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Whatever Happened to Utopia?

The concept of “utopia” has essentially disappeared from the American political vocabulary.  Amidst all the 2016 electoral clamor and Donald Trump’s call to “Make America Great Again,” no candidate invokes the notion of utopia to suggest a better tomorrow.  At best, whether Democrat, Republican, Libertarian or Green, they offer a well-meaning – if pathetic – menu of bromides to a skeptical and, increasingly, desperate electorate.

Sanders’ campaign inspired millions of Americans, especially young people, with his call for a revolution to reshape electoral politics.  His tireless focus on economic inequality, money in politics, racial injustice and the environmental crisis shook up the official Democrats, pushing Hillary to the left.  He advanced a meaningful “progressive” agenda that covers a laundry list of well-meaning proposals, including a $15 minimum wage, free public higher education, single payer health care and an end to fracking.

One can only wonder if, instead of Trump, one of the other original 17 Republican dwarfs – say Jeb Bush — had won the primary beauty contests, would Sanders have defeated Clinton and been the Democratic nominee?

Sadly, we live in a bleak political period, one marked by little real imagination.  The leading presidential candidates offer little inspiration when it comes to suggesting a new, better tomorrow.  They are playing a defensive game, attempted to protect – in terms of jobs and security — the little people now have.  They offer no programmatic suggestions – let alone a visionary statement – suggesting what’s possible, a future one can hope and life for.

Politicians — like the mainstream media and official pundits – are committed to the tyranny of immediacy, of the dictates of the here-and-now.  They are addicted to what’s a distraction (however questionable) — whether the latest crisis (however awful), the newest gadget (however cool), the hottest celebrity (however sexy) or latest scandal (however predictable).  Little attention is given to what’s possible.

The days of envisioning a better — let alone perfect — society are long gone, a fleeting memory of America of old.  A Google search of “utopia 2016,” turns up lists of past utopian communities, a movie, a Nashville book conference and London’s King’s College yearlong celebration the 500th anniversary of the publication of Thomas More’s Utopia.  Has the dream of utopia, of a better future, become just another version of the “Antiques Road Show,” nostalgia bought and sold?

* * *

What is utopia?  The notion of a better or perfect society, if not heaven on earth, is as old as Western society.  The Old Testament’s “Book of Genesis” invokes the Garden of Eden and Plato’s The Republic envisions an ideal society.  However, the modern concept of utopia is rooted in More’s classic tale, Utopia, originally published in 1516.  Christopher Jennings, in his recent book, Paradise Now, notes that the term “utopia” is a pun meaning Goodplace and Notaplace.  He observes, “More’s Utopia created a template for an entire literary genre, that meters-long shelf of books describing life in the perfect society.”

During two brief periods of U.S. history over the last two centuries, Americans implemented notions of a better life, a more humane, pleasurable and nature-grounded social existence.  The first occurred during the period between the 1820s and 1870s and involved an estimated 100,000 people and dozens of radical communities, the most famous being New Harmony, Oneida, Icaria and the Shakers — and one Shaker communities still lives on.

The second took place during the tumultuous countercultural movement of the 1960s-’70.  It fused sex, drugs and rock-&-roll – often with civil rights movement, the anti-Vietnam War campaign and the fledgling feminist movement – to challenge the consumerist, militarist moral order.  It fostered dozens of communes throughout the country that included secular groups like the Sheep Ridge Ranch (aka Wheeler’s Ranch), Hog Farm, Total Loss Farm, Drop City, Black Bear Ranch, Trans-Love Energies, Morning Star Ranch, New Buffalo and Libre.  They also included religious communes like the Brotherhood of the Spirit, Shiloh, Jesus People USA and Divine Light Mission.

Not unlike today, the two earlier periods of utopian insurgency were marked by deep, structural social crises.  During the first era, the U.S. was transformed from a rural, agricultural and cultural homogenous nation rooted along the Atlantic Coast, to a westward expanding, increasingly cultural diverse and manufacturing society.  The era culminated in the Civil War and the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869.  The utopian movement began in upstate New York in what was known as the “burned over” district — named for its religious fever – as a religiously-inspired millennial movement that sought to replace austere Calvinist dogma with evangelical spiritual renewal.

This spirit reshaped the notion of what was possible.  It spawned the Mormons (followers of Joseph Smith), the Millerites (followers of William Miller), the Seventh-day Adventists (followers of Ellen White) and the Jehovah’s Witnesses (followers of Charles Tae Russell) as well as the Shaker, Oneida and other utopian communities.  The sense of renewal also contributed to the rise of the temperance movement of the 1820s, the abolitionist movement of the ‘30s and the feminist movement of the ‘40s.

The second utopian era witnessed the U.S. reaching the peak of the great post-WW-II recovery and the triumph of what Pres. Eisenhower dubbed, “the military-industrial complex.”  The “American Dream” fulfilled the unstated promise make by Pres. Roosevelt and other mid-20th century politicians that the suffering endured through the Great Depression and the war would be rewarded.  It was fulfilled by suburbanization, the consumer revolution and rock-&-roll; Pres. Eisenhower signed the national highway bill in 1956 and the interstate highway system was completed in ’75.  By the ‘60s, the “Dream” had collapse, represented by Pres. Nixon abandoning the gold standard and the U.S. military’s defeat in Vietnam in 1975.

Today, the U.S. faces a similar if very different crisis – one that provokes a 21st century re-envisioning of possibilities, of a postmodern utopian option.  Inequality grips the nation and the wages of American workers have been stagnant ever since ’75.  At a historical moment when a truly radical, original, political imagination is required, Americans are fed the banality neo-liberal hokum, the same-old, same-old.  It’s time to envision a new possible, a 21st century utopia.

* * *

“The progress of industry makes the establishment of community easier today than ever before; the current and limitless productive power by means of steam and machines can assure equality and abundance.”

— Etienne Cabet, radical French thinker, wrote these words in 1839 utopian novel, Voyage en Icarie.

Between 1848 and 1898, nearly 2,000 French followers of Cabet (about 500 at any one time) established Icaria communities in Texas, Illinois, Missouri, Iowa and California.  The most famous community was in Nauvoo, IL, the site previously owned by Mormons before they relocated to Utah.  As Jennings states, “In Icaria, there are no domestic servants, cops, informants, middlemen, soldiers, gunsmiths, or bankers.”

The utopian radicals of the 19th century proclaimed in word and – most threatening – in deed a new era of possibility, one based on communitarian property relations, equal gender relations, free education, an appreciation of the land and unconventional sexual relations.  The movement, whether embracing religious or secular values, challenged social norms and was assailed by religious leaders, politicians and the press, marking one of the first of America’s long history of “culture wars.”

The mid-19th and mid-20th century radicals proclaimed utopias that have essentially disappeared from today’s political imagination.  Institutional politics, whether conservative or liberal, are all about delivering the goods here-and-now.  Such politics are about incremental change, of a quid pro quo deal making in which everyone but the winners lose.

Nevertheless, the desire to live a better, non-exploitative, pleasurable and fulfilling life persists — if only as a fantasy, an impulse of what’s possible.

Today, the last vestiges of the traditional utopian movement hang on as isolated communes in both rural and urban settings.  Twin Oaks, founded in 1967 in Virginia, lives on with 100 members as does the Farm, founded in 1971 in southern Tennessee, with 150 members.  In urban areas, Ganas (Staten Island, NY) and the Jesus People USA (Chicago, IL) survive.  Don’t forget, religious communities like the Amish, Mennonites and Hutterites have long persevered with their millennial beliefs.

Another expression of the social desire is represented by Switzerland failed effort to provide a basic income of about $2,500 a month (2500 Swiss Francs) suggests a new way to think about income; Andy Stern, the former SEIU president, recently suggested a U.S. version, but for about $1,000.

Other elements of this impulse have been integrated into American life. Perhaps more important, the impulse for a more communitarian life is revealed in the nearly 400 workplace coops; the 775,000 housing coops and 425,000 “family dwelling” coops; the 11 health insurance coops operating in 13 states; and the 165 food co-ops stores that generate over $1.4 billion in annual revenue and are owned by over 1.3 million members.

 

If Clinton wins the 2016 election, she will accomplish more than defeating Trump.  She will enter office shorn of the core illusion that accompanied Obama’s victory – hope.  Whether one backs Sanders or Trump, the American electorate is being shorn of the neo-liberal illusion of trickle-down economics.

In the wake of Pres. Kennedy’s assassination, Malcolm X observed, “Being an old farm boy myself, chickens coming home to roost never did make me sad; they always made me glad.”  A half-century later, the stakes have risen.   Economic stagnation and challenges to U.S. imperialism are fostering a state of perpetual social crisis.

A new, more diverse left engaged in a wide spectrum of complementary campaigns — whether LGBT rights, Black Lives Matter, minimum wage demands, immigration reform or environment activists – found a common voice in the Sanders campaign.  This new, new left needs to once again envision new, truly utopian possibilities as part of a 21st century national political and social agenda.

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David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.

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