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Anarchy in the U.S.A.

The roots of American disorder.

Nov 28, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 11 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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In the speech, Owen shared his dream of cooperative villages where workers would see their poverty alleviated and their spirits transformed. Inspired by the success of his New Lanark community in Scotland, where employees lived in hospitable conditions and the children of laborers received early childhood and primary education, Owen hoped to bring to America exquisitely planned spaces where a new, improved mankind would come into being. Owen thought his scientifically organized village would “lead to that state of virtue, intelligence, enjoyment, and happiness, in practice, which has been foretold by the sages of past times, and would at some distant period become the lot of the human race!” Utopia, according to Owen, was not confined to the printed page. Utopia could be realized.

The site of his American utopia would be New Harmony, on the Wabash River in southwest Indiana. Owen welcomed residents to his colony that April. “I am come to this country,” he told them, “to introduce an entire new state of society, to change it from the ignorant, selfish system, to an enlightened social system which shall gradually unite all interests into one, and remove all cause for contests between individuals.” There would be no 1 percent versus the 99 percent in New Harmony. 

Things did not work as planned, however. Structuring a community along rational lines was extremely difficult. There weren’t enough skilled laborers. Many of the residents were lazy. Shortages were commonplace. Central planning hampered the efficient allocation of meals. Factions split off from the main group. The community closely monitored the activities and beliefs of every member. Alcohol was banned. Children were separated from their parents; one later said she saw her “father and mother twice in two years.” Owen expelled malcontents. Only his generous subsidies held New Harmony together. 

And not for long. Owen’s “new empire of peace and good will to man” fell apart within four years. But the socialist utopian impulse lives on to this day. America
in particular has a long and storied tradition of individuals coming together to create perfect societies. In these earthly utopias, competition is to be replaced by cooperation, private property is to dissolve into communal ownership, traditional family structures are to be transformed into the family of mankind, and religion is to be displaced by the spirit of scientific humanism. The names of these communities are familiar to any student of American history: Brook Farm, Oneida, the North American Phalanx. None of them lasted. None of them realized the ecstasy their founders desired.

Historian J.P. Talmon wrote in Political Messianism (1960) that the American and European utopians “all shared the totalitarian-democratic expectation of some pre-ordained, all-embracing, and exclusive scheme of things, which was presumed to represent the better selves, the true interests, the genuine will and the real freedom of men.” The men and women behind the utopian movements drew inspiration from the French Revolution, which proclaimed the liberty, equality, and fraternity of all, and from the political philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who taught that individuals born free and equal were made subservient and estranged through the institutions of society and private property. Lost freedom could be recovered by dismantling the obstacles that prevent man from being true to himself. The reconstruction of society along rational lines would allow us to reclaim the state of natural bliss that had been lost.

Utopianism attracts goofballs as light attracts moths. The postrevolutionary thinker Charles Fourier was a classic example. “He was an odd old bachelor,” Talmon writes, “a denizen of boarding houses, with the ways of an incurable pedant, loving cats and parrots, tending flowers; rather frightening with his uncanny fixed habits and air of mystery; brooding in immobile silence, but flying into a temper when anyone interfered in the slightest with his routine.” Fourier’s vision was mindboggling. If his plans were put into effect, Fourier believed, “anti-lions” and “anti-crocodiles” would one day transport people across the globe. Hens would lay so many eggs that the British national debt would be paid off in months. The possibility existed, in Fourier’s mind, that the oceans would turn into lemonade.

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