A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias. Oscar Wilde
Once, not so very long ago, there was a sad man who spent most of his days in an attic. The man was an amateur artist and an alcoholic and every day he went up to his attic to drink red wine and to paint variations of the same picture – an image of a tiny boat crossing an infinite sea.
Over forty years no-one ever bought one of the hundred or so paintings of the boat on the sea. And these pictures never got any better, they were always a bit naïve and many said to him, it would be much better, Dave, without that little boat, why not just make it abstract waves? But he ignored them and cut himself off from society. Because that little boat meant something very important to him. This man was my father, and people saw him as a hippie, but he saw himself as an idealist and a utopian and his little boat was on a voyage to an ideal society.
For most of his life he believed that that perfect place would be an independent Scotland, he was a Scottish Nationalist and he often used the metaphor of Scotland as an island – an island of higher values in a sea of corruption and oppression, a beacon of hope to the world. His ideal Scotland would erase all traces of the union and start again – from a blank page.
He died with an almost blank canvas on his easel. The little boat never arrived because where it was headed was really a place that has never existed and never will – the island of Utopia.
I tell you this because I think my father made a terrible mistake and I see others following in his footsteps. I see many people being seduced by the promise of Utopia once again – politicians waving the Utopian flags and young people swarming to it. In the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence, one of Scotland’s leading actresses invoked Oscar Wilde and proclaimed the Scots should set sail for their own Utopia. Two years after the 500th anniversary of Thomas More’s book, I see a resurgence in Utopian thinking in many countries and fear we could be on verge of taking a collective voyage to nowhere once again.
I’d like to try to prove not only that Utopia is a mistaken idea but that it is dangerous one – that there is in fact a road to tyranny within the idea of Utopia – one that follows logically from its premise. To do this I’m going to bring my dead father back to life and give him exactly what he wanted. The opportunity to create the island of Utopia – because, as it turns out, Utopia has nearly always taken the image of an island. So, if you will indulge me, and I indulge you, let us set about the creation of an island on which life will be perfect.
The Fellow Travellers (& crew)
So, I ask my father: Who will we take with us on our sea voyage? Who will be our fellow utopian settlers? My father says that anyone who wants to escape oppression and to start again with total freedom can come.
So, I ask: Will this include Utopian Socialists? Separatist feminists? Persecuted Christians? Wealthy Philanthropists? Revolutionary Anarchists? Communalists? New Agers? Pacifists? Vegans? Because all of these in the past have attempted to create utopian communities and the one lesson learned is that you can’t put all these opposing factions together. The angers which led each to depart the known world are less useful when they set sail on the sea and. Ten different critiques of what is wrong with the old world do not add up to a coherent, peaceful model for travel, co-habitation and building.
My father says that only those who agree to tolerate each other will be permitted. And this wipes the gender-based separatists, the vegans and the Christians from the crew.
I ask my father: Can the rich come or only the poor, because the great number of utopian projects in the 19thcentury were founded by wealthy industrialists, such as Robert Owen, John Humphrey Noyes, Etienne Cabet and Thomas Telford, and they created what we would now consider to be towns based on the model of the factory, albeit with universal education and healthcare.
My father insists every person on board the ship, will pay what they can, rich or poor. That there will be no overlord, everyone shall rule equally with no leaders.
I ask him: Will there be a leader on the boat? A Captain? My father says, OK, of course the ship needs a Captain but once we’re on the island, the Captain will have to leave as we can’t have any hierarchy.
So, the Captain will leave with the boat, leaving the Utopians stranded. This won’t be a problem my father says as Utopia will be self-sufficient and the utopians don’t want to be disturbed anyway.
So, I ask my father: OK, you have your ship and your Utopian settlers so where would your Utopia be?
My father tells me: far away from so-called bloody civilization. And he has a point, because the history of Utopia is one of escape from civilisations and their bloody histories. The 17thcentury the Huguenots, the Jesuits, the Salzburgersand the Mennonites, all fled Europe to cross the water to build their “New Jerusalem” on virgin soil in New England. The 19thcentury saw 200 utopian communities built on virgin soil in the United States. Hippies in the 60s moved to Northern Canada to dodge the draft and form communes in ‘the wilderness’, ‘off the grid.’
The idea of starting again from scratch on virgin soil is a metaphor that goes back to utopias of the Middle Ages – all of them located beyond the mapped world, in the blank space of the Americas, the unknown Pacific islands and the place yet to be discovered which would be named Australia – a place where it was claimed there was a race of unisex humans (1693). Literally hundreds of tales of newly discovered islands littered medieval literature (above are some of the inhabitants of the mythic isles “discovered” by Sir John Mandeville in 1357). Then there was the mythological utopia of the lands of Christian King Prester John which missionaries searched for in vain from the 12thto 17thcentury. A repeating quality of Utopia is that it is so hard to find that man hasn’t had a chance to mess it up yet.
The existence of Terra Incognita helped create the metaphor of Utopia as a Blank Page, simply because those parts of the world had not been mapped yet.
My father thinks a fair climate would be ideal so that the islanders could be self-sufficient. And this raises a good point as the Scots Utopian-slash-Colonial attempt known as the Darien scheme of 1700, during which 2000 idealistic Scots attempted to settle on a very poor area of land in Panama, resulted in disease and mass death (1400 died). The lack of fresh water, tropical heat and presence of malarial swamps was also a contributing factor to the failure of the Utopian project known as Jonestownin Guyana in the 1970s (death toll 918). With alarming but predictable historical regularity, the unmapped areas of the South America jungles have been the blank slate on which Utopians have attempted to slash and burn their settlements, far from the corrupting influences of civilization. These include Nueva Germania, the failed utopian colony founded by Bernhard Förster and Nietzsche’s sister, Elisabeth FörsterNietzsche, in the Paraguayan rainforest in 1887 – “to practice utopian ideas about the superiority of the Aryan race. It was the declared dream of Förster to create an area of Germanic development, far from the influence of Jews.”
There is also Fordlandia, American industrialist Henry Ford’s attempt to build a utopian city in the rainforest of Brazil, founded in 1928 and abandoned in 1934.
My father, like these other utopians wants an untouched piece of land with a pleasant, temperate climate which no other culture has yet discovered. He wants an island that is off the map for a people who are free to map their own destinies.
The Blank Page Island for Blank Slate Man
I ask my father: Why does his Utopia have to be on virgin soil and he tells me that no trace of human corruption can be on that island, no ruins of past cultures. No castles and kings, graveyards and hierarchies. The utopians need a fresh start. We don’t want to inherit the mistakes of the past in case we repeat them.
So: what will be constructed on this blank island? I ask my father what form the buildings in the utopian community might take, there have been some beautiful innovative designs like the utopian cities conceived by Thomas Campanella with his City de Sole and Johann Valentin Andreae’s Christianopolis– both in the 16thcentury. Or like Cabet’s Icarian settlement in Missouri in the 19thcentury or Robert Owen’s New Lanark. Or even Fourier’s ‘Phalansterie’ – a structure that later inspired Le Corbusier.
He says he doesn’t want to lay down a plan. The community will decide. The blank island is a blank slate on which we can redraw human behaviour.
This is a utopian idea which can be found in the behaviourism of B.F Skinner in the 1950s and in the attempt to re-model the new Soviet man. The belief that we are born free and empty of a biological project is also found in Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his grandchildren the hippies. This belief has its roots again in the romantic Christian ideal of man’s purity before the Fall, in Eden. Chairman Mao stated that the peasant was like a blank page on which the most beautiful pictures can be drawn.
My father believes that human nature doesn’t exist and that we will be happy if we can remove all traces of the old ways. The newborn baby, he says, is a blank page on which we can write a better society.
Free Love for a Free People
One of the reasons that my father craves utopia is that he hates the way people become competitive over sexual partners. The way capitalism turns mating into a competition for status to attract mates. Marriage turns women into private property, he says, and in this he is in agreement with second wave feminists like Kate Millet who formed their own separatist colonies and preached a radically disruptive form of polyamory.
I ask him if people will be allowed to get married in his utopia, and he says, No. No-one owns anybody. Marriage is banned. I ask if he’s for free love. He says, Absolutely. I ask if he’s for communal child rearing, he says, hell yes. Teach children they’re all equal from the start, breed a new generation of selfless kids.
So, the Utopia will have: No marriage. Free love & Communal parenting.
My father seems to find this a radical and agreeable proposition. The utopia should be able to experiment, he says, but he is unaware that these experiments have a long history.
Free love may have started with the Adamites – a 3rd century heretical Christian sect who were ‘holy nudists’, thought marriage was un-Christian and had a ‘community of wives’. Numerous heretical sects in the Middle Ages attempted to create free sexual relations such as communal nudity, orgies and reaching God through orgasm and these included the 13thcentury Brethren of the Free Spirit, the Taborites and Picards– all destroyed by the Vatican for heresy.
In the 1850s there was Modern Times, an anarchist commune based in Ohio which practiced partner swapping and there was Noyes and a 250-strong Christian collective (Oneida Community) of Christian ‘perfectionists’ in 1848 who practiced ‘complex marriage,’ a form of free love and communal child rearing in which ‘every child has fifty parents’. This was supposed to stop jealousy and competitiveness. An idea first formulated by Plato in his Republic.
I ask my father, since he believes in equality, if he’d consent to having sexual partners shift on a communal rota so that no-one gets left out. This was an idea of the utopian socialist Charles Fourier – where communards had their sexual partners decided for them by matriarchs and the elderly and ugly received sexual attentions in exchange for relieving others of daily chores. “You can get off cleaning the communal pots and pans today if you sleep with Great Uncle Hector.” Enforced sexual rotation was also attempted by followers of Wilhelm Reich and by the ‘encounter groups’ in places like Esalen in California. My father thinks this is all very progressive.
This is the first part of a trilogy: Links to Part Two and Three are HERE and HERE
Artwork/images by the author
This is 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.
Timothy Taubes says
Professor! What a great piece to read along with, The Blank Slate. I know exactly where you are going with this and look forward to reading the rest of the piece. I expect to benefit from your familiarity with the subject.
artwork/images by the author?
Daniel Murphy says
Well written and referenced Ewan … thanks.
Barbara Kingsolver ‘The Poisonwood Bible’
R Muthukumar says
Yes, Timothy – great to hear this. Images adapted from Creative Commons images .