So: what will you do, I ask my father, if word gets around that you’re building your Utopia and others want to join? How he will stop Non-Utopians from coming to his island and spoiling it before they even start the experiment. Remember what happened to Haiti and Tahiti!
My father agrees that it might be an idea to have walls. What about cannons I ask, and he says no, because the utopians are pacifists. But what will you do, I say, if ten ships full of heavily armed Old World Colonialist/Capitalists hell bent on plundering your island appear. At which point he agrees to walls and cannons, but he refuses to call this a castle or the people working the cannons as military. The island will be self-sufficient and walled to keep bad people out, he says – and maybe before they start building their settlement, they should really build fortifications. But he doesn’t think this is anything like the Communists building the Berlin Wall.
Frederick Engels’ criticism of Utopian socialist projects in the 19thcentury was that they were doomed to failure by attempting to make separatist colonies of goodness, walling themselves in against the seas of capitalists around them. His solution though was not to abandon the project but instead to extend it so that the little island of socialism would become an entire country and then overtake the whole world.
I ask my father: what if your Utopians kill invaders? Is that OK? He says that the end justifies the means. He has already posited a higher value to the lives of his community than that of ‘evil outsiders’, something that will trouble his Utopia later as it did Jonestown in Guyana (918 fatalities).
It begs the question of what would happen to the indigenous peoples of the utopian island my father seeks to populate.
I ask: So will you co-exist with the natives, even if they have a king, a hierarchy, slaves and make human sacrifices?
My father insists that he is not a colonialist and that there will be no killing of natives. His utopia will therefore have to be unpopulated to start with, or he will ask the natives to either join and respect the rules, or to leave the island.
As recently as 2015 the Govt of Honduras announced a Utopian project to build Charter cities. It involved the violent removal of ‘natives’. The seizure of land from non-utopians and coercion into collective ‘egalitarian’ labour has a history which predates these communist practices by hundreds of years and again stems from Christian heresy.
Work – or how to not rebuild the past
I say to my father: So, you have your secret (fortified) island, now you have to start building your community, how do you share the work?
He says everyone will work equally. And everyone will be rewarded equally.
I say: But people have different skills and abilities, some may be better at cutting down trees or planting crops, installing solar panels or giving tantric massage.
My father comes up with a rotation system, like that formulated by Marx – every day will be split into three and everyone will do three jobs on a rota. In the morning farming, in the afternoon the factory and in the evening arts and crafts and so on. This was an idea propounded by Charles Fourier, the 19thvisionary who inspired eight collectives (or Phalansteries) in the US. He came up with the idea of people working on shifts for tokens which could be exchanged – the more unpleasant the job, the more tokens you earned. The idea was to create a levelling effect where the most desirable jobs were worth less. He who cleaned the toilets earned more tokens. Unless you were a child, because the “little hordes,” as he called them, were deemed to enjoy the filthy jobs Fourier tasked them with.
Doing work on a moving rota persists today in modern utopian communities like Findhorn where everyone takes their turn cooking, home cleaning and doing repairs. The result of such systems of job sharing are however, amateurisation, lack of specialism in any field and dis-incentivisation. None of the phalansteries inspired by Fourier lasted more than a generation. Job-rotation is plagued by inefficiency, resentment and lack of accountability.
I ask my father: Why not just let people be good at the things they are good at? Isn’t that freedom? Why enforce equal roles if it means no one gets to be good at anything? Why not reward people for trying hard and doing well? And why not permit people to trade one job for another…or buy time to do what they are good at and be rewarded.
Money versus Community of Property
Will there be money in your Utopia? I ask my father and he tells me, No, money is the root of all evil. My father says that when you have money, some people hoard it and form into classes and hierarchies and family lineages. Introduce money and the utopia will be ruined.
The banning of money from Utopia has a long history going back as far as Plato’s Republic. It manifests in common ownership of all goods and in collectivisation. In Thomas More’s Utopia work is communal, all clothes and needed goods are taken from public storehouses and dining is in communal refectories. Such ideals were attempted by Owen and followers of Noyes and Cabet, long before they were attempted by followers of Marx and taken to their limit with Maoism. No one owns the bed they lie on or the clothes they wear. Healthcare and education too are free and open to all. Mao even made it illegal to own your own pots and pans, thus forcing people to eat in vast communal kitchens.
Gerrard Winstanley’s Utopian group the Diggers (1649) aimed to create a Christian collectivist community of shared ownership which was comparable to that which existed before the fall of man. Winstanley believed that ‘Property is the devil’.
My father thinks the abolition of money an excellent idea (so did John Lennon in the 1960s) and numerous Christian heresies which followed ‘the poverty of Christ’ through the Middle Ages. The Anabaptists of the year-long Munster rebellion of 1534-5 attempted to create total equality of goods and common ownership. The communitarian regime involved declaring The New Jerusalem, instituting “free love” and promiscuity as worship, and the seizing and redistribution of all wealth. It also involved killing the wealthy.
It is of note that both the Anabaptists and the Diggers inspired the young Karl Marx and that both were millenarian groups, believing in a coming end of time.
My father insists that collective systems must be able to operate without money. So I ask him how. He says: If you could create a perfectly designed system you wouldn’t need it.
The Master Plan
I ask my father: You don’t have money and you believe that a laissez-faire system will lead straight back to inequality, right? He says: Yes.
So, I ask: Do you think the island needs a planned economy?
He says: Exactly, so that everyone can get what they need and there will be no waste .
I tell him that Utopias often start with a loose optimistic arrangement but then shortages or outside threat or waste of resources leads to the need for a plan.
So let’s plan it.
I ask him: What is the value of a sheep relative to a book?
My father says: Wait, he isn’t the leader, there is no leader, so the community would decide.
I ask him how will the community decide the value of wood? If they cut down all the forests to make houses, then wood will be scarce. Without a price index to give feedback on when something was becoming scarce you’d have to have your central committee regulate and measure all resources on the island themselves.
What would happen if people disagreed on the value of things? I ask him what’s the use value of a piece of music? Could making your own music be deemed worthless or even wasteful as it was in Mao’s China?
And with changing circumstances, surpluses and floods and maybe a baby boom on this isolated island, wouldn’t conflict over resources cause chaos?
So, my father comes to agree that a central committee will decide the value of everything and create a master plan.
Exchange value was fluid before but now it is fixed and, with it, so is use value. What is the use value of butter? Of fresh water? Of long hair? What is the use value of grain? Of sparrows? Of education? If things have no use value should they be destroyed?
Ask the committee. The unelected bureaucracy that now runs the economy of Utopia.
This is point where utopias based on the principle of anarchism collapse. And the point where utopias based on communitarianism become bureaucratic and rules-based.
The Utopian Supercomputer
I ask my father how the committee calculates the value of everything on the island? And he says the committee would ask the people what they needed. I ask – On a daily basis? And he says: Absolutely. They could all fill in their own ‘needs’ forms.
There is a utopian movement (since 2008) that believes this could be possible – it is called the Zeitgeist movement and it believes in a giant supercomputer that will calculate everyone’s needs on ‘island earth’. Some on the left believe that the downfall of Communism could have been remedied by more advanced computers and that its collapse was due to inefficient bureaucracy.
I say to my father: OK, so we have a supercomputer that calculates how much grain and how much salt is needed?
He says: Yes, and cheese and wine.
I ask: So, what if the programmers get it wrong? Now that there is no price index, all information has to gathered separately into a centralized bureaucratic system – and mistakes get magnified. The larger the population the greater the unintended consequences when a miscalculation is made. Can your computer factor in changes in climate, in luck, in consumption patterns? When you institute a master plan you have to get it right first time. Maybe people will change their minds about things they needed last month. Maybe they won’t be able to agree on the use value of every single thing. If your planners got anything wrong, there would be food queues and shortages – these were the experiences within 20th century Communism in every country where it was attempted. Mao’s great famine was created by a series of miscalculations.
With everything centrally planned and no private ownership permitted people can’t fend for themselves if the plan fails. If your private pots and pans have been taken to use in the collective kitchen you can no longer cook for yourself.
And there are many factors in life in which ‘use’ cannot be determined from above, and to do so reduces the quality of life. What is the use value of silence? Of privacy? Of many children. Of fidelity? Of sexual or romantic partners? Of faith? Maybe people won’t like having everything calculated for them. What if people disobey the plan and start to trade among themselves – what if they start a black market?
This is when my father says: Maybe people should be made to stick to the plan.
Authoritarianism and Surveillance (by good people)
My father insists that his utopia isn’t authoritarian and that people are free to change the leaders or to leave. I remind him that the island is remote, it is also walled and armed to keep outsiders out. There is no contact with the outside as his utopia is supposed to be self-sufficient. As utopians don’t have any currency that is trade-able and no contact with the world beyond, they have no way to buy their exit. They are stranded.
Similar conditions exist in contemporary new age communities where an internal currency with no market value results in a poverty trap. This was also a problem in the Robert Owen’s Utopian villages in the 19th century – his New Harmony Community lasted only four years because of such money struggles.
I ask him: What he would do if he was a leader and people started to dissent, if they wanted to leave or bring money back in or start private ownership.
He said, if they were good people they would stick to the plan. I ask, but how would you know when people are planning to abandon the utopian project?
My father admits that perhaps people could be encouraged to keep an eye on each other and report back on any unrest. And that they should be constantly reminded of their commitment. Making sacrifices today for the betterment of all in the future.
My father has the best will in the world but he has just invented state surveillance and his simple island state is by necessity turning into authoritarian communism.
Even within tiny groups of radical communards, persecution phobia grows. In one separatist Maoist collective in London with only five people they nonetheless managed to hold confessions, spying, reports on each other, expulsions, purges and re-educations (beatings).
The more things start to fail in Utopia the more the core believers are forced to silence those who dare speak the truth. Even those who would report on things that are failing with the hope that such reports might make things better.
Stagnation and Isolation
But how can you let islanders leave? Aren’t you admitting defeat?
I ask my father what he would do if his utopians required to make trips to the outside world? They might need to repair technology for example or update it. After all, the utopians have only what they arrived with and the tools they can create. Outside there is a global economic system that thrives on technological innovation. Complex energy-saving devices are made from parts from dozens of countries. Meanwhile, my father’s Utopia has started lagging behind and stagnating – it can’t even repair the technology the utopians arrived with.
My father says: OK, the utopians will have to compromise and trade with the outside world.
The utopian communities of 19thcentury America – which attempted to exist outside of the control of government and the money system – collapsed due to this: the necessity of trading with the outside world exposed how ‘un-free’ the utopia was.
Out of the 200 planned utopian communities in the 19thcentury, only a handful of religious-based communities survived beyond twelve years. Owen’s ambitious New Harmony community managed to achieve stagnation and isolation within four years.
It is the ‘island’ nature of utopia that is its downfall, an accurate prediction that Marx & Engels made against the utopian socialists. Closed economies can’t survive. Communist countries that have tried to wall themselves in have experienced this same process. They become stagnant islands in a free-flowing sea of capitalism.
Once the connection is open to the outside world again, utopians start leaving. Building their own boats. The force becomes unstoppable as they report back that the world outside is more advanced. Others want to leave – and my father can only stop them leaving by force.
And what if they began shouting: “Down with the leaders, down with Utopia!” My father concedes that ‘traitors’ have to be silenced for the good of the community? After all, the experiment must be seen through to its end.
In this he follows those other utopian traditions of the French revolutionary great terror, the purges of Stalin and Mao. His walled island state now resembles North Korea. If he were to enforce his ideal of the human blank slate, then he would have arrived at Pol Pot’s ‘Year Zero’.
Even though Marx was against the utopians of his time, Marxism is the largest utopian project ever attempted. The roots of it go even further back than Marx was aware of – into early Christian heresy.
This is Part 2 of a trilogy: Parts 1 and 3 can be read HERE and HERE
An earlier version was given by Ewan at the Oxford TEDx conference in April 2016. The talk can also be seen on YouTube.
Artwork/images by the author
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