports, they bully and they lie – just like all other children. Lying is in fact a necessary developmental stage in all human learning, as is inflicting and receiving pain. These structures are in-built within human mental growth, they disprove the theory of human mind as a blank slate upon which images of perfection can be drawn.
As the behaviourist B.J. Skinner (creator of Walden Two) realized, you can’t pass what you’ve learned on through your DNA so any achievements in equality achieved have to be repeated from scratch. Utopian behavioural engineering is an ongoing struggle against something that Utopians deny even exists – human nature. Not only are utopian parents horrified by the little dictators they have spawned, they find that they themselves have horrible anti-utopian cravings to put their children above all the others. The maternal bond and the need for privacy also seem to be pan-cultural. Collective child rearing actually damages children psychologically through maternal deprivation. Children brought up communally suffer neglect and abuse and results from communal experiments have shown that when “everyone is your mother” then no-body is. Adults who are not blood relatives shirk responsibilities towards child rearing. The result then is children brought up by nobody, traumatised by lack of foundational intimacy. People care a lot more for their own kids than they do for other kids as an obligation. Even utopians don’t want to wipe the asses of other people’s kids.
The utopians are perplexed by the bad in their children. Because they believe in The Blank Slate, because they do not believe in human nature and believe instead that all behaviour is put there by culture. If the children behave badly, selfishly, violently, then, their logic goes, someone must have put the badness there. There must have been a leak, a traitor working for the reactionary forces, someone must have been feeding the children the wrong ideological messages. They cannot perceive that children might be intrinsically bad. That it might be natural for children to be malicious, selfish, and violent, trying to form hierarchies amongst themselves. Appalled by the reality of their parenting experiment, and rather than facing the facts the revolutionary parents hide the evidence, they scapegoat, they double their efforts at indoctrinating goodness into their children. Or worse still, they turn their backs on their children completely, as a scientist hides an experiment that went wrong, the results of which would have disproved his proposition. This in so many cases is the tragic story of the children of revolutionaries, hidden away, ignored, because they are a daily reminder to their parents that their ideals have failed. Locked away like a bad secret. Hidden from the revolutionaries so that they can keep on living their dream and denying its consequences.
Trying to remove a child from the corrupting influences of modern society does not breed better, more caring children, it breeds children incapable of basic human emotion. Children need to grow up with a range of experiences, failures, flaws, knocks and bruises – in short, the mess of reality – and learn all this with other children, otherwise the capacity for emotional connection shuts down.Children need to be socialise within the status quo, not cut off from the outside world. The utopian Feminists and Marxists of the 70s with their project to destroy the nuclear family unleashed an experiment the results of which were so much the opposite of what they expected that they have since the 1990s attempted to hide the results and the true human cost. They did not breed a generation of happier, more egalitarian children, they created instead emotionally crippled children. Violent and isolated, locked in to a kind of regressive animality that is a state of living in constant fear, as if pursued by predators, the children of the hippie commune and feminist separatist commune, have personality disorders and much higher substance abuse, addiction, violent crime and suicide rates than the general population.
As for mothers – we discovered after the 1970s that free love communes turn into coercive systems in which women are forced to sleep with men they don’t want to. Or they lead to male dominated harems. John Humphrey Noyes, the father of ‘perfectionism’ and ‘complex marriage,’ fathered 58 children in his commune in the 1850s. Another utopian collective in Holland was so ‘radical’, so committed to the destruction of all ‘barriers’ and ‘societal constructs’, so committed to achieving a Rousseau-esque state of primal nature that its male leader removed the age of consent and slept with his own daughters. After thirty years he was arrested for paedophilia.
No matter how much we’ve tried to get rid of the idea of sexual ownership – the female need to choose a mate may be a constant for our species. It does, however, ensure the continuation of competitive behaviours, which leads us once again to hierarchies. To get rid of this, female choice would have to be erased, a process that we associate with cultures that are oppressive.
The shakers who were celibate and only adopted children became extinct after their adopted children refused to live like them. The Harmony Society died out because of it refused to reproduce. The experiment in Fourierism known as Brook Farm ended after only three years in 1847 when the children refused to be placed at the bottom of the redistribution hierarchy, cleaning the toilets, and the adults broke into fights over rotas for childcare and farming duties.
Unless they are created in the name of a deity, unless everyone commits themselves to one common supernatural belief, Utopias only ever last one generation and children are always the reason.
Off the map
My father is unhappy about the way that his Utopia has turned out. But rather than admit the inherent flaw within the plan, he gets back in his boat again, and quoting Oscar Wilde sets sail once again. This fills my father with a sense of hope but it fills me with dread, because Oscar Wilde was wrong, because Wilde did not live to see the century in which the great Utopias were attempted and collapsed, taking ninety million lives with them. When we get back into our little boats and set sail again, it means we’re willing to trash history in the name of some dream of a blank map.
What Utopia Really Is
Utopia, at its root, is nothing more than a Christian heresy compounded by mistakes in map making.
It is the Pelagian heresy – after the British monk Pelagius (354 -440 AD) – that teaches that man is not intrinsically sinful, and that the creation of “Heaven on Earth” might then be possible. This heresy has been a constantly morphing project since the start of the Christian Church. The more the Church tried to extinguish this belief the more it spread with fleeing heretics in the age of the ship. Utopia was the accidental by-product of the underdeveloped science of map-making in which banished beliefs filled the blank spaces of the world map. It then morphed into atheistic forms like communism which concealed its true origins and compounded the error.
In Christian terms it is a heresy because it denies man’s fallen state. The heresy of heaven-on-earth also comes wrapped in apocalypticism (or millenarianism). It goes like this – First the end of the world will come and then from the ruins the New Jerusalem (the celestial city, the promised land) will appear. This same basic form exists beneath all utopian formulations – in the French Revolution the bloody destruction of the aristocracy was to lead to a society of equals; in Marxism, a final fated catastrophic collapse of Capitalism is supposed to lead to a perfect planned peace, and in the ecological utopia, self-sustaining survivors will emerge after man’s destruction of the eco-system on earth. Destruction is not only required to validate the ideal, but desired.
Marx, as we have seen, picked up this mind frame from the Anabaptists of the Munster Rebellion in 1534. A period of history, and a proto-revolution and declaration of “The New Jersualem”, that was studied by himself and Engels, and cited as an inspiration for Communist revolution.
One must always be careful where one picks up an idea, as it can have dormant contamination within it. Marx, in taking from the bloodthirsty millennarian apocalypticists, imported medieval barbarism into the twentieth century, and with it the Christian heresy that building the New Jerusalem justifies slaughter. He also imported through Hegel’s Christianity the teleological belief in the fated ‘end time’. This is historical materialism, Marx’s apocalyptic fantasy that Communism is fated because history moves in stages towards a conclusion.
If you are a Christian then you should condemn the Utopian heresy. If you are a not a Christian you should also condemn Utopia because it is the mere shadow of an idea that even the Christian knew was wrong. If you don’t believe in Heaven, you should not believe in Heaven on Earth, even metaphorically.
Should we condone people like my father who yearn for Utopia and who believe we should give planned perfection one more try?
No, these people are endlessly sailing their boats towards a non-existent goal and are making themselves and the rest of us unhappy. Everywhere they see signs of a coming collapse and secretly they desire it. I think of how much more fulfilling my father’s life would have been if he had spent it learning how to compromise and to appreciate what was in front of him, rather than judging everything negatively in the light of a perfection that was yet to exist.
Cognitive science tells us that we can lead happier lives if we remove false goals and impossible expectations. This knowledge was familiar to the Roman philosophers known as the Stoics. They who lived in the first mapped world knew that a better place did not exist beyond the map, but that the hell we were attempting to escape was within our actual human nature. Their solution was not to aim for perfection and for happiness as goals, but to learn to be unhappy better. Modest and realistic goals – the very opposite of Utopianism.
I think the time is long overdue for us to erase the non-existent Island of Utopia from our mental maps.
This is the third and final part of an extended and revised version of the TEDx Talk given by Morrison at the Oxford TEDx conference in April 2016. The talk can also be seen on YouTube. In the first two parts he offered to take his father to an island utopia and, drawing on history, discussed several of the seven stages of the inevitable dissolution of the utopian dream.
Artwork/images by the author